I’ve always done a lot of complaining about my country. I’m from the Netherlands: a wealthy, medium-sized, fairly liberal country in Northwestern Europe. The terrain is flat, it rains about every other day, and the people who live there hold the record for being the tallest in the world. The Dutch people have a reputation for being loud, rude, and complaining all the time. Of course, our favourite topic to complain about is the weather.
I don’t feel particularly at home in the Netherlands, which is why a couple of years ago I made the decision to leave for good. Since then I’ve lived in Spain and in the US, and have been travelling around the world the rest of the time. When I recently returned to my home country for a couple of weeks, I noticed some of the things that are great about my country (compared to other countries). Things I hadn’t realized before. I figured I’d share these five things I truly love about my country with you.
1. Superb infrastructureThe Dutch infrastructure is among the best I’ve encountered in the world. No matter where you want to go, there will be a safe, well maintained route for cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. All the major roads have dedicated cycling lanes where cars are not allowed to go (and won’t!). In residential areas where the speed limit is 50 km/h, cars typically share the road with bicycles, but there will be a wide pavement with frequent wheelchair ramps. No matter what you choose as your mode of transportation, you will never be at risk in Holland.
The road infrastructure is further enhanced by an excellent public transportation system. Most small-to-medium-sized towns are served by an extensive railway network, and those that aren’t have frequent buses running. This is a country where there is absolutely no reason to own a car (unless you have some special cargo transportation needs). And that’s a good thing, as with heavy taxes on both cars and petrol, it is one of the most expensive countries in the world to be driving around.
2. Timing is everythingIn Holland we care about time. More so than probably anyone else in the world (save the Swiss and the Japanese). Whereas in Spain it would be perfectly acceptable to arrive at a meeting half an hour late, in the Netherlands you’d call ahead if you expect to be delayed by more than three minutes. More than five minutes requires an apology. Preferably you’re at the meeting point two minutes before the agreed upon time.
This obsession with time also applies to various services. A train that is scheduled to leave at 15:23, will be gone by 15:24. If you show up five minutes late for your doctor’s appointment, you’re considered a no-show and will have to make a new appointment. Next day delivery really means next day delivery. Because of the extreme precision in timing, you don’t need much of a margin in your schedule. And that means you can get more done in a day. Not for nothing the Netherlands has one of the highest levels of productivity per hour worked in the world.
3. Directness isn’t rudeWe Dutch are known for being rude. People are often shocked by the things we say out loud. Things that other cultures would wisely keep unspoken. At least once a year there’s an international scandal involving a Dutch politician or celebrity who gave offence to some ethnic or religious group.
Of course I don’t advocate being rude or insensitive to others. But one aspect of Dutch rudeness is that we also don’t take offence easily. If someone were to calls us a bunch of loud, ungodly, whoring, pot smoking penny pinchers, we don’t really mind. In our best form we’d take it as positive criticism. At worst we’d ignore it, respecting your entitlement to your own opinion.
This capacity to take harsh comments enables the Dutch to be very direct with each other. It’s easy to criticize someone or to complain about something that’s wrong. And both individuals and businesses can quickly improve their behaviour because they get such direct feedback. Dutch directness keeps us on our toes and adaptable. It’s rude only if you take it that way.
4. Clean waterWhen I was growing up we drank water from the tap. It was fresh, clean, delicious… and free. It was the most normal thing in the world for me, and I couldn’t imagine it any other way. Only when I started travelling I realized that clean tap water is far from a universal thing. Many countries have water that is polluted, contains harmful bacteria, or is at least heavily chlorinated and not very tasty.
Bottled water didn’t come up in my country until well into the nineties. There was simply no need for it, as tap water couldn’t be beat for taste, healthiness, or price. Aggressive marketing campaigns by soda corporations have given bottled water a foothold in the market, and restaurants have seized the opportunity to ask money for a product that is also available for free. Still consumption of bottled water in the Netherlands is far lower than in most European countries. I love drinking a fresh glass of tap water each time I get back home.
5. Efficient marketsSomething that never ceases to surprise me is how certain products are very expensive (or extremely cheap) in some countries. This has something to do with local availability and production costs, but often far more with the functioning of markets. Alcohol is very costly in most Islamic countries because of heavy taxation. (Mobile) Internet subscriptions costs way more in Spain than it does in Germany, because three companies have carved up the market and maintain price agreements with each other. Fresh produce is overpriced in the US as a result of the dominance and lobby of the processed foods industry.
The Netherlands has its own set of vice taxes, making some things way more expensive than they need be: cigarettes, petrol, real estate, and basically anything labour-intensive. But I guess these are things that I’m just not heavily invested in. And some other markets work remarkably efficient here, leading to low consumer prices: alcohol, most supermarket goods, financial services, connectivity, and public transportation. It always makes me happy to use these goods without gnashing my teeth over inflated prices.
Bonus: Say cheese!
If there is one type of food the Dutch are amazing at, it’s cheese. The Netherlands is known for its dairy products in general, but its cheeses are of a higher order. ‘Gouda’ has become synonymous with great cheese (even though most Gouda isn’t made in the Netherlands these days). If you’re looking for a treat, try an aged Dutch farmer’s cheese with red wine. Dutch cheese is one of the few things I really crave after spending a while abroad.
There is a lot wrong with the Netherlands. And being a true Dutchman, I will never stop complaining about that (it’s what we do). But it is also good to realize the things this little country by the North Sea does really well. And the five things above I really do love about my country!