An enlightening journey into Dutch history and culture


The Netherlands, a country often overlooked in terms of its cultural and historical significance, holds far more than meets the eye. While it is commonly associated with tulips, windmills, and clogs, there is a wealth of depth to explore. Dutch people are often known for their direct communication style and open-mindedness, particularly regarding topics such as drugs and sex. Additionally, their love for cheese, bicycles, and canals is well-documented. However, these stereotypes only scratch the surface. To truly understand the country and its people, we must delve deeper.


Due to a flight diversion, Ben Coates (*1982), formerly a political activist and speechwriter, unexpectedly found himself stranded in the Netherlands in 2010, where he has since made his home. Drawing from his experiences, Coates published Why The Dutch Are Different in 2015. Through his perspective as an Englishman, he offers readers an intimate look into Dutch life.


Coates structures his book around essential aspects of Dutch history and culture. One prominent theme is the country's enduring battle against the sea, a struggle that has shaped Dutch culture and identity. The mastery of hydraulic engineering, as seen in the iconic windmills, is deeply rooted in this history. Another influential force has been religion, specifically the divide between Catholics and Protestants, which has shaped the nation's trajectory for centuries. The Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century witnessed flourishing art and commerce, solidifying the country's place as a cultural powerhouse. However, the 20th century brought the harrowing experience of Nazi occupation during World War II, leaving a lasting impact on the Dutch psyche. Today, football holds a place of utmost passion and national pride. Furthermore, the Netherlands has long been a haven for immigrants, welcoming people from diverse backgrounds, including a significant Muslim population. While debates surround cultural and political changes, Dutch culture remains steadfast in its long-standing tradition of tolerance.


Photo: Traditional street with windmill


These topics are presented in a light-hearted way, interspersed with Coates' comments and experiences, for example, how he started learning Dutch: "... I battled my way through picture books belonging to a Dutch friend's eighteen-month-old daughter. Miffy (Ninjntje) was fun, but The Very Hungy Caterpillar was beyond me".  


Why The Dutch Are Different is an easy and entertaining read for people who want to learn more about the this country (apart from the chapter on football, which I mostly skipped). The author himself had to warm up to the Dutch national sport of football. “For a long time, I resisted Dutch football’s siren call. As far as I was concerned, football was a waste of time, and Ajax was something you used to clean the kitchen sink”.


Having discussed the aforementioned issues, and with the Netherlands being the country he considers home now, Coates concludes: "The Netherlands, for all its faults, was happier than Britain, more efficient than France, more tolerant than America, more worldly than Norway, more modern than Belgium and more fun than Germany".



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