Last Sunday afternoon I was cycling home in a leisurely fashion, enjoying the quietness on the roads and while my thoughts were elsewhere I jumped a red light. A taxi skidded round the corner and the driver shouted ‘kanker hoer!’ at me through his window. I must have delayed his journey by at least 0.02 seconds so enough reason for him to call me a whore and wish me cancer. I can laugh about it now but in my early days of living here an incident like that would have had me in tears. Living amongst the Dutch is easier with a thick skin. Nowadays I’m not fazed by people wishing terminal illnesses on each other. Years ago I found it shocking.
During my student days in the eighties I left a party in the small hours, got a London cab home and calmly told the driver, as he dropped me at my front door, that I didn’t have any cash on me or in my house. I was totally skint. I’d probably spent the larger part of my grant on buying a pair of pink suede boots along the King’s Road, but that’s neither here nor there. The taxi driver said he’d see me coming next time, tutted, rolled his eyes heavenwards and drove off. A rather calm reaction, don’t you think? At least in comparison with the Amsterdam taxi driver. Without besmirching Amsterdam taxi drivers too much, many of them have spent a lot of time detained at ahem, His Majesty’s Pleasure, if you know what I mean. But that could be a subject for a totally different blog post!
Back to swearing by wishing illness on others. The most popular illnesses to bandy about are: syphilis, cancer, cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis and the good old plague! The rule is that they have to be life-threatening. Krijg de cholera means I hope you get cholera or alternatively you can say choleralijer, which means you already suffer from cholera. The same variation applies to all the other illnesses and then you can jolly them up a bit by adding a gender-specific term of abuse. The variety allows room for a certain amount of creative license. I’ve lived here long enough now to be able to swear in Dutch but I’ve never sworn using illnesses. The disease names just doesn’t come to me in the heat of the moment. I guess you probably have to be a native Dutch speaker to be able to swear in this unique way. Anyway, I don’t like swearing in Dutch in fact I have a pesthekel (plague-hatred) eraan…
Below a few pictures of the Amsterdam Pesthuis (Hospital in Amsterdam for people with plague and other infectious illnesses.) Now known as het W-G Terrein. It’s no longer a hospital but a thriving community with artists’ studios, a restaurant and independent galleries. Well worth a visit for a glimpse of Amsterdam’s lively contemporary culture with a frisson of its dark history.