Sunday, August 17, 2008

Orange County Resort

It's only starting to sink in now, a little over a week after getting here, that I'm living in the Netherlands for four more months. Hard as it is to believe, I'm here until December. If you all ask for Christmas is me, your only potential present will be jetlagged, mostly unpacked, and shocked that life has suddenly gotten a third cheaper and Mexican food is available without the need for extreme suspicion. I'm not quite used to the idea that I'm not just on vacation. For now though, on a day-to-day basis, I feel comfortable here.

To be fair, this country wouldn't rate a triple black-diamond difficulty for adjustment. When I first heard that most people speak English here, I had thought that meant the majority of the Dutch would have the same relationship with English that I have with Spanish: they would have some half-assed handle on things and understand me occasionally by thinking back to various middle school English video projects. I expected that this, in turn, would require me to awkwardly mispronounce sentences from a pocket phrasebook and gesture at stuff in order to meet basic survival needs. In fact, almost all the Dutch I've run into speak English surprisingly well, and many are fluent. It's to the point where almost all of them understand me when I'm talking at a normal pace, which doesn't even go for all Americans. And since Dutch, like our good friend English, is a Germanic language, you can figure out what a lot of written Dutch probably means by sounding it out and removing a few unnecessary "Js" and "Ks".

Culturally, there's not a lot of shock to deal with. For one thing, there are only token amounts of obesity and homelessness here. The token part is comforting to me, as it keeps me from being suspicious that all of them have been rounded up and placed at the bottoms of this country's many canals. Most notably, everybody here bikes when they're going around town. In all those ways, it's like the city of Davis on crack. There are bikes lanes everywhere, absolutely everywhere. Bikes are locked up everywhere on the street, often in massive clusters, and in between the two towers of my current dorm building, there's a massive fenced bicycle garage that holds hundreds of them stored row after row. Biking here is so commonplace, that between the city center of Utrecht and the college campus where I'm staying, the only people walking are us Americans.

"Us Americans" means the fifty-five of us, all UC students doing an introductory session on Dutch language and culture. We're staying in Utrecht, which is south of Amsterdam, thirty minutes by train. After the session ends on Friday, we go on to one of four different host universities. Coming into the country with this many Californians has certainly eased the transition as well. A week and half ago, we began our Dutch adventure as one massive pack of blatantly obvious foreigners walking back and forth between town and the dorms, creating quite the sight (as well as a serious biking obstacle) for the Dutch.

In those first few days, that pack shifted and shuffled within itself, as everybody met everybody, exchanging the basic identifying information of "Where are you from? Where do you go? Where are you going?". Gradually, our inwardly-faced, wholeheartedly un-Dutch pack began to split, sometimes on lines of home schools or host schools, housing assignment, Greek affiliation or major, sociability or personality, amount of beer drunk or weed smoked, happenstance proximity, but usually a combination of them all. Like a cell dividing, we began traveling to class, bars, Amsterdam in smaller and smaller groups, more homogeneous and compatible, but most importantly, more functional.

This social phenomenon has served more purpose than just reminding me of summer camps, freshman year of high school, or my first-year dorm. The splitting off and group formation are allowing us to blend in. Some have noticed the check-out clerks at Albert Heijn, one of the local supermarkets, have stopped immediately speaking English to us now that they don't see a mass of fifteen confused looking students ambling around the store. A few clerks have started carrying on conversations in Dutch, leading us to nod and reply "Ja" when appropriate to continue passing as natives, or at least some indeterminate Western ethnicity (for us whities, at least). Now that we aren't an impenetrable mass of sheer numbers, it's easier for the Dutch to talk to us at bars. We have succeeded in becoming comfortable with ourselves, and now we can turn outward. The transition has begun.

Yesterday, on a trip to Rotterdam that I will tell you more about later, a group of us went to the Nederlands Fotomuseum (which, obviously, translates to 'Netherlands Crack Cocaine and Rocket Launchers Museum'. I told you, easy, right?) The featured exhibit, So Blue So Blue, was a collection of 60 photos taken all in various countries bordering the Mediterranean sea. The photographer Ad Van Denderen, whose name might as well be proof of Dutch citizenship, focused on social and political issues, many of them related to tourism. Included in the exhibit was this picture, taken in Kemer, Turkey:

The caption: "Orange County resort is a replica of Amsterdam. In front of the entrance stands the Dutch National War Monument. It attracts mainly Dutch and Russian tourists. At 8 o'clock every morning, a cock crows from the loudspeakers and the day's program begins."

This picture reminds me of the beginning of my time here. Having left California thousands of miles behind, I arrived in a new place to hang out with 54 other Californians, just like the Dutch vacation in Turkey in a replica of their own capital city with fellow Dutch. Yet while the photo fills me with serious doubts about parts of human nature, my beginning here gives me some faith in our workings. We all arrived here in our own Orange County resort, in a partial replica of our homeland, at least in that we are in a dorm surrounded by our own. But we are not staying. In a lot of ways, we've all begun venturing out from our packs, traveling in fewer and fewer numbers, and, with a little help from our friends, really entering the Netherlands. There are even a few here, those staying in Utrecht after Friday who don't have the burden of moving again, who have really crossed over. They have bikes.