Following on from a Dutch crime author, I’d like to draw your attention to this book, for it is a gem. The fact that you find so many copies in the book shops at Schipol airport is testimony to its authenticity and accuracy. Indeed, some say that for those arriving from abroad to work in the Netherlands, their employers either buy it for them or recommend they buy it. (And given one aspect of Dutch culture, I suspect the latter is more prevalent.)
Thus there is a recommendation on one level, but it’s also useful if visiting the country and also if you’re reading Dutch authors in translation. Why? Because the portrayal of the culture in the fiction will be absorbed in a more effective way. What’s in the book? Well, it’s pretty comprehensive at 305 pages, 21 chapters and 3 appendices. The chapters include the following as subject matter:
- Public Transport – how to work out the strippenzones; how the trains work; what to do and how to behave when on the train; how to achieve and maintain an upgrade on a flight (asking for a second courtesy glass of wine will have you rebuked in public, even if on honeymoon).
- Driving – it appears as bad as can be experienced in the UK. I loved the quote on elderly drivers: “They stubbornly adhere to the old-fashioned system of preparing to stop when the lights turn amber, and they religiously stop at red lights. These senior citizens are the cause of many collisions.”
- A Dutch Home – covers the steep and narrow Dutch staircases; the fact that the curtains are kept open as the Dutch like to show off their houses; Dutch toilets, in which can be found the ever important birthday calendar, so no one forgets; the kitchen which will have an obligatory “coffee corner”; pets and houseboats.
- Money – This one kicks off with the “Tao of Tightness” explaining that Calvinism led to the Dutch guarding every cent; denying, apologising or hiding wealth to anyone making enquiries; pleading poverty at all times. The Dutch are always looking to save money, love bargain hunting and street markets. Their banks are rather unhelpful places, apparently.
- The National Passion – this is multiple really including discussion, debate and protest; complaining and objection; having a cause.
- Food – including a lot of potatoes and apple cake; how to peel an apple and an orange the Dutch way (yes, really); fries from in-the-wall vending machines; “Dutch Sushi” in the form of raw herring fillet with onion for which the head is tilted back, the herring is held at the narrower tail end and slipped down the throat like a thread of spaghetti (sounds like torture to me).
- Dutch Customs – they believe their manners are impeccable, but their directness, because “You always know where you stand” leaves others feeling they are rude. Their coffee cult. The importance of the birthday party. Their love of camping. The latter carried a wonderful story about the Dutch heading abroad, taking stocks of potatoes, coffee and liquorice with them. One summer, in a publicity stunt, supermarket chain Albert Heijn shipped truckloads of goodies to the Dutch in southern France. The French refused to collect the rubbish, so Lowlands lorries hauled the waste back home.
- Bikes – the Dutch essential and how to protect and adapt it.
- Shopping – requires a code of conduct.
And there’s much more. The book is illustrated with both pictures and cartoons, both often funny.
Finally, in the third and last Appendix we have “A View of the Netherlands Through Dutch Idioms”. Invoking their wooden shoes, the literal translation of the saying “keep out of it” or “mind your own business” is “keep your clogs off the ice”. “Dismiss” or “fire” is a literal “place on the dike.” “The straw that broke the camel’s back” is “the drop that makes the bucket overflow” in Dutch. “Painting the town red” has the Dutch “putting the little flowers outside.” “Drop dead” becomes “go steal bikes at Dam Square.” Where others “throw a spanner in the works”, the Dutch “throw sand in the machine.” Again, there’s much more.
The Undutchables is a great insight into Dutch culture and well worth a read. The humour is lovely.
I mentioned the French above and they will form the topic for the next book to come on cultures. Lucy Wadham’s The Secret Life of France, published by Faber & Faber in July, is up next. Expect more great insight and humour.