Illustration: Karolina Burdon

#JOURNEYWOMAN

Can you ever truly feel at home in a country you weren’t born in? 

Marie Phillips moved to Amsterdam on a whim. She fell in love but struggled to make friends. Because belonging in a city is complicated 

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By Marie Phillips on

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When I moved to Amsterdam two years ago, I was 38 and had lived in London my entire life, bar my studies. I didn’t want to reach my eighties having never lived outside of my village, even if it was a village of 8.5 million people with a Little Waitrose on every corner. So I took the plunge and sublet an apartment in a city I had once spent one day in seven years ago, and remembered liking the look of. I bought a bike and learnt to ride it, I put mayonnaise on my chips, I learned to pronounce "Van Gogh" like I was coughing up phlegm, I fitted right in. OK, I had so few friends that, when I had a gas leak, I had to call a Dutch-speaking buddy in Nigeria to navigate the automated emergency phone line for me, but what did that matter? I was only planning to stay there for a year or two, and then I was heading home. Fast forward to a year later: I’m picking out towels with the Dutch guy I’m dating. Reader, take my advice: never stay “a year or two” in a country you would not be willing to accidentally fall in love in, and end up living in forever.

Suddenly, instead of Amsterdam being some charmingly weird place where I was temporarily hanging out, where you can legally buy women and drugs, but not having personal liability insurance is considered a deeply antisocial act, it was home. My home. But how was I going to make it feel that way? I had no job that took me out of the flat, no family and knew almost no one. You can’t belong to a country if you have no connection to the people there beyond getting yelled at if you accidentally step into the cycle lane.

I took up new hobbies in an attempt to make friends. Swing dancing proved surprisingly solitary – I was there without a partner, so I had to dance with a tiny elderly man of excessive sweatiness, who spoke no English. Crochet, on the other hand, became the centre of my social life. Every week, I get together with a group of women from all over the world to make warm garments you’d refuse to wear if they were free and you were naked in the Arctic, and feel the warmer sense of connection with people who understand the difficulties of being a foreigner in Holland. They provide me with intel about everything, from torturous Dutch bureaucracy (the difference between getting your documentation legalised by an apostille – right! – or a notary – wrong!) to how to get notoriously unsympathetic Dutch doctors to take you seriously (pretend to have been sick for three weeks; don’t be a woman).

Belonging isn’t something you can order at the bar alongside a beer that would knock out a stallion and a plate of raw sausage

If I was going to make some local friends, though, I was going to need to learn Dutch. True, pretty much everyone in Amsterdam knows how to speak English, but Dutch people, for some reason, choose to speak Dutch amongst themselves. There is nothing more miserable than standing in the middle of a party where everybody is speaking a language you don’t understand, so you can’t join in any of the conversations, and nobody starts to talk to you because they don’t know you’re English, they just think you’re rude, and you just have to stuff your face with dip, or take a nap on the sofa, or try to read someone’s kids' comic books, or dance on your own, or hide in the loo and look at Twitter (all of which are real things I have done, especially the dip.) Even if someone does take pity on you and speak to you in English, all your jokes fall flat, because you can’t read the papers or watch the news, so you talk about Boris Johnson instead of whoever the equivalent Dutch politician is with the blond bouffant and the revolting opinions (Geert Wilders, if you were wondering.)

I hired a woman in Greece to give me Dutch lessons over Skype, which was half the price of getting someone to do it in person in Amsterdam. After the first few lessons, I burst into tears while going over words for things you might find in a hardware store, and said that if I wanted to buy a saw in Holland I would just point at a saw. I needed something I could use with my boyfriend’s friends at parties! So she gave me a children’s book about the French Revolution and now I can converse with confidence about terror, starvation, riots and decapitation, which comes in more useful than you might think.

I’ve immersed myself in Dutch culture. It’s amazing how many differences there are between two ostensibly similar northern European countries. Sometimes, the difference is small: it is considered perfectly normal to eat bread with a knife and fork. Sometimes the difference is rather larger: it would take an entire article in itself to explain the Dutch Christmas ritual of blacking up and pretending to be Santa’s slave, and the related Dutch Christmas ritual of arguments between people who think that it’s racist and those who think that it isn’t. (It is.) I studied Amsterdam style and bought a selection of cute little jackets perfect for cycling in, which I never wear because I am always in head-to-toe waterproofs that make me look like I am handling nuclear waste. I’m picking up a Dutch accent from my boyfriend (alas, only in English) and I know how to sing the Dutch birthday song.

Is Amsterdam home? Not entirely. Belonging isn’t something you can order at the bar alongside a beer that would knock out a stallion and a plate of raw sausage. But there’s something appealing about being a stranger in a strange land that I’m not willing to give up either. It will be a sad day when I no longer laugh at shops being called winkels, or the polite form of "you can" being "u kunt". I have my trophies of survival: my gallery of Dutch men’s hair, taken from screenshots of Tinder profile photos of men called Koos and Joost; my immunity to salty liquorice; my ability to pick out the tastiest cheese from a counter of seemingly identical Goudas. If home is where the heart is, I’ll always be part Londoner, but now I’m part Amsterdammer, too. And if it’s wherever you lay your hat, I have a very ugly one in my Dutch apartment. I crocheted it myself.

@mpphillips

It's #JourneyWoman week on The Pool and all this week, we will be discussing travel, boundaries and self-exploration

Illustration: Karolina Burdon
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