What comes to your mind when I say «Holland»? Windmills? Wooden shoes and tulips? Weed, bikes and canals? Recently, I wrapped up my Dutch life and left this country, actually named The Netherlands, and my associations are now somehow different from listed above. This post is written in order to express my gratitude to the country, the nice people I met and the greatest friends I made during my one year stay.
Being a Norwegian living in The Netherlands there are certain sacrifices you have to make. The most obvious one is connected to deserted areas, mountains and valleys; the kind of landscape giving me the feeling of freedom. First of all, The Netherlands is super flat – their highest «mountain» is Mount Vaals with a height of 322.7 metres, similar to the «hillside» Fløyen (320 meters) right outside my door where I lived in Norway. Geographically, the countries are quite different, especially for someone who enjoys such rough nature every day. Except for the landscape, I did not expect too many cultural shocks moving to The Netherlands. Both societies are modern, structured and liberal, and I would probably make myself understood despite any knowledge of Dutch language. Even though there are many similarities, living on the European continent for one year made me realise those small details, which differs from Scandinavian culture.
GREETING CULTURE AND INTERACTION
When you are introduced to a Dutch person, you will greet each other with a handshake followed by three kisses on the cheeks. Don´t panic, just kiss back. They do not spent too much time wondering whether or not to greet you, say hi, or hide when they meet someone they slightly know, they simply just give each other three kisses. What a relief for a Norwegian who suffers from the constant feeling of awkwardness in undefined social relations (someone more than others of course). In Norway, the main social norms are; always find a vacant seat on the bus, avoid interaction as far as possible, do not bump into someone insofar you´re not totally wasted on a metal concert, or on a crowded day, such as on our national day. And when it happens, you´re obliged to say «oh, I´m so sorry» and give a polite smile, while looking another way. The Dutch are not too scared of such human contact. The country is too tiny and highly populated to demand such private space.
A second perspective to the Dutch lack of awkwardness is their directness. They do not bother telling you what is expected behaviour – either in the traffic, how to refer to your professor (not by screaming «Hey, Rusu» (the family name of my professor) which I tried myself but was not embraced as an alternative communication style), or rather superficial situations; a sales man who I had a chat with simply told me that «you have something between your teeth!» Maybe it is the awkwardness that makes the Norwegians too embarrassed to make such remarks. The Dutch may give you pretty harsh feedback, but it should not be perceived as a personal attack, rather as friendly honesty.
DIFFERENCES AND CONFORMITY
Another element in Dutch culture that I will miss when returning to Norway is the space the Dutch people provide for others. In Norway we talk about acceptance for those who are different. In Holland they do not. Not because they do not accept differences, but rather because they do not see it as «different». Something may only be perceived as a «difference» insofar people operate with a standard for what is «normal». As mentioned above, in certain contexts there are standards and rules for what to do and not, but in the social context the conformity is not too easy to notice. Different is normal in The Netherlands, which makes is hard to stick out. In my mind, such normalisation of a variety affects people´s mind-set, making them more tolerant and creates an including society.
The Dutch attitude towards differences has a second aspect. Because different is normal, a breach of pattern is not perceived as a treat to the society. In other words, the Scandinavian law «Janteloven» does not exist. This so-called law is a Norwegian author´s description of a social concept shared by some Scandinavian communities. In such a community there is a strong group mentality, looking down on individuals who experience a success. One person´s achievement is not met with reward, but social sanctions. Individual success is interpreted as show off, and sends a signal to the majority that you consider yourself as better than the rest = social suicide in Scandinavian context. The collective standards must be protected from personal entitlement, which in worst case may lead to self-destruction. In The Netherlands, I never felt something similar. The Dutch showed me how they share their enthusiasm on others behalf. One example is the Four Days Festival, where 40 000 participants are walking 50 km every day for four days, and even more people will cheer for them like crazy. For me, the attraction was rather to watch the audience paying tribute to someone walking. I was paralysed. My Dutch friend grabbed my hand and told me that we had to «make them feel like heroes!!!». The Dutch knows how to celebrate each other.
FREEDOM BY BIKING
To conclude, my expected limitation regarding the lack of mountains was easily solved, I found the feeling of freedom elsewhere. Because of the flat landscape, the country is excellent for biking. There is almost as many bikes as people, and they would rarely go anywhere without their bike. Even on a camping, the guy in the tent next to mine went biking to his camping neighbours asking for a tea bag. I asked why he would bring his bike these three meters, and the answer was simply «Biking is sooo GOOD». And yes, it is! In the lowland, in-between small lakes, on a path, biking with the wind in my hair, passing another smiling cyclist, greeting him «Hoi-hoi» as a Dutch man (they do not kiss when biking unfortunately) without any awkward feelings; this is how I found my freedom.
If you want to see a clip, a caricature of a Dutch community, have a look at this video. Dutch people arrange festivals for any occasion. Some of my most joyful moments I experienced at the theatre festival Oerol on an island in the North, Terschelling. Here they created a bobble, where happiness could grow, shared by the entire community. Thanks to the Dutch!