07 March 2013

Failed Expectations

So I was in the Netherlands for almost a week recently. And somehow, there's a nagging feeling inside me that tells me that I didn't enjoy the whole trip. And after thinking about it for a bit, I realize why, at least, partly.

See, I was excited that I would add another country to my visited countries list. It will be No. 26. And yes, it got added, however, there didn't register a sense of foreignness to it. I guess, I was expecting some culture shock, but the shock didn't come.

I bought a Lonely Planet Netherlands guidebook. I read the relevant chapters (Utrecht and Amsterdam). I knew what I would be seeing, and I had a list of the things I wanted to visit. I even bought a Dutch phrasebook. After all, why would I expect everyone to understand English, that would be imperialist and haughty of me to expect such a thing. So I came prepared.

However, sad to say, I never even used my phrasebook even once. Everyone just switched to English the moment they saw me. Like I said, I was expecting a culture shock, but it never came. Instead, what came was a realization, not about the Netherlands, but about Germany, the country I am currently living in. I realized that Germany feels more foreign to me, than the Netherlands. I can go live in the Netherlands without speaking a word of Dutch, and life would be fine, but knowing German is definitely to my advantage when I live in Berlin.

And Amsterdam, well, it might be a cool city in other people's opinions, but it's definitely not my favorite. There's a part of me that feels it to be rather quite artificial, with plenty of "sights" and things to do just existing because there are visitors. I mean, why would you go all the way to Amsterdam just to visit Madame Tussaud's and see a bunch of wax figures? Amsterdam is loud and is full of glitter, but I felt like it is less original and home-grown, and more of a cash crop. In other words, they are there only because tourists flock to the city. That being said, there are several attractions that are unique to the city, which I have visited, and enjoyed. It's just that the tourist traps tend to be quite prominent here.

Anyway, perhaps I made a mistake in approaching the Netherlands. I deviated from my rule of not expecting anything. Instead, I wanted a foreign experience, and the Netherlands isn't foreign enough. I guess I am not a run-of-the-mill American who doesn't even have a passport and hasn't stepped out of one's home soil. I guess deep inside, I wanted an adventure, something I truly experienced when I was in Guatemala in January of 2012, and I went to the Netherlands with that mindset, when all I am going to the Netherlands for is a conference in Utrecht and a weekend in Amsterdam.

Looking back, I did notice quite a few differences, but they were rather subtle. People seemed to prefer leaving their windows open, no curtains, for the world outside to see. I've peeked into quite a few living rooms and dining rooms while I was there. Here in Germany, shutters close the view when your window is on the ground floor, while in the USA, people use curtains a lot. There's definitely a different architectural style, although what it is I cannot pinpoint.

Anyway, my first foray into the Netherlands may not have been the best, but I am more than willing to give it a second chance. After all, it's quite close; Berlin to Amsterdam is just 360 miles, less than the distance between Buffalo and Boston, to give a frame of reference. So we'll see, maybe, my next visit would also have better weather than the rainy days I have experienced while I was there.

(Sirloin Steak, from my Art Institute of Chicago Series)


  1. Back in high school, it was common to have penpals from the Netherlands in English class. Our teachers apparently consider them almost native English speakers! Funny.

    1. Zhu,

      Really? That is something. I guess it is really true, the more north and west you go in Europe, the better the English.