Europe on Ten Words a Day
During my sophomore year at the University of Michigan, now many years ago, I discovered an organization that placed students in math and science in other countries for practical work - for what would now be called co-oping. The organization's primary objective was to exchange students among the various European countries, but somehow we managed to start a branch at U of M. I eagerly joined, and successfully lobbied a couple of professors who agreed to sponsor a foreign co-op student for the summer.
When I applied myself, hoping for a placement the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I thus had a preferred status; as someone who had worked for the organization, I went to the front of the queue, so to speak. Since I speak fluent French, I asked for France, Belgium, Luxembourg, or Switzerland, countries where French is spoken.
But placements for students from the United States were limited, and I was offered a spot in the Netherlands, at the Agricultural University of Wageningen, assisting a professor of mathematics.
Like many students, I ended up renting a room from a family. They live a couple of miles outside of town and had two young children. They showed me around their home, including a spacious washroom.
"And you'll take your bath on Saturday," my hostess said.
Bath? Once a week. As soon as I could locate a phone, I called my mother, who, fortunately, had a far wider experience than I of European culture.
"Water is expensive," Mom said. "Offer them some more money," she named an amount, "and see if they will agree to let you bathe three times a week."
They may have muttered to themselves about crazy Americans, but they did agree, much to my relief. And they agreed to lend me an old bicycle, one that needed some work. I took it into town the next day and the guy at the bike store fixed it up for me.
This was my first experience being totally alone in a foreign country, and one, moreover, where I didn't speak the language. Dutch has several levels of gutterals, with pronounced somewhat like the German "ch" and a couple more that are deeper in the throat. Gouda, the cheese, for example, is pronounced something like "How-da." It took me a week to learn to pronounce the name of the town, and until I could, I didn't dare go anywhere. Most people my age and younger spoke English, but many of the older folks in the towns surrounding Wageningen did not.
I still remember my excitement that first weekend when I boarded the bus for a nearby, larger, town, Ede (pronounced Ay-da).
In relatively short order, I found a ballet class in town - I was passionately fond of ballet at the time - and signed up for lessons. It was there that I had another lesson in cultural insularity.
"I'm an American," I responded when asked where I was from.
"Oh, so am I," a diminutive student replied. "I'm from Nicaragua. How about you?"
"I'm from the United States." And that is how, to this day, I respond when asked what country I'm from.