Last week I read an article on the Huffington Post entitled "10 Things Americans Can Learn from Amsterdammers" by Erin Farber, travel writer. In a nutshell, her list consisted of:
1. Don't spend more than you have. (Credit cards are basically non-existent here.)
2. Travel to places where no one speaks your language. (Just over 25 million people speak Dutch worldwide, compared to 1.5 billion who speak English. Not mastering at least one foreign language isn't really an option for Dutchies, who generally start learning English between the ages of 10 and 12.)
3. Realize less choice is often more. (Dutch grocery stores are roughly 1/14th the size of their American counterparts).
4. Always offer guests coffee or tea.
5. Eat fried food. (In moderation).
6. Integrate exercise into your everyday routine. (Bike everywhere).
7. Take time for lunch, even if it's just 20 minutes.
8. Appreciate the little luxuries in life.
9. Tell it like it is (politely). (The Dutch are ... stereotypically ... rather blunt. At least, by American standards. They don't beat around the bush or sugarcoat criticisms the way we tend to).
10. Ice skate every chance you get. (Whenever it's cold enough for the country's canals to freeze, the whole of the Netherlands gets all up in a tizzy about whether an 11 city skating course called the Elfstedentocht, will take place. It hasn't happened since 1997 and has only happened a total of 15 times since its inception in 1909, but that doesn't stop one from hoping ...)
I recognize all the items on this list as being true, to some degree, but the most important thing that I personally have learned from living in the Netherlands didn't even make the list. Do you want to know what it is?
OK, I hope so, because I'm going to tell you in an upcoming series of posts. Starting now.
Actually, I spoke about this last summer at a Rotary dinner in 's Hertogenbosch. A 10-minute speech, all in Dutch ... quite the test for my nerves. But I did survive to tell about it and, to translate it into English (something I told my parents I'd do months ago). So, here goes ...
First, some context. As some of you know, I met my Dutch husband very coincidentally in 2004. At the time, I was living in New York, studying for my MFA in Studio Art at New York University. I had a horrid, horrid critique one raw November morning and decided, while standing on the corner of 59th and 2nd (waiting for a walk signal just long enough to become the target of a defecating pigeon), that I needed to GET OUT of New York as fast as possible. In what was arguably the most spontaneous act of my life, I convinced one of my best girlfriends to fly with me to Expedia's deal-of-the-month destination (Houston, TX). I'd never been there before. I figured the weather would be warmer, the scenery different. And, an extra bonus was that my football team, the New England Patriots, were playing the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium during our stay. I'd never seen them play in nearby Foxboro, MA, but I figured they needed fans on the road too ...
Oh yes, you didn't know that I was a rabid football fan? More on that another time ...
Airplane (and football) tickets were purchased before I'd really thought this through. When we arrived, we realized we had no plan, no idea what we were going to do for four days in Houston. But, we started asking around for ideas, and kept asking around until - you guessed it - we happened upon a group of Dutch people: exported, expatriated employees at Shell and Heerema Marine Contractors, 2 big Dutch companies with a sizable presence in the Gulf of Mexico. This friendly-looking group was having some drinks at the Mercury Bar (seems like every city has a bar by this name) on a (what turned out to be not-so-) typical Friday night.
Robert, my future husband, offended me immediately (see #9 on Erin Farber's list) and I was ready to leave the Mercury Bar. But, somehow, he wrangled his way into being our tour guide that weekend, showing us what there was to see of Houston - the Rothko Chapel, jazz bars, driving ranges, malls, movie theaters - and even driving us to and picking us up from Reliant Stadium (where the Pats won in overtime). A few weeks later he came to visit me in New York, and for the year that followed we traveled back and forth between the US and Europe, in essence going on our honeymoon before we got married instead of after (as most normal people do). In 2005 he moved to New York. We lived there together for 2.5 years before relocating to Amsterdam in February of 2007.
Robert didn't have to work too hard to convince me that we should come and live here. He wanted to work for his family business, which was and is very much tied to this area. As an artist, I felt I could live and work anywhere. Plus, I'd lived in New York for 7 years. I was tired of the grind. I didn't want to spend a total of 1.5 hours underground on the Subway everyday, just to get to and from my work. I wanted to commute in the fresh air of Amsterdam (ha!), on my bike.
This, even though my first biking experience in Amsterdam ended (after about 90 seconds) in a rather loud and embarrassing clanging and scraping of metal on cobblestone. I hadn't thought much of it at first, but I was on a bike with pedal brakes (which were totally new to me at the time) and no helmet (they are reserved for toddlers here). As soon as cars started passing me at a distance of no more than 6 inches, I heard one of my Dad's favorite mantras (which he'd employed anytime I'd refused to wear a bike helmet as a child) echoing between my ears: "Ellie, do you want to be pretty and dead ... or ugly and alive?" Years later, as a 26-year-old cycling down the Brouwersgracht, I recognized the wisdom of his words (and my desire to live, no matter the cost!) and decided I needed to eject myself from this biking situation immediately. Since I didn't know how to brake, the logical solution was of course to jump from the bike in the middle of a busy intersection. Great entertainment for all the diners sitting out on the nearby terraces. No harm done though, except to my ego. Robert doubled me on the back of his bike for the rest of our ride to the Rijksmuseum, while I cursed at myself and felt certain he'd break up with me after seeing this pathetic display of (non)-athleticism...
Anyway, he didn't, and we later lived in Amsterdam from February 2007 until November 2008, in order to make the transition from American/big city life to Dutch/suburban life a little less shocking.
It was in Amsterdam that we got married. It was in Amsterdam that our first child, Ruby, was born.
Now you want to know what struck me immediately about my new European life? You want to know what I have learned from the Dutch? Living here has helped me recover a sense of safety and security.
This was a feeling I suppose I lost the moment looked up at the television screen in my Upper East Side gym on the morning of September 11, 2001, and saw the first footage of the planes hitting the Twin Towers. I didn't lose any loved ones in the attacks, but I did lose, as I think all Americans did that day, a sense of security, and (for my generation) a sense of innocence. That morning I walked about 9 miles from that Upper East Side gym (which was in my office building) to my apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, all the while watching copy paper with singed edges rain out of the sky. The next day, Wednesday, my roommates and I alternated between sitting in our living room, watching the coverage on CNN, and sitting on our roof, watching the plume of smoke still rising above lower Manhattan, billowing up into the sky and catching the winds heading toward us over the East River.
On Thursday, to my utter shock, it was back to work. Offices were open again. But my heart got stuck in my throat as my D/Q train crossed the Manhattan Bridge. It seemed the perfect moment for that lurking terrorist - the one in the corner with his hat down over his eyes - to detonate his bomb. And a few months later, American soldiers appeared in the Union Square 4/5/6 station with machine guns. The media adjusted the alert levels from red to orange, and back to red again. I made plans with my parents about where I would go, how I would communicate if there was another attack.
On the one hand, going about life as usual was the best therapy there was. Every day that passed uneventfully was a reason to feel safe again, wasn't it? But, for me at least, that feeling of safety was one I never reclaimed in the subsequent years that I lived in New York.
It was when I arrived in Amsterdam (by comparison a village of only 700,000 inhabitants) that I suddenly felt the weight of that constant fear was lifted. But it was more than just going from a city that had once been targeted by terrorists to a city that was much less likely to be.
Over the next few weeks, in a series of posts, I want to try to describe what I’ve perceived to be the major difference in mentality between the Americans and the Dutch (without making too many dangerous generalizations). It’s just that, when I lived in America, you might have called me a bit fearful. Now that I live in the Netherlands, I am gradually becoming more faithful. I don’t mean that in the religious sense. I just mean that in my American life, I worried about things a lot more – from terrorist attacks to epidemics of disease to deadly bacteria to whatever was getting the media its best ratings … In my European life, I feel comfortable, cared for, and I have increasing faith in a positive outcome to any given situation.
Again, I don’t want to make generalizations about entire populations of people, so I will just attempt to tell you about some of my personal observations and experiences over the past 5 years. Check back if you are curious to know more about how these themes of fearfulness vs. faithfulness have applied themselves to the major events in my life since I have lived here, including pregnancy/childbirth and parenting.