By the time I left Kyrgyzstan, my Russian was far from the fluent level I had dreamed of achieving when I first moved there. I will give myself credit though, for my taxi-Russian, my restaurant-Russian, and my Darwin-Russian.
Babies are natural conversation starters, I find. Especially when Darwin was super small and squishy, strangers would constantly come up to me to say something about him, ask to hold him (of course!), ask his name, where he was born, his age, what he eats, etc. To me, as a prudish and timid American, the questions were a bit invasive at times, but I learned to take these opportunities as mini-Russian lessons. By the time I left, I could understand most of the questions I was asked about Darwin and respond fairly confidently.
Here in Ghent, Darwin attracts less attention than he did in Kyrgyzstan (whether it’s because he has become bigger and less squishy, or because Flemings aren’t as fascinated by a stranger’s kid), but sometimes, on a packed tram car or on the sidelines of a crowded playground on a sunny day, a friendly stranger will start asking questions about him.
In Dutch, naturally.
So far, Darwin-centric Dutch is what I’m best at. I can recognize when someone asks his name or age, and respond with a few words. The older kids in my neighborhood have lately taken to always striking up a conversation with me when I’m outside with Darwin, (despite having tried to explain to them that I don’t speak Dutch) and it has been a great way to practice listening and responding to small, simple sentences. When Darwin picks up a random ball, a boy will come over and say, “That’s my ball.” When they’re eating snacks, one of the kids will run over, hand outstretched, and say, “This is for the baby.” When I’m trying to stabilize the four-year-old girl who’s trying to pick up Darwin and run away with him (Darwin’s already a budding ladies man), she points at my nails (currently bright pink) and says “very pretty!”
Since I’m not such an obvious foreigner here as I was in Bishkek, the questions I’m asked about him aren’t the same as the ones I constantly answered in Kyrgyzstan, which were mostly related to whether or not he was born in Bishkek and what the heck are you doing with such a little baby here when you could be in the US, so more often than not, I end up quickly admitting that I don’t speak Dutch, or I speak loudly to Darwin in English when I come near groups of other parents to announce in a not-so-subtle way, “Hey there! I’m not from around here, and I prefer to speak English.”
Only for now, of course. I’m sad to admit that my Dutch studies have already slowed down. I had gotten into a routine of studying vocabulary while feeding Darwin, but now he’s fully weaned and I’ve replaced that time with much less important, but much more entertaining activities (Korean dramas, Viki is a drug). But while I’m back in the US during the first half of May, I’ll have so much free time while Darwin’s grandparents are doting on him 24/7 that I plan on studying lots and lots of Dutch. Wish me veel succes!