I am just back today from nine days of vacation… seven in the Netherlands, and two in Belgium. Beforehand, the trip seemed enticing with the potential for tremendous fun; and the trip was fun… at times. But I don’t think I’ve digested my Dutch and Belgian “meal” fully yet. It may take more time, and with the distance of time, better perspective on the aspects of the trip I did not expect.
As someone who has not been to Europe in over a decade, I was hit over the head with the culture shock. There are significant differences between New and Old Amsterdam.
Still, there are two main elements of my trip that redeemed any “less than” experiences: all the magnificent art and lively music I enjoyed. Had it not been for art and music, the trip would have been a bust.
So… IF you are planning a trip to Amsterdam, I will start with two words of warning: WEATHER AHEAD!
In the nine days I spent on the ground, it was freezing cold; extremely windy and cold; raining and cold; or … hot. (The warmth lasted one tantalizing day in my first 48 hours, never to return.)
When I say “freezing cold” I mean it was probably around 45-55 degrees Farenheit most of the time, usually on the lower side of that scale. It was so cold, in fact, the locals complained about it, saying it was one of the coldest summers on record so far. (Just my luck!)
In the streets, people wore heavy sweaters, pants, boots, hats, winter jackets and scarves. Everyone in Amsterdam must have a huge collection of scarves.
I was not fully prepared for the weather, and in my last two days I wound up getting sick. despite my precautions of wearing a scarf whereever I went – my Spring jacket was just not warm enough over the Spring dresses I wore (with leggings!) In fact, I’ve partially lost my voice again, and now the coughing and sneezing have begun in earnest… I guess that was an Amsterdam parting gift. :-}
Under normal work-a-day circumstances, cold weather is a temporary nuisance. You go from your home to the car or train, get to work inside where it is warm, and go home the same way. But when you are a tourist, walking around town for four or five hours a day, freezing your butt off becomes a more serious issue.
In the town of Delft, where I stayed one brief afternoon (more about that in a future post), the wind howled so badly through the town square that cafe chairs went flying across the square and bicycles were knocked down. Anything on the cafe tables flew away, menus, napkins, whatever. The wind got so severe, I went inside and read a book rather than continue to endure it.
My advice for any traveler is check the weather report before you go (in other words, do as I say, not as I did…) but regardless, be prepared for cold, wind and freezing rain in the Netherlands, even during the Summer.
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And speaking of scarves and boots and other whatnot that ladies wear, I was surprised at what women in Amsterdam were wearing. The vast majority of women wore variations on the same outfit: blue jeans, a blouse or sweater, a long looping scarf slung around the neck twice or thrice, and ankle high boots or flat shoes. In the rare case where a woman wore a dress, she wore a long dress down to her ankles, with flats.
I did not pack boots or flats (I’m short enough already, so I don’t wear flats!) and so I wore the heels I brought that were comfortable enough to walk around in all day, or a pair of summer sandals – in which my feet froze, of course. (As a side note, perhaps the footwear choice of Dutch women is predominantly influenced by the fact that everyone is riding a bicycle at some point in the day? That would make more sense because you can’t pedal a bike in heels.)
One amusing side note…
I noticed at least a dozen women who were both fascinated and repulsed by my bright bubblegum pink toenail polish. Women would glance at my toes, then look up at me and give me the stink eye! And these Dutch women REALLY knew how to give a good stink eye – they looked you directly in the face and curled their lip to let you know just how much they disapproved of pink toes.
The first time this happened to me, I was walking out of a cafe and the woman just stared and stared at my sandals and toes. Then – oop – the stink eye! It happened again when I was walking in a shop, and twice again at the Rijksmuseum; after a while I thought to myself Geez, aren’t the Dutch supposed to be super-tolerant?
I guess you can light up a joint on any street corner any time of the day or night in Amsterdam, but god help you if you have pink toes.
American ladies be warned: tropical color toes will get you the stink eye from Dutch women in Amsterdam.
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You may wonder why I have devoted all that space to something as banal as painted toes, but I think it helps illustrate a strange dichotomy I found in Amsterdam. The city has an international reputation as being one of the most liberal, laid back cities in Europe and I’m here to tell you there is a huge difference between agreeing to tolerate something vs. embracing it as a part of the culture.
For example, in Berkeley, California there are all manner of freaks, hippies, students, stoners and what have you, and they are all an intrinsic part of the culture of that place. Berkeley wouldn’t be “Berkeley” without all of them.
Despite the reputation of tolerance, I didn’t feel that warm, accepting embrace from the Dutch people I came in contact with on my trip – particularly the “regular man and woman on the street.” They seemed distant and aloof, especially toward anyone they identified as a stranger.
Again, I hypothesize: Amsterdam is a city constantly over-run with tons of international tourists. (On the streets I would mostly hear Dutch being spoken, then French, Arabic, Russian and some Italian thrown in, but very little English was being spoken on the street. Now, if you speak to someone in English it is a different matter – they will answer you in perfect and fluent English. But don’t expect to hear people speaking English. None of the street signs, or the announcements on the tram, are in English – they are all in Dutch. If you have a little familiarity with how language “works” you will figure it out, but if any foreign tongue sounds like gibberish to you, you will need to ask for a lot of help to ensure you don’t get lost.)
And just maybe these tons of international tourists are irritating to the locals as we clog up their cafes, museums, streets, trams and stores. And Amsterdam is too small a city to run away from the tourist mobs who are everywhere around the city. I suspect this is something people learn to put up with if they want to live there, but there is not a particularly friendly attitude towards these tourists who bring millions of dollars to their city.
Ironically, for me at least, I felt I was dealt with in a more friendly way in Oaxaca, Mexico from a “walking the streets” point of view – and that area had much more poverty and social problems than A’dam.
But… it wasn’t all bad! Far from it!
Some of the best experiences I had during my trip were my “night life outings.” Once the locals got a few beers in them, they loosened up considerably.
And in my next few posts, I will give you an intimate perspective on the jazz and blues clubs in Amsterdam (A’dam).
Filed under: Travel, Travel Tip | Tagged: Amsterdam, cultural differences, Dutch culture, how Dutch women dress, Netherlands, tourist, travel, weather in the Netherlands | 17 Comments »