Illinois Wesleyan University

Letters from Amsterdam

Anna Deters

Junior Anna Deters is keeping a journal during her study abroad in Amsterdam.

Illinois Wesleyan University junior Anna Deters of Kenosha, Wis., is spending the spring semester in Amsterdam on a study abroad program through the Institute for International Education of Students. An English writing and history double major, Anna will be sending occasional dispatches to describe what she sees, thinks, and feels about her experience. Anna's scrapbook will feature photos from her time in Amsterdam.

May 23

It’s been a long while since I’ve written . . . mostly because I’ve been busy working on class presentations and writing three 5000 word papers! And, of course, my time here is running short and I’m spending as much of my free time as I can out and about instead of in the computer lab.

In mid-April I went to Barcelona for a few days. Saw lots of Modernist architecture, the Mediterranean, the history museum of Catalunya, ate paella and drank sangria, strolled La Ramblas, checked out some Roman ruins, went to Easter Mass at La Catedral, took the train up through the mountains to a small town called Figueres, the birthplace of Salvador Dali, etc. I’m so accustomed to doing interesting things that I worry I take it all for granted!

But really, everything I did in Barcelona you can read about in a travel guide. The aspect of the trip that left the biggest impression was the anti-American sentiment we encountered. The city was covered in anti-Bush graffiti. My Catalan isn’t all that great, but I could gather the main sentiment. Bush as a terrorist, Bush as Hitler, stenciled portraits of Bush with crossbones behind his face like a pirate flag, "F*** USA" scrawled all over the subway . . . . When we were in Figueres, a man approached us to ask the time. He then asked where we were from, and when we said the United States, he threw up his arms, backed away shaking his fist, and said he "doesn’t speak with American people." It really hurts to be so disliked for something you can’t control!

Anti-American sentiment is felt all around over here. The Dutch don’t refuse to speak with us, but they’re very open about their disdain for the USA. America is a big joke to them—we’re laughed at all the time for being so backwards and ridiculous. I’ve had the opinion that America does some "silly" things—to be euphemistic—for a long time, but after living abroad it really is hard to have a good self-esteem about my country. I can’t watch the news without turning red with embarrassment.

But on a lighter note, the dollar is increasing its value to the euro!

Other things I’ve done since I last wrote:

I helped by Israeli roommate prepare a huge seder dinner for Passover—which means I got to crush matzo into flour for matzo balls and drain the broth from a pot of boiling fish heads. The rest was too complicated for me. The dinner was a success, and the Jewish experience as a whole was much more enjoyable than when I went to the Orthodox synagogue and had to sit in the coatroom because there was no mixed seating.

The day after Passover I went with two girls—one is Dutch and the other is from Hong Kong—to the Hague to watch some proceedings at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. We’re working on a project concerning jurisdiction and have to do field work in the courts. It probably would have been more interesting had my headphones with the English translation worked. I sat for over an hour listening to Croatian.

For the same class I had to go do Hare Krishna in a squatted warehouse and spend an afternoon touring the Buddhist temple in town. It’s the only one in the world that allows people to enter with their shoes on. The reason? The junkies walking by outside the temple will steal them!

A few days ago my Israeli roommate and I took our bikes on the train to Haarlem and then rode them through the tulip fields to the sea. The tulips were pretty much all already harvested, but the beach was well worth the lengthy bike ride. The North Sea doesn’t usually stir up images of lying out on the beach, but oh, how it should. I’ve been to beaches on the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Atlantic, Aegean, Lake Michigan (haha) . . . but NONE are as nice as the beach of the North Sea.

Going home is going to be so rough! The little things will be frustrating—like having to pay $2.50 for gas when over here I ride my bike for free, eating awful food all the time (although that hardly qualifies as a "little" issue), not getting enough exercise because the weather is bad in the winter and I won’t be out and about the city on my bike, having to pay tax that’s not already included in the price! But then, there are frustrating things about the Netherlands that it will be nice to have done with. Like the terrible customer service! Dutch customer service is unspeakably bad. The waiters and waitresses here would be fired on their first day of work in America. I accept it as a cultural difference, but it will be nice to have a waiter who smiles. And it will be nice to have unlimited refills of water or tea or coffee instead of paying 3 euros for a single glass four inches high.

April 5

I’ve had some exciting experiences in the past week. The first one involves my grandmother, a castle, and the Red Light District and the second involves European royalty and charter buses.

Schloss Wissen: My mom, her sisters, my grandma, and my great-uncle and his wife came to visit me in Amsterdam before traveling through Germany and Switzerland. During their brief time in the Netherlands, we took a day trip to the Dutch/German border to discover if our ancestral castle was myth or reality. We took a train from Amsterdam Centraal to Nijmegen, a town just inside the border, and then a bus across the border to Kleve, where we hopped on a local train through Goch to Weeze, Germany. According to my family’s genealogy, the van de Loos (my grandmother’s side), were feudal lords and knights in the region in the Middle Ages and prominent Dutch/German nobles during the more recent centuries. They supposedly ran the town of Goch and lived in a castle on the river Niers. On our arrival in the small town of Weeze, I led our familial entourage to the river, where we found a map posted of the surroundings. Schloss Wissen is the name of the castle, and it was, indeed, a point of interest on the local map. We found a friendly nature path along the river — which was really only the size of a canal in Amsterdam — and went on our way. Soon, we could see towers in the distance. To make a long story short, we visited the castle, discovered that our German relatives still live in the most recent addition of the structure (18th century or so), and even met some of them. Personally, I think the best thing about Schloss Wissen is that it has moat. And a river, and stables with horses, and the original medieval building with our coat of arms above it. (See Scrapbook 5)

As for my grandma and the Red Light District . . . my Israeli flatmate Tom and I took my family to our local bar and then, once it got dark, on a tour of Amsterdam’s most famous neighborhood. My grandma strolled down the glowing streets, the red lights reflecting in the water of the canal, with bored eyes. She wasn’t scandalized at all and, in fact, was somewhat disappointed by the lame reality of this over-hyped district. My mom pointed out that Bourbon Street in New Orleans is much worse. Sorry to dash your awe and wonderment of prostitution in Amsterdam. If my grandma can handle it, it’s not a big deal.

A Day in Delft: The day after I saw my truly existent ancestral home, Amanda and I decided to take a trip to Delft, about an hour’s train ride from Amsterdam. Of course, the day we pick to go to Delft just happens to be the same day of the Queen Mother’s funeral — held in Delft. (No, not the British Queen Mother, the mother of Beatrix, the current queen of the Netherlands.) The shops were closed and the streets were packed, and Amanda and I stood on our tip-toes to watch the royal funeral procession. Carriages with flowers, a fancy marching band, soldiers at attention along the streets, etc. We all know what it looks like. The procession went from one church to another, and at the second one we had a much better view of everything—that is, until fifteen charter buses pulled up and parked in the center of the square. The logistics of royal pageantry can be really funny sometimes. I totally didn’t expect the royal families of Europe to depart the funeral in charter buses. Before they boarded their bus, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the Dutch royal family. The Queen of England was there, too, as was the Queen of Spain. The crowd of spectators was mostly made up of older people, people really interested in the royal goings-on. I didn’t feel any wave of awe or love for the monarchy, and I can’t tell if that’s because I’m an American raised without a monarch or simply because I’m not Dutch. Would I think the monarchy is as silly as I do if I were British or Dutch? I was much more excited when one of the royal guards winked at me than when I saw the queen.

March 19

We’re pretty much halfway through the semester, and I’m flipping out about my homework. Let me tell you why:

I only have class two or three days a week. My schedule is to have one on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, but lately my Wednesday and Friday classes have been cancelled for "reading days." You’d think it would be easy to get work done when you have a five-day weekend . . . but oh not so! You think you have plenty of time—plenty of time to stop by the market in the Jordaan, have tea three times a day, take the train to Brussels on Saturday, go to an Irish pub on Wednesday, go clubbing in Rembrantplein on Sunday, visit the Anne Frank Huis and the Heineken Brewery on Monday . . . . And then suddenly your "weekend" is over! This weekend I’m devoting myself to my desk. I won’t even go to the market in the Jordaan to buy my dried mango.

Another reason why I’m flipping out about my classes is because I don’t understand the professors here. It’s impossible to know what they expect of you. We don’t have "homework," and so we don’t receive any reassurance as to how we’re doing academically. This is really frustrating.

Another thing about the professors (at least two of the three I have) is that they’re dry and boring—not at all like the professors I’ve had in the United States. One of my professors literally sits at a desk in front of the classroom and reads aloud her lecture notes. She has a soft voice and a strong accent, and the forty-five minutes during which she "lectures" are miserably dull. The content of all of my classes is interesting; it’s the presentation of the content that I don’t like.

But even the content is difficult to grasp—because everything revolves so much around theory. It doesn’t matter if I’m in my film class or my tradition, religion, and nationalism course; all I hear is post-modernist lingo and the reverently-spoken names of Lacan, Claude Levi-Strauss, Derrida, Foucault, etc. Americans seem to have a much harder time with this stuff than the Europeans in my classes. I’ve come to the conclusion that teaching theory is perhaps a higher priority here than in the States.

Overall, I guess I just have to do my best and wait and see what happens. Peter, my Dutch flatmate, tells me not to worry so much about my academics. It just feels so weird going out and dancing on a Tuesday night when back in Bloomington I’d be squinting at my computer writing a paper!

March 7

Notable things about my travels so far:

Utrecht: Our little day trip to this medieval town about an hour away from Amsterdam was tarnished by the miserable cold, wet, and windy February climate of the Netherlands. I think I was too preoccupied keeping my umbrella from flipping inside-out to pay any serious attention to what we were seeing. However, I did gain an immense amount of knowledge about the dikes, ditches, and canals of the Lowlands. There’s a saying, "God didn’t create the Netherlands; the Dutch did." So much energy is put into "reclaiming the land from the sea" — constant dredging, sand-packing, etc. It’s weird that the most densely populated country in the world is one that Nature doesn’t want inhabitable.

Aside from learning to admire this country’s ability to fend off the ocean, we also had our first Dutch pancakes — pancakes bigger than a pizza. But I’ve already talked enough about the food here . . . . Then we visited a medieval church, which was the usual experience of Gothic splendor, and then we toured a museum all about the history of the music box. Now I know all about the evolution of the music box from bells to toys to street organs to player pianos. It was really a charming museum.

s’Hertogensbosch: Carnaval! Four friends and I took the train to this town in the southern part of the Netherlands to celebrate the Dutch equivalent to Mardi Gras. (It’s basically the same celebration that takes place in most Catholic countries on the days proceeding Ash Wednesday. Amsterdam has a Protestant heritage, and so the celebration doesn’t occur there.) Everyone dresses up in outrageous costumes and treks from bar to bar singing traditional Dutch carnaval songs. Most of the men were dressed as either women or monks.

We were the only non-Dutch people in town, as far as I could tell, and it was nice to be immersed in the "real" culture. It was shocking to our American eyes to see little kids drunk and running into walls and 15-year-olds nonchalantly sitting at bars. But what can I say, carnaval is described as "Five Days of Mad Drinking Fun."

Duisburg, Essen, and Neuss, Germany: Our study abroad group spent two nights in the industrial center of northern Germany. This was not typical tourism. We spent pretty much all of our time in one German modern art museum or another. I am on German modern art overload. Not only that, but our hostel was located on a former industrial park/steel mill. It was shut down in 1986, but the Germans, incredibly economically efficient, decided to turn it into a tourist attraction instead of leaving it to rust. An artist came in and added some aesthetically-pleasing lighting, and voila! the place is a work of art. At night it was really an awe-inspiring sight — especially in the snow, which is how we got to view it.

Assendelft-Krommenie: My great-great-grandfather was born in Assendelft, Holland. Wonderfully enough, Assendelft is only a twenty-minute train ride outside of Amsterdam, and so I decided to stop by Centraal Station and take a trip there. The town itself is almost purely residential, and I walked the entirety of it in just a few hours. (A few hours in the bitter cold!) I went mainly to become familiar with the area before I return later in the spring to do some serious research (I hope). I want to find the cemetery where some of the original Deters are buried but had no luck this time around. I did, however, find the house some relatives lived in during and after World War II. I have a letter addressed to my great-grandfather from his Dutch cousin telling about their treatment by the Nazis. With this letter, I had the return address of where they lived, and I found the house! I also bought three pairs of socks and visited a poultry farm.

Next weekend—off to Brussels, Belgium!

\February 15

Practically speaking, the most beneficial aspect about studying abroad is that it forces you to learn how to do things you never would be motivated to do at home, and it makes you do some of the things you never thought you could do.

Being separated from the convenience of IWU’s dining services has been one of the most liberating, educational experiences of my life. Not only am I eating better and healthier food (the fault of the American food industry, not you, Saga Dave!), but I’m learning how to cook! And by "cook," I don’t mean boiling macaroni from a box. We don’t eat pre-made, convenience food in my kitchen. In three weeks, I’ve gone from being able to make NOTHING on my own to several pretty good dishes. I’ve finally gotten over my feelings of incompetency when it comes to cooking meat, and my cooking repertoire grows daily. Of course, this also means I’m learning how to shop efficiently for groceries. Grocery shopping is fun when the food is so good (and relatively inexpensive!) I just hope I don’t begin to take the grocery stores here for granted. They carry so many things that stores at home don’t—like ingredients for Indian food. Then again, I have to keep reminding myself that I live in a highly urban place, and the good things here are probably available in urban places in the USA, as well.

Urban life itself is educational (and ridiculously fun.) I think it’s fair to say that many people are intimidated by life in the city, and throwing yourself into one for four months is definitely a way of getting over any fears. Amsterdam is not by any means a huge metropolis. With a population of around 700,000, it’s only one-tenth the size of New York or London. I can walk from one end of the city-center to the other in two hours or so. Nevertheless, it’s quite a city, and you quickly learn how to take care of yourself — where to walk at night, where to keep your wallet, etc. I haven’t had any bad experiences myself, but a flatmate of mine had her wallet pick-pocketed on one of the trams and a guy I know was mugged at knife-point under a bridge on his walk back to our apartments. Those are two reasons why you DON’T keep your wallet in your outside coat pocket or talk really loud with your girlfriend as you dawdle home under isolated bridges in the middle of the night.

As for the fun part of living in a place larger than Kenosha or Bloomington: the nightlife! I spent the past two days hanging out with a guy from Israel, and as we were walking to the night clubs in the Muntplein of Amsterdam, I said, "Shahar, I don’t even know how nightlife works." And it’s true. Back in the States I’ve never been into clubbing or bar-hopping. I never even dance. Shahar, who’s 25 and knows many of the clubs of London and Tel Aviv gave me these words of wisdom: "Nightlife works exactly how you want it to."

I’ve found that you can spend 30 euros to get into a big party with a well-known DJ, 16 euros for entry to a club with good house music, 3.50 euros for hits of the ‘80s and ‘90s at one of the student clubs, or zero, yes zero euros for free dancing at a fancy bar. I have no standards when it comes to clubs, so I think we all know where Anna chooses to go. But still, although I am dancing and even enjoying it, I prefer the more casual, school approach to it. (Suited bouncers with ear-pieces make me nervous for some reason. And I always thought they only existed in movies and on MTV!) The clubs are one thing — the borrel is another. "Borrel" is Dutch for drinking and conversation, and every Thursday night the University of Amsterdam holds one. I guess I can’t really explain how much fun they are, but the cigarette smoke is such that the water turns brown when you wash your clothes afterwards.

Aside from learning to cook, dance, and live in the city, I’ve also learned how to ride a bike. Of course, I know how to ride a bike, but I hadn’t ridden one in ten years or so. Nor have I ever ridden a European-style bike; nor have I ever ridden one in the city, let alone Amsterdam. Not until I bought a 40-year-old, green, Euro bike for 45 euros and forced myself to start riding it. Riding this bike is easily the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life. But wow it feels great when I jump off of it after riding it home through the city. Getting off my bike knowing I’m still alive is an all-natural high — I don’t need a "coffee shop" to feel good in Amsterdam. I’m still getting used to riding it, but so far so good. (Except for when I somehow got one of my bike locks stuck in the spokes and had to have my Peter, my Dutch flatmate get it out for me.)

February 8

Culture shock and adaptation is a weird process. I’ve been in Amsterdam for ten days now, and here is what I have so far experienced/realized/discovered:

Food: I mention this first because the food situation is something I feel very passionately about. Growing up in America, I always assumed we had the best food in the world—that our food is the safest, our regulations the strictest, our bounty the most plentiful, etc. etc. Nope. After three days of eating in the Netherlands I realized that in the USA we are being manipulated and poisoned by the food we eat! I know that sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory, so let me explain. Americans are "fat." Could this be because it’s cheaper to drink Mountain Dew and Big K cola than water, juice, and milk? From what I’ve noticed, "junk" food in the Netherlands is hard to find, and when it is available, very expensive. Fresh fruits and vegetables are the cheapest foods; processed bread is unheard of; vending machines carry cartons of milk. I’m deeply, deeply troubled by the food culture of America.

People don’t even have to think about "eating healthy" here. I haven’t once seen anything labeled "low fat" or "diet" in the grocery stores. They eat what they want—it’s healthy, fresh, tastes WONDERFUL, doesn’t consist of unknown cancer-causing chemicals, and isn’t genetically altered for capitalistic purposes. I don’t think it’s our fault Americans are "fat." It’s because we aren’t free to eat healthily! We eat food that makes us unhealthy because that’s what’s cheap and available; then the media makes us feel crappy about our bodies; so then we buy "diet" foods, which are not only still unhealthy but also taste bad! It would break the average American household’s bank to eat like the Dutch do, and this being said, the American food industry needs to be reformed! I’m eating better now than ever before in my life—and that’s even taking my cooking into consideration!

First part of culture shock: I first suspected culture shock when I found myself strangely irritated by the Dutch language. The language barrier is more than I expected—being that just because the Dutch CAN speak English doesn’t mean they DO. Everything is in Dutch—all the television channels except CNN, BBC, National Geographic, and MTV. (I guess I shouldn’t complain too much—I have English access to the news, educational TV, and popular smut.)

But just the same, newspapers, signs, all the magazines at the grocery store, all the food at the grocery store, etc.--—all in Dutch. I would hear my inner, irritated voice saying things like, "Dammit! Why don’t they speak in English!" I went through a 24-hour phase when I really was quite honestly convinced that English is the best language ever uttered by man, vastly superior to all others. I’m over that now, but it’s giving me an inferiority complex that the Dutch can speak multiple languages when I can speak only one. (I don’t consider finishing a general education foreign language requirement equivalent to the often tri-lingual fluency of the Dutch.)

Second part of culture shock: Now that the frustration period is over (as far as I know), I think I’m becoming infatuated with Amsterdam. The food, obviously, is better than in the US—but so is the shopping and the traffic. The people here are more attractive, quieter and more efficient, cleaner . . . . Even the dogs are cuter than back home. And MUCH better trained. The Dutch do so many things we really should be doing in the United States. For example, at the grocery store, you have to pay for grocery bags. That means people RE-USE their bags. How difficult would it be to implement something like that in America? And in the university computer labs we have to pay to print. Think how much paper would be saved at the Ames if that were the case at IWU! People would complain at first, but it would only mean that everyone would learn to PRIORITIZE. I think that’s the main thing the Dutch do that Americans don’t: prioritize. That probably explains why necessities like food and clothing are so cheap here and "wants" like movie rentals and smutty magazines are so expensive.

Being American/foreign: Being an American in Amsterdam is, well, less fun than I had hoped. International students here are in a bizarre situation, I think. Amsterdam has a HUGE tourist population (second only to Paris and Rome), and so most Dutch automatically assume we’re tourists and treat us accordingly—condescendingly and with a little contempt. I suppose we are tourists—but we’re also living here, going about our daily business in apartments and flats just like the natives. We shop at the same grocery stores and ride the same trams—but they know we’re not one of them, and I don’t think it’s entirely my imagination when I pick up less than positive vibes.

Amanda, my roommate from IWU, and I went into a bookstore last week. It was raining and so we had our umbrellas with us. We wrapped them up and carried them low to our sides when the store clerk came yelling in Dutch to put our umbrellas on the floor in the corner. We both know the word for "umbrella" in Dutch, and so we knew what she meant. As we apologized and put them in the corner, the lady rather harshly yelled, "This is not AMERIKA!" In my present state of culture shock and adaptation I have to say I found this a little hurtful and definitely uncomfortable. We had no idea it was customary to leave your umbrella in the corner while shopping. I like and admire how the Dutch live, and in most things I find Dutch society "superior" to America’s. (Mostly, again, because the Dutch prioritize.) Unfortunately, few people in a metropolis have the time to perceive me as anything but at best an American backpacker and at worst an obnoxious tourist spilling noise and pollution onto the fabric of their perfect society. (And yes, they really do seem to think of themselves as organizers of the closest thing to Utopia.) It’s my goal to have an indistinguishable nationality by the time I leave—then at least I will have learned what it is that makes Americans so distinguishable.

Ugly Americans: Quite frankly, I’m ashamed of the Americans here. I can’t blame the Dutch for treating us the way they tend to do, because most of the Americans deserve worse than curtness and condescension. I want an indistinguishable nationality because I DO NOT want to be classified with the ugly Americans attending the university with me. One kid went to jail the first night he was here because the polizei found him stumbling drunk in the streets, lost, and near to passing out on the sidewalk. Several other people I know have been kicked out of bars and coffee shops for being too loud and rowdy. They run around the city like they own the place, smoking joints while walking to class, disturbing the residents while yelling loudly in quiet neighborhoods, walking in the bike lanes, imbibing to blackout at every opportunity, buying bikes from junkies, frequenting the Red Light District and attending live sex shows, etc. It’s unspeakably embarrassing. I’m an outsider in Amsterdam because I’m a tourist/student/American who will always be looked at as such (because that’s what I am), but I’m also an outsider among the Americans because I have no interest in living a life of wild promiscuity, drugs, and selfish irresponsibility.

IWU News

Anna's Scrapbook
IWU Study Abroad
IWU International Office
Institute for International Education of Students (IES)
IES Amsterdam
IWU International Studies

Windows of Wesleyan

All content and images copyright © 2002-04 Illinois Wesleyan University