18 REASONS WHY I REALLY LOVE THE NETHERLANDS. PART I
Full disclosure: I am a self-proclaimed Dutch wanna-be. Ever since moving to the Netherlands in February 2012 (I had never been there before), I have been singing praises and raving about all things Dutch. Salty liquorice for dessert? Can't get enough! Words that sound like someone is scratching the back of your throat? Music to my ears! Scheduling a date one year in advance? A dream come to true!
All joking aside, it turns out I fall in love with places just like I do with people - at first sight. I fall, and I fall hard. What was supposed to be a six-month student exchange ended up to be a long-term affair. So, what is it that makes me appreciate* this tiny country so much? Brace yourself, the list is so long that I had to split it into 3 parts.
Cycling and bikes are as natural to the Netherlands as windmills, cheese, and tall people. It is a very flat (and compact) country: its highest point, Vaalserberg, is only 322.7 metres (1,059 ft) high. Biking here is easy, convenient, and fun - just be sure to get a good lock! The average Dutch person owns at least one fiets (1.1 to be precise), bikes about 2.5km per day and 900km per year. Go get 'em those fit thighs.
I have owned 2 bikes since my arrival and only had to buy the second one because the moment I lent the first bicycle to someone that person had it stolen (yeah, we are not friends now). See, Dutchies don't really care about their bikes - they come and go, and as long as there are more of them than people, it is all good. The second bike, which I named Chekhov, has been a loyal partner in crime and my bff for the past two-and-a-half years, but he too had an unfortunate encounter with a Dutch person, which resulted in a broken tire. Moral of the story: do not lend your best friend to a Dutch person.
2. BITTERBALLEN AND BITTERGARNITUUR
The Dutch aren't exactly famous for their cuisine, but there is one type of food they sure do get right - it is beer snacks. Generally referred to as bittergarnituur (translated as "accompaniments to the bitter drink"), they come cold - think cubes of cheese, sausage, chorizo, salami, olives, nuts - and warm. The latter is deep-fried, greasy, completely unhealthy but delicious finger food that is a godsend when drinking beer or Dutch gin, jenever. A warm platter usually consists of kaassoufflés (melted cheese in a thin dough wrap) , mini frikandellen (minced meat sausage), gehaktballetjes (meatballs), vlammetjes (thin pastry filled with chilied beef), loempias (Indonesian spring roll), and bitterballen (meat ragout balls). Bitterbal is a true staple of Dutch cuisine: take leftovers of yesterday's stamppot, mash it all together, and you've just fixed dinner for tonight! Yummm (seriously).
Tell a Dutch person you find their language attractive and they might send you to a mental institution for a check-up. I'm certainly in a minority here: it makes sense why a language with prominent guttural sounds is often described as harsh, sputtering, and not particularly ear-pleasing. Unless you are talking about Flemish Dutch, of course, because then you have a completely different accent. Taking a beginner's Dutch course though comes at the price of a sore throat and makes you wonder why a bottle of cough syrup isn't included in the package.
In reality, Dutch is a very fun language to learn. Just look at some of their words: handschoenen ("hand shoes", gloves), mierenneuker ("ants f*ucker", nitpicker), luipaard ("lazy horse", leopard), een bakje troost ("a cup of comfort", a cup of coffee). It gets better when you tackle idioms: haar op de tanden hebben ("to have hair on one's teeth", to be able to hold your own/to have a sharp tongue), met de deur in huis vallen ("to fall with the door into the house", to get straight to the point), het zal me een worst wezen ("that would be sausage to me", I don’t really care). Then you start paying attention to some Dutch first - Fokke, Taco, Joke - and last names - Naaktgeboren ("born naked"), Suikerbuik ("sugar belly"), Zeldenthuis ("rarely at home"), Kaasenbrood ("cheese and bread"). I think Anna Zeldenthuis would suit me quite well, what do you think?
Then you have the love for diminutives. Diminutive denotes smallness, familiarity, affection or triviality and can be created by adding a suffix to the word. For example, think about the difference between "mom" and "mommy" in English. In the Dutch language, there is one universal suffix '-je' that you can add to practically any noun. So, instead of your regular toothbrush you now have tandenborsteltje, book becomes boekje, and your beer (because that's important) biertje. Cute.
Finally, there are 3 words that I particularly like because they convey quintessentially Dutch notions: lekker, burgerlijk, and gezelligheid. Lekker is a roughly translated as "tasty, nice, good, pleasant" and used to describe whatever you want both literally and sarcastically. For instance, both dinner and weather can be lekker. On the other hand, your company can be lekker bezig ("nicely busy"), which means kind of the opposite. Gezelligheid also means something along the lines of "nice, pleasant" but with a cozy, warm feel to it. If you speak Danish, you know exactly what I mean - hygge is a very similar culutral concept. Imagine having a dinner with a small group of close friends, catching up on life after a long time of not seeing each other. The very situation is already gezellig, but it can also be happening in a gezellig room, And if you had a really good time, you can later say that the dinner was lekker gezellig (lucky you!). On the other hand, burgerlijk describes a quality and a lifestyle that is in general appreciated in Dutch society - living a "normal", conventional life. I find it interesting that almost nobody seems to like this term or wants to be associated with (how hipster of them), yet it is a prevalent mentality across the country. More on it in the point #5.
4. THE SUN DOES COME OUT (SOMETIMES)
The Netherlands looks and feels like a completely different place when it gets its 5 seconds of sunny weather. It is almost like the entire country drops everything, clothes included, and heads outside. For once, you are reminded that it is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. Parks get crowded, numerous cafe terraces get packed, boats make rounds in the grachten, what a time to be alive!
For a country that shouldn't even exist (26% of its land is below sea level), the Netherlands is incredibly prosperous. How it possible? Because the Dutch are a smart and practical bunch. You know the saying: "God created the Earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands". They managed to turn swamps into liveable areas, created dykes and dams, incorporated canals into cities and villages. Amsterdam, for a moment, was built on a bog with the help of some 11 million wooden poles. All building structures in the city rest on the surface of 15-20 m long poles that sink through the mud and are fixed in a sandy layer that is 12 meters deep on average. A typical house is supported by 10 wooden poles. Amsterdam Centraal needed as many as nearly 9,000 pieces.
The Netherlands just works: its systems are functional, efficient and effective, its cities safe, its people secure. This society bets on being rational, civil, and liberal, which allows many different people to live together comfortably and well. Instead of prohibiting something, the Dutch think of finding a way to regulate it: be it drugs, euthanasia, prostitution, immigration, you name it. Back in the day, pragmatism helped this tiny country secure good, successful diplomatic relationships with their much bigger neighbours operating with soft power rather than hard power instruments and later establish a powerful position on the continent.
Apart from their practical purpose, Dutch canals make for two really cool activities: boating and ice skating. Unfortunately, it has already been four years since you could skate along the canals in winter, and it is uncertain when it will cold enough again. But if you are lucky, one day you might witness the Elfstedentocht ("The Tour of Eleven Cities"), a 200 km (120 mi) long skating tour in the province of Friesland. The tour is held only if the ice along the whole course is 15 centimetres (6 in) or thicker. It's been 19 years since the last event. In 2012, exactly when I landed in the country for the first time ever, the Netherlands was having a cold spell that heightened the expectations of that year's tour. The nation was eagerly anticipating the long-awaited competition, but it was not meant to happen: the ice was too thin in the southern part of the province.
Luckily, boating is possible almost all year around. I would go as far as to say that it is probably my favourite thing to do when I am in the country, especially if I am in a good company (gezellig), it is warm and sunny out (lekker), and there is a bittergarnituur around. I wouldn't recommend going for a swim though - chances are, you will stumble over a bike.
*NB: It is not my intention to idealise the country in general or my experiences in particular. Rest assured, there have been certain drawbacks that let me down as well. No one is perfect, but this is as close to perfection as it gets from my point of view x