When I told people in the Netherlands I was going out for a beer alone, they were less than enthusiastic.
“People will think you are at the bar to get the wrong kind of attention,” pretty much everyone I talked to agreed.
"But I won't be trying to get attention," I protested sweetly. "I'll be trying to get a beer and read my book." What I didn't say was that going out by myself was kind of how I make most of my friends.
I like the talking to strangers at bars leisurely and with a drink, where I also have the option of an escape should I want to put a sudden end to the conversation.
Besides, what was this, Pakistan? What reason would one of the most developed countries on the planet have for thinking I was at an outdoor beer bar reading my book for the wrong reasons?
Up until last August I had been fed a steady diet of Dutch stereotypes involving pot, socialism and wooden shoes, which I had no desire to disprove because the version of Holland I fantasized about as a 19-year old was a pretty awesome place.
Plus, I never planned on being with a Dutch man, so having a realistic view of social limitations in The Netherlands wasn't high on my list of priorities. Because of all the great things I had heard about Holland's educational system, socialized health care and women's rights before I came here for the first time, I was sure it would be an awesome place to live for someone like me who has never really fit in anywhere. It would obviously be easier to be myself in a place that puts so much emphasis on the rights of individuals, right?
I’ve since found that if you stand out -- and being a foreigner in a smallish town you have little choice in the matter -- then God help you.
I’ve been disappointed find many of my assumptions about the Netherlands to be completely false. I’ve never been to a developed country where there is more value placed on being normal than there is in Holland.
Je moet je hoofd niet boven het maaiveld uitstelen is a popular expression here which roughly translates to, Don't stick your head up above the grain unless you want it to be chopped off. Doe maar normal, dan doe je al gek genoeg is used even more often; it means: Just be normal, it's crazy enough.
I'm now convinced pot and prostitution are legal, not because the Dutch are freewheeling party animals, but quite the opposite, because the Dutch love nothing more than to regulate things, especially it would seem human behavior, which I've found to be so thoroughly yet invisibly policed you'd think there were actual laws in place regarding social etiquette.
I find it bizarre that in a country so focused on the rights of the individual, it is so difficult to express yourself as one. Even the artists have the same style, with their gender-obscuring layers, asymmetrical haircuts and Converse hightops, as though it is what they wear that makes them able to understand society and depict it better than a girl in a cute dress ever could.
Being somewhere new where I need to fit in in order to make friends is a feeling similar to the first days of school when you're a child. The socializing I would normally do just by being myself out in the world is not enough to win me many friends here (talking to strangers is a definite no-no) and the prospect of making more friends is actually slightly panic-inducing.
I am not a club-joiner. I don't like groups sports, am not good at either leading or following in organized activities, being simultaneously lazy and unwilling to take direction. These things, however unattractive, do not mean I don't deserve friends, and to be honest I don't think going to field hockey practice is going to bring me closer to having a social life.
So while my boyfriend continues with his life and engagements as they were before he brought me here, I am stuck either at home feeling generally sorry for myself or sitting alone like a tramp in village bar anyway.
This needs to stop. If I'm going to live here I need a real life and real friends, and so I spend time each day scouring the Internet for potential interactive possibilities. It is amazing how your standards will lower when you are faced with a dearth of human interaction.
When I lived in New York City, I went to book parties, concerts, political fundraisers, even occasional movie premieres. In sharp contrast, just the other day I was thrilled to find an English language book club. Two hours away by train. Then I realized there was a waitlist and I nearly cried.
It is my choice to live here and be with my boyfriend, but it is not my choice to be so lonely. Please help me with ideas. What are unconventional things I can do to make friends here?