My first impression of the Dutch was much as I had been told it would be—most are friendly, outgoing and English-speaking.
During the last two orientation weeks at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) I bought a bike, practiced the guttural G sound that comes up so often in Dutch and otherwise tried to assimilate. And yet, the Dutch have an innate ability to spot a foreigner no matter the situation. One of my academic advisors here speculated that perhaps she “smells particularly American,” because Nederlanders will approach her speaking English. Indeed, in the city center, where the tourist industry is concentrated around the major squares and central canals, almost no shopkeepers will speak Dutch unless addressed in kind. In these well-trafficked areas, English is spoken in almost every accent imaginable.
At some point in the past couple days I’ve mastered the pronunciation of a couple key phrases; I can now pass through the grocery store without speaking any English! This has made me acutely more aware of the actions that might identify me as an outsider, and the things my American classmates do that distinguish them. Traveling in large groups of people, all wearing backpacks and walking in the bike lane, quickly differentiates you as interlopers. The ability to identify and properly use Amsterdam bike lanes is a quick way to spot outsiders as well. Pedestrians walking on the vermillion pavement get bells rang at them or harsh words thrown, depending on how quickly they react. Tourists in the city center tend to flock in the middle of the street, infuriating riders on bikes and scooters, but they generally to leap out of the way in terror at the slightest tinkle of a bell, after seeing that Dutch riders do not stop.
In many ways Amsterdam reminds me of my home city of Los Angeles—both are major tourism destinations, and in rain (Amsterdam) or shine (LA) out-of-towners flock in huge numbers. Growing up in LA made me acutely aware how attractive the city was from the outside, as I became increasingly anxious to leave. Year-round, as Los Angeles weather allows, I would navigate around rental cars and slow-moving, gaping gaggles of people taking in the scenery that was my neighborhood. Now that I find myself with the tables turned, it pains me to appear so out of place, regardless of how difficult it may be for me to navigate this new city.
I would hazard to say that Amsterdam is similar in many ways: the historical beauty of the city is marred only by the incessant presence of shuffling, oblivious visitors. Indeed, at the UvA orientation lecture, a professor referenced the self-fulfilling prophecy of Amsterdam’s fame. As the city is well known because of its tourist industry in cheese making, canals, clogging and architecture—but more infamously the Red Light District and the lenient drug policy—Amsterdam is publicized throughout the world as an attractive vacation destination. In turn, this attracts more and more visitors, giving Amsterdam the highest ratio of annual visitors to local residents of all European cities.
Many Dutch will tell you that only tourists smoke weed or frequent the red lit canals (grachts), but what they mean is that only tourists smoke in public, walking bold as brass down the road with a lit joint. The regulars at sex shows in the area are primarily Dutch, but part of the appeal of hanging out in the Red Light District is watching gooey-eyed rubberneckers marvel at the exposed skin and lurid signage.
As a visitor to Amsterdam, I am taking great pains to appear respectful and at home whenever I’m out in public. Since every Nederlander you’ll meet will mark you as an outsider and assume you’re here on vacation, I try to take the initiative and mention my studies at UvA, or how I’m living in an apartment, not staying for the weekend. Though I rented a bicycle for the semester that I’m here, as anyone navigating Amsterdam needs a bike, I’ve avoided the shame of the flashy Rent-A-Bike signs affixed to the handlebars. I’ve tried to mimic the casual disregard that Dutch have for traffic laws, and adopt the right-of-way attitude that cyclists throughout the city flaunt—the only things that bikes stop for here are trains.
The Universiteit van Amsterdam boasts that its school of Social and Behavioral Sciences alone hosts some 1,300 exchange students from over 100 countries, with over 3,000 international students throughout the university of 30,000. So even though our visit may be longer and our objectives more refined, exchange students are almost as common as tourists in Amsterdam—my student status is hardly a step above the casual vacationer. With this in mind, my consolation is that my actions, and my accent, will dictate how I’m treated in this city accustomed to people passing through. I intend to get established as well I can, so I can assure myself and my Dutch neighbors that my semester is more than JYVacation.