Thursday, October 2, 2008

The water folk and the mountain people

I know that I’m on delicate ground today, but I’d like to spend a few paragraphs contrasting the Dutch and the Swiss. I’ve lived in both countries, in Switzerland when I was 17 and in the Netherlands today, and I have high regard for both cultures. They have always seemed to me to have lots in common, and so I’ve been surprised to have each warn me away from residing with the other.

Grindelwald CH 11 Tiel Crossing 5

In my observation, both are small, proud countries whose character formed in symbiosis with their environment. Each has their own language and culture, distinct in Europe, and each has a long democratic-consensual political and community-centered social tradition that carries lessons for other nations. The people seem fit and happy, self assured and internationally aware. The "P-" words flow together: principled, practical, pragmatic, polite. In both cases, people are welcoming to visitors, but reserved in forming friendships and a bit rigid with regard to social tradition.

Apart from the obvious difference in geography (and respective affinities for bicycles vs. walking sticks), I think that the main difference is an innate conservatism among the Swiss in marked contrast to the more progressive Dutch tolerance. I got into a conversation about this with a few Dutch friends last night over dinner. They accede to the overall points of similarity, and offered a unique (perhaps tongue in cheek) explanation of the differences.

It seems that, as a seafaring and commercial culture, the Dutch became more aware, and thus more accepting, of ideas from other cultures than the insular folks locked away in their mountain valleys. As such, they came to value taking the best of the ideas that commerce brought to them, while the Swiss put greater value on longstanding local ties and traditions that their isolation fostered.

Perhaps. But it may also be that the dizzying heights of the Alps are just not suited to Dutch tastes any more than the boggy flats of the deltas would appeal to the Swiss. Somewhat the same division exists in the US, dividing those with a taste for the humid and traditional South from those with a yen for the changable and hurried North.


Jul said...

Interesting comparison. When living in Switzerland, we often heard that the Swiss had the Alps to blame for their narrow world view. With a tall mountain on each side of you, it's hard to have much peripheral vision... so in comparison the Dutch should be excessively open. Maybe there's something to this!

Dave Hampton said...

I suspect you are right. It's just been surprising that when I talk about the possibility of moving to Lausanne, I get such odd reactions. The Dutch say that they do like the Swiss, but they find them a bit odd and uncomfortable to live among. 'no idea if that is reciprocal.