I know how it is. You spent a few days in Amsterdam, right? Everyone really did speak English. That included the cute people you danced with at the Cock Ring, not to mention the purveyors of cannabis at one of the zillion Grasshoppers. There was no guilt at all attached to smoking, drinking, or the eating of red meat, and even though you're American, nobody blamed you for Dubya's sins. About the only thing you couldn't do with complete societal approval was have sex with animals. (Bestiality is against the law in the Netherlands. Sorry.) And there was a moment, walking to the Rijksmuseum, a warm glow moving from your lungs to your blossoming imagination, when you thought: Oh my God--wouldn't it be great to live here?
I've been here since last November. And I can tell you: There are a lot of great things about the Netherlands. Yes, you can buy cannabis and sex legally. Gay marriage? Absolutely. Abortions--no problem. Religious freedom, and that damned tolerance everyone talks about? It's all true. There's also terrific health insurance, easy recycling at the grocery store, green energy, and the overwhelming fucking charm of the place, with its history, fine art, fascinating architecture, and functioning windmills.
But living here has not been without... its adjustments.
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Persuaded by my cousin and his husband to celebrate the 2002-2003 New Year in Amsterdam, I bought an airline ticket with my last functional credit card. It was just going to be me and a bunch of adorable gay men partying for 10 days: Karen with a bevy of bilingual Jacks, dancing, drinking, smoking, and snorting into early January. I arrived on December 30, 2002, and as Fate would have it, met the world's sweetest, cutest, blond, blue-eyed, 10-years-younger-than-me Dutch guy at a dinner party the next night. Of course, I thought he was gay, which always makes a gal feel so much more relaxed, but as we all piled into taxis to head for a New Year's party, he put his hand on the back of my neck and, well, the upshot is that I fell in love, and a very long-distance relationship began.
I returned to the Netherlands in March 2003 for a couple of weeks, he came to Seattle for the month of June--then a decision had to be made. We didn't want to be apart. And because of his more established lifestyle, which included a steady job, home ownership, and a tight relationship with his family, the natural outcome was that I move to Schiedam. I had less to give up by moving--except, of course, for my friends, a messy and exciting love affair, and the only house in Beacon Hill that could still be had for under $500 a month. I also had a part-time job at a nice nonprofit, some light freelancing with nice local magazines, and a connection to the natural beauty of the region.
Nevertheless, after an extraordinary amount of notarized paperwork, luggage crammed with my favorite artwork, a kilim, vitamins, and art supplies, plus a drugged cat stowed under the seat in front of me and two six-packs of Pike Brewery Kilt Lifter Ale in the overhead bin, I found myself flying to Schiphol Airport on the one daily direct flight Northwest Airlines makes from Seattle to Amsterdam. I was on my way to Holland to become Rob's "registered partner"--not quite as serious as a marriage, but definitely committed. Soon I would be living in his hometown, a small city near Rotterdam, where I would have to wait three months for my Partner Reunification visa and another month to get the official paperwork proclaiming me a member of the community. Although the misery of homesickness, culture shock, and a winter that made Seattle look like fucking South Beach almost did me in emotionally, I'm lucky--this type of visa, for which the application fees were about $500, is the most reasonably priced way of entering the country. Others, lacking a partner with whom to reunify, have to wait nine months or more--and pay more--for a work visa.
This is the first thing anyone fantasizing about moving to the Netherlands needs to know: It's not just the work visas that are pricey. Everything here costs money; more than you can believe. Two medium Domino's pizzas will set you back about $25. There's an enormous tax on consumer items, meaning that a pair of Levi's costs 60 euros ($75) on sale, and a new CD is 18 or 19 euros ($23). Want a car? You'll have to have it certified as roadworthy once a year (which costs money) and pay a monthly road tax as well as insurance, which can add an annual 500 euros to your transportation costs. That wonderful green energy? You have to pay for it up front every winter, and the "surcharge" over last year's bill was about 250 euros. So if you had dreams of coming here and living on the cheap in a friend's back bedroom while illicitly working at some cute little cafe or coffee shop, fuhgedaboudit. Nothing here is cheap, with the exception of freshly baked bread, cannabis, chocolate--oh, and Heineken beer, which is about 40 cents a bottle.
As for living here illegally, well, when I first started working on this article back in December, I couldn't see any way a person could live here illegally--Holland just seemed too expensive, too well-regulated, and too complicated. But now I know better. Rotterdam is the largest port by volume in the world, and plenty of people come and live here illicitly, supported by friends and family, working as nannies, street prostitutes, and cleaning ladies. But a hidden life--particularly one in which you're blowing strangers or changing diapers (or, God forbid, both)--is no fun. And if you're caught without all your paperwork, without checking in with the "Foreign Police" within a week of arrival, without proof you can support yourself, it's a nasty, hasty, and heartless deportation for you.
Once you are legally employed, however, you can appreciate the other side of all the red tape and control. If you sign your employment contract and pass your month's probation period, it is harder to fire you than to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The average Dutch worker gets 25 vacation days per year, as well as nine national holidays. The 40-hour work week is fairly new (formerly it was 37 hours); so that further money wouldn't have to be paid, the government decided to convert those extra three hours per week into more vacation days. Vacation pay, 8% of your annual gross income (taxed, of course!), is delivered in your May pay packet. Health insurance is mandatory, universal, and while the care it affords may not be what Americans are used to, it's there, dammit. I know this because I have, amazingly, just gotten an incredible, marvelous job at the Rotterdam School of Management, a division of Erasmus Universiteit. I actually get a paid pension, 12 extra days of vacation time, and an annual bonus (known here as "the 13th Month").
Now, this is an astonishing moment for me: Last January would have marked my ninth anniversary in Seattle, which, while it feels like home in many ways, was a sort of spiritual boot camp. My Seattle reinvention included the loss of an almost-solvent freelance writing career in L.A. (I wrote largely about beauty and fashion, and in the Pacific Northwest these concerns were basically about how to keep facial piercings from crusting up and the prevention of chapped lips), a diagnosis of cancer a year after my arrival, my subsequent recovery, and the decision to get my BFA at Cornish College, opening up the possibility of working for an art materials store for $8.50 an hour; then there was the lack of energy and drive spurred by SAD, the humiliation of being perpetually broke, and my expensive addiction to cannabis. Now here I am in a committed relationship with a darling guy, living in a really charming (although fucking freezing) house, and taking the metro to an ideal job. It's like waking up in Uma Thurman's body or something.
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Did I mention that I don't live in Amsterdam? I live in Schiedam, a town that does have its charms, although you've almost certainly never heard of it. Many Americans don't seem quite sure what Holland is exactly. It's not just Amsterdam--and Amsterdam is not, as Bruce Willis recently told Dutch TV reporters, "a great country." It is a city, like Schiedam, in the country of the Netherlands (what we Americans like to call "Holland"). And the language spoken in the Netherlands is Dutch--which is where expressions like "going Dutch" and "Dutch uncle" come from. This is the most persistently confusing thing for Americans: When I said I was moving to the Netherlands, people thought it was variously Denmark, Norway, or Iceland. Nope.
Schiedam is a town of 150,000, famous for its windmills and the local production of jenever, a potent distilled liquor. The majority of the city was built around 1930, and even in the slightly nasty part of town (which isn't really very bad), the apartments have extraordinary art deco stained-glass windows. There's a recently remodeled central station with a metro that will get you to the center of Rotterdam within 10 minutes, and you can catch a train most anywhere--A'dam of course, or Delft or Utrecht. There are historic canals, a teensy museum, a tattoo parlor, some decent restaurants and cafes, and a single coffee shop--Fat Freddy's Cat--which does not sell coffee at all.
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Okay, enough with the geography lesson. I know what you've all been wondering about, Stranger readers--the bud. So I will now offer facts and dispel myths about cannabis, its social acceptability and above-boardness, here in smallish-town Holland, meanwhile delineating the meaning and limits of Dutch tolerance. There really is a menu at Fat Freddy's, which--unlike coffee shops in other cities--sells not by the gram but by the bag: 6-euro bags and 12-euro bags, at roughly 1.4 and 2.8 grams respectively. Weight varies according to strain, and there are four or five varieties available, as well as hash and joints (which are hash or cannabis rolled with tobacco). The bud is fragrant and dry. If I wanted to grow my own, I could--something like five plants for personal use. Easy peasy, right?
Not really. My first weekend in Schiedam, I'm happily smoking at home. And I realize that there is stage cough coming from upstairs, a flurry of windows being loudly closed, and ultimately the beetle-browed, snorting disapproval of our next-door neighbor as he rolls his bicycle through the back garden.
See, this is where that famous Dutch tolerance comes into question: Just because the Netherlands has very reasonably seen fit to decriminalize cannabis does not mean the average Netherlander wants your aromatic intrusion into his or her life. Sex trade: same thing. Again, brothels have been provided for your pleasure; but that NUMBA attitude (Not Under My Bloody Apartment) persists. This is because privacy is, in the Netherlands, a conceptual space as opposed to a physical one. Most Dutch homes, which are vertical, share walls with three different neighbors--one to each side and one on top. And from the swankiest pad to the skankiest, walls are thin: In fact there is no aspect of daily life that is not shared. You cannot make love, fight, shit, practice the guitar, sauté garlic, remodel, or get pregnant without everyone knowing. By extension, you cannot smoke pot or give hand jobs for money without everyone knowing.
So, my darling Potheads, it's not a total paradise for you here. The Dutch are pragmatic; a nation of burghers, they realize that soft drugs and hard sex are commodities that can be sold for good money--but you don't want to rub their substantial noses in the fact that you're buying those things. Pervs fare better: Availing oneself of the sex trade is, in fact, a lot more discreet than smoking a bowl because you have to leave your house--and your neighbors--to go to a brothel.
There is a teensy brothel in Schiedam, but unlike the red-light districts of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, it just looks like an apartment building, perhaps due to the fact that it stands across the street from a supermarket frequented by veiled Islamic housewives. Again, if you're thinking of coming here to work in a ho house, that's marvelous. But be aware that you'll have to join the union! Pay taxes! Compete with a gorgeous rainbow of other sex workers! Just as it's technically illegal for coffee shops to buy cannabis--they can only sell it, which is this weird conundrum, because where the hell did it come from?--street prostitution is illegal; the legal ambiguities of the Netherlands, however, have led the city council of Rotterdam to okay the construction of what I can only describe as "shagging stalls" around the docks of Rotterdam, sort of like carports for screwing, a bit more dignified and slightly safer than getting into a stranger's car or fucking against a building in a snowstorm.
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Okay. Now that I've discussed the topics you really were interested in, I can offer up some quick observations about Dutch culture. I often feel like I'm in some tweaked parallel universe. Things are the same... but so different.
Coffee: Remarkably, here in the land of the cafe, the coffee blows. I'm in Europe, dammit--so put down that fucking cigarette and offer me some organic Sumatran beans! Please make me a soy mocha! Yeah--in my dreams. Even my restaurateur brother-in-law buys tins of Lavazza espresso. And for some weird reason, flavored instant coffees are adored by the Dutch.
Language: The Dutch can almost universally speak a bit of English, and they are proud of the fact that it takes them, like, four months to learn to convincingly speak obscure Tuscan dialects. This is because the Dutch language is in itself so twisted, full of tortured vowel sounds and grunted, half-swallowed consonants, that the palate is hyperathletic. Some days I feel as though a very hard, salty cheese is being grated on my eardrum. Here are some Dutch words I love: Assepoester: Cinderella. Zetpil: Suppository. Kunstpenis: Dildo. Poesje: A little cat. Snoep: Candy.
Music: I was horrified by the universally lowbrow taste in popular music, but I'm over that, largely because (1) most taste in popular music is lowbrow, and (2) we now have broadband cable service that allows me to listen to KEXP live, which means I get to hear all the fabulous way-early DJs during the day. It saves me from Kelis, Eminem, Beyoncé, and endless crap from girl groups like Atomic Kitten, I'm-never-going-away acts like Golden Earring, and the pure schlag of Frans Bauer (the Dutch John Denver). And it allows me to be happy that Nada Surf occasionally tours in Belgium, and that Franz Ferdinand is just eight hours away in Glasgow.
TV: I want to learn Dutch, but really--it's just so weird to sit, remote in hand, surfing through Dutch versions of Fear Factor, Temptation Island, and even Sesaam Straat. This season has brought such delights as Villa Rubens (a sort of Paradise Hotel for really, really large people), Voetbal Vrouwen, which is about the wives of soccer players, and a celebrity Survivor knock-off featuring Dutch VIPs. While American television is being cleansed of sex in the wake of Janet Jackson's boob, there's actual sex on TV here, although it is governed by a weird set of rules. Apparently girl-on-girl stuff is okay--tongues, pussies, etc. --but once there's a guy in the mix, his head or his ass has to obscure all the action.
The Dutch Themselves: I'm too close now, so read Simon Schama. I particularly recommend The Embarrassment of Riches. Their ingenuity has allowed them to reclaim half their country from the sea. White Dutch people can trace their lineage back to early Germanic tribes, which explains their resistance to wearing gloves or hats or adequate clothing during freezing-ass weather; it's considered kind of pussy to want to be comfortable. They have noses--always something distinct about the nose, be it a bump, a hook, or a little potato-like thing on the end. Mixed-race and non-European Dutch people--many of them Islamic fundamentalists--come in glorious colors with unexpected physical traits, like people who look Asian but have bright blue eyes. Cleanliness is the true Dutch fetish--these people live to clean, I tell you. They beat their bedding in the morning, they run their vacuums and scrub their front stairs daily. The yin to this yang is dog shit, about which neither animal nor owner seems to have any conscience. Dog droppings encrust the sidewalks, obscure the grass in parks, stink up the beaches. However, I have never seen a dirty toilet in the Netherlands, not even in a truck stop.
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I do miss things about Seattle. Deeply and painfully. Above and beyond my dear friends. I miss how fucking sloppy you can be in Seattle and still get away with it. The "benign neglect" approach to fashion and beauty is just not acceptable here. I miss Vietnamese food. Mexican food. Being able to blast the home stereo. Back yards. Georgetown News and Video, and anyone who has ever worked there.
But I don't know if I'll ever move back to Seattle, or the States for that matter. I am happier than I've ever been, freed from a lot of personal misery. And leaving the States during the Reign of Dubya was also the perfect time to go.
So if you want to come, give it a shot. If you've got a Dutch partner, or someone who'll pretend to be, you've got it made--but bring all your paperwork and plenty of money. If you don't have a Dutch friend, bring more money. And if, God forbid, Bush is reelected, jump through every bureaucratic hoop you can to get here, or anywhere. I hear Portugal is nice.
Lesa Sawahata is a freelance writer and artist, late of Seattle.