Who are the Dutch?

This question was raised in the classic Seinfeld episode from the last post .  When I first told some people that I was moving to Amsterdam,  I got mixed reactions; Sadness from my family, Happiness from acquaintances, and outright jump-for-joy-envy from my party-animal friends.    As you know,  while Holland is most famous for tulips, windmills and wooden shoes, Amsterdam,  has a more dubious fame: legalized pot and prostitution.  

Before I go into this, I have to give you this little caveat.  I’ve been here a long time.  I think waaay too long and you know what they say…familiarity breeds contempt.  So take what I say with a grain of salt. 

 The first thing you notice about the Dutch is their physical attributes.  They are mostly tall, thin, blond haired and blue eyed.  To a short, fat brunette like myself, they are forever a source of my envy.  When you meet a Dutch person, they seem cordial and business-casual. However, when you live with them on a daily basis, they are a bit chilly and distant. Matter of fact.  This is how they conduct their lives, probably as a result of their Calvinistic heritage. They have a directness that I still can’t get used to.  Sober, controlling and mostly void of enthusiasm.    “Just be ‘normal’  and you’ll be crazy enough”  as the saying goes here.   For an off-the-chart enthusiast like me, it was culture shock #2.  Calvinistic Culture.

Most occasions, from the happiest to saddest,  are met with the same vapid regard.    This year, the Netherlands football (Soccer) team made it to the World Cup Finals.  People from every other country in the known universe would’ve been dancing in the streets for days.  But not the Dutch, noo nooo.  The Dutch treated this event with sober , reserved interest.   “We have to work tomorrow.”  was the answer when I asked why people weren’t more excited about the event.  WHAT?  Work TOMORROW??  But the PARTY is TODAY!!!

Even though they seem friendly, the Dutch are very difficult to make friends with.  Most of their friendships were formed during their youth. People who work together rarely become friends. I don’t make friends with my colleagues, I hear often. They are very clear about who is and who is not their friend.   This is in contrast to Americans , who call everyone their friend, from their closest  friend to the remotest acquaintance.     As a non-Dutch person, I find it virtually impossible to make friends here.  In 12 years of my residence, I can count the number of Dutch friends I have on one hand. One finger to be exact. 

Unlike most European cultures, Dutch culture does not revolve around the kitchen.  Dutch food is bland, overcooked, and usually takes less than 15 minutes to prepare.   It’s utilitarian. There to serve the sole  purpose of keeping you alive.  Eat to live.  Culture  shock  #3. The Food.   Believe you me,  I’ll spend many a blog complaining…uh…discussing this fact. 

One of the good things I’ve seen here is the overall concern for the family unit.  School kids come home for lunch every day so mother’s (and sometimes fathers)  stay home to receive them.  They work either part time of not at all.  In recent years, there has been a surge of women hitting the workplace. With this, kids are more often placed in day-care  before, during, and after school.  My family is a bit unorthodox.   We both worked in IT,  I drew the short straw and had to work full time with the reasoning that my salary was higher and we would have at least one stable income.  He was given the opportunity to start his own business in web development.  A function that he could easily balance with caring for young kids.   Anyway, enough about my family,  back to my grand generalizations.

Another good thing is that dinner in the Netherlands is served almost universally at exactly 6pm where the entire family is ‘aan tafel’ or at the table.  My family is no exception.  When I’m held up at work, even for 15 minutes, dinner goes on without me and I end up eating alone.   Now that I think about it, it’s seems more about regiment than  family.

I know I’m not painting a very pretty picture about my Dutch hosts.  Actually,  I find their cool directness quite refreshing at times.  I mostly know where I stand with people here.  The roles are clearly defined;  family, friend, colleague, stranger that gets a bit of my time and then gets sent on his way into the grey, rainy, darkness.  Clear.  But once, just once,  I want to jump up in the air in the middle of a busy market and yell “YIPPEEE!!!”  without fear of someone putting me in a looney bin. 

(Excluded from this story are my absolutely wonderful in-laws, Wiljo and Tineke, who are the most talented, enterprising and enthusiastic people I know.  Not only do they work full time jobs, they own their own business making beautiful stained glass objects.  You can see their lovely work at:  http://www.wentglasatelier.nl)

Tonight for dinner is an ancient recipe from my family:  Swiss Chard and String beans.  This recipe has been around in my family for probably over 4 generations and is easy to make.  The chard comes from my garden.  A terrible crop this year.  If you don’t have access to swiss chard, use large leaf spinach (wild spinach, not baby leaf) , or beet greens.   Enjoy:

Swiss Chard and String beans (for 4 people)

½  to 1 lb fresh string beans, topped and tailed and cut in half

A large bunch of Swiss chard or other earthy, leafy greens like beet tops. Washed.

4 large cloves of garlic, sliced  (adjust to taste)

½ Cup Olive or Vegetable oil

1 teaspoon dried chili pepper (or to taste)

Plain Foccacia bread  or Raw bread dough

Fresh grated parmesan cheese

In a large soup pot.  Add string beans and enough water to cover about ½ inch.  Salt generously.  Cook over med-high heat until nearly done, about 10 mins.  While the beans are cooking, cut the stems off the chard and cut to about ½ inch lengths.  Add to pot. Cook another 5 mins.  Meanwhile, chop the chard leaves.  Add the leaves to the pot and cook yet another 5 mins.  The liquid should be about half the depth  of the vegetables.  If more, pour some off, if less, add more water.  Meanwhile , in a small pan over high heat, add chili pepper to oil.  Cook until very hot and the pepper begins to sizzle rapidly.  Remove from heat, and add garlic.  Careful, the water in the garlic will cause a mini-explosion in the oil.  When the garlic stops sizzling, add to the vegetables.  Let sit for about 30 mins to let the flavors meld.  Taste. Add more salt if needed.

While melding, if you are using bread dough, you’re going to make fried doughs.  To do this, pinch off a tangerine-sized ball of raw dough.  Stretch thinly but without holes.  Fry in med- hot oil.  When browned (about 30 seconds), flip and fry for another 30 sec.  Repeat.  

To serve:  place one fried dough or large piece of foccocia on a plate.  Scoop a large portion of srting bean mixture on the bread.  Liberally grate parmesan cheese on top.  Serve as vegetarian main course or serve smaller portions for lunch or appetizers.

 Save leftover dough for the next morning.  Make Googles for breakfast.  Fried dough with either powdered sugar or cinnamon-sugar.

2 Responses to “Who are the Dutch?”

  1. Marie Says:

    Hi, again. Interesting about Dutch friendships or apparent lack of them. Besides the Calvinistic culture, do you think the lack of space (compared to the US) might have something to do with it? Living on top of each other (in our eyes), they might treasure the little space allowed them over “closeness”. We on the other hand, coming from a culture of “wide open spaces”, gladly cling to friends for comfort?

    Speaking of friends, have known Don and Millie since coming to the internet about 12 years ago. Love ’em!

  2. lisa Says:

    Hi Marie. Yes, absolutely. I believe that people who live in close quarters tend to covet their space, like New Yorkers. When I lived in the mid-west, where they live farther away from each other. People are always happy to see another person. So people are friendlier. Thanks, Marie!