The glorious European Summer was a siren call for friends and family to come and visit our new digs in Amsterdam. They all assured me that I was the main attraction yet the repeated exclamations about how wonderful it was to have a ‘local host’ raised some doubts. After all, it is just a hop, skip and a brightly coloured umbrella from ‘local host’ to ‘free tour guide’.
I forgave them this possible slight because being labelled a ‘local’ is bizarrely flattering. It makes one feel as if they’ve achieved some kind of elevated, exclusive status.
For days I revelled in this role, haughtily proclaiming that “only locals go here” if someone in the party admired our picnic spot. Then one day, as my mother and I mimed laughing with Ryan Gosling in Madame Tussauds, a little seed of doubt formed in my psyche. Was I really a local? What is a local? Have I besmirched the title of ‘local’ with my tawdry Tussauds antics?
As an immigrant, it can take quite a while before you feel at home in a city. That’s home with a little ‘h’ not ‘Home’ (or ‘home home’) as Wellington is for me. My partner and I were lucky to already have some of our best friends living here. They generously offered their couches, kitchens and personal space while we found our feet. But even with such abundant help, it was months before I stopped feeling like an outsider.
So what test did I pass to earn my local badge?
I don’t think language is a hard-and-fast criterion for two reasons. First of all, my continued incomprehension hasn’t made me feel excluded. After a while, the Dutch just flows around you with the odd word like ‘lekker’ pinging your radar.
Friendly faces and body language can make even the most guttural of words sound approachable (a lesson for everyone, really). They could be saying “you run like a sloth on sleeping pills” but at least I know that my presence is welcome, if only for amusement.
Secondly, I have been asked for — and given — directions many times in English. This confirms that Dutch is not required to act like a local. This fact also conveniently segues into another potential criterion for local-ness: knowing roughly where you are at all times.
My pigeon-like ability to steer guests home, or point to the direction of Central Station with dizzying speed was one of my most requested local skills. If app-less navigation was the measure by which the local bar is set, I would stand at ease.
If we were to take a Dutch view of this quandary, there would be no question. You are a local on reception of your Burger Service Nummer (BSN). This momentous occasion is not to be confused with the receipt you get when you order Maccas by self-service. Your BSN is confirmation that you have endured the minotaur’s labyrinth and secured yourself both an address and a visa. Acquiring one is like choosing your path in a Goosebumps novel: you can never reach the end without losing a piece of your sanity.
Another possible criterion is whether you get amongst the neighbourhood politics and decision-making. You might think this to be an impossible task for a foreigner with only a superficial understanding of issues facing the town.
However, opinions and time and are two things I am not currently short on. So when the municipality invited us to participate in a survey on changes to the building code, I suddenly became an expert on roof lines and water levels. It may have taken me an hour to work out what they were asking, but by Gouda did I participate.
Perhaps you are a local when you know the rhythm of the city and have matched it to your own. For example, I know that to have Sunday brunch without a long wait, we must arrive before 10am (which in my books makes it breakfast).
The rhythm of the city also includes the pace at which everyone bikes. I was thrilled to mother-duck my family and friends on bikes around the town. But despite their rabid — er, I mean rapid — uptake of bell-ringing, I knew it would be weeks before they could truly assimilate to local biking speeds.
Any lingering doubts about my local status finally dissolved when I received an important looking letter embossed with Government branding. “Oh boy, perhaps it’s my five-year visa!”, I thought gleefully.
I was about to whip out Google-translate when a pamphlet dropped out showing a smiling lady in a white room. Flicking to the first page, my eye was immediately drawn to the diagram of a cervix and a large, pink heading:
Oh. No translation needed there.
What a roller coaster of emotions. It was not a visa, nor was I being added to a disease watch list. My demographic details, so willingly given as part of the BSN process, had been added to the national screening database! Hooray!
So there you have it. The true measure of a local.
Now I proudly stand side by side with my tagged and monitored neighbors, ready to welcome friends and strangers alike to this wonderful town.
The tour starts at 1pm by the roundabout. I’ll be the one with the orange umbrella.