Some expats say the problem is “the Dutch”, some Dutch might say it’s “too many foreigners”, and we all generally like to blame it on the tourists. It is a well-known phenomenon: Amsterdam’s population is not exactly welcoming. Maybe the tourists don’t notice it that much, but when living here you might start feeling this sort of tension building up. Let’s start with the obvious: the cycling culture. Bikes are all over the place and have a general disregard for “rules”. There are bike traffic jams, the cyclists are stressed, they have this habit of overtaking each other, they ring their bells furiously. They also run over anyone who attempts at crossing the cycle path – sometimes even when it’s red for bikes. Above all, they like to frighten tourists to death (other than this, we are all very normal, and we all act very normally).
Amsterdammers have ‘an attitude’, it is something that Dutchies from outside of Amsterdam easily pinpoint. I’d say it is a characteric akin to capital cities, but it takes a peculiar shape in this city. Amsterdam is geographically small and very densely populated (for Western European standards, at least). Streets are narrow, houses tiny, and you really don’t want to own a car because you just don’t know what to do with it. There’s no space. The Central Station, the ‘entrance gate’ to the city, is always overcrowded. Same goes to public transportation in central areas of the city. The process of getting into it is an interesting rushing phenomenon, when everyone is trying to squeeze in as fast as they can. Also, youngsters tend not to give their seat away to older people on public transport. People find it extremely normal to squeeze into pubs of which you would think, at first sigh: ‘okay, this place is about to implode’. On the weekends, you struggle to find a place to sit at a nice esplanade or cafe and, once you find it, you have to secure it with your life. If it’s sunny the parks are full; the same goes to any of the areas by the water around the city. People have to fight for their space. Between 2010 and 2015 Amsterdam gained 34,000 inhabitants, a tendency of growth that has been in course since the 90’s. Besides this, we host 5 million visitors every year. I guess these numbers only add up to the general feeling of tension when cycling to work every day, or when we go grocery shopping. Moreover, Dutchies are not well-known for their friendliness, rather for their adventurousness, for their business skills, for their pragmatism (oh, and for cutting in line).
It’s getting to me
I consider myself a kind person, but the last year I have found myself acting (super) aggressive to tourists, other cyclists, or car drivers. I got very often unnerved at the fact that so many places in the city are always full. It was sometimes as if I couldn’t breathe properly. I was often irritated when running errands around the city, being more straightforward, smiling less, and generally more prone to project this über confident attitude when I went places. Nothing wrong with being confident but I am aware of my conscious effort in ‘projecting it’. I noticed that, especially when I find myself in Dutch environments, that attitude does benefit me, as thought it was a ‘code of behavior’ the natives understand. There is a Dutch expression that really defines this. Stoer zijn or stoer doen (to behave sturdy or to be sturdy). This is a valued characteristic in The Netherlands, it is an expression with a positive connotation. When you say “Oh, wat stoer!” it is as if you’re saying “Oh, how cool!”.
I’ve recently traveled to London, Copenhagen, and Oslo, and I was startled by the fact that, in all these cities, people were friendlier and generally more polite than in Amsterdam. How come? Weren’t the Brits supposed to be fed up with foreigners? Isn’t London the most touristy city of the entire Europe? Aren’t the Scandis supposed to be as cold as the weather they have to endure?
Fight for yourself
Dutch kids are brought up in a way that stimulates them to become independent from an early age. Teens are encouraged to find part-time jobs, and around the time they hit 18 – 20 years of age they’re usually already out of their parents’ house, and it is possible that they won’t get much financial support from them (or nothing at all) even if the families have high incomes. As a Dutch young adult, you have to fight for yourself. Maybe this helps explain the general “stoer zijn” mentality. Historically, Amsterdam is a thought city, where, some centuries ago, citizens themselves got organized to protect their own borders (yes, I read Geert Mak), its own liberties (which the rest of The Netherlands only tolerated because of the city’s wealth) and above all, there’s the thing they’re the most famous for: having conquered land from the water. It all boils down to fighting for their own right to exist. “Stoer zijn” was not a matter of choice. It isn’t hard to imagine that this cultural aspect combined with the wealth, and the pressures of a globalized world, where more or less everything is provided for but, at the same time, the competition is high and the pace is fast, plus the concentration of a lot of very skilled people in this one place that has become so trendy, all this might produce a highly individualistic society.
For instance. One arrives at this well-known yoga school in Amsterdam, greets the girls in the changing room, and feels total frustration when getting zero response in return, not even a smile or a friendly look: nothing. And it’s a y-o-g-a s-c-h-o-o-l (I have told this story contless times). How many of us started not giving a damn and reproducing the same sort of behavior, I wonder? I also remember that one time when the chain of my bike got loose making it impossible for me to break (we use pedal breaks in The Netherlands), this leading me to total panic, and to begging a young Dutch guy cycling alongside me for help. The response? I am busy. Yeah. I was free-cycling on a road full of tram rails and that creature was too busy to, for a moment, help me out avoiding killing myself (oh, I have always wanted to expose this bizarre account on the blog). Okay, I will give you time to vent your incredulity here.
What can we do?
Okay, Amsterdammers have this gene of sturdiness, independence, rebelliousness. That’s where their allure and coolness lies. And we can all learn from the way they stand up for themselves. Also, from the way that, by disregarding certain social conventions and focusing in what’s really important, they manage to create a society that works. Whatever our standards on the topic of chivalry or good-manners, it wouldn’t be fair if we didn’t think of the other side of the coin, of the benefits the “Dutch individualism” comes with. It translates into great things that we, expats and immigrants, also benefit from, and that most of us lack in our countries of origin. Stuff like a good balance between work time and leisure time, more balanced wages regardless of gender, good communication at work, some consistent parental protection laws, or “just” a lot of respect for your personal freedom (live-and-let-live). In quite a lot of aspects, we live in a little paradise here.
As much as I get angry at some peculiar sorts of selfishness, I cannot forget that assholes exist in every country. And that the acts of kindness I received from the natives have highly outnumbered the sort of unfortunate episodes I described above. Also, I can’t forget how I was allowed to build a safe life here, where opportunities are abundant, where I feel much more respected as a woman, where I have access to a remarkable quality of life, where my personal freedom is respected. I can’t forget how I get inspired by the people and the general urban space and atmosphere of Amsterdam.
Nonetheless I caught myself wondering: could we just start acknowledging each other more, or try to engage in everyday life small gestures of kindness (sometimes just a smile might make a huge difference), do our best at stopping at a red light if there are people waiting on the zebra path? Or simply start by refraining from cutting in line or, by the way, just giving a hand to this person who’s desperate not to crash their brains onto the middle of the road?
“Hey, that’s great but, I am not smiling when nobody smiles back at me”. But what if it started with oneself? Let’s be honest, we all are part of the problem to a certain degree. It is easy to blame it on others and say it’s “the Dutch” or “too many Italians” or “tourists go gome”. And we certainly can’t change the world at one go. What we can do is starting by setting the example ourselves (I am also self-talking here). How about each one of us start taking responsibility for ourselves, and taking the initiative to make it better? How about being the one who smiles in the first place? What about keeping on greeting people regardless of the outcome? How can each one of us contribute to make this place the most enjoyable it can possibly be? Could we just be nicer to each other? ‘Cause I think that’s something we could all benefit from.