Going Dutch

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.

*           *            *

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.

*           *            *

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).


17 Responses

  1. Why, you think, I went to Bali in May?

    The Weather!

    • Haha, yes, well I didn’t expect it to be THAT cold!

      I guess it must be pretty cold in Amsterdam all year long, including the summers?

      Did you have any other thoughts about this post, George?

  2. Carol: “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.”

    George: “I am an Indonesian man. An Indo. Born 1955 in Amsterdam. I am still a stranger in the Netherlands. Youre observation is 100% correct. There is no tollerance. Not for youre bright bubblegum pink toenail polish, and not for my beautyfull skincolor.”

    Carol: “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.”

    George: “When I visit Amsterdam, and I know Amsterdam very well, that`s why I don`t live there anymore, I go with two bodygaurds, my two guns and a sword, and only by daylight, and never in de surroudings of drunk people.”

    • George,

      I was really surprised by your response. I thought you would disagree with me strongly, but I guess I can say that even in a few days in A’dam, the cultural divide of that city can be observed by someone who is looking carefully enough.

      I’m very sorry to hear you feel this way about the country of your birth though. In the United States we have not always had a good track record of celebrating differences in skin color, but I do believe we have gotten much better in the U.S. at being more than tolerant.

      Then again, it depends on where you are… for the U.S. you will find the most diversity and mixing of many different people from different places in the largest cities. NYC is a giant melting pot, and all people are welcome here.

      I have another Dutch friend, a pen pal, and he also told me that he moved out of Amsterdam because he did not feel the city was safe enough or the right place to raise a family.

      But you will want to read my other posts about my trip too… I enjoyed many aspects of my visit. I don’t want to just give one impression – there are many facets of a place, and it depends on the circumstances and people we meet.

      Oh… I wanted to also say that I did not bother to go to the Red Light District while I was in the city. I was on a street near it to see a contemporary art exhibition, but I did not go inside it.


  3. Yikes, not exactly the cheeriest of places. Well, I’m sure the art and music were great.

    • The thing is, when I spoke to Dutch people about this privately, they also agreed with me. Two women I met on a train platform told me they’d been told from the time they were small children never to talk to strangers, and this carries over into adult life.

      I have to emphasize is that this is a cultural difference between America and Europe, it’s not “bad” … but for an American it can be uncomfortable since it is a very different experience.

      For Europeans, I think they really value “minding your own business” much more. They don’t want to talk to you if they don’t know you. They’ll help you, give you directions or whatnot, but they don’t want to have an extended personal conversation … of the sort many Americans could easily have waiting in line for a cup of coffee.

      Some Europeans have commented to me that it is much harder to make friends in Europe, but once you do, you stay friends… whereas it’s easy to make friends in America, but you may or may not be good friends. So, that’s another perspective.

      I’ve already made one post about a jazz club in A’dam, and will make more about the music and art I experienced … yes, it was fantastic, especially the contemporary stuff I saw.

  4. Interesting point about Europeans vs. Americans when it comes to making friends. It is pretty easy to make new friends here, but it’s also very easy to drop or lose friends (often for no clear reason). We “get busy” in the U.S. and seem to value friendships only moderately.

    • Right Patrick, exactly. People tend to be easy going about making new friends, but there are degrees of friendship.

      For example, I have friends I’ve known for more than 10 years and have never been to their home…or never met their family.

      I have friends I grew up with that I was so close to growing up I saw them nearly everyday. Now, I don’t see them or talk to them at all. Same thing with the people I went to college with, with a few notable exceptions when I reached out recently to get back in touch.

      There’s also a huge difference between being single vs. being married vs. being married with kids and someone’s ability to maintain friendships.

      When I’m “unattached” (like I happen to be now in my life… a footloose and fancy free single girl) then I can be “around” to get together with friends and hang out more readily. When I’m in a relationship with someone, then I tend to spend more of my free time with him… it’s only natural, but it’s important to continue feeding friendships too, regardless of single or attached status.

  5. Your experiences with friends as you describe in the first few paragraphs exactly mirror some of mine, e.g., friends I knew / have known a long time (and in whom I invested real time) but no longer see; friends who were like brothers/sisters/cousins but now barely keep up in email, if at all; and then there are friends who stick despite all reason to fall out.

    Definitely the friend-with-kids thing can impact friendships significantly. As you know I have one child, but I have tried not to use that as an excuse for not seeing people. I have ‘friends’ who basically went away as their kids went into pre-teen years.

    I do get that geographical distance is a real challenge. But I don’t get why out-of-sight, out-of-mind is such a prevalent phenomenon, especially in a digitally connected world. Laziness, perhaps? Disappointments? Certainly there are times when a person just has too much on her/his plate, but years and years seems like a bit of a stretch.

    Anyway, enjoy the afternoon, Friend 🙂

    • Yes, it’s always a matter of making time for the people you care about and not letting all the typical life stuff get in the way for months and years.

      I can see my core friends have shifted about once every ten years. During my teens it was one set, college another, etc. There are some people who overlap those timeframes, but it’s more rare.

      And I agree, I think you’re an extremely social person. You, much more than others I know, make a concerted effort to reach out via email and get together with people. It’s why you are such a wicked-great networker!


  6. LOL. I never thought of myself as “wicked-great” at anything, much less networking. (By the way, I can think of a few folks at that place who are wicked-bad at it, you know?)

    So, you from Bahstun all of a sudden? Just sayin’ :-).

    • LOL, we’re getting pretty silly… and yeah, I guess I was having a “Boston” moment.

      (For non- American readers, Boston is a town known for using the word “wicked” a lot to describe, well, everything. LOL)

  7. Not only the Dutch but all of the Europeans have a different understanding of the word diversity…they look at the population statistics and claim that they are a diverse society. NY and to a degree Americans understand diversity in terms of understanding other cultures and interacting with them. Europeans are less tolerant in reality of different people but they don’t even realize that.

    By being non accepting they will end up not only becoming a minority in their own land and then to disappear altogether but they create a revolving history of intolerance and threat. If they are not accepting of foreigners, the immigrants create their own groups and social settings and as they increase in numbers they need the Dutch (or other natives) less while at the same time they can take advantage of the tolerant welfare, educational, housing and employment system. As socially Europeans exclude the non-Europeans the non-Europeans feel less desire to assimilate so it creates a deep unseen and unofficial divide.

    As the newcomers increase in numbers and by birth while the locals decrease in population the country is getting taken over and now the locals are the “whiners” that they have become aliens in their own country. It happens in every single European country.

    By contrast in NY or in California or some other remote cases newcomers have less struggle to assimilate. If you seem that you accept strangers, the newcomers even if they arrive from homelands with incompatible cultures, they tend to assimilate faster, thus they lose the initial “fundamentalism and patriotism” and gradually they become New Yorkers, Californians etc. Someone would challenge me claiming that the African-American or Newyorican enclaves…. this is a social phenomenon based on the history of America different than the immigration pattern that takes place in Europe. The laws in Europe are very supportive of foreigners but the local people are not in their heart. The newcomers arrive with their cultural, religious and historical past and most of them are determined to remain faithful to the values of the country they left behind (especially Muslims) By becoming non-accepted their identity as Muslims becomes stronger. For instance in Greece, Germany or Netherlands Turkish minority is much more religious and nationalistic than in Turkey, although non of these countries is particularly religious. But when people are not accepted their identity of the country they came from becomes stronger.

    We can see this phenomenon with Jews throughout history around the world. Judaism was stronger in anti-Semitic countries. Lutheran Germany-Prussia before the appearance of the ultra-nationalists, NY, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Britain, Northern Europe, Greece have been tolerant to Jews, who within a few generations had been completely assimilated to the mainstream society.

    By telling a stranger “hello” in the workplace or just be polite but you don’t befriend him based on the premise that he is a stranger is a behavior that some day will cost you your own country….lets remember that Greenlandic Norse after five centuries of survival disappeared and one of the reasons as historians claim was their unwillingness to approach and/or mix with the local Inuit people.

    • Well said George, well said!

      There is a lot of truth in your observation, and since you are a native Greek who has since assimilated well into the NYC culture, you are definitely talking from a position of direct knowledge.

      Thanks for this excellent comment!

  8. I would like to add that a majority of Americans have similar attitudes with the Europeans towards Latino people. Not all of the Americans but a major percentage. The fact that the newcomers are seen as a parasitical, unwelcomed flow of people who work low jobs actually strengthen the Hispanic community. This unseen divide gradually will end with Latinos taking over Anglo-Saxon(?) America. It is not necessarily someone’s fault, it is a number’s game. Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire disappeared in a similar way.

    • There are well known areas of the country (I’m talking to you, Arizona) who are particularly hostile to Mexican immigrants and are abusive toward them.

      But as for Latino populations in NYC? They are fully integrated into our society George. (I would add I’m sure that’s the case in Miami too, with its long standing Cuban community.)

      In fact, Spanish words are a regular part of our “American” vocabulary. This became so obvious to me when I went to visit Mexico, and I knew enough Spanish words to easily make myself understood for basics (agua fria, por favor!)

      As you know yourself, I believe Spanish has already overtaken English as the most spoken language in the United States.

  9. DUTCH WARMTH AND COLDNESS: I heard many people from the USA mentioning that they found the Dutch people cold. They are not alone. Ask any Mediterranean about the temperature of the people in the tulipland and they will answer without any hesitation “they are cold”
    Wait, Dutch are not the only ones who have been branded, as cold, indifferent, phlegmatic, uninterested, aloof and so on….The entire northern bunch has been labeled as cold people: Icelanders and Faeroese, Norwegians, Swedes and Finns, and Danes…of course we could not forget the Britons the Flemish, the Luxembourgians the Germans and their German-speaking Swiss-Austrian neighbors. The stereotype about the Germanordic people’s coldness has been accepted so widely that even the northerners themselves have capitulated to this perception.
    Before I comment I would like to remind that “we see others the way we are, not the way they are. We filter people based on our perceptions of what is hot and cold and our own expectations. So when people don’t respond the way we are accustomed to, they perceived as distant and unapproachable. Second, I would like to mention that weather conditions affect people’s disposition. Throughout millennia inhabitants of the Northern lands, with the constant rains, long nights and prolonged winters tend to become more reserved even when they interact with each other, without perceiving themselves as cold.
    Northern countries in Europe are the most prosperous in the world, with high social, health and environmental standards. They have peace since WWII, with advanced social economies, modern technological innovation, they are secular societies with high educational standards. Citizens are more law abiding and their governments less corrupt in comparison to other more “hot” countries. If collectively these countries have produced an advanced civilization perhaps they do something differently than the rest of the world. Cold Northerners are more sensitive towards the earth, the environment, the animals, they have higher social conscience and community mentality. They have resolved long time ago social issues as women’s or LGBT rights, birthright and childcare, at the moment in other parts of the civilized world many of these issues are still debated and poor people sleep on benches. Individually and collectively the northern societies seem more sensitive to social issues more progressive and with a high contribution to modern civilization. Often we regard, hot temperamento, drama, loud talking and animated discussions, easy talking and befriending as forms of warmth and familiarity. In reality it is a different understanding in communication. And wait if you think that the Germanordics are the champions of aloofness you are mistaken. They get the silver medal. The gold belongs to the Far Easterners, Japanese, Chinese, Koreans…they seem to us like poker-faced. In reality anyone we don’t understand seems “cold” but when we cross cultural demarcation lines and get in the mind of the people and civilizations and remove our own biases then they seem to us exactly as they are: people.

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