I’ve lost count of how many times someone has asked me, “So, why Amsterdam?” It normally comes as a puzzled follow-up to the standard expat question, “Did you move here for work or for love?”, to which I usually answer, “Neither. Or both.”
Most foreigners we’ve met have either been transferred to Amsterdam or they’ve followed a romantic partner here. In our case, I did move here for work, but I actively looked for a job, and found a company that would sponsor my visa. We didn’t have the benefit of a corporate office helping with our arrangements; we did most of it ourselves. It was not easy, and I am quite proud of us for managing it, even though we didn’t do it perfectly. So proud, in fact, that I want to be sure it’s clear to people that we weren’t just taken by the hand by a benevolent multi-national employer and given a sunny apartment, a bicycle, and a tax attorney. Which is why I don’t like to say that I moved here for work.
In my husband’s case, he did (technically) move here for love, as this move was mostly my idea and he was kind enough to agree and to come along. But again, our situation doesn’t fit with the standard answer. We’re not navigating a cross-cultural, cross-language relationship, or thinking about long term plans. So we don’t like to say that we moved here for love.
If my fellow expat is still in the conversation at this point, this is when he or she normally asks, “Ok, but…why Amsterdam?”
It’s not a question for which I have a good answer, other than that there’s just something about the Netherlands and its people that I feel connected to. Like we’re kindred spirits. Maybe it’s that they are all so tall, but I’d like to think I’m not quite so superficial. All I can say is that from the first time I came to Amsterdam, back in 2000 or 2001, I just felt at home here. Still, I couldn’t explain the feeling.
Enter Russell Shorto. Mr. Shorto is an American writer who has lived in the Netherlands. He writes about Dutch history in a way that is compelling and engaging and fun. I read “Amsterdam” last year and now I’m almost through “The Island at the Center of the World’. It is the story of the “pirates and prostitutes” who were among the first to settle in what is now Manhattan – pioneers and adventurers setting out on behalf of the Dutch West India Company.
Shorto argues that the presence of this thriving, diverse colony – which predated the British presence in the New World – shaped not just New York City, but the whole of America. While some modern Americans would suggest that New York and its “New York City values” are an aberration from the rest of America, Shorto’s research tells us that New York City IS America, thanks to these early Dutch settlers. They weren’t all pirates; there were lawyers and merchants and many others who contributed to early understandings of free trade, religious freedom, and representative governance.
Now, I don’t claim to be a real New Yorker. I’m not from Manhattan. I am, however, from the Dutch half of Long Island (bearing the very Dutch name of Nassau County), based on the treaty that Peter Stuyvesant negotiated with the New Englanders. And then there’s this, buried in a footnote on page 183:
The colors of the Dutch flag of the seventeenth century were adopted in 1915 by the city of New York in recognition of its origins. There is thus a bizarrely direct connection between the colors flown by Dutch privateers cruising for booty on the Spanish Main three hundred and fifty year ago, and the jerseys worn today by the New York Mets…
Aha! Maybe that’s the explanation! Without knowing it, my childhood love of baseball and the Mets has connected me to the Netherlands. The pennant that hung in my bedroom, the black and white stuffed dog with the Mets cap, even the mini plastic helmet that spent years on my desk…these blue and orange trinkets were signposts! Arrows! Signals! And all these years later, here I am, feeling very much at home in this very orange country.
So from now on, maybe that will be my answer. Why Amsterdam? Because I am a New Amsterdammer who was called to Old Amsterdam. Perhaps I am a descendant – spiritually, if not genetically – of those first adventurers. Perhaps some element of their temperament survives in the air and the soil of modern New York, and seeps into receptive New Amsterdammers however it can: through straight talk, live-and-let-live attitudes, support for individual freedom, and, when necessary, the Mets.