(Originally written for my friend Cathy from Germantown, Virginia. Not exactly a structured essay, but informative in its own way.)
Well, I can recommend some articles on the Wikipedia to give you a general idea. Start here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Netherlands
(links to several sub-articles)
On our customs and etiquette:
On our food: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutch_cuisine
There is a book about us, with a foreigners’ perspective on the Dutch. I didn’t much like it, it’s severely prejudiced and shortsighted, but it’s an easy read and not wholly inaccurate. This is it’s website, which contains some snippets: http://www.theundutchables.com/
Here are 3 webcams aimed at a fairly typical inner city street in Amsterdam: http://overtoom.tv/
(The people who live in that street believe it to be Gods preferred retreat for whenever He begins to find Heaven a bit dull and uncomfortable… I bloody hate Amsterdammers. They live in a crowded, dirty city in cramped, outdated houses but they think it’s paradise and everyone who lives outside the Amsterdam ring road is a farmer.)
If you were to ask me what the main problem is in the Netherlands, I’d say (apart from obesity, as in most Western countries) that there is a lot of concern about ‘integration’. This subject can pretty much ruin any birthday.
Some background on that. In the 70’s we had a massive economic boom and we needed to attract foreign labour. What the Mexicans do for you (picking fruit, ‘landscaping’, being general maids, servants and cleaners – you know, all those high quality jobs) was done by immigrants from, mainly, Turkey and Morocco. These were poorly educated people with a culture that was considerably different to our own. So they came over, did the dirty work, brought in their families and pretty much didn’t mingle with the Dutch. We’d become arrogant of course, ‘a Turk’ being almost synonymous with ‘a cleaner’. So these poorly paid, poorly educated people, Muslims, staid together and that was the beginning of a fairly major rift in our society. Immigrants from other countries did considerably better, but since the Turks and Moroccans have a strict code of honour that does not, alas, include punishing children who steal and misbehave, it gave rise to a huge criminal element in our society. Naturally, the immigrants who DID learn our language (it can be done, Arabic is MUCH harder) and DIDN’T steal were also discriminated against.
We still have problems with that, even after so many generations have been born here. It’s getting better, but if you’re sending out your résumé for anything other than a job as a cleaner you’d better change your name from Achmed Yaziz to Jan Pietersen.
So, what do we do for fun? Well… what you guys do, basically. Watch mind numbing TV (quite a lot of it American in origin, and subtitled instead of dubbed), surf the Web, spend less and less time with each other or preparing proper food… In fact, the Netherlands is used as a test bed for anything that the US wants to try out in Europe (from fast food concepts to boy bands). If it doesn’t fly here, you can pretty much forget about the rest of Europe.
I understand Americans have a notion of Europe being a place of history and culture. Well, it is. But history in the Netherlands has nothing to do with our cities. You get the odd 200-year old city hall, sure. One or two castles, nothing to write home about. But what strikes people about the Netherlands is that it is clean, modern, FLAT, well-organised, on the whole quite safe and getting more and more crowded. We always have a housing shortage, but then again we also have a growing number of singles. We’re individualistic, well-educated, fairly rich even. So everyone demands his own piece of land, basically.
I believe I mentioned before we are still one of the biggest exporters of fruit and flowers in the world, due to a highly advanced agrarian sector. Basically, we mistreat animals AND vegetables on an incredible scale. But we also impose ridiculous environmental restrictions on ourselves, because we see The Netherlands as a shining beacon of reason and responsibility, for the world to follow. So we signed the Kyoto agreement and spend billions on reducing pollution. Meanwhile, in America they invent the Hummer and burn as much fossil fuel in one state alone as we do in the entire country. (I’m not blaming you, dear. But your country does have a mixed reputation over here and this is a much cited example. Electing the same moron twice in a row hasn’t helped much to improve the image either.)
I do drive, yes. I drive what you’d call a compact but what we call a midrange car. We just don’t get big rigs such as Cadillacs here, a BMW is about as big as it gets. Anything larger than that is considered a van. Hummers and other All Terrain Vehicles are becoming more ubiquitous and are ridiculed for being unneccessary and impossible to park. A large, expensive car is only a status symbol up to a certain point: if it becomes obstentatious, prepare to receive an awful lot of ‘tiny penis’ gestures.
My car runs on LPG, liquefied petroleum gas. It also runs on normal petrol, but LPG is much cheaper (70%) because of tax exemptions. One drawback: the extra tank is where the spare wheel should be. Plus, good luck finding LPG in Germany or further beyond.
We drive on the same side as you guys. It’s only the United Kingdom where they do it the wrong way around. Electrical wall plugs give you 220 volts instead of 110 and at 50 hertz, not 60. The sockets and plugs differ, so it takes a really determined idiot to do any serious damage.
We use the centigrade scale too, which makes much more sense. 0 degrees is the freezing point of water, 21 degrees is how warm your house should be, 37.5 is the human body, washing machines give you a choice between 40, 50 or 60 degrees and boiling water is 100 degrees (at sealevel: in Switzerland it’s a bit higher).
In 2002 we, along with many other European nations, gave up the Dutch Guilder for the Euro. At that moment, shopkeepers and café-owners took us all for a ride by basically merely changing the sign, not the amount. (ƒ became €.) It started a ‘Supermarket war’ which rubbed out 3 large chains of supermarkets. Virtually everybody still does the conversion in their heads. 1 euro is 2.2 guilders. 1 euro is 1,50 dollars (March 2008). Which means for me it’s good to shop at Amazon.com.