I have been in the Netherlands for over two weeks now. I have met two cousins, one of whom shares my name, van der Sluis. I have reunited with an old Dutch friend. I have made new friends. Everyone has tried to help me pronounce my name. A name I’ve had my entire life (imagine that) and one that is most obviously Dutch and I cannot seem to be able to say. It’s comedic, really. They patiently repeat it, again and again. “Make your lips go like this.” “More ‘ah’, less ‘s’.”
The Dutch word for ‘onion’ is ui (‘oh-w’). I know this because when I went grocery shopping with friend, Wendy, she told me. And then she told me, “Like your name! Whenever you try to say your name, think of an onion.”
She makes me smile.
I’m getting ever closer, sometimes I think I actually say it. But nobody is around to confirm this.
And so, I have funny feelings about my sense of belonging… or identity. I have a very typical Dutch name and I butcher it when I speak it. Insert the sad face emoji.
I am Canadian. My father is Canadian… both my parents are for that matter. But my dad’s parents, my beloved oma and opa, were not. My opa, as is becoming less the tradition, passed down his name. And so my dad begot me, and I am van der Sluis. But the ‘van der Sluis’ that does not pronounce their name in the Dutch fashion, ‘fohn’ (like ‘John’ with an ‘f’) der (as it looks) ‘slah-ouse’ (like ‘ouse’ in ‘house’).
My sense of identity might strengthen… become a little clearer if I can just say my name as it is meant to be said.
More comedy ensues when people read my name on say, my passport, as an example and start prattling on in Dutch. It’s comedic. It gets a smile out of me, but it’s also embarrassing. But only because I allow it to be because I wish I spoke Dutch. I wish I practised more frequently and had better, if not perfect mastery of it. I wish I dedicated more time to it. I wish, most vehemently, that I could download the language (and ALL languages) à la the Matrix.
When I share my embarrassment with new friends, René asks, “But how do you spell your name? Do you …” Gesturing with his fingers to indicate lessening the space between thumb and index finger, I catch his meaning immediately, cut him off, and perhaps maybe a little too aggressively exclaim, “No!”
“I’m a little more particular than my brothers. I keep it as three words, lower case ‘v’, ‘d’, and capital ‘S’. But they… my one brother schmooshes the name together and capitalizes the ‘V’.”
The group, with smiles on their faces, nod in understanding. They know. They’ve seen it before.
This is what happens to names. People get lazy. People are coerced. Shit happens. But not from me. I painstakingly sit on cell phones with bad reception trying to explain to a receptionist of this or that, “It’s three words… ‘van’, ‘der’, ‘Sluis’… ‘s’ as in ‘Sam’,…”. Often I don’t exist in their database, “Try no spaces.” Issue resolved.
I will never become lazy about my name. I will always strive to spell it right. Just as much as I try and strive to say it right too. Here, in the Netherlands, on my journey to strengthen my ties to the country whence my blood flows.
I grew up with Dutch accented grandparents, bettering their English speaking skills after immigrating to Canada when their own son, my father, entered school and started to learn the language. I wonder now, for the first time, when it was and who it was that started referring to themselves as ‘van der (sounds as it looks) Sloose’ or ‘sluice‘ as in a sluice: a sliding gate or other device for controlling the flow of water, especially one in a lock gate (because, you know, the Netherlands is made up of a million canals, dykes, and sluices). Either way, there are three generations now that say my name (…say my name, when no one is around you…)—and a handful of other van der Sluis’ we are not related to that also live in the Niagara region in Canada—as ‘sluice’.
Funny story: I once upon a time in the summer between high school and university, went camping with some girlfriends, playing frisbee in a lake when some guys joined us. Learning about where we were all from and what school we attended, I learned they went to the same high school as my older brother. “You must know my brother, Jason van der Sluis.” I inquired. To which they replied, “We are van der Sluis'”. Though they were name schmooshers as it turned out.
We are a family that likely originated from a nearby sluice. Or perhaps even worked a sluice. I’m not sure. I do know that in the late 1700’s Napoleon’s influence brought about some changes, one of them was to register the population and have all person’s name themselves. I imagine a lot of Dutch living near a sluice got the van der Sluis name (‘van der’ meaning ‘from the’ or ‘of the’).
That bicycle trip I made the other day? I spent a good chunk of it talking out loud to myself. Peddaling leisurely as you do on such a city bike, trying over and over to get that sound. I’m usually pretty good at capturing accents. I hear the subtle sound differentiations letter combinations can offer. I hear it. But this particular ‘ui’ sound I hear? I cannot repeat. Not consistently anyway.
And so, when asked for my name, I say, “It’s a Dutch one. I have a hard time saying it, fohn der slah-ouse.” At least, that’s what I told the woman writing up my certificaet van weginghe.
Here’s to practice makes perfect. Here’s to me being me and you being you, no matter how you say your name.