It’s the transition which hits you. From begging your interlocutor to understand you—to even bend a little in your direction—to being understood so effortlessly but still being in an unfamiliar place. This is traveling from France to Amsterdam.
In France, making an effort to speak French is mandatory; yet still everyone looks at you as if you’re asking them to donate a kidney when you ask a question in broken French. I freely admit, the extent of my French used to end not much farther than correcting cold-callers’ pronunciation of my surname. Now, after three days in France, I can say all sorts: but still can’t get a point across or ask for a baguette without goose-gizzard on.
I will, however, never pick up any Dutch by being in Amsterdam. As soon as you say ‘Halo’, in your best-imitation of Dutch pronunciation, the person behind the counter/hovering over your table/behind the glass will immediately ask you how you are doing in English. This is true 100% of the time—unless your accent was bad enough to give them the impression you’re French or Spanish, in which case, they’ll usually answer your question in that supposed language. Of course, I’ve always heard that the Dutch can all speak flawlessly in multiple languages even while being full of cannabis; but I’m still incredibly impressed.
Touching on that last point, I can’t help but feel it’s a horrible, international misconception about the Dutch. The overwhelming impression I have got while passing coffeeshops here, is that the vast majority of the ‘customers’ are anything but Dutch. I seem to remember reading somewhere (a pitiful excuse for not remembering a source or making it up altogether) that the Nederlands has lower per-capita cannabis consumption than the UK. If this is true, I would not be surprised in the least. I am not inclined in the least to explore this hypothesis further by sampling, as it were, the population: I’ve seen too many mates act like toddlers to be tempted with such herbalism. I will say that coffeeshops are everywhere in Amsterdam, and that I’m impressed (if that’s the right term) by the diversity of ‘clients’ I’ve seen. (Most cafes, bars and coffeeshops have a beer-garden or patio on the pavement.) Anyone from middle-aged, chubby americans to rasta-looking folks with dreads and hemp-clothes. Anyone from middle-class, dirt-poor, whatever: but very few speaking Dutch.
I get the impression from Amsterdam that most of it is set up for the non-Dutch. There can’t be enough Hollanders who want phallus salt-cellars to demand the supply I’ve seen. That’s something not confined to the red-light district, either. I’ve seen so many different penis-shaped items in the past two days, I’m starting to wonder what can’t be phallisised.
But, it kind of feels like all that stuff’s only there because it’s supposed to be.
“Amsterdam for penises.” “Amsterdam for spliffs.” Actually, it’s impossible to miss, but easy to ignore. This is largely because the city is wonderful. Not because of it’s ‘known-for’ features like prostitutes, coffee-shops and seks-shows, but because it’s laid-back culture that makes it possible for all of these things to be. I’m not drawn to these things, and I see them more as a side-effect of some relaxation that’s deeper.
Anyway, I’m off for a lager and lunch. The beer’s good, but I can’t actually drink it for breakfast, I’m afraid. I’m afraid I’ve been too British/American to drink before the yardarm’s past the whatsit… but it’s 12:30 now, so that should be good!