With this latest installment in my series of posts about Appsterdam, I’d like to talk a bit about the weather, and let that lead us into a bit of conversation about Dutch culture and life in the world’s most livable city. I know a lot of you are eager to hear concrete details around things like immigration. We’ll talk more about that next time. Remember: you get three months without a visa. Come for the summer and we’ll have plenty of time to talk when you want to stay.
You may have heard that the weather in Amsterdam is terrible, especially if you’ve been speaking to the Dutch. Having spent quite a bit of time here, I can assure you the climate here is quite nice—this from a guy who grew up in Honolulu. The winter, like the cost of living, is inline with Seattle, but the rest of the year is actually nicer. Plus you have the Europe bonus: if the clouds get you down, you can take a train to nicer weather.
The source of this contradiction lies in Dutch culture. Bitching about the weather is just how one starts a conversation here. It’s always too hot, too cold, too wet, or too windy. The weather is always nicer somewhere else. The prices here aren’t as good as they used to be, and the food here is nothing compared to Paris, and the people, don’t even get me started.
This is what I term the Dutch modesty. The Netherlands has a cultural modesty that rivals Japan. This is important to recognize, because it’s easy for Americans especially to run into this. For example, when you’re speaking at a conference here, you don’t talk about accomplishments. In the States, it’s typical to spend the first five minutes of your talk explaining who you are and what qualifies you to be on stage. In American culture, this is humble, as it doesn’t assume people know who you are, and polite, as you’ve divulged something about yourself.
In the Netherlands, the opposite is true. An American who gets up on stage and starts with a five-minute summary of their résumé comes across as a braggart. Who is this arrogant SOB who feels the need to stand up here and tell us who he is and why we should listen to him? The nerve! I’ve been at conferences where very humble speakers have come off as complete assholes because of this cultural difference.
So when you speak to the Dutch about their homeland, about their culture, their language, and especially their weather, they will spin you great yarns of their inferiority. Still, there are hints of pride at the past glories of the Golden Age. You pick it up around the edges of a conversation. If you really want to force it out, start expounding on the virtues of Germany.
The real tension between the Netherlands and Germany is akin to the tension between the United States and Canada. They have stereotypes of the other as tourists, and sporting matches bring it out more than anything. The one difference is, again, on the edges. When you talk to the Dutch about the subject of Germany, no specific person mind you, but as a concept, you will sometimes hear a hint of bitterness trailing off in something like, “which doesn’t change the fact that they starved us.”
The last battles of World War 2 were fought in the Netherlands. The failure of the Allied offensive “Market Garden” left the Nazi-occupied country in a half liberated state. The efforts of the Dutch resistance, and obvious joy in the hearts of the liberated, agitated the Germans, and they punished harshly those still within their grasp. German-inflicted privation killed 18,000 Dutch citizens over the last winter of the waning war.
To Americans, the last great war is an abstract idea, the subject of documentaries and video games. To Europeans, it’s recent history. May 5th is celebrated in the Netherlands as Liberation Day, preceded the night before by a national ceremony remembering the dead. The entire country observes a two-minute silence at 8 p.m., with bars and restaurants everywhere sometimes bringing in projection equipment to show the broadcast of the ceremony from the national monument in the middle of downtown Amsterdam.
This all happens less than a week after Queen’s Day, which is the Dutch equivalent of Presidents’ Day, except that the party is more like New Year’s Eve, with everyone in the country taking to the streets the night before for 24-hours of revelry. Sales tax is suspended for the day, leading to free markets springing up on every inch of available pavement.
In the days leading up to Queen’s Day, people call dibs on their piece of the pie by drawing a border in tape, usually accompanied by the word BEZET, meaning “reserved,” or more accurately, “occupied.” This is such a cultural phenomenon that Heineken, the Budweiser of Holland, riffs on it in its advertisements.
What I love about Queen’s Day is not that it’s the world’s largest birthday party, but the birthday wish that it fulfills. The point of Queen’s Day is togetherness. It is the one day of the year when we set aside our differences and literally take to the streets to meet our neighbors, embrace our differences, and party our asses off with strangers—all while dressed in bright orange.
Burning Man, eat your heart out.