Because the Netherlands is littered with unfenced waterways, learning how to swim is an important part of a proper Dutch upbringing.
As such there is a tri-level (A, B, C) swim diploma system with an emphasis on safety. Everything revolves around teaching children what to do if they happen to fall into a canal:
Would you be wearing goggles if you fell into a canal? No, so you can’t wear them during swimming lessons.
Would you be wearing clothes if you fell into a canal? Very likely, so a part of each swimming diploma requires swimming in clothes and shoes.
Might you have to swim around old floating mattresses to save yourself? Possibly, so the C-level diploma requires swimming under and over big sheets of foam.
You might wonder whether the upper-level swim diploma requires re-surfacing in a muddy, rubbish-strewn canal while one’s legs are entrapped in a tangle of old, submerged bicycles. It does not. Yet.
I have thrown my daughter into these swim lessons and remarkably, as they’re all in Dutch and she doesn’t know a soul, she enjoys them. She enjoys them enough to attend them every Friday evening without complaining. This is miraculous.
Last weekend she was invited to swim the A-level examination. I had little idea what to expect, as I mainly muddle through the emails from the swim school gleaming only essential facts such as payment amounts. I was tipped off by another parent that the actual test is a bit like the last day of the Tour de France: passage is assured and the test is simply a nice way to show off one’s sporting skills.
Still, on the day of the examination I was rather surprised to turn up at the pool and find the lobby stuffed to the brim with grandmas, grandpas, aunties, uncles and giant cameras. Many of us crowded into the hot, stuffy changing rooms to help the children prepare for the test. It was loud and chaotic, but luckily I could understand some large fraction of the Dutch logistical instructions. For example, I quickly intuited that by the time I’d helped my daughter to change, I’d be stuck watching the test from behind rows of tall Dutch people because swarms of grandparents had already occupied the prime spaces in the stands.
Post-changing room faffing, I did manage to squeeze down in front of the stands using my short stature and my pre-schooler as an excuse. This afforded us a close view of the public spectacle of the swim test. This was serious business: there was an announcer with a microphone, referees, cheering spectators and clumps of smiling but shivering children.
Amid it all stood my daughter. She wrapped her arms around her chest to keep warm and watched the other children closely. She was used to interpreting Dutch swimming instructions by watching and mimicking others, but she couldn’t understand any of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the examination. There was applause each time the enthusiastic announcer said that the children had now all accomplished a certain feat: swimming 50 meters, floating on their backs, swimming through an underwater hole, rotating on an axis, holding their breath, etc.
Near the end, there were waves of standing ovations as the announcer confirmed with the referees which groups of children had earned their diplomas. They all had. But my daughter was oblivious and when I met her — blue-lipped — in the changing room the first thing she said was: “How do I know if I passed?”
She watched, copied and coped, but she was ultimately an outsider. I’d tossed her into a strange foreign world of incomprehensible ceremonies and occasions. She was bluffing her way through expat life, just like me. I usually think of this whole expat gig as a jolly big adventure. Does she?
When we left the changing rooms, I noticed that the other families were giving their children presents. As I was just as clueless as she was, I didn’t have a congratulatory swim-diploma gift to give her.
I did find an old, snack-size Snickers bar in the bottom of my bag to offer her.
She didn’t complain.
We were both bluffing our way through Dutch life and both equally dazed.