June 4, 2012 by MM
I have a whole new respect for babies.
I’ve lived in Amsterdam for less than two weeks, and I feel like a newborn. I have to learn everything from scratch. Just today, I was at the grocery store and picked up a bell pepper. When I got to the check-out line, the cashier told me I was supposed to have weighed it myself first. She gestured toward the produce section, but I looked at the line of people behind me and said, “Never mind. I don’t need it.”
Shopping is a mystery that takes three times as long as in the states, because half the time I can’t tell what anything is. There’s usually no English on the products, which is fine; I know I’m in another country, but in other places I’ve visited, like Spain for example, I know enough Spanish from school and osmosis to get some kind of idea of what it is I’m buying. Example: cleaning products. Is it a hand soap refill? Dish soap? Laundry detergent? All-purpose cleaner? In some cases there are clues, like the shape of the bottle or a picture of a sparkling window or a washing machine. But as often as not, you have to just pick one and hope for the best. My roommate washed his face with shampoo when he first got here.
If you move to the Netherlands, know that sheets are a pain in the ass to buy. I’ve found it hard to find good quality, high thread-count sheets, and they don’t seem to be big on top sheets at all. “Hoeslaken” means fitted sheet, and they’re everywhere. You can’t throw a stone without hitting a hoeslaken. But top sheets? Nah. Don’t need ’em. By the way, it took me three agonizing trips to three different stores to figure out what a hoeslaken was. A mattress cover? A duvet? They’re packaged in a way that you just can’t tell. Several times I screamed in my head, “What the fuck is a fucking hoeslaken?” Also, the packages don’t mention thread count and aren’t classified as twin, full, etc. They just have measurements, in the metric system. Was my mattress 90 or 120 cm wide? Beats the hell out of me.
The other day, after extensive research on the IKEA Netherlands website, I decided that IKEA would have the sheets I needed. I looked up and wrote down detailed directions, went to the metro, successfully bought a ticket and got on the correct train, got off at the correct stop, and realized my directions from that point on helped me absolutely none, mostly because I couldn’t see any street names. I wasn’t in the city center anymore. I was kind of in some weird middle-of-nowhere outskirts, and there were two chunks of buildings on either side of the metro station, but a few minutes’ walk away, on dirt paths.
I picked one chunk and started walking toward buildings. On the way, I passed under an overpass where two dudes were chilling and greeted me in a classic “guys-loitering-under-a-bridge-watching-a-very-out-of-place-white-girl-in-shorts-walk-by” type of greeting. There were not many people around, and I didn’t know where the hell I was, so trying to look confident with my flip flops and big, blue reusable IKEA bag tucked under my arm was not easy. But I kept walking as though I knew where I was going, until I walked right up to a set of buildings and suddenly realized I was in the projects. Not near, in. For projects, they seemed pretty nice, but projects are projects, and you can’t buy sheets there — not even hoeslakens. I asked three approaching girls where IKEA was. (BTW, here you have to pronounce it ee-kay-uh.) They got a combined pitying and amused look and said something about it being nowhere near here, but pointed in the direction from which I’d come, so I did a 180 and headed back toward the metro. I was not thrilled about walking past the men under the bridge again, who did indeed greet me once more, but I had no choice.
The best decision I made here was to go back up to the metro station (luckily my ticket was still valid to let me back in) and go out the opposite exit. On my way, I asked someone else, and she confirmed that it was indeed that way, in the other chunk of buildings. I’d forgotten my #1 rule in finding places. Go the opposite way of my first instinct.
Anyway, a few dirt paths and asking-strangers later, I found IKEA. I had about 40 minutes until it closed, and I busted through there like a windmill on acid. (or something.)
For a while in the sheet section, all I could find were fitted sheets, and my heart started beating erraticly and I thought I might faint right there in the store. The news would read, “American woman dies of frustration on pile of Hoeslakens.”
But finally, I found a top sheet, and the story pretty much ends there, because my trip home was blessedly uneventful.
I guess the moral of this post is that it’s hard to be new. There’s so much to learn. At least I already know how to walk, talk, and eat. Next time my 2.5-year-old nephew pitches a tantrum, I’ll remember how I felt looking for sheets, something that should be so easy, and I’ll sympathize with his frustration. A tantrum would have felt really, really good.