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Authors: Colin White,Laurie Boucke

1995 - The UnDutchables

BOOK: 1995 - The UnDutchables



The UnDutchables


Colin White & Laurie Bouckle




Nothing is more interesting than to see yourself through the eyes of an outsider. The UnDutchables is a very revealing treatise about us…This book in a very exact yet funny way discloses all the secrets about us that we really would have preferred to keep to ourselves. In other words, they hang out the dirty linen…


The authors have clearly looked much farther than wooden shoes and tulips…Even the way we stir sugar in our coffee has not escaped their notice and not until you read this book from cover to cover do you understand how much our behavior, that we consider as completely normal ourselves, borders on insanity for a non-Netherlander.


Everything in it is true, and only the humor with which it is written makes it at all palatable for us.


A fine little work, then, that will be around for years.—Johannes van Dam, Het Parool, May 26, 1990


VERSION 3.1—the third edition(updated)…

This latest version of
The UnDutchables
has been updated to incorporate recent events and changes, including the 1995 floods.

The book presents an impressionistic view of a certain side of the Dutch as it is often perceived by visitors to Holland. It has brought laughter and joy to thousands of readers, and that is one of its primary objectives.

This is not a dry, scholarly work. It is not possible to cover every province, town, custom and aspect of life in such a short work—such information is available elsewhere. We have avoided such an approach as it would have stifled the character of the book. Some readers may resent what they perceive to be a stereotypic image, but all people form such images (to some extent) when they travel or reside abroad. Fortunately, most readers have been able to appreciate the humour and exaggeration without feeling offended.

Although much of the book clearly concerns contemporary Dutch life, certain national traits have been around for centuries. These have been commented upon in works dating back to the 1600’s. We believe the Dutch will still be renowned for certain classic characteristics for many generations to come.

Similarly, the book is biased towards the urban environment. However, in traveling through the countryside, one finds many of the same things, perhaps in a more peaceful setting and at a slower pace, but fundamentally the same traits: cosy homes; coffee rituals; guilder worshipping; moralizing; criticizing; obsession with weather; commercial cunning; and so forth.

In closing this Preface, we would like to thank all those who have provided ideas, suggestions and anecdotes, with special mention to
Brendan Bartram, Eva Goetschel, Anton van Hooff, Jackie Lubeck, Nijgh & Van Ditmar, Radio Nederland Wereldomroep, Wim Stortenbeek, Jaap Vossestein
Walter Wynbelt


Colin White & Laurie Boucke, August 1995


he fact that a third edition of
The UnDutchables
makes its appearance within three years after the introduction of the first edition proves that the book is a success in the wide circle of its readers.

The authors, both of Anglo-Saxon origin, have lived a good many years in the Netherlands and, as many foreigners, have been both surprised and astounded by our queer habits and customs, to such an extent that they have laid their impressions down in this monograph.

In this book, the Dutch find themselves confronted with a kind of mirror, and it hardly calls for surprise that a few of my fellow countrymen have reacted in a negative way to what they experience as ‘undue criticism.’ Nevertheless, most of the contents of the book are based on sound observations and the general tenor is never far away from the truth, although sometimes described in a somewhat caricaturistic way.


This third edition has been improved in a good many ways. The drawings have been refined, as compared with former editions, and quite a few photographs have been added. A number of new subjects has been brought in for description such as national dishes. The authors are keen observers: Did any ‘
’ ever realize that his way of peeling fruit is quite different from that of foreigners?

In a new section on the relationship between wealth and the hidden Dutch conscience, the authors have not hesitated to study the current literature on this subject and worked themselves through the bulky volume of Simon Schama on this particular aspect of the Dutch attitude.

But not all additions in the third edition are dead serious: The reader will experience a lot of fun in the description of a Dutch birthday party, and the average Dutchman will all of a sudden realize how tedious and narrow-minded some of his customs are!

The addiction to coffee is aptly illustrated (and with a lot of humour) in the description of the result of one of our famous coffee contests, and the final judgments on some of these cups are really laughter-raising.

The chapter on children’s upbringing might come as a bit of a shock to the Dutch, but isn’t it really time to realize that we do overspoil the little brats, far more than in most other countries? This chapter in former editions has been misinterpreted by some people as ‘
hate against children
’ on the part of the authors, but I think that it is love and affection for children which moved the authors to lay down their impression of what they see as doing harm to our offspring, rather than trying to give them the benefit of a well-balanced upbringing.

A list of intrinsic idioms is developed further in this edition and might be particularly useful for people of Anglo-Saxon origin who would have to live in the Netherlands for a couple of years. Finally, an index has been added and comes in handy for quickly glancing through a subject in which one might have particular interest.

A last word about the writers themselves: Having moved to the USA a few years ago, the authors find it difficult to keep abreast of all the turbulent events in our ever-changing Dutch society. They are avid readers of some of our Dutch newspapers and magazines and are in perpetual touch with a number of Dutch friends, asking them continuously for closer explanations on all kinds of subjects in our daily press. I feel privileged to belong to this group of advisors and not only hope, but certainly expect this further elaborated and enriched version of former editions to be as successful as its predecessors.

To my fellow countrymen I should like to say:
Try not to be hurt by remarks on a pattern of behaviour that seems to be so completely normal to us, but in fact is sometimes quite out of this world when seen through foreign eyes!


Dr. W. Stortenbeek

Apeldoorn, Holland

September 1992

Chapter 1

the way the text books sell it

Holland occupies less than one percentof the earth’s surface…Its airlinecovers the rest

—KLM Royal Dutch Airlines advertisement, 1993


A country (often called Holland) in western Europe bordering on the North Sea, with Belgium on its southern frontier and Germany on its eastern flank; official language, Dutch; capital, Amsterdam; seat of government, The Hague; population (1997), 15.8 million.


The area was occupied by Celts and Frisians who came under Roman rule from the 1
century BC until the 4
century AD and was then overrun by German tribes, with the Franks establishing an ascendancy during the 5
centuries. During the Middle Ages it was divided between numerous principalities. The northern (Dutch) part (part of the Habsburg Empire) revolted in the 16
century against Spanish attempts to crush the Protestant faith and won independence in a series of wars lasting into the 17
century, becoming a Protestant republic. The southern part was absorbed into the Spanish Habsburgs and then in 1713 into the Austrian Habsburgs. Prior to wars with England and France, the country enjoyed great prosperity and became a centre of art and scholarship as well as a leading maritime power, building up a vast commercial empire in the East Indies, South Africa and Brazil. In the 18
century it sharply declined as a European power. In 1814 north and south were united, but the south revolted in 1830 and became an independent kingdom (Belgium) in 1839. Luxembourg gained its independence in 1867. The Dutch managed to maintain their neutrality in World War I, but were occupied by Germany in World War II. The post-war period has seen the country turn away from its traditional dependence on agriculture, although agriculture is still an important part of the economy. In 1960, large quantities of natural gas were discovered in the north; the ensuing wealth helped the Dutch mold their country into a ‘super’ welfare state and emerge as a key figure in the new-look United Europe. In 1994, a liberal ⁄socialist⁄environmentalist government took office, opening the dikes even further to a flood of progressive pampering.

NOTE…The authors acknowledge ‘
The Oxford Reference Dictionary
,’ 1986, for much of the information contained in this chapter.

Chapter 2


Most people only get to visit great works of art…The Dutch get to live in one

—KLM Royal Dutch Airlines advertisement, 1988


Do not be surprised if one of your first impressions is of being in doll-house country. Everything is small, crowded and cramped: houses, streets, shops, supermarkets, parks, woods, cars, etc. Holland is the third most densely populated country in the world (after Bangladesh and South Korea), and its inhabitants have mastered the art of using the centimetre to its fullest.

This ability and talent has arisen, of course, from the fact that much of the country consists of land reclaimed from the sea. And the reclaiming continues even today.

On an international flight, when the pilot announces that you are flying over Holland, don’t blink! You’ll miss it—it’s that small. You can, in fact, cross the whole nation by car in three hours.

For those of you arriving by plane from distant lands, a word of advice. Having entered the country and adjusted to the barometric pressure prevalent below sea-level (jet-lag withstanding), you’ll undoubtedly want to view the windmills, tulips, cheese markets and canals. Water and horizontal hills abound. So do sex shops. And, yes, you’ll see your share of wooden shoes and Frisian cows. These tourist attractions can be exhausted within a day or two.

If you expect to find delicious national food or the exotic, forget it. If you like wide, open spaces or a little solitude in nature, this is not the country for you. There are no large forests or wide expanses of land. When walking in the woods, dunes or on the beach, you have the feeling that millions have trod wherever you place your feet. They have. Can this be the stuff that inspired Rembrandt and Van Gogh?


The inhabitants of this small strip of ex-seabed are not lacking in self-esteem, as reflected in literary titles such as ‘
And the Dutch created the Netherlands’ (En de Nederlanders Schiepen hun Eigen Land
) or ‘
Holland—The New Atlantis Risen
.’ They are bursting with dikes, freedom, liberalism, independence, equality and political beliefs (Holland boasts at least 29 parties), as will be demonstrated in the ensuing chapters.

The Dutch appear a friendly lot: kind, polite and helpful to tourists. They love to talk about their country and to provide any directions or information you may require. Their fascination with things foreign—products, attitudes, ideas, customs, languages, etc.—is impressive and flattering. The Dutch reputation for tolerance is all too apparent to the foreign visitor. But do not let this image fool you—it changes drastically if you stay long enough to be regarded as PART OF THE SCENE.

The longer you stay, the deeper you sink into it. The dark cloud of disapproval descends as your comrades of the Lowlands constantly criticize what they consider to be unfavourable situations beyond their borders. There is no relief from this moralizing, despite the fact that similar or even worse situations often exist within their own kingdom. Do not take the onslaught personally. You will soon discover that the Dutch reprimand is not reserved for foreigners alone. The natives thrive on shaking their fingers at and scolding each other.

They also seem to be caught up in a cycle of endless envy. They cannot free themselves from feelings such as, ‘If you are sitting, then 1 should be sitting, too!’ They are extremely jealous of each another’s possessions and keep a constantly updated mental inventory of what their neighbours, relatives and colleagues have. But they are also a very giving people when it comes to charities and other causes. They are world famous for their universal humani-tarianism, and exercising this particular type of generosity gives them much peace of mind.

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