A Spotlight on the Dutch

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Europe, like any continent, has differences amongst its peoples. A school teacher could say you can learn about the Dutch by sailing Amsterdam's canals and listening.

Photography by the authors

Europe, like any continent, has differences amongst its peoples. That leads to stereotyping — not politically correct these days but long established — with ancient clichés in varying forms that sound something like this:

“Heaven is a place where the cooks are Italian, the lovers French, the politicians Swiss, the engineers German and the police British. Hell is where the cooks are British, the lovers Swiss, the politicians Italian, the engineers Swiss and the police German!”

Top to bottom clockwise: William Tell Statue, Switzerland; German Royal decal, Germany; Statue Rome, Italy; One of the Elgin Marbles, British Museum; French Foreign Legion kepi, France.

[Eric: I thought about that in 1982 as I prepared to fly to Europe to do a four-part article for Autoweek, the theme driving a national car through four countries. I wrote airmails explaining my assignment to the national tourist office of the four countries: Britain, France, Germany and Italy. To Britain I wrote “I know there is a special press office five miles northwest of London at Hampstead Heath, but I wondered if you’d be kind enough to leave off some British tourism pamphlets and maps for me at one of your downtown London tourist offices. I won’t have a car and don’t really have time to drive to Hampstead Heath.” The surprising-to-me reply came back: “Dear Mr. Anderson; We maintain a press office in Hampstead Heath. We will be happy to see you there.”

The French replied, “You say you wish to photograph — with a tripod — the famous staircase at Chambord Castle. You are forbidden to photograph the staircase. Please enjoy La Belle France!” The Germans replied, as far as I can recall; “You tell us you will be coming to Munchen on March 5 and expect to arrive at the Hotel Jier Jahreszeiten at 17:00. We ask you to go back to the lobby at 19:30 and walk to the desk 10 steps to the right of the Reception counter. You will receive Frau Hoch there, who will take you to the Rathaus to show you our Glockenspiel clock, then on to dinner. She will, of course, have your maps and tourist books.” The letter I got from Rome a few days before I flew there said: “Dear Mr. Anderson; We are sorry you have had to make so many phone calls to our office for help in your trip through Northern Italy but, please, find enclosed the maps and tourist information you wanted on Southern Italy.”

No wonder travel writers love the German National Tourist Office!

Meanwhile I’m thinking about a friend in Southern England who had something to say about the Dutch. He often takes his car over to the north of France and drives to the south coast. “Every time!” he said. “As soon as I’m in Europe I get behind a car with NL (Netherlands) insignia, hauling a caravan to boot, then it’s Hell all the way to the Riviera!”

“Why is it Hell?” I asked.

“’Cause the Dutch always obey the law, they won’t speed or let you speed, so its 500 miles poking along, trapped by the Dutch!”]

We would think it fun to be trapped by the Dutch even though its Tourism Office can be unhelpful, too. The only Dutchman we’ve really got close to is a fun cruise director with Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection — one Bart Roefus who does his best to explain his country and his people.

He starts with the facts: the population is 16.2 million living on 16,000 square miles. New Zealand is 6.5 times bigger in area, Japan 9 times, Australia 182 times and America 235 times bigger than the Netherlands. Its density of people per unit size with 991 people compares to 79 in USA and seven in Australia.

Those figures don’t agree with others, although it seems clear that the Netherlands are more crowded than Japan and in Europe only Monaco, Gibraltar and Malta are more congested but, of course, Monaco is only 0.8 square miles (despite its affectations).

“The average Dutchman has three bikes, but doesn’t know where they are,” Bart says.

There are an unbelievable 850,000 bicycles out of two million stolen a year in Amsterdam. There’s the resulting so-called “free biking” policy where if you are attentive you can buy your own bike back from student sales and auctions. Most of them are well worn. A common joke is for someone to hold up an old bike and shout, “Grandma, we finally found your bike!” A friend of ours saw his bike for sale at 50 Euros and quickly bought it; it had cost 1,000 Euros and he was thrilled at the bargain.

Tourists learn to watch out for bikes, not to buy but to avoid as they walk around. They find it hard to get directions, says Bart, “because in Germany we tell lost persons if you walk down you will come to the river, but in the Netherlands, unfortunately, you can’t walk down anywhere so we have to point and say, ‘Go that way!’”

We once told a guide it was embarrassing to go into a public toilet in the Netherlands and be greeted in fairly fluent English by the janitor.

“You are forgiven, there are only 17 million of us and there are 365 million natives who speak English,” she said. “Your language is the third most commonly spoken language in the world after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. Who would want to learn our ugly language?”

“Actually, Dutch is not a language,” says Bart. “It is a disease of the throat. No foreigner could ever pronounce achtentachtig prachtige grachten! But we do have our Dutch phrases: Dutch uncle, Dutch treat.”

About the Dutch, others say: Wooden shoes, wooden head, wouldn’t listen! The shoes are interesting. Clogs are made from willow, poplar, birch, beech and alder wood. They date back to the 14th century and are still worn in Spain, France, Germany and the Benelux countries.

“They actually keep the feet warm in winter and cool in summer,” Bart explains. “And they are, there’s that Dutch word again, cheap.”

Someone on the Uniworld River Queen calls out, “Tell us what the Dutch are like, Bart!”

He softens and says, “Tall. We are the tallest people in the world. Our average 6-foot, 1-inch is one inch more than the Danes. The U.S. averages 5-foot, 9, and Japan, incidentally, averages 5-foot, 7-and-a-half inches. The factors we think involved in giving us our height are good health care, good nutrition and an even distribution of wealth.”

He goes on, “But we’re frugal too. We even sell a gadget in our hardware stores so you can scrape out the very last parts of preserves out of a jar. They say there are no seagulls behind Dutch ships! But we believe in moderation, consensus and agreement. We don’t show off. We say to ourselves: Act normally, that’s crazy enough. And we say: You can always tell a Dutchman but you can’t tell him much.”

Is there more to Holland than tulips and windmills, we ask. What about your pot-smoking coffee shops?

He shows us a slide in some embarrassment as it suggests the Netherlands has been too permissive in dealing with young people and their drugs. Time Magazine had a cover story in August 1987 saying you can smoke pot in Amsterdam’s coffee houses but not tobacco! Mediterranean people eat to live, he goes on, but the Dutch live to eat, love deep fried snacks and “they favor mayonnaise with their French fries.”

“But if you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much!” Bart says.

He isn’t impressed by Dutch politics. Nobody cares, he says. One political party calls itself the 50 Plus Party and gets 3% of the vote. A political party for the Animals gets 2%! Our prime minister, he says, is unmarried and lives with his mother, and is a school teacher on the side who rides his bike to work.

A school teacher could say you can learn about the Dutch by sailing Amsterdam’s canals and listening, and going to its great museums and looking, but there are books too.

Bart recommends a book by Colin White & Laurie Boucke called The UnDutchables that is an observation on the Netherlands, its culture and its people. He believes we will find proof there that the Hans Brinker story and the tale of Boy who Stuck His Finger in the Dyke will be revealed as stories not in Holland’s past but actually created by North American writers.

Not cheese, we think, that’s all Dutch. And so is van Gogh but he’s our story for another day.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.