Saturday, 5 December 2009

The Netherlands - Dykes and Tulips


I've moved back to Europe this month with the Netherlands and the first thing I've discovered is that there are two Netherlands, the Netherlands (sometimes called Holland) which is the country in Europe, and the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which includes the country in Europe and overseas territories in the Carribean, namely Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles.

Everyone knows that Holland only refers to part of the country, the bits around Amsterdam. What I didn't realise was that New Zealand is called after the small province to the south of Holland, called Zeeland. Australia was first called New Holland, a name which didn't stick and puts the naming if New Zealand somehow out of context.

The Netherlands, like other Western European countries, had a long history of colonisation in various parts if the world. In fact, the Dutch seem to have 'got there first' in many places that were later colonised by the British - New York, Australia, South Africa.

Two of the most important Dutch colonies, of course, are present-day Indonesia and Surinam, on opposite sides of the world from each other. Surprisingly, when Japan closed itself off from the aggressive colonisation of Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries, only the Dutch were allowed to keep a trading post there, at Deshima.

I've decided not to go with the Kingdom of the Netherlands for this part of my learning journey, but to concentrate on the European Netherlands - a country which I, like a lot of Irish and British people, have visited (= Amsterdam) and which I (like a lot of people?) know very little about, I mean the rest of the country, outside Amsterdam.

Of course there are lots of cliches about the Netherlands, two of them you can see in the title of this blog.  Although it takes a lot more than cliches to get to know a country, they do provide a starting point and, I guess, they exist for a reason.

The national motto of the Netherlands is Je maintiendrai (like the British motto, it's in French, sounds more formal in French, I suppose) or I will endure. My first question inevitably is ... endure what? The most obvious answer is 'the sea'. From what I can tell, the Dutch mentality is shaped by the country's relationship with the sea. I'm reminded a little bit of Kiribati and I can't help wondering what effect the rising sea levels will have on the Netherlands, Holland in particular. The Dutch seem like a very determined people, despite being a small nation, they have managed to survive the pressures coming from their two most important neighbours, ie. the sea on one side and Germany on the other.

The Dutch also have a reputation for 'dourness' and being tight with money, characteristics ascribed to the influence of Calvinism on the Dutch mentality, but not something I can associate with the Dutch people I know. Religion played a big part in the formation of the Kingdom, but it's never been a big issue and the Netherlands' cliched liberalism, spans centuries of religious tolerance and the rights of the individual. A cliche that isn't true is the idea that Dutch people generally have loose morals.  I can understand this misperception, having lived in Thailand.  Our perception of Thai people is that they are very easy-going when it comes to sexual matters and adept at manipulating ping-pong balls etc., when the reality is almost the complete opposite and Thai people (like Dutch?) are incredibly conservative and reserved, in the private sphere. 

I wasn't surprised to find out that 40% of Dutch people consider themselves to be non-religious, however I was surprised to find out that there are more Catholics than Protestants in the Netherlands, at least on paper, as I've always thought of it as a very Protestant country.


In total contrast then to this sober outlook on life - the supposed stinginess of Amsterdam merchants who built narrow houses with tiny windows, so they wouldn't have to pay too much tax, the sea threatening to overwhelm the country at any time, the pragmatic, direct (sometimes perceived as rude) way the Dutch deal with things - is the national obsession with tulips.

The world's first botanical garden was at Leiden and the birth of the Dutch nation and the growing self-confidence, as the Netherlands took it's rightful place in the world, was thrown into complete disorder in a confusing array of colours that became the 'tulip mania'. The most expensive tulip, the Augustus Semper, was reputed to have been worth 10 years wages to a labourer. Not surprising then that there was a tulip mania in the 17th century, fortunes were made and lost, livelihoods built up and ruined, as a nation famous for its self- restraint went crazy over these, admittedly beautiful, flowers.

Although not worth as much today as they were in the past, tulips are very much part of the mythology of the Netherlands. The Netherlands is still the world's biggest exporter of tulip bulbs.  A national cliche, perhaps, but very much a fact.

Image credits

The flag is from Wikimedia Commons and is without copyright.

The beautiful image of tulips is the featured image on wikipedia's site and was taken by John O'Neill who is a high school teacher from Victoria, Australia (New Holland!) - John has been contributing a lot to wikipedia and you can see more information at his wikipedia user page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Jjron

Thanks, John, for sharing this wonderful image with us.
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