Rough Draft: The first three days in Amsterdam

A new job has recently brought me to Amsterdam. More posts like these; some with pictures, will follow shortly.

It’s been a wonderful experience in Amsterdam so far. We arrived early in the morning without any hassles with flight or immigration. Our serviced apartment is somewhere between a hotel room and a studio. It’ll do nicely till we find a place to stay.

I still have uneasy dreams about my old apartment. Most of them involve us still having a lot of our stuff remaining in the house and having less than a day to vacate. In others I run into our neighbors - especially the old couple who we were very fond of (and who helped us till the very last day).

We’re still working on our immigration paperwork and hopefully we’ll at least have a bank account by the end of this week. But this part of being neither quite here and definitely not there is what scares me off. It’s a very temporary situation, but one I’ve never ever been in before. That I have no identity, no credit history, no bank account should be liberating except that it is not.

Navigating the maze of mobile plans has been a tiring exercise. You are trying to strike a balance between your talk minutes, SMSes and your internet download quota, while wanting to buy a phone you’ve always wanted. The prices (at least for the bundled phone) are fickle so while the salespersons have been remarkably patient with us, they also find it a waste of their time as we don’t have any of the documentation (see last paragraph) that they need to allow us to buy a post-paid plan. At the moment we are both on pre-paid t-mobile - we purchased a 20€ credit today and by some stroke of good luck happened to do so at a time when t-mobile was doling out free credit worth the top-up amount. At a time when I am yet to earn a single penny while we burn into our reserves at the same rate as a Hummer drinking gasoline, it feels like a small victory.

On Sunday we took some time off to visit the tulip festival at Keukenhof. This weekend has probably been the sunniest weekend in a very long time. As you’d expect, the place was crowded with tourists (oh the snobbery - we are no longer tourists now, are we?). This is probably the first instance where I’ve had to travel in a bus standing. We didn’t get to go to those vast, endless fields of Tulips which we see in the postcards, but we did spend a few hours roaming around in the park soaking in the beautiful displays of not just tulips but of tens of other species of flowers, some of which we had never seen in our life.

The public transport in Amsterdam is probably the most mind-boggling facet of the city. There are buses, trams, metro trains and trains. We are presently a few kilometers away from the Amsterdam city center in an area called Amstelveen. The metro-stations here - and theres one practically every 4-5 block, are really tiny. They seem more like glorified bus-stops than a metro-station. At some of these stations you can board both a tram or a metro train. It is also very common to see trams and metro trains share a common traffic signal with cars and buses. My first brush with well organized public transport was more than 10 years ago in Hong Kong (MTR), followed by UK (London Underground) a few years down the road. Just like HK has Octopus, London, Oyster, Amsterdam has (the non-aquatically named) OV-chipkaart (ironical considering what a huge role the sea, rivers and dykes play in the life here - I used to think that OV must be the initials for some sea-dwelling creature, but Wikipedia put such doubts to rest: OV from Dutch openbaar public’ + vervoer transport’).

I have a thing for languages. Sadly my curiosity is only piqued sufficiently if the language concerned has a new script. Dutch uses the same script as English (with a few very occasional accented characters thrown in). Which means my motivation to learn it is a bit shaky at the moment. Then there is the question of identity. I’ve never found myself so far from India for so long (this stint should last a year), and therefore have never had to confront such questions. Does one embrace a new language with open arms or does one retreat into a cocoon of familiar mores and languages? Anyway, Dutch is considered half-way between English and German. From the snatches of both the languages I’ve heard so far, I have an analogy to present: Dutch is like a clay pot freshly off a potter’s wheel, while German is the same pot baked in a kiln.

I’ve been trying to tackle Dutch off the labels and signs in the supermarket along with some good old-fashioned intuition and I have found that I am on a slippery slope. At first you think that a lot of Dutch looks like badly spelled English. For example, Pepper is Peper, Chocolate is Chocolade, which should make it easy to amass a decent vocabulary fairly quickly. A little later you find out that some of these typos are quite peculiar and involve peppering an English word with vowels. For example new becomes nieuwe. Still, you are undeterred and think that you can reverse engineer a Dutch word back to English. This is where the trouble begins: while Suiker can be with some imagination inferred as Sugar, it takes superhuman effort to arrive at Salt from Zout. My most remarkable failure so far has been the word Snel. It is often seen at stations with Train - sneltrain. My typo theory inadvertently led me into believing that Snel was a corruption of Snail and therefore indicated a slow train - a train with a lot of stops. The urge to actually look it up on google translate struck me when I saw all the mobile operators actually charge more for snel-internet. Yup, the real the meaning of snel was quite the opposite - fast.

p.s. yes, the photos are coming soon. This is just a rough draft of all those varied thoughts that have been occupying (plaguing?) my mind.

April 12, 2011