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Some language required
By Kregg P. J. Jorgenson 
Posted November 30, 2006

   Our plane had just arrived at Schiphol Airport outside of Amsterdam and after gathering our luggage and clearing Dutch customs my wife went to exchange money while I went to pick-up our rental car.

At the rental agency counter ahead of me a fellow American traveler who had just returned from an adjacent car park slammed a set of the car keys on the chest-high counter and yelled to the young attendant that the car she had given him just wouldn’t do.

“It’s too small!” said the loud and irate tourist. “I’m not spending two weeks driving around Europe in a goddam shoebox! I want a larger car.”

“But it is the auto that you reserved on-line, yes?” asked the clerk.

“I DON’T CARE!” he bellowed. “PUT ME IN SOMETHING BIGGER!” If he wasn’t exactly being ‘the ugly American’ then with his verbal warts and loud abrasions he was beginning to look and sound downright homely.

“I will see what else we have, yes?” said the rental agent giving him a patient smile as she checked her computer to accommodate his arrogance.

When it came to driving the autobahn, size matters. It’s a guy thing and it very nearly made me want to snort, spit and scratch myself while I was waiting too. Friggin’-A.

Friggin’-B was that just outside of the Airport the Autobahn was calling him out, taunting his masculinity. It wasn’t exactly High Noon but it was a manly challenge, pardner and he wasn’t about to go out on the mean streets without enough horsepower to hightail it out of town, if need be.

“Do you believe this?” he said not really expecting an answer from me since he turned back to the counter, sighed heavily, and sulked as the rental agent who was tapping away at the computer keyboard.

Figuring that he was tired from the long flight and perhaps overburdened by all of the extra testosterone and ego he had brought with him, I offered my assistance. “Here, let me help,” I said, “I speak a few languages poorly.”

Ik spreek een beetje Nederlander,” I said haltingly as I stepped up to assist. “Hij heeft een klein komkommer, Ik denke. Hij een grosse auto nodig.”

“A little…?” said the woman behind the counter somewhat confused.

Komkommer,” I said again, nodding to the tourist beside me. I was holding my right thumb and forefinger in the shape of the letter C. “It’s not big enough, I think.”

“Damn right it’s not big enough!” added the rude tourist over my shoulder while I nodded.

“See! There you go,” I said.

“Ah yes, now I understand,” said the Dutch woman as she worked the computer to find him a larger car.

“And there you go. That should set things straight,” I said back to my fellow countryman.

“So, you, like, speak a little German, huh?”

“When I’m in Germany I try, yes,” I said. “This is the Netherlands.”

“Holland, right?”

 “That too.

 “Yeah, whatever. So you know anything about driving into the city from here?”

“You mean Amsterdam?”

He snorted and gave me a look that suggested I might be a complete idiot. Then perhaps realizing he still needed my help the sneer softened some when he repeated his request. “Yeah, Amsterdam. How’s the traffic?”

 I smiled the smile of an incomplete idiot. I like to think I still have room and potential for idiotic growth. That aside the first and last time I drove into the city the traffic was a mess. There were bicycles everywhere, intimidating streetcars, buses and trucks to jockey with for the precious space on tight canal bridges and small roads, and an army of backpack or camera-laden tourists and local pedestrians who tended to be looking everywhere and at everything except on-coming drivers. I could have told him I only used the train to get into town when I visit but I didn’t.

 “The traffic? Oh, it’s a piece of cake,” I lied. “No problem.”

 Finding the man a larger and more satisfactory vehicle the car rental agent made the necessary corrections in her computer, handed him the modified rental agreement and keys and sent him on his way.

The obnoxious traveler gave me a guy chin up nod of insincere thanks and swaggered off in search of the kind of class or style he didn’t seem likely to find, let alone know how to exhibit. Arrogance doesn’t have to be a carry-on item even if it is hand tooled and custom designed.  

“I have a reservation too but I like I don’t mind small cars,” I said to the rental agent, handing her my passport, driver’s license and credit card. “Komommer is Dutch for compact car, isn’t it?”

“No, it means cucumber,” she laughed as she tapped my name into the computer.

“You’re kidding me! You mean, I just insulted him?”

“Yes, it’s possible you did,” she said, trying not to chuckle.

“Just as it is possible for visitors to have good manners too.”

“Yes, it is. Most Americans do,” she said. “Thank you.”

“You are entirely welcome,” I said.

“And the traffic in Amsterdam is not so good as you said!”

“Is that right?”

“Yes. But I think you know this too!”      

“Hmm? What do you know? I guess I must have not given him some good driving advice either?”


  I shrugged. “Then I must work on my language and navigational skills,” I said and grinned.

Within a few minutes my own transaction was completed and I was on my way. “Tot ziens!” I said saying goodbye to the woman behind the counter who flashed a broad grin of her own.

“Tot ziens!”

My knowledge of Dutch is surface level as it is with several of the other European languages. But over the years I’ve learned that you don’t really need to know how to dive into deep and meaningful conversations in other native tongues in order to find your way around, get a clean and comfortable place to stay, order a nice meal or have a good vacation. Being civil or polite translates well even without the right words in any language but it never hurts to know a few language basics anyway.

Besides, every trip is a cultural exchange program of sorts and taking the time to learn a handful of local key phrases and some helpful words might show, I dunno, you actually give a rat’s-derriere about the culture or people whose country it is you’re visiting, even if it’s just knowing a few social pleasantries or say, being able to compare some people with small produce products.

Oh yeah, and just for the record- I can’t hold deep or meaningful conversations in English either.


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