Culture Comparison: Amsterdam

2 Dec

During the second half of my Reading Week, I went to the capital of the Netherlands, Amsterdam. This was a completely new experience for me, as I have never gone to a country that speaks a foreign language that I do not know on a conversational level. Because of this, my world got flipped upside down as soon as I got out of the shuttle bus.

When I entered the taxi I hailed to go to my hostel, I was attacked by the language barrier; my taxi driver was a refugee from Afghanistan, speaking Pashto, Dutch, and very minimal English. I couldn’t speak Dutch and didn’t even know what Pashto was, so I was in for a memorable ride.

I knew I wasn’t in America not only because of my physical displacement, but also because of the social interactions I had with the locals there. The taxi driver managed to tell me of his background in Afghanistan, informing me of how the United States gave the Taliban political group, the group he was physically rebelling against, a massive amount of money and weapons to fight the USSR. Because the US swayed the Taliban against his favor, he escaped to the Netherlands, learned Dutch, and started a new life. This amazed me in so many ways; not only was America not the center of the world for him, but it was also technically the nation that caused his crisis in the first place. I knew I wasn’t in an Americanized nation when I could have a conversation criticizing the historic actions of the United States on such a personal level.

The language barrier never really ended until I left; I just got used to it. At first I felt ashamed when I blatantly told the driver to go to the “Hostel Van Gogh” in a completely American accent and having him look at me like I had three heads; after many attempts to get him to understand where to go, he exclaimed “Oh! The Hostel Van..” and then proceeded to make a series of throat movements, as if he was coughing up a hairball. That was when it finally sank in that I wasn’t in a country that collectively spoke a language I knew nothing about.

As I stayed in the city, I realized how similar Dutch really was to English and the Romance languages. With both English and Dutch being children of a Germanic and Latin background, it was interesting to sometimes understand a local perfectly as if he was speaking English with a radical accent. It was because of this reason that the locals who spoke English could speak it with such a good accent; every time I asked for directions and they replied with a borderline American accent, I couldn’t help but commend them for doing so. Never in my life have I seen a culture that could copy a foreign one so perfectly.

Just like its linguistic background, Amsterdam’s aesthetic background looked like a weird hybrid between a Germanic style and French style. Its buildings were stocky and made of brick, but there were plazas, Roman-style bridges, and coffee shops as far as the eye could see. For political reasons I will not talk about said coffee shops, but they did embrace and emphasize the legal difference between Amsterdam and Dublin or Boston.

Unlike my trip to Florence, the cultural difference between Amsterdam, Dublin, and Boston was less focused on the city’s aesthetics and much more focused on its people. The Dutch were literally as friendly as the people of Dublin, in every sense, as they offered me directions and drugs alike. The amount of homogeny was higher than expected, as if the tourists vanished during the day and only appeared with the moon; however, the linguistic knowledge of the Dutch, in general, will never cease to amaze me. I definitely recommend Amsterdam as a place to go before one dies, as it is a unique place with a genuinely unique community; because of that culture, I will never look at the world the same way again.

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– John Miranda

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