We just returned from Curacao and though English is spoken, two other languages are also spoken, Dutch and Papiamento, the latter, a creole language based on Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and several African dialects. It is not difficult to find someone who speaks English and our ease of the English language has people asking if we are American. They are pleased to discover we are Canadian. I mention to one person how lucky to be able to converse in a variety of languages. They respond with a smile, “But you speak English and as such there is no need.” Still, I fantasize about being able to speak the primary language of the country.
During the first few days we tour the island. Seemingly everywhere are signs that say, bushalte. I wonder what this could mean. An alternate route in the bush? It makes no sense as no discernible route is visible. Perhaps it means to halt, though if it does we would be stopping every few moments and clearly as we travel at highway speeds we are breaking the law. I ask my husband if he can hazard a guess, he responds quick, “bus stop.” I look at him in a new light. As a child he travelled to Holland, his father was Dutch and in him lies a wealth of knowledge I didn’t know he possessed, my personal translator.
Wherever we go, I read the words, ignoring the English words, if they exist and then try to figure out what they might mean, before I check my understanding by reading the translation or asking my translator. In our two weeks I manage to pick up a few words, not bold enough to say them out loud, but gathering understanding by at least being able to read. My husband, speaks a few words and to my ear with perfect pronunciation. My friend taught me a few words many years previous, useful words like zout, important if you don’t like your candy to be salty. I jump on this whenever I see it, excited to read with understanding. Vis means fish, makes sense if you say it really fast. Rundvlees means beef which sounds like flesh, easy to remember Kip means chicken but makes no sense as I think about kippers when I hear the word. It catches me unaware each time.
We go to the grocery store where the words are in Dutch. We are still jet lagged and the prospect of figuring out what the items might be behind their packaging is daunting. We buy fruit, vegetables, coffee, beer and non salty candy, the rest we save for another day.
We have learned a great deal as several days later we arrive at the grocery store with a dinner plan. We read the packaging, it seems clear compared to a few short days ago. Still, we are stumped when we find a prepared salad that looks like potato though has the word, rundvlees on its package. We can’t see any beef through the clear top. We search other packaging, perhaps it’s a typo? We ask another customer who tries to explain, though something critical is lost in translation. My husband hopefully decides it’s bacon. Still, we opt for the single serving size as opposed to the jumbo family size, playing it safe.
Our favourite Dutch restaurant De buurfrauw has Dutch as its first language. They readily speak English to us though on our last visit the hostess mistakes me for Dutch and speaks to us in that tongue. She asks in Dutch if I have reservations, I respond, “Yes.” She continues in Dutch asking for our name. “Smit,” I respond moving me to the next level of conversation with my Dutch surname. We are we now in uncharted territory having moved beyond social niceties. She says something, my look of confusion is mirrored on her face, as she quickly switches to English stumbling on the words, the conversation now formal, the magic of the moment lost. I ponder how much I have just missed, how great the conversation could be if only I could speak the language.
I read the signs listing the specials. I notice Koffee en Smakje. This makes me wonder if it’s coffee with liquor, thinking to smack the coffee with liquor. Quickly I notice another sign with coffee and various liquor options, and conclude that this must be something different. I ask my husband who quickly responds that it’s coffee with a little taste. We order and I’m pleased to see a little treat on the plate next to the coffee. I take a bite, smack my lips. The word perfect, no translation required.