Illustrations by Adriana Komura.
The Netherlands is a country with an image built on stereotypes: Tulips, windmills, clogs, sexual freedom (the Red Light District being the quintessential example) and, of course, marijuana. After living in a small Dutch town located between Leiden and The Hague for nearly a year, I can assure you that these stereotypes fall short of accurately capturing Dutch culture. And fortunately, the country is much more interesting than those stereotypes would lead us to believe. Living there, I learned a lot about tolerance, equality and respect for diversity. It also taught me that learning Dutch is difficult — and not necessarily for the reasons you’d think. Here are some facts about the Netherlands that you may not already know:
1. The Dutch Love Soccer
It’s true, the otherwise mild-mannered Dutch go crazy for soccer. (This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to soccer fans, because their passion would be hard to ignore.) The most popular teams in the country are Ajax, from Amsterdam, and PSV Eindhoven, hailing from the city of the same name. If you’ve ever visited the country during Euro Cup, then you know that the European championships bring the capital to a standstill and completely fill the bars. The love of soccer doesn’t end with the local teams either, as it’s also common to see children playing soccer in school playgrounds wearing Barcelonan or Brazilian jerseys. In other words, if you like soccer, you’ll definitely have a topic of conversation to help strengthen your bonds with Dutch people.
2. Multiculturalism In The Heart Of Europe
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Dutch ethnic background closely resembles their German and Scandinavian neighbors. That said, the Netherlands played an important role in the Age of Discovery and conquered territories in Indonesia, Africa and the Americas — and some of these still remain under the Dutch crown today. One of the most important facts about the Netherlands is that there are sizable populations from the Netherlands Antilles, Suriname and other former colonies, not to mention recent immigrants from Turkey, Asia and the Middle East, all living together in the country today. With thousands of travelers from all over the world constantly passing through the Dutch ports, the melting pot resulting from this mixture is very diverse. And the cultural influence of this centuries-old mixture is especially obvious in Dutch cuisine, which includes Indonesian, Caribbean and Asian dishes.
3. The Royal Family Is A (Serious) Thing
For individuals living outside of Europe, you may be surprised to discover that the Netherlands is actually a parliamentary monarchy, where the Dutch royal family plays a role similar to that of the British Crown. More than that, the monarchy is a very important aspect of Dutch identity, and there are a multitude of ceremonies and holidays that are based on monarchical traditions. The most famous among them is Koningsdag (King’s Day), held on the 27th of April, on the current King’s birthday. Fortunately, it’s celebrated in spring, which means there’s almost always good weather.
Traditionally it’s a holiday where everyone wears orange (the color of the Dutch royal house) and goes out on the streets to celebrate. The canals are crowded with boats, there’s music and cultural events everywhere, and residents use the day as an opportunity to sell things they no longer need out on the street (which is a strange but charming tradition for outsiders to see). As you can imagine, this is an excellent date to visit and experience the real Netherlands.
4. The Official Name Is The Netherlands — Not Holland
“Holland” is actually an abbreviated reference to two of the Netherland’s provinces: North Holland and South Holland. Historically, these two provinces constituted the County of Holland as a part of the Holy Roman Empire, where it was a very rich and powerful territory (compared to nearby regions). These two regions also contain the three largest cities in the country: Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. Other countries that belong to the Crown, such as Curaçao and Aruba, are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Therefore, the tendency to conflate “Holland” with “the Netherlands” is quite similar to the tendency to confuse “England” with the entirety of “the United Kingdom.”
Its real (Dutch) name is Nederland. Don’t worry, though, most Dutch people won’t mind if you use Holland to refer to the entire country.
5. It’s A Country Of Engineers
Going back to the previous point, the name of the country is a very important clue to understanding one of the most significant characteristics of the Dutch identity. The region is called the Netherlands (literally translated as the “low lands”) because most of its land is situated at or below sea level. On one hand, this means fertile lands and abundant harvests, and on the other hand, it means a vulnerability to deadly flooding.
Over the centuries, the people that settled in this region became masters at developing structures to contain floods — hence the abundance of canals that zigzag through Dutch cities. These were first constructed so that flooding wouldn’t affect the crops, and the same goes for dams and dikes. (By the way, “dam” is spelled the same in Dutch, so do you understand now where the name “Amsterdam” originates from?)
Dikes (more commonly called “levees” in English) are another important Dutch institution. Their word for them is also quite similar to the English spelling: dijk. A final word that will help you better comprehend the names of streets is the ending -gracht, which means “canal.” Understanding these words and their history means recognizing the value of these lands to the Dutch people: It took a lot of resilience to make them livable and what they are today.
6. Their Real Relationship With Marijuana
Amsterdam benefits greatly from drug-related tourism. Yeah, you read that right: It financially benefits not only from marijuana-related tourism but from other legal drugs sold in Smart Shops (stores specialized in the sale of these such products). Nevertheless, this aspect of Dutch culture actually defines a very small part of the country’s identity. The use of marijuana is part of Dutch daily life in the same way that it defines other places’ cultures where it’s legal or decriminalized: For a minority, it’s a frequent activity, for some it’s an occasional indulgence, and the majority of the population doesn’t ever visit these shops.
7. Dutch People Are Nice — But Not Too Friendly
Every country has a reputation for the way it treats its visitors. According to stereotypes, Germans are very “matter-of-fact” (leaning cold, depending on who you ask), while the French have a reputation of being rude to those who speak English while on vacation. Although these ideas can be based on some real aspect of a country’s culture, most of the time they’re nothing more than generalizations.
Similarly, it would be a generalization to say that most Dutch people are very friendly, helpful and nice to tourists. I can confirm this idea to some extent because most of the places I visited left me with a positive impression and a desire to visit again someday. However, don’t expect this friendliness to quickly blossom into a beautiful and long friendship — although the initial contact with Dutch individuals is quite warm, they’re typically careful when establishing deeper bonds. A Dutch person can spend a day helping a tourist around the city, but this doesn’t mean that they want to keep in touch later.
8. It’s Difficult To Learn Dutch (Because Everyone Speaks English!)
While Dutch shares many similarities with English (as it originates from the same West Germanic language family that English does), Dutch’s closest sister language is actually German. It’s phonetically more similar to German, sharing many guttural sounds, and it has several grammatical aspects that can seem alien to English speakers. Dutch might seem difficult when you first listen to it, but in fact, it’s quite an easy language to pick up. I personally like it a lot and have even found beauty in its guttural sounds.
The biggest challenge to learning Dutch through immersion — that is, by living in the Netherlands — is that most Dutch people speak English and really good English at that. What’s worse, they don’t want you to go through the trouble of speaking Dutch. It’s widely accepted by locals that their language is not only difficult, but its practical application is very limited. Compared to other countries where it’s expected to speak the local tongue, the Dutch will be surprised if they discover you’re learning their language. Intrigued, they’ll probably ask: Waarom? (Why?)
If you want to practice Dutch, my advice is to pretend that you can’t speak any English. It really helps.
9. Amsterdam Is As Special As It’s Portrayed
The capital of the Netherlands is one of the most charming cities that I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Millions of people pass through it every day, residents and tourists, mounted on their bicycles, crammed in trams or walking around in groups through the streets. It forms a chaotic ballet that — surprisingly enough — actually works. From the simple beauty of the classic Dutch architecture, with its squeezed brick houses, to the canals and parked bicycles that cluster its roadways — there’s definitely a magic to it.
Amsterdam is the home of so many different types of people from every corner of the world. It’s a city where modernity, represented by a tolerance of many customs and an embrace of diversity, contrasts with the classic style of its 17th-century buildings and museums full of Renaissance paintings. Overall, Amsterdam is a city where many things naturally complement each other.