Monday, April 9, 2012

A to Z: Holland, a Boutique Country

Tulips at the Keukenhof Gardens
Spring 2009
When you think "Holland", what's the first thing that comes to mind?

Tulips? Windmills? Marijuana everywhere? Van Gogh? Gay Pride? The Red Light District? Dikes and water engineering?

The first time I was there, I was around eight and on a three-month Europe tour with my parents. The second time was over twenty years later, with my Dutch boyfriend.

The experiences were completely different.

Tulips at the Keukenhof Gardens
Spring 2009
On my first visit, we stayed in Amsterdam and drove to nearby places like Rotterdam, Madurodam, Volendam... The mandatory tourist traps plus a few quainter (gezelliger?) places like Alkmaar and Haarlem that my dad knew of because he'd spent his army years in Germany. Two decades later, we took a day trip into Amsterdam, and that was all I saw of the "big" capital (forgive me for the quotes; Amsterdam's population is at max one million. That doesn't qualify as "big" for a girl who hails from a 20-million-plus city).

My boyfriend's family lives in a town northwest of Amsterdam called Schagen (you might have heard of an Ark replica built there a few years ago), and that's where we stayed. Thus my introduction to the real Holland.

Would you be surprised to learn that, in a country of around 17 million people--yeah, total--and with an area of sixteen thousand square miles (around 42,000 km2) very few people speak English? Many speak a dialect of Dutch (incomprehensible outside of their immediate environs), or even a wholly different language, like the Fries (pronounced frees) of Friesland at the north, a closer cousin of Scandinavian languages than of Dutch.

Many of the people outside the metropolitan areas of Holland (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, etc.) have never traveled outside of Europe, and some haven't even left their borders. Some of them don't even own a passport.

The Dutch East India Trading Company
(Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie)
And yet the Dutch are famous for their seafaring escapades, their trade settlements all over the world, from the Caribbean to Indonesia. Dutch people can be found everywhere, perfectly assimilated, perfectly happy with a completely novel way of life.

Michiel de Ruyter,
Dutch Admiral famous for victories
against the Spanish
This contradiction--the Dutch farmer who's never left his village and doesn't even want to, and the Dutch traveler who immerses without a second thought into a different culture--is the main reason I love Dutch culture. For me, this contradiction embodies the Dutch spirit.

There are others, certainly: the marijuana myth, for example. The stereotype says all Dutch are regular marijuana users. In reality, less Dutch people use marijuana than Americans (I'm talking per capita here, so don't give me the population disparity argument).

Keukenhof Gardens, Spring 2009
The tolerance thing: stereotypical Dutch are tolerant of anything and everything, right? Witness the gay marriage thing, euthanasia, drugs, prostitution. Right?


Holland has a historic tradition for tolerance. Back at the end of the Middle Ages, when Spain was persecuting its Jews like mad, huge groups of Spanish and Portuguese Jews made their way to "neutral"--although technically Catholic--Holland. Reformists of either Calvinistic or Lutheran beliefs also found safe haven there. Belief systems don't seem to have been all that important to the Dutch, at least not in the degree that they defined whether you lived or died in so many other countries back then (and even today--shame on us).
Keukenhof Gardens, Spring 2009

The Dutch are the most practical of Europeans. Trade, business, economic development, general well-being and stability--those are the values they have the most consideration for. So, as long as these immigrant Jews and Reformists came in peace, the Dutch had absolutely no ax to grind.

But times have changed. The Dutch penchant for live and let live has been ground down to dust by too much abuse, and modern immigrants--Latin Americans, Eastern Europeans, Turkish, Moroccans--aren't so warmly welcomed.

Original caption: "Moroccans in
The Netherlands don't want to
they want to dominate."
Amsterdam is still the capital for global tolerance in terms of drugs and sexual orientation, but outside its borders, tolerance dissipates like so much chalk dust in the wind.

Dutch people don't live in windmills, wear wooden shoes, or grow tulips for a living anymore, either. 


  1. I found this post very interesting as I've spent a lot of time working with Dutch people,in Amsterdam, The Hague and in Norway. Everyone spoke fluent English so it was a surprise for me to read that outside the big cities it's less well known. I never got to Rotterdam but recently I posted some postcards of the city from the early 1900s on my blog.Most of the city was destroyed during the war.

  2. No, I admit, I had no idea.

    I do find it funny though, here in Cali, I know quite a few people who've never left the state. I can't imagine not traveling.

  3. So beautiful! I live near the Skagit Valley in Washington State which has a Tulip Festival every year. I'd love to see the tulip fields in Holland someday. The ones here are gorgeous, but I bet they're better in their mother country. :)

  4. I actually just finished reading The Fault in our Stars by John Green, and part of that is set in Amsterdam. That's what I thought of :) Great post! Love the pictures.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  5. Estimada Guilie,

    Muchísimas gracias por enviarme una carta desde Curaçao, me ha hecho muy feliz el poder contar en mi colección con una carta enviada desde el Caribe.

    Si lo deseas, puedes visitar mi blog y allí podrás ver la imagen de tu carta publicada.

    Muchas gracias de nuevo, espero sinceramente que tu vida se llene de paz, salud y felicidad.


    Emilio Fernández

  6. I've spent a few days in Holland, mainly in a small town, and what struck me about the dutch was not the tulips (actually, I didn't see any) was how friendly they all were. And how cute the twins in my host family were.

  7. When I think of the Netherlands, I think of bicycles. We went to Haarlem often, and spent time in many other Dutch cities and towns (never made it to Amsterdam, however).

  8. I've not been to Holland, but your post brings the country to vivid life, well past stereotypes. An interesting and useful post. Thank you.

  9. I think of those little nick-nack dolls when thinking of Holland. I like this post. =)

  10. I've been a transit passenger, does that count? :)

    Van gogh. and--Unilever. Talk of extremes!


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