This post has been written for weeks but with limited internet to post it. Time seems to have done that funny thing where it flies by in the wink of an eye, and yet I feel like we just arrived. There is no way to recount (or want to hear) all that has happened already: I’ve seen the country-side and the city, been to the Van Gogh and plenty of other tourist attractions, contemplated jumping in a canal, the list goes on. Instead, I want to enlighten you all with some of the lessons I have already learned in my short time.
1. Having the last name VanDeusen doesn’t make you seem Dutch. Especially when you spell it and pronounce it incorrectly. Although maybe, just maybe, some of my Dutch blood is coming out as I try to learn this language. These past few weeks are definitely the most fun I have ever had learning a language because it is immediately applicable. Occasionally I can order properly in a restaurant. If I’m lucky I can check out of a grocery store without giving myself away. And when I go home, I can practice by asking my host mom how her day was and let her know that I’ll set the table.
2. Home cooked meals (made by someone else) every night is a surprisingly nice change of pace. My host mom, Rita, is a wonderful cook and remarkable woman. We have only had one “typical” Dutch meal, which is basically mashed potatoes with carrots mashed in to it. Her ability to get delicious, healthy, warm meals on the table every night after a long day of work continues to amaze me. (Grown up awareness give me so much more respect for women’s “third shift.” Thanks for all the great food growing up, Mom!) My roommate Sloane and I spent our last night before taking off for Morocco learning to cook Thai food from Rita. Nothing says home to me more than cooking a meal together. The more time we spend together, the more we feel comfortable sharing our life stories and vulnerabilities with each other, the more I feel like I really do have a family here in Amsterdam.
3. When every Dutch person thinks you’re crazy for wanting to do something, it’s probably a bad idea. I had the opportunity to go explore a “volkstuin” (roughly translated in to “people’s garden”) in Harlem, a city to the south west of Amsterdam. My Academic Director, Yvette, lives there and some people to introduce me to. Goolge maps gave me the option of a multiple tram, hour long journey OR an hour long bike ride. No question, right? Yvette told me I should take the trams. Rita advised the wind would be too strong. So naturally, I planned to bike. After saving all my directions, taking all good preparation steps of following the canal to a bridge to a park and then some guess work (since no one knows street names, and the ones that are posted all sound and look the same anyways), I set off in to the cold morning. I made it halfway without a glitch. The wind was strong out in the open country side, but the beauty made it bearable. Then I had to cross the highway. It took me a good half hour to figure out how to get from where I was to the side with my destined park. Once I finally made it to the park a nice Dutch couple informed me the wind would be too strong to bike through it, and sent me back to the other side of the highway…where I had just so tirelessly tried to come from. At this point I had ignored enough native’s suggestions that I figured it was time to do as I was told. But now, my directions were a moot point. Lesson 3.5 – knowing how to say “can you help please?” is the most important phrase in my survival Dutch tool kit. I got some responses entirely in Dutch, who’s cognates coupled with hand motions gave me enough of an idea on what to do. Eventually, I got to bike with a kind stranger for 10 minutes who pointed me the remainder of the way to my destination. I made it and the volkstuin was fascinating: 140 individual 3002yd garden plots with a central canteen house for community gatherings. The dynamic interaction of the few gardeners there (mostly men) encouraged a gendered lens for my future research project. After the long trip, Yvette invited me to stay for dinner. I got to learn to cook a classic Moroccan dish from her husband Karim, who also thought I was crazy. Maybe my next best Dutch phrase should just be “Ik ben gek” as a way to explain all my absurd adventures.
4. Biking is more than a good form of exercise or the quickest way around town. It is a way of life. Apparently one of the reasons I was so crazy for biking to Harlem was because of my bike. It is a typical second hand, rusting, back-peddle break Dutch bike, with some personalized, spray painted, accent turquoise and yellow color. I am in love with her. When I am riding my bike I feel limitless freedom. When biking through parks my brain escapes its daily confines and I feel like I am floating above the ground. In the city I pass cars, keep up with trams, ring my bell at oblivions pedestrians, and feel invincible. My bike just might be the hardest part of Amsterdam to leave.
5. The rest of their way of life can be summed up in two words: direct and tolerant. If you didn’t know better, you’d think they were being rude. But when you think about it, really they’re just telling the unfiltered truth. If someone doesn’t agree with you, you know. Except if it has to do with diversity in gender, sexuality, race, class….you get the picture. Then you can be as different as you want without a word of concern, so long as you keep it private. There is indeed a difference between tolerance and acceptance. More on this in a future post about sex and sexuality in this country.
6. The Dutch are the tallest people in the world, but user the smallest appliances. They also don’t drink water…unless it’s warm and flavored (ie tea)
7. Food from a wall tastes unfortunately delicious. FEBO is a fast food chain where you can get warm fried food from a vending machine in the wall. Worse than how good such food tasted, is that multiple Dutch people have told me they thought it was an American concept. Apparently everything unhealthy is American.
8. Queer theory makes no more sense in the Netherlands, but it is more interesting to learn about. Queer can mean what you want it to mean. Some see it as an umbrella term for the LGBTQQIAA alphabet soup of sexuality identities, but then we’re only identifying sexuality diversity without acknowledging gender differences. Others use it as a way to get away from labels… by choosing to label themselves as queer. I choose to see the word queer as a verb. “To queer” something, anything, critiques the whole game of defining identity. Now the theory part. I have never liked theory before now. We are currently comparing Foucault’s theory on power to Judith Butler’s identity politics. As far as I have gathered, power is not centralized, and therefore the best way to overcome oppressive power is by connecting different discourses on inequality. Speaking out against one inequality, by virtue of being oppressed in a different way, confuses those in power (and for that matter everyone talking about it) so much that you debunk repression. Mostly I’m just getting excited that Judith Butler is coming to Amsterdam.
9. There is a museum for just about everything. Including cats. And purses. I haven’t been to either of those yet, but I’ll keep you posted on how those turn out. What I have been to, though, have been just as fascinating. Van Gogh and Rembrandt are famous for a reason. I learned so much of Van Gogh’s life story and progression of painting styles. Rembrandt made me like portraits again. Each face had a secret to tell; each painting illustrated hundreds of hidden stories. I’ve also learned all about Dutch colonialism at the Tropenmuseum and explored how kids learn about sex (among other biology related things) at the science museum.
10. People are always fascinating to watch. Mothers bike around the city with 2 kids on the back of their bike, groceries in the front, and a dog trailing along the side. Toddlers speaking in Dutch are immediately adorable, and then remind me that I will never reach their proficiency level. Smiling at strangers on the street and asking store clerks how they’re doing really confuses them. The other Americans on my program make me realize we will never be able to pass for anything but Americans.More to come on Amsterdam eventually, but the next update will be on Morocco!