Welcome to Holland
by Amy Abdou
Major life changes should only happen every ten years. The preparation is never enough and if you had any idea what you were getting into, you'd never make the leap. You see the potential for a new life but long for comfort. It's a strange brew of emotions, pushes and pulls.
First off, there are immediate disadvantages to being the "foreigner". Daily, you are confronted with your own ignorance of other cultures and learned behavior patterns. You are likely to make a series of embarrassing mistakes that leave you feeling helpless. You see yourself reflected back in difference and in contrast. But you are gifted with a special view of the world you inhabit, a body of secret knowledge. My life's work has become the exploitation of this secret knowledge as the outsider within.
Secondly, when you want something, you have to be patient. In America, the land of immediate gratification, we are not long on patience. We expect that things will be done in one or two business days; paper work will arrive, moneys will be transferred, resolutions will occur. This is not the case in Holland and, by in large, in the rest of the world.
Thirdly, I thought when I came here I could recreate myself. And for sure, I am changed. But when you've passed a certain age, there are things about yourself that won't flex. For me, this has been the spirit of individuality. When you want to assimilate, there is a desire to sublimate one's individuality for the sake of fitting in. When I first came to Europe in 1989, I wanted to look European, act European and become European. Now, I am reluctant to let go of the things that make me unique, which in this case is my American identity. I am trying to see my individuality as a strength and not a barrier to assimilation. This has not prevented me from picking up bad habits like smoking cigarettes or good habits like riding a bike everywhere I go.
I am also trying not to hang on too tightly to the idea of home. With deference to Dorothy, this is hard and I can see why a lot of people would look for reasons to jump on the next plane. Frequently I wake up and don't know where I am. I'm home but home is unfamiliar. It's hard not to feel homeless. Especially since you know the longer you stay here, the less homelike the place you left feels.
Anyway- these are some early observations and I hope that in a few months I'll have learned more. As far as the music is concerned, I do find it easier to get work here, but I don't how much work I want. I really don't like playing cover tunes, but that's what people are familiar with, so if you can do it, it opens up a lot venues. And when people buy the CD, it's just me, so maybe it's a means to an end. It's strange though, you can connect with almost anyone at a gig. A footballer, a housewife, a former rock star. I have had bad gigs and good gigs and I will have more of both. At least here, I get paid to travel and see new things.
Currently, I have a regular gig in Amsterdam every Monday. I have convinced the owner of an Irish pub to let me host an open mic every Monday night. The first night, Johnny Dowd and his band came and played. He says Europe is the promised land for him. Good gigs, great food, nice people. I concurred, although he was breezing through Amsterdam and on his way to St. Petersburg. Now that's a gig.
I played in Sneek, Bergen op Zoom, Heerlen, Linnich Koffern: a lot of travel and small towns. Sneek was a birthday party. A good friend with whom I just became acquainted. was celebrating her birthday with her boyfriend and I was her present to him. I just had to play some songs and enjoy the party.
Let me say this about the Dutch. You think you party? Par-tay? Well, you ain't shit in Holland. The Dutch are party professionals. They have got it down to a science. The rugs are lined with plastic and every valuable is taken out of harm's reach. There is no shortage of beer or wine. There is often a DJ. Everyone is prepared to spend the night. The party gets rolling around 9PM. By 2AM, things kick into high gear. People are singing and dancing, passing joints and rousing any non-participants, it's pretty fuckin communal, or "gezellig" as they say- there is no English translation for this word but it is used to describe a social time and it means something like a cross between cozy and special. At 5AM the party's still chuggin along. There is a certain pacing to the Dutch party style that I quite admire. Everyone gets blotto but at a nice comfortable speed. As opposed to drinking hard to a point of self annihilation, the Dutch like everything in moderation all night long.
I think this is a major difference between the Americans and the Dutch. When Americans party- we party hard until we pass out, puke, or do irreparable damage to our relationships. By 3AM you're fucked. In Holland, everyone sort of mellows themselves out over the course of 8 hours and then passes out arm in arm on the floor around 6AM. Usually the host has provided mattresses for everyone, (the Dutch are big on spare mattresses) and you wake up next to fifteen people, drink a coffee or tea, kiss each person three times and go home. The other major difference is, unless it's a birthday party, everyone pays their own way. On the occasion of a birthday party, the birthday girl or guy pays for everything. If you're getting gifts you need to shell out, but otherwise it is completely acceptable to ask your guests for money. Makes sense, right?
Anyway, people will travel several hours for a good party or a sporting event but not much else. When I tell other Dutch musicians how far I am willing to go for a gig, they are shocked. "Omigod, that's over an hour away". And they have good public transportation so I don't get it. It's laziness. Bergen op Zoom was a three hour trek from Amsterdam and my Dutch band was not thrilled about having to make the journey. This was the first time we played as a band after meeting and rehearsing a few times in the states. The place turned into a madhouse, lots of drunken footballers screamin' for more. The Dutch guys couldn't get over the fact that I was selling the CDs so aggressively. "Hey, I'm an American. This is what we do, we sell you stuff." I signed every CD and by the end of the second night we sold out. Again, freaks want to help me get to the next level. I'm really not good at dodging this energy.
In Heerlen, ten minutes after I arrived the soon to be ex-manager of the club ran off with the till. Two of the bartenders jumped over the bar, ran down the street and tackled him. I figured it was going to be a tough night, no way to top that. They put me up in a really nice hotel and I got paid, so I bought some crazy European shoes. What the fuck, right?
I am still trying to network, meet the right people and all that. Apparently there is a dearth of good musicians around and unfortunately people who come to Amsterdam, in particular, tend to be fuck ups looking for an easy place to drop out of society, so a lot of folks have their guard up. There is nothing easy about coming here and trying to be a real citizen. The process is arduous and not intended to encourage the unemployable, the lazy or those short on finances. There are a lot of Americans here (ex-pats they are called) who don't learn the language, and don't assimilate into Dutch culture at all. This is not what I want to do. I want to find a place in Dutch society because I don't think I ever fit into American society completely.
I've seen some really cool shows at the Paradiso, which next to the Melkweg is the biggest rock club. It's an old church converted into a hip venue and we went to see Asian Dub Foundation, Ani DiFranco, de la soul ,and Bobby Conn, who were queerer than Queen and just as much fun. Fun, oh, just a fun fact; The Dutch feel the least amount of guilt compared to other cultures. Other Dutch trivia: The Dutch are the tallest people in the world. It is also a highly irreligious society, about 60% are agnostic or atheist.
There is a solid socialistic infrastructure. Most of the apartments in the center of town are owned by the city and regulated to make housing affordable. Unfortunately you have to wait for like ten years to get one, but it keeps the highest rent market from becoming exclusive. Food is cheaper. Transportation is cheaper. You can ride your bike everywhere; there are roads just for bikes. It's almost impossible to get fired from your job once you have a contract. Everyone gets six weeks paid vacation, from the fast food clerk to the high powered executive. In May alone, we had four national holidays. This is a culture of leisure. On a sunny day, the parks are full, whether it's the work day or weekend. Cafes are big business. People like to sit outside and have a drink with startling frequency.
There are a lot of IT jobs here and I am always being encouraged to sharpen my computer skills because the Dutch companies love to hire Americans. We, having matured in a society that prioritizes work, make better worker bees. The Dutch are like, fuck that noise. Someone said to me the phrase Dutch worker is an oxymoron. It's not that so much as work comes second to life. No one asks you what you do for a living here. They are more likely to ask where you are going on vacation. Priorities.
My roommate is a lovely woman in every way. We are both constantly talking men, careers and feminism and trying to figure ourselves out in the process. She's a writer and works part time at the film museum.
I feel a bit like a kid again. It's pretty fun to ride your bike home after a party or a night out drinking. No one thinks I'm American, they always guess French or English. Some people say they are relieved to have met me, that all their worst fears haven't been confirmed. This is because the media does a pretty good job of painting Americans as self absorbed, gun toting, hyper-consumers bent on destroying the world. I always tell them, you shouldn't believe everything you see on television.