This is a post about my struggles to learn Dutch and assimilate to my new country (which I’ve endeavored to wrap back around to the arts). The past few weeks I’ve been studying rather intensely, preparing for my NT2 Staatsexamen I—the Dutch language exam that I must pass in order to be granted permanent residency status and the ability to stay in the Netherlands with my Dutch husband and his two daughters once my PhD position at the university ends in a couple years. It’s a two-day exam that tests reading, writing, speaking, and listening proficiency.
It seems highly likely that I’m not going to pass all four sections. I may squeak by on writing and reading but my listening and speaking skills are laughable. In fact it’s all I can do not to crack myself up when I’m trying to do these parts of the test they are so hard. I’m not being hyperbolic or fatalistic. I’m terrible. My tutor basically said the same thing. Fortunately I have a couple years and a few more chances to retake the sections I fail.
They say you need to know around 5,000 words to pass the exam. I’ve drilled vocabulary and completed all three levels of Rosetta Stone and done 15-20 hours of self study for most of the past year using the system that the government supports (until next year when the subsidized programs ends). I am weary of trying to learn this language. I was weary six months ago.
I mentioned that my husband, Jaap, has two daughters. Flora and Sarah are their names. They are amazing and the picture above is of the four of us the day after Jaap and I were married last year. They are the reason that I moved to the Netherlands and Jaap did not move to NYC. It’s worth noting that for the past 18 months I have been unable to really converse with the girls beyond a few niceties: “What do you want for lunch?” “That dress is pretty.” “Have a good day at school.” For the most part, we’ve relied heavily on gesturing and Jaap’s translation services to communicate with one another.
The past two weeks have been spring break for the girls. The first week of their spring break (which the girls spent with their mum) coincided with the first week of my intensive studies. It was at the end of that first week of studies that I took my practice tests and realized I was doomed to fail the speaking and writing sections of the exam. I was angry and frustrated and depressed. As much as I love my husband and the girls, and have no regrets about moving here to be with them, the past two years have been quite challenging. I changed just about every aspect of my life and left my friends and family and a city and job that I loved very much. I have been here nearly two years and everything, everyday still feels rather foreign to me. I have had my heart set on passing this exam and feeling like the universe was giving me a thumbs up that things were going to be OK for me in the Netherlands. I have really wanted—really needed—to pass this test.
On Tuesday of this week the girls came to stay with Jaap and me for a week. And something small yet rather amazing happened when they arrived. I was able to speak whole sentences to them and, for the most part, understand what they were saying to me. I may not be ready for the NT2 Staatsexamen 1, but evidently a couple weeks of intensive study has dramatically improved my ability to communicate with my stepdaughters.
A few days ago I came to a realization.
I decided, “Screw the Staatsexamen.”
Yes, of course, I must pass this exam eventually to get a residency permit—but passing the exam is so not the point.
I want to be able to talk with the girls. I want to be able to chit chat with family and friends at the rather incredible number of birthday parties that I attend each year. I want to watch Dutch news and understand what’s going on. I no longer want a group of Dutch people to have to speak English for my benefit when I’m in a meeting or at a dinner party. I want to feel like I belong here. I want to understand my new tribe. I want to be able to make people laugh in Dutch the way I can in English, at least on a good day.
It’s probably going to take many more years before I achieve these milestones. But for the moment, I can talk a bit more with my stepdaughters. And I’m holding onto that as I prepare to fail my exam tomorrow.
So what does any of this have to do with the arts?
First, It’s amazing to me how much easier it is for me to appear fluent on paper when I still have a hard time speaking three sentences in a row without stammering and having to stop and start again. I’m both grateful and frustrated by multilingual Netherlanders who immediately switch to English at my slightest hesitation with their language. It’s generous of them to speak English (which they all do amazingly well); but it isn’t helping me to master their language. My Dutch is never really necessary or tested. I can always default back to what’s comfortable—to speaking English. Similarly, I think it’s relatively easy to fake change, innovation, and transformation on paper and I note that we often stammer about as we try to talk thoughtfully and without a bunch of jargon about what we’re really trying to do these days in the arts vis-à-vis the changing world. Moreover, it’s tempting to default back to business-as-usual when initial attempts to change our processes are frustrating to us and to our stakeholders.
Secondly, and not unrelated to point one, I was wondering last week whether (like passing the Staatsexmen) securing a high profile grant to support innovation, or change, or sustainability, or the future (or what have you) has somehow become the goal rather than a means to a higher goal. There’s so much fanfare about grant programs as they are announced and their winners celebrated. It’s as though we are living in a narrative in which the organization’s hero journey is a multi-year conversation with a major funder and grueling application process that finally leads to a five- or six- or seven-figure grant, rather than a ten-year conversation between an organization and a community that finally leads to a stronger and more vital relationship between the two.
I knew I was starting to get somewhere when I both stopped caring about the Staatsexamen and also stopped telling myself that I could probably get by without having to learn Dutch.
Finally, going through this process has given me tremendous compassion for all the leaders and staffers of arts organizations that have been turning the flywheel (to use a metaphor from Jim Collins) for several years now, trying to transform their organizations. I imagine that some must be incredibly weary of the process. This is hard, sometimes grueling, work and the returns are often small at the start. My new life is very different from my old life. That difference feels uncomfortable most days. I believe that if I continue to persevere at the university and with my Dutch lessons and with every other aspect of my new and challenging life that I will eventually find my place in this foreign land. Likewise, I believe that if the arts sector keeps turning the flywheel that it will find its purpose in this new world. The worst thing we could do at this point is stop pushing forward.
I’m looking forward to writing posts on a weekly basis starting again next week. Thanks for your patience and apologies for the hiatus while I was immersing myself in Dutch the past few weeks, for the greater good of my relationship with Flora and Sarah, even if not for the reward of a passing grade tomorrow.
The beach photo was taken by the terrific Leiden-based photographer, Martin Ken.