Cultural observations after living in Amsterdam
My experience in Amsterdam was amazing, educational, frustrating, active, disappointing, eye-opening, cultural, beautiful and real.
When I arrived with the mission to learn Dutch, my priority was always to get to know the Dutch people. Doing so through their own language, and focusing on spending time with them despite the vast numbers of other foreigners in the city has made my experience so much richer, while also creating new challenges in simply being able to socialise with any consistency.
After spending two months there, I can't say that I had as much fun as other foreigners with ample party opportunities would have, but I feel like I had a unique experience and managed to understand Dutch residents of Amsterdam to a deeper level than many passing tourists would.
Famous Dutch Tolerance
I was told that 30% of Amsterdam is foreigners; it's one of the strongest expat communities I've ever seen in almost a decade on the road. So much so that you can (and people do) live in the city for years, and learn no Dutch and even make no Dutch friends.
The vast majority of other foreigners there were content in their English speaking “bubble” and had created full lives for themselves within that. And the Dutch have no problem whatsoever with it. In fact, they almost encourage it!
The Dutch are famous for how tolerant they are. A large part of their history involves welcoming foreigners to the country and allowing them to continue living lives as they chose (in old times this being freedom in religion, and nowadays in cultural background, sexual orientation etc.)
Such values surely inspired those who aspired for similar things in the new world as the first pilgrims for America sailed from Leiden, not far from Amsterdam, towards what is now New York, which was appropriately called New Amsterdam first for quite some time.
Even to this day I find that the Dutch sense of samenleving (community / living together) has great respect for an individual's freedom to live life as he or she chooses; much more so than in other countries, including those that claim to be the freest in the world.
Letting people be
But there is one consequence of this open mindedness; to allow people to do as they please, sometimes you should leave them to it. And this other side of the respect coin seems to create a big divide between the Dutch and the foreigners in the city. Huge communities of foreigners exist in the city, and they almost never interact with the Dutch beyond necessities.
To give people total freedom, it seems like you have to take away any encouragement to integrate. Throughout Dutch history there was no pressure on foreigners to learn Dutch, both officially (to live there), and in social interactions.
This means that many Dutch people have no problem speaking to you in English. Some foreigners misinterpret this as it meaning that they won't speak to you in Dutch, not realising that it's entirely their own fault and that if you try a few things you can encourage them to help you learn their language.
This means that there is a vicious circle of the strong tendency of foreigners to stick together and never making many local friends simply propagating itself. There is a great balance in Amsterdam and it's working so people keep it up.
The Dutch are used to not interacting so much with foreigners, and the foreigners are used to not interacting with them. So when they come together, they may not get any further than superficial pleasantries.
Living apart together
But it goes deeper than that.
Dutch people are incredibly friendly and would always ask me with genuine curiosity what I was doing in the Netherlands. They gave me the time and patience to help me with their language, never switching to English when they saw how invested I was in speaking to them, despite my poor level at the start, and asked me many interesting and intelligent questions.
And then, unfortunately, most of the time it would end there. They would look at their agenda (diary) and see that they had no time if I requested to meet up that week again.
As well as this, after showing me respect and hearing that I would be leaving soon, it just seemed impractical to try to create a deeper relationship. Why would you when the person is just passing through?
When you think about this, I suppose it makes sense. It's hardly something to criticise, but it was terribly frustrating for me of course. Someone suggested to me before I came that the Dutch were not so friendly, and I disagree. They are just more practical than other cultures.
Very social in a different way
While it has serious disadvantages for me personally as a passer-through, I can see how this can be a smart choice: you have a select number of friends who you hold very dearly and who you meet frequently and have very deep relationships with. I personally don't relate to a way of life that excludes being open to making new friends so easily, but it's not my place to judge others.
While I can complain about this, and whine about the Dutch being “closed off”, I don't tend to travel to new countries to investigate reasons to complain about why they aren't like other ones (well, almost never…) I prefer to try to see the positive in everything, and I can indeed see that in the Dutch.
Despite difficulty in making friends with them, I'd actually argue that they Dutch are more social than most of us. And this is encouraged from an early age.
One thing I found quite strange, for example, was that while my flatmate left the door on the street open so he could move things in and out, some children from the neighbourhood I had never seen before ran in, ran up the stairs, barged into my room and demanded I give them some sweets. Amazingly, this happened twice!
A fear of strangers just isn't Dutch. They are encouraged to get out of the house and do things as much as possible. As a result of this, they are generally way more at ease in social situations than other cultures and are great at making conversations in a relaxed manner.
They are so social in fact, that they need to organise themselves to make sure they can fit everyone in to their active weeks.
And this leads to the agendas issue that drove me so crazy. I suppose the rest of us are “less” social, so we have room to be spontaneous and meet up with someone immediately, but the Dutch (at least those I met) would have social events, dinners, coffees, walks, clubs, excursions, sport, family events, nights out and everything else after work programmed in advance. When you have so much to do, you live life to the fullest!
This is great and it's something that I feel I will take a little of with me in future, now that I had finally embraced the agenda lifestyle out of necessity to socialise on their level. I did indeed eventually (grudgingly) arrange to meet people several weeks in advance so that we could hang out.
There's a certain advantage to being organised in this way: it forces you to be more social and interact more than most of us in the western world do with TV nights in, hours wasting time online, and lack of coordination with those you want to see properly.
Although I also have a great love for serendipity and spontaneity, so I'll always try to leave my immediate calendar open now that I'll be living among other cultures again 😉
Once you are with them: honest and generous people
It was quite a struggle to have them squeeze me into these agendas; I even went as far as coming up with unique ideas to get some Dutch practice time like going on 25 speed dates. In case you are wondering how it turned out; I eventually got 3 “ja”s, and after a lot of e-mail exchanges, one of them finally agreed to have our second date three weeks from then. Considering the date she proposed was the day after I left Amsterdam, when I was already over 5,000 miles away, I never did get to discover that other type of deep relationship with a Dutch person…
But once I stopped fighting the very idea of agendas and organising far in advance and learned to go with the flow and use a calendar app more frequently on my smartphone, I did get into their agendas. I had to work hard to convince them that I was worth getting to know, but I was successful and through this, I can now call several Dutch people good friends of mine.
They were always straight and honest with me. This stood out quite a lot! While the lack of spontaneity killed my social life a bit, the fact that they were always true to their word and invited me out if they said they would and talked to me with a no-bullshit frankness that I don't get from oversensitive other cultures, meant that I had a greater chance to build on the few relationships I did start having with locals.
Speaking the language definitely enriched my experience there. It showed them that (despite my dash through the country so quickly) I was serious about getting to know them, and if I made that investment in them, then perhaps it was worth giving me the benefit of the doubt and investing in finding out more about me too.
In many places people casually say that we should meet some time; numbers are exchanged, but it's not always serious. With the Dutch, when someone was my friend, they really were one. It's a sort of extreme where superficial and deep friendships are in much greater contrast to most places I've lived in.
So I did finally make some good friends, several of which I was sad to have to say goodbye to.
But I'll take what I learned from this experience with me as I move on to other cultures. When I think back on Amsterdam, yes, I'll remember the beautiful canals, I'll miss bikes as being the main means of transport quite a lot, I'll recall the incredible balance they achieved as a melting pot of many cultures, but most of all I'll think about those couple of friends I've made and be very glad that I tried so hard over several weeks to understand the culture so that I could nurture these friendships.
Thanks Amsterdam. It was only two months, but like in the main photo of the post I feel a little part of me can now say I amsterdam.