September 6, 2013
The Dutch public transport system, known as GVB, becomes any locals’ best friend. Travellers can pay in cash for an hour of riding, or use a chip card that tracks kilometers travelled; the chip card must be scanned both entering and exiting the bus or tram. If you forget to scan your card, you can be sure that the balance will run out by the end of the day. After an exhausting day of walking around the rainy city center with heavy bags, my roommate and I were happy to make it to the bus stop during rush hour and catch the almost-full bus. Although by that point in my trip I already had a chip card and reloaded it earlier that day, it was denied. I continued to try and scan my card—I could not read the Dutch on the screen—before the bus driver raised his voice at me in Dutch. I couldn’t respond to him so I stood in front of the bus after locals passed by me and simply gave him 3 euro as we started moving to pay for a ticket. He put my change on the ledge beside him while shielding the larger amount of money I had initially placed on there for him—he would gather and sort it when the bus was stopped. He started speaking to me in Dutch, and when I responded with a quick “English?” he raised his voice and continued speaking only in Dutch. I waited for him to finish and walked to the middle of the bus where my roommate was standing. When it was time to get off, our easier exit was towards the front of the bus, past the driver. I made a quick sprint for the back—yet further—exit instead.
This experience occurred on the fifth day of my travels in Amsterdam. I come from Dallas, Texas where public transportation isn’t well organized or readily available. Coming from this mindset, I assumed—and had actually heard—that transport officials and bus drivers were very helpful when it came to tourists. The first part of the encounter—when my card was denied—set me back in my ability to respond well to the situation. I had placed 10 euro on the card, and now it was suddenly gone. I had to juggle my bags to find my change purse while other were trying to enter, which made the entire experience even more stressful. When it came time to interact with the bus driver, I was expecting a more polite, “American” response of comfort that is usually given to young women if they seem troubled. When I set my money on the driver’s counter, I was shocked that he would cover the money I had set while I reached for change, anticipating that I would take my full euros back and he wouldn’t be able to stop me if I decided to get off of the bus quickly. The thought of that sneaky move didn’t even cross my mind, and I was offended that he would assume that. I was also surprised that he didn’t switch to speaking English when I asked; everyone in the city does know at least conversation level, and—at least in the city center, where tourists are common—it is understood that English should be used when prompted simply from a business standpoint. I had been told multiple times that a language barrier wouldn’t be an issue in the Netherlands. I plan on learning Dutch to make these interactions easier, but having been in the country for five days, English was necessary and I expected to be accommodated.
Looking back at this situation, I can see how most everything that occurred was to protect the bus driver’s business and keep a worse incident from occurring. He is used to living in a large, busy city, whereas I am not. First off, the situation of the card denial was stressful for both of us; the bus was operating in peak rush hour and the driver was just trying to stay on schedule. Since I was carrying bags of apartment items and look a little Dutch myself, he could have easily assumed I was from the city and would have been accustomed to the Dutch “boldness” that I had read about. Dutch people are known for being incredibly direct and honest, not in a disrespectful way, but in an efficient way. They don’t take offense to many things. The driver protecting the money I paid is simply another defense mechanism, as the city is known for petty theft on a regular basis. I have seen many bus riders scan their cards and immediately scan them again at an exit scanner, therefore prohibiting any kilometers from being added. This in time would harm the public transport system if money were not collected as frequently from users charging empty cards. Finally, I came to understand why the bus driver most likely continued to speak to me in Dutch after I took another culture-related orientation class. The Dutch prefer to be asked “Can we speak in English together?” rather than a savage “English?” or “Do you speak English?” They do speak English, and although it is only a small inconvenience for them to turn it on, they would prefer tourists to be polite about it. As the assigned reading stated, just because a culture speaks English doesn’t mean they have the same culture as another country that speaks English. When someone is speaking to you quickly in Dutch, it is easiest to sneak in a quick “English?” so they don’t have to repeat everything they have already said; I didn’t think such phrasing would be offensive to locals, but some do take offense.
While I felt uncomfortable for the rest of the ride, I had to realize that public transportation is a business, and not everyone can be as accommodating as I am used to. The bus rider didn’t know that I was an exchange student new to the country, trying to fit in and learn about my surroundings. I now try to mention that if I need help with something, and always include that I will be learning Dutch at the University to ease their anxiety about more ignorant Americans in the country. This sounds harsh, but it is a main concern for them. Since getting my bicycle I haven’t been on the bus nearly as much, but I still must adjust to the behaviors of cyclists and pedestrians. These might be even more bold and offensive than what I experienced on the bus that first week in Amsterdam.