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.
7 thoughts on “The Netherlands: Farewell #1”
Dankje wel for a post that does a lot of justice to Holland.
(Tot ziens den Hag)
I enjoyed my time there too when I lived in Laren for most of a year (though like you the food was an issue – there’s only so many boiled eggs I want to eat, and getting looked at in horror for putting ham AND cheese in my lunchtime sandwich eventually paled as a sport), but there are indeed many good and interesting things to see and at least you know where you are in terms of what your colleagues think of any ideas you come up with. The Danes, by the way, are similarly “direct”.
I’d not heard of Laren, but see it’s close Amsterdam. I bet it had a historic centre! The resilience of the Dutch to different food is amazing, the cheese sandwich at lunchtime is ubiquitous. I often thought there was a gap in the market for a roast Sunday lunch. I’d have eaten it at least.
The Netherlands looks like a beautiful country! It seems to have an interesting mix of modern thinking and old traditions.
The Netherlands has a lot to recommend it, it’s a picture postcard perfect place (probably too much so) but no wild places.
Sad to see the racist figure of Black Pete still part of Christmas celebrations in the Netherlands. As Becky Little wrote in her National Geographic essay (online) December 2017, “The History of Europe’s Most Controversial Character,” and I quote part of her article:
“The Black Pete that people dress up as now was popularized in a mid-19th century children’s book by Jan Schenkman, says Joke Hermes, a professor of media, culture, and citizenship at Inholland University. She notes that Schenkman was very interested in the Dutch royal family members, “one of whom bought a slave in a slave market in Cairo in the mid-19th century.” This person, she suggests, could’ve helped inspire the character of Black Pete.
Before the Netherlands abolished slavery in 1863, the country was deeply involved in the transatlantic slave trade. It grew prosperous by selling enslaved people to the United States or sending them to work in Dutch colonies, and some nobles “gifted” each other with enslaved black children, who are shown in paintings wearing colorful, Moorish clothing similar to Black Pete’s.
Thanks to the work of activists like Quinsy Gario, who started the project Zwarte Piet is Racisme (“Black Pete is racism”), some cities and schools have begun phasing blackface out of their celebrations. So far this has involved changing Pete’s image rather than getting rid of him completely, a “solution” that Gario doesn’t necessarily think is adequate.
For instance, Amsterdam’s Christmas parade recently changed Black Pete to Schoorsteen Piet, or “Chimney Pete.” Organizers have replaced his blackface paint with soot, and done away with Black Pete’s wig, gold earrings, and exaggerated red lips. They’ve also changed his Moorish outfit so he looks more like a 16th-century Spanish nobleman (in some versions of the tradition, Pete is from Spain). In a statement to the Dutch news site NL Times, a spokesperson for the city’s parade explained why the old costume had to go: “We looked at artwork all the way back to the 17th century. Wealthy Amsterdammers would dress up a black child in these outfits and give them as gifts.”
Many white Netherlanders are still “in denial over our role in slavery,” Hermes says, and thus reject the idea that Black Pete could be connected to it. Yet for a lot of people, the link is both painful and unavoidable. In 2015, the United Nations urged the Netherlands to get rid of Black Pete because many see it as a “vestige of slavery.”
So far, most of the country has ignored the UN’s request. But in the Netherlands and abroad, the movement against Black Pete is growing.”
In some parades, Pete is now ‘Blue’, ‘Purple’ or ‘Green’ Pete, but many continue to use blackface. It’s a strange state of denial for a country that is very enlightened in many ways.