The fourth week (and the one month mark) of my study abroad program in Rabat was spent in Amsterdam for the second program excursion. According to the academic director, most students in previous semesters in this program saw Amsterdam as a welcome interlude… a coming back to semi-familiar surroundings, culture, and language as the vast majority of Dutch people speak English. However, of the two cultures, I found Amsterdam to be far more foreign than Rabat. Yes, Rabat is different. The faith, the smells, the language, and the clothes I see on the street every day. However, the brick buildings and seaside location of Amsterdam reminded me of Boston, which led me to expect reactions, ideas, and attitudes similar to those of the people I know in Boston and so every time I was in a familiar situation and the Dutch people reacted differently, it reminded me anew that I was in a foreign country. The impact was even greater when the person whose response surprised me prefaced their actions and comments with the phrase “you’re American, you know how it is.” In Rabat, it is so different that such a comparison is impossible and so there is no moment of realization that I am in a foreign country… it just is.
My first lesson in Amsterdam? A café is not the same thing as a coffeehouse! A coffeehouse is much less well lit, and smells like its prime product; you can buy coffee and food there, but the air is always hazy with the smoke. Since I don’t happen to like the smell, I avoided the coffeehouses like the plague once I found out the difference! The cafes on the other hand are wonderful! I went to a couple during our stay for lunch, including one right next to a canal and the Anne Frank Museum which I visited on my free day along with the Amsterdam Museum. The Amsterdam museum was exactly as advertised: a concise introduction to the history of the Netherlands and Amsterdam but I had no clue what to expect from the Anne Frank Museum. I have read her diary before of course, in elementary school. But to see the empty rooms where she hid with her family, and the original notebooks that she wrote in? Words can’t describe.
And while the first thing we ate upon arriving in Morocco was a traditional Moroccan meal, in Amsterdam it was Chinese food… then Pakistani food the next night! When we asked what foods were traditional in Holland later on, we were told just look for something with potatoes. The waffles are amazing though! I finally had some right before we left with whipped cream and strawberries. Every night we had dinner at a different restaurant, an Italian café, and Argentinean steakhouse, an Indonesian restaurant… no wonder the vast majority of people in Amsterdam ride bikes everywhere! There are actually three sets of street lights: one for vehicular traffic, one for pedestrians, and a final set for the bikes. Bike lanes are separate from the streets and the sidewalks and they will let you know when you’re walking in the bike lane with the handlebar bells.
After nearly a month in sunny Rabat, the 30 degree weather in Amsterdam was freezing, both figuratively and literally! Fortunately for us, it didn’t rain or snow while we were there until the final day as we were being driven to the airport. Walking between the tram and our destination wasn’t pleasant at all and layering was a necessity. Several people in our group wound up buying heavy coats when we were in Amsterdam because they hadn’t thought they would need one this semester. A few people also took advantage of the presence of familiar clothing stores, mainly H&M, to update wardrobes. In the pre-departure materials, we were given a packing list with suggested items and amounts. We were also given a very general guideline on what’s culturally appropriate to wear. However, when we got to Morocco, several of us (myself included) found out that it was much warmer, and what clothes are considered appropriate is a much broader range than we’d been led to expect. While I went to H&M with the others, I did the majority of my shopping in an open air market where everything was much less expensive and there were more off-the-wall styles. I also saw some very pretty fabric that I brought back with me to Morocco! The man I bought it from was from Morocco and had been in the Netherlands for 37 years. He told me that he was from Rabat and came back to Morocco every year during summer vacation. When he found out that I was studying in Rabat, he told me that he was originally from Rabat and he was extremely excited that I would be bringing his fabric back with me to be made into a dress.
All told a very nice interlude. But I was more than ready to return to my host family by the end of the week. I found that I missed Buba Mustafa’s teasing and Mama Fatima’s cooking!