Once upon a time, I thought the Netherlands was boring.
In grade 7, my history teacher asked our class to prepare a presentation about our family tree and explain a little bit about our family’s cultural origins. I knew exactly what to say for the Boucher side because I had grown up steeped in French-Canadian culture: from foods like tourtière and crèpes; folk stories about the coureurs-de-bois; and traditional songs like Claire Fontaine… When it came to presenting the Dutch half of my family, I didn’t know where to start. I think one of the first results that popped up when I googled Dutch culture was pea-soup (erwtensoep). “Is that it?!” I thought to myself. I couldn’t believe it. I recall glowing over the Leunissen family tree during that presentation for multiple reasons, but mostly because I thought pea-soup and wooden shoes were boring.
For a long time, I wished that I was something else… I wished that I was Italian-Canadian, Spanish-Canadian, Columbian-Canadian, Thai-Canadian, anything-Canadian. I longed to have an exciting cultural heritage; that my grandparents had immigrated from a different country. One of the reasons I chose to go on exchange to Italy in high-school is because I wished that Italian history, cuisine, and culture, were part of my identity. Although living in Italy did shape my identity, it did not change how deeply my family roots were entrenched in the Netherlands.
As an anthropology student, I won’t pretend to offer an exhaustive analysis of Dutch culture, nor will I deny my position as a White female with a Dutch last name (province of Limburg) living in Diemen. What I will note here are a few Dutch quirks that stick out as a Canadian expat in the Netherlands. Furthermore, allow me to stress that my assumption about Dutch culture were completely wrong, and I’d like to prove that below. It took a special friend, a few years of Anthropology and an identity crisis to open my eyes to the wonders of Dutch culture.
The Netherlands has slowly transformed from the boring land of my ancestors to a home like-minded people. Dutch culture is incredibly fascinating and pragmatic. It’s socialist, left-leaning, government strives to ensure a safe and respectful land for it’s citizens. Logic and efficiency dominate its social services, it’s transportation systems, and its social interactions. What may be construed as bluntness is a desire to live honestly. The Dutch would rather be straight forward than entertain the idea of feigning politeness or bullshit small-talk. I’ve experienced this straightforwardness many times, including one notable trip to the grocery store during which my North American habit of putting apples, peppers or avocados into clear plastic bags was frowned upon because it was considered wasteful (since all of these vegetables can be washed or peeled).
Since the country is so flat and most urban centers are small in area, but dense in population, the primary mode of transportation is by bike. Not only is it great for exercise and independence, it’s also less expensive than public transit. Which brings me to the Dutch reputation for being “frugal” or “thrifty”. Although individual spending habit vary greatly, there is a tendency to buy second hand off of online platforms like Marktplaats (Dutch eBay) or visit flea markets on the weekends. Moreover, paying for your half at a restaurant or a bar is a fine-tuned system. Mobile banking apps allow customers to transfer as little as €0.10 to another person. As a result, the expression “Going Dutch” is alive and well. It’s also interesting to note that water is just as expensive, if not more, than beer at restaurants. I learned that lesson on the weekend.
Wine drinkers may feel forgotten in Dutch bar scenes. Although grocery stores and supermarkets carry alcohol with a wide variety of wine, beer is the dominant drink when going out. As a wine drinker, it’s been difficult to transition, but I’ve started to gain a taste for blond beers. The whole dynamics of going out in the Netherlands is completely different. First, drinking nights with friends or student associations are not limited to Fridays and Saturdays. My friend will go out partying with his student association on Tuesdays; meanwhile the International Student Network that I’m a part of at the UvA go out on Wednesdays; and my swim team’s “borrel” (drinking) night is on Thursday. Second, depending on where you live in the Netherlands, the bars close at 3 or 4am. That means people drink for around 6 hours, which is bad news for a lightweight like myself. I have learned to pace myself so that I can make it until the last song, “The Piano Man” by Billy Joel.
I could go on and on about Dutch life and Dutch culture. I haven’t even talked about the Dutch language yet! (Which continues to be an ongoing challenge, but I’m signed up for weekly classes and I just have to be patient.) I’m incredibly grateful to be able to study my Masters in one of the most beautiful cities, in the country of my ancestors. I’m even more thankful for the chance to discover my cultural heritage and to correct the misleading impression I once had about Dutch culture. Loving the Dutch life. A big thank you to everyone who has helped make this dream come true. 🙂