What can I say, in the past four years that I’ve gotten to know the Dutch culture and the Dutch people, they’ve won a place in my heart. But because the country is so small, many people I know aren’t very familiar with the Dutch way of life.
I bet there are some Americans out there who think the Netherlands is a made up country. I don’t blame them. Growing up, I thought that’s where Peter Pan was from (he’s from Never Land).
My first time in the Netherlands as a tourist, I really got to see how beautiful the country was, but because I was only here for a week, I didn’t really get much of a sense for Dutch people and the Dutch culture.
What followed my initial week-long visit were several short trips until I got a visa to live and work in this tiny, wonderful country.
“Heartwarming” isn’t an adjective I usually use. But honestly, after four years of Dutchness, that’s the word that comes to mind when I think of Hollanders. Pretty bizarre, right? Other word that comes to mind is “wholesome”.
I’m almost not making any sense, so let me explain. Here are five things that I’ve seen that I think do a good job of showing what the Dutch are like.
#1 Sense of community
One of the big things that really stands out to me here is that the Dutch people are really very tight-knit as a country. It makes sense. With only 17 million people who are Dutch, they share something pretty special with each other.
This sense of community became the MOST clear to me in these COVID-19 times. In the US, where I’m from, the Coronavirus outbreak is dividing the different states. When I compare how things are in America to how things are in the Netherlands right now, they couldn’t be more different.
The Dutch view this crisis as one. Of course, people do have different opinions on things, but generally speaking, there is a vibe everywhere of the Dutch united versus the coronavirus. And to get through these times, there is also a lot of community support.
On one of my first nights in quarantine, the whole neighborhood where I live went to their windows and started cheering at 8pm on a random weekday. Now granted, as an expat in isolation, I kind of didn’t get the memo— but everyone else did and it was cool to see!
Some of the other more lighter ways in which I see the country coming together is in how most of them are exposed to the same news and TV. As you might have guessed, there aren’t that many options to choose from. But as a result, people have that in common.
Every evening at 8pm, Sara (my girlfriend) and I watch Journaal, the news. About half the country is watching that shit with us. Same with TV shows. I swear, if you don’t watch Wie is de Mol? (gameshow with famous people in cool countries doing cool things to avoid being eliminated and finding the bad guy) or Broer Zoekt Vrouw (reality dating show for farmers), you are the exception!
On a different note, I am surprised by how many people, from 60+ year old men to 20-something women, are HUGE fans of this farmer reality dating show. I’m telling you, the Netherlands is a wonderfully weird place.
#2 The Dutch are happy
You’ll find the Netherlands pretty consistently ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world. And I can tell you, I totally get it. The happiness is also extremely catching.
Let me give you an example of this strange happiness thing that I’ve seen here. I’m from New York. When I fly out of JFK, here’s what I expect. The ground staff checking me into my flight will very efficiently do their job and hand me my ticket, but they will do so while speaking to me in short sentences and without a smile. “Destination?” “One-way or return?” They’re trying to save their breath and energy for the next idiot that comes along.
When I go through security, the TSA agents will be yelling at everyone to get their shit together. “IF YOU HAVE ANY LAPTOPS OR LIQUIDS PLEASE TAKE THEM OUT OF YOUR BAG!!!!!!”
I was flying out from JFK to Iceland once with a friend of mine who’s Lithuanian. It was her first time flying out of JFK. I was shocked when she told me that she thought everyone was so rude. I thought they were just doing their job!
This was before I had ever visited the Netherlands.
Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam is a whole other experience. I was so confused when I was going through security and the agent was chatting with me about my trip! It was so out of place for me that I almost thought it was a trap of some kind. The agents were smiling, full on ear-to-ear smiles, and even joking with each other! What kind of a world is this?
But that’s exactly what I mean. Dutch people are happy, and it shows. Kids riding their bicycles on streets with no potholes— they’re happy! Lots of smiles everywhere you go!
#3 Simple living
There are many fancy-ass looking cities in the Netherlands. Utrecht, where I live, fancy as fuck. Amsterdam, fancy buildings, fancy canals. The Dutch? Simple and down to earth. Confused? I was too at first.
But think about it, they ride bicycles! Everyone rides bicycles. Their Prime Minister even rides a bicycle to work. The royal family rides bicycles. And they’re not fancy bikes… those get stolen!
You see, the Dutch have this philosophy, and it’s calling “acting normal”. Doe normaal (literally, “doing normal”) is what the Dutch live by. In America you want to stand out, in the Netherlands, you want to fit in. You want to blend in with the crowd. Flashy jewelry and cars will likely not make you friends here.
Even if the Dutch homes are in old buildings and fantastic locations, many of them tend to be simple on the inside. They may have paid upwards of a half a million euros for their two bedroom canal-side apartment, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from the things that they own.
For furniture, like clothes, shoes, and many other everyday things, it’s all about quality and not quantity or price. The Dutch are happy to pay more for something if it’s going to last them longer, but that’s considered an investment! They do love a good bargain, though! If you want to impress Dutch people, tell them about how you bought that really cute jacket on sale for 5 bucks.
You can see the Dutch simplicity in one other place: the way they like to go on holiday. I have talked to so many Dutch people who enjoy going camping in France, which means that they get to enjoy great wine and cheese without paying for a place to stay. Something that I, as an American, consider to be pretty essential. Not the Dutch. They’re keeping it simple.
I’ve also seen a ton of Dutch people on holiday in cheap places like Greece and Nicaragua. There were an UNUSUALLY large number of Dutchies there, really. And when I asked Sara about this, she said that it was probably because these were cheap destinations with good weather. I mean, what other explanation is there?
#4 Work-life balance
Speaking of vacation, the Dutch LOVE their holidays. In the US, people get 10 vacation days on average. That’s two weeks. Here, that would be considered a violation of basic human rights. I’m not even really exaggerating.
By law, a person working full-time is required to have at least 20 holiday days. That DOUBLE what the average American gets. And just in case people are bad at saving for holidays, the Dutch payment system requires that you get a “holiday pay” as part of your salary. And that amount is given to you separately in your paycheck.
Have I convinced you to move here yet?
Unlike us Americans who basically will work for however many hours to get paid, the Dutch prefer to take time off for themselves. Many of them will absolutely not work on the weekends. That’s why all of my fucking apartment viewings were during the work day! And there was no way to see the apartments any other time. Same with basically anything else you need to do here.
The Dutch really value time spent on hobbies and with their family. Asking someone what their hobbies are in the Netherlands is a really normal thing to do. Because people actually do things besides their jobs. I didn’t know that was possible. The Dutchies I know are all on volleyball and soccer teams, take art classes, and make sure to have a full social calendar to spend time with their friends and family.
I had only lived here for a month when people were asking me if I had found any hobbies yet. They did not consider it normal or healthy that I needed to use my free time to do things like put together Ikea furniture. And now that I’ve realized that my working hours are not bad at all, I completely understand where they’re coming from!
To top it all off, even though a six hour work day hasn’t been made official in the Netherlands yet, the Dutch work incredibly low hours during the week on average. The last numbers showed that the Dutch on average work only 27 hours a week! That’s less than 6 hours a day!
These low numbers were shocking to me at first, but then I realized that it is really built in to Dutch culture to work part-time. You do not need a high salary to live comfortably in the Netherlands, so many jobs that are considered full time actually offer the option of working either 36 hours or 32 hours a week.
I know many people who actually work 36 hours and have every other Friday off or work 9 hours a day for four days a week.
#5 Country-wide traditions
This point also speaks to how the Dutch have a country-wide sense of community. But as an expat, you will notice how the Dutch have their own traditions that you are not a part of. Well, at first. And once you get the hang of it, you can join right in!
The first tradition that comes to mind is how the Dutch eat certain kinds of foods on different holidays. Specifically, Olieballen on New Year’s Eve and Orange tompoucen on King’s Day. Literally the entire country does it. I know that my Dutch family and friends find it weird to NOT do it.
After joining in the Olieballen fun the last couple of years, I can say I get why this is fun. It really does make you feel a part of something. Sadly no orange tompouce for me this year, though. Maybe next time!
Other food related traditions have to do with herrings and white asparagus. The Dutch LOVE these things. They know when it’s the right season, and on the first day that you can get herrings, the Dutch folk are there! Same for white asparagus, which they lovingly call the “witte goud” (white gold).
Fun fact, did you know the Dutch often eat the herrings whole without chewing them? They literally swallow them whole!
And of course, there are some unspoken traditions that only come to light if you pay close attention. It was Easter a few days ago, and in the US, it’s a day that for me would largely go unnoticed. It’s a big deal here in the Netherlands, and it marks the beginning of spring. Which means, typically, Dutch people go outside and buy lots of plants for their garden.
Because of COVID-19, the Dutch were encouraged to stay inside during Easter, and it affected them as a whole. Which, brought everyone together in sad, sad, misery. Dutch people do not like to be told to stay inside. Especially when it’s nice out! They can all agree on that.
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