Technical Difficulties and Foreign Help Desks

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.




Filed under Our Dutch Adventure

6 responses to “Technical Difficulties and Foreign Help Desks

  1. Dad

    well, I do know people who experienced that same feelings, and they were only moving around the continental US!

  2. Rachel Califf

    I agree with your dad! I often feel like an outsider here in ABQ, still trying to get the hang of being social and making friends without a college or workplace to attend regularly. It took me three years to feel at home in Ohio, and then we moved a couple years later. I can’t even imagine moving to another country with a primary language other than English. I think you are incredibly brave and outgoing to have done so, and done so with smashing success — I love how you explore, learn about the culture, do not appear to let your stumblings deter you from continuing to try. You are my hero. If it weren’t for my kids, I could easily become a hermit. I am just not outgoing if not forced to be.

    Oh, also, the kids and I frequent our local (small and traditional) library here in the East Mountains of ABQ, and I have a similar problem: Whenever the kids damage a book, the check out machine won’t work, we’ve lost a library card, etc., etc., it is ALWAYS the same man who has to help us. He is very kind and patient, but sometimes I think he feels the way you describe and just wants to hide under the desk when he sees me coming. LOL. Ahhh, well. So, at least you know you’re not alone and it’s not just that you’re a foreigner! 🙂 Love you!

  3. Cathryn

    i second Rachel’s comment about being in awe of your bravery in moving there in the first place, to say nothing of the way that you seem to seize every moment and live it to its fullest… it’s something I’ve always admired about you.
    In terms of feeling like an outsider, I was thinking only today about how I still struggle with things here – my current sticking point is the school system… I’m just beginning my journey as Cian begins his with pre-school, and I’m realizing how little I know… stupid things like Valentine traditions in schools, and bake sale etiquette… things that were so different in England when I was growing up! It’s only going to get worse as he goes through school… guess I’m just going to have to figure it out with him!

  4. Rachel Califf


    As far as I can tell, all of us moms feel that way putting our oldest kid through school for the first time, learning the etiquette and culture, even if we grew up here! 🙂 I was lucky enough that another mom sort of “took me under her wing” and I’ve learned a lot from her. Of course, you also can’t fall into the trap of trying to keep up with others… be yourself! 🙂 Do what works for your family. Your traditions will be interesting to his classmates, too! Sorry, Meg, tangent…. 🙂

  5. Mathieu

    Just wait until it starts happening when you go back to the US. We’re going on a decade here, and with increasing frequency get the fish-out-of-water feeling back home. New supermarket technology, different fast-food ordering set-ups and various other changes to the order of things. I make culturally inappropriate statements that would get huge laughs here. Even the currency looks different. The smell of Schiphol at the end of a journey has become a warm blanket.

    As stupid as it sounds, keeping up with the lives of BNers/celebs in the tabloids provides a reassuring sense of belonging. Also provides conversation fodder beyond the agonizing “so how do you like our country?” Google translate does it’s usual trippy thing for

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