Dutch choirboys take note of American life

Young singers make new overseas friends

June 28, 2000|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Robbie Menrad is 12, lives in Pasadena and speaks no Dutch. Tom van der Reep is 10, from the Netherlands and speaks no English.

At first blush, the two boys have little to build a friendship on, since they barely can communicate with each other. But from the time that Tom arrived in Maryland on Saturday to stay with Robbie for a weeklong Baltimore-Rotterdam Sister Cities boys choir exchange program, they've closely bonded over two things they hold in common - playing Nintendo and trading Pokemon cards.

"I've learned that the word `Pokemon' is known worldwide," said Amy Menrad, whose son Robbie is a member of the Maryland State Boy Choir, which is playing host to the singers from the Netherlands. "And Nintendo requires absolutely no language skills. The language barrier has been nonexistent."

Since Saturday, 11 Maryland families have had the opportunity to share and compare cultures and customs with 28 members of the Rotterdam Boys Choir in a program organized by the Baltimore-Rotterdam Sister City Committee. Yesterday afternoon, the Rotterdam singers took a break from performances at the State House in Annapolis and Baltimore's Inner Harbor to attend a pig roast at a waterfront Severna Park home organized by one of the host families.

"It's great to be with an American family and learn the American style of living," said Suzanne Verburg, 20, assistant music director for the Rotterdam group, which has 80 boys between 7 and 23 years old. "The boys have been sharing a lot with the American boys, asking, `Do you have this?' `Do you eat that?'"

Baltimore has sister city relations with 10 cities including Genoa, Italy; Piraeus, Greece; Cadiz, Spain; and Xiamen, China. Several of Baltimore's sister cities - including Rotterdam - were chosen because of their similarities to Baltimore. Rotterdam, for example, is a bustling, waterfront port city with a long history of maritime trade.

Murry Bentley, chairman of the Baltimore-Rotterdam Sister City Committee, said the city's partnership with Rotterdam began 15 years ago and has brought delegations of the city's planners, educators and children such as the members of the boys choir to Maryland about twice a year. Bentley said he orchestrated the Rotterdam choir exchange to give members of the Maryland State Boy Choir the chance to meet and spend time with their Dutch counterparts, whom they plan on visiting during a two-week European tour in June 2001. They've raised $68,000 of the $143,000 needed for the trip. "This is an opportunity for our boys to experience another culture, make friends across the Atlantic and to learn something about the larger world," Bentley said. "The world is growing smaller and we need to know how to interact with other cultures. These exchanges teach people to respect other cultures and customs."

Andrew Countiss, 16, whose parents organized the pig roast, said he learned from the three choir members staying with him that in Rotterdam, houses commonly are joined together like row houses, instead of being free-standing single-family homes.

To his mother's chagrin, Robbie Menrad didn't just pick up Nintendo tips from his Dutch guests. He took the opportunity to quiz them on the Dutch translations of words such as "food" and "you stink."

The Dutch visitors also cherished the opportunity to experience and learn American habits and culture first-hand. Peter van Dop, 22, a tenor with the Rotterdam choir, found it amusing that McDonald's coffee cups come with printed disclaimers.

"It's funny how the cups say, `This drink is very hot,'" said van Dop, an economics major at the University of Rotterdam. "In Holland, it's just logical to us. ... In America, I think you can sue for anything."

Jacques de Faber, 15, who sings bass, said he thinks that Americans work so hard they have little time for leisurely pursuits.

"The Americans seem to work more than in Holland so they can buy more things, but they never can use them because they are working. You see all these boats out there?" de Faber said, gesturing toward several docked sailboats. "They're just sitting there."

The Rotterdam choir will head home Friday, but they say they've enjoyed getting to know their American counterparts and look forward to sharing their culture when they visit next summer.

De Faber said he's thought of a great gift for his new American friends when they visit next year. During his stay with his host family in Towson, he noticed they bought a tiny brick of Edam cheese for $4 - which he said is about the price of a one-kilogram wheel of cheese - almost 2 1/4 pounds - in Rotterdam.

"It's so expensive here," he said. "When they come, I'm going to give them a lot and a lot of cheese."

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