Monday, December 3, 2007

What's it like in Holland?

Yes, I do always try to say "The Netherlands", but it's hard to get the tonguetip back and forth from 'th to 'n and back to 'th quickly, so it sounds a bit lispy. Beyond that, though, I like living here among the Dutch.

Landscape: It reminds me of Nebraska: absolutely flat and open, with winds that blow unobstructed for hundreds of miles. The soil is mostly peat and sand, soggy and soft, so trees are small and dunes appear in unexpected places. The Dutch practicality shows through: they lay streets like I laid a patio at home. with bricks pressed into the sand.

I know that most of the country is below sea level, but I don't think about it most days (except when the Surge comes down from the North Sea and the Barrier has to be closed). We're all of 30 m up here, so I feel safe from the deluge, but not from global warming. Still, I don't worry about the ponds and rivers overflowing; the Dutch know how to work with water. Someone recently pointed out a regional air traffic control radar station to me, located at the commanding height of 50 m above sea level.

Weather: 'Totally Seattle: temperate and rainy, identical forecasts between them on most days. The painters got it right: the light can be yellow on days that the sun is out, and diffusely gray otherwise. Warm days are accented with Midwest-style thunderstorms; winter yields to the dull drizzle of the Pacific Northwest. The latitude, 55N, leads to produce long summer days and long winter nights: we'll surely freeze if the Gulf Stream ever gives out.

Countryside outside Leeuwarden 1 Countryside near Arnhem 2

People: Honestly, the Dutch have been open and welcoming in my experience: engaging, supportive, and tolerant as I learned to fit into life here. The typical person is tall and thin, intent and somewhat self absorbed, with an organized, logical, and pragmatic approach to life. They do have a proper process for most activities, but remain open to new ideas if you are willing to engage in a vigorous discussion. As others have noted, Dutch are, indeed, very direct, and I seldom have doubts about their opinions. If there is a problem, they are quick to tackle it, but if a situation is unfair, they are equally quick to complain (this can be a bit unnerving when it involves neighbors telling me how to put my garbage out correctly or strangers lecturing me on driving habits).

The Dutch are cosmopolitan and egalitarian, curious about people and very well informed about the state of the world. Still, they hold themselves somewhat aloof from it. They can be very insightful: I had a wonderful performance review that really made surprisingly effective suggestions. I suspect that part of it is the directness, but I'm convinced that they also study others more objectively. They have a quirky sense of humor, especially at Christmas. In tense meetings, they often lighten the mood with a wry saying, usually untranslatable (but probably involving tulips and bicycles) which gets a laugh. It spills over into "Random Road Art"; pointless and whimsical sculptures at roundabouts and freeway intersections that I've been cataloguing.

To my eye, Dutch women are striking: tall, self-assured, confident and cool (Nick in Wageningen got it right). Dutch men seem more reserved and academic, a bit sharper-edged than the women. More lanky than athletic, the Dutch are distinctive among Europeans: When I go to Oberhausen, only 100 miles away, I'm amazed by how completely different the people are, both in appearance and actions.

Lawn Picnic Signage

Culture: The Dutch value their home life a lot, and glimpses in the windows (always open, without curtains) reveal warm rooms filled with books, art, and flowers. They keep a strong and unique sense of 'being Dutch', but not as rooted in history or heritage as many Europeans. I seldom hear about the Golden Age or even the Second World War. Instead, their forward-looking discussions are often about current events, social issues, and the future shape of Dutch society. They keep the facade that Dutch is hard to learn and that they understand if I can't speak it, but I sense that they really expect me to make the effort. They love their holidays and vacations, their gardens and bicycles, the language and their haring.

It's a bit of a kingdom, compact and concentrated. But it is in good balance, works well for me, and seems easy to navigate when I take time to learn the rules and the language.

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