Can you describe the differences between the US and AMS in one word? Impossible!
Being an expat, you always get “the question” when you least expect it. Sitting around a dinner table back in California with friends I haven’t seen in over a year, we laugh, tell stories, get caught up with each other’s lives since I’ve been away. A beautiful bottle of cab from Napa is making its second pass around the table. The food order is in and appetizers should arrive at any moment. Then it comes: “the question.” It’s dropped on the table like a dead raccoon. Everyone stops to stare and I fumble for my answer.
“The question” also comes when I’m in Amsterdam. Our landlord pays us a visit to pick up some items he left behind. He has his family with him and we stand in our living room chatting about his recent vacation while his little blonde twin girls twist their bright pink shoes into the carpet and stare out the window with boredom. He, like my American friends, drops “the question.” The same dead raccoon on the carpet. I’m never satisfied with my answer.
“The question” even appears at work, usually on a slow Friday afternoon when both the mind and the body are tired and conversations drift to topics other than work.
Everybody wants to know the same question, “So, what’s the biggest difference between the Netherlands and America?”
“No rights turns on red,” is my canned answer. The Americans laugh. The Dutch look puzzled.
WE TRAVEL TO OTHER COUNTRIES to learn about other people, other cultures, and in so doing, we learn about ourselves. Fish can’t see water until they are removed from it. Likewise, separating ourselves from our most cherished belief systems can leave some of us red in the face and gasping for air.
Some of the differences are obvious. When my wife and I walk the weekend markets in Amsterdam browsing the fresh flowers, cheeses, and pastries the differences are clear: we’ve sold our cars, we bike over canals, visit small neighborhood cheese shops, buy salami in a fresh air market under the shadow of a church older than America. We have a neighborhood bakery, a neighborhood deli, and a neighborhood fish-market all within two minutes of our front door. There are few McDonalds, fewer SUVs, and no Costcos. Having left California, we drink less wine but drink more beer. Aside from these surface differences the real differences are more subtle.
MY WIFE AND I GO to the bank to deposit coins. In the states we make a yearly trip to the supermarket to dump a coffee can of loose change into a machine. It churns and digests for five minutes and spits out a receipt that we change for around $200. In Amsterdam there are no coin machines, so our yearly ritual becomes a bit more complicated. Now we go to the bank to get paper sleeves, roll our own coins, bring them back to the bank. That’s where we found ourselves on a Saturday morning a couple weeks ago: standing in line for 20 minutes with 15 lbs of rolled coins. When we get to the counter we are told “It’s impossible.” The teller explains that coins can only be deposited from Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm.
“You mean to tell me,” I speak slowly, “if I take time off work; come stand in this line for twenty minutes; come to this exact counter on Monday morning; and talk to someone sitting in your chair; I can deposit the coins?” He nods. “But today?” I continue. “Impossible,” he shrugs and leans back in his chair, happy with the progression of the argument.
DURING THE WINTER, my wife and I stand in front of a lunch counter in Amsterdam Centraal train station. We have a few minutes to kill before our train arrives. It is almost lunch time and we are both feeling a bit hungry. We want to get two sandwiches and two drinks to go. My wife orders a chicken breast sandwich and the woman behind the counter pulls it from the refrigerated display case and puts in a bag. “Could I get that warmed up?” my wife asks. There are two vacant microwave ovens behind the counter. “That’s impossible,” we’re told. The woman settles onto one hip and smiles while chewing her gum. We don’t have time for an argument so we let it go. We pay for our food and take our bag of cold food.
There is something more to this than the infamous Dutch bad customer service. I have been told more things are “Impossible” in the last year and a half since moving to Amsterdam than I’ve been told in the last ten years living in the States. I hear the word three to five times each week. I’ve been told getting salad instead of fries is Impossible. Financing a moped is Impossible. A side order of rice is Impossible. Orange juice instead of coffee is Impossible. My wife was chastised in a store for trying a hair clip in front of a mirror. “It’s Impossible,” was the only explanation.
I never realized how insidious that word is. What American wouldn’t bristle at its presence? In America we have the word impossible but we never use it. If we use it at all, it’s in the “Mission Impossible” context, as a qualifier to make our achievements sound all the more outstanding. I had an impossible boss/client/project and this is how I overcame it.
Everything is possible in America. We are Ameri-CANs after all, not Ameri-CAN’Ts. Our heros are people who looked Impossible square in the eye and pushed it aside. Can you imagine if Martin Luther King was told his dream to see his children judged by the context of their character and not the color of their skin was Impossible? Or if John F. Kennedy was told landing a man on the moon was Impossible? Or if Bill Gates was told beating I.B.M. at the computer game was Impossible? Or it Tiger Woods was told beating Jack Nicklaus’ golf record was Impossible? Or if someone told Barack Obama that it’s Impossible for a black man to become president of the United States?
I’m convinced if the Dutch discovered America they wouldn’t have pushed west of Ohio. California would still be in the hands of Mexico and the French would own the mid-west.
Everything is possible in America. We love our options. It’s baked into us at such an early age we couldn’t question it any more than we could question that we need to breathe oxygen. I’ve been told that the Japanese put their babies on their back so they don’t get into trouble where American mothers put their babies on their stomachs so they can explore.
“Salad instead of fries? Sure, but I’ll have to charge you $2.00 extra.”
“Deposit coins? Sure, but they won’t be counted until Monday. Do you still want to leave them?”
“Heat up your sandwich? Believe it or not, both of these ovens are broken but go to Albert Heijn around the corner. They have a microwave by the coffee machines in the front.”
MY BELOVED WRITING PEN has run out of ink so I take it to a store that sells Waterman pens. The lady behind the counter has reading glasses on a chain around her neck and the luminous unnatural tan you’ll sometimes see on some older Dutch women in the middle of winter. She shows me the Waterman refills. My pen originally came with a rollerball cartridge but I’ve decided I would rather have ballpoint. She drops her glasses to hang at the end of the chain, “That’s Impossible,” she says flatly. We stare at each other for a few awkward moments.
The explanation is not forthcoming so I venture to ask why. “They don’t make ballpoints for that pen,” she says showing me her selection of refills. I can’t help but notice my spent cartridge looks exactly like all the others. In fact, if it wasn’t for the writing on the side I couldn’t distinguish ballpoint, from rollerball, from felt tip. I ask, “Do you mind if I try to put a ballpoint in my pen?” Instead of waiting for her answer I just help myself, drop in the cartridge, and screw the top down. It’s a perfect fit. “Hey look at that, it fits,” I say in mock surprise. She gives me a look as if I just pulled gold nugget from my ear.