by Hank Leukart
August 4, 2005

Traveling alone

Questioning the need for travel buddies in the Netherlands.

Kleyweg’s Stads-Koffyhuis in Delft, Netherlands

Kleyweg's Stads-Koffyhuis in Delft, Netherlands (view all The Hague and Delft, Netherlands photos)

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ELFT, Netherlands — Each time I sit in a cafe or restaurant or koffiewinkel here in the Netherlands and say, “How are you?” or “How’s it going?” as a greeting to the (Dutch, thus beautiful) waitress, she giggles nervously and then awkwardly (or sometimes, sternly, depending on how cute she thinks I am) asks me if I’d like anything to drink. My Dutch friend, Carolina, revealed to me that the Dutch (and Europeans in general, I think) find it annoying and ridiculous that Americans greet them in what they perceive as saccharine, artificial manner. Apparently, the phrase they hate the most is “Nice to meet you,” used when we meet anyone, even if it’s someone we’re not particular excited about meeting. At first, I argued that this is Americans’ way of being polite, and we’re not trying to be particularly fake or charming; it’s simply a programmed custom.

But, this issue surfaced again while in Delft I read Jeffrey Eugenides’s provocative The Virgin Suicides, in which he writes, “We Greeks are a moody people. Suicide makes sense to us. Putting up Christmas lights after your own daughter does it — makes no sense. What my yia yia could never understand about America was why everyone pretended to be happy all the time.” After reading this, it hit me that, yes, when you think of these American greetings as our tendency to pretend to be constantly happy, they’re irritating. Worse than that, this pretending is unhealthy. It makes those of us who aren’t happy all the time — that is, everyone — feel like there’s something wrong with them. No wonder so many of Americans feel like they need psychotherapy — our culture seems to tell us that there’s something wrong with us when we’re not feeling happy every second of the day. So, uh, leave us unhappy folk alone, and stop pretending to be so happy.

“I’ve discovered that traveling alone is the only way to travel. No offense to the friends I have traveled with or the ones I’m meeting on my current trip, but I never want to travel with you ever again.”

No, seriously, leave me alone. I’ve discovered that traveling alone is the only way to travel. No offense to the friends I have traveled with or the ones I’m meeting on my current trip, but I never want to travel with you ever again. When you travel alone, you can do whatever want. You can wake up late. Or early. If you’re bored of museums, you can stop going. If you are bored of the country you’re in, you can leave. If you get lost, no one complains. You don’t have to compromise, you never feel guilty, and you can flirt with any (Dutch, thus beautiful) girl you want without being scolded. It’s perfect.

Except at the Escher in Het Paleis (the M.C. Escher museum) in The Hague. The Hague is a smaller city near Amsterdam that requires you to take the train to a station called Den Haag to visit it. Embarassingly, much, much later I discovered that Den Haag is simply The Hague, translated into Dutch. Hopefully, this information will help you in your travels.

This museum contains the only convincing argument I have seen thus far this trip for traveling with a friend — an optical illusion exhibit that uses a strangely slanted room and a digital camcorder. This clever, interactive exhibit requires you to stand in a room with a friend, and as you move around the room, one of you becomes a giant on the screen while the other becomes a midget. Not literally. It’s an optical illusion. Then, they print your picture, which is hilarious, if say, you are actually a giant and your friend is actually a midget, but then the picture shows you as a midget and your friend as a giant. Even if you’re two normally-sized people, it’s funny. But it’s not so funny if your picture, like mine, contains only one person, and then, well, compared to no one else, you just look like a normally-sized person. Then, it’s not so funny; it’s just sad. But, I’m American. So, I pretended that it didn’t bother me and that I was happy about it.

So, in short, stop pretending to be happy and always travel alone, unless you’re at the Escher museum in The Hague, in which case, bring a friend and say, “Nice to meet you” to everyone you see there.

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