Saturday, July 7, 2018

Conversational Medicine

I spent a day at the Amsterdam AMC, the university hospital, in essence for a relatively complicated eye operation, a stressful thing in itself (to put it mildly) and worsened by a troublesome history in that eye and a number of current circumstances. But the main event was preceeded by many hours of administrative humbug and repeat tests that made one long for the days of the simple-but-knowledgeable-and-most-of-all-kind-and-understanding country doctor—a James Herriott for humans, essentially, or a Doc Martin (deliciously rude, but heart in the right place). But alas, those days seem to have long gone, and likely gone forever, just like the days people played piano duet or string quartet at night instead of watching indiscribable nonsense on television.

Or perhaps not completely. Thanks to this mini medical odyssey around the AMC, I now realize how perhaps almost all the doctors, many of the nurses, and even many secretaries are aware of how disorganized the place is. Nobody can do anything about it, but many of them express dissatisfaction and disappointment about it, which often translates into highly ironic, almost cynical jokes.

But more importantly, one young doctor, the assistant who was the first of three eye doctors to see me today and who took the lion’s share of taking my history, effectively made my day by saying something I had to boastfully (sorry) write this piece about.

The doc asked whether I had had light flashes and/or moments that I did not see anything with the eye in question. That was a nice surprise, because none of the four (highly qualified) eye doctors who had seen me yesterday had asked that. (By the way, I have now been seen by a total of seven eye doctors in less than 36 hours, one calling my eye “really interesting,” wholly aptly, I guess.) In any event, as I started to explain my experience of seeing those flashes, the young doctor interrupted me.

“But wait,” he said, “are you actually a professional writer?” (It sounds even better in Dutch, I think: “Bent u schrijver dan, van beroep?”)

“No,” I said, “but I do like writing, and I consider that a big compliment. Thank you.”

“I mean,” he said, “you explain it so vividly, it sounded like a writer.”

I have had compliments for my writing from time to time, but this was a whole new experience. Most of all, the hint at personal interest between that one doctor and an admittedly unusual patient made the whole day a little bit easier to bear.

Plus it gave me a reason to sit down and write this little piece with my pirate patch still on.

Thursday, July 5, 2018


I’ve been walking (mostly biking actually) around in The Netherlands for about eight weeks now after an almost twenty-year absence, interrupted only by very brief and infrequent visits (bliksembezoeken or “lightning visits”). My Dutch is still quite adequate, I like to think; some people do comment on a very slight American touch in my pronunciation—not my usage, I think—but interestingly only after I have already told that I have lived in the US for nearly twenty years.

Of course, the Dutch have been busy speaking Dutch in The Netherlands, and so, they all use a number of interesting expressions I am slowly getting used to. I thought I write a few salient examples down here, for the benefit of fellow ex-patriots or other learners of the beautiful Dutch language.

Back in the day, if you wanted to wish somebody a pleasant day or encourage him/her to enjoy his/her weekend, you said (I remember it well): “Nog een prettige dag verder,” or “Prettig weekeinde” (that word is pronounced as weekend,  but we learned it was more elegant to spell it in Dutch anyway).

OK, forget prettig these days. For some reasons beyond my grasp, the Dutch have grown to tremendously dislike the word. (Is it because it reminds them of pretty? But then what’s wrong with pretty?) These days, everybody—and I mean everybody—wishes you “een fijne dag,” “een fijn weekeinde,” “een fijne avond,” etc. etc.  I refuse to use it myself, but at least I’ve managed to say “Jij ook” (you too; and yes, the use of the informal pronoun je/jij instead of formal u has become much more common, to the point it’s almost getting rude, IMHO).

The Dutch pay with their card much, much more often than anybody I’ve seen in the US. This is known as pinnen (“to pin,” referring of course to the use of the PIN code). In fact in many places pinnen is not only the preferred, but exclusive way of payment. But if you’re lucky, you can still bay cash for your coffee and croissantje. When paying wiht exact change or even when paying at all, the person will almost 100 % certainly say “Helemaal goed,” “Completely fine.” I think this is the equivalent of prima in the old days.

Why the helemaal? Isnt’t goed good enough? Apparently not, and many good things are simply not good enough by themselves in The Netherlands. A teacher is not simply trots (“proud”) of his students, but megatrots (“mega proud”; mega of course is Greek for “big time” or—in fashionable US English—“bigly”), even if the results of a test are nothing special. Dutch always had the fun word leuk (“fun,” but with many connotations; “een leuke jongen” is not just a fun guy, but quite attractive to the speaker), but this morning I overheard two youngish ladies talk about a “superleuke jongen.”

I friend had already told me about the fashionable use of “nice” in Dutch. My friend tells me it’s predominantly used by women in a higher income class, and the word is a sentence by itself, commenting on something perceived as extremely positive mentioned by the conversation partner. “Nice!” I tried it once. “Oh,” said my friend, “but you also have to pull up your eyebrows when saying it.” I tried it. “Nice!”

“Nice!” my friend said, expressively raising her eyebrows in return.