February 8, 2017

Arrival: Expectations meet reality

Public art in Slotermeer. Photo by Sally Rifkin
Sally Rifkin

When I chose to do a homestay program in Amsterdam, I naively envisioned myself in one of those bright, colorful houses that line the canals. Based on what little knowledge I had—that Amsterdam is a progressive city with a penchant for efficiency and views fit for a postcard-- I assumed everyone here lived well, in small homes with IKEA-inspired interiors.

But because Amsterdam is such a densely populated city, making housing expensive and scarce, I shouldn’t have been surprised that not a single person from my group of 24 was placed in a canal house. While some of us are close to the city enter, many, like me, are in the outermost parts of the city—some of my classmates will have to take a ferry to get to class each day. Because houses and apartments in Amsterdam tend to be small, most families do not have a single room to spare in their homes, and as a result, many of us will stay with couples or single adults whose children have moved out.

My home for the next three months is in a neighborhood called Slotermeer, west of the city center. It is about 30 minutes by tram to the city center, but I’m told it will be faster once I get my bike. For the Dutch, cycling is a way of life—every street has a bike lane next to the sidewalk on each side of the street, protected by parked cars or tram tracks. Cars drive in the middle. Amsterdam has more bikes than people, owing to the fact that some people have two bikes—one for distance riding, and one that they keep in the city for local use, often a little junkier so as not to tempt thieves. Rain pants are sold at all the major department stores because according to our program director, “there is no such thing as bad biking weather—only bad choice of clothes.” The first day we were here, I saw a cyclist with one hand on the handlebars and the other holding a sandwich—talk about multitasking!

Public art in Slotermeer. Photo by Sally RifkinIn Slotermeer, the picturesque canal houses that characterize the city center are nowhere to be found. It’s more suburban and working-class, but still a bustling neighborhood. Judging by the number of Turkish food stores and hijabis, it is also something of an ethnic enclave. My host, Aryan, is a friendly divorced father with a nine-year-old daughter named Nathalie who comes to visit a few times a week (she only speaks Dutch so we communicate mainly through Google translate and funny faces). Aryan has lived in Amsterdam for more than a decade now, but was born and raised in Iran, and lived in Paris before moving here. We communicate well, considering English is his fourth language. Aryan is proud of his Persian heritage and promises to make me love Persian food—he has already cooked me some pretty delicious kebabs. But he is critical of the Netherlands in ways that I didn’t expect. He says that the Dutch were thieves in the days of colonialism—claiming land and resources abroad—and that they continue to be thieves now by overtaxing civilians. Whereas I view the cycling culture as one of Amsterdam’s best attributes, Aryan cycles because it’s the only practical option; there are high taxes for owning and operating vehicles in Amsterdam. He resents the high taxes for making him socially immobile; he says that if he had been granted a visa to America a decade ago, he would be wealthy by now. He would move back to Paris in a heartbeat, if not for the fact that his daughter lives here.

If there is one thing Aryan likes about Amsterdam, it’s his house, which is modest but has two stories and a small yard, more than can be said for the tiny apartments in the city center. The close proximity of the homes in the city center makes for less privacy, and it’s clear that Aryan values the green space and relative quietness of his home. My experience in Slotermeer at Aryan’s house will be much different than the canal house life I envisioned for my time here, but I think it will be a much more realistic experience—more reflective of the life I would have if I permanently lived in Amsterdam. And I think this unexpected homestay is an important first step for me in unsettling my vision of Amsterdam as a progressive paradise.