In The Netherlands
Many of the people I met during the past few months said they would impatiently wait for the reports about my home country. Well, I am back in The Netherlands, trying to find out what is going on at the moment.
The Netherlands is a small country with 16 million inhabitants. Half the country is situated below sea level and large areas have been reclaimed from water bodies. The country has made it through several floods, with the biggest, most recent one in 1953. A massive project that had already been prepared well before, was then put in place with urgency. The Deltaplan, as it is called, has reduced the length of the Dutch coastline by more than 700 kilometres. It consists of dams, sluices, locks, dikes and storm surge barriers, all located at the estuary of the big rivers: Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt. Already before the 1950s, in 1932, the Afsluitdijk locked the former Zuiderzee and allowed for the creation of an entire new province: Flevoland.
`The threat of the sea explains why we our culture is based on compromises`
Matthijs (23, photo) suspects that the way The Netherlands has been fighting against the sea also explains its culture. `The sea was a threat to the whole country, and it was impossible to win the fight without close collaboration between citizens. That is why, today, we still have a culture of compromises. People first agree on something before they execute the plans in a team.`
Matthijs is proud of how much is allowed in The Netherlands. `People are allowed to say what they want, to move freely and to criticise whatever they don`t agree with. We have so much freedom, sometimes even too much. It`s easy to take advantage of it in the wrong way, and some people unfortunately do.` He also thinks that, despite the culture of compromises, there is not much unity among the population: `Maybe when the Dutch football team plays, but otherwise it requires something very shocking to happen before the people feels like one.`
Paul (27) doesn`t miss a lot about The Netherlands when he travels abroad, but also refers to freedom as one of the main assets of the country. `We have many rights integrated in our legal system: the use of soft drugs (hash and marihuana), laws protecting gay rights, euthanasia.. I think those are quite typical for The Netherlands, you wouldn`t easily find them in other countries. Also, I like how we can be vrijgevochten en eigengereid: unconventional and self-willed.`
Paul can understand that people from other countries may think of the Dutch as rude and direct. He refuses to agree that the Dutch are stingy: `I would call us generous instead. Look at how much we pay to charity organisations, or how much we are willing to make contributions to help war-torn countries or countries that have been struck by floods or fire.`
Frank (36) is less positive about the friendliness of Dutch people, especially when it comes to the pretended Dutch tolerance. `Even if it was really present in people`s minds, it`s fading out now. The Netherlands are becoming more and more conservative. They have always been under the surface, but it`s now starting to emerge again. People`s views tend to become more rough and extreme, and less tolerant. I`m happy that we have such a large midfield in society to neutralise those, but I do certainly not like the development itself.`
Elements that Frank does appreciate include the educational system. `It`s constructed around learning instead of reproducing. You can especially see that in language education, which is much more efficient here than in some other European countries. Also, people look at diplomas in another way. Graduates are valued by employers for the intellectual level needed to obtain a diploma, more than for the contents of the study program followed. That`s not something you would see in Spain, where the domain of your studies will almost imperatively be the domain you will work in.`
Patrick (36) is originally from the South of The Netherlands. He emphasises that his birth ground is not Holland, because the term Holland only applies to two provinces in the West of the country. `That region may well be the motor of the Dutch economy, but it doesn`t mean that people from the South are flattered when they are associated with Holland.`
He continues: `What I don`t like is how people are always worried. I have been traveling around in Africa and found it very interesting to see how people could be happy with nothing. How they could be happy if they knew tomorrow was going to be worse. In The Netherlands, a bad thing that will happen tomorrow will make people feel bad already today. We are not very good at taking life the way it comes, and enjoying the good moments. On the other hand, I do like Dutch humour. Only the Scots can really compete with us. We like to joke about ourselves, or about things that don`t work. I have difficulties with the Spanish and German humour, and I think people in France have no sense of humour at all.`
Like everybody I spoke to today, Patrick is not particularly proud of being Dutch, but after some reflection says that he wouldn`t want to have been born elsewhere. He says: `What I like most is how such a small country can play such an important role in the world. Look at Shell and Philips, or at our sportsmen. In some way or another, we manage to generate a lot of talented people. In many disciplines, we can compete with the best.`
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