An enlightening journey into Dutch history and culture


Most of us do not really know much about the Netherlands, unaware of what it has to offer in terms of culture and history. The country is mainly associated with tulips, windmills and wooden shoes. The Dutch are considered to be very direct in their communication style and open-minded, especially when it comes to drugs and sex. They are also known for their love of cheese, bicycles and canals. They are sometimes seen as frugal or stingy, as evidenced by the saying "going Dutch", which means splitting the bill equally. How far do these stereotypes correspond to reality, and what else is there to know about the country and its people?


Ben Coates (*1982), who had previously worked as a political activist and speechwriter, arrived in the Netherlands in 2010 on a flight that was diverted to Amsterdam Airport. He still lives in the Netherlands. In 2015 he published a book based on his experiences, Why The Dutch Are Different. It introduces us to life in the Netherlands from an Englishman's point of view.


The structure of the book is around key aspects of Dutch history and culture, which can be very briefly summarised as follows: Dutch culture is deeply rooted in the country's history of battling the sea, which has led to their mastery of hydraulic engineering, such as windmills. Religion has also played an important role, with the division between Catholics and Protestants shaping the nation for centuries. The Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century saw the flourishing of Dutch art and commerce. In the 20th century, the country suffered greatly under Nazi occupation during the Second World War. Today, soccer is a national passion. The Netherlands has welcomed immigrants from many backgrounds, including many Muslims. Despite debates about these cultural and some political changes, Dutch culture remains true to its long tradition of tolerance.


Photo: Traditional street with windmill


These topics are presented in a light-hearted way, interspersed with Coates' comments and experiences. It is an easy and entertaining read for people who want to learn more about the Dutch (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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