It’s always sunny in Amsterdam

If someone had asked me yesterday what my personal hell would be, I wouldn’t have known off the top of my head.

It seems like an easy enough question to answer – but those are the questions that are hardest to answer.

How many beans can you hold in your hand? No one’s ever asked me that, but tell me the type of bean and I can make a good guess.

What’s the capital of Ohio? I would probably think of it eventually. Those kinds of questions are fine.

But questions about yourself are tricky.

Answers to the questions about yourself are like feral cats, they sneak up on you when you’re alone and least expect them. And they rub against your jeans and you wonder why, and then you’re nervous to smell your jeans later.


That’s why if someone had asked me yesterday about my personal hell, I probably would have just described the average personal hell. Maybe very loud construction, or being in a cab and realizing you don’t have enough money to cover the fare.

Last night I learned what my actual hell is because we had to try to sleep through it: constant daylight.

People talk a lot about the length of days in Amsterdam, and they complain about the short ones. They complain about how in the winter it’s dark all the time. Bring on darkness. I go to the movie theater and pay ten euros to sit in darkness. No one is paying ten euros for constant light, but here in the summer you get it for free whether you like it or not.

Last night I took a ton of cold medicine and got in bed ready to welcome sleep but the sun was still out, and there was daylight deep into the night until pretty much forever, until somehow it started getting even brighter. Then we called it morning and I got out of bed and changed from pajamas to work clothes and went to work with people who all witnessed the same thing, and we’re all pretending it didn’t happen.

There was no night last night. Can it even be morning if it wasn’t night? How do we know today is today and not still yesterday? How did anyone sleep? This doesn’t bother anyone else. And that’s what makes it a personal hell, I guess.

So, if you were going to ask, now you know.

Here’s a photo of a pigeon unsatisfied by the things it found in the trash:

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

You’re one in fourteen.

Everyone says that all the Dutch people in Amsterdam speak English. You won’t find anyone who will only speak Dutch to you, they say. It’s a port city, it’s a city of merchants, it’s an international city, it’s the Mensa headquarters, whatever reason: it’s just not going to happen.

And everyone says that we won’t find any ice cream here in the winter. Not until summer, or at least late April, they say. The diets here are reasonable, we think about the season, now is the time for hot chocolate, soup, and whatever else: it’s just not going to happen.

No Dutch-speakers, no ice cream, it’s not possible, they all said.

Well you were all wrong. It’s pouring and miserable and I’m in the most international city on earth and today I found an ice cream vendor that speaks no English. It’s the little things that make me happy at this point. The little things, and proving other people wrong.

This man wasn’t even old! It was a non-English-speaking young man!

I haven’t had an at-gunpoint opportunity to practice any Dutch until today, at the magic ice cream shop. Not that it was a gunpoint scenario. It’s just that usually when people get to the hard questions, or any questions, they switch to English.

In my moment of panic I couldn’t remember how to say that I don’t speak Dutch, and could only recall how to tell him that “my Dutch is not so hot.”

“My Dutch is not so hot.” I told him in very slow Dutch, saying what really did not need to be said.

Standing in the ice cream shop, looking back and forth between the rain outside and the ice cream selling man, I thought about whoever’s job it is to store new Dutch words I learn on notecards, file them in my brain, and then retrieve them at the moment they become useful. “Not so hot!” I imagined her scribbling on a piece of posterboard. “Let’s keep this one handy. Right at the front, with the lyrics to every Magnetic Fields song and the words to the LDS sacrament prayers in German!!!” As I silently begged her to remind me how to say something else, anything else, she left to take a smoke break and tossed the burning match on whatever other Dutch vocabulary I had.

“I am American. I am an American woman.” I told the very patient man. “Now. HERE. Now, …Netherlands?”

Being in this ice cream place made me feel like a kid again: not because they had stroopwafel flavored ice cream and peanut-M&M milkshakes, but because the non-English-speaking man asked me how long I’ve lived here. I wanted to tell him that I’ve been in Amsterdam 3 weeks, but I only know how to say the word for “days,” and the biggest number I know is 14, so I had to improvise a bit and say I’ve been here 14 days.

It’s been a long time since the biggest number I knew was that small. If I had to tell you how long it’s been, and I had to tell you in Dutch, I would tell you it’s been 14 years.