When you grow up in America thinking anything is possible and then move to Holland, you need to brace yourself. You will hear the phrase “not possible” more than once, more than twice, in fact, many many more times, and it could very possibly send you over the edge. Americans do not say “not possible.” They do not think “not possible.” They do not know “not possible.”
I am now at the 8 month mark living here as an expat. And as much as I love living in this culturally rich and beautiful Dutch city full of tolerant, happy, friendly folk, there are times when I really miss America. You could say the honeymoon is over.
Along with missing the obvious like my family and friends, I miss things like the smell of the ocean, banks that open from 8 am and actually have money in them, Target and its miles of checkouts and a cashier who bags your purchases for you, my little red convertible bug, especially on those rare gorgeous days here in March, and watching the Bruins play.
Currently, what I seem to miss most is the American motto bred into every one growing up in the land of the free. I miss that “can do” attitude. That flexible, “happy to help,” “let me check on that for you,” or even “we cannot offer you that, but maybe you would like this?” response. That does not happen here. Even with the language barrier. Cause Ik spreek Nederlands nu beter dan toen ik hier woonde voorheen.
The Dutch are not especially demonstrative with their feelings, or responses. You could go out on a limb and say they’re not particularly enthusiastic when it comes to customer service. I knew this 20 years ago. You’d think I’d be over it by now. Well, I’m not.
For me, and many expats I know, when you first arrive you go through this frustration phase of “settling in” – maneuvering through the Dutch bureaucracy even with the help of the amazing EXPAT Center. After you’ve set up your new house, obtained your BSN number, your bank account, your PIN on your bank card (because without that – you can’t do anything but play tourist) you let small grievances, small frustrations and the “not possible” responses roll off your back. You stop and smell the tulips, you buy your bicycle and make your way through the mounds of other bikers on the perfectly laid out bike paths, you order cappuccinos outside in the sun even when it’s cold out, you marvel at the splendor of living in such an amazing European city. Really, you are overcome with relief and happiness you’ve survived the move and “settling in” phase. And then, months later, after you’ve had your fill of cappuccinos and eaten way too many bitterballen, or had your bike stolen, you revert back to the frustration phase. Will there be a fourth stage of resolve?
The resolve stage can’t come soon enough for me. I’m on my second time around. More and more when I ask for something that seems really easy and normal and …..possible, and am told “No, that’s not possible” something inside me goes a little nuts. That competitive “can do” American in me comes out. I find myself pushing back on the “not possible” by asking “Is it really not possible, or are you just unwilling to do it?” Is it really not possible because it’s possible at the store across the street.” And my favorite is “Oh, it’s possible, we know it’s actually possible, can we be a bit more flexible?” This of course, is met with a blank stare.
I love the Dutch culture, don’t get me wrong. It’s the American in me that doesn’t always see eye to eye. I still get a little annoyed when service is slow – anywhere. I still expect that the customer is always right. I somehow seem to think that living in a first world country means “make it happen.” And that everyone around me feels the same. Someone slap me! I am not living in America!
Perhaps once I get my American competitive nature intact and realize I cannot turn Holland into America, I will become Dutch. And then I will be told our expat assignment is over and we need to move back home. Unfortunately, I think that is when the resolve will set in.