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Xenophobe's Guide to the Dutch
By Rodney Bolt, Catriona Tulloch Scott
Xenophobe's GuidesCopyright © 2011 Oval Projects
All rights reserved.
Nationalism & Identity
The Dutch character is inextricably bound up with the Dutch landscape. The Netherlands is so flat that even the black and white cows stand silhouetted against the skyline. Consequently the Dutch are used to distant horizons and lots of light. Openness, freedom and vision are fundamental. Few Dutch people could be happy living in a forest. When one of the Netherlands' most famous novelists sent his parents on their first trip to Switzerland as a present for their 50th wedding anniversary, he was disconcerted to discover that they had returned home after only a day or two. His mother had been bitterly disappointed. She had no view from her hotel window, she explained, there were mountains in the way.
The Dutch landscape is mild and uneventful. Intrusions, such as trees, occur in orderly lines and patterns. Water, which threatens to overrun the whole country, is neatly channelled into straight canals. Control and moderation are important in behaviour too. "High trees catch a lot of wind," the Dutch warn. They describe excess in terms of overvloed, a 'flooding over' – as if the waters had burst the dykes. In the Netherlands, extravagant people don't waste money, they 'spill' it.
The Netherlands is light, but not bright – a world of greens, greys and browns. This colour scheme is repeated in the cities, where buildings are mainly of brown brick, and local bye-laws often state that residents must paint their front doors in the same shade of green. When Van Gogh forsook his native country for the brighter, bumpier regions of the south of France, he left off painting in the cosy, gravy browns of 'The Potato Eaters', took to gaudier hues, and went mad.
How they see themselves
From the comfort of their immaculate sitting rooms the Dutch may acknowledge that they are the cleanest people on earth, are thrifty, have a canny head for business, an unparalleled facility with languages, an unequalled ability to get along with one another and an inimitable charm. But they will be far too modest, unless pushed, to admit publicly that all this makes them somewhat superior to other nations.
Above all, the Dutch pride themselves on their tolerance and flexibility: qualities which, in addition to carrying moral kudos, are good for business. The blanket of benevolence is not a woolly liberal one, but is woven from the sound stuff of commerce. It is quite thick enough to cover niggling inconsistencies, such as a secret mistrust of Moroccans, distaste at alien cooking smells from the apartment downstairs, or fury at foreigners who wobble inexpertly on bicycles, blocking the way for others.
How others see them
Most nations regard the Dutch as organized and efficient – rather like the Germans, but not as awesome. One can hardly be frightened, the reasoning goes, of a nation of rosy-cheeked farmers who live in windmills and have clogs at the bottom of the wardrobe, tulips in the garden and piles of round cheese in the larder.
But the Dutch also have a reputation for being opinionated, stubborn, and incorrigibly mean. The Belgians go even further, and complain that their neighbours are downright devious in business affairs. Generally, though, other nations see them as forthright to a fault. Dutch frankness completely overwhelms more reticent peoples such as the Japanese who find the Dutch the rudest and most arrogant of the Europeans they do business with – though they are impressed by Dutch acumen as traders. 'Where a Dutchman has passed, not even the grass grows any more,' say the Japanese.
The English survey the Dutch with guarded approval, as the closest any Continentals come to the sacrosanct state of being English. Such chumminess has not always prevailed. In the 17th century these two seafaring nations were at each other's throats. An English pamphlet raged: 'A Dutchman is a Lusty, Fat, Two-legged Cheeseworm. A Creature that is so addicted to eating Butter, Drinking Fat and Sliding [skating] that all the world knows him for a slippery fellow.' The English language gained a whole new list of pejoratives, including 'Dutch courage' (booze-induced bravery), 'Dutch comfort' ('things could be worse') and 'Dutch gold' (fake). Nowadays there is an echo of this attitude in the tendency of some people (especially customs officers) to see the Dutch as a nation of drug-dazed pornographers. But on the whole the Dutch score top marks for cabling BBC television to every home in the land and speaking English without flinching or causing much of a flinch.
How they would like others to see them
The Dutch would like to be held up as The Ultimate Europeans. To this end they have assiduously assimilated so much from the nations around them that they have almost done away with their own cultural identity. This means that most people find something familiar about the Dutch, which guarantees that everybody likes them.
That the Netherlands is the small boy in the class of Europe doesn't unduly bother either its residents or its politicians. By making enough noise and having an opinion about everything, even a small boy can be noticed. With luck he might even become class captain – a job that, with his insider's knowledge of unfairness and oppression, he knows he can do more justly than some other class members he might care to mention. Especially those with a history of bullying.
How they see others
Despite the fact that they have for centuries been edging their country towards the British Isles, the Dutch feel ambivalent about the British. They are surprised that these rather puny islanders, who clam up when one talks to them about sex, somehow manage to write such good books. They also see the English as cottagey and a bit twee, but adore their Marks & Spencer's underwear and are amazed that such an uptight nation could produce such elegant and practical designs. In some circles, English style is viewed as the ultimate chic. Tweeds, waxed jackets and pinstripes are sported by the discreetly rich, and those who aspire to that status.
Like most of their European neighbours, the Dutch lap up the trappings of American culture, while dismissing its perpetrators as being empty-headed and loud. Road movies, especially, appeal to the Dutch sense of freedom and openness. The lost hitchhiker look is a popular Dutch fashion.
France and Italy may be suitable places to holiday, but the Dutch view their inhabitants with a twinge of disapproval. The French are too frivolous to win the lasting admiration of a nation that has Calvin in its bones, and besides, say the Dutch, they are obstructionists with no skill at negotiation. A nation that allows its farmers to pile turnips on the motorway must be viewed with some scepticism.
Forthrightness may be a virtue, but extravagantly flaunting your emotions smacks of lack of control – and so the Italians (and most other Mediterraneans) join the ranks of the 'tolerated -but-not-quite-as-good-as-us'. A notch below these come the nationalities whose religious or political customs are seen as intolerant. Such peoples are most emphatically not tolerated – intolerance of intolerance being quite permissible. Using this argument, an anti-Islamist party made massive gains in the 2010 general elections, to become the third largest in parliament, beating even the previous governing party.
Of all the European nations, the Dutch admire the Swiss. Their country is spotless, their banks unassailable and their personal bank accounts are secret.
Even the accommodating Dutch have their limits. The first barrier that Dutch tolerance comes up against is the German border. There is no one more likely to rouse the Dutch from their customary cheerfully benign state than a German. The Dutch see the Germans as arrogant, noisy, rigid and intolerant – everything in fact that the Dutch are not. They are wary of a nation that shows such a passion for living in forests. But usually they don't even bother to try and explain. They simply do not like Germans. Telling a Dutch person that their language seems very similar to German is unlikely to benefit your relationship. Remarking that the two nations seem rather alike in many ways will probably get you thrown out of the house.
Should a German asks for directions in a Dutch city, a Dutch person may well point to the border or the nearest international railway station. Or perhaps retort "First give my bike back!", and burst into gales of laughter. This is an in-joke referring to the fact that the Germans confiscated all bicycles during the Second World War. The implication is: first return the cycle you stole from my family, and only then might I feel obliged to help you. Dutch people of all ages make this joke. They do it even if their parents are not old enough to have experienced the Occupation. Anything to knock the Germans down a notch or two.
The Netherlands' southern border also presents a bit of a stumbling block. Apart from the Afrikaners in South Africa and the inhabitants of a few scattered ex-colonies, the Belgians are the only people in the world who speak a language anything like Dutch. One might think that this would endear their southern cousins to the Netherlanders, but (though they really admire the way they enjoy life) the Dutch regard the Belgians as laughably dim, and fit only for derision:
"What's written on the bottom of a Belgian milk bottle?" "Open other end."
"What's written on the bottom of a Belgian swimming pool?" "No Smoking."
"Why are Belgian glasses square?"
"So they don't leave a round mark on the table."
In the Netherlands itself, the inhabitants of the most southerly province of Limburg (whose capital is Maastricht) are saddled with the reputation of being stupid, hence:
"What happens when a person from Maastricht goes to live in Belgium?"
"The average IQ of both nations rises."CHAPTER 2
One of the most original of Dutch traits is the national tendency to let in a little evil in order to keep the big evil out. This admirable and astute approach is visible, for example, in the way they manage waterlocks: when tidal pressure builds up on the dykes, a controlled amount of water is allowed through so as to relieve the greater water pressure which might otherwise cause havoc. Drugs and various other sins are treated in exactly the same way: let a manageable amount in, so as to prevent wholesale degeneracy or wanton excess.
This explains the distribution of free needles to heroin addicts, prisoners' conjugal rights, teenage abortion on request, and coffee shops that sell marijuana over the counter. The Dutch even tolerate people's insistence on calling their country 'Holland', when Holland is in fact a province of the Netherlands. (Or to be precise North Holland and South Holland are two provinces of the Netherlands, so Holland on its own doesn't exist at all.)
Visitors may gape at a rollerblader wearing nothing but a silver G -string as he glides through the Saturday morning shoppers, but the Dutch will walk by unruffled – even if, secretly, they are as shocked as everyone else. Tolerance is not simply a virtue, it is a national duty. With 370 people for every square kilometre, the Netherlands is Europe's most densely populated country. If the Dutch didn't forgive – or at least ignore – each other's foibles and peculiar inclinations, life itself would become intolerable. Tolerance is really pragmatism in disguise, and so counts as a good, solid Protestant value.
But there is a hitch. The Dutch will tolerate anything – provided it does not infringe upon their own freedom – unless it smacks a little too much of dangerous abandon or lack of control. A deep respect for people's freedom to live their own lives, in their own way, is as Dutch as dykes and windmills. The Dutch place the bounds to behaviour along lines that reflect a tacit understanding of just how far you can go before knocking down the invisible walls of privacy and personal liberty. Life behind these walls is at the same time public, yet nobody else's business. Dutch Tolerance does not mean acceptance. Beneath the surface of dutiful tolerance may well lurk a deep antagonism – to men who hold hands, perhaps, or women who wear veils. Whether it is acted on depends on whether transgressors are seen to be stepping over the wall and disrupting a Dutch way of life.
Judging where the boundaries lie is never easy. In the Netherlands on Remembrance Day, the two-minute silence for the dead of the two World Wars is generally and movingly observed. Trams, cars and people come to a halt. A visitor was struck by the expressions around him when an immigrant family, unaware of the reverence of the occasion, continued on their way talking noisily amidst the stillness and the sea of solemn faces. It was clear that the Dutch were in a quandary: to scold the foreign refugees would seem intolerant; they had broken the unwritten rules, but then how were they to know? Should they be told? But to intervene would infringe their own cultural freedom. And so the reasoning tumbled on, leading to somersaults of moral confusion – though to a growing segment of the Dutch population the dilemma is not so much about telling the foreigners to shush, as about whether they should be there in the first place.
The Dutch are open about everything. Preserved vegetables come in glass jars rather than in tins. Lavatories have a shelf in the bowl, ensuring that even your internal workings are open to daily inspection (the one German invention the Dutch have taken to with relish).
To assure their neighbours, and themselves, that they have nothing to hide, the Dutch build houses with big windows and do not draw their curtains at night.
You can watch your neighbours' television, see what they are having for dinner, note whether they shout at their children and fervently exercise your powers of tolerance if you notice anything untoward.
Clean windows are the primary concern of any householder, and rooms are lit with a subtle chiaroscuro that presents a cosy picture to the street at night. Rather than draw the blinds, people whose houses open directly on to the street hang little screens made out of wooden-framed doilies in the windows, or stick narrow strips of clouded plastic to the glass. These are positioned to avoid tiresome eye-contact with passers-by, while still leaving the room open to public view.
People keep their curtains open to reassure the world that they are not doing anything shameful – or that they are completely unashamed of anything that they might be getting up to. But no Dutch person would dream of staring in at the windows. That would be an invasion of privacy. Curiously, it was a Dutch television company that first came up with the idea for Big Brother, the show that allows millions to be Peeping Toms, ogling at the intimacies of a group of people made to live together in a single house. This is the ultimate expression of Open Curtains, while spicing things up by breaking the paramount social taboo.
When this openness spreads to personal relationships, it leads to a perfect frankness that other nations may find disarming. If you are suffering from a particularly unfortunate haircut, an English friend might tactfully suggest that you wear that nice hat you bought last week. A Dutch person will ask you what on earth has happened to your hair.
Gezelligheid is the Dutch nirvana. Dictionaries ineptly translate gezelligheid as 'cosiness'. The German Gemütlichkeit comes a little nearer the mark, but that nation has order rather than conviviality as its ultimate goal. A Dutch historian has described gezelligheid as 'partly a sort of cosiness and partly a living togetherness'. The mood in a neighbourhood café on a cold winter's afternoon is gezellig; a mother will call "Keep it gezellig!" if she hears her offspring becoming dangerously boisterous; a popular Dutch beer is advertised as 'guaranteed gezellig'. Rather than switch on the lights at twilight, a family will light a few candles, make a pot of coffee and sit looking out of their large clean window, suffusing themselves in gezelligheid.
Living on top of each other as they do, the Dutch have discovered that the best way to get on is by making sure that everything is always gezellig. Life runs according to a subtle decorum. The Dutch don't say "What will the neighbours think?", but "Think of the neighbours!"
If you drive in the wrong direction up a quiet one-way street at two o'clock in the morning and meet the police head-on, they will probably pull over and let you pass. There are more important things to do than arresting someone who is doing so little harm. Besides, it would not be gezellig. Dutch tolerance is the moral face of gezelligheid.
"Going Dutch' was invented so that the Dutch could sit back and enjoy their coffee in peace without worrying about who was going to pick up the bill."
Excerpted from Xenophobe's Guide to the Dutch by Rodney Bolt, Catriona Tulloch Scott. Copyright © 2011 Oval Projects. Excerpted by permission of Xenophobe's Guides.
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