The Dutch are an enigmatic race. On the one hand conservative to a fault, on the other broad-minded, tolerant and objective. A confusing mix for the outsider – you think you have the culture sussed then something goes and blows your preconceptions away.
One thing everyone thinks they know about the Dutch is their perceived tolerance to drugs and sex. Not necessarily.
Every Dutch person I’ve spoken to on the subject has had the same response – a slight puckering of the forehead, a considered intake of breath and a resigned explanation of the drug and brothel policy. Happy with the situation? Not entirely. So why the apparent tolerance if they don’t agree with it?
The Dutch are a pragmatic nation. The best definition of pragmatic I’ve found which epitomises their attitude is, ‘ …solving problems in a realistic way which suits the present conditions rather than obeying fixed theories, ideas or rules’ (Cambridge Dictionary – the OED definition was too convoluted on this occasion).
Along with the official attitude to drug use, the Netherlands consistently has one of the lowest teen pregnancy/ abortion rates in the world, and, according to UNICEF, Dutch children are the happiest in Europe and rank highly when rated against the rest of the world.
Hmm, food for thought then, especially when the drinking age is sixteen for wine and beer, eighteen for spirits. And the legal age for sex, sixteen.
No wonder just-arrived-American–moms-of-teens turn pale in horror when they are informed, gently, of what their teens are legally allowed to do. It’s only with time, acclimatisation and observation they appreciate the country is not overrun with drunk, high, sex-crazed teens round every corner. Generally they are responsible, mature and very well-adjusted but it does make mom’s house rules a bit harder to enforce.
These open attitudes aren’t confined to one age group either as both Missy and I have discovered.
I often run into a Dutch neighbour while we’re both dog walking and we walk and talk together. P’s English is excellent, not surprising as she worked in New York for ten years. When I first met her I apologised haltingly for my limited, spoken Dutch. She laughed brightly, said it was a waste of time as all the Dutch were such excellent linguists and we chatted on the subject for a while. She is also fluent in French and Italian.
Half-way through our chat she suddenly paused, turned to me and said, ‘You know, if you’re serious about learning the language the best way to learn is to take a Dutch lover’.
I was about to roar with delight at her sense of humour, when fortunately I turned to her, looked at her face and realised she was totally serious. Seeing my expression she shrugged her shoulders in that almost French way, smiled, and replied in her flawless English, ‘How do you think I’m so good at languages?’
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. In my world this is not something you would drop into the conversation on a first meeting. We think P and her husband have been through a troubled time of late and it did cross my mind she’s perhaps been learning a new language. Her husband was seen hurling items of her clothing from a window during a rather heated row.
I put P’s comments down to their being her personal philosophy on linguistics until the other week, when our daughter, Missy, arrived home from work, agitated, with a slightly manic expression in her eyes.
‘I don’t believe it mom, I really don’t believe it!’ She’s only been here a month and is still in the throes of major culture shock. She spent the majority of her life growing up in the American South, but even the perceived lurid sexuality of New Orleans is pretty parochial compared to the Netherlands.
It seems after strolling to Albert Hein for a sandwich in her lunch hour, she got into conversation with an elderly woman in the check-out line. ‘Mom, she was at least 80, I’m not kidding.’
It seems the delightful woman was discussing my daughter’s lack of spoken Dutch – all in English of course. Missy explained with an easy intimacy gained from having grown up in the Deep South, that she’d only been here for a few weeks but was already picking up a few words and wasn’t as intimidated as she had been when she first arrived.
The old woman smiled sagely, nodded her head and said, ‘The fastest way to learn the language, my dear, is to take a Dutch lover.’
Missy is still in total shock – such a public exchange of this nature with a total stranger, particularly one over the age of 30, is completely alien to our southern belle and the conservative background she grew up in. Apparently, the visual of this elderly Grande dame having such thoughts at her advanced age was just too gross for Missy to compute.
I had to smile.
Just goes to show, ‘ …solving problems in a realistic way which suits the present conditions’ can have its upside and has given me a whole new respect for Dutch womanhood.