International students laugh about Dutch people’s crazy antics

Everything in the Netherlands needs mayonnaise, foto 123RF, Peter Zijlkstra

“I’m Max, and I’m an alcoholic. I came for the free beer.” Laughter fills the room after this confession from a young, cute Ukrainian boy, neat haircut, sides shaved, a little fluff of brown hair on top. I didn’t come to an AA session, but to a Time Space meeting. Time Space is an initiative that was started by four former UU students, whose roots all lie in Russia. They wanted to create opportunities for all students to engage in conversation more. Today’s meeting is for the newly arrived international students, who get an hilarious introduction to the craziness of Dutch culture. “The one word you need to know, is ‘gezellig’. Use it for everything, and all will be well.”

Tips for integration
Telling stories about the weird Dutch culture is the central theme of the night: a culture of sitting in circles at birthday parties, stroopwafels, everything being ‘gezellig’, biking, directness, and more biking. “If you’re ever late to anything, just say your bike was broken,” a man named Slava says, to the delight of others. “Or blame the trains.”

Bicycles are a recurring theme. Tips are shared on how to steal one without breaking the law (much). You go the bike depot, where ‘stray bikes’, and bikes that were parked in the wrong spots, end up, with the message that you lost a black women’s bike. Then you search for a nice-looking one that doesn’t have a lock, give them 20 euros, and voilà – you have your bike. To me – someone as Dutch as Gouda cheese – this integration tip is news, too.

The world of well-traveled students
“I love the western freedom. Smoking pot is fantastic.” In between the discussions, I talk to a cheerful young man from Saudi Arabia. Before he came to the Netherlands, he did a bachelor’s in the United States. Like Max, he has since learned that drugs and alcohol are universal. He’s not homesick, he says. “Where I’m from, you get arrested if you drink alcohol. What’s more, everyone is alike; there’s hardly any room for individuality. I feel much more at home here.”

The foreign student is a research object in itself. A separate culture, even if they hail from all over the world. You can recognize them by their social skills, acquired through their travels: they glide through conversations like anacondas through the rainforest.  They’re frighteningly intelligent. Come from intellectual families. Are dangerously ambitious, and study things with scary names like Law & Economics, or Finance & Control. They laugh a lot, and speak English fluently, often with a heavy, American accent. Use the word ‘like’ wherever they can – just as Dutch people use their ‘zeg maar’. “In Holland there is, like, no good food, and like, no sun.”

“It’s so cold here! I wonder what it’s like in the winter. Do you guys ride your bikes in winter, too?” I’m talking to Isadora, a girl from Cyprus who’s here for a master’s in Musicology. She sighs in exasperation when I tell her the weather’s only going to get worse from here on out. Aside from the temperature, she’s surprised about the lack of available housing. She’s been here for two weeks and has zero prospects for a room. “Why are there so few housing options for students? Has no one come up with a solution to this problem yet?” Excellent question.

Dutch people are weird
Visiting this meeting as Dutch person – like myself – you feel what it’s like to be a foreigner. I experience a funny feeling of being an outsider, hearing these people talk about things that are completely normal to me. What is so weird about Dutch people? He’s cool and direct. They always pay with their debit cards. They’re absurdly punctual and plan a coffee date two weeks in advance. They greet each other with three kisses on the cheeks, which is a lot, or too much, depending on who you ask. They love fries, eat it at least three times a week, and drown them in mayonnaise. Everything in the Netherlands is flat. Everything in the Netherlands needs mayonnaise.

A girl from Norway wonders about our rivers, which she says look like canals. A Mexican boy is confused about having to RSVP to his in-laws’ Christmas get-together. A British girl almost broke up with her boyfriend because he was so direct. They think the food is gross and the language is ugly: “That GGG sounds like you’re regurgitating a hair ball,” someone says. This is not a place for people who vote for (extreme right wing politician) Wilders: far too many foreigners, who, to add insult to injury, enthusiastically tear Dutch culture to pieces.

Mishmash of oddities                          
As a true Dutch person, I can only describe the night as gezellig. Our culture is a mishmash of oddities, I realize more and more as the foreign students make me face our country’s embarrassing blind spots. “Culture is agoraphobia,” a wise man once told me. We should laugh about it more often, instead of fearing that others will take it away from us. I’m looking forward to the moment someone takes my culture away from me: I’d sacrifice a limb if it meant never again having to sit in a circle at a Dutch birthday celebration.

The climax of the evening comes in the shape of a story by Masha and Kamila, two charming, Anna-Kournikova-like ladies who take the microphone and tell a detailed story about a wild night they’d had, in which drank too much white wine, traveled from Amsterdam to Utrecht with no money, fell in love, got lost, and eventually ended up in what they say is a holy place and the epitome of Dutch culture: a kebab joint. The evening comes to an end and everyone goes out to cafés to drink some Dutch beers – which, a German girl notes, are very small compared to the German ones. Happy alcoholic Max invites me along, but I wander back home, through the rainy Dutch summer night, still enjoying the wonderful weirdness of our culture.