The Netherlands as viewed by an outsider on the inside

“A Dutchman is a lusty, fat, two-legged cheeseworm”. Not my words but those of a 17th Century English leafl et published about the Dutch. There must have been much talk about and writing about the Dutch given the relatively large amount of phrases in the English language that incorporate the word “Dutch”: Dutch gold, fake gold: an alloy of copper and zinc. Dutch courage, gained from drinking alcohol. Dutch uncle, someone giving advice that is not welcomed. Dutch auction, where the price is reduced until a buyer is found. To go Dutch, to pay for, e.g. what you personally eat when going out for a meal and “If that’s true then I’m a Dutchman”, a phrase to show how much you don’t believe something.

I won’t discuss how these phrases suggest rather negative things about the Netherlands – that is obvious enough. They are not representative of modern stereotypes anyway. Nowadays, the Dutch have a stronger stereotype than almost all countries: apart from cheese and tulips, some might imagine the average Dutchman being a crazy gay man high on cocaine and a lot of Heineken, dancing so ferociously that he is almost punching the lights out of his favourite Amsterdam night club. The rest of the time this man would be flat on his back high on some high quality marijuana. OK, maybe I have slightly exaggerated here (and enjoyed it!) but it has got you reading. Just for the record, according to the EU, cannabis use (joint with Spain) and cocaine use are higher in the UK than anywhere else in European Union.

I am a British student from Oxford University and also the International Offi cer for Young Greens, England and Wales. I was an exchange student at the University of Groningen in the north of the Netherlands from September until December 2004. I went with an open mind about the country despite reading two short books about the Netherlands before leaving the UK. On arrival and on observation for about two weeks, I thought I had discovered almost entirely what the Dutch culture was all about but in actual fact, the following months showed me that the Dutch culture is incredibly complicated and in a way, weird. I will write here about my own observations of Dutch culture – outsiders always have some different perspectives.

I don’t think a day passed without me noticing something bizarre or infi nitely interesting about Dutch culture. What is it with people not closing their curtains in the evening so that everyone can see in? I could list endless examples of observations such as this but as a Briton, I think I noticed certain things that some other international students did not. To start with, to me, the Dutch are incredibly laid back and relaxed and highly efficient at the same time. They seem to always get things done and are reliable but without any stress, panic or extra effort. This lifestyle really was good medicine for me as I am the kind of person who tries to fi t as much into a day as possible and normally failing. The much slower lifestyle was actually something of a culture shock for me! At the same time, an Iraqi refugee now settled in the Netherlands who taught me Dutch, was always saying how busy everyone is in the Netherlands: “busy, busy, busy” she would say. Thank goodness she didn’t seek asylum in the UK then! Of equal importance, I was hit by a “shit happens” attitude in the Netherlands. People worry less, there are fewer so-called crises in day-today life. My organisational skills and desire to waste not a single second meant that I encountered many of mini-crises in the UK but in the Netherlands, I had to learn to calm down and chill out. There is certainly something good to be said about the “het kon minder” (it could be worse) attitude of Groningers!

More than anything else, I was fascinated by the so-called notion of Dutch tolerance. Are Dutch people tolerant as pretty much everyone in the world thinks or are they intolerant, which is the view of most members of the Dutch Green-Left party, GroenLinks and its youth organisation, DWARS? Even my Iraqi teacher, once a benefi ciary of Dutch tolerance, told me that the Dutch were too tolerant and needed to clamp down on drug dealers, prisoners complaining about too many fatty foods in their diet and so on. It’s no coincidence that the Netherlands has one of the most lenient penal systems for drug traffi ckers and the high concentration of such people in the country! It’s a British Customs Offi cer’s dream to be able to monitor the passengers of a flight or ferry from the Netherlands because it is almost guaranteed to help them meet their weekly target of arrests! I was consistently trying to decipher how (in)tolerant the Dutch actually were. At first, I totally disagreed with those who told me that Dutch people are intolerant, although it was obvious that the Dutch Prime Minister, Harry Potter or whatever else you like to call Mr Balkenende, and his friends were real idiots and seemed to be breaking down excellent Dutch values one by one. Then came the assassination of Theo van Gogh, a radical outspoken Dutch fi lm maker. I was really stunned – what kind of country was I in? I felt so very safe in the Netherlands – it seemed like such a peaceful country and so how can something so wicked take place? Famous people just don’t get murdered. I had obviously heard of the murder of Pim Fortuyn, the popular leader of an anti-immigration party, but how could this happen again? There hasn’t been a murder of a politician or anyone famous in the UK in modern times as far as I know (although the IRA did their best in the 1980’s by bombing the Conservative party conference), yet I am sure it is a more violent country than the Netherlands. What is going on? Is this the symptom of too much tolerance? I wonder if people feel that they are so free that they have to take matters in their own hands. I always thought the Dutch way of objection was by discussion and debate – violence was verbal and took part in TV studios across the table rather than in a normal Amsterdam street. I couldn’t quite understand it. Of course, it helped me learn about the tolerance issue much more as it re-entered the media once again. It was also debated among international students because they, like me, were rather stunned that someone could be killed for speaking about what they believed in, just as most Dutch people were shocked.

My conclusion was that Dutch tolerance is not quite as impressive as I once thought it to be. I think that I thought Dutch tolerance was because of some kind, caring deep beliefs held by people. Unfortunately, it seems that this isn’t as widespread as I thought but possibly more so than most other European countries, the UK included but I believe tolerance really is a characteristic trait of the Netherlands for two reasons. The first is that people can be quite indifferent about so many things so people sometimes simply do not care if, for example, someone is walking past with a spliff. Some Dutch people might think that it is their right to do so but many others just don’t actually care. It doesn’t affect their lives does it? This is probably something to do with the phrase “Dutch comfort”! The second reason is that the Dutch are so civilised.

In this sense, they might not actually like people smoking cannabis (hence it being illegal) but they are sensible enough to know that the only way to deal with it sensibly is to control the problem rather than push the problem into the hands of criminals. In brief, despite saying tolerance is not all that it is sometimes made out to be, the Dutch attitude is still largely positive because of how civilised the Dutch are: the “meeting culture” and the understanding that pragmatism is needed to deal with problems are the main reasons for this.

Perhaps one of the most depressing things about the Netherlands is the fact that it seems to be changing for the worse. In my opinion, it seems to be one of the best places to live in the world, which is backed up by many reports into quality of life around the globe. Since the election of Balkenende, good quality public institutions being degraded or sold off and socalled economic problems have been associated with the emergence of more radical and selfish opinions and falling tolerance towards immigrants in particular. Perhaps the instability of the once rock solid stable Dutch economy has damaged the psyche in such a way that confidence in society and collectivism have been exchanged for individualism and selfishness. This is more of a hypothesis than an observation since this happens over years, not 3 or 4 months but this is the impression I get from speaking to many Dutch people. Whether it is true or not, I am pleased to see that DWARS and GroenLinks are promoting very positive values including those that the Dutch are well known for. I believe that the Netherlands has far too much to lose: openness, care for others, social liberalism and tolerance are values that must be retained. I noticed these values in the Netherlands because as an outsider, I didn’t take them for granted. I hope my Green counterparts in DWARS and GroenLinks will do their utmost to keep the Netherlands the egalitarian, open-minded, outward-looking, caring and tolerant country it always has been in our lifetimes.

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