dimanche 21 juillet 2013

Learning Danish vs. learning Dutch

I'll never forget my first day of Dutch classes, way back in 2003 when I was 20 years old.

I went in for my intake interview at 11AM on a Monday in the first week of September. I knew that there was a new intensive class starting that very afternoon so I was hoping to be placed in that group. I sat through a set of aptitude tests and then had an interview which involved being asked a series of questions in Dutch. I didn't do very well during the interview, but my aptitude tests came out fine. The school was still very hesitant to put me in the class, as it was for people with a lot of higher education and I was only 20. I remember being told that if I could convince the teacher to let me into the group, then I could go. And it just so happened that that teacher had a few minutes to chat with me that morning.

And that was the start of some of the best months of my life. I was let into the class and that class became one of the most defining experiences of my life.

View of a windmill in Leiden, the Netherlands. Author of photo: Den Nation.

That's how I found myself, a few hours after that interview, standing outside a door waiting to be let into a classroom on my first day of Dutch classes. Nobody spoke to me and I certainly didn't know anybody.

We sat around in an L-shape around the teacher. He went around the class asking everyone to introduce themselves. And that's when I realized that I was the one with the lowest level of Dutch. No kidding, I'm not bringing myself down, even the teacher agreed with my opinion when I told him after the final test what I had been thinking on that first day. I tried frantically to follow and pick up some of what people said so I wouldn't look like a fool when it was my turn. It didn't matter because I was terrible. I remember the teacher asking me questions, me just shaking my head and everyone laughing when I was finally able to spit out what my address was (I had been able to figure out this question because it sounds very similar to English).

That day the teacher introduced the course in English. But that day was the last day I heard him speak English for many months. On the second day I walked into the classroom and he was speaking Dutch with everyone including me - he didn't care that I was the weakest student. And this was the best thing he ever did for me.

Windmill and polder in Leiden, the Netherlands. Author of photo: Den Nation.

It was really, really painful. By the fourth day I cracked. We were working on an oral exercise where we had to go around the classroom and interview the others. I remember the other student just staring at me waiting for a response. "Well," he said, "just say something!" That's when I lost it and ended up running outside. I ended up crying outside in the street and having a walk around the block while blowing off steam before going back in there to face the music. No one said anything when I went back into the classroom.

I studied like crazy. I was so motivated, so eager, so willing, so passionate. I have never put as much effort into anything I have ever done in my life. By the end of that first horrible week I could introduce myself in Dutch without any problems.

And so started my Dutch language learning experience. 15 hours of classes a week plus endless hours spent in front of the books.

At the end of my second week of classes I started working as a weekend cleaner in a hotel. That weekend I spoke English with everyone. The next weekend, after my third week of classes, I started speaking Dutch with my colleagues.

It happened by accident. I was paired with a lady at work who didn't speak any English. That's how I got over my fear of speaking Dutch. That and the no-English rule at school.

While I did speak English at home, I took any opportunity to speak Dutch outside of my home. I would lie to people when they asked me if I could speak English just so I could speak Dutch with them. My classmates consisted of people from all over the world - some could speak English and some could not. That meant that when we were on break together in the coffee room we spoke in Dutch. I became so used to speaking Dutch with them that even when I was alone with my English-speaking classmates, it never occured to me to speak English with them.

After 4 months of Dutch classes my cleaning job at the hotel ended. I applied for a bunch of other cleaning jobs, going to interviews conducted completely in Dutch. I worked a series of jobs during my stay in the Netherlands, eventually even working at the centre where I sat my final Dutch exams.

A street in Leiden, the Netherlands. Author of photo: Den Nation.

My teacher was amazing, the best teacher I have ever had in my life. Not only did he know what he was doing, but he often sat with us during the breaks and was so inspiring. He was demanding, especially with the no-English rule, but we became friends. Thanks to his encouragement he made me want to work.

The course lasted 8 months. It not only included grammar lessons, but lessons on Dutch history and culture. A few of my classmates dropped out over the course of the 8 months, but the majority stayed on until the end. A few new people joined the group as well. Everyone got along well. I saw my classmates outside of classes and met their families.

After 8 months of intensive study from scratch, I sat and passed the B2 government language test. I scored over 70% (the minimum pass rate) on all 4 sections of the test, the speaking section surprisingly being my strongest area.

It was one of the most fulfilling times of my life. Every time I think back on my time in the Netherlands, I feel so sentimental. I actually don't like to think about that period in my life that often because I wasn't ready for my life there to end. I went on to live out other great adventures as well, but I have a special soft spot for my Dutch life. I have often thought about what it would be like to go back, but I know that it could never be the same. I broke off my life there, and I can never go back to what it used to be. Anyway, I have a great life now with a wonderful husband!

Stay tuned for my post on learning Danish.

mardi 9 juillet 2013

Things that surprise me about Denmark - The pastries and other desserts

I never knew that Denmark had a pastry tradition. Maybe that's because my in-laws lived in Denmark in the early 90s before the "food revolution" and had nothing good to say about the desserts (or anything else, for that matter). So I had no idea the pastries and desserts were so good. But I am here to tell you that they are awesome! For me, this is the best thing about the local cuisine; the Danes really know how to make good pastries. That includes croissants - my Frenchie actually admitted that the croissants are actually quite good!

I've tasted pastries in Norway and Sweden, but I must say that Denmark is the winner in my books for the best pastries of the three countries.

"The Danish" in Canada is more bready and has less cinnamon and often has jam in the middle. "The Danish" in Denmark is more flaky and is usually topped with a dallop of chocolate or icing. The cinnamon is the key ingredient. I really enjoy Denmark's danish because I love cinnamon and I am crazy about its French-style pastry which is loaded with butter and slightly crunchy.

The Danes are amused that foreigners use "the Danish" as the name of this pastry. The Danes themselves call it the Snegle, or Snail. All pastries are called wienerbrød, or Vienna bread, because these type of pastries originated from Vienna. That's why they are called viennoiseries in French as well.

A selection of Danish pastries. Author of photo: Den Nation.
In the above photo "the Danish" is at the top. It is actually quite a flat pastry. To the right is the Tebirkes, which is an airy pastry covered in poppy seeds and filled with a thin layer of marzipan inside. It is quite simple, but you can really taste its buttery flakiness. And the poppy seed taste is so pronounced! Then finally there is the Træstamme, which is not a pastry but totally deserves its place next to the pastries. The filling consists of ground-up old pastries, chocolate, sugar, butter and rum. It is covered with a layer of marzipan. I think it may originate from Sweden, but it is everywhere here in Denmark.

Pastries in a shop window. Author of photo: Den Nation. 

I believe that the pastries on the left in the above picture are variations of the French croissant. I have tried Danish croissants and I guarantee you that they are pretty close to the real thing, confirmed by my own resident frog. Now that I never expected! On the right are pieces of brioche-like bread covered in icing, nuts and cinnamon. There is also some cinnamon baked into the brioche.

Drømmekage. Author of photo: Den Nation. 

I think Drømmekage may come from Sweden as well, but again, it is pretty popular here in Denmark. The cake itself is pretty ordinary - it is the brown suger/coconut topping that takes the biscuit. I was afraid that the coconut taste would be overpowering, but there was a perfect balance between the coconut and the rest of the ingredients.

Then there are flødeboller of course. I believe that flødeboller actually originate from Denmark. Flødeboller and different variations are found in several countries. It is in Denmark, however, that you find the best flødeboller in my opinion. Fløde means cream and boller means balls. The filling consists of whipped egg whites and is mousse-like in appearance. It is very light and airy and not dense and spongy like a marshmallow (some variations around the world are more marshmallow-like). They are covered in chocolate and often sprinkled with coconut flakes or other toppings. 

Flødebolle. Author of photo: Den Nation.

Bon appétit !