I realise I have been absolutely all over the place on this blog lately. I still haven’t finished talking about Vietnam, despite leaving more than two months ago. I haven’t mentioned trips to Qatar, Luxembourg and the Rhine Valley. I’ve even still got more to say about Las Fallas in Valencia AND I’m currently in London and off to Paris tomorrow. I know. Crazy.
So I’ve sat back and surveyed the situation. What I’ve realised is that I’ve completely neglected talking about the Netherlands recently. Maybe I don’t find it exotic enough anymore? But still, things have happened here. A couple of weekends ago, Paul and I day-tripped with all the silver-haired cyclists in matching outfits (yes, Dutch day-trippers are generally quite advanced in age) to Gornichem and Woudrichem. They were just lovely, and it gave me a better appreciation for the country that I often poke fun at, grumble about or just moan about its weather.
The country doesn’t deserve that. A few recent blogs post by Spanish expats have gotten me thinking; Christine in Spain, Hola Yessica! and Young Adventuress have all discussed what they love about their adopted country (in all of these cases, Spain) that just don’t exist at home (again, in all cases the US). So, this is my way of saying, ‘well Dutchies there are some quite cool things about your country’. Well, quite a lot, actually.
1. The gorgeous, picturesque towns
I remember the first time I rode a bike on cobblestones. I thought they were ridiculous and not at all practical. My problem was that I was thinking like a member of a settler society. Places like Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada. Places with freeways and no high-speed rail.
Picturesque places aren’t at all practical. In the Netherlands they cost a fortune to maintain (awesome idea to build a country on what is basically a swamp), they don’t house enough people and there is basically no car parking. That’s if you can actually drive into town; many are completely car-free.
But they are basically wonderful. Looking out of my apartment in Melbourne, I could have been anywhere (bar the trams dinging their bells down the street). Here, I can’t for a minute think that I’m anywhere else but the Netherlands. The architecture is quintessentially Dutch and often the only modern touches are bikes strewn everywhere. Why should cities from Toronto to Adelaide all look virtually the same?
I live in between two canals. They receive maybe a boat a day, maybe a few dozen on an exceptionally warm day, yet nobody wants to pave them over for roads and carparks. People take photos of my house. Hell, I still take photos of my house. In a lot of other countries, a town’s pretty buildings would be taken over by law firms and real estate agents. Here, the centre of each city is residential, even in the middle of Amsterdam. And I think that’s just swell.
2. The liberal, tolerant culture
The Dutchies have copped a bit of a bad rap in Australia recently, what with Geert Wilders visiting the country and all. Yes, Wilders does attract a startling ten per cent of the vote here but this means that these extreme views are kept within his Party for Freedom (PVV) and don’t seem to infiltrate the major parties’ platforms. I still wish he would be transported to Azkaban, however.
Instead, the major parties agree on a number of issues still being debated in Australia; the Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage and euthanasia. The drinking age is sixteen. Prostitution is well-regulated. Marijuana was decriminalised a generation ago.
But wait, there’s more. Asylum seekers are released into the community while awaiting the processing of their claims. Children go to local schools! They shop at the neighbourhood Albert Heijn supermarket! There could be one behind you right now!
People here have actually approached me, fascinated that we lock people up in the desert and don’t seem to care when rickety boats full of PEOPLE sink in the Indian Ocean. Sure, the country has debates about levels of immigration – fingers are usually pointed towards Morocco and to a lesser extent, Turkey – but I have never heard even a whisper of widespread doubt over the legality of individual claims for asylum. I don’t know the Dutch words for ‘queue jumper’.
Oh, and it’s not like the Netherlands only receives a few applications for asylum, either. In the last five years, the Netherlands has received ten thousand more asylum seekers than Australia (62,000 compared to 52,000) according to the United Nations. That’s in a country so small it can fit into Australia more than 185 times.
3. The lack of reliance on cars
I hate the car culture. I’ve never gotten my driver’s licence, just like my Nan. Unlike Betty Mansfield I will probably cave in one day, but for the meantime I love relying on my bike and trains.
In fact, it would be kind of weird if we did have a car here. We live on a pedestrianised street with no car parking which makes for fun times when you’re moving house. I cycle anywhere that’s more than a five minute walk, and catch a train for anything that’s more than a twenty-minute cycle. At the train station (a five minute cycle away) trains leave for Rotterdam every six minutes and Amsterdam every fifteen. Trains aren’t cheap but unlike in Melbourne, they’re pretty reliable. (Except when it snows. Then the NS freaks out.)
4. The worldliness of the media and people
I was informed of Julia Gillard’s apology to those affected by forced adoptions not by any Australian media, but by the nightly Dutch news. The Age’s website was more concerned with the ALP trying to tear itself apart that day. In fact, Dutch television news is almost solely international; you don’t hear of much local stuff at all. It’s all Cyprus, Berlusconi and marriage equality in the US at the moment, rather than speed cameras, re-hashed government press releases and fights outside nightclubs. I actually learn things from the Dutch news, despite misunderstanding every second sentence.
The effect is pretty profound. Just like I mentioned previously, people actually know stuff about Australia. I’d grown up under the impression that we were left to our own devices in our own little corner of the world and nobody took any notice except when we had the Olympics.
5. Having the rest of Europe so close
Wander down to my local train station and I can catch a direct train to Belgium. One change can get me to France, Germany and the UK. Three hours on a plane and I can be in Turkey or Morocco. If you’re European and reading this, you just won’t understand how amazing this is. If you’re Australian, you’ll get it straight away. Three hours on a plane from Melbourne and you’re still somewhere over the Simpson Desert.
So we’ve made use of this. Last month we drove to Luxembourg, making the decision to visit that morning. Return flights to Krakow in December cost us less than a hundred euro each. And in November we had a nice day, so I jumped on a train to Antwerp. The possibilities seem endless and the fun of planning is intoxicating.
There are other great things. For all my whinging, it is nice that everybody speaks such good English (it also means TV shows and films are subtitled rather than dubbed into Dutch). The fries are quite decent. The tulips are pretty. The beer is cheap and plentiful.
So maybe I should just read this post the next time the temperature plunges into the minuses?