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What are some things the outside world would be shocked or surprised to learn about Amsterdam?

Garion Hall

I’m an Australian living in Amsterdam, these things – all small – really stand out for me (I’ll update this as I think of more):

  • School finishes at midday on Wednesdays. This is so parents can spend more time with their kids, and many employers allow parents to go home at midday on Wednesdays.
  • Amsterdam really could not be less about prostitution and marijuana. There are small parts of the city that some tourists (and few locals) enjoy, but there’s so much more to Amsterdam than that!
  • Riding a bike is the primary means of transport for most people in cities, regardless of the “event” – going to a wedding (bride included!), dressed up, dressed down, wearing a suit, going to the beach, taking the kids to school, moving house, going to work, shopping, with pets, having breakfast, talking on the phone, putting on makeup at the lights. Women regularly wear heels. Everyone talks on their phone, SMS’s, or uses Google Maps for navigation. Any time a person in, say, LA might consider using a car, Dutchies will ride a bike. No one wears helmets.

A family on the way to somewhere. Credit: Amsterdam Bicycles

Mum on the way to somewhere. Credit: Amsterdam Bicycles

  • The Dutch do not have a word for two people being on a bike (in Australia, this is called “dinking”, in Scotland, “cogging” (“can you give me a dink?”, “Giv’ us a cog, mate?”). In Holland, it’s more like, “hop on the back” – there’s no special word (well, as Arnoud Blankenstein points out in the comments, there’s “iemand een lift geven”, which means literally, to “give someone a lift”). Which is weird, because any time a person in a car would give someone a ride, in Holland, the same thing happens on bikes. Quite often you see the boyfriend riding, and girl perched gracefully on the back (usually SMS’ing), but just as often, girls and girls, boys and boys, of all ages.

The girl doing the hard work. Credit: Amsterdam Bicycles

Moving a bed. Credit: Author.

Moving a chair. Credit: Author.

Typical Dutch family, so blonde!

  • On warm summer evenings, many people will eat on the street (or on their front steps), ‘cos most homes do not have air-con, and the streets are generally lovely.
  • Parties often happen on open boats that motor around the canals (as opposed to, at someone’s home). They stop near public toilets every so often (and at bottle-shops, to stock up). I find it very weird seeing parties motor past our house, just like a party in someone’s living room… but on the water.
  • Many people leave their curtains open, so people walking down the street can see right into their home. It’s not uncommon to see people going about their lives, including moments that others might consider private, when looking through windows. It’s considered impolite to look through windows at these times, however.
  • Update, 8th July 2014: Visiting the Dr has some quirks for non-Dutch people. “What’s your length?” (they mean, height). “Are you sober?” (Not eaten anything in the last 12 hours – “fasting”, for a blood test). And they call a prescription a “recipe”, which I think is cute, though disorienting the first time.
  • Update, 18th August, 2014: In most urban centres, domestic trash is collected from the street twice a week. You’re allowed to put trash bags out from midnight the night before (there are fines, apparently, if you do it earlier). No one uses trash cans to put their rubbish in. You can put out as much rubbish as you like. We have put a few pieces of (really crappy!) furniture, but it always gets taken by someone before the rubbish collectors arrive. You’re expected to carry your own recycling to large neighborhood bins for glass / cardboard / plastic.
  • Typical pile of rubbish on the morning of a rubbish collection day. Perhaps one small business, and a bunch of 10 houses. It will all be gone by 10am, street cleaners come soon after and make it pretty again. Credit: Author.
  • Update, 6th September, 2014: I can communicate by email with my doctor (GP). When necessary, he just says, “Well, you better come in to see me about that!”, but we’ve had plenty of conversations by email. So convenient! Need a perscription refilled? Send an email (or, use the form on his site Huisarts aan de Herengracht, use Chrome to translate). This is unheard-of in my country.
  • Update, 4th October, 2014: In a multi-story building, each “flat” / “apartment” has a street number. Where I’m from, this would be dealt with as flat 6, number 22, (written as 6/22 on an addressed envelope, for example), but in the Netherlands, it’d be street number 22, 23, 24, etc. A building with 100 units in it each has their own street number.
  • Postcodes are written as “1023KL”, and cover very small areas – 4-8 houses. So, to address la letter, you could just write “1023KL 34 Netherlands” (the 34 is the house number).
  • In Haarlem, upstairs apartments have red street numbers.
  • Update: 9th Sep, 2014: The Dutch postal service, PostNL, has some cool delivery features that we don’t have in Australia, for example, every parcel is tracked by default, entering the code on their website allows you to see the status. This most useful when receiving a delivery. Although most typically, parcels attempted to be delivered when you’re not home are delivered to your neighbours, with a small card indicating such (unique in itself, in my experience), if the neighbours are also not home, you can look up the parcel online, and choose when to re-attempt re-delivery. For example, night time, or on Saturday. Here’s a screenshot for some Lego I ordered recently (I use Chrome’s Google Translate plugin, it’s imperfect)
  • Update, June 26, 2015: When entering a doctor’s waiting room or similar situation, it’s considered polite to greet everyone with a cheery “hello!”. Most people will mumble a reply, or at least look up from their phones and smile briefly. I think it’s nice and friendly, though I often forget to do it. Try that in Australia, and you’ll get some funny looks for sure!
  • Update, August 5, 2015: First Monday of each month at midday, all the air raid sirens (many in every town) sound for 20 seconds or so, as a test. This is absolutely terrifying if you’ve never heard it before – all the locals ignore it, of course, so it seems like only you can hear it, it’s like everyone else has gone crazy! (I think other EU cities do this too, a holdover from WW2 / Cold war?). Wanneer wordt de sirene getest? (I recommend Google Translate!)
  • Update, July 3, 2016: Power points in hallways and some other spaces are mid-way up the wall, and often integrated with a light-switch (in Australia, always ~10″ off the floor). I asked a Dutch electrican about this, and he said “it is more convenient, of course”. I guess it is for vacuuming…

More updates as I think of them.


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