Ducking the Dutch

Good evening,” the police officer said in flawless English. “We’re conducting random searches due to an increase in criminal activity. Please give us your backpack and place your hands on the wall.”

It was September 27, 2007. I’d been in Amsterdam for a grand total of three hours, just long enough to drop off my luggage in a tiny hotel room before heading out to learn if the Dutch really do put mayonnaise on their fries like John Travolta claimed in Pulp Fiction.

That’s when Amsterdam’s Finest nabbed me even though I had nothing in the bag besides the latest edition of Lonely Planet Europe. While a cop the size of Andre the Giant began patting me down in front of a group of gawking British tourists, I remember thinking back to all the hours I’d spent daydreaming about this trip in the UO dorms. This definitely wasn’t what I assumed the most “tolerant” nation on the planet was going to be like.

Four days later, after nearly having my passport stolen by a dodgy hotel clerk and having some further mishaps, I returned to Oregon vowing never to return to “hellish Holland.” I repeated that premature proclamation numerous times in the months that followed.

It’s now July of 2015 and I’m writing these words in an old canal house a stone’s throw from the University of Leiden. After promising to never set foot in the Netherlands again, I fell in love with an expat from Oregon and moved here to be with her in the summer of 2011.

I wish I could say we’ve lived happily ever after and that Europe is everything that many young Ducks assume. Sometimes our lives seem like a random scene from Midnight in Paris, but this continent is no bohemian Shangri-La.

Everyday life in the Netherlands is rife with drawbacks. The weather here makes Eugene’s soggy climate look spectacular. My job perpetually requires me to jump through a never-ending series of bureaucratic hoops. The Dutch language is nearly impossible for foreigners to master and many aspects of the culture, along with the nation’s increasingly conservative political sphere, would drive pretty much any UO grad student to drink (or drink more than they already do). Doubt it? Google “Zwarte Piet.”

During my four years here, I’ve been detained and briefly deported back to America, the result of a misunderstanding at passport control in Schiphol Airport. I’ve been called some of the most foul insults ever devised in any language by a cantankerous neighbor, my nightmarish work anecdotes would terrify even the cast of Office Space, and I’ve nearly died about 5,000 times while trying to get around town during rush hour (the bike traffic here makes I-5 look like a quiet country lane). Ever find yourself in the middle of a brawl involving soccer hooligans? I have. Perhaps worst of all, it’s impossible to find a decent burrito anywhere in this country.

So why not hightail it back to Oregon, you ask?

A few months ago, I was sitting in a local tavern called De Bonte Koe with my girlfriend and another former Duck who was in Leiden for a seminar.

“You live in a wonderland!” my old friend from Eugene cheerfully announced. “This place sure beats Massachusetts!”

She finished a postdoc at Harvard last month. In comparison to the Boston metro area’s nasty winters and notoriously grumpy denizens, Leiden was a paradise. My friend spent the evening singing the praises of the city’s gorgeous architecture, cozy cafés, bike-friendly streets, friendly citizens, and truly outstanding beer offerings.

It’s very easy to lose sight of all of this stuff amid the deafening hum of everyday irritants. Meanwhile, on a summer night when the weather is behaving, the view outside our front windows is worthy of a Rembrandt painting. The rail system can get me to Amsterdam in 35 minutes and Paris in a little under three hours. A single sip of ale from the region’s Trappist breweries would make you swear off Rogue Ales for life (yeah, even Dead Guy). Since 2011, I’ve swum in thermal pools in Iceland, explored the ruins of Vlad the Impaler’s castle in Romania, and chatted with Greg LeMond on the sidelines of the Tour de France.

But damned if I’ll ever get used to watching Seinfeld episodes with subtitles.

—By Brandon Hartley

Brandon Hartley, BA ’01, earned a degree in English at the UO and has contributed to Willamette Week, the Huffington Post, Dutch News, and others