Expat Ruminations by Rajeev Poduval

Rajeev Poduval is an Indian American journalist currently based in Amsterdam. He most recently reported for The Washington Times, The Christian Science Monitor and Grade the News at Stanford University in the United States. He has also worked with Emirates News, The Gulf Today and Panorama Magazine in the United Arab Emirates. Rajeev is living with his son Advaith and wife Bala, a space scientist presently working on methods of improving space weather predictions using artificial intelligence at Amsterdam Science Park. In this column which will be published in the next editions of The Holland Times he will share parts of his life as an expat in the Netherlands.

Reimagining Amsterdam

The evening sky in Amsterdam looked chalk-grey with clouds hanging low as we disembarked the plane. For a moment it rains and it soon lets up. The cab driver on our way to the hotel tells us that is the way it is in the city. I had my fi rst glance at the gabled buildings and pavement cafes of the city through the scrim of rain. The rain-drenched city in the falling dusk gave off an almost psychedelic glow as we drove through–or so I thought! Every city, I thought, had certain tropes associated with it; Middle Eastern cities, for instance, are normally associated with exotic belly dancers and prostitutes traffi cked from other countries; some of the Indian cities are characterized by extreme poverty, ubiquitous beggars, ascetics, temples and extreme wealth gap! The city of Amsterdam in our collective imagination is characterized by its coffee shops with cannabis-infused menus, canal tours, windmills, the redlight districts and museums! One stereotypical notion about the country and its culture that I came across much before I began this journey was the “straightforwardness” in the Dutch culture– a euphemistic expression, I suppose, for lack of empathy! I was delighted to have this myth busted right at the airport itself before we entered the city: seeing our autistic teenager son, tired, cranky and somewhat confused by the long travel, two airport staff came running to us with a wheelchair and got us to breeze through the immigration. Being a person who lived in the United States for the last two decades, the fi rst thing that struck me about Amsterdam was the rather slow, calm and pleasantly uneventful flow of life here– at least on the surface of it.

The pluralistic nature of the city, both in terms of the cityscape and the city dwellers, certainly is a direct contrast to the baffl ing homogeneity of American cities. The picturesque canals crisscrossing the city dotted by ferries, water taxis, and the beautiful Vondel Park with all the restaurants, nightclubs, and coffee shops around give a quintessentially “Amsterdamian” experience, perhaps as “authentic” as the cowboys showcased in Time Square, New York for tourists! Amsterdam was in a way frozen in my imagination, probably through Van Gogh’s oeuvre and, to a lesser degree, through descriptions that appear in every travelogue imparting the city a kind of “timelessness”, mostly fi xating on its red street areas and tourists on “soft drugs” hanging out as if the city was enchanted. I am not sure, however, if the Amsterdam I eventually discover is going to shatter this image of timelessness because I am not a tourist who came here for a short stay.

My initial impression of the city is that it is perhaps more tourist-friendly than expatfriendly! House-hunting, for instance, has been a harrowing experience. Perhaps this is because, having lived in one of the most pro-immigrant places in the world, the San Francisco Bay Area, specifi cally the Silicon Valley towns, I took so many things for granted–fi nding a house of your choice easily was one of them. There is no doubt that the housing market in Amsterdam leaves a great deal to be desired. The high demand for affordable housing, real estate fi rms with questionable reputations, agents, real estate con men, and spammers operating through social media together make the housing market here a witch’s brew. This chaos could very well be understood in the backdrop of the lack of competition in the housing market in Amsterdam though. News reports suggest the housing crisis will peak this year in the country. As the pace of construction remains slow, the housing crisis may continue till the end of next year. It appears that digitization has not made things signifi cantly better, faster or more effi cient here. Instead, one fi nds the conventional old-school ways still lingering with seemingly incomprehensible procedures and regulations.

We were baffled to learn that we had to get an appointment a week later with a bank to open a bank account, and another week to add a second person to the account! This honestly kept us wondering why on earth would opening a bank account should take so long-something that is usually done in a few minutes time. You then wait for your ATM card the bank sends through snail mail– doesn’t it all sound enjoyable? In Amsterdam, while most corporate and government offi ces have English speaking staff, many websites and government documents are not available in English. Before traveling to Amsterdam, I spent a lot of time researching rental car companies and car leasing options in the city. However, I was pleasantly surprised to fi nd, unlike the US, being without a car is not at all a handicap here. The public transport system here is so enviably effi cient and my sense of mobility was never affected! One can feel the liberal aura of the city just driving through downtown once. Amsterdam is not known for its no-gravity steeland- glass structures or “vertical development” but for its rich artistic and diverse cultural fabric. In this unique cultural space of the city, borders are constantly redrawn and identities reconfi gured and gender and cultural mutations are the laws of the city.

For expatriates, especially from conservative Asian and Middle Eastern societies, the city may be a bit of a culture shock. To me, coming to Amsterdam is a travel bucket list dream come true!