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2 posts from May 2012

05/30/2012

An authentic Dutch experience

     “What are some Dutch stereotypes?”

          “Marijuana?”

          The room erupts in a chorus of giggles and my professor walks over to the board to write POT in big, messy capital letters. One by one students chime in with more suggestions.

          “Windmills.”

          “Wooden shoes.”

          “Cheese?”

          “Tulips.”

          I’ve had three different lectures start this way. My professors and instructors, especially the ones teaching classes about Dutch culture or social policy, are determined to get us students to look beyond this image of Dutch society which has been constructed for us.

          This is ironic because our first day trip with CIEE was to Zaanse Schans, arguably the most stereotypically Dutch hamlet to exist in the Netherlands. All of the buildings there are green, dwarfed cottages with white trim. They sit on the edge of tiny meandering canals, some of them even have adorable side gardens with tiny hedge mazes. The town boasts such attractions as “Cheese Museum”! and “Chocolate Museum”! And then there are the windmills. Dozens of them, all running along the edge of the tiny village, all used for a number of different tasks, from sawing lumber to doing something with grain. I don’t know, I was too busy marveling at the view from on top of them to listen to our tour guide.

          Zaanse Schans was adorable and fun, don’t get me wrong. Along one of the canals we spotted some local townspeople setting up a table with free skates to borrow and use on the canals. They had also set up some snacks and a large speaker playing disco music. A few of the men were chopping up wood to add to a crackling fire they had started. Like I said, adorable.

          The entire time, however, I still felt like an outsider looking in. This town is an exception to the rule, definitely not representative of a traditional Dutch town. And I’m still seeking my true Dutch experience. I’m ready to stop being a tourist and start my life abroad. I demand authenticity! I demand immersion!

          I just didn’t expect for my demands to be filled so quickly. Thank you, universe!

          The next day I hopped on a tram to my Aunt Wendy’s house (actually I think she might be my second cousin or something, but rather than deal with the tricky nomenclature I just call any of my relatives here who are above 40 my aunt or uncle. Below 40 and they’re my cousin). We sipped on tea and ate sandwiches until she, my “cousin” Thalia, and I drove outside of the city to visit my uncle Steef at his house in Amstelveen. Wendy had procured a pair of skates in my size and together we all headed out into Steef’s backyard to put them to use.

          Steef lives in a more suburban area outside of Amsterdam so directly behind his house is a little river (frozen over now, of course). It was snowing pretty heavily by the time we made it outside, which was nice because that way the snow wasn’t as slick and there was less of a chance of me falling over.

          Which, for the record, I DID NOT FALL ONCE. This may shock some of you due to my tendency to fall frequently in any other circumstance, but nope. I stayed up. I mean, I’m pretty sure I looked like a drunken albatross while attempting to skate, but that’s fine. I didn’t fall.

          I have no idea how long or far we skated, but before I knew it we had ducked under two bridges and found ourselves gliding along the side of a pasture. Sheep were trudging headlong into the snow to my left and a family of swans joined us on our trek across the ice. Sometimes our path led us through a tiny maze composed of walls of reeds. We passed into a large clearing where some neighborhood kids were sweeping away snow to make a space for their ice hockey game. Following our skate Steef’s wife Trix prepared tea and chocolates for us. YUSS.

          The fun thing about being with my family is that they’re intent on teaching me as much as they can about living here. They take the time to share with me the history of Elfstedentocht or explain how commercials and television work here, even recommend what’s the best Dutch soap opera to watch. They help me with my pronunciations or teach me rudimentary phrases to use. The environment when I’m with them is exceptionally gezellig (eh? Eh? See what I did there? I’M LEARNING.)

          The highlight of my day, however, took place after we ate dinner at Wendy’s house. We had settled down on the couch with coffee when I noticed a book on the counter with the words “BABY BOEK” on it. When I inquired further Wendy came over and told me it was my great grandmother’s journal and that she had been intending to show it to me.

          We proceeded to gather around the book as she translated the entries for me. They started from back in the 1920s and for the most part those entries were pretty basic. Stephan and Hans are both healthy and happy babies, and so forth.

          The entries stopped for a long time until 1940. War had broken out in Europe, Rotterdam had been bombed until there was nothing left, and she didn’t know where any of her family were but hoped desperately they were all still alive. It struck me how hard it must have been sit there and worry and wonder with very little means of communicating with anyone outside of the city. She wrote that Hans (my grandfather) had wanted to become a pilot in Indonesia but the war was putting things on hold for him.

          Two years go by and there’s another entry. My grandfather has escaped the Nazi army by running through Belgium, France, and Spain, whereupon he had to steal a row boat from a Nazi camp and row himself to Portugal. Wow.

          The war ends and my grandfather never becomes a pilot. Instead he marries my grandmother and they move to America. They buy a house in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles and my father and his sister are born. There are a few old black and white pictures of them included. In all of them my dad is smiling broadly, sporting a shock of blond hair that’s very unfamiliar to me. All of the adults around him are dressed glamorously and they’re usually drinking wine.

          When I see everything all laid out in front of me it becomes apparent how connected I actually am with this place. Really none of this happened all too long ago. And seeing pictures of my dad in the 1950s, a time that to me feels like another world away, really brings it all up to speed.

          Earlier that day Steef had brought down his video camera and an old tape from 2004. He hooked it up to the TV and I watched as images of my grandmother and aunt appeared. Both of them have passed away now. There were a few clips of my aunt Ghislaine speaking candidly to Wendy and there was a weirdness that came from the conversation. It was totally natural, and it was like I was peeking into a real moment and not just watching people shout at a camera (which is something that always seems to happen when anyone pulls out a camera).

          We cut to—OH GOD—13 year old me. I forgot about that phase. The first thing I notice is my teeth; for those of you not fortunate enough to have been acquainted with me at this age, for my debut into middle school my orthodontist had given me a gap between my two front teeth the size of my pinkie finger. That, coupled with a pair of ill-fitting glasses and hair down to my waist. I was quite the charmer. Or maybe just a huge nerd.

          Steef filmed on as my sister and I talked into camera, exchanging quips and teasing each other or dancing around and being generally silly. It’s funny to see how we may look totally different now but our relationship is still very much the same. Or at least we’re still just as sassy as we used to be.

          The whole experience has made me think a lot of things, most of which I can’t put into words just quite yet. But it’s given me a lot to think about—about the passage of time, family, getting older, and just all of the things that end up getting packed into one life. I have no answers to any of my questions yet, but at least coming here has made me start thinking about these things.

          Cheers! Here is to finding authenticity and enjoying every goddamn day in this amazing city.

—-

And because this was a very serious post I’ll include some funny professorial quotes for your enjoyment.

“I hate that term, ‘losing your virginity’. It sounds so depressing! I like to call it the day I made my sexual debut!” – My Love Narratives Professor

“Oh yes, it’s like when I was 14 getting stoned in my friend’s living room. We loved The Doors and Bob Marley.” – My extremely conservative looking professor

“Be sure not to fall in the canals. I had a love affair with a man fifteen years ago who was peeing into the canal and he fell in and drowned. Anyway, where were we?” – My fabulous Love Narratives Professor again

“We also have aphrodisiacs to gear up ladies to play that crazy game we call love” – Smart Shop employee and guest lecturer

And pretty much anything else my Romantic Love Narratives professor says because she is a genius and speaks to my soul and I want to be her best friend.

 

Baby went to Amsterdam

Yep. That about sums it up. I’m not yet convinced that Amsterdam is a real place. I still feel a little bit like Harry Potter did when he first stepped foot in Diagon Alley. I imagine that as I continue to settle in and fully transition into an authentic Amsterdammer, these surreal feelings will subside. But for now, I’d be happy if they stayed forever.

I arrived a little more than a week ago at the hostel where I, along with a group of 60 other CIEE-Social Science students, would stay for a couple nights to begin orientation. The hostel was situated right along Vondelpark, supposedly one of the most beautiful parks, but I was unfortunately unable to assess the validity of that claim because of the frigid cold. If you’re reading this from the States and have picked up a newspaper in the last week or so, you’ve almost certainly heard that Europe is experiencing uncharacteristically low temperatures across the board. In Amsterdam, the temperature has not really gone above 30 (or zero degrees centigrade since I’ve become accustomed to using that in the Netherlands) and gets down to somewhere between 10 and 20 at night. Coming from Chicago, I’m used to even colder weather plus the ungodly phenomenon that is wind chill. I am not, however, used to experiencing this kind of weather for long durations as was necessary for many of our orientation activities. I felt like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining after one of our walking tours.

However, I cannot complain about the cold. In fact, I have nothing but the deepest gratitude for the impossibly picturesque city that the cold in combination with snow produced. Even more so, I’m forever grateful for the cold because it froze the canals enough for skating and frolicking for the first time in 20 years. We had heard rumors that this might happen but remained skeptical in fear of getting our hopes up. Then one day on the way to class, some friends and I happened upon this breathtaking view:

We stopped in our tracks and exploded with some combination of joy, disbelief, and bewilderment. Our collective chatter could best be summarized by the questions, “Are you kidding me, Amsterdam?” and “Is this real life?” We eventually contained ourselves and continued on our trek to class until we found another, even larger canal abound with skaters and hockey players. At that point, we decided we had an obligation to our own sanity to get on the ice ourselves. We slid around like foolish American tourists, took some pictures, and still managed to make it to class with time to spare. We still haven’t managed to procure ice skates, but I think we have a few days before the weather warms up and relieves the canals of their congealed state.

Before that once-in-a-lifetime experiences, I went through a week of orientation, which turned out to be much more helpful than bureaucratic (as I had expected it to be). CIEE and ISN (the international student network at the Universiteit van Amsterdam) kindly held our hands as we obtained all the essentials for life in Amsterdam. These essentials include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • A bicycle: In a city that has more bikes than it does people, one could not have the full experience without a two wheeled companion. Mine happens to be some shade of lime green, which I was cynical about at first, but it’s grown on me. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve only used it once so far and, holy hell, it was a terrifying experience. I accidentally turned into a fellow rider who simultaneously apologized and shoved me in the other direction. Thus, I decided to hold off on conquering the extensive bike riding system until the snow is gone in fear of falling and/or sliding into a moving tram.
  • Somewhere to live: I’m living in an apartment with a friend that I met early during orientation only a ten minute walk from Central Station (read: the center of the city). Other than a rather rancid smell that not even candles can cover in the bathroom, the apartment is really nice. My room is half the size of my roommate’s, but his is larger than any student housing room I’ve ever seen. Most Dutch students have to wait on a waiting list for years before they can live in the city center so I can’t complain for a second.
  • A Museumkaart: A card that was (I think) 45 euro and will get me into almost all of the museums in the city free of charge for a year. With all the craziness of settling in and meeting people, I haven’t had the chance to use it yet. I have friends coming to visit for the weekend tomorrow and plan to start taking full advantage of it then.
  • A Chipkaart: This is used for public transportation, which is fairly reasonably priced. Pretty much everything is bike-able in Amsterdam, but I’ve been grateful for the trams and subways in my time here so far before I brave the treacherous bike lanes.

To say I started class on Monday would be somewhat misleading. I’m enrolled in four classes while I’m here on Dutch Contemporary Social Policy, Dutch Identity, Theories of Gender and Sexuality, and Dutch Language. One of them does not start for a few weeks and two class sessions were canceled, so I only had two classes this week (a total of six hours). I thoroughly enjoyed the class that I did have, though. The Dutch do education a lot differently than we do in the US. After their equivalent of eighth grade, all students take an exam that, in combination with their grades, puts them into one of three levels of high school. Only those in the top level, which makes up about 18% of the students in every class, are eligible to go to university (with few exceptions). There are obviously some flaws with this system; perhaps premature determination of intelligence and academic ability being one of them. On the flip side, this keeps a lot of students who really are not built for university from  wasting time and money. Furthermore, the application process is much less competitive. If a student is in the top level, they basically have the choice of any of the public universities in the Netherlands, which are of extremely similar qualities. The classroom setting is also a lot more informal. I’ve been told that professors put themselves on the same level as students rather than putting themselves on a pedestal and preaching, and my experience so far has proved this to be true. Needless to say, I’m very excited to experience learning in such a different way.

As most people are well aware, the Dutch are extremely unique in terms of their social policies. Yes, the sale of soft drugs is tolerated (but, interestingly enough, not actually legal) and you could make a trip to the Red Light District and hire a prostitute. However, these policies in no way characterize the Netherlands on the whole. I’m going to be learning a lot about the reasons for these social policies and their implications in my courses so I’ll hold off on going into detail about these matters until then, but given how adamant most Dutch people have been to be wary of the stereotypes, I thought it important to at least touch on here. Considering the small amount of the population that actually use drugs and hire prostitutes, I believe the unique tolerant, live-and-let-live attitude gives Amsterdam a progressive character that I think is more ahead of its time than it is decadent.

Time is already flying by more quickly than I’d care to think about. I’ve already met some incredible people whose presence in my life I know will extend beyond our short time here. I’ve already seen some things I never thought I’d see and had some experiences I never thought I’d have. While I never doubted the validity of the chichéd “STUDY ABROAD WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE” sentiment, I’m thrilled to finally have a taste of objective proof. In the same vein, I’m already confident that I could not have picked a better place experience that change.

I’ll post again soon about some of my favorite places I’ve visited so far, but for now, I’ll end with some Dutch vocab (the basics because my Dutch Language class doesn’t start for two weeks):

  • dank je/u (donk ya/oo): thank you informal/formal
  • bedankt (be-donkt): thanks
  • alstublieft (alsh-tu-bleeft): please, also really fun to say
  • gracht (throaty g sound-ra-throaty ch sound-t): small canal like in Amsterdam (there are other words to describe larger canals but I can’t remember them now)
  • plein (pl-eye-n): square, at the end of a lot of neighborhood names such as Rembrandtplein and Leidseplein
  • kroket (crow-ket): delicious fried cheese and miscellaneous meat (really though, they typically can’t even tell you what’s in there), called bitterballen in ball form, sold at McDonald’s here
  • Abert Heijn (al-bert-h-eye-n): most common grocery store, on every corner, delicious fresh bread/cheese/etc.
  • Blokker (block-er): somewhere between a Walgreens and a Target
  • gezellig (throaty g sound-sell-ic-throaty g sound): no direct translation but used to describe all things that are pleasant, can mean fun, beautiful, gregarious, lively, happy, cheerful, comfortable, inviting (I can only assume this word was made up so that Amsterdam could be described in one word)

Some iPhone pictures (my real camera decided to stop working en route from London to Amsterdam so my dreams of  becoming a skilled amateur photographer in Europe have been put on hold for now):

A hidden, quiet sanctuary in the middle of the city shown to us by one of our program leaders

Canal-side sunset

Leidseplein, the brightest part of Amsterdam that I’ve seen, near Vondelpark hostel

Typical directions while in Amsterdam, almost as difficult to navigate as they are to read, but not quite

Snowy bikes, this photo could have been taken on any street in the city

Swans in the frozen canal, clearly impervious to cold

The canal upon which we frolicked

ON THE CANAL with friends Katherine and Sarah (stolen from Katherine’s lovely blog which has more photos!)

Common sentiment in Amsterdam

Amsterdam- Peter Björn and John (the namesake of my blog post title)