I discovered this week that Delft has been voted as a TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice 2014 Winner as a top destination. Thoroughly deserved in my opinion, and a reason to share a few more photos of the glorious old city.
While my visit to lovely Delft is still at the forefront of my mind, I’ve been learning a few critical Dutch lessons on the streets of The Hague as well. Moving to a new country always throws up a few mind-bending oddities, but things are done differently from country to country and I’d be disappointed if they weren’t. Different cultural practices, social norms, language and national traits are all there to be explored and investigated.
Still, there are some things which I think its reasonable to assume will be similar – after all, I’ve moved to the Netherlands, not to live with an isolated tribe in the Amazon. So it came as a surprise to discover the Dutch aversion to money. That is, the paper and coin money which you find in quite a few civilisations on the planet and which have been around for millennia.
My journey into a vaguely Kafkaesque world began when trying to secure a permanent apartment and had to pay the rent and agency fees. To have a Dutch bank account requires you to have a permanent Dutch residence, and since my UK account is in Sterling not Euro, transferring the money would incur a hefty fee. A branch of the bank used by my letting agent sits just around the corner from my office, so I did what I assumed any sane person might do, I withdrew hard cash and went to pay it into the bank. This, it turned out, was a school boy error.
Generally speaking, I would expect banks to, you know, accept cash and maybe even dispense it. They did in Bolivia. Not in the Netherlands. I waited in the queue to speak to a nice woman behind a counter; I showed her my letter from the letting agent with the bank account details; I explained I needed to pay money into the bank account that day to secure the apartment. Not unreasonable requests, but the first sign that things were not all they seemed came when she looked at me like I might be an escaped lunatic.
She explained, as she might to a seven-year-old, that they didn’t have money on the premises; under no circumstances would she be able to accept a cash payment. Transactions are done electronically, or using machines which require a Dutch bank card to operate. I explained, again, that I didn’t have a Dutch bank account or card, not until I had a permanent address at least; what I did have was a lot Euros in my pocket that I wanted to pay to my letting agent who had an account with the bank I was stood inside.
Once I’d done that, I could open a Dutch bank account. She explained that I needed a Dutch bank account…
Stalemate. A colleague told me he once damaged his bank card and it stopped working in ATMs; he went into his local branch to withdraw money manually only to be told the same thing. No money in the bank, but please feel free to use the machine with your card. The Dutch banking system’s aversion to physical money is like something out of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22.
I might not have given this a second thought, but then I tried to pay cash for something in a furniture store. I arrived at the checkout confident that I could manage a routine transaction and proffered some notes and a few coins. The woman behind the till literally recoiled from me. I assumed she was banknote-phobic, which raised questions about her suitability to be doing that particular job, but that’s not for me to judge. It turns out that while they accept cash she isn’t allowed to touch it. Instead I had to feed the money into a machine next to her. The reason: security.
Either the Netherlands is a crime infested hellhole (I’ve yet to see any evidence of this and am sure I’d have read about it before now), or the Dutch have an unreasonable fear of bank heists and furniture store holdups. Answers on a postcard…