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THEUNE: Combining Dutch efficiency with American naiveté

• Jan 8, 2019 at 2:00 PM

We left Spring Lake exactly one week ago — a wonderful send-off from neighbors, friends and family all waving goodbye. We even drove our car through a banner reading “Netherlands,” breaking it heroically like a football team getting ready for its game.

We were off. Of course, there were some tears from all of us, but, by the time we hit Coopersville on our way to Detroit’s airport, we settled into the reality: After an overnight flight, we would start our six-month life in the Netherlands.

After enjoying our fair share of movies on our seat-back televisions and much-improved airline food, the wheels hit down at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Everything worked perfectly: We landed, we got passports stamped, we found our taxi to drive us to our home 30 minutes away in Utrecht. In fact, the taxi dropped us right at our front door, spilling out all 15 bags (checked bag, carry-on and backpack for each of us).

As planned with the homeowner, we knocked on the neighbor’s house and she’s waiting to let us in. Bӓrbel turns the key and we enter a world of Dutch efficiency.

We enter a hallway (imagine a “mudroom” in Spring Lake) only as wide as my shoulders and a half, but it holds many important items: layers of mail holders; a 6-inch-deep closet loaded with storage, including the WiFi router and extra bike lights and seat cushions for a bench outside and badminton racquets; and 12 hooks to hold coats and hats and reusable shopping bags.

Next, we enter the main door and the efficiency continues. Our space is built up as much as possible: starting with a great storage chest. We can find a wide array of home goods here — some kitchen items, some books, some technology. The sitting area is a 12-by-8-foot space, but is filled by a perfectly sized couch to squeeze an entire family of four on it (yes, yes — I have to bring in a dining table seat for me, but the homeowners are a family of four).

When we finally make our way upstairs, we see that the stairs resemble a ladder more than stairs with which we’re familiar at home: they are steep and narrow. Once upstairs, we realize the toilets are nestled perfectly under the stairways and the closets of the bedrooms are nestled into the walls while maintaining the important structure, meaning the closets follow the angle of the roof. This efficiency is impressive, really. Somehow, our space, 930 square feet in total, feels big: the ceilings are tall, some seating is hinged so it can be stored against the wall when not in use, and a perfectly placed pocket door can go a long way.

Just as we were immediately impressed by the Dutch efficiency, we were confronted with some American naiveté.

When Nikki and I heard that the Dutch are 92 percent English proficient, we took a more laid-back approach to learning the language. The commitment we shared to our language app, Duolingo, faded over the past couple of months, half expecting that signs and grocery items in country would read both in Dutch and in English.

Well, it didn’t take long to realize that wasn’t the case. We appreciated not fully understanding the signage from Amsterdam to Utrecht, but our first trip to the supermarket was a bit of a challenge. Remember that whole “efficiency” thing of the previous paragraph? Well, the supermarkets are tight and tall, with many people trying to buy. We decided to go all five of us at once (we’re now one week in and comfortable leaving the girls at home, but we just weren’t sure on the first day) and we were scrambling, trying to figure out which milk was light or full, which pancake mix was most like the one at home, which sugar was the best for baking.

Of course, after some bumping others and some quick, poor decisions requiring an immediate second trip to the grocery after getting home, we completed the shopping journey and, of course, with each passing day, we get more and more comfortable with the language.

We did, however, have a costly lesson in the value of bicycles where our naiveté became a hindrance. I made an assumption, based on what I’d observed around the neighborhood the first day or so, that a bicycle’s “fast” lock would be enough for a quick trip to the grocer. In fact, it was not. Upon leaving, the bike was gone, stolen. I returned home embarrassed, frustrated and disappointed in myself. I had been told to double lock, to use the fast lock and the chain, but I didn’t and the bike was gone.

When I reported this to our neighbors during our block party for the New Year’s celebration, the response was simply this: “Welcome to the Netherlands. This happens a lot.” Good to know. Sad it happened.

We’re learning a lot — and quickly, too. Despite the challenges, our first week has been a knockout week where we realize we belong in this space, where we realize that a family can make a home in so many places in this world, where we begin to understand our own shortcomings and appreciate the skills of others.

About the writer: David Theune, a Spring Lake High School English/language arts teacher, is writing from the Netherlands, where he and his family will be living for the next five months.

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