Dutch efficiency, Dutch helpfulness and other Dutch musings

Some months ago, a colleague of mine leant me a reasonably well-known book called the Undutchables – about, of course, the Dutch.

To be honest, I haven’t got very far in the book yet – I still have to finish Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Thereux, Africa by Richard Dowden, Into Africa by Martin Dugard and Putin’s Russia by Anna Politkovskaya – before I get round to this particular number.

Nonetheless, I did find the time to have a quick flick through it – and found it, I’m afraid, uncomfortably negative. These guys just seemed to want to poke fun at the Dutch, without seeing any of their good points. Piss-taking is, I admit, hard to do well in a cultural book. It should, of course, be funny without being unkind. Well, the Undutchables, I have found, is neither particularly funny nor particularly kind. The real problem with the book is that the authors, who lived in The Netherlands for some time, don’t seem to particularly like the Dutch. And you can’t write a cultural book, even one poking fun at a culture, if you don’t feel some affiliations with your subjects.

Now let me throw in a couple of my own observations about the Dutch, which I have been dwelling upon over the past few days.

On Friday, whilst Violetta was working, I took a train up to Amsterdam to witness first-hand the drunken insanity that is Queen’s Day. In celebrating the Queen’s official birthday, the British don’t even come close to the irreverant drunkeness that fills the streets of the Netherlands cities.

I had already experienced something of Queen’s Day in The Hague, but wanted also to see what it was like in Amsterdam, having been told it was much bigger.

This was a mistake. It took me over two-and-a-half hours to get there, and the same again to get back. The journey should have usually taken no more than an hour.

On the way back, a Dutch lady informed me that the problem was that, in the morning, people had become impatient with the slowness of the train and jumped out before the train pulled into the station. The response from the transport authorities? To close Amsterdam Central – creating all sorts of mayhem.

When one thinks of British trains, the words “inefficient” and “rip-off” are likely to tumble from one’s lips. Not so when one thinks of Dutch trains, but I’m wondering if this Dutch efficiency only works when things are running normally. The moment something out-of-the-ordinary happens, everything grounds to a halt.

This happened, also, when we had heavy snow in December and we ended up stranded in the middle of nowhere. Chaos ensued. Just like my journey travelling up to Amsterdam, with no one divulging any information.

Whilst I was trudging through the waterlogged streets of Amsterdam, and sorely wishing I was back in The Hague, a police car and an ambulence passed me (slowly – since there were many drunken merry-makers in their way).

A little further on, I saw a man moaning on the ground. By this time the police and ambulence had arrived and were tending to him. By his side was a blood-stained wad of cloth. He had only just been stabbed. This is the third time I have seen the aftermath of a stabbing in Amsterdam. Whilst the stabbings have no doubt drug-related, I can’t help but think that they reflect Amsterdam’s seedier side, which tourists often do not get to see.

Fast-forward to Saturday.

We decided to go canoeing with a group of around fifty others (organised tour). We canoed for a good few hours, going much further than most of the rest of the group. As we were approaching the homeward stretch, disaster struck, and a ship passing us too close managed to capsize our vessel.

We thought we’d be okay, but no. Clinging on to the upturned boat, we realised it was starting to sink, and within moments it had disappeared to a watery grave, leaving us shocked and floundering in the middle of the river.

Luckily, some other canoeists came to our rescue. They were from Italy, Egypt and Belgium.

As we were hauled ashore, we were both cursing under our breath the undoubtedly Dutch seaman that had thoughtlessly capsized us and then not bothered to stop.

On the opposite bank, two young lads were parking a speedboat, so the Belgian canoeist went over to see if they could give us a short ride down the river, back to our camp.

They flatly said no, something that astonished me, since we were in such a desperate situation. This wasn’t a big city. This was the middle of the country-side – where everyone should be smiling, friendly and dishing out free tulips. Not walking on by when someone needs some help.

Generalisations, of course, are an exceedingly dangerous thing. But they can also be useful, in giving some idea of what a country is like to live in – and what the people are like. Of course, many Dutch are terrific people. But, once too often, we have been affronted by unsmiling, officious or unfriendly people.

And this is a real shame, because when I came to live in the Netherlands I had high hopes that the enchanting little villages one passes when travelling by train would be a reflection of the carefree and cheerful lives that the Dutch lead.

I guess they are not.

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