The Year of Living Dutch


Somebody once told me that out of all the diplomats Canada send out around the world, the highest turnover usually comes from, surprisingly, their UK bureau. It may seem baffling at first, but the explanation centres on the dissonance between expectations and reality. Expectation: UK is a British version of Canada. Reality: Not. It turns out the differences in weather, geography, attitudes and habits are so out of the left field, many could not cope with it.

A couple of weeks ago, my in-laws came over for dinner, and conversation turned to my experience of living in the Netherlands. Did I find it very different? Are the Dutch weird? No, and of course, no. When you’ve been encapsulated in an environment for an extended period of time, everything just, is. I imagined explaining to them the Canadian national obsession with hockey, Timbits, curling, and poutine: not easy. Besides, I hardly expected the Netherlands to be an European version of Vancouver. But after over a year of normalizing, here are some of the funny bits I can’t help but notice whenever I try to describe the more eccentric aspects of Dutch life.

Modesty and luxury

The Dutch are modest. It shows in the way they dress: very neat, very chic, but well-covered and anything but flashy. It makes them the butt of jokes with Belgians and Germans: that they are excessively frugal that borders on cheap. Although in all fairness, Dutch thinks the Belgians stupid; Germans fat, anal-retentive, and also stupid.

Modesty also shows in the houses they live in and cars they drive. Granted, there are obvious geographical limitations at play here. At 396 people per square kilometre, this is the most crowded country in Europe. So kudos must be given to the urban planners for a job well done. Walking, driving, or sitting on the train in the Netherlands, you would never think that.

Binge drinking is not prevalent here. And if you have seen the serving size of beer, you would understand why. The Netherlands is famous for its “biertje”, which literally means “little beer”. And they are little all right. Compared to the standard North American servings, and the super-sized German variety, one can easily empty an 8 or 12-pack of Dutchinized beers without much trouble.

Home to Heineken and a close neighbour of many excellent Belgian breweries, premium beer is relatively cheap here. And so are dairy products. Everything from milk, yogurt, to cream and cheese, sell at huge discounts to what I’m used to. It’s not hard to see why. Flying into the Netherlands on a clear day, you can see black dots amidst the green. Stretches of highway are lined with farms, inhabited by contented cows, sheep and horses, are almost as ubiquitous as windmills to the Dutch landscape.

The country is also the largest exporter of tulip, and flowers are extraordinary cheap to come by. My mother in-law relishes telling the story of how a Dutch person in America went to a party with a bouquet of (very expensive) flowers. As per Dutch standards, he picked a bouquet with closed bulbs, only to have the host putting the flowers away upon his proud presentation. He later learned that contrary to the Dutch, American prefer their flowers open and, well, transient.

Why do I bake cake on my own birthday?

Europeans kiss a lot. The number of times you kiss someone on the side changes depending on where you are. In the Netherlands, it’s three times, left-right-left. Sometimes I forget, and start to move away after two, then I remember that I had missed the last one, but it’s too late to go in again. Other times in a large group of friends and family, I lose track of whom I had kissed and whom I hadn’t, or that I’m holding up the line because I’m waiting for someone to free up their cheeks. Mass exodus in small hallways lead to severe bottlenecks, thus, greetings and farewells are almost ceremonious and quite the spectacle.

Birthdays are a big deal here, and these awkward kissing fests usually take place around someone’s birthday.  In one glaring instance of a cultural norm that will most certainly not translate well beyond its borders, you are incessantly congratulated on your birthday.  And your spouse’s, and sometimes even your relatives.  Is aging that much more of a graceful pastime here?

Hoorays for getting older aside, I’m used to getting treated for drinks or dinner on my birthday. Not so easy here. You’re the one hosting the party at your home, and you are the one baking the cake (for yourself), and arranging drinks and snacks. Granted, most friends and family will come with gifts that you yourself have picked, so perhaps it’s fair after all that you put in some effort.

But that’s not the end. After friends and family, you are also expected to bring cake and drinks to your work place, school, or any other social (i.e. sports) club that you belong to. My boyfriend is already talking about getting a case of beer for his field hockey team around his birthday in a week. Which begs the question, why one earth would you ever want to disclose your birthday if it results in so much darn work?

Thou shalt love thy neighbour?

It’s hard to imagine how a continent this size could have hosted two world wars, and how much differences you can really find with your neighbours that you share so much historical and genetic ties with. The Dutch was invaded and occupied by the Spanish (too long ago to remember), the French (not much grudge), then the German (a lot of grudge).

There are still faint traces of the Spanish in Dutch food and street names. And the Dutch still remember the French relatively fondly for Napoleon’s edict to overhaul the confusing genealogical convention at the time, and instituted patronymics based on last names. As for the Germans, they were not forgiven for their wartime atrocities, and most certainly not for their part in stealing Dutch bikes and subsequently melting them into bullets that were then used to subdue the country. That’s pretty harsh. That’s like rounding up all the hockey sticks in Canada, and then firing them up to fend off the Mounties.

But alas, life must go on and one must be practical. Germany remains the largest economy in Europe, and the level of economic integration makes the former enemy the largest trading partner of the Netherlands. When given the choice of French or German (after mandatory English) in school, most still choose German for its similarity to Dutch. As a result, most people more or less speak, or at least understand German. The common complaint of the Dutch is that: when they go to Germany, they speak German; and when Germans come into the Netherlands, they feel entitled to converse in, still, German.

The civility can not always taken for granted. When soccer games commence, gloves come off. Old wounds are reopened, and epithets and insults get thrown around, even in a country that prides itself on its civility. Germans are always surprised at the latent anger that broils over when proper channels are present. The Dutch sure hold their grudge against those bikes.

Social mobility and equality

When I read lists of billionaires around the world, I’m always struck by how many of the European billionaires come from dynasties of riches, whereas a handful of the American variety that’s first generation. The emergence of the uber-rich from Russia, India, and China seem to reaffirm the idea that rampant capitalism seem to produce more billionaires. But then I find data suggesting the contrary, that an average member of, say, Denmark, have more social mobility than an average American. I could never work out the contradiction.

This confusing data is now beginning to make sense to me. Of course there’s more social mobility in a society that charges next to nothing for its youth’s higher education, where the average population cares little who your family is and what they do. But to become filthy rich is next to impossible with high taxation and its big-brotherish government intervention.

There’s a Chinese saying that says, “One catches the biggest fish in muddy water.” Translation: when the system is not perfect, there’s money to be made. So it would make sense that in the region that’s perfected and then passed along the torch of capitalism, the opportunity to make quick money has long passed.

picture source: *LoonyL

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  • Manshu

    Very interesting thoughts Dana. I really couldn’t figure out the point about social mobility though. How exactly does that work out in their favor?

  • Manshu

    Very interesting thoughts Dana. I really couldn’t figure out the point about social mobility though. How exactly does that work out in their favor?

  • Dana

    It’s an ongoing thought, Manshu. I think the point that I didn’t quite finish, which I might one day, is that there’s a preference of equality over, sometimes, fairness in European societies. And the opposite is upheld in most Anglo-Saxon societies.

  • Dana

    It’s an ongoing thought, Manshu. I think the point that I didn’t quite finish, which I might one day, is that there’s a preference of equality over, sometimes, fairness in European societies. And the opposite is upheld in most Anglo-Saxon societies.

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