What I've learned about adapting to Dutch culture in my first weeks abroad

By CECILIA VORFELD | September 13, 2018

A8_Amsterdam

COURTESY OF MARCO ALMBAUER/CC BY-SA 3.0

 Amsterdam, where Vorfeld is studying, is known for its picturesque canals and gorgeous views.

Hello there! I am writing to you today from almost 4,000 miles away, in a charming café on the bank of a gorgeous canal, among the busy chitchat of the everyday Amsterdammers (the café is called De Drie Graefjes — would definitely recommend their red velvet cake!). 

I can only imagine that you are all currently persevering through the last bit of Baltimore’s hot and humid summer, rushing for the shelter of perfectly air-conditioned Brody, where you inevitably find yourself a place to perch among the party of classmates to start the grind of the new academic year. 

In comparison, where I am sounds rather idyllic. Yet, I am sure they’ll be moments when I wish I were back at Hopkins, back with my friends and everything familiar to me. 

For this fall semester, however, I am here to share those ups and downs with you about my time as a student abroad. Obviously not physical up and downs, other than the occasional canal bridge.

Everything is so unfamiliar and new to me here, but I kind of like that. That’s why taking a moment to stop and observe is one of my favorite things to do. 

Immersing myself in a new culture, really appreciating what’s around me and taking it in, becoming just like everyone else in my own unique way. Isn’t that why I’m here in the first place? 

There is the stereotypical Dutch “look” of being blonde, blue-eyed and tall, but here in this multicultural, tolerant and bustling hub, you don’t need to be that to fit in. The diversity is limitless. 

Sitting here with my laptop open, coffee at the ready, gazing out the window at the natural course of life taking place in between the enchanting canal houses, I become inconspicuous. 

People treat me like I’ve lived here my whole life. They just don’t know that I am a total fraud, with my many laptop stickers from Hopkins, my Americano coffee and sheepish look when they babble in Dutch to me. 

I like how everyone can find a home here in Amsterdam. I think it is due to its longstanding acceptance of people from wherever they came, whoever they may be, doing what they want to do, side by side. 

That’s my ultimate goal over these next few months: to find a place I can call home in Amsterdam.

One could say that having a Dutch father does already give me a head start. I use my speaking skills to the best of my ability to communicate clearly without reverting to English. 

I may have the Dutch language to help me get along in the city and mingle with my neighbors, but even that isn’t necessary to call Amsterdam your home. The Dutch are the most proficient English speakers in the world outside the Anglosphere.

I’ve even tried using my Dutch to order food and was rebuffed with a reply in English! It is certainly a friendly city to all kinds of people, even if you don’t speak the native tongue. 

So if the Dutch language isn’t necessary to be recognized as an inhabitant of this rich cultural capital, and you don’t need to have the stereotypical Nordic physical traits, what’s left?

After taking a closer look these past few days, if you truly want to fit in, I would recommend buying yourself a marinière, otherwise known as your typical shirt with horizontal navy and white stripes. It’s a must! They are simply everywhere. 

I believe the marinière is typically French, hence the French name, and characteristically associated with seamen in the navy, but I see it on a daily basis in the streets of this city built on water.

I myself have acquired three different versions of this type of shirt. It’s essential. Even before embarking on my journey here, our study abroad program gave us a list of fashion tips, among words of advice, from former students about what to pack. 

One of their pearls of wisdom was that “grunge-chic” was the dress code, with no students ever daring to wear sweatpants or leggings but always seeming comfortable in their attire. This is certainly true. 

Another great tip was acquiring layers and tights. How right they were! 

The weather is so changeable that you can go from fierce wind and rain to sweating from the sunshine and humidity all in one bike ride.

The tights are a must when wearing skirts or dresses, unless you have some very nice underwear you would like to show the world, because once you’re on that bike, it will most certainly turn windy when you least expect it, and you’ll be holding your dress down, while also trying to motion, text or any such activity. It can be quite the Herculean task!

I like to pretend I am a true local, but these things don’t happen overnight. Thus, I look forward to sharing my journey with you as I go from one of Amsterdam’s 17,620,000 yearly visitors to becoming one of the 180 nationalities that live harmoniously among one another.

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