“What are some Dutch stereotypes?”
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.
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.