What is it About The Netherlands?

Last year at this time we were wrapping up The Wellie Wishers and I thought I was moving to Dublin. For various reasons, that didn’t last, and I came back to The Netherlands, and I’ve been living here for almost exactly two years now.

There are a lot of things about America and American-ness that I didn’t really understand until I started traveling a lot. It seems to me that, when you are immersed in something, you can’t really SEE it. The more time I spent in Europe, the more deeply I understood my own American-ness, and how it shaped my thinking. I notice the same thing now with my Dutch friends; they often don’t really see their own Dutch-ness.

I notice this most frequently when I am talking with a Dutch person and describing some American thing, and they are utterly utterly baffled by it. Homelessness, violence, and ridiculous fatty gluttonous American foods are frequently greeted with the exact same reaction: “But why on earth would you do that?” Externally, we look so much the same, and the fact that Dutch people speak such excellent English disguises many of our differences, but attitudes and dispositions are just incredibly different.

I got to thinking about it a lot recently because a Dutch friend was writing a comparative piece between American and Dutch children’s entertainment, and was having trouble pinning down the difference. So she asked me, and it got my mind going. **

Superficially, there’s an atmosphere when you are out and about in The Netherlands. It’s difficult to describe exactly, and the easiest phrase to use is “Quality of Life”. That’s hard to pin down in specifics, but here are some things it’s easy to spot superficially:

Dutch Well-Being:

Visible poverty: Maybe it’s because I come from Oregon, which has a relatively high population of homeless people. In Oregon, there are 14,000 homeless people out of 4 million (as of 2017), while The Netherlands has 31,000 homeless people out of 17 million. Many of those who sleep outdoors in The Netherlands are homeless due to severe addiction and mental health issues: there is actually shelter available for them, but they have individual reasons why they are difficult to house and help. As a casual observer, while you will see people crashed out in doorways in Amsterdam from time to time, you don’t see big encampments, and you see very few people who are clearly long-term homeless (as in, wheeling around shopping carts piled high with everything they own). Despite a GDP per capita of $46k in the Netherlands vs. $49k in the US, The Netherlands has a lower unemployment rate, and a significantly lower poverty rate: 10.5% in The Netherlands vs 15.1% in the US. There is income inequality here, but it isn’t as visible and severe. That is probably also due to the fact that everyone (even rich important people) ride bicycles.

Dutch Prime Minister Cycles Over To King’s Palace For Meeting: image by @KvanOosterom on Twitter

Health: Generally speaking, you don’t see a lot of super-buff gym bodies. The Dutch stay fairly lean and develop little pot-bellies in older age, but it’s because they bike everywhere and swim or skate or hike or play football for fun, because they want to. Even surprisingly old people bike and walk around just to enjoy themselves. I don’t want to get into the health care situation in the states vs here, or the obesity rates, but the Dutch tend to just look healthier when they are out doing stuff.

Happiness: The Dutch are the 6th happiest people in the world, with the happiest children in the world.  They don’t go around grinning ear to ear (smiling is an American thing), but it means that you honestly don’t hear kids wailing in the grocery store or on the playground. I could count on one hand the number of legit public temper tantrums I’ve seen in 2 years in The Netherlands, or public fights between adults.

When you are out and about, there’s this general feeling of peace and health and well-being and prosperity. Digging a little deeper, this also has a lot to do with city management: the water is clean, the air is clean, the streets are clean, vehicles are quiet, trains come on time, roads and bike lanes are mostly free of damage and potholes. The Netherlands is one of the top-ranked countries in the world for having low-cost, healthy, widely available food.  A full-time job is 32 hours a week, with generous paid vacation, and (startling to an American) no limitations or restrictions on sick time. Many workers take Wednesdays off, since apparently Wednesdays are short school days, so they spend time with their families.

All these factors are due to something deeper, something harder to describe.

Dutch Social Responsibility:

I think it has something to do with the way the Dutch practiced Protestantism for all those centuries. They were Calvinists, and practiced religious tolerance, separation of church and state, and liberal intellectual inquiry starting in the 1500s. They believed you had to basically earn your way into heaven with humility and good works, so even as they became very wealthy, they didn’t practice consumerism; they “showed off” their prosperity with charity. So you don’t see all these expensive portraits of families standing around their fancy houses: the Golden Age portraits are the upper-class people gathered around in their charitable foundations being… charitable.

“Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse, 1664,” by Hals: image by Margareta Svensson

It seems to me that the legacy of all this activity is that the Dutch feel a deep sense of social responsibility, and seem to feel like you personally can’t have a good quality of life without educating everybody’s children, looking out for all the people in poverty, providing for the needs of everyone in old age. There is a connection between people’s personal, individual health and happiness, and the health and happiness of everyone around them. The Dutch don’t think that you can have a good quality of life with a bunch of people sick or in poverty, dirty air or water or trains, or uneducated children. The Dutch expect that their government, their businesses, and their NGOs will make money, but that they will also act in the public interest, and, by and large, they do. What’s odd to me is that this expectation seems so deep and fundamental to how the Dutch think things ought to be: they think this expectation is natural and normal and shared by everyone. It goes largely unexamined.

The other part of this is the wonderfully practical way the Dutch solve problems. They just systematically, logically, diligently go about reclaiming land from the water, or improving the food supply, or regulating the insurance industry, or whatever it is they think needs to be done. They plan intelligently and execute thoroughly. So they do urban planning with attention to how the city needs to be used by everyone, and they have a wonderful airport and ingenious infrastructure. These things are always well-designed, but designed for function and utility; they are attractive to look at, but the Dutch aren’t given to excesses of ornamentation. They want things to work well, they expect them to work well, and they believe that they can work well: that research and collaboration and intelligence renders problems, however large, solvable.

All of this stuff adds up to what I was trying to articulate to my friend about the difference between The Netherlands and the United States.

It seems to me that America has a fundamentally oppositional view of the world. That things are hard, and you don’t want to do them, but you have to do them anyway. So we talk A LOT about tension and opposition:

  • work vs. family
  • economy vs. environment
  • obligations vs. desire
  • individual vs. society
  • capitalism vs. welfare
  • good health vs. cheese fries

and so on. Americans live in a state of conflict and opposition, of competing and scarcity. Urban vs. rural, east coast vs. west, red states vs. blue states… and as America becomes even more unequal, even more confrontational and divided, these conflicts both entrench themselves deeper and emerge higher in visibility, often erupting into violence.

But the Dutch simply do not feel that way. They think that you can have money and be socially responsible, that you can have a good economy and a good environment, that you can feed and clothe and educate everybody, that if everyone is thoughtful and diligent and thinks of the greater good, then all the problems of the world can be solved.

Americans are famous for their cockeyed optimism, but the Dutch have a deeper and more fundamental kind of optimism. It’s more measured and quiet, more realistic, and ultimately more effective.

Note: In this post, I make a lot of broad and sweeping generalizations that I know aren’t true in every instance. I am also very aware that I am looking at Dutch society and culture as an outsider, and that the Dutch think of things differently. I am just documenting my thoughts and observations, and welcome different opinions.

Featured photo by Jace Grandinetti on Unsplash

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