Who are the Dutch? (gepubliceerd in Holland Herald, passagiersblad KLM)
From above, the Netherlands looks immaculate. A tidy patchwork of fields, straight ditches and uniform housing estates. Every square metre has a purpose, and the same order is reflected in society. A deal is a deal, four o’clock is four o’clock. A visit to family or friends is planned, and joining them for dinner only acceptable if it has been agreed in advance.
‘Just be normal, that’s crazy enough,’ goes the Dutch saying. It typifies the national character, which is termed ‘Calvinistic’. Dutch people who flaunt their belongings and success are kept in line with the sneer ‘don’t get too big for your boots’. Excessive behaviour is not appreciated in principle, but is embraced by groups looking to celebrate their own identity: artists, and fans of certain music styles, for example. Crazy glasses or weird trousers can become mainstream in no time.
The Dutch consider throwing one’s money around vulgar, sometimes to the dismay of retailers abroad. ‘Looking, not buying’ they often shout after the Dutch. Politicians score points by cycling to work. While foreign heads of state reside in castles, Dutch leaders live in modest homes. Former prime minister Wim Kok lived in a terraced house, the current prime minister Mark Rutte in an apartment in The Hague. Executive salaries and bonuses are ongoing topics of public debate. ‘Money-grabbing at the top’ is a mortal sin.
Although The Netherlands is a constitutional monarchy, it has little regard for superiority. Queen Juliana (1909-2004) was applauded for her everyday appearance. She knitted, peeled potatoes, dressed simply and earned her family the title ‘the cycling monarchy’.
Her official birthday, on 30 April, is a popular holiday. Members of the Royal Family mingle with the commoners and take part in traditional Dutch games like ‘bite-the-cake’ and sack races.
Last year, Crown Prince Willem-Alexander proved himself to be an unrivalled toilet-bowl thrower. On Queen’s Day, parties and flea markets are organised across the country. Adults dress in orange, the colour of the national football team and the name of the Royal Family. According to colour analysts, orange means movement, warmth, vigour and vitality. In the Netherlands, the colour expresses national unity.
Away from national celebrations, the prince is a water management specialist. He gave a speech in May 2012 that included these words: “There are villages here in the Netherlands where they hold toilet-tossing competitions for fun. I joined in with a smile on 30 April, but not without thinking with some embarrassment of the 2.6 billion people on this earth who do not have even the most basic structure to attend to their basic needs in a dignified manner.”
His words also did justice to the Dutch national character. A country that contributes a relatively large amount to development aid and raises hundreds of millions of euros for the victims of an earthquake on the other side of the world.
Moreover, the Netherlands is proud of its struggle against the water. The reclaimed land below sea level (polders) and the dykes along the coast are world famous. The story of Hans Brinker, a boy who saves his village from being flooded by sticking his finger in a leaking dyke, in particular has captured the international imagination (despite coming originally from a novel by US writer Mary Mapes Dodge).
Orange fever and reserve. The two go hand-in-hand in The Netherlands. “The country where no one shows emotion, unless we win. Then passion breaks loose. Then nobody stays inside,” as the song 15 Million People asserts. Ad man Frank Pels wrote those lyrics in 1996 for Dutch bank Postbank and it went on to top the charts.
Rarely has someone strung together the Dutch contradictions so accurately. “The country that dislikes paternalism. No uniform is sacred. A son who calls his father Piet. A bicycle that isn’t safe to be left anywhere. 15 million people. On that very small piece of earth. You don’t tell them what to do. You accept them as they are. You shouldn’t restrain them. The country full of protest groups. No boss who is really in charge. Curtains are always open. Lunch is a cheese sandwich. The country of tolerance. Except for your neighbour. The big question is always: How does he pay his rent? The country that cares for everyone. Even dogs don’t go hungry. Snacks sold from a hole in the wall. And nobody eats stale bread.”
Tulips, clogs, windmills, polders and tolerance. That stereotype does well abroad. In contrast is Dutch social directness which can be perceived as rudeness. However, while the Dutch may sometimes be preceived as impolite, that really does not do justice to their history of tolerance towards other cultures. As a trading nation, they swallowed their criticisms, and as a multicultural society they are quick to let cultural disputes to.
So as we see, on the ground The Netherlands is not quite as tranquil as it looks from the air. September’s general election (the 5th in the past 10 years) brought one again the country’s variety to the fore. Emotions ran high on a wide variety of topics from the European Union, banks and social benefits, to employee’s rights, mortage interest tax relief and the environment.
But ask the Dutch today what they are proud of, and the lyrics of Frank Pel’s song from 1996 are still highly relevant: “Country of a thousand opinions, the country of soberness.” This jarring combination both divides and connects the Netherlands: where speaking your mind is considered the most honest of dialogues, and agreeing to disagree (over a Heineken and a piece of cheese) is the best way to continue the longest of friendships.
Steven de Jong is a columnist for Dutch daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad. Translation by Cecily Layzell. Gepubliceerd in Holland Herald (pdf).
Gepubliceerd: Overige media
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