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
“Ik spreek een
beetje Nederlander,” I said haltingly as I
stepped up to assist. “Hij
heeft een klein komkommer, Ik denke. Hij een grosse
“A little…?” said the
woman behind the counter somewhat confused.
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
“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
“So, you, like, speak a
little German, huh?”
“When I’m in Germany I
try, yes,” I said. “This is the Netherlands.”
“Yeah, whatever. So you
know anything about driving into the city from
“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
“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
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
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
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
Oh yeah, and just for
the record- I can’t hold deep or meaningful
conversations in English either.