What are the differences between the US and the Netherlands? What is it like to have expat culture shock? Read on, friend.

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Expat Culture Shock
When I first moved here someone warned me about all the “suffocating rules” of the Netherlands inflicted by the government.

Everything here is so orderly, so prim, so proper. Rarely is there trash on the streets, besides in the most tourist filled areas of the city. Local governments finely manicure the landscape and decorate towns with picturesque flower pots along the canals. Construction is constant, to maintain the roads, cities, what-have-you, and also to provide jobs to citizens.

The orderliness, the seeming storybook perfection comes with something I’m not used to: Rules. And lots of them.

I may have a slight problem with obeying authority and any rules, but I never realized how deep a part of me this was until I moved here.

No need for speed

A few years ago, my boyfriend got a new job, and with that job a new car. I was pretty excited. One day after he got the car, we had to pick up our mail from our old house in the Hague on a Saturday morning, and it would be our first freeway test drive with the car.

Or so I thought. Let me set the scene: every time anyone in my family has gotten a new car, we have immediately taken it out on to I-5, going south, away from Sacramento, to push it to 90-100mph, like any normal people would.

See also: The truth about California

So when we got in the car I pushed him to put his foot on the gas.

“I can’t, there’s a speed limit here.”

[Insert my typical eye roll], “Seriously?”

“Yeah, seriously. The speed limit changes like every 5k. I don’t want a ticket.”

At this point I was almost offended. What is the point of taking a car on the freeway for the first time if you can’t even push it above 65mph?

But along many stretches of highway here, the government has made the speed limit extremely confusing, in that it changes constantly, because, of course, then drivers don’t see the speed change and get a big fat ticket to pay the government even more money for all of those beautiful flowers along the canals and the 100th re-construction of the same street. (This is where it starts to hit me… I’m getting angry about big government… I’m sounding like an anchor on Fox News. God help me.)

Learning to drive?

Or how about me driving here? I don’t know how to drive a stick (YET, yes, you are allowed to laugh at me at this point), so I’ve asked him to teach me.

“Yeah, so let’s just go to a school parking lot this weekend and you can teach me how to drive.” I get a confused look at this point. “Um, that’s not possible,” he said.

Another eye roll ensues. “Really? I’m not going to break your car.”…“Yeah, but we could get fined for doing that.”

More eye rolling. “How the hell does anyone learn to drive here?!”

“They pay a couple thousand euros for lessons.”

At this point, after many failed attempts to try to get out of paying for driving lessons, I’ve come to grips with reality. Rules and order dominate Dutch society.

I’m the foreigner here. 

The concept of the open road is one that we Americans equate with freedom. You can drive across great stretches of nothingness and see no one, and nothing for miles. The US is big enough that you can find yourself completely alone. The vastness of the land has ingrained itself into our national psyche, and how we think of transportation. A car isn’t just a car. Its a vehicle of freedom. And a road isn’t just pavement, its where we go when we need time to be with our own thoughts. To push the new car up to 100mph. To just get away for a little while.

The open road doesn’t exist here, its just not possible, the space in the country is too limited, and the rules are too strict. Everything is in order. Everyone is doing normaal.

Maybe my frustration about not being able to properly test a car, or learn to drive is rooted in the way we Americans relate cars to freedom. Maybe it’s part of my culture.

Or maybe the auto industry has been romanticizing this all along to get us to love our cars.

Either way, I’m still waiting for us to take that new car out on the autobahn. At least the Germans also know how to appreciate a good piece of machinery.


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