• Everyone country has its own national character.  If you visit or move to a new place, people will bombard you with these generalizations until you start repeating them too.  Dutch people are straightforward.  They don’t beat around the bush.  They say what they mean.  They’re frugal with money.  Your credit card isn’t going to work most places so carry cash.  And you will more likely get run over by a bicycle than a car.

    I’ve been living in the Netherlands for three months now, and there are a few things that have struck me about living here that I have never heard anyone say in any conversation or write in any book.  I’d like to share them with you.

    Doors Pull Out

    In all the places I’ve lived, when you leave a shop, you push the door.  This usual aligns with fire safety laws.  If a crowd of people are rushing for the doors in an emergency, they must push out so the crowd can escape.

    I don’t know if they’ve never had tragedies like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire or The Station Night Club Fire, but invariably, when you want to leave a building, you pull the door toward you.  You have no idea how you’ve been socialized to push doors until you have to pull them instead.

    This of course leads to the inevitable embarrassment of the pusher/puller.  And of course “pull” isn’t one of those Dutch words that conveniently looks like English.  So a sign at eye-level gets completely ignored.

    This even spills over into home life.  My garden gate pulls in, which means doggies usually get pushed in the face with it when they are straining to go for their evening walkies.  

    Art and Architecture is Important To Everyone

    You can’t leave Schiphol Airport without noticing the funky architecture of the Airport Hilton.  And in the grand scheme of things, airports tend to have interesting designs even when surrounded by box-shaped hotels and miles and miles of rectangular warehouses.  But the Netherlands is different.  The first thing I noticed when leaving Schiphol in a taxi bound for inner-city Amsterdam was that no two buildings looked the same.  Hell, no two buildings looked square!  If you would have told me that there was a city ordinance in Amsterdam that buildings were not allowed to have windows with parallel sides, I would have believed you.

    Now that was Amsterdam.  And we all know Amsterdam is no more representative of the Netherlands as a whole as New York is representative of the United States.  But even out here in little Brabant, everyone seems to care about architecture.  

    Sure, there’s the building in town that dates from 1669 and all those shops that have the historical preservation signs on them.  But I’m not talking about that.  I’m talking about normal people’s houses.

    The Netherlands is no different from any other part of the world.  There are big houses where rich people live.  These are usually quite different from each other, have been built at different times by different people.  Then there are smaller houses obviously all built at the same time by the same builder with the same plans, semi-detached houses, row houses, and finally apartment buildings.

    In the US, we’d strive to make these all as uniform as possible.  Hell, we even have Homeowners’ Associations and covenants that dictate what colours curtains you can put in your own house.  I remember my parents wanting to get the same style lawn furniture as the neighbours “so it would look nice” and painting it when they painted theirs so it wouldn’t suddenly clash.  We think semi-detached houses are “nice” when the owners of both halves decide on the same colour of shingles for the new roof or coordinate their Christmas decorations so the houses “go together”.

    Not in the Netherlands.  Woo boy!

    Here you will find many houses that were built at the same time with the same plans, but they don’t stay that way for long.  One house may change their entrance way to be different.  Another will build a garage out of their carport.  Almost everyone changes their front window so it doesn’t look like the neighbour’s.

    People actively try to differentiate themselves from their neighbours.  Normal people.  Ordinary people.  People who work for a living.

    As someone who always hated how my parents would jump to get the new thing the neighbours had so they could conform, this delights me.

    And it’s not just people here in Brabant who do this.  It’s everywhere.  One of my friends lives in a neighbourhood in North Holland that was created out of reclaimed seabed back in the 1970s.  His neighbourhood is very obviously planned and symmetrical.  But although the houses on each block are all the same, the houses on the next block will be radically different.  Like this street is modern, block-shaped houses, but the next street will be mock-Tudor, and the next street is American colonial.

    And it’s not just architecture.  It’s design too.  So much effort it put into even the smallest postage-stamp gardens here.  You would think that some people had the gardeners from Versailles swing by on their way home from work and trim their hedges.  As soon as the winter chill passes off, people are turning over their front gardens and making way for spring.  Trees are pruned, bushes are cut into shape, and vines are bent and tied and manipulated into elaborate structures that I’ve only ever seen before in bonsai gardens.  In three months I don’t think I’ve ever seen a front patch that was just grass.

    And then there are the front windows.  People don’t just put up curtains and spread knick-knacks on the sill.  They put art in their windows.  Vases, flowers, sculptures!  They style a window you’re meant to look in (but not in so far that you see the people).

    And it’s everyone.  When I take Shmi for her daily walk, I walk down a different street every time, and I have never seen a house that decorated itself the exact same way as any other in town.  Where do they get all their ideas?

    Serious effort is obviously put into the idea that no one wants to live in a house that looks like anyone else’s.

    I have to say that’s nearly my favourite thing here.

    I cannot tell blonde people apart

    The former tenant of my house who comes to pick up her mail occasionally, the Monday morning staff member at my gym, my neighbour down the street, and my nutritionist are all 40-something blonde women.  I cannot tell them apart.  If I bump into Judith somewhere that’s not the gym, I invariably call her Anke.  If I see Marieke at the gym, I call her Rebecca.  I wave at Rebecca when I’m out with the dog, wondering what Judith is doing on this side of town.

    Their houses may be different, but these people all look exactly the same.

    This does not happen to me with people with dark hair or people of colour.  

    I’m clearly a racist.

    Bar at the Gym

    Many gyms have bars.  A place where you can order a fruit smoothie or an energy drink.  Some gyms have specialties that only they serve.  It’s not unusual to walk into a gym and see people sitting around the bar, chatting like they would in any high street café.

    I was a little surprised that my gym served coffee.  It’s not what you normally think of as a health drink.  And it’s surely not something you want to drink right before or after a workout.

    The bar at my gym is a little different.  They serve beer.  On tap.

    Yes, you can’t get a soda at my gym, but there is Bavaria on tap and about ten other local beers in bottles.

    Now I’m going to go have a beer at the gym with my blonde friends I can’t identify and avoid walking into door.


    Sounds like the genisis of a new bit there...lol


    heh Good eye! You should hear my rant about the Dutch language!


    Awesome, it sounds wonderful!


    I'll tell you: it's pretty good.


    Loved it! Hopefully I'll get to visit the Netherlands someday. It sounds really interesting.


    And you'll always have a place to stay, Mimi! It's much easier for us to get to Amsterdam than it used to be getting to St. John!


    YES ALL BLONDES! I love this post and I'm so glad that I get to see you in less than 2 weeks!!!!


    Yay! Two weeks! The blonde thing just happened again this morning. I said something to Bob about Judith, and he said, "How do you know it's her. I thought all blondes looked alike." "They do," I said. "But she's standing behind the desk at the gym, so it must be Judith!"


    How charming it sounds! I need to figure out how to beam my house up, and set it down there. My rainbow-hued rooms would fit right in.