When I was 19 I went on a vacation to Europe that was supposed to last a month. I went to the Netherlands, because in that summer of 1970 everyone I met told me it was not to be missed. Much to my parents’ lament, I did not return to college that fall but got a job and stayed in Amsterdam. It was the beginning of a long love affair with the Netherlands for me. In subsequent years I married a Dutchman, lived in the seaside town of Noordwijk aan Zee and later Rijswijk, working, learning the language and making good friends. I spent 12 years there and when I left, it was with friendships that have lasted a lifetime. One of my children was born during that time, and both of my sons were bilingual when they were small. Now in their thirties, on visits to their father they find the language comes back to them albeit it slowly. When I speak to them in Dutch, they usually understand me.
I left the Netherlands for good 28 years ago but have kept in touch with the friends I made. The arrival of the Internet and especially Facetime brought an end to our snail mail letter writing and made it even easier to keep in contact. I have visited my friends over the years four times, and many have come to the US to visit me.
I recently returned from a month in the Netherlands, and could have easily stayed on…another month, several or even longer. Why? I have asked myself often why I feel so completely at home there, as if it were my country. I was hoping when I did my Ancestry DNA something Dutch would turn up but alas, the results pointed mostly to Ireland and the UK.
Things have of course changed in the Netherlands, just as they have here, but many of the things I loved remain the same. The ability to go places by bike, train or bus is still very much in existence. Towns and cities are usually walkable so life for me there has never required a workout – I get that just in daily living. Children in elementary school still usually have the option of going home for an hour for lunch – on foot or by bicycle and many mothers and fathers work part time to accommodate them. Electric bikes are now quite popular and having ridden one I can understand why, making the eternal battle with the wind easier. Farmers’ markets also still abound in almost every town and availability of fresh produce is just as I remember it. It’s hard to get lost on the bus or train – stops are posted on electronic screens so you always know where you are. The crime is lower than even when I lived there.
The changes are somewhat disconcerting; Burger King, McDonnalds, Dominos (delivered by youth on bicycles) and other fast food chains litter the urban landscape as well as the train stations. I must admit I wasn’t sorry to see a Starbucks now and then, but some of the quaintness of the shops I remember is gone. Perhaps the most striking change is the number of American words and expressions that have crept into the language – and the fact that some of them are not even ones we would find acceptable. Language is a funny thing. On this visit, unlike others, I was not accompanied by my (American) husband for the first two weeks, and after my first four days I was so immersed in the language again that I began thinking and dreaming in Dutch. Expressions and words flowed out of my mouth that I didn’t even remember learning. And, as most people who command more than one language will tell you, suddenly you can find yourself searching for words in your native language as well as your second one.
I spent the bulk of my time staying with friends, one of whom lives in the city of Haarlem. I would advise anyone who wishes to see Amsterdam to stay in Haarlem with the charm of Amsterdam but without the wafting marijuana smoke and droves of tourists in the city center. To visit the museums and other points of interest in Amsterdam, it is only a short 15 minutes by train from Haarlem.
Of course, there is so much more to see than just Amsterdam. On this recent visit I discovered cities new to me. Rent a bike and get acquainted with other parts of the country. You won’t regret it. Take really good walking shoes – and a raincoat just in case.