To learn about Dutch society, sometimes all you need to do is to rent Dutch property. My first housing in the Netherlands was a brand new building, fully furnished, and a total accident. The place had been bought by a Dutch couple, who were about to get married. But something had gone wrong. Apparently the wedding was called off, and then they’d needed renters, quick. That’s where we came in. It was like a model home: not only fully furnished, but totally unused. And – when we went to open the kitchen cabinets – the dinner plates were still in festive wrapping paper saying ‘Congratulations to the happy couple!’
At one point, we had to deliver our rent to the former bride-to-be. She was a tall, blond doctor. Apparently he was a doctor, too. Cautiously, we asked what had happened. She told us he’d had a ‘fear of commitment’ and backed out of the whole relationship. And then we got a long and spirited rant, introducing us to her theory that – as women have become liberated – Dutch men have become ‘cotton ball’ watjes. A valuable lesson, (and even more valuable property).
Ah, Dutch relationships. Sometimes they giveth. Sometimes they taketh away. A few years later, I was living with my roommate, subletting from a woman who’d moved in with her boyfriend. It was a nice place, fully furnished, and it was all going well… until one night there was the woman, crying in our living room. ‘We broke up,’ she explained. ‘He threw me out!’ We tried to console her ‘Aww… there, there.’ And around midnight, still sniffling, she looked up and said ‘Well, I guess I’ll take my old bed back. Where are you going to sleep tonight?’
The next place I lived taught me a lot about Dutch communal space. I was renting with 4 other Americans. Right behind the Victorieplein in Amsterdam’s Rivierenbuurt district. We’d heard Rivierenbuurt was a pretty quiet neighborhood, and this spot was perhaps the quietest. The five of us had the whole house to ourselves. The south-facing balconies looked out to the lush, green courtyard. And as soon as we got in there, we flung open the doors and someone cranked up The Beastie Boys. It was perhaps 15 seconds before the angry banging began. It was not the last time the neighbors would protest at us Loud Americans.
I was subletting from a couple of students once. It taught me a lot about the Dutch educational system. We could stay there on one condition: we had to pretend we were guests. The pair of students gave us some story about receiving funding to study and to rent the apartment. The truth was – instead of studying – they were actually renting out their apartment, taking the study money and working in Ibiza. They were what I would call rich-kid kakkers. And they were very clear: ‘Whatever happens, do NOT tell anyone we’re in Ibiza. If anyone comes to the door, tell them you’re houseguests. And – whatever you do – do not let anyone from the city know you’re here.’ So when the city required me to give a fixed address to the Stadsregister, I gave their address. And they subsequently got in a lot of trouble. But don’t worry: I’m sure they’re now very successful in Dutch banking. Or perhaps the Building Sector.
And then there were the Stowaways: a circus couple named Vincent & Marli. Their apartment was a nice, big place …but there was a catch. The circus wasn’t doing so well, so they’d moved into the tiny storage space upstairs, to live rent-free. The deal was: we had the place to ourselves – unless they needed to use the toilet. Or unless they needed to use the kitchen. Or unless they needed to rehearse their act in the living room. He was a huge dude with a Hans Klok hairdo, and she was a tiny Eastern European girl with a lot of makeup. I’d wake up, hung over, on Saturday mornings, and he’d be throwing her all over the place. It was amazing. Until the time he flung her so wildly she kicked the coffee cup out of my hands.
Yes, I learned a lot in the Dutch Assimilation Course. But the real education has come from renting a bunch of Dutch property.