MORE THAN AN OCEAN separates Amsterdam, my adopted city, from Newport Beach, the upscale Southern California beach town where I spent most of my life. Beyond being nearly 4,000 miles across the Atlantic, Holland is worlds from my former home — a city portrayed in reality shows like The OC and Desperate Housewives of Orange County — when it comes to culture. Here are some of the lessons I learned as an American expat in Holland.
1. Not everyone speaks your language.
Since few people outside their tiny country speak Dutch, people from Holland MUST learn other languages to communicate globally.
2. TV programs with subtitles are learning tools.
Through American exports like Sesame Street, Star Trek, Baywatch, Magnum P.I., Married with Children, and Dr. Phil, 90% of Dutch people learn English by their teens. Most add a few other languages (excluding German) in high school and beyond.
3. A trusty two-wheeler is de rigueur for daily transport.
No fancy clothes, helmet, or expensive fuel needed. Snap on a chain guard, hop on in business attire, stiletto heels, or that sexy salsa outfit, and ride off with pride, briefcase, lunchbox, kids (also helmet-less), and that all-important cell phone in tow.
4. Public transportation is not a sign of ‘lower class’.
Use the train for inter-city travel, leaving the driving to others while you sleep, read the newspaper, catch up on work, or just think while the countryside rolls by.
5. One or two weeks of vacation a year is insane.
In Holland, four weeks a year is normal.
6. It doesn’t pay to work your ass off.
While Americans slave away at their jobs 40+ hours a week, many Dutch professionals enjoy a 36-hour workweek. And they’re doing just fine.
7. It’s not the end of the world when temps dip below 15˚C / 60˚F.
There’s no bad weather, just bad clothing.
8. American sports are kinda lame.
The Dutch know a little something about real sports. You think American baseball is exciting? Try speed skating.
9. There is only one football.
Sorry, the American game with that cumbersome gear, bosomy cheerleaders, and commercial interruptions doesn’t count.
10. McD, Burger King, and KFC don’t serve real food.
Neither do Amsterdam’s ubiquitous FEBO outlets, but you might find something that staves off a hangover in those little windows.
11. Herring isn’t something only Jewish people eat.
In Holland, it’s a street delicacy, served lightly brined, ready for spearing with a little Dutch flag, with pickles and onions on the side.
12. Marriages are about relationships, not weddings.
In Holland, few are marked by ritzy celebrations. The Dutch typically live together and raise families under legal contracts, minus the costly party.
13. Same-sex marriages are so old news.
They’ve been legal in Holland since 2001.
14. Good medical care is a right, not a privilege.
Even illegal immigrants deserve basic healthcare.
15. When a politician cheats on a spouse, it’s bad form, but no reason to resign.
Unless that politician is from some wacky conservative party.
16. Journalists should generally avoid the private life of public people.
Unless those people choose to make their private life public.
17. Everyone is responsible for their personal lifestyle and has freedom of choice, so long as that freedom harms no one.
The Dutch call this samenleving, or the art of sharing space harmoniously and fostering a culture based on equality, mutual respect, and civil rights.
18. Marijuana is NOT the gateway to hard drugs and addiction.
Incidence of drug abuse and addiction is lower in Holland than in countries with a strict prohibition policy. Still, cocaine, heroine, ecstasy, and other hard drugs are as illegal in Amsterdam as they are in the US.
19. People who show off, act pretentiously, discuss personal finances, or do anything perceived as weird or foreign are jerks.
The goal is to be normal or, as the Dutch say, Doe normaal dan doe je al gek genoeg (Just be normal, that’s crazy enough).