While Kat and I were in Paris with Britt and Erin I kept lamenting about how we’d soon have to leave beautiful, vibrant and delicious Paris and head to the Netherlands. Kat didn’t really understand what I was so upset about. I explained to her that that’s because she had never been to the Netherlands before. I had been last year for nearly two weeks. I explained “The weather is crap, people are rude and the food is terrible.” Kat insisted I was being melodramatic. “Ok, dumdum,” I said, “We’ll see…”
Of course, the whole point of going to the Netherlands was to visit my best friend Neil who has lived there for the past three years. Some of you may remember Neil as the best man at my wedding. Neil lives in Nijmegen which as Holland’s 10th largest city is every bit the thriving, booming metropolis you’d imagine it to be. Still, we were very excited to get to spend some time with Neil and eat, drink and be merry.
Things got off to an amazing start, actually. The day after we arrived, we were able to attend Nijmegen’s craft beer festival. Incredibly, it was warm and the sun was shining the whole day and we had a great time.
It was the last time we saw the sun in 2 weeks. The Dutch have a phrase that they use to describe just about everything in their country. You’d ask “So, what’s this restaurant like?” or “What’s this town like?” The answer is invariably “Oh, it’s nice. You know, typical Dutch.” We’ve latched on to that phrase to describe all the things that make the Netherlands and infuriating country. The weather, as I’ve mentioned “Typical Dutch” meaning, gray, cold and windy with a constant threat of rain regardless of time of year. Then there’s the food. The Dutch haven’t really added much to global cuisine. Their national dish is something called stampot which is basically just a pot of boiled vegetables, potatoes and cheap sausage. I will say that they produce some very fine beer and cheese, which is great and all, but that can’t sustain you for every meal. Other foods dutch are known for, which are actually decent:
Kat and Neil don’t like the herring at all, but it is actually a favorite of mine. Of course, eaten the traditional Dutch way – dipped in onions and then held by the tail and dipped into your mouth. There’s not much to do in Nijmegen. It’s a cute, small city. Depending on your point of view, it’s amazingly or terribly located. Nijmegen is all the way in the eastern part of the country, very close to the German border. So within 2 hours you can be in Dusseldorf or Cologne (I went to Dusseldorf during my last visit, so this time we opted for Cologne). You can be in Amsterdam within 90 minutes or within 2-3 hours the other way in Antwerp or Brussels in Belgium. Of course, the Netherlands being such a small country, their ideas of time and distance are rather warped. When I asked my Dutch friend Joost, who lives in the Hague, what he thought of Nijmegen he said “Oh, man. I’ve never been there. That’s far.” It was less than 2 hours on the train.
Which brings me to Dutch people. Bear in mind, I lived with Joost for 2 years and had several other Dutch friends in grad school. I like Dutch people – as long as they’re outside of Holland. What I’m saying here is nothing they wouldn’t say about themselves. First, partially because the country is so small and space is perceived differently, Dutch people are constantly smacking into each other on the street. Never intentionally. They just seem to exist in a constant state of geo-spatial fog. If I had a nickel for every time a Dutch person walked in front of me and the just stopped dead in their tracks, I’d be a wealthy man. Every time Kat or I got elbowed or shoved by a Dutch person, we’d just look at each other and say “Typical Dutch.” It happened so many times we eventually just abbreviated it to “TD.”
Further, the Dutch are quite proud of their no-nonsense, tell it like it is directness. If you are in a group and you take the last cookie, it’d be quite Dutch for someone to say something to you like “Oh, I see you like to eat quite a lot, don’t you?” The Dutch call it being “direct.” The rest of the world would call it being “rude” but to each their own, right? Of course, it’s a world of pitfalls, because it is also quite Dutch to be able to take just about any statement made to them the wrong way. One of my favorite Dutch factoids is quite telling, I think. In the Netherlands, on your birthday it is your responsibility to provide cake for everyone else.
The more I think about it, Japan and the Netherlands are actually quite interesting analogs to each other. Japanese are so polite that it can cause you to become enraged, whereas Dutch as so “direct” as to also cause you rage. Their cultures are both unbelievably insular and homogenous, but whereas Japan prides itself on this fact, the Dutch have an interesting culture of “tolerance” of foreign cultures (though how tolerant they are and have been in practice is something worthy of debate). Finally, whereas Japan is a culture that thrives on convenience – everything automated, convenience stores every 15 feet that supply anything you could ever need – the Netherlands has to be the most inconvenient (first-world) country I have ever been to. Everything closes at 5 pm and nothing is open on Sundays. Nowhere would take my credit card because it was a swipe and not a chip and pin. Last year my friend Neil misplaced his ATM card so went into the bank (only open until 3 pm, of course) to try to make a withdrawal at the counter. He was told that this had better be a real emergency because you can only make an in-person withdrawal once in your lifetime. Trains pull all the way to the end of the platform so the entire train has to walk a quarter of a mile to the exit (or, in the case of a tight connection, sprint a quarter mile down the platform, cross under the tracks, and then sprint a quarter mile down to the end of the other platform because that train has pulled to the opposite end of that platform). In Japan, public restrooms are always available, free, and spotlessly clean. In the Netherlands, no matter where you are, they are dirty AND you have to pay to use them. One thing that is the same between Japan and the Netherlands is that when you ask why things are this way, you get the same answer: Well, that’s just the way it’s always been done.
One thing that’s great about the Netherlands is that you don’t really need to explore the whole country to get a good feel for it. Should you go to Amsterdam? Absolutely. Should you go to Utrecht? It’s just a smaller version Amsterdam, so no. I asked Joost what the Hague is like “It’s a bigger version of Delft,” he said.
Am I being unfair? Perhaps, but something I’ve learned on this trip is that you don’t have to like everywhere you go. You’re allowed to not appreciate aspects of certain cultures and it doesn’t make you a bad person. Believe me, I could write a novel on things about certain aspects of American culture that infuriate and embarrass me.
So, now you know how I really feel about the Netherlands. I just had to get it off my chest. We DID have a great time hanging out with Neil – drinking, eating, burping, goofing off and watching Mad Men. Now we can have a few posts about things in the Netherlands I do like: Amsterdam! Bike riding! And, of course….being able to go to Germany and Belgium.