Monday, November 20, 2017

Things I love about the Nevereverlands

Some time back I wrote a blog about aspects of living in the Netherlands that I like. When the weather is as gloomy and 'Novemberish' as it is now, it really helps to look on the bright side of life here so I thought it was time to write another 'things I love' post to stop myself from pining for the sunshine in my former South African home.

I've travelled through much of this country, although admittedly it's not very big and I should really have seen more than I have, but mostly it's the east that has escaped my attention. That said, and even taking into account the parts I've missed, there really aren't many hills here at all. There are a few humpy parts in the Veluwe, north of Arnhem, and a few more in Limburg and the odd 'wal' or two (ridge of high ground), but apart from these, the country is flatter than the proverbial washboard. Many people don't like this, and I'll admit there are times I would love to stand on a hilltop and enjoy looking out over undulating scenery, but there are advantages to these flatlands.

Lie on your stomach and see into next week
Firstly, it makes driving a breeze. Our country getaway is in Zeeuws Vlaanderen and the drive down from Rotterdam every week is only ever made difficult by the volume of traffic on the roads during the first part of the journey – urban centres are always hell on wheels. The rest of it I could do (and am sometimes at risk of doing) in my sleep. The roads are wide and straight and you can see forever. Even the country lanes are unencumbered by bends and high hedges. They might be narrow, but as we used to say in South Africa, you can lie on your stomach and see into next week; all right, I agree Holland is smaller so perhaps the next half hour is closer to the truth, but even so, visibility is no problem. Still better, any approaching cars will be seen minutes before they reach you too.

I can hear some of you saying already that this must be boring, but I don't find it so. As I've mentioned before, the skyscapes here are wonderful and the light is often pure magic. The sun on the side of a  solitary white-painted cottage in the distance can stand out as a beacon against the gold spread of a wide cornfield and the vast expanse of the water-washed blue sky. Everything is outlined with a sharp pen, even the furrows in the fields. It can be stunning.

High hedges beside the narrow and winding lanes in England, for instance, often mean you see nothing of the beautiful scenery behind them. Hills there might be, but you can also miss half the beauty by having to concentrate on finding a safe place to pass the tractor in front of you going at half a mile an hour. With all those bends and hedges, you can hardly see more than a short distance ahead. There are rarely such problems in the Netherlands although I must admit the tractor drivers here think they are driving go-carts instead of lumbering agricultural machinery. As a result they pound along nearly as fast as anyone else on the road unless they're pulling a trailer load of hay or spuds, but that's another matter.


What's next then? Well, there's the beautiful old Dutch towns of which there are many. Some of my favourites are Dordrecht, Zierikzee (see last week's post), Deventer and Middelburg, all lovely places criss-crossed with harbours and old boats. Those that have their old centres still intact are just a picture of traditional Dutch culture. Most of these have cobbled streets, and quaint narrow gabled houses with outsize windows. Often they have flowers in boxes outside, hollyhocks growing up through the paving cracks and bicycles leaning haphazardly against walls and doorways. There is a kind of ramshackle but elegant charm about all these towns and I love them. There is also much more trust than I have ever experienced anywhere else.

Just the other day, Koos and I were walking through Leiden (which is quite a large city) and someone had put a small table outside their front door with pots of jam in a box. There was a small notice politely asking takers to put the money in the tin provided. Now in the country, I imagine that is quite common in most European countries, but in a large, cosmopolitan town? I think that's pretty rare.

An elegant Dutch townhouse in Goes

Lastly (for this time), let's not forget the people themselves. The Dutch are a puzzle to many other Europeans. Their direct way of speaking can seem blunt and insensitive for those not inured to it as I am now. Unexpected verbal side swipes that catch you off guard can seem to be a uniquely Dutch art. The point is, there is no malice intended – not that I'm aware of anyway. It's just being honest as far as they are concerned. I remember an occasion when I was grumbling to a friend about the amount of work I had to do to prepare and mark assignments for my classes. She looked at me and said with painful candour, "Well, you chose to do it."  I winced, having hoped for just a hint of empathy. She was right, of course, and we laughed about it later on.

It's just one side of the sort of practical no-nonsense approach to life that has the Prime Minister cycling across the Hague for a meeting with the king. Why waste time, money and energy driving a fancy car when you can nip through the city on a bike?

A country farmhouse in North Holland
Nevertheless, most of my Dutch friends would give you the shirt of their backs if you needed it; they are incredibly generous people. Their easy self-confidence and friendly informal familiarity might take some getting used to, but I've realised now how much I've grown to appreciate it and when I arrive back in the Netherlands after being away for a while, I feel a sense of relief. When the immigration officials at the airports greet me with a joke and a smile, I can't help feeling "here I am, home again".

There are plenty of other things to appreciate about the Netherlands too: the inspiring way they look to the future in terms of energy production, agriculture and water management; the constant attempts to find solutions and compromise in social and political matters; the intrinsic culture of 'anything goes as long as you behave sensibly'. The obsession with health and safety is thankfully not something the Dutch have taken on board and although there are problems here just as there are everywhere else, my feeling is that compared with other countries, this is still an essentially good and wholesome place to live.

I've just finished reading Ben Coates' very good Why the Dutch Are Different, so I'll finish with a quote from the last chapter of the book as it sort of sums things up. The Dutch are "happier than Britain, more efficient than France, more tolerant than America, more worldly than Norway, more modern than Belgium and more fun than Germany." All in all, it can't be bad, can it?

12 comments:

  1. What a lovely inspirational post Val, you bring everything to life with you vibrant and beautiful writing. I feel like I have just had a holiday in the Netherlands.
    Thank you very much for sharing the joy in your life, have a happy winter

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    1. Oh thank you, Angela! That's a really lovely thing to say! I am so grateful!

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  2. I enjoyed reading this post very much Val, learning more about the Netherlands. The flat landscape is something I would love to see, you make it sound so beautiful. I had not heard about the Dutch being so forthright in conversation, so interesting. The area where I grew up had quite a number of Dutch immigrants and I remember learning bits of the language at school, probably the first people from overseas I ever met!

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    1. Thank you, Patricia. The Netherlands is very beautiful. You just have to stop looking for hills and see the beauty that's here. There's plenty too :) And Dutch people are incredibly kind – just what you might call plain spoken...haha. It's fine when you get used to it and I think I've become more direct myself as a result!

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  3. Lovely, Val. Especially the part about the scenery being outlined in black pen. Makes it so easy to visualize the beauty. And the directness of the Dutch people saves a lot of time. "Beating around the bush" is a waste of time! (Steph)

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    1. You're right, Steph! It does save time, but it takes some getting used to. I'm glad I have!

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  4. I've just finished reading 'The Year of Living Danishly' - which looks at all aspects of life there. No idea if it's like the Netherlands - but they seem to survive winter by lighting candles and wearing big jumpers.
    And as for skies - I know exactly what you mean. Oh those huge African skies ...

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    1. That sounds like a book I'd enjoy, Jo. I shall investigate. And yes, African skies...sigh!

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  5. We always joked that the highest point in the Netherlands was the freeway (motorway) overpasses. When we got down to Maastricht after nearly two summers in the north we actually took a picture that we captioned "Hills!".
    We also agree with your observations about the "forthrightness" of the Dutch. Some would call it a touch of arrogance. They did create much of their country out of the ocean floor, after all. And who but God (and the Dutch) would think to hold back the sea!

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    1. Yes, that old saying 'God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands'. They have much to be proud of, don't they? Thank you so much for your comment, Don and Cathy Jo. I so hope we see you again next year!

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  6. Such lovely pictures! You bring it all to life! You are lucky, as you say.

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    1. Thank you, CarolStar! I have thought about all this a lot and have decided where I'm best off. Here!

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