After the success of my article Considerations about my time in England, I thought I would do the same but this time focusing my attention on the Netherlands, where I spent a semester for study reasons last year and where I am at the moment, for a summer internship.
So, these considerations are based, once again, on my experience, and they only reflect my perception of this flat country and its very tall inhabitants. Speaking of which, I will share with you the first point of my list:
- The Dutch paradox
The Netherlands is also known as the Low Countries because almost 30% of its territory is under the sea level, while half of it is less than one metre above the sea level. The highest mountain is 321m high.
However, this very very flat country hosts a population of giants: the average woman is 1,70 m tall, while the average man is 1,84 m.
With my 1,67 m of height, I always felt pretty content back home in Italy, being at least average if not one of the tallest of my female friends. You can imagine my surprise once arrived here, where they thought I was “petite”, or, as they put it kleine maar fijne (little but pretty).
2. Holland vs. the Netherlands
If you think, like I thought until I came to live here, that Holland and the Netherlands are synonyms, then you’re wrong. Everybody outside the Netherlands thinks that the two words mean the same thing and that’s why also the Dutch have given up explaining the difference and use the two terms interchangeably.
Nevertheless, the Netherlands refers to all of the country; while Holland only includes 2 of the 12 provinces: North Holland (where Amsterdam is) and South Holland (where Rotterdam is).
I knew that bikes were a pretty big thing in the Netherlands. What I didn’t expect though was how popular they were.
Arriving in Groningen, it was shocking to see how many bikes there were (there are more bikes than people, because each person owns at least two: one for every day and one for special occasions) on the streets and parked in huge parkings, which have 2 levels (I never dare to park my bike up there: I find them intimidating).
People, young and old, bike everywhere: to school, to university, to work, to the supermarket, to the dentist, to a date….Whatever the weather (not even snow or ice scare this fearless population) and whatever the situation (no matter if they’re dressed to go to the gym or to a wedding), people bike as naturally as they walk. If you ask to someone: How far is…?, they’re likely to reply to you in bike distance. Of course it’s faster than walking and it’s very good exercise the Dutch get used to since they’re very young, even without realising. And the very flat landscape really invites you to climb onto your bike and cycle.
Fun fact: Most bikes here don’t have breaks on the handlebar. To break, you have to pedal backwards. It takes a while to get used to it, but then it’s quite pleasant.
Tip: if you’re not an expert cyclist, pay extra attention when you bike in the Netherlands (especially in Groningen): the traffic is fierce and nobody will be so kind to stop and let you pass. So once you got used to it, just go for it, as aggressive as you can.
4. Windows and privacy
One of the first things that struck me when I first arrived in the Netherlands were the houses. Compared to Italy, where most buildings are ancient and majestic, most of the houses here have been built in recent times and they look very square and essential in their architectural style. One could think they look like boxes or like Lego constructions. Of course, there are the historical tall and narrow houses as well (apparently there was a tax to pay based on the house’s ground surface, so that’s why people started building vertically instead of horizontally).
However, aside from their shape, what caught my attention about Dutch houses was that they rarely had curtains and, if they do, they’re almost transparent, which means that while walking you can gaze into people’s houses. And honestly, I cannot help it, as I am naturally curious, but also because, this explicit openness invites me to look inside and fantasise about their owners’ lives .
In Italy, all houses have curtains and I should say thick ones, as well as rolling shutters and wooden blinds, so privacy (as well as darkness) is assured.
When I asked my Dutch friends: “What about privacy?”, I was told: “it’s up to you if you decide to look into other people’s houses. It’s your problem, if you look, not theirs.”
5. Happy Part-timers
The Netherlands are one of the happiest countries in the world. And one of the reasons is that people have a relaxed attitude towards work and a very healthy work-life balance. It’s impressive to discover that almost half of the Dutch workers work part time. And for women, the percentage rises to 74%.
The historical reason behind this primacy in Europe (and the world) is that, during the war, few Dutch men were called to arms, compared to the other countries, so women didn’t have to work. The country’s wealth also made it possible for women not to work (full time) and this still holds true.
So, to recap: few hours of work, good salary and lots of free time: who doesn’t want to come and work in the Netherlands?
If you go on holiday to a Dutch city, at some point you’ll ask for information to the locals. You’ll be amazed: everybody speaks English. And more than this: everybody speaks good to perfect English: from young people to the elderly. With reasonable differences of course, but everybody is able to communicate and have a conversation.
Why is that? Dutch TV plays a big role: films, documentaries and series aren’t translated into Dutch but are watched in the original language with subtitles, since a young age.
At school, the focus is on conversation, instead than on grammar (like in Italy for example).
7. Dutch cuisine
Aside from the big Dutch passion for bread, cheese and potatoes, the Dutch cuisine seems to be pretty unsophisticated. It can be summarized like this: it’s all about everything that is fried or sweet, which translated is: it’s about everything that is good for your palate but not so good for your health. But who cares, right? With all the kilometers they cycle away everyday, indulging in a few delicacies is allowed. But let’s take a closer look at some Dutch typical products:
–Hagelslag: chocolate sprinkles to lay on top of a slice of bread covered in butter (or peanut butter if you want to exaggerate). Usually the Dutch have it for breakfast.
–Bitterballen: croquettes very crispy on the outside, very soft and creamy on the inside. Nobody knows what hides inside. They call it ragout: a mix of meat, potatoes (?) and something else (I tried to explain to them that ragù is a different thing in Italy, but that’s another story…).
–Stroopwafel: two flat crispy and thin layers of biscuit (similar to a wafer) filled with a sweet caramel syrup.
–Drop: it’s like a licorice. But it can be salty. The rest of the world finds it disgusting. The Dutch love it.
–Stamppot: a staple for the cold Dutch winters (and summers): mashed potatoes, combined with another mashed vegetable (generally kale), enriched with crispy bites of bacon and served with smoked sausages. It’s (quite) healthy, filling and pretty delicious. This dish really embodies the true essence of the Dutch identity, in my opinion.
8. Personality traits
When talking about other nationalities it’s easy to generalize and to fall into the trap of stereotypes. However, stereotypes are just categories. As long as these categories aren’t directed to a derogatory purpose (as stereotypes usually are) and are not intended to reduce one nationality to a few traits, I think they can help to get started, especially if you’re totally new to a culture.
I would describe Dutch people as practical, direct, open and independent (aside from blond and tall).
A practical mentality is shared both by men and women: for everything there’s a (practical) solution. There’s no use in panicking or complaining. Before you do, try to consider everything with an objective look, then when you’ve found a solution, put it into practice and carry it out until the end. If you fail, see what went wrong and try to fix it, then try again.
It’s a very hands-on mentality that doesn’t leave much space for any sentimentalism. People seem to get a bit annoyed or at least at unease if you start complaining too much, in a non practical way (and this reflection comes from the least practical person I know: myself).
Also in school and university, there’s very little theory and most of the workload consists of practical projects. Mostly, it’s applied research, which essentially means to use just that little piece of theory you need to come up with a practical recommendation.
As an Italian, used to study a lot of books and memorise and understand very well the theory before doing anything else (our school system works like this), finding myself in an academic context where you’re asked to give your opinion from the very first day, without necessarily having experience nor familiarity with the subject, was traumatising. I remember asking my teachers: how can I give my opinion if I don’t know the topic well? I was told, in response: “You do know the topic. You have a bachelor degree (even if in another discipline) and you have a lot of international experience. These factors alone give you the authority to give your opinion, as if you were a consultant”.
And I can tell you that students here really embody this statement. They speak up their mind, even without being required to do so, and their contribution is most of the time valued and appreciated by teachers. They can articulate their thought very clearly, in perfect English, of course, and they’re very good at speculating and making abstract arguments and debates.
Directness and openness go hand in hand. Dutch people are incredibly honest. Whenever they communicate, whether the feedback they have to give is positive (a compliment) or negative (criticism), they do so directly, if not bluntly. It feels like they have no shame nor any taboos, in any social context. This openness fits a culture of tolerance and respect, where everybody is considered and treated the same, regardless of their origin, sexual orientation or religion.
As an Italian, I sometimes feel uncomfortable talking about certain topics and I feel attacked and hurt when receiving criticism in a direct way, but on the other hand, I really appreciate the high degree of tolerance and freedom, which are not just abstract concepts but an everyday reality.
Dutch young people are very independent. Depending on their educational path, they can finish high school as early as 16 years old. They are raised in a way (and society is built in such a way) that they start working very early (like at 13 years old) and working while studying is just the norm (if you’re in your twenties and you are not woking, you’re looked at with suspicion).
Especially in a student city like Groningen, where I am living, you can clearly see it. All the cashiers at Albert Heijn, the Dutch most well-known supermarket chain, are in their twenties. All bars and cafes rely on very young personnel.
When you finish high school, you’re expected to leave your parents’ home and learn to look after yourself in every way: emotionally and economically. Of course, your parents will help you if you need and will always be happy if you go and visit them, but it’s an unwritten rule that you have to start living your life by yourself, making your own money.
The Netherlands is a very rich country, which means a very strong support from the government in terms of financial aids and subsidies.
Since you’re a baby, you receive (or better, your parents receive) by the government a certain amount of money every year, to cover expenses for food, clothes, toys.
Then while you’re studying, you’re entitled for a loan with a minimum interest (it used to be a present until few years ago!), which you can repay later, when you start having a steady income.
So, in a way, you’re encouraged to be more independent and you have all the means to do so. At work, a colleague of mine who is in his 60s told me that when he turned eighteen, his parents asked him to start paying rent, if he wanted to keep living in their house. Light years away from the Italian concept of family, independence and human relationships.
This culture of independence is paired with a strong sense of individualism. People are expected to take care of themselves and their gezin or nuclear family, which includes parents and their children. The ties with the bigger family circle (familie) are looser and the gatherings occasional.
So, for now that’s all. I am curious to see what the next month in this country has in store for me and if I’ll ever manage to adapt to this for me unusual “summer” weather and become closer to this culture, which is quite distant from my own.