The Netherlands offers a transient exploration of comfort, worldliness, absolutely zero stress and at times, dull predictability — all antithetical to the America I’ve known for years.
Relocating to Amsterdam after a decade in New York City and Los Angeles has proven to be more than a simple geographical shift. The language barrier is increasingly smaller as everyone speaks English, and trying to learn Dutch requires the adorning of a badge “Speak Dutch to me! Please!”, alongside a persistent insistence.
This makes both culture and social scenes carry a digestible point of entry; I’ve yet to attend a festival, show, cafe-outing or bar-hopping that didn’t cater to the universal language of English. Perhaps it’s also the lowest common denominator, and I am that low point. I’ll take it, as immigrating to America required seven years of E.S.L. classes (English as Second Language); running parallel to books-worth of complaints from my peers about the institutionally enforced requisite to take foreign language classes for a minimum of two years. Of which they could pick from a lavish buffet offering comprehensive Spanish, French, Mandarin or Japanese. Hardly torture.
School and early development
Academics has always been a point of departure between American and Dutch culture. In the States, the average high school graduating class (traditionally, 9th through 12th grade) has been over 700 students since the 1999-2000 academic year — a number so staggering that the average European student or graduate couldn’t, and shouldn’t, hope to relate to.
Schools are farms, with many of the elite college and universities functioning as major corporations, with satellite offices in every American Metropolis, and London of course… New York University has a campus in many more cities than just New York; the University of Southern California reaches far beyond its Los Angeles campus; and, the Ivy Leagues are so much more than their historically young campuses — young by European standards anyway.
I once saw a commemorative staircase in America that had been deemed a national monument due it its erection around the 1890s…not really a celebration-worthy feat for a country. Particularly one that hasn’t seen war on its soil for a century before this magnificent hill ascending device was erected for a purpose I still haven’t sorted out.
Growing up, I knew every one of my 25 classmates, their siblings, parents and after school activities. I knew the careers their parents had or didn’t have, if someone was sick or if there were changes in family dynamics. I could tell you about them as though they were first cousins, and you’d leave the conversation thinking we had a life long relationship.
Somehow, we do. I’d drop what I was doing at the sight of any one of them. A car purchase was shared news, as were vacation plans, and everything that happened over the weekend became Monday’s entertainment. We didn’t have social media. What a time. I recall only knowing people who could construct full sentences. We maintained planners and kept our plans, even without four calls and a bible verse of text exchanges.
What develops later in life is a greater sense of self. Kids ride their bikes to and from school with their friends. They understand how to function on their own two feet before they hit their late teens. A time where the average age group around them include the riskier early twenties guys trying to fish in a shallower pond, and unattainable women with minds of their own and curves I didn’t know they could have introduced you to rejection on a level some toughness might help you through…Where might that toughness come from? Perhaps the exposure to different and unknown ways of life found in the realities of your fellow students and friends.
The land of the free
America is all about achievement and working harder than the rest, often mistaking activity for accomplishment. Where the Dutch seek to find a balance between quality of life, and quality of work. You’ll make more money in America if you succeed, but you’ll work more and have less intangible value. In the Netherlands, you’ll live smaller, have less material wealth but a full work week supposedly won’t surpass forty hours and the idea of a second job is far from normal.
At this point in my life, the only people I know who have a single job make more than 150K a year and have very little to talk about outside of their income, and what happened in the 10 hours they were at the office today. With a few exceptions, as there always are. As a consequence, their place of employment becomes the halls of their high school, and the friends who don’t work there become memories to glorify between beer the hours of 4 and 6.
Connection to place
The United States has a lot to offer, most of which was there before anyone set sail, and some of it remains untouched. The American friends I have, and keep, who forgive my massive European bias — one they meet during those same beers — all have very specific relationships to places they love.
One, from Montana, absolutely loves where she’s from, and I must admit I’ve always been smitten by it, as my own mild nationalism sings a similar tune. Another loves the service he provides a nation that has ultimately given him a purpose in a capacity he’d never felt. A third finds tremendous freedom in the idea of freedom and it’s daily struggles.
Some balance perhaps
I’ve always regarded Europe as the place you grow up and raise your family, but America is the football pitch where you go to play the economic game of life. A place where you are tackled, get back up, hit them back, show them who’s best and work tirelessly till you are high enough up to look down. Then you can go home, sub out, and hope whoever comes on after you somehow highlights the things you could do and they can’t.
To most who drank the elixir of the rat race, the field feels like a never-ending track that has fixed outcomes, and horses on steroids only sold to some. But it makes you feel alive and active in a way only it can. You must be at your best, and on your A-game at all times.
Testing yourself against these stratospheric standards truly leaves one wanting when faced with a more relaxed Dutch narrative. One with an hour of work before the first coffee break, a question about price before quality, and less risk-taking.
Both arenas offer aspects which truly seem attractive in the contrast, but neither reigns supreme without the other to highlight its blessings. Similar to the dynamic between your resignation from the field of play and whoever replaces you. We need one another, and a vacation is only that, if you have a job to return to, otherwise you’re simply floating — which can be a great life.
What is your experience with these two countries? Let us know in the comments!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in May 2018 and was fully updated in January 2021 for your reading pleasure.
Feature Image: DutchReview/Canva