Making Friends and Living in the Netherlands
As I enter the rehearsal space, the other girls simultaneously look up and greet me with a friendly “Hoi!” before turning back to their lively conversations. I mutter my return greeting as I set my things down and pull my music folder and water bottle out of my bag.
Joining the few girls already sitting by the piano, I take my seat and smile to the girl next to me. She smiles a broad, genuine smile just as another girl takes a seat next to her. They begin an animated discussion.
With a sigh, I open my music book and pretend to study the sheet music until the choir director calls us to attention. We all stand and sing through a series of scales until our voices are warm. The director tells us that we are now going to go around the circle and, one at a time, do something.
My limited Dutch keeps me from understanding exactly what we are to do. I turn to the unbelievably tall blonde next to me. I repeat the unknown direction in the form of a question. She doesn’t seem to hear me. I repeat myself and she quickly whispers that we’re supposed to improvise to the piano, one-by-one.
We work until the ubiquitous coffee break. I head to the table and pour myself a mug of steaming coffee before turning back to the room to devise a social strategy. The girls are all standing in circles of three or four, or sitting on chairs in groups of two to socialize. I saddle up to the nearest threesome, smiling and nodding while adding the odd murmur of surprise or approval. I am always waiting for a chance to jump in that never comes, either because I’m not quite sure what has just been said, or I can’t think of anything to say fast enough to insert it into the conversation.
I’m beginning to get used to rehearsals like this. After all, I’ve been with the choir for almost a year. It’s not their fault. They’ve all been members for two or more years. They know each other. They have a rapport. I’m the new girl, the foreigner. The one who’s always a bit behind because it takes her longer to process what has just been said.
At the end of the rehearsal, I pack my things and head outside to get my bike. It’s dark, and the streetlights reflect off of the water in the nearby canal, making the city seem brighter than it actually is. My bike is shackled to the railing lining one of the overpasses above the canal. I bend over to undo the lock when I hear a voice:
“Hey Tiffany, great rehearsal,” says the broad-smiled girl in heavily accented English.
“Which way do you cycle home?”
I pointed to my left, “This way down the Oudegracht.”
“I have to cycle that way too for a bit. Do you want to cycle together?”
“Sure,” I reply, as I feel a wash of relief.
We begin cycling homeward, chatting about school, work, choir, and anything else that comes to mind. She asks me how I like living in the Netherlands and if it is difficult being so far from my friends and family.
“You know,” she says, just before we part ways, “you don’t always have to speak in Dutch to us. We can all speak English, so if it is easier for you, just say it in English. And if there’s ever something you don’t understand, please stop us and ask. I know it must sometimes be difficult for you and we want to help.”
As we turn our bikes in opposite directions to complete the journey to our respective homes, I realize that I had gotten it all wrong.
There is no shame in speaking in English or switching between the two languages. I was there to sing and to make friends, not to use rehearsals as an extra Dutch class. How did I expect to get to know people and let them know me if I wasn’t going to throw myself into conversations and ask questions?
I am the foreigner, I am the outcast, and I am the newbie. As such, it is my responsibility to dive into the group, and not theirs to handle me with kid gloves while holding my hand.
Believe it or not, there is an art to making friends with the Dutch. They’re a very practical people who tend to hold onto their friends from school and university and don’t see the need to expand their friendships beyond that circle. That’s not to say that they don’t make new friends—just not that easily.
Perhaps I should take a moment to define "friend." In Dutch, you have kennissen (acquaintances) and vrienden (friends). A kennis is someone you know from work, school, or playgroup, but don’t typically see beyond that social sphere. A vriend is someone with whom you toss back a few beers, confide in, perhaps share vacations, and consider family.
Becoming a part of a circle of friends is much like trying to get into a fraternity or a sorority. You need to prove that you’ll be a valuable addition to their group, that you really are one of them. That means starting conversations, asking questions, volunteering information about yourself, and making an effort to define your place within the group.
On the plus side, once you make friends with a Dutch person, you’re friends for life—through thick and thin. Such friendships make transitioning to life in the Netherlands so much easier. By speaking the language and having locals as friends, you feel more a part of things. You are more rooted in your new home and immersed in the culture.
Since my epiphany that night, things have changed dramatically at rehearsals. I’m now one of the group. I join them for a drink after rehearsal. I cycle home with one or two of the other members every night. I’ve joined some of the committees to help organize the group. I try to meet up with the girls outside of rehearsal whenever I can. And sometimes I’m even the other half of one of the groups of two chatting during break!
While I don’t feel I’ve reached vriend status with any of the girls yet, I am definitely on my way. And I’m sure it will all be worth it in the end.
Tiffany Jansen is an American who moved to the Netherlands for love in December 2008. Tiffany works as a freelance writer and has authored two books and co-authored many more that can be found on her website.