It’s been four and a half years since we moved to The Hague, the relaxed and historic Dutch city by the sea. Truth be told, when we learned that the Netherlands was to be our home, it didn’t seem particularly exciting. We arrived after living in Bolivia, and the flat, wet Low Countries were a long way from the high, dry Andean highlands. A Dutch colleague in London even advised me against moving. Now that we’re leaving I can say with some certainty, this is a country that has seared its way into our affections.
The Netherlands is a small country with a big heart, especially once you get used to the notorious Dutch ‘directness’. This can easily come across as rudeness. A more accurate description would be ‘bluntness’. So runs the joke, unless you’re prepared for a brutally truthful answer, never ask a Dutch person for an opinion on your personal appearance. That part of Dutch culture is more than compensated for by the friendliness that we’ve experienced almost everywhere we’ve been in the Netherlands.
Beyond the obvious cliche of the Dutch as open minded, socially liberal and good at football, I had little understanding of the Dutch psyche or cultural norms before we came to live here. It turns out the cliche are both true and wildly inaccurate. This is an open minded, culturally diverse country, but a million people voted for a xenophobic (at times openly racist) politician at the last election. There is a small-scale culture war being fought over Zwarte Piet, a tradition many people view as offensive in a country that played a major role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
It’s legal to sell and buy both sex and marijuana in the streets but there is a deep vein of Calvinism running through the country. To my surprise, there’s even a Bible Belt. Not fifty kilometres from Amsterdam’s fleshpots, entire communities attend church on a Sunday morning and shops remain closed. This though is conservatism with a small ‘c’, you’ll find much support amongst those sat on the pews for an open refugee policy. The national football team has performed woefully for the last four years. Total football? Total disaster.
Despite only having a handful of truly wild landscapes left, the Dutch countryside is a fantastic place to get away from it all. You can cycle just about anywhere in the country and, once outside the cities, the pace of life slows to a crawl. That presents abundant opportunities to discover beautiful and historic small towns and villages. Almost all of which have a well-preserved medieval centre. I literally had no idea how beautiful the Netherlands was, plus it has hundreds of kilometres of gorgeous beaches. There are rumoured to be ‘hills’ near Maastricht.
The Netherlands has played an oversized role in global affairs, defying other European countries to become a global, and colonial, power in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Dutch Golden Age has left its imprint around the world. More importantly though, the centuries have left behind some fascinating traditions. Most involve raw herring. Dutch colleagues swear by pickled herring with raw onion as a hangover cure. The obsession with a fish that was the foundation stone of early Dutch prosperity, culminates in the season’s first catch, the Hollandse Nieuwe. It’s a very big, very fishy deal.
Surprisingly, Christmas is a non-event. The Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas on December 5th instead (it’s his sidekick Zwarte Piet that has caused so much animosity in recent years). Dutch New Year’s Eve celebrations more than compensate though. If you want to experience the thrill of warfare without actually going to a war zone, this is for you. Military grade fireworks explode in massive numbers, not from the safety of a civic display, but by selling them to anyone with money.
People launch them in the street, from the back of speeding bikes, from rooftops. They are thrown under moving cars, fired towards cyclists and pedestrians, and vast strings of firecrackers are rolled down residential streets before being exploded. If you want to know where the writers of The Purge got their ideas from, be in the Netherlands on December 31st. I’ve never seen a more reckless use of incendiaries (apart from that one time in Bolivia).
One blog can’t do justice to four years of experiences – I could spend quite some time on the lack of food culture, but that would seem churlish. It’s been a genuine pleasure to live in the Netherlands, I’m looking forward to coming back on holiday.