Wednesday 19 September 2012

Visit a new country

What springs to mind when you think of Amsterdam? Coffee shops and cannabis? The red light district? Or perhaps tulips and canals? For me, the one thing that jumps out as the defining feature of the trip there is the people.

I could tell you all about sitting on a beach with Darth Vader, an astronaut and the Dutch Prime Minister (actual reality, not any drug induced hallucinations).* But obviously I know you would much rather me ramble on about how nice people are.

Get out the way fellow tourists! I <3 amsterdam.
Thanks to my personal photographer Chloe for the pics

I’ve travelled to a few countries, and I find, in general, it’s the people you meet that make or break a trip. But it’s rare that you return from a country and the first thing you tell people about when they ask you about it is the people.

Within minutes of stepping off the ferry, we had our first dose of Dutch hospitality. There we were, three girls, loaded up with all our worldly possessions (way too much for a 3 day trip) and looking a bit confused as we tried to work out whether the train at the platform would take us towards the city. One of us finally plucked up the courage to ask somebody nearby (although none of us spoke a word of Dutch, and, I’m ashamed to admit still do not. Except for Hallo). In response we got some very competent directions telling us we can get on that train and where we need to change to catch the train into Amsterdam (in fluent English). So far, so ‘averagely polite and friendly’.

It was only once we were on the train, and the man who we had chosen to ask was approaching his own stop that we really experienced the true ‘completely out of their way’ helpfulness that characterised the trip. As the train pulled into a station, the man headed back towards us and handed over a drawn out map in telling us exactly the stops we had to go through before we changed trains. It came complete with a ‘helpline’ number and a note wishing us luck and a fun holiday. The map was so well drawn that we never had the need to test the ‘helpline’ – so I cannot confirm whether it really was a genuine offer of assistance or simply a guise to get three young(ish) foreign women to call you up. But, given the well-drawn detail of the map, we were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

We all <3 Amsterdam
And the trend continued; from the helpful hostel staff who would offer to pick you up if you missed the last bus back to beach town we were staying in, to the people who could hear you were lost on the street and stop their own conversations to help you. From the tour guide who sat and had a drink with you after, marking out places on your map and giving museum recommendations to people who would willingly translate Dutch public transport announcements for you so you knew you would end up where you wanted to go.

Probably one of the best examples, and one of the highlights of the trip, was when were invited to play a drinking game with the beach hostel staff. As well as very generous refills on the beer (even after one of my friends decided to spill a full pint all over everybody) everybody round the table made a point of talking in English at all times. Even though we were the only two native English speakers playing. It’s well noted that many other countries put us to shame when it comes to learning and speaking multiple languages, but I think this point really is highlighted when you share a table with five people able to make jokes about teabagging (don’t ask Grandma) and the most complicated conversations you can manage in any other language generally goes along the lines of “My name is Emma and I am 12 years old. What is your name?”

I know I have generalised a lot in this post – The Dutch are this, the Dutch are that, the English are terrible at speaking other languages – but I feel it paints a very accurate picture of our experiences in Holland. We found no exceptions to these rules. Even the English men handing out free posters an event on the beach, who had lived there for a couple of years, said they had learnt very little Dutch as it was far easier for them to understand the local people’s English than for the locals to understand their attempts at Dutch.  

Maybe it’s the fact that only 51 per cent of Amsterdamers are of Dutch origin, meaning that nearly half of those living in the city were not actually born in the Netherlands.** But, if I was writing a guidebook, I would put the people as the number one reason to visit the country.

* This was at a space-themed festival in the beach town of Noordwijk where we were staying to welcome back AndrĂ© Kuipers from the International Space Station. It was attended by the Dutch Prime Minister, along with a load of people dressed up as Star Wars characters. I know you still think I was on drugs. So here's some pictorial evidence. 

Looking scared with Darth
Us with Andre. Ok, so it is a cardboard cut-out,
but I promise he was there. 

** It doesn’t, however, explain this

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