Sunday, October 19, 2008

Life in the Netherlands

There are a number of features of life in the Netherlands that are wildly different from the US - the widespread use of bicycles, annual vacation time, canals everywhere, and the fact that unlike Americans, the Dutch are not morbidly obese. But it is not difficult to adjust to the large differences ... it's the little things - both good , bad , and indifferent - that sometimes seem so foreign. For instance:

  • Food, cars, appliances, stores, etc. - almost everything - are 1.5 times smaller here. (I say "almost everything" because although they're thin, the Dutch are also very tall. The average height is 6'1" for men and 5'8" for women.) We bought a large pizza from the nearby Domino's a few weeks ago and it was so small I could have eaten the whole thing myself - for lunch.

  • The advertisements, menus, official documents, etc. here are [of course] written in Dutch. The weirdest things are the bathroom stalls, which are still the universal palette for dirty words, but now require a Dutch-English dictionary for translation.

  • Speaking of bathroom stalls: In the Netherlands they are almost always divided with solid walls and real doors. No more wondering whose shoes those are in the stall next door!

  • Stores sometimes take a traditional debit card, but oftentimes payment is required using a Chipknip, which is part traditional debit card, part smart card that can electronically store money on the chip. To buy things using the Chipknip (called "Chipping") we first go to a Chipknip charging station (it looks like a mini ATM), load a certain amount of money (restricted to small amounts) on the chip, and then pay using the chip at a store. The benefit of this form of payment, I have gathered, is that no network connection is needed at the point of purchase and thus Chipknips are used in vending machines, parking garages, on public transit, etc. and they are fast because you don't have to bother with entering a PIN.

  • Europeans have basically eliminated the € 0.01 coin and thus any change received is usually rounded. I have seen a world without pennies and it is good. Meanwhile, as you may know, the smallest bill here is € 5 and € 1 and € 2 coins are widely used for smaller transactions, which makes paying at vending machines and other automated transactions much, much easier.

  • Unlike in the US, alcohol is not treated like forbidden fruit. The purchase age is 16, so Laura and I are never carded (which at 21 I did not mind, but as I get older becomes increasingly irritating). Better yet, when we buy a six pack with our groceries, we don't have to fear that the cashier is going to treat us like criminals if one of us happens to be missing identification. (I'm talking to you, Albertsons.)

  • There are little differences at the grocery store, especially when it comes to guilty pleasures like desert. Where I expect to see Hershey's there is only Mars ; Reese's is nowhere to be found ; Fanta is known for silly commercials and little else in the US but the drink is widely available here ; and chocolate covered waffels and stroopwafels are popular deserts.

  • No need to wait at the movie theater to get good seats for a new release - seats at the movie theater here are assigned.

  • There are no water fountains anywhere and it is rare for tap water to be available at restaurants ; beer is cheaper than bottled water, which is OK with me.

  • You still leave your waiter or bartender a tip in the Netherlands, but it's usually more like 5% instead of 15-20%! But the downside of this is that service is slooooowwww and you must always explicitly summon a waiter for everything.

With the plethora of little differences, it's occasionally nice to cling to something familiar. It's like longing for a familiar old friend, except when so far from home, "familiar" is more important than "friend." Laura and I rarely step foot in McDonald's in the US, but in a weak moment one afternoon a few Sundays ago, Big Macs washed down with Coca-Cola were beyond delicious... even though the Coca-Cola was served in a cup the size of a shot glass.

Laura with Ronald van McDonald

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