A change of country, culture and climate
09.09.2008 - 09.03.2009
We have reached the half-year mark, and while I tried to do my best keeping everyone up to date with our travels through Europe before we arrived in Amsterdam, six months worth of living seems to have slipped by very quickly, and largely unrecorded. I had visions of myself scribbling passages of daily life in my notebook, but as I look through, only notes (sentences that struck me while biking or walking through the city) stare at me, asking to be turned into something more... Although that would keep you reading for days, so you will find this to be a much more diluted version…
Six months ago we arrived at the end of summer to live in a city we'd never seen, but already had begun to establish a life in. We had a flat waiting for us, flatmates to meet, friends of friends who already knew about us, yet we'd never set foot on one the Amsterdam's cobblestones. Arriving after a few months of travel, our packs full of dirty, fading clothes, we felt ready for a bit of stability. Looking back, it was a strange thing to do to decide to settle in a city we’d never seen before, but it also meant we had no preconceptions of Amsterdam life. You always hear the stereotypes… New Zealand, ahhh I’ve seen Lord of the Rings… and Amsterdam was no different. Liberal attitudes, armies of cyclists, canals, the red light district, cheese, olliebollen donuts, the coffee shops; we were about to start living in a transient, tourist highway.
We really knew not a lot about the country at all. My thoughts go back to the words of a couchsurfer in Prague, who lent me her descriptions of Dutch cuisine that amounted to not a lot more than biscuits, cheese, fried food and sandwiches. Oh, and lots of herring. For a girl who loves her veges, generally opposes fried foods, and has cut down on bread over the past year due to symptoms similar to gluten intolerance, this might not be easy. Perhaps we should have chosen Japan, and at least I could have lived off sushi??? Although the biscuits really are good.
Living in another city tests your comfort zone. And living in another country, where English isn’t the native language has certainly done that for me. For someone so pedantic about language and spelling (I was horrified to realise halfway through my blog posting that the automatic spellcheck wasn’t working as I’d thought, and that the fact that there was no little squiggly red lines on my page didn’t necessarily mean it was all as it should be…), it spins my head a little to think that now all of that doesn’t really matter, and sometimes it’s just a struggle to communicate, no matter how ‘incorrect’ that form of communication may be. We also become the sounding board for new words, forgotten words, mispronounced words… and you do start to look at your own language (and wish you’d learnt another one somewhere along the way). A child again, giving blank looks or confused smiles to strangers who assume you understand, and are perhaps just rude… or mute?? Sometimes I couldn’t even muster up the energy to reply ‘ik spreekt beeche Nederlands???’ (yes, I do know that’s not how you spell all of that, but at the time I didn’t) knowing you will never see them again. Just smile awkwardly and move on. For the first few months I was babysitting French children, who knew two more languages than me by the age of three… So when you can’t communicate with three-year olds… That’s when you really feel like an idiot.
My brain has tried to cram in more new things over the past six months than I can remember (and I probably can’t remember because those memories have been replaced with Dutch words). For me, my education has always been building on things slowly, grasping familiar threads and weaving them slowly together. Dutch has been an explosion of the unknown that has sent my brain into overdrive, constantly replaying sentences in my head until I can no longer stand the sound of the mystery voice on the audio tapes. I knew absolutely no Dutch before I arrived (actually, Sophie had taught me “kopje thee met suiker en melk”, a cup of tea with sugar and milk, during our flatting days drinking lots of tea…). Embarrassingly enough, I even had to look in the guidebook on the way here to find out what ‘hello’ was – and was relieved to find out that it was ‘hallo’… so this Dutch thing might be easy??! Well, not so much…
I’m grateful we decided to do a big European trip before settling somewhere, as it’s easy to get weighed down with the rhythms of every day life. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of having no job, no bills to pay, no home, and your life in your backpack. And you do get weighed down with the rest of it. Even with so much undiscovered terrain on our doorstep, it’s not as easy as we thought it would be to do a weekend in Spain here, a day or two in Italy here… Hopefully soon it might be, but this first six months has been all about finding our Dutch feet. And they’e not quite yet fitting into clogs.
The weather has been a struggle. I had to remind myself (when I realised how much more I’ve probably been eating), that this is the coldest winter in 24 years that our bodies have had to cope with. It’s also the coldest winter the Netherlands has seen in about ten years which doesn’t help. The canals froze over, as did our hands to our handlebars each time we ventured out in the sleety or snowy days to travel. I remember our eyes lighting up and our faces glowing with joy at the first sign of snow. I also remember my eyes stinging from having to bike in the driving snow… And also thinking how quickly these moments of magic become a mark of the ordinary. Sophie didn’t batter an eyelid after spending seasons working in snow towns… You also join the bike brigade like a local, cursing at people (generally on the token hired bikes) for getting in your way. Except the curses are under your breath since I can’t bear to translate some of the crude sayings that escape the lips of the liberal Dutch. Since sex is hardly taboo, disease becomes quite a topic of ‘vloekworden’ or curse words.
I guess it always takes longer than you think for things to fall into place the way you imagined they would (although friends of ours said they had found things here almost too easy – falling into a fantastic apartment, steady jobs and so on…), so is this where we thought we’d be after six months of European living…? Amongst the chaos, we quickly linked to those with a common thread. New Zealanders flock together, and have made some great friends, and not just New Zealanders! We finally have a fantastic apartment we feel at home in, and work is looking up (just as the weather will soon…). There were days early on, when I would trip over five cobblestones in one day and decide that this city may just be out to get me, but now it is starting to feel like a second home. And with our first trip back to New Zealand in three weeks after nearly ten months in Europe, it will certainly be a strange experience to leave and come back. Ten months of our old lives has been continuing without us and it’s a bit disjointing to live between two cities, which seem worlds away given that every photo update is clad with brown-skinned friends with glowing faces while I can’t feel my toes over here, and both of my sets of gloves have worn through the fingers from overuse. By the time we arrive back, Spring will be in the air, and hopefully some long-awaited sunshine will be setting in…