Growing up Dutch, I never had a strong sense of my history or culture. I knew I came from West Michigan, a place drowning in Dutch people. I knew the name of the Dutch towns: Holland, Zeeland, and Vriesland. I knew the Dutch owned much of West Michigan with names like DeVos, VanAndel, Meijer, and Vanden-Burg gracing many of our public parks and buildings. And, more than anything else, I knew the reputation the Dutch had: highly religious, penny-pinching, and strict followers of rules and laws. Was it any wonder I didn’t have much sense of my heritage? How boring.
That is why my visit to the Netherlands (Amsterdam, Harleem, and Lisse to be exact) was a welcome education on what being Dutch really means. Of course, what I saw was only a snapshot, and I am sure I missed a lot, but here are my takeaways after a week of observing Dutch culture and mannerisms.
- Physically, the Dutch are tall, blonde, and slim. However, even though they are a majority white culture, I saw more interracial couples over my 7-day stay in Amsterdam than I see in a month in America. The quiet, yet palpable, feel of racism and bigotry was not as evident as it is to me in the U.S. I would be interested to hear from an American person of color to know if they sensed the same thing.
- Gender roles are quite different in the Netherlands as well. I witnessed countless men taking the primary caretaker role. Whether it was the man in the cafe who got up to tend to his fussy child while his wife continued her wine and conversation with friends, or the group of men who met at the playground with their kids for a match of soccer, or the father biking his son to school on the morning of my departure, it was evident that men play an active role in child-rearing.
- Sexuality and sensuality are celebrated in the Netherlands. I am not talking about the Red Light District, a place designed more for incoming tourists than the locals, I am talking about the day to day openness of sexuality. Kids in the museums did not giggle at the nudity present in art. They didn’t even do a double take. Parents, like the man I rented my Airbnb from, displayed erotic photography and art prominently in their homes. Girls, like his 19 year old daughter, were allowed to dress as teenagers. (My sense was that bare midriffs and exposed shoulders would not be an issue in Dutch school systems.) I would be interested in how this open sexuality affects their rates of std’s, rape, and teen pregnancy. My guess is they would be much lower than those in America.
- The Dutch are a healthy and hearty bunch. In fact, I only saw one obese person over my seven days in Amsterdam. (Whether that person was Dutch or not, I do not know.) People in the Netherlands bike to work, to school, to the store. They bike in all weather, rain and wind be damned. They do not whimper about the cold. This was best exemplified by the next door neighbor (a woman in her early 50’s) meeting neighbors every morning- all year long- to jump into the canal for an invigorating swim. They do this all while enjoying the most decadent of cakes, and cheeses, and wines.
- Children play in the streets in Amsterdam. A match of soccer was usually occurring in the lane leading to our flat each afternoon. There wasn’t a sense of danger or fear, a sense that is ever-present in America. Parents were living their lives inside while the kids ran, and biked, and played outside. No wonder the Dutch look at our issue with gun violence in astonishment and disbelief. It is so far outside the realm of their imaginations. Being in the Netherlands for 7 days allowed me to look at the U.S. through their eyes, and it was more than embarrassing, it was tragic.
- The ever-present yoke of religion that I grew up with felt non-existent in the Netherlands. I would need a much longer stay to fully examine this aspect of their culture, but the judgment, the rules, and the strict adherence to appearances and acceptable behavior was missing. People felt comfortable in their skin, comfortable to be present, to be themselves. They seemed quite happy.
I wish I would have known this version of my Dutch culture growing up. I think I would have had a much stronger affinity for, and connection to, my heritage. Alas, it seems the repressed, the bitter, and the angry Dutch took off from the Netherlands long ago and settled in the ‘land of the free.’ Given a choice, I would have happily remained among the truly free – the people of the Netherlands- with their absence of guns, their involved fathers, and their delicious, delicious cake.