Why the Dutch are Different

A couple of days ago I began reading Why the Dutch are Different by Ben Coates (a Christmas present from my father – thank you very muchly). Now, I’m only on page twenty-five at this point, but I can already confirm that it is a ruddy good read. And not just because it confirms my growing suspicion that the Dutch are, in fact, those of a very different breed. Having lived in their country for just shy of eleven months I have come to understand – or at least recognise – a number of Dutch ways, if you will, and for the past year have been trying to acclimatise myself to these new phenomena, one (clog-footed) step at a time. Some of them I am adopting quite happily; others perpetually make me wince. But through reading this book I am at least gaining a better understanding of some of the reasons behind the differing behaviours I am witness to this side of the North Sea.

I am also, in a matter of just twenty-five pages, becoming acquainted with more of the Netherlands’ history than my Dutch-born and -bred partner. Last night in bed, for instance, we did not whisper sweet nothings into each other ears, nor did we enter into any kind of dirty talk (I am British, after all, and the thought alone sends a subtle injection of embarrassment through each and every vein). No. I sent my boyfriend off to sleep with a lullaby of the history and significance of the Dutch windmill; the dairy industry’s supposed impact on the height of its citizens; and how ‘the need to coordinate the construction and maintenance of flood defences’ has shaped the country’s current political landscape. It’s no wonder we both had a terrible night’s sleep.

But before I delve too deeply into Ben Coates’ – I’m sure highly considered and witty – conclusions of how the Dutch are different, I want to make some of my own. Mostly so that I can congratulate myself on those, if any, that we have both observed, but also in a bid to unveil, slightly, the realities of moving to another country, no matter how similar on the surface, and trying to become fully integrated into day-to-day life and all that is deemed ‘normal’.

First on the list of differences has got to be the language. Of course the vast majority of Dutch people, especially those living in the city, speak near-fluent English, with a better grasp of grammar than I’m sure a large proportion of the British population. (This is not a jibe at the Brits; merely praise of the Dutch and their excellent adoption of our funny old language.) Coates describes Dutch as ‘a language that sounded to an outsider like a drunk man gargling soup.’ He is pretty much spot on. Although I have to say, during my time in the country so far, I have become more used to, and even affectionate towards, the sounds that appear in Dutch dialogue, and am improving, albeit very slowly, my ability to pronounce some of them.

There are many sounds in the Dutch language that we simply don’t utilise in English, which makes learning them all the more difficult, especially as an adult. I have come to realise that it is in the manipulation of the shape and formation of your lips and tongue that produces these otherworldly noises, and I can tell you: re-training your mouth is harder than lifting any set of weights in the gym. But before I feel too down in the dumps about it I must take a moment to think about the Taiwanese guy in my Dutch class, whose native tongue is so far from the position needed to make an ‘r’ sound, let alone a rolling one, that really I don’t have much to complain about.

Aside from the problematic sounds, the Dutch also have a wonderfully troublesome habit of joining words together to create seemingly endless terms consisting of far too many double letters and far too little opportunity for breath. Meervoudigepersoonlijkheidsstoornis, for example, translates to dissociative identity disorder, formerly known asmultiple personality disorder. Split up it is much easier to understand: meervoudige(multiple); persoonlijkheids(personality); stoornis(disorder). But joined together, as one frightfully long single word, it is overwhelming and confusing and enough to make even the most promising of language students run for the hills (if they had any in this country, that is). If only the Dutch suffered from multiple word disorder instead… But perhaps it is intentional, thought up by a secret journalistic society, and meant for people just like me who often have to stick to word counts and have far too much to say. “Just bung them all together and the word count is effectively doubled!” A brilliant feat of Dutch engineering.

Now I’m afraid the time has come for me to get onto the kissing situation. On the cheek, of course – they may be different but they’re not animals. It’s three here. Right cheek to right cheek; left to left; and back once more to right against right, just in case your presence had not yet been registered. The main problem is: I’m not much of a cheek-kisser on the best of days. I’m more of a hug kinda girl. So the already uncomfortable closeness of one skin-on-skin interaction is tripled here, and compounded by the fact that I’m never one hundred per cent sure that the three kisses are going to materialise, so I hover, awkwardly, between the first and second and second and third respectively, creating an even more excruciating situation trying to avoid any unintentional lip-on-lip action.

I’m not sure that it’s the closeness, per se, of the kiss on the cheek that I find so unbearable; I think it is the sound that I find more off-putting. Hugging, after all, if very physical and very intimate; but kissing on the cheek has the unavoidable lip-smacking sound effect, which – especially with elderly male relatives – I find thoroughly nauseating. I tend to make an audible ‘mwah’ sound as my cheek touches theirs, which in itself sounds absurd but it at least masks the stomach-churning gentle ‘kissing’ sound.

On birthdays this ordeal is amplified, with a concurrent handshake added into the mix. It’s almost like rubbing your tummy and tapping your head – you have to really focus and get into the rhythm to complete the act successfully. If you were to get out of flow you would end up holding hands and smooching your father-in-law in the middle of the living room, so concentration really is key. But if all goes to plan at least the extra brainpower required distracts you from the gesture itself, which is a welcome relief.

Last but not least, the Dutch and their behaviours surrounding tea drinking are somewhat of an idiosyncrasy. Firstly, they take their tea – their English Breakfast Tea – without milk. Well. That is just sacrilegious. I mean… I have no words. It is, in my humble opinion, unacceptable in all circumstances, and I am slowly trying to change their ways but have had little to no success as of yet. (I will persevere.)

Their ritual of serving tea is also very different to that back home. On asking for a cup of tea here one is presented with a clear glass mug (no personalised or comic ceramics in this country), filled solely with hot water. One is then presented with a chest (!) of teas, with all manner of flavours to choose from, from the comfort of the sofa. One is also presented with a little dish (that might be used for olive stones, for instance) in which you are to place your used teabag once your cup is brewed to your liking. For most Dutch people the brewing period takes approximately 2.5 seconds – a couple of dunks of the teabag and they are good to go on their slightly seasoned hot water.

While English Breakfast Tea served black is against my lifestyle and life values, the little pot in which to deposit the used bag is a habit I’m more than happy to adopt. I aim for the recommended two to three minutes brewing time for my EBT, and the accompanying saucer allows me to take my brew to wherever I so wish, granting me the ability to continue with my work, or Friendsmarathon, uninterrupted, knowing that a simple lift of the string (the teabags all have strings here) will transform my cuppa from work in progress to gloriously rich hug-in-a-mug. And then it is like I’m transported home, to times gone by, when a Yorkshire Tea and Rich Tea biscuit were all one could possibly ever need. Bliss. Or should I say, gezellig.

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