michelvanrijnSome thoughts about the Dutch national character written on the train from Amsterdam to The Hague
img_4298“What do you think about the Dutch?” a young woman asked me at the latest meeting of the European Professional Women’s Network in Amsterdam. “Don’t you think they are somewhat peculiar?”
The answer “I adore them” did not seem appropriate in the professional context that we found ourselves in plus the question itself contained a slightly negative connotation, so, trying to sound neutral and rational, I went on enumerating all the positive things that I could say about the Dutch while strengthening each point with an example from my personal experience. I have to admit that this was not the first time that I engaged in this exercise since I met a lot of expats here complaining about the locals along the same  lines – the Dutch are blunt to the point of rudeness, they have no sense of style, they are cheap, they are always right, etc., etc.
So there I went, adding one story to another, pointing out the peculiarities of the national character of the Dutch which I
found charming and strangely refreshing. I absolutely had to start with a story of our real estate agent who would not allow me even to look at the houses which, in her opinion, were not in a desirable area, were not in a good condition or just plain not a good buy (try to find an agent like that anywhere else in the world). To underscore Dutch honesty, I moved to examples of local small businesses whose managers talked me out of purchasing their merchandise because I could do better buying it elsewhere (a totally unbelievable concept for anyone from North America). Thus I was not “allowed” to buy a couch to survive renovations in our house because it was a temporary solution and I could do better by buying a blow-up mattress in the shop up the street. I was advised not to buy summer clothing in the local boutique because I was going to Italy and “things are better there”. Finally, a manager of the flower shop, whose clients include Queen Beatrix, after discovering that I lived in his neighbourhood, volunteered to come to my house to see if I chose my plants “properly”. The inspection ended with a strong admonition that no plants would be sold to me till after I finish my renovations since” it was not good for the plants” plus I would have a better perspective of how everything looked after
all my furniture was in place. Only in The Netherlands can you find practical locals treat your money as their own and take personal responsibility for it.
I finished my string of examples with our last KLM trip to Canada when our Dutch pilots (to our utter amusement) shared with us the details of their take-off strategy by pointing out that there was no reason to wait for a scheduled take off since we had all managed to get on board earlier (always practical and common sense) and then later admitting to a poor
landing (“not one of my best”) and assuring us that next time would be a better one. “Only the Dutch,” we said. “It’s good to be back.” 
Perhaps what I like the most about the Dutch is their curiosity about life. They are driven to explore and learn new things and they are doing it with flare and audacity. They do not feel that the world owes them and they are always ready to adjust to the circumstances. “We are a small country,” they say, “and we have to make an effort.” And they do. They travel, they learn foreign languages, they seem to establish themselves everywhere. Once I learned some Dutch, I started recognizing it everywhere I went and found myself practicing it in most unexpected places – in a Japanese restaurant in Las Vegas, on a bus from Monaco, in a jazz club in Old Nice. My Latin American neighbor told me about a remote village in the mountains in her country where one could meet only local residents and one Dutch person. How’s that for being daring?
One of the favorite local legends is that the Dutch will give you only one cookie when you are invited for coffee and will put away the rest. This was supposed to show their cheapness and stinginess. I have to admit that I was obsessed with the idea of finding myself in this situation and then asking for some more (just like in Dickens’ novel) to see what happens. Fortunately or unfortunately, I never had a chance to challenge anyone. I have always been treated very generously, and not just to more than one cookie but also to gourmet meals (thank you, Michel, Jan and Annike), fine wine (thank you, Harrie and Hetty), beautiful flowers (thank you, Louisa), a private tour of a private castle (thank you, Alex) and just plain human kindness given to a foreigner in a strange land (thank you, Martijn). When I decided to start an arts and culture foundation, it is the Dutch who helped me to succeed by providing good consulting advice (thank you, Paul,  Jane and Ivo), sponsorship (thank you, Pieter and Rob) and help on-site (thank you, Anne Marth). The latest instance of Dutch kindness happened the other day when a Dutch journalist and writer presented me with his latest book to make sure that I could keep up with my Dutch, among other things (thank you, Renso). Now, how can you not like them?
Finally, now, during the first warm days of spring, it is a pleasure to watch the Dutch enjoy life. Those giant Hobbits (the Dutch are officially the tallest people in the world), who during long winter months prefer sitting in their gezellig (cosy) brown cafes sipping seasonal beer and munching on something lekker “(tasty”, a very useful word to remember if you hang around the Dutch), suddenly turn into handsome semi-Gods who greet the first rays of spring sun with all their Dutch passion. Men, dressed in brick-red pants (one of the signs of spring in my books) and wearing pink or purple shirts and sweaters (something that only Dutch men, tall and good-looking, can pull off), and women, flashing their bright scarves and stylish spring outfits, never caring about an extra pound or two but enjoying their bodies without reservation (think Caro Emerald), fill the streets and cafes soaking in the sun. “I love Dutch women,” said my visiting Parisian friend, “They are so happy with themselves and the way they look, and they always smile. What a change after Paris.” “Stop staring at men, you are embarrassing me,” said I. “Don’t you have attractive men in Paris?” “Not like that,” she answered. And indeed, the Dutch are unique in so many attractive ways that people like me are prompted unconditionally to come to the rescue of their national character when challenged. But, again, let’s face it, I love the Dutch!