Some information about the Netherlands and the Dutch

Being Dutch, and meeting foreigners on a weekly basis, I find that a lot of them have strange and often completely inaccurate ideas and pictures about the Dutch and the Netherlands. I'll try to disspell some of those ideas here. I'll start with a little description about my country of birth.

The "Kingdom of the Netherlands" is a little country on the north-western end of Europe. It's squeezed in between the North Sea, Belgium and Germany. Holland is *not* the correct name of the country, and in fact only two of the twelve provinces that make up our country have that name: i.e. North Holland and South Holland.

The name "Dutch" is not something we call ourselves, the English translation of that basically comes down to "Netherlanders". We do have neighbours who call themselves a word that sounds a bit like "Dutch", i.e. "Deutsch" or German. A native English language speaker makes that sound like "Dutch". Personally I think it's rather silly to be called after the name of another nation...

The country is roughly 300 km's (~190 miles) from north to south, and about 200 km's (~120 miles)from east to west.

Officially the country has a surface area of 41863 square km's (~16000 square miles) and there are about 16 million people living in it. This gives us one of the highest population densities in the world. Still, the level of crime here is a lot lower (by comparison) than in the U.S.A. for instance. Murder, rape and divorce rates all are a lot lower than in most of the countries around us as well.

Of the total population, about 83 % are etnically Dutch. The Turkish, Surinam, Indonesian and Maroccan minorities all account for most of the remaining percentage. A city like Amsterdam, which officially has something like 700000 people living in it, is made up for more than 60% of people who aren't etnically Dutch. Just in "de Jordaan", one of the oldest parts of Amsterdam, there are over one hundred different nationalities living together. Besides the typical non-Dutch atmosphere, the city is crammed full of tourists and tourist attractions, which to me makes it less than interesting to show to foreign friends. So please don't think that you've had a taste of Dutch society when you've only seen Amsterdam.

A third of the population is officially listed as being Roman Catholic, another third is listed as Protestant, the rest seems unaffiliated. Religion within Dutch culture seems to have lost its attractiveness to most people. There still are extremely fanatic practitioners of various beliefs in our country, some of them Christians. There is a clear split between religion and the state in the Netherlands.

Despite popular belief, most of the Dutch don't live in windmills (some of which were used to pump water from the polders), don't walk around on wooden shoes tending their flowers and don't eat cheese all day. Most Dutch live in cities, often in houses built against each other. There still is some part of the population which wears wooden shoes, but the wearer probably works in the tourism/entertainment industry. There is a substantial flower growing industry in our country, and the Dutch export more flowers than anyone else (over half of the world's cut flowers are exported by the Netherlands). As for cheese, sure, most Dutch eat cheese every once in a while, but like our flowers, it's also a good export product.

So what about the popular beliefs with regard to Dutch legal drug use, same sex marriages, youths being allowed to have sex and drink, prostitution and active euthanasia?

Well, Another big export product, and one that most of us tend to be less happy about, is drugs. XTC and nederwiet (marihuana) are produced locally in substantial quantities. Still, the use of drugs in our country tends to be quite a bit lower than in almost every country I've ever visited. According to official numbers, about 5 % of the Dutch use cannabis every once in a while. Also, for example, only 12% of the Dutch have ever tried marihunana, cmpared to about 50% of Americans. Maybe it has something to do with what is legal isn't as interesting to try as what isn't legal?

Soft drugs are legally sold in "coffeeshops" everywhere in the country, still you won't run into stoned teens everywhere. Amsterdam is kind of an exception to that, with loads of (mostly foreign) people walking around with a dazed look in their eyes. But as I already mentioned before, that city isn't exactly representative for the rest of the country...

As for the effectiveness of the Dutch drug laws: The British and Belgians are now also loosening their laws, so that there will probably be a formal tolerance, if not a legalization, of soft drugs in more countries. If you ask people around here what they consider to be big problems in society, you can count on drugs being really low on their list.

The hard drug addicts get clean needles and syringes for free to prevent the transmission of HIV and hepatitis, and the number of drug addicts has stayed the same or gone down over the past 25 years. A significant amount of research has shown that people who use cannabis aren't very likely to start using hard drugs, so the often used argument in other countries that our liberal laws promote the growth of the amount of hard drug addicts is nonsense. Seeing how the percentage of people who had ever tried marihuana and the ones who still use it regularly have dropped dramatically since the law was changed in the 1970's, you'd think that someone else would pick up on what works and what doesn't with regard to combating drug problems.

The so called "war on drugs" that was started by the U.S.A. a couple of years ago has had no impact on the amount of drugs for sale in this country. A Dutch minister visiting Germany recently promised to make it impossible for non-Dutch to buy soft drugs in the Netherlands. I'm curious to see how he thinks he can accomplish that...

Some information about the Dutch drug laws can be found here . It might interest some that drugs aren't legal by law in the Netherlands, but that the use of some of them isn't criminalised. The government aims more at preventing problems, improving the health and social functioning of addicts. So instead of criminalizing the user or forcing them to stop using, the approach is to lessen the negative impact of the addiction on both society and the addict themselves.

Another thing that isn't legal in many countries, is prostitution. Most Dutch cities have an area with brothels, although the red light district in Amsterdam undoubtedly is the most renowned. The proximity of that neighbourhood to the central station and many other tourist destinations also helps. Prostitues get regular health checks, pay taxes and aren't forced to do their business in shady back alleys.

In the Netherlands, sex tends to be talked about rather openly, with parents, teachers, books and TV programs giving very open advise about sex. This, and the campaigns about taking your own responsibility and having safe sex mean that we have one of the lowest teenage pregnancy rates in the world. Still, abortion is legal, within certain constraints, that is.

In my opinion, you'd better teach your kids to have sex safely (and while feeling good about it and their bodies) than play ostrich and pretend that they don't have sex just because you, as a parent, didn't educate them about it. This freedom of thought about sex and ease about being naked has shocked many a foreigner.

The Dutch have legalised same-sex marriages not too long ago, and the public view upon homosexuality has been slowly changing towards ever more acceptance within society. That doesn't mean that everyone has an open mind about it though. The recently murdered politician Pim Fortuyn was also a homosexual, but that didn't stop him from openly talking about becoming prime-minister, nor his party from becoming the second biggest political party in Dutch parliament. His sexual preference obviously wasn't an issue to all those voters.

The Dutch legalisation (albeit with very strict rules and checks) of euthanasia seems to have caused some uproar as well. It doesn't exactly make it easier to have your life ended deliberately, when you're in constant pain or sufferring, just legal. Recently, the Belgian have followed our example, and they even went one step further.

Having travelled to a bunch of countries, and meeting quite a lot of foreigners who spent some time in the Netherlands, I've gathered some of their ideas about the Dutch:

-When it comes to business, Dutch people will quickly get to the point, considering small talk about family or how the day was to be distracting from the main objective. They also take deals very strictly and literally, considering a deal made to be a deal to stick to ("Afspraak is afspraak").

-Dutch people consider it rude to be late. Being punctual, or a few minutes early is considered the norm.

-The Dutch will be rather forthright with their responses, easily saying exactly what they think or feel without holding back. For example, a Dutch person first meeting an American will gladly outline all the major flaws (which of course he / she has no trouble pinpointing) in the American political, economical, and judicial system with a sophisticated statement along the lines of "Americans are stupider than single cell organisms, and a trifle more evil. Why is your country so *insert explicitive here* up anyway?"

Most visitors feel insulted at this point. They shouldn't. The Dutch are being extremely polite when talking to visitors. When talking about themselves and their own country, the Dutch are even worse (or better, depending on your point of view). Please note the difference: "We (the Dutch), are stupider than lobotomized single cell organisms, and as evil as Satan squared. Why the *insert explicitive here* is our *insert explicitive here* country so *insert explicitive here* *insert explicitive here* up anyway? *insert explicitive here*!

-The Dutch language lacks much of the innuendo of the English language, with things often being said as they are instead of using innuendo. Then again, being clear and understandable by your trade partner is considered more beneficial, so maybe this is in part from the trader's influence on our culture.

-The Dutch speak rather loudly, even when it comes to things considered intimate by other societies. (I remember sitting in a train carriage once and I could easily follow the conversation between two teenage girls about having their period, and those girls sat on the opposite end of the carriage!)

-The Dutch firmly believe in the freedom of the individual, with the government playing no more than a background role in religious or moral issues. A cherished feature of Dutch society is the free and open discussion of such issues and the indiviual choice in such matters. A high value is attached to the wellbeing of society as a whole, as witness the extensive social security system, and the fact that basically everyone has access to health care and education.

-The Dutch have very little shame. If you see people changing on the beach, it's pretty common to have the Dutch change in plain sight, without bothering about hiding behind towels and such. Also, many Dutch homes don't have curtains shielding off the windows, so that you can look into living or bedrooms when you walk along the streets.
A Canadian doctor once said that he was astonished to find a female Dutch patient completely undressed when he had meant for her to go into the change room only to take off her shirt. The patient in turn was surprised by the doctor's surprised response... :-)

-The Dutch language has many curses involving horrible diseases, and the Dutch tend to use them liberally. Wishing someone cancer, typhus, the plague or more modern diseases is pretty common as a curse. It's not without reason that the English came up with the proverb "Cursing like a Dutchman".

-Dutch people on average tend to be taller than most westerners. According to the sources I could find, we're not the tallest people on earth. The average Montenegrin and Serbian male is almost 2cm taller than average Dutch males, according to answers.com. I wouldn't be surprised if the Masai still outrank both of us, though.

-The Dutch are very pragmatic, trying to come up with solutions that are logical rather than worrying too much about whether something might be considered appropriate or ethical by others. The examples I already mentioned above: Legalising soft drugs, euthanasia, abortion, educating kids about (safe) sex, same sex marriages and allowing every political party from all the way to the far left to the far right to be elected (They hardly ever get enough votes to gain a seat in parliament, but that's a different story). Over here, the two main U.S. parties (Democrats and Republicans) would both be called "extreme right wing", and probably not get many votes.

-The Dutch tend to be traders, being opportunistic and trying to make a profit whenever possible.

-The Dutch can talk and have meetings forever, coming up with sometimes weird compromises.

Some "facts" and statements about the Dutch which I found on the web:

-Even though many Dutch people aren't aware of it themselves, the Netherlands is one of the oldest still functioning democracies in the world (excepting short periods of foreign rule during occupations in wartime). Since 1579, the Dutch have enjoyed unparalleled civil liberties and democracy.

Never content to be too much like the rest of the world, the Dutch reinstituted a monarchy in 1815, right after most of the rest of the world had finally caught up with them in having revolutions to get rid of their rulers. However, the Dutch monarch doesn't have any real power and The Netherlands are by all means and accounts still a democracy.

While "Liberty for All" and "Live and Let Live" is often associated with "Not Caring for Others", the fact that no Dutch people fall below the poverty line and everybody has equal access to education and healthcare seems to indicate the opposite. The fact that the Dutch loathe to impose their personal morals on others, doesn't stop them from paying for a true welfare system.

"When the Dutch decide to settle somewhere, they commit. No matter what. Why else would they still occupy a country that daily threatens to be swamped by the invading sea?"

"The Dutch don't brag about their achievements. Maybe that's because they were once ruled by William the Silent." :-)

"Every year the Dutch send fresh tulip bulbs to Ottawa out of gratitude for sheltering Queen (then princess) Juliana in Canada during World War II. "

We have a character, called Sinterklaas (St.Nicholas) who's a bit like Santa Claus. On the 5th of December he rides over the rooftops on his white horse, dropping gifts down the chimneys (ever wonder how that big package came through the chimney?). He's more modern than Santa though, using a steamboat to sail from his home in Spain to the Netherlands (and Belgium). You can read more about Sinterklaas here .

Here's what the CIA has to say about the Netherlands: CIA site

It's interesting to see how others view us, although I think that everything is rather less extreme than it may appear at first.

Anyway, enjoy your contacts with the Dutch, and don't hesitate to let me know what you think of your experience with my countrymen.

Wilko


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