Culture Shock

Trip Start Apr 15, 2003
Trip End Sep 01, 2011

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Tuesday, September 2, 2003

For those of you who diligently follow the travel pods, you know that Melanie's mom was due to arrive here last week. Well, she made it after a long journey! We have the text of that tpod written and just need to work on pictures, but in the meantime we thought we'd offer something different. We feel obligated to share that everything is, of course, not perfect. We try to keep the travelpod's upbeat because, after all, who wants to read about us whining all the time? Besides, it really is a great opportunity to be here and we don't regret the move for one minute, so writing the negative might give the wrong impression. But, we also know how we feel each Christmas when we get that one letter that is so sugary-sweet and perfect that it just can't be completely true. So, here are a few tidbits -- just for reality's sake.

On the Tuesday after Mel's Mom arrived, one of Chris' bikes got stolen from in front of our home. It had been locked to a pole and other bikes by 2 cable locks, but somebody came along and snipped the cables. It's very sad because Chris really liked that bike, but at least we have a couple more in reserve so he is not without a bike. I guess now that we've had our first bike theft we're true Amsterdamers.

Also on Tuesday, Melanie's car stopped running on the way to work. Whenever she would try to accelerate (like when entering a highway), the car would lose power and eventually stall. Getting assistance was quite frustrating and really highlighted how different it is to live here versus being here on vacation. The car comes with a roadside assistance package, so in theory a breakdown should not be a major ordeal. However, when Melanie looked in the packet where the emergency numbers are, there were three different numbers to call. Of course the explanations for which number to call under what circumstance were all in Dutch. So, Melanie tried the first number, which was obviously the wrong one judging from the reaction of the person who answered the phone. So, on to phone number 2. This time the person who answered acted a bit put out to order a tow truck, but did it anyway. They had a terrible time understanding where, precisely, the car had stopped (kilometer marker 5,3 on the A10 between the S115 and S116 exits heading eastbound - how hard could that be to understand???) and seemed very concerned about when the car was manufactured. She spent a lot of time gathering seemingly useless information despite the fact that Melanie had already told her that the cell phone battery was not going to last much longer. Melanie was unsure if this was normal poor Dutch service or if she had really requested something extraordinary. So, still doubtful, she called service number 3 - the Dutch AAA, called ANWB. The jackpot!!! The ANWB was very helpful (although they still could not understand where the car was and which direction it was headed) and sent a tow truck immediately.

Since the car had stopped on a busy highway, it was first towed to a safer location - a gas station. The tow truck driver then left, assuring Melanie that the mechanic would be along shortly. This was very discomforting because after he left Melanie realized that she didn't actually know where she had been towed to and that if she had to call back she would be unable to describe where she was! But, 20 minutes later a guy showed up in a station wagon with a garage's-worth of tools in the back and attempted to fix the car. According to the light that went on when the problem occurred there was something wrong in the engine's computer, but according to the mechanics diagnostic equipment, there was nothing wrong. So the "solution" was for Melanie to get back in the car and drive to the dealership, where they would have better diagnostic equipment. When Melanie pointed out that if she could drive the car without it stalling she would have never called for assistance in the first place, the mechanic pointed out that his equipment showed no problem. After a few minutes of debate, he agreed to follow Melanie to the dealership just in case the car broke down along the way. Of course at the first on-ramp it stalled and another tow truck had to be called.

Turns out the fuel injection system had a problem and had to be replaced. Everything is running fine now.

According to all of the books we've read, there are three very predictable stages of culture shock. The first is the tourist stage when everything isn't much different from being on vacation and it's all wonderful. "I love it here". The second is the "I hate it here" stage. This occurs after about 4-9 months and happens when a person has been in a place long enough to expect the hard things to have gone away and to be fully adjusted, but is not. The third stage is acceptance, where things get pretty much back to normal. We've just entered stage 2.

To say that we hate it here is far too strong - we don't. But some things are definitely frustrating and we're hoping that the third stage comes quickly. Much of the frustration has to do with unrealistic expectations and a little homesickness. Despite 12 whole hours of Dutch lessons we still don't understand the language (imagine that!). We can't read the papers and can't watch the local news. Yes, there's CNN and BBC for the world news and the Wall Street Journal Europe for business news, but when a dike broke last week (during the dryest summer in ages), we couldn't read why it had broken or what would be the repair process. When the course of the canal waters was reversed to bring in fresh water instead of sea water for downstream irrigation purposes we only knew this because our Dutch teachers told us. It's hard not knowing what is happening in your immediate surroundings and, unfortunately, this situation is not likely to change anytime soon.

Melanie is also particularly frustrated at work. The Dutch working culture is very different and people simply do not work in the same way as they do in America. Despite great strides in understanding in the 5 months of being here, it is still much harder than in the U.S. Although the Dutch claim that they would prefer that Melanie not act TOO Dutch and instead teach them the American way to work, the reality is that the command and control structures and the cultures are not the same, so it is impossible to fully work in an American way here.

We are also learning that, as foreigners, we seldom receive the benefit of the doubt. If we disagree with something or make a special request or challenge somebody's assumptions, it is obviously because we did not understand the initial explanation of how things work. Melanie sees this dramatically at work as well. When she tries to tell her Dutch colleagues ways in which they could do things differently and more effectively or efficiently she inevitably gets the "you don't understand how it is here" lecture. Some of this is human nature since anytime a change is suggested it is human nature for the target of the suggestion to be defensive. However, some of it really is simply not believing that she could have a valid suggestion since she obviously doesn't understand why things are the way they are. So much for teaching the Dutch to be more American.

Anyway, all of the books say that this will pass with time. Much of it has to do with letting go of control - something that is particularly difficult for Melanie, the control freak. We've already resigned ourselves to signing contracts (phone, gym, bank accounts) that are in Dutch and we will never understand. At some point we'll get used to the rest as well.

Several people have asked us what we miss from America. Actually it's a pretty short list, but here goes:

1. Our family. Although we have been fortunate that much of our family has been here to visit us, several have not been able to travel for a variety of reasons. For instance, Melanie's sister and her husband have a new baby that we will not be able to see until November. At times like this we also miss, even more than usual, our family members that are no longer with us. We know that they would very much enjoy coming to visit and hearing about our adventures.
2. Our friends. We miss everybody so much. Moving here holds the same challenges as moving to any new city when it comes to making new friends except that here we also have cultural and language barriers. We love it when anybody comes to visit - so don't be shy about coming on over.
3. The Sunday Chicago Tribune. Melanie's Chicago boss actually brought one over last time she was here. We savored it for a week.
4. Pretzels. Melanie's mom shipped a case over the first month we were here. All we can find here are the little skinny kind and only in little tiny boxes.
5. Cereal. We've gotten used to having toast, yogurt and/or musli for breakfast (or fresh eggs on the weekends), but are really starting to miss American cereal. Corn flakes and maybe 2 other varieties are available here, but that's about it. On her last trip home Melanie made a trip to the grocery and brought back GrapeNuts and the whole grain cereals from Whole Foods.
6. Good music. The stores, aerobics classes, streets, radio stations, etc., are mostly filled with techno-disco crap-olla. We hate it. Luckily the cultural season is about to kick off so hopefully we can get some good concerts in. Still, it's great to go home, go in a GAP store and hear great music. (It's also possible to do that here at the American Book Store, but that's the only place we've found!).
7. Good service. I know that we didn't appreciate the good service in America and were very quick to complain about any deviations. Trust us - even the bad service in America is better than any service here.
8. Familiarity. . .oh, wait - that's why we left, right?

There are, of course, some things that we do NOT miss. These include:
1. Ever-present, over-the-top, marketing and consumerism.
2. Shock-horror reporting in the media and the focus on all that is bad and, particularly, fear-inducing.
3. Dubya. OK, so we can't escape completely, but we probably hear fewer of his idiotic remarks here than we would if we were there.

And, we've already started a list of things we'll miss when we leave Amsterdam. These include:
1. 20 roses for $2.50, a huge bunch of lilies for $3 and 100 tulips for under $10.
2. Great Belgian beers really fresh and really cheap
3. Amazing cheeses
4. Belgian chocolates
5. The breads - amazing varieties and textures here and all so incredibly fresh that it will be hard to go back to regular bread.
6. Riding our bikes everywhere
7. Living with real artwork
8. The architecture and canals. The charm of walking down a street lined with trees and water on one side and buildings hundreds of years old on the other.

Well, that's enough for now. Like we said earlier, we wouldn't change this decision for the world. We're very lucky to have this opportunity to experience another culture first hand, and hope that you are enjoying sharing it with us through these entries.

Look for the entry on Melanie's mom's visit before the end of the week!

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