Happy Birthday Amsterdam!: An Expat’s Surreal Un-Party Experience

When I moved to Amsterdam recently, my Dutch husband tried his best to prepare me for some of the different cultural experiences I might have upon leaving America. Despite their love of mayonaise and using bikes as transportation, the biggest social change for me has been the Dutch birthday party. From the Mr.’s explanation, the celebration was mind blowing and initially I couldn’t wait to experience one!

Then last July I got my first, and so far only, chance at a Dutch birthday fete. The Mr. and I traveled almost two hours South for a an older relative’s born day party. I encouraged my husband to dress up and I got semi-dressed up, despite his warnings that no one else would be gussied up. I asked him repeatedly what should we bring and he said, ‘Nothing, you’ll see. You just don’t get it.’

Within half hour of arriving at the “party,” I noticed the birthday girl and her husband hadn’t taken a seat. Then when I wished her a happy birthday she asked if I wanted something. I said no and started to observe the room, all the seats in the house were arranged around the sofas into a large oval. All of the guests were sat facing each other and the birthday girl’s siblings, their spouses and children were the bulk of the attendees. Everyone was in deep discussion with their neighbor or sometimes with two or three other people in the room at once. Ultimately, there were around 15 of us attendees. The house wasn’t dressed up with birthday streamers, balloons or anything festive.

Every fifteen minutes or so, birthday girl and her husband popped their heads out of the kitchen asking if anyone needed anything. In response, guests made their special requests for coffee taken a certain way, or tea, or a snack. After the second round of the birthday girl checking in on her guests, I went into the kitchen to offer my help so she could sit down and enjoy her day. She looked at me puzzled and said, ‘No, you have a seat.’ Turns out I should’ve listened to the Mr.

So here’s the Mr.’s description of Dutch birthday celebrations:

– You sit in the living room in a large circle (check!)

– Face one another, have private conversations with your immediate neighbors (double check!)

– The guest of honor serves you the entire night (check!)

– At midnight, the entire room forms a line and proceeded to kiss the birthday girl and her immediate relatives three times in traditional Dutch manner, wishing all of them congratulations (gefeliciteerd in Dutch). Then one by one, the guests leave for the night.

– No exchange of gifts, no birthday cake (made or brought by someone else), no guests tackling the kitchen clean-up or serving duties. Nothing. Amazing!

I simply refused to believe the last piece about the birthday person working all night on their day, but sure as the sun shines, she did. To top it off, another Dutch birthday tradition happens in the workplace. When it is your born day, you are culturally required to bring in your own cake or sweets for the entire office. If you don’t, you will offend some people, deeply!

Have any other European-based expats experienced similar scenarios? I know for a fact I’ll never have a birthday party like that — ever.

-Sherisa D is a jewelry designer, freelance writer and amateur vegetarian chef originally from Brooklyn, N.Y. now calling canal-lined Amsterdam home with her husband and crazy cat, Pixel.

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