October 5, 2006 - Netherlands- the good, the bad the ugly: Top-10 List

Trent and I's time in Maastricht, Netherlands has come to an end, but before moving to Lausanne, Switzerland we decided to reflect and share some of our unique and hopefully enlightening cultural experiences. First, it should be made clear that, in our opinion, one really cannot get the true breadth of a certain country's pros and cons until you have actually up-rooted and lived there for awhile; as visiting a country on a holiday just does not give you the same experiences of normal day-to-day items like: dealing with banks, work, shopping, government etc. We thought it might be fun to split things up into two top-10 ordered lists of: 1) things we’ve learned and enjoyed vs. 2) things we’ve not benefited from or enjoyed. Well….enjoy….

Top-10 things we’ve learned and enjoyed

1) "Gezellig" nature of South Limburg
South Limburg, and more specifically, Maastricht, is very different from the rest of the Netherlands because of the many other cultural influences that it has had over centuries due to different countries that have occupied it, such as the Romans, Spanish and the French. In fact, the Maastricht dialect uses many French words.

Living in Maastricht, we have really been able to experience what the locals call the “Burgundy lifestyle” or what we’ve dubbed the Gezellig way of life. Gezellig is the Dutch word for describing an ambient or cozy setting, such as a laid-back evening with friends at a cozy restaurant where you take the time to truly enjoy good conversations and great company – this is Maastricht. Burgundy means they take time to appreciate and enjoy good food, good wine and good company. And we see this in the rest of Limburg as well: restaurants and bars are always full, shopping streets are never empty during open hours and people are only home to sleep!

2) Strong cultural and regional identities
We have never lived in a place (either country or regional location) that had such a strong cultural and historical uniqueness as people from South Limburg, or even all of the Dutch for that matter. They are certainly a proud bunch. But regional identities in the Netherlands seem even stronger than the over-riding national culture; and most of their regional cultures are based on language. It is mind-boggling how many different languages or dialects are spoken in a country that can fit into the Canadian province of Ontario 22 times. As taken from a website:

The official language is Dutch, which is spoken by practically all inhabitants. Another official language is Frisian, which is spoken in the northern province of Fryslan. Frisian is co-official only in the province of Fryslân, although with a few restrictions. Several dialects of Low Saxon (Nedersaksisch in Dutch) are spoken in much of the north and east. To the south, the Dutch language shifts into other varieties of Low Franconian and German, which may or may not be best classified as Dutch, most notably West Flemish. But also in the south Flanders, there are roughly four dialect groups: West Flemish, East Flemish, Brabantian and Limburgish. Limburgish, which is spoken in the south-eastern province of Limburg (where Maastricht is and where they speak a dialect called Meestrecht) has been recognised as a minority language since 1997.

And, all of this exists in an area the size of south-western Ontario! We should make this clear: we are not taking about language accents here (like someone who sounds like they are from Texas), but instead unique and different languages called dialects. And, within each of these dialects there will be differing accents in each town. Dutch individuals are generally so proud of their regional dialect that if another visiting Dutch person attempts to speak dialect in the city, the native will immediately switch to proper Dutch. One can quickly see that living in the Netherlands and trying to learn any type of Dutch and/or dialect can be a difficult proposition!

So to think about it from the other way around, does Canada and the United States (at least during our four years of living in the U.S.) suffer from a lack of a national identity or specific culture? Probably so! We’ve had many Dutch people ask us: What are Canadian foods? What is a Canadian fashion style? What really is Canadian culture? – and we’ve had a tough time being specific in answering these questions. But, the social multi-cultural phenomena intrinsic to so many North American cities (see: is also exciting and intriguing in its own right. I mean, in nearly every single major North American city it really did not matter whose soccer team won the World Cup because there would be a party in the streets somewhere (maybe in Little Italy, or Greek-Town, or China Town, depending which team won). And I most certainly know there wasn’t much celebrating around the Netherlands when they were knocked out of the tournament or when Italy won the whole thing. Of course, once Canada becomes a country with nearly a 450 year “official” history like the Netherlands, we’ll probably have had time to develop some of our own cultural uniqueness other than ice hockey, Tim Horton’s and being “nice” to everyone. Hey, we're still proud Canadians!

3) Incredible city planning
It should become standard curriculum for all North America graduate students studying city planning to take a trip to any Dutch city and 1) rent a bicycle and get around town and neighboring towns at about 8:00 in the morning 2) observe major intersections at peak commuting hours 3) cycle to any city centre, park and do an afternoon of shopping and 4) repeat this whole process using a car (to see how much tougher it is). The ease of cycling around major Dutch cities, due to the infrastructure of bike lanes, along with the fact that everyone else does it, really makes cycling more enjoyable, safe and socially acceptable. It is truly amazing to see a major Dutch intersection at 8AM, as there could be upwards of 40 cyclists on their way to work, school or shopping. Unfortunately, I’m sure that if many North Americans saw someone cycling to work in a suit and tie, they would probably think they had just lost their license to drinking and driving (or something along those lines). In the Netherlands it is just standard procedure with a high level of social acceptance. Further, every train station has organized bicycle parking so many people will have two bikes to commute: one to cycle from their house to the train station, park their bike, commute by train to the town they work in, and then a second bike at the other train station to commute to work.

As well, city planning in Europe pretty much necessitates walking in the city centre to do your shopping, as much of the car parking lots are located outside the centre. Not only does this result in a more atmospheric city centre (without cars and big lanes), but also forces people to walk more (see fitness of the Dutch).

4) Tough and resilient nature of the Dutch
One way to describe the Dutch is very prideful and tough, bordering on stubborn and macho. Compared to some Canadians, the older generation of Dutch have experienced their fair of hardship during WWII, which has translated into a “hardiness” that just does not seem as prevalent in North America. Trent assisted in a study here in Maastricht where they had elderly men cycle, lift weights and get muscle biopsies. To them, taking a chunk of muscle from their leg was a joke. He quotes, “A muscle biopsy….that’s nothing. I had to eat poppies during the war for food!” Trent also heard stories of how it was a big-deal during the war to get an orange for Christmas (as they were very expensive and hard to come by), and then people would eat the entire thing, peel included! Seeing elderly Dutch people cycle uphill, into a strong headwind in the rain is pretty normal around Maastricht. In fact, one time we saw a man that looked to be about 85 years old cycle up. And after parking his bike, proceeded to take his cane off the back of his bike to assist himself in walking to the grocery store!

5) Fitness level
The Dutch are some of the fittest people we know, and they don’t even realize it! They don’t spend hours at the gym working out, many probably don’t even set foot in a fitness club or touch any type of fitness equipment, but that’s the best part. Fitness is something that’s a part of their daily lives and fully integrated into their lifestyle. Dutch people bike everywhere: to work, to get groceries, to soccer practice and even to the city centre for an evening out. Throughout the country of Netherlands, I’d be willing to bet that there are more kilometers of red bike paths than there are actual roads, and this isn’t because there are a lack of roads! Plus, the fact that the bike lanes have their own stop lights and are interlinked everywhere makes it very easy to do. Nevertheless, there are people who drive to work or into the city centre, but it would still not be uncommon for these people to walk at least a kilometer from their parking spot to get to where they are going (this is usually either because that is the closest spot or they are too cheap to pay for a closer spot!).
As well, Dutch people love being outside and enjoying nature so you will often see the trails in the forest, full of walkers – many with Nordic walking sticks!

6) Food
Our personal opinion is that Europeans as a whole truly enjoy food more than North Americans…BUT it is also likely true that they don’t necessarily enjoy the quantity of food as people in N.A. Instead, real ingredients are cherished and preservatives are uncommon (food goes bad much faster). But, portion sizes are much smaller. Many people in Maastricht do a lot of their grocery shopping at the weekly farmer’s market because it is cheap, fresh and local. This means no preservatives and thus a healthier way of eating. Meanwhile, when you do go to the grocery store, you will find it difficult to buy fat-free, sugar free items – which is why portion control is important, as is the active lifestyle. And, which also means you can enjoy flavour-rich foods that are fully-natural and completely enjoyable.

7) Care for the environment
The Dutch are very environmentally-conscious: most people either bike or take public transportation such as buses or trains (which are electric) and their recycling system is complex enough to require a manual! It is required that you separate all your recycling from your garbage and bring it to a recycling station at different spots in the city, which then requires further separation. Then, similar to many Canadian cities, you must purchase special garbage bags worth one euro each to use for waste. In addition, most people bring their own re-usable grocery bags to do their shopping because if you don’t, you have to pay approximately 25 euro cents for a bag in the store – again, to avoid paying extra, most people bring their own bags!

8) The “common sense” approach to public safety, “PC”, discrimination, and law-suits
Honestly, the Dutch have it right in this regard, and North American’s tend to be on the ridiculous end of the axis. Hearing about a lawsuit in North America of the person who sued McDonald’s for having their own hot coffee spilled on themselves or being obese from eating too much fast food is just crazy. The people here have a more common sense approach; basically, if you hurt or kill yourself, in most instances it is your own fault. And, in this regard, there tend to be less guard rails, more wicked spiral stair cases and more treacherous, but interesting, public architecture. Law-suits also seem much less common.

9) Dutch forthrightness

Dutch also tend to be blunt and straight to the point, compared to the more mild mannered Canadians. This bluntness is also present whether you have known the person for years, or have just met. They will pretty much “shoot from the hip” and say it the way they see it. But the Dutch still adhere to a respectful code of etiquette that dictates that: you always greet a women with three kisses and a man with handshake both when arriving and leaving, you always offer a coffee and a biscuit (it not proper to just offer the coffee), and when invited over to someone’s house you generally bring flowers or wine. As well, the Dutch use a lot of consistent eye contact when speaking, and if you do not give eye contact back it is considered rude or thought that you are lying. Some may see being blunt as a negative characteristic, but generally we think it is good. You always know where you stand with people, and communication tends to be more open and to the point- it just takes a little getting used to. For example, probably 99% of people in Canada when asked, “Hey, how are you doing?” Will answer with either “fine or good”, regardless of how they are really doing. If you ask a Dutchman how they are doing, they very well might straight-up reply, “Well, it’s rained for two days, my roof is leaking, and my dog ran away…so, down-right crappy!”

10) Pride in style
Going out in the city centre of Maastricht is liking going to a fashion show: if you dare to wear anything that remotely resembles your pajamas or workout clothes you will get many looks, especially if, God forbid, you wearing running shoes! In fact, you would actually stand out more than the guy next to you with bright green jeans, a hot pink golf shirt with a matching velvet pink blazer, plaid pink scarf and shiny platinum leather shoes…oh and of course you can’t forget the matching leather man purse! I can’t even go to the farmer’s market without dressing somewhat fashionable – it was at first an extreme shock compared to Sarnia, Madison or Guelph, which are more relaxed. But, at the same time we have grown to appreciate “most” of the Dutch people's sense of style, because it is generally quite chic (the above description was a bit extreme of course!). We have heard that Dutch women spend a considerable amount of money on clothes and this comes to no surprise: they always have shoes that match their outfits and outfits that fit with the most up-to-date styles.

Top-5(couldn't think of 10) things we’ve not benefited from or enjoyed

1)Lack of basic public and hospitality services
Without a doubt this has been the most frustrating part of living in the Netherlands, as we are a spoiled lot in North America. One needs to be prepared to stand in more line-ups, have more problems with trying to find people to help and more issues with basic services like phone, hydro and internet. In fact, most services have help-phone numbers to call (such as the telephone company), that start off with a whole series of options--that are all in Dutch of course (even the option to choose English in many cases!). After punching some random numbers (because you don’t understand), you’ll then be put on hold for upwards of 20-30 mins while paying 30 cents per minute while on hold! Then, when you finally do reach a human it’s rare that you have the right person to fix your problem and they refuse to transfer you and you start all over again. As well, we still do not understand why it takes waiters so long to come by your table when your beer is empty. It is common knowledge that one of the biggest mark-ups and income makers for any restaurant business is alcohol sales; so why one needs to wave, jump up and down and start smoke signals just to get the attention of waiter to get another beer is something we just don’t understand.

2) Dutch people's love of extremely excessive administration, meetings, appointments and scheduling
The Dutch seem to love having meetings, with the basic premise that everyone should get a say. Although this is noble in concept, it seems to be taken to the extreme and tends to bog down the entire government and university systems. So, for example, I wanted to apply for a SOFI number (which is the equivalent to a Social Insurance or Security Security number) so I could potentially work. And since Trent also has a Dutch passport, in principle, this was not going to be a problem; but the process was pretty unbelievable and it took about a year. First, we had to make an appointment at city hall, which was three weeks after our arrival, to apply and fill out paper work to live in Maastricht. (Note- For foreigners, you always have to have an appointment to go to city hall. But, you can only make appointments by calling between 12 and 4PM, but not on Fridays!). But then, for some reason, they could only fill out the paper work for Trent on the first day. I had to come in on my own on another day to fill out paperwork, and finally a third day of paperwork to prove we were married (again, having to make appointments each time and despite having the Dutch consulate in Toronto having stamped all of our official Canadian government documents already!).

Then, I had to go back into city hall to get a temporary residency sticker on my passport (good for only six months and costing 835 euro!). During those six-months the Dutch government had to go over all of our paperwork and check that 1) Trent is really Dutch and 2) we’re really married and 3) that I wasn’t going to be a drain on the Dutch society. Then they sent a letter approving Trent for an official residency permit, so I had to make another appointment at city hall and another wait for an opening time. I finally got my residence card (some seven months after arrival in the Netherlands). So now, finally, I could apply to get a SOFI number- but that office was located a 30 min train ride away. And this entire process repeated itself until, ironically enough; I finally got my SOFI number just last month- just in time for moving to Switzerland!

3) Paperwork, paperwork and more paperwork
The Netherlands has very strict privacy laws when it comes to having contracts with phone companies or other services. Thus, it is required that you must do everything in written, letter form, through snail mail! So, you can image the paperwork that comes through just a regular person's house. Before moving to Switzerland, I wanted to cancel our phone and internet -- well, it's a good thing I started the process a couple weeks early because it was such a hassle! In Canada, you can just do it over the phone. But, with the long waits on the phone in Netherlands, I decided to go right into the store, assuming they could just cancel my account -- this is where I signed up so it seemed like a logical assumption...wrong! The people in the store cannot access our account on their computers so they suggested I call. When I called from home it was all in Dutch so I ended up going back into the store to have them call for me. When I finally got through, they told me I need to write a letter to cancel my account and then I'll get a letter confirming they received my letter, then later I'll get another letter confirming the date of the cancellation -- ridiculous!

4) Reduced “personal space”
Maybe it is just Maastricht, although I’m sure it’s not, but going shopping in the city on a beautifully sunny Saturday afternoon can be tougher than negotiating the first turn of a 200 person cross-country race. In other words- hectic and crazy! Since growing up and being surrounded by “polite” Canadians, we are at an extreme disadvantage – we had to learn very quickly that you have to be a little more aggressive in Holland if you want to get anything done! First, when looking at clothes, for example, often other women will cut right in front of you to look at a sale – no “excuse me” or any comment. They also have no concept of a line, so if you are not aggressive, you will wait forever!

5) Smoking in public
Smoking in public certainly outlines the sometimes paradoxical nature of the Dutch: A society of relatively lean and fit people all riding their bikes everywhere while puffing away on a cigarette and talking on their mobile phone! Well, most certainly not everyone smokes cigarettes, but we would say that a much higher percentage of Dutch (and most European countries) do smoke than compared to Canada. The least enjoyable thing for us was that people are still allowed to puff away at restaurants, pubs and bars; although supposedly this is going to be banned by this upcoming New Year.

We should make it clear: living in Maastricht was a very positive experience that we enjoyed, which is why this is only a top-5 list (and more a humorous one at that). And, to be honest, these five items really are not that bad at all when compared to the outstanding and positive cultural things on our top-10 list above. We are most certainly going to miss all of the great people and outstanding Romanesque Maastricht city centre, coupled with the beautiful rolling countryside of South Limburg. We would recommend Maastricht and surrounding area as a great place to visit to anyone. We will definitely be back to visit in the future.
























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