Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Shiny Happy People

Travelling in the Netherlands is a dawdle: distances are small, the public transport infrastructure is extensive, and you don't even have to wait long to hitch a ride. But above all the vast majority of people speak English. This not only helps when buying bus tickets, but also allows you to have more complex discussions, about politics, religion and family life; things that make people tick.

I've always had a soft spot for the Dutch: their live-and-let-live liberalism; their openness to foreigners; their modest, hard-working Calvinism; and their appreciation of British humour. The few Dutch people I have spoken to, however, are worried that their country may be seen to be losing its tolerant ways to the wave of protectionism and xenophobia that has been sweeping through Western countries (epitomised by, but not restricted to, anti-Islamic sentiments and pronouncements) and that has found its voice here in the form of the controversial politician Geert Wilders with his loopy views on Islam and immigration. There is a growing sense of impending doom as the national elections approach that his party might become a dominant force. Sitting side by side with the stereotype of liberalism is that of being dour, serious and humourless. This stems from their Calvinist history which frowns on ostentation and demands that people be honest with each other. To outsiders who may be more used to elaborate formalities when dealing with people this may come across as rudeness, but instead it is an effort to be as clear and precise as possible and to talk openly about things which are often swept under the carpet. In fact the Dutch abhor confrontation and work through consensus whenever possible (on two separate occasions I was introduced to the idea of the polder model, something the Dutch are quite proud of, and quite rightly so in my view).

A typically stereotypical (although actually not that common) Dutch countryside scene, complete with your obligatory windmills. Kinderdijk.

Personally I have found them to be amongst the happiest and friendliest people I have ever met (and who wouldn't be in a country which is so clean and tidy, where everyone cycles everywhere, where public institutions work, and things are generally going well) who seem to take pride and enjoyment in what they do. A couple of transport related vignettes made me smile: when taking a ferry from Dordrecht upriver on Easter Sunday the husband and wife team that ran the boat had stashed away chocolate Easter eggs around the boat for their passengers; and the next day when taking the train the ticket inspector had her daughter along with her and was letting her punch the tickets. And the image of being reserved isn't particularly true either as I had the chance to be to a family Easter dinner and was not only very warmly welcomed, but made to feel at ease and is I belonged.

Of course no discussion of the Netherlands is complete without mentioning drugs. For many foreigners (especially those of a certain age) the legal availability of cannabis is the abiding (often only) image of the country and many make the pilgrimage to Amsterdam to pay their respects to Mary Jane. And although the Dutch are indeed proud of their enlightened views on drugs, they are more than a little fed up of the hordes of uninspiring tourists who come over just to get stoned and ogle the girls in the red light district. For locals marijuana is so passe since it's so readily available - those that want to do it do, but most just can't be bothered. I'm just glad that the stoners congregate in Amsterdam and leave the rest of the country free for me to explore. In fact you get a much better reception from people when you tell them that you're there to actually visit their country and won't even be visiting Amsterdam!

P.S. In the spirit of understanding how different nationalities are viewed by their peers, the following video gives a succinct summary of how the British are seen by the Dutch.


Rozan said...

Hee Erik!

What a great entrance in your online blog! I loved it! The things you write and how you've written them show a person who is really good in observing; just as I thought you would be and do. I hope your new host is treating you well (also in the mornings ;)) and the rest of your stay in the Netherlands will be just as nice! I'll keep an eye on you (and your blog) Doei! Rozan

Elsje Mulier said...

hi Erik!
it's a while ago since you left Bruges and it's amazing what you have seen already in this short time on such a short distance. I'm glad you're doing well and it seems as if you have the time of your life seeing nice places and meeting interesting people.
We all will follow you on this trip by reading your blog. Take care, dear Erik ! We hope you surf our couch when you return one day .. in 2012, 2013?
Enjoy your trip! Big hugs from Olaf, Maaike, Femke & Els