By Sofia Abdirizak
The moment I finally felt I belonged in the country that had felt cold and foreign to me for two months was when I participated in a custom that could be considered quintessentially Dutch: cycling to class in downtown Amsterdam. It’s no secret that cycling is an integral part of Dutch culture, and there are certain recurring facts that people often spout in conversations on the subject. Outsiders often focus on the bizarrely unequal ratio of bikes to people in the country, or the number of bikes found at the bottoms of Amsterdam’s famous canals, or the early age that children start learning how to ride. These popular images of Dutch biking culture result in a global view of cycling in The Netherlands as being a highly effective, environmentally friendly, and overall cute mode of transportation. And in order to be considered a true Amsterdammer, one must master the treasured two-wheeled chariot.
When I sent in my application for study abroad, I chose to go to The Netherlands because of years of being obsessed with architecture and interior design blogs. I was attracted to the cultural ideals of environmentalism and minimalism communicated through neutral colors, natural elements, and sustainable design features, so when given the opportunity to study in a new country, I set my heart on visiting the famous city known for canals and uniqueness.
What I didn’t expect was that Amsterdam would become a test in assimilation and cultural navigation—skills I naively believed I had already mastered. Living in The Netherlands taught me that even though I have had the privilege of traveling extensively and interacting with a wide variety of cultures in my life, I had become complacent. I learned that four months fully immersed in a new culture required a much different mindset than four weeks spent on vacation or visiting family on the other side of the world.
The first few days of the program were a walk in the park. The foreignness of the city and its residents were still exciting rather than alienating, and I bonded with other study abroad students over the harshness and confusing phonetics of the Dutch language, which made it intimidating to learn. Although languages are an obvious choice for cultural assimilation, because they allow communication, I’ve always been more attracted to the foods of the places I visit and the unique behaviors of the residents. I didn’t miss home cooking at first, because traditional Dutch cuisine like Hagelslag (toast slathered in butter and covered in chocolate sprinkles), Bitterballen (deep-fried bitter beef meatballs), and copious amounts of Gouda were still a novelty.
What I learned after two months in Amsterdam, while I vigorously rang my bell and yelled the only Dutch expletive in my vocabulary at the guy who cut me off and made me veer off of the path, was that cycling etiquette reveals more insights into Dutch behavior and culture than are listed in the brochures. And, as I veered again to avoid hitting a stroller while cursing the canals for attracting so many oblivious tourists, I finally connected to the city on a deeper, and surprisingly profane, level.
The often highly personalized and well-looked-after bikes in Amsterdam aren’t just a means for getting from one place to another, but physical extensions of the people who ride them. True Amsterdamers have a sixth sense that allows them to bob and weave through the orderly bike lanes while talking on the phone, holding hands, or carrying groceries—and (although this is not recommended) they do it all while under the influence. Amsterdamers also have a certain sense of honesty and directness that outsiders can find startling: they are more than happy to let you know when you break the unwritten laws of the bike lane.
In that single moment of road rage, all of my training over the past two months came into play. I finally felt like a real Amsterdamer. I had already mastered riding with no hands in order to eat the Albert Heijn cheese croissants I picked up on my way to class, so I was able to keep control of the bike while simultaneously flipping off the reckless cyclist. I also knew that this was the perfect moment for ringing my bell and shouting a reprimand. I felt validated in my full assimilation when I heard rings and shouts of support coming from the other cyclists he had cut off.