Letters from abroad

Daniel Miller

On my first night in Amsterdam, my roommate told me he and a group of other American students had searched for one of Amsterdam’s legendary “coffee shops” – establishments which sell marijuana, which is decriminalized in the Netherlands, although still technically illegal.
Paraphrasing the way he told it, “We saw a place called ‘The Smoke House.’ We got all the way inside before we saw the glass cases and the salami. […] It was a deli. The proprietor totally knew what was up!”
Indeed, the idea that studying abroad in Amsterdam must be a sort of European “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-with-tulips-and-clogs” follows us Amsterdam exchange students at every step of our travels. Undeniably, there is that side to the city, but there is much more that I want people to appreciate about Amsterdam.
Being alone in a new city for the first time is inevitably an intimidating experience. The first few days, I got lost in Amsterdam’s circular streets; I was afraid my transit pass would expire and that I’d face an uncomfortable confrontation with an irate tram driver.
And there was inevitably a moment of awkwardness whenever I was asked something in Dutch. During that time I felt more comfortable shopping at the tiny halal groceries and falafel stands of the North African and Middle Eastern district in which my apartment sits. I felt reassured by first-generation immigrants who, wherever they had come from, had already gone through the process of adjusting to this new culture and home.
The first thing you do in Amsterdam is to get a bicycle. The Dutch proudly tell foreigners that the city has more bicycles than people. They are the most convenient mode of transportation to any destination if you’re willing to brave the reckless Dutch scofflaw cyclists.
So, a few days after my arrival, I accompanied two friends to the used-bike store around the corner from our apartments to try out the rides. The Portuguese bike repairman who staffs the store – let’s call him Tomás – is like a sketchy used-car dealer that you can’t help but like. I don’t trust him, but his amiable teasing is placating.
We wanted to try out some bikes that were chained through the wheels out front, but there was a problem! Tomás had lost the key to the padlock. I helped him search as he stumbled around the over-full shop, swearing profusely in several languages. We found the key, and he ruefully admitted that he should probably “stop drinking on the clock.”
When classes finally started, I noticed some differences from the American system. There is no class list available. Students are assigned classes based on an interview in which they talk about their interests with the head of the music department.
The Dutch trademark informality is evident every day, although the teaching is rigorous: Students refer to professors as “teachers.” Homework is rarely graded – grades are often assigned based entirely on a final exam.
And I was very surprised one day in Music Aesthetics class when our charming, diminutive teacher asked us to submit a paper and to “avoid copy-pasting from sources because it will ruin the tone of your essay – and I will know – and if you copy from Wikipedia the writing might not even be that good.” It was the gentlest admonition against plagiarism I’d ever heard! As the Canadian next to me paraphrased, “If you’re going to plagiarize, at least do it from a reputable source.”
I’m sure that any actual plagiarism would not be taken lightly, but this quiet confidence characterizes what I think of as the typical Dutch attitude towards life: People are treated as equals. Individuals may make mistakes but should still be treated with dignity; challenges are approached and overcome calmly and logically.
After four months in the Netherlands, I feel more confident. I’ve learned enough Dutch to complete simple transactions in the vernacular, and my skills on a bicycle have reached a point where I can pull on a glove one-handed with a bag of groceries in the other hand and a missing right pedal – it broke and I’m too cheap to get it fixed.
The people I’ve met – friends, colleagues and the wonderful characters around the city – are as important a part of the experience as the classes I’ve taken. At this point, my biggest concern is how I’m going to re-adjust to America next year. But I still have another term in the Netherlands to figure that out!