Is it Really Not Possible?

 

15036209_939635789513820_5775895146617165796_n.jpgWhen 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.

Happy Little Dutchies

In my next life, I’m coming back as a Dutch kid, cause boy, do they have it made. A recent UNICEF report noted Dutch children are the happiest in the world. And it’s no wonder. Dutch kids play at school until age 6, aren’t assigned any homework, eat chocolate sprinkles on bread for breakfast and can play in as much mud and dirt as their little Dutch hearts’ desire. Basically, they have a stress-free childhood full of fun and chocolate.

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Some may ask how a country with a majority of grey rainy days and occasional strong bouts of wind and hail to boot can produce the happiest kids. Culture definitely plays a role as to why the little Dutchies are so happy. Holland’s progressive social system is   egalitarian, or liberal, for a better term. Its 16 million inhabitants are entitled to universal health care provided by highly regulated private providers and contribute a very small portion of their income to receive it. Sex ed is delivered in middle school with blunt uninhibitedness but without guilt from religious infringements or otherwise, and the accepted assumption is that older teens will most likely have sex. Accessible and affordable birth control is provided openly and tolerantly. There’s no teen pregnancy crisis, a very low abortion rate and an extremely healthy attitude about sex. I’ll never forget my Dutch friend telling me she needed a bigger bed for her teenage son who’d soon have his girlfriend sleeping over. GULP… And let’s not forget that prostitution is legal (and regulated) and so is smoking weed. With such a tolerant, open, free society that recently rejected a right-wing populist to lead their government, it’s no wonder Dutch kids here are super happy.

Freedoms abound in the low lands and that doesn’t only apply to adults. Dutch parents raise their kids with very few boundaries. They let their kids go – EVERYWHERE, whether climbing over your feet under your table at a restaurant, around you in the dry cleaner or jumping up and down repeatedly on the park bench next to you, they are free to play. Anywhere. No pushing manners, no shushing – scream as loud as you want! What does it matter you’re on a plane with 500 other passengers trying to sleep? Go ahead and chase your little brother – run like savages screaming and laughing round and round strangers waiting at the baggage claim at Schipol. That’s right, drive your Big Wheel right into the back of unsuspecting pedestrians on the sidewalk, and then get upset when they are blocking your raceway. You see, Dutch parents do not interfere with their child’s activity, even if it may be disturbing to some viewers.

If I were a cultural anthropologist I would surely be studying the parental styles of the Dutch. As I observe Dutch parents standing quietly and patiently – maybe observing, maybe lost in their own thoughts, while their kids are being kids all over unwitting strangers receiving the onslaught of their child’s happiness, I wonder, how can they not intervene? Is it too much interference to remind that very happy little Dutchie who is throwing snow at everyone who passes by, that it might not be a good idea to anger strangers getting hit with the snow they’re throwing? I know it doesn’t snow often here, but, OK. Do they simply not know – or care – where their happy curious four year old is in a restaurant as he gains some really strong antibodies while crawling all over the floor – and my feet – under my table? I do love a good foot rub, but I’d like to take my shoes off first.

As an American mom who gave birth here without drugs (even though I begged for them – yeah, did I mention the Dutch are also the most resilient in the world?) and started raising my son here and then in Copenhagen for his first three years, I was a mom who interfered. I rerouted my kid if he was infringing on other people’s personal space. I didn’t let him climb on strangers, throw snow – or anything – at other kids or adults, or scream for hours on a plane while wearing my own soundproof Beats by Dr. Dre. He wasn’t allowed to run around like a banshee unattended anywhere. Perhaps it’s the American in me. Perhaps I worried what other parents would think if my child wasn’t perfectly behaved. Perhaps I was afraid he’d be kidnapped if I took my eyes off him. I may have overparented. Whatever the reasons, I’m sure my American upbringing effected my parental style.

Dutch kids grow up differently than American kids. The truth is Dutch kids receive a tremendous benefit of learning resilience and independence here at a really young age. At around age 5 or 6 kids are no longer biked to school by their parents, they bike alongside them on the teeming bike paths, and eventually by age 7 or 8, go it alone. I always marvel when I see an 8 year old pedaling along through rain and sleet happily on his way to school. Wish I could do that – anytime – at age 49.

 

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My first introduction to Dutch parents and kids up close and personal was when my Dutch landlord and his two young boys came to our apartment to help hang some pictures. In perfect English, his 8 year old asked to go find his friends on the street to play. His dad agreed and he took his 4 year old brother with him. After about a half hour, I looked outside to an empty quiet street. A little concerned I asked him, ” I don’t see your kids out here. You know where they are, right?” Of course, I realize now this was the American in me, worrying. I chuckled at his response, “Oh good, they’re not out there. That’s a good sign.”

Thinking back on when my own kids were that young, I don’t think there was ever a day I didn’t know where they were. I wouldn’t think because I couldn’t see them it was a good thing. But lo and behold, the sky didn’t fall that day and my friend’s two Dutch boys came ringing the bell about a half hour later, alive and well, after playing in an apartment half a block down the street with some old friends. It made a lasting impression on me.

For the most part, Dutch parents are not anxious. They’re not terribly overwhelmed. They’re not fretting about their kids behavior. They are impressively patient. And, this in turn, gives their kids a sense of independence, confidence and freedom. There is a lot to be said for happy kids ….and growing up to be happy adults. I say bring on those chocolate sprinkles, cut out that homework, get a healthy dose of daily outdoor exercise without having to wear a Fitbit to ensure it, and unload that boundless curiosity as you explore your ..and most probably another’s…. world. The longer I live here the more I understand the advantages of what I first viewed (and judged) as annoying, crazy, loud and perhaps even a smidgen dangerous child behavior. And when I’m almost run down on the street by a child and his Big Wheel, I remind myself how much I love living here with the richness of culture and personal freedoms, impressive creativity and opportunity for exploration. I remind myself it’s the Dutch that invented blue tooth, wi-if, the DVD, the CD, microscope, telescope and even the orange carrot. Be happy, little Dutchies!

Amsterdam – It’s a Jungle Out There

While the climate in Amsterdam leaves a lot to be desired, one wouldn’t think this if they look up in the trees. I first noticed parakeets in my back garden three months into my expat life here. At first glance they look like green parrots, but after further research, I’ve learned that they are actually a species of parrots – parakeets, or to be specific, rose-ringed parakeets.

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Not knowing at the time that there are about 10,000 parakeets, maybe more, living in the Dam, at first sight I thought someone must have left their bird cage open or there was an escape from the Artis Zoo. It never crossed my mind that there were actually hoards of tropical parakeets nesting in this most undesirable climate of The Netherlands. Most people think they only reside in the famous Vondelpark, which is about a 10 minute walk from my flat, but actually they are everywhere, spreading their colorful wings as they branch further afield to multiply.

While no one is exactly sure how they arrived, they have been here over 40 years and seem to be doing better than fine. Frisky and affectionate green birds, they are multiplying like rabbits. In October there were two parakeets living in my garden, today there are four. Two adults and two younger parakeets. That didn’t take long.

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Parakeets live between 15 and 20 years. By now, they have no idea there is a much warmer and friendlier climate where their relatives reside and have adapted to the chilly, grey, rainy, hailing, windy climate of Holland.

At first I didn’t notice they’d made their home in the hole of our tree trunk. Now that it’s Spring, I wake serenaded every morning to their loud singing and most recently see them feasting on the red berries on the branches. Our parakeets, which we have affectionately named Bonnie and Clyde (at least the big ones), since we are pretty sure they hijacked their home from some woodpeckers, hang out most of the day on the branches and retreat into their home as soon as it gets dark. They don’t seem to be bothered by our dogs, but when a loudly landing plane flies overhead on its way to Schipol, just 6 miles from here, they take off into the air.

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Our parakeets also have loads of other parakeet friends who fly by, land and try to inch their way into that hole in the tree – to no avail, as Bonnie or Clyde is usually guarding the entrance. Who knew I would become a birder living here? I love all animals, domesticated and wild, but I have never really warmed up to birds. Bonnie and Clyde and their offspring are growing on me. They are adding some color to this grey urban jungle.

De Pijp – A favorite funky hood

I am now at the seven month’s mark of expatting in the Dam. Hard to believe, but in that short time period, I have found favorites. Favorite restaurants, bakeries, boutiques and hoods I find myself heading to over and over. One of these hoods is just a few streets and a canal bridge away from my place in the Museum Quarter of Old South called De Pijp (The Pipe). The more I explore this cool lively area, the more I like it. Aside from the horrendous construction that’s taken over half of the Ferdinand Bolstraat on the old side, where this area begins coming from Centraal Station off the Stadhouderskade, there is a vibe here reminding me of Greenwich Village and Soho in NY or the Latin Quarter in Paris. It’s urban Bohemia meets cool casual chic filled with young and old hipsters – plus tourists.

Living in the Dam, newbie expat or old timer, it’s easy to conjure up the typical Dutch architecture – gabled leaning houses of differing heights and widths looking over glistening canals.  In De Pijp, houses lining these long canal-less streets are of the same height and width and not as tall. Built in the 1860s for working class families (much later than the Jordaan), this area has grown and boomed into a sought after hood for yuppies and expats alike. Which also means rents are climbing.

 

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One’s first introduction to De Pijp is usually playing tourist – with a visit to the Heineken Experience or the famous century-old Albert Cuyp Market which takes over most of the Albert Cuypstraat  – with over 100 stalls lined on both sides selling everything from flowers, fresh seafood, cheese, bags, clothes, gadgets, bread, smoothies, chicken, Mediterranean delights – the list goes on and on and on. But when you’ve settled in and are no longer playing that game, you will soon learn that De Pijp is for weekdays, not weekends, when it’s overrun with tourists. Stroll through the pipe-like side streets and you are sure to find some pretty cool potential favorites too.

The first thing you’ll notice in this hood is youth. There are hoards of young people merging in and out of streets, shops, trams and bike paths. When you see this much youth, you know you are in a relatively affordable location. It also means stores carry items young people want to buy, like the newest coolest sneakers, hats, jackets, jeans, dresses, bags and more. Shops here lure you in as you casually wander the Gerard Durstraat, Frans Halstraat or Van Woustraat. Here you will find small funky boutiques and second-hand stores, noteworthy restaurants, green grocers from Turkey or Morocco selling produce bigger and brighter than your local Marqt or Albert Heijn, cozy coffee shops (that sell coffee) and the other kind that sell – other things – and casual hip cafes where the fun is always spilling loudly onto the streets. You may also find your new favorite dry cleaner and hair salon too.

 

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Lekker food options is one of the indicators for me to how much I frequent an area. De Pijp has so many of these. Our favorite family restaurant is Van ‘t Spit serving roasted organic whole or half chickens plus yummy sides in a very casual and gezellig setting. I especially like the enamelware it’s served in – like you are sitting around a campfire. In warmer months, folks pile into the many picnic tables lining the sidewalks out in front. Zazas, a more upscale intimate restaurant, is where we head to with no kids in tow. This is the place to come for delicious food, drinks and outstanding friendly service plus a fantastic playlist crooning in the background. Bazar, housed in an enormous former church with colorful tables serves up tasty Middle Eastern and North African food and is always lively and quite reasonable. For one of the best brunches ever, we (and the rest of the Dam), go to Bakers and Roasters. One whiff of the bacon cooking inside this New Zealand/Brazilian inspired joint will afford you the perseverance needed to withstand the wait for a table. For a quick lunch, Venkels (not to be confused with the amazing award-winning upscale French restaurant Venkeles) has the most delicious salads with a quaint small sitting area in the back. Across the street you can grab dessert from Bakken met Passie which will literally take your breath away as you gaze longingly through the enormous windows filled with some of the prettiest little treats and eats you can imagine.

This hood also has some of the best Turkish, Surinamese, Syrian, Spanish and Moroccan delis and shops selling fresh produce and scrumptious eats, so it’s important to bring an extra bag or two to fill when you just cannot pass by that enormous deep orange carrot, extraordinary piece of fruit you’ve never seen before or take-away dishes and those Asian, Mexican and American items you are missing from Tijn’s Toko that you can’t find in a typical grocery store.

My first introduction to shopping in De Pijp was a trip to Duikelman. I was in need of a crock pot – an American staple appliance used for cooking everything from soups, chili, meatballs and sauce, stews, etc. I was enamored at first walk-in. This family run store of all things kitchen – from fancy European stove to small fancy frying pan to ordinary spatula is like Williams and Sonoma but BETTER. And the friendly staff offers amazing advice on where and how to find other things needed in the kitchen when cooking – like gravy boosters, baking soda, baking powder and cooking spray! They sell really great vanilla and a super tall can of cooking spray – and will advise you where to find the other things you need to cook that you haven’t been able to find – just ask.

There is a vibrancy here that is unmatched by any other area in Amsterdam. There is also a BIKE FREE park that has its own area for dogs – Sarphatipark is a quiet green oasis in the middle of this quirky urban space.

 

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If you need to recommend a hotel to friends coming into town, The Sir Albert, I’m told, has super comfy beds and fantastic friendly staff. For gamers looking for a fix, Arcade Hotel, Europe’s first dedicated hotel for gamers, plus a comic book library, just opened its doors in De Pijp.

When not diverted due to construction, Tram 16 runs through De Pijp from Centraal Station along the Ferdinand Bolstraat before turning onto the Albert Cuypstraat towards Musemplein. It is supposed to be back up and running in April – but until then, walk from the Wetteringcircuit tram stop towards the Heineken Experience. And don’t forget to bring an extra bag or two to fill as you discover your new favorite find.