The second month of our three away from home in Berlin is almost at an end, and having spent the last three weeks housesitting in the Netherlands, I’ve realised there are several stereotypes and preconceptions I had about this country, some of which have been proved wrong, and others which seem to be reasonably close to the truth.
The Netherlands has so many beautiful places to visit and it's a country which I’ve only visited twice before (once when I was 16 for a school art trip, and once with Zab to visit his family here just before we went to South America) and didn’t really know that well.
In the last three weeks, I’ve learnt some interesting things about this country. Here are a few of the most salient observations.
There are bikes everywhere
It may be a cliché, but it's true: really everyone cycles in the Netherlands. It doesn’t matter how old or young someone is, if they live in the Netherlands they will probably have a bike (or two, or three) and use it at least once a day. Bike rules on the roads and bike paths are generally followed, albeit loosely, but the result to an outsider is the illusion of chaos among cyclists, pedestrians and vehicles. People know what they’re doing, and they are careful, but they expect everyone else to know how to use the roads correctly and respectfully too.
What has surprised me, though, is that while there are bike paths everywhere (and really, I mean everywhere), there are sometimes no footpaths for pedestrians. This means you have to share the way with cyclists, which can be a little intimidating and confusing.
Also, since people have so many bikes and they live very close together, bikes take up a lot of space on the pavements in residential areas meaning as a pedestrian, you’re often having to weave your way through clutches of bikes crowding the way.
The architecture is not all old churches and windmills
While maintaining its heritage and traditional architecture proudly, the Netherlands is also an extremely modern country. While there are of course still working windmills and many old churches in the Netherlands, there are also many wonderful examples of modern architecture. In the towns we have visited (mostly in the province of South Holland) we immediately noticed that Dutch architects clearly have a good grasp on the concept of incorporating modern architecture with the old, in such a way that the two styles don't clash but enhance each other.
Then there is of course the example of Rotterdam, the country's second largest city, which is almost entirely new since it was flattened during the Second World War. Some people might complain that it's grey and ugly, but on a bright sunny day, the city gleams and you could easily be mistaken for thinking you were in the New World, rather than northern Europe.
Marijuana is not everywhere
When people think of countries which have legalised the possession and/or sale of marijuana, probably the first one that comes to mind is the Netherlands. While there are of course coffeeshops (not to be confused with cafés!) in most towns where you can legally buy marijuana for personal use, they are no more ubiquitous than say, post offices or photocopy shops.
Certainly there is no selling of such drugs on the streets like in Lisbon. This means that, yes, of course you can find marijuana for sale if that’s what you’re looking for, but it’s not in your face and will be in no way thrust upon you.
Everyone speaks English
As a way of encouraging reluctant people to travel to new destinations, you’ll often hear it said that “everyone speaks English there”. Often it’s the case that people interacting with tourists and working in the travel industry will speak some English in most parts of Europe and South East Asia for example, but it’s rarely the case that everyone in those places can speak English. In the Netherlands, however, it really is everyone.
Despite all the travelling I’ve done, I’m still not fully comfortable walking up to someone in a non English speaking country and speaking to them in English straight away. Usually I ask if they can speak English, or at the very least, excuse myself for not speaking their language. In the Netherlands, however, I’ve found that both of these tactics can cause confusion, and indeed sometimes, offence for implying that they might not be able to speak English, because, of course they can!
The people are really tall
Did you know, the average Dutch adult woman is 171cm tall? And I repeat: average! For men it’s 186cm. That’s really bloody tall! Being 174cm myself, I definitely feel I’m on the short side here in the Netherlands. Zab at 183cm approaches the average, but still says he finds it strange to be among the shorter people walking down the street.
Visual privacy isn’t something people worry about
Walking through a residential area where people live in houses rather than apartments (as they mostly do in Delft where we’re housesitting) you can easily see how people live without really trying. And I mean really see, as most people don’t bother to put up blinds or net curtains to keep the glances of passersby out of their living rooms.
This paired with the fact that most residences seem to be built with enormous windows (presumably to let in the most natural light possible since the Netherlands, like any other north European country, can be very dark in winter) means that walking down the street is kind of like walking through an art gallery at high speed: you get quick glimpses of scenes from people’s lives, framed by their huge windows.
Have you been to the Netherlands? What things surprised you about this country?