A Summer in Amsterdam
As I settle back into life in Vancouver once again, I am also reflecting on the summer I’ve had. For those of you who are wondering, I won’t keep you in suspense: I eventually did reach what I call the fourth and final phase of adjustment to living in another country and culture.
It happened on my last Saturday in Amsterdam. Taking advantage of the gloriously warm, sunny weather, I was enjoying a long walk through the city’s centre. My mind was preoccupied with everything I had to do before leaving Amsterdam (a not insubstantial list). At the same time, I was feeling slightly sentimental about the sights and sounds around me, knowing it might be a long time before I would once again walk along this canal or across that bridge or hear the ding of a tram.
As I made my way past a tour group outside the Oude Kerk that was blocking my way, the guide’s voice caught my attention. She was holding up a laminated map of the Netherlands and explaining how much of the country lies below sea level.
And that was the moment when it hit me: I was actually going to miss the place. This overrun-with-tourists, charming-to-the-point-of-kitschy, historical-but-oh-so-modern city had completely captured my heart in a way I did not expect it to. And in acknowledging that, I knew I was — finally — feeling completely at home in a city that was not my home.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that I came to this realization on the same day I learned the mystery of Amsterdam’s traffic rules. I’d been puzzling over them all summer long.
There are no yield or stop signs in the centre of Amsterdam and no cyclist slows down — ever — at intersections. And so, within a day or two or my arrival in Amsterdam, I had learned that the bike is king. Pedestrians may walk on the road (indeed you often have to because your path is blocked by the many bikes parked haphazardly on the sidewalks), but as you walk, you always, always keep an ear tuned for the ding-ding of a bicycle bell — which is not a toy in Amsterdam. If you don’t immediately jump out of the way, the inevitable “pas op!” (watch out!) is hollered by the cyclist bearing down on you. At intersections, even when you have the green light, you make like an owl and spin your head 360 degrees to check for bikes. Because the bikes are everywhere.
All of which makes walking in the centre of Amsterdam rather stressful. You can’t not pay attention.
But even knowing all that, I could not figure out how the cyclists did not ride into each other. Finally, on my last weekend in Amsterdam, the mystery was revealed to me.
Yield to the right.
Suddenly everything fell into place. So, so simple. But then, the Dutch are masters at simple.
Some other, not insignificant, observations from my summer in Amsterdam:
- There are two Amsterdams: one for the tourists and one for the Amsterdammers. You’ll have a much better time if you try to avoid the first as much as possible.
- The Dutch know how to have an awful lot of fun with minimal fuss. There’s an important lesson here: keep it simple. (See above.)
- Travelling by train is by far the most civilized way to get around.
- There is far too much water in the Netherlands, but the Dutch — out of necessity — have been so creative at finding ways to live with it, beside it, and on it, they hardly seem to notice.
- Amsterdam is a twenty-first century city in a sixteenth-century setting and the only reason that is possible is because, unlike Canadians, the Dutch aren’t compelled to pull down any building older than, oh, 50 years.
I also learned not to bat an eye at the massive amounts of alcohol consumed in the streets during festivals such as Amsterdam Pride or the Prinsengracht Concert, at male cleaners in women’s public bathrooms while in use by the women, or at people setting a table on their front stoep, complete with cloth napkins and long-stemmed wine glasses, to enjoy their dinner on a warm summer’s evening.
One lesson I wrestled with all summer long was coming to an understanding of the Dutch notion of tolerance, which they call gedogen. I finally clued in that gedogen is nowhere close to Canada’s notion of tolerance. (We like to define it as acceptance of or openness to diversity.) In the Netherlands, something might be illegal (say, smoking weed), but if it doesn’t bother anyone, the law is not enforced. That’s gedogen. It has nothing to do with acceptance; rather, it is all about pragmatism, which is a personality trait all Dutch people possess. (And pragmatism, I should think, is fundamental to living easily and comfortably in one of the most densely populated countries in the world.)
My most important lesson of my Amsterdam summer came to me from the girl in the phone shop, however. I had popped in to find out why my mobile phone had stopped receiving data, and she went totally out of her way to walk me to the grocery store down the street where she said I could buy a new SIM card for a few euros less than what she was selling them for. To make conversation as we walked back to the phone shop, I asked whether she gets a lot of dumb questions from tourists.
“Well, yes,” she said in that way the Dutch have of not mincing their words. “But I always am happy to help because when I am somewhere on holiday (she pronounced it hol-LEE-day), I always hope that someone will help me.”
Gulp. I realized I could do far better in being a kinder host to the tourists who overwhelm my Vancouver neighbourhood every summer.
It would be a shame if I spent a summer in another country and did not come home a little poorer and a little wiser. So I am happy to say that was not the case for me this summer. And as I looked through my collection of photos, trying to decide which one to include with this post, a wave of homesickness for Amsterdam came over me.
It was the best feeling.