I consider myself reasonably tech-savvy. And I’m an efficiency junkie, too, so automated or electronic systems are often right up my alley. So it has been frustrating lately that technological advancement has been cramping my enjoyment of the library. Book checkout and return have been automated as long as I’ve been here, and I’ve got that down. Scan the card, put the books on the square, it beeps, green light, you go. But over the holidays they upgraded the system to work for other media as well (CDs, DVDs, etc.), which were previously checked out by a human.
I am not opposed to this! I think the system is great, and in theory, I love it. But I keep screwing it up, and if I have to ask the same guy for help one more time… I would say I’d cry, but I’m pretty sure that’s already happened.
CDs and DVDs have a small rental fee associated with them (really, it’s a great deal, especially to check out new music), so you have to now upload money onto your library card via a machine. I tried to do this last week, with a five-Euro bill. The machine rejected the bill, so I flattened it out and tried again. The machine told me (in English—this machine speaks English even though the checkout machines do not) that my bill was jammed. Then it reverted to the home screen! I was like, wait: what about my jammed five bucks?! Ik ben niet rijk! I am not rich!
So I troop down to the help desk and explain my situation. A guy comes up with me and pokes at the machine. Then he says the only person who has the key to unlock said machine is a technician, and they have to call him. I stand around, feeling stupid that I care so much about five Euros. The technician, luckily, is somewhere nearby so about ten minutes later we’re back in business and I’m explaining again that my five Euros are jammed in the machine. He opens it up, but can’t get the money out. He sends me back downstairs to the initial guy and tells that guy to just give me five Euros and he’ll unjam the machine later. The first guy gives me the money and then asks if I want to try the machine again. (NO!)
To prevent people from looting them, the library’s CDs and DVDs come in cases that lock and unlock. When you check them out and pay the fee, you put the case into a little machine that whirrs and unlocks it. On this machine the instructions are only in Dutch. If you botch this up, mainly possible by removing the CD too soon because you think it’s done, what happens is that you paid to rent the item, and it’s checked out to you, but useless because it’s still locked. Then you have to go to the guy at the desk (always the same guy whenever I mess up—why?! I think this guy sees me coming and wants to hide under the desk.) and he has to go into your account, refund your money, and then walk you through the process again. The fact that he has now demonstrated the CD checkout process for me about four times does not mean that I am getting it right. I have about 50% accuracy still.
And then there are just flaws in the system because it’s new. For example, today I tried to check out a CD that when I scanned it, said it had no identification in the system and directed me to the help desk. (Same guy.) Of course, I pick the one that’s not in the system. Because that’s just how I roll these days.
In addition to my fear of checking out CDs, I’ve been contemplating why it’s harder for me to ask for help in another culture. Because it definitely is. It’s daunting to go up to someone, knowing that as soon as you open your mouth it gives you away as a foreigner, and wondering how much English they know, what they think about you, etc. There are a lot of daily things that are challenging in that way here: checking out a CD, mailing a package, getting my glasses fixed so they sit right on my nose. When they work, they feel like huge victories; when they don’t, a small thing can be a major confidence derail. Plus, people’s mannerisms are different here. So sometimes I think a person who’s helping me is annoyed or condescending, when often it’s just his manner of speech. Sometimes a person will go truly out of his way to solve something for me, and I am completely surprised. (Example: before Christmas I was in a shop trying to mail a package and they couldn’t do the right service for me, but the clerk called several other shops in town and asked which of them could. Then he sent me to go give my business somewhere else.)
I think it comes down to feeling like an outsider. If I don’t have to interact with anyone, or only have to interact minimally, I can just blend in. Use my library card, check out my books, ride my bike home: I could be Dutch (not really. Physically I could never pass for Dutch.). But once I have to interact with people I feel like even though I live here, I’m still on the outside. It makes sense, but it’s a very present feeling all the same.