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Mijn Bediende (My Clerk)

Yesterday I was in the Albert Heijn picking up a few items for dinner.

It was 5:30, so the store was crowded with people stopping in on their way home.

The Dutch eat promptly at 6:oo, you’ll recall. It’s almost as if there is a silent whistle that goes off at 6pm each evening, one that only Nederlanders can hear.

I was in line, with three people ahead of me. The woman talking to the cashier was American, perhaps Canadian. (I’ve found that my hearing is so attuned to European accents that I find I can’t always pick up on the slight Canadian accent until I hear certain words.)

It seems she couldn’t find her credit card.

Now right there I’d peg her for American, unless Canadians also happen to pay for their groceries with credit cards.

Most people here for any length of time open a Dutch bank account. Everyone uses their Dutch ATM card to pay for just about everything, using the ‘pin system’ in which the amount is automatically debited directly from their bank account. 

The Dutch usually use their credit cards only for very large purchases, or traveling. Come to think of it, the US would be in better financial shape if Americans were half as thrifty as the Dutch. But I digress…

The woman was rifling through her wallet and purse, checking her pockets, digging in her bag. All the while the cashier was politely asking her questions in fluent, accentless English.

They agreed that she would bag up her items to get them out of the way; she’d then step over to the ATM machine and, using her obviously non-Dutch ATM card, take out cash to pay for her groceries. He said ‘see you in a minute’ and turned immediately to his next customer.

Next up was an attractive young woman with a head of gorgeous honey-blonde curls. She was French, and without missing a beat, the clerk began speaking flawless French.

They kept up a friendly banter while he effortlessly whisked her items over the scanner and finished her sale. I could even tell from the change in tone and nuance when he asked her the obligatory questions ‘Would you like your receipt’ and ‘Do you purchase grocery stamps?’ in between their small talk.

The store manager stopped by to ask the clerk a question and then give him some instructions, and all the while the clerk spoke Dutch to him while switching back to French when he engaged the young woman.

By now I was paying close attention. After bidding the French beauty au revoir, he immediately turned his attention to the woman ahead of me. Without her even opening her mouth, he presumed she was Dutch and launched into Nederlands.

Once again, the entire transaction was a friendly exchange back and forth: the cashier chatting cheerfully and making eye contact while ringing up her purchases and completing the transaction.

By now the first woman had returned with her cash. The clerk switched immediately back to English as he took her money, made change, gave her the receipt and bade her goodbye.

Finally it was my turn. With just a quick glance in my direction, he started our conversation in Nederlands. He pegged me as a Dutch woman!

That has both good and less good connotations which I will not get into, but suffice it to say that I am always pleased when someone doesn’t automatically assume I am an American woman, unable to speak the native language. Not that I speak it all that well, but still. A small linguistic victory nontheless.

As I gathered my groceries into the reusable bags I’d brought with me (perhaps a clue that I followed the locals and brought my own bags?), I heard the young man behind me start speaking German. Immediately the store clerk responded in perfect German and they began to chat.

I kid you not.

Let’s see: shifting effortlessly among four languages in less than 5 minutes, engaging in pleasant conversation in a personable manner, making great eye contact with a winning smile, performing his tasks quickly and efficiently, multi-tasking such that he’d put anyone else to shame?

It dawned on me, right then and there.

I want to be my grocery store clerk.

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