Our first year in Amsterdam.
If you thought that I abandoned this blog so soon, you should not I just spent almost two unforgettable months in the hospital and I was a little busy… I now know more about the local medicine than I should, so in the near future you will have a funny series of posts about hospitals, doctors, intensive care unit, ambulance… that’s all. Stay tuned, as they say.
Now that we’re finally home – awake and cheerful and making (so far) rotten attempts to get back to normal life – I remembered that I missed our “anniversary”. So I’m going to pretend that it’s still the beginning of January and tell you about our first year in Amsterdam.
The first weeks the clearest thought was “We deserve this”.
That’s probably why we did not feel the adolescent trepidation and uncontrollable excitement. We just came and lived in another country with which we have much more common interests.
The aggravating circumstance was the almost complete absence of serious domestic problems – Seryozha already had a job, fully furnished apartment was rented for the next 3-4 months, and the issues of andryukhi’s health began to resolve themselves after a single visit to the pediatric consultation … – so the next thought came: “We are here as if on vacation! “
The decorations, of course, added up.
The first months we lived in the De Pijp neighborhood, where walking through the quiet streets with narrow brick facades you are constantly bumping into some of the coolest hipster cafes, incredibly cute restaurants, antique shops and strange stores where handmade jewelry and cherry soda bottles are sold at the same time.
We walked to Museum Square, walked along the Amstel, and bought crazy bouquets at the local market every week, because it was impossible to walk past the flower stalls. We lived in a “real” Amsterdam brick house with mimic balconies, arches and tall windows… All in all it was really like an extended vacation and it was great.
After a couple of months, the lightness of our being began to melt away, of course, but it wasn’t until mid-summer that I finally let go.
This idyllic picture also had one amusing side effect – I so quickly accepted my new life in Amsterdam that very soon I stopped wondering and enjoying what we had come here for.
Now it was more like short bouts of euphoria. When you defiantly peek in someone else’s window and see the owner learning to play the saxophone; when in the middle of January you notice a blooming daisy in the lawn; when a random passerby says “Hello! “When, for the first time, you do this to yourself; when you see a pair of swans sailing down a canal in the distance from your living room window… – the words “I live in Amsterdam… fucking hell” pop up in your head like the credits of a fashion show.
By mid-spring, along with the expiring lease on an apartment in the center, our candy-coated period of life in Amsterdam came to an end. It was time to build a nest.
We moved into our still-removable, but long-standing apartment (on the border between the posh Oud Zuid and the motley Nieuw West) and realized for the first time that now, at last, we were home. We can live here as long as we want and no Moscow grandmother moved out won’t tell us to “fuck off in a week”.
So for the first time we stopped thinking in terms of “just the necessities” and “this will only take a couple of years” and got serious about making a nest (even too serious)… Apparently this is why we are still not getting the final look, and we are still racking our brains about the size of lamps, colors of curtains and space for shelves, pictures and photos. It seems like it will never end…but then again, so be it.
I suspect that around this point you started thinking, “she’s sick of her epithets and raptures… where’s the drama, huh?!” And you’re right, you can’t do without it.
Obviously the substance codenamed “Fate” (or “higher justice” – whatever) thought along the same lines and began to sprinkle us with spoons of tar, until they filled the whole barrel.
In June we found out how fast the ambulance arrives in Amsterdam, then we checked it a few more times… and by the end of November Andrejsergiewicz and I were finally locked in the hospital where we heroically met Sinterklaas, both Christmas and New Year.
Details, however, will not yet … first of all, because subconsciously it still seems: if you do not talk about the problems – they will just disappear. In fact, the consequences of our New Year’s adventures will not disappear from us, they will go around in circles for the next few years … so someday I will tell you about them after all.
But for now let it be something less personal and more interesting.
If someone tells you that “Amsterdam is a filthy dump full of junkies and prostitutes” – give this person a hug and pity him. The poor guy has either never been to Amsterdam or (worse) has wasted his time and money to come and see the crowds of stoned tourists and fuming Venezuelan women who, indeed, swarm the few main streets and popular trails in the Red Light District.
But this is not the real Amsterdam. It’s a cleverly placed and played out setting, a natural reservation, for those who come here for “weed and chicks,” who don’t care about the city and its inhabitants, who will spend all day taking selfies and go on a coffee-shop raid in the evening. For these wonderful people there is their own, perfectly appropriate Amsterdam, which has nothing to do with the city in which I live.
To see and love the real Amsterdam, you only need to move 50 meters away from the routes prescribed in the guidebook. To walk down a parallel street, to cross to the other side of the canal, to sit in a cafe around the corner…
But the main reason why I loved Amsterdam every second of this year (and still do) was the accessible environment.
This nice little thing plays no role in your life until you find yourself chained to a stroller… even a regular baby stroller. And only when you get it out of the house for the first time do you really understand, for example, how hostile Moscow is to anyone who can’t climb a stair or two on their own. And most importantly – how the very fact of such invisible discrimination sucks all the “normality” of your daily life, and so pretty beaten by other charms of motherhood.
In Moscow I had only one grocery store within walking distance, where I could get with the stroller, one pharmacy, and a small market (with completely broken asphalt on which the stroller was shaking like in a storm) – that was the border of my independent daily life. In moments of weakness, it even made me weep.
In Amsterdam, I can finally do everything without a car or even a bicycle. The whole city is open and accessible to us, no exceptions. And instead of meaningless laps around the three lanes in the nearest square, my boy and his baby carriage and I now have many important things to do every day – we go shopping, ride the streetcars and metro, “go to the doctors”, keep exploring the neighborhood and occasionally go out for dinner as a family. I no longer feel disabled … However, even the disabled do not feel here “invalids” – in the sense in which we used to understand it.
And of course the beautiful thing, which from the first second and to this day in the delight: under the windows and we have hares live, 50 meters from our subway station – herons, swans, ducks, and some strange black birds, which are extremely disgusting screams. Big green parrots have been teasing our cats for two weeks now, picking at the neighbor’s bird feeder. And the snowdrops are blooming rapidly in the yard, and in a couple of days the daffodils will bloom.
I can’t imagine how anyone could not love this city.
One day I will probably regret these words, but for now I’m sincerely convinced that the Dutch are beautiful.
Not any individuals, but the nation and the society as a whole. That, my friends, is the kingdom of common sense. And where it’s not enough – there are always detailed instructions.
A perfect example is the birth of a child. No matter how smart you were before – the first months, and maybe the whole first year with a new person, it is an endless unsolvable puzzle: why is he crying? Why is he not eating? What kind of rash on his cheeks? How to dress him in -5? What toys to give? When to spoon-feed? … in total, a hundred questions per minute.
What do we do? – We rack our brains at the paediatrician, or our mom, or a more experienced friend, or at the very least we surf the Internet on forums where holopopiks and shilopopovniks frolic. In our society there is no procedure for the adaptation of the “young mother,” so we scramble and look for the most understandable, but not always the right solutions to their problems.
What do the Dutch do? – First (right after the birth) they send to you a kraamzorg – a nurse who spends a few days with you, helps you set up your life (can clean the apartment or pick up the older child from school, for example, if necessary) and answers all the silly questions. And then, on your first visit to the children’s consultation you are given a “blue book”, which describes all the important stages of the baby’s life (from birth to 4 years) and the official recommendations of pediatricians about sleep, food, games, potty, emotional and physical development and even about what to do to really enjoy motherhood.
Everything. One book and minus 99 questions a minute. It’s so simple, so logical and so easy to implement. It’s very Dutch.
Another great Dutch point is the overarching desire for normality. No matter what difficulties you have to face – a single mother with three children, a broken leg, congenital deafness, whatever… – you should always be able to live as normal a life as possible: find time for yourself and your hobbies, meet your friends, study, work, have your own home. And even if you’re not ready to accept this philosophy right away, society will sooner or later force you to, because it already has the answer to the question that’s pulsating in your head, “how do I make my life normal again?”
In a way, this is the exact opposite of our culture, in which “there is always room for an exploit.” That’s why, for example, I still manage perfectly well in critical situations, but completely lose the fighting spirit in the long run and unconsciously resist the very normality, which I admire so much. Yes, yes, very much in our way.
Coming back to the Dutch… in spite of the almost perfect logical order of things, some situations are confusing at first. For example, the Dutch fanatically guard their privacy, considering the interference in private life as a sign of bad upbringing, but few of them close the curtains, as if showing off their life on purpose. They persistently save water and electricity, including light and heating only for a few hours a day, but not doubting for a second will spend “earned” 30-40 euros on a couple of bouquets of flowers for their living room. They don’t wear fur coats and look condemningly even at your jacket with a natural down, but have no problem buying a big leather sofa at home. Officially most Dutch companies work until 6pm, but in reality any self-respecting Dutchman at 6pm is already sitting at home, at the table and pouring sauce over his newly cooked dinner.
With time, these contradictions too find their logic, or they just don’t seem so absurd anymore – it’s probably how the new cultural code is implanted into my brain.
So that the picture is not too idyllic, I am ready to agree with those “negative” traits which are usually attributed to the Dutch – avarice, restraint bordering on indifference, straightforwardness or, for example, the desire to plan everything a couple of months in advance – even meetings with family and friends.
To a greater or lesser extent (depending on the person or the specific situation) this does seem true, but I do not see this as a serious problem for myself. Some things – like stinginess – just have to be accepted, some things – like restraint (which, in my understanding, is the inverse of personal freedom) – can be explained, and some things – like straightforwardness – are more of a plus for me, because it is my weakness too. And yes, some things – like long-term planning – are definitely worth learning, so I recently made myself a calendar, where I now write everything… including meetings with friends.
The only thing that in my personal rating is now written down as the most unpleasant feature of the Dutch – is the unwillingness (and sometimes incapability) to make serious decisions, if they are outside the scope of those very “detailed instructions”. Perhaps this is how a too strong and prosperous society begins to defeat a weakening personality.
Language. Or rather languages.
English. In fact, there is a certain mishmash of myth and truth.
There are authoritative statements in blogs and travel sites like “more than 80% (sometimes even 90%) of the Dutch speak excellent English” or “the absolute majority of NL residents are fluent in English” – and it is actually close to the truth, only with a few refinements:
- It’s really true if you mostly communicate with people no older than 40-45… or no younger than 7-10 years old
- This is true if we talk about the population of big cities – Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, Utrecht. But in the small provincial Someren, where we once spent a couple of days, even 20-year-old girls in the central diner could understand and speak English with great difficulty.
- Finally, it’s true if you don’t go outside your “comfort zone.” Work, partying, movie-wine-dominoes – there will be no problem with English, but as soon as you need to go to the doctor, to communicate with some social services or call home electrician – that’s when the real level of understanding is tested.
Admittedly, in most (even difficult) cases you will still be understood, but the process of communication will be excruciating for everyone. That is why the expat community and forums are full of topics with requests and recommendations of “well spoken” huisarts (family doctors), handymen, midwives, nannies, yoga teachers and representatives of other useful professions.
And yes, another little household nuisance – there won’t be a word in English on product labels. Naissss….
Dutch (actually Dutch, but not the point)
Any expat will tell you that learning Dutch is difficult. Not because for the correct pronunciation of the letter “G” or “R” you need to go to the speech therapist, and not because the words sound almost like in German, but the spelling will be as hell, as in French (written letters can be 2-3 times more than the pronounced sounds), and not because in this small country (the size of the Moscow region, by the way) in the next town will speak a completely different dialect … But the reason is that 9 out of 10 Dutch people hearing your pathetic attempts to say something in their native language will immediately switch to English to stop your suffering. As a result despite the fact that you are totally immersed in the “environment” there are not many real opportunities to practice Dutch.
Our neighbor Kate, who is Irish and has been living in Amsterdam for 40 years, told me that at one point she prohibited all her friends, colleagues and even her husband to speak to her in English.
I haven’t even started to learn Dutch by myself and I know probably not more than a hundred words I have learned “naturally” by watching Andriyukha’s cartoons.
But by all accounts the most difficult thing is to figure out the pronunciation.
In my opinion, the exam for level A1 in this country should consist of only one task: pronounce correctly the word “please”. …because it is translated as – alsjeblieft – and you have to pronounce almost every letter that is spelled. I am still not sure if I could pass such a test.
Here’s a quick summary: nostalgia is not a problem. Not at all.
Yes, I miss my friends and relatives, and even a little for myself, the one I was when I lived in Moscow, in Astana.
But I don’t want to go back at all. Because… home is where the heart is.