Sadly, my Dutch teacher passed away last week and I’d be wrong to say it hasn’t affected me. The first years I spent living in the Netherlands left a vivid impression on me, as too did the people who played an important role in my ‘acclimatisation’. Paul van der Velden was certainly one of them.
The first thing I did when I came to live in Limburg was to enrol on a Dutch course. No sooner had I done so, than I found myself sitting in one of Paul’s classes. He made an immediate impression since, with his bearded and slightly dishevelled appearance, he came with all the trappings of an ageing hippy.
In terms of ability, motivation, age and nationality, my class was anything but homogenous. My group had all of these: a Vietnamese ‘boat person’; a trainee German priest who had been seconded to a rural parish in Limburg; a Brazilian lad who wanted to move to Amsterdam and become an actor; a French girl who had recently moved in with her Dutch boyfriend; a housewife from Aachen who had moved across the border and has a desire to learn Dutch; and a Turkish man who – having worked down the mines for 20 years - could only speak dialect and was only now learning ABN.
Nevertheless, lessons with Paul were always fun. In what must have been trying circumstances with this motley bunch of nationalities, he had his own idiosyncratic style of teaching, which involved dollops of humour. This extended to poking fun at his compatriots and their customs, which I suppose was his way of teaching us about Dutch culture. Even though he was a full-blooded Limburger, he had an antipathy towards Carnaval. On one occasion he asked us what the difference between yoghurt and Carnaval was. The answer of course, was that at least yoghurt had culture.
I had a feeling for languages that others in the class didn’t seem to have, so it wasn’t long before I’d attained all the diplomas I needed and moved on, but I missed attending classes with Paul.
I wasn’t aware of it, but Paul was probably amongst the leading teachers of Dutch as a foreign language in the whole of the Netherlands at the time.
There was a lot more to Paul than just the teacher. Even then, in his mid-thirties he had acquired a reputation for himself in Heerlen. He was a product of the Sixties. He liked his music, especially the Rolling Stones and was involved in cultural-literary initiatives in Heerlen, including Café de Nor and Galerie Signe. He wrote short stories (bundels) about Heerlen (though never prolifically) and earned recognition and acclaim for them. And he also had a thing about clothes pegs.
Paul was very much part of the Heerlen scene. He was a familiar figure around town, always on foot, so much so that he was dubbed by some the stadsnomade. He lived there all his life, despite his father - a bank manager - advising his children never to return to Heerlen when they had completed their studies. Paul was the only one that stayed. When the coal mines closed in the Oostelijke Mijnstreek in 1970s, the city fathers ripped the heart out of the town, sanctioning ugly developments such as office complexes, unsightly flats, out-of-town shopping ‘boulevards’ and ring-roads. Despite all this Paul never left, and loved living in Heerlen. Today, the town is a much more upbeat place, with recent urban regeneration happily respecting, rather than neglecting its past. I’m certain the latter was partly due to people like Paul who had a passionate commitment to their home town.
Despite never being able to pin him down in a long dialogue, he was an entertaining conversationalist with a witty repartee. ‘Jij bent mijn beste student geweest’, he would tell me whenever I ever bumped into him and started chatting (though I never did find out whether he said this to any of his other students too).
Once when he was telling me this, he held out two matchsticks in his hand and asked me in Dutch how many he held in his hand. ‘Je hebt twee’ I answered. ‘Nee’ he said wagging his finger with a mischievous look in his eye, ‘ik heb er twee’, as if to say that I still had a long way to go.
Ironically, I now give English lessons to Dutch-speaking students at the same evening college where I sat in Paul’s classes.
One of his regular haunts was Café Pelt in the centre of town where he held a regular Stammtisch with friends and where our paths would occasionally cross. Sadly, in the last few months of his illness, I never got the chance to ask him whether I really was his best ever student, but it would certainly be a great honour if I were.
Article in De Limburger