Longitude's Book of the Month focuses on a travel title that inspires us to leave our armchairs for new destinations. This edition centers on Ben Coates' Why the Dutch are Different. The reviews and interviews are written and conducted by our editors. Our selections are culled from the regular Book of the Week feature on our blog.
Why the Dutch are Different
By Ben Coates
What makes one culture stand out from another can be as deeply rooted as a tulip bulb and as subtle as that flower's scent. To discover just what makes the Dutch different from their fellow Europeans, Ben Coates—a British transplant who found himself stranded on layover in Amsterdam and stayed—traveled the Netherlands, participating in festivals, viewing art, observing religion and studying the country's landscape and history. He recorded his findings in his delightful book Why the Dutch are Different.
The water, is one answer. Because so much of the Netherlands had to be reclaimed from the sea through a series of elaborate dikes and dams, the culture was inevitable shaped by its unique relation to water. Thus, the ubiquitous windmills needed to pump the fields, the tulips which thrived in the silty soil and the wooden clogs that kept the farmers' feet dry. From the flat land to the tall people who drank milk whenever the water supply was unsafe, "almost everything that an outsider might think of as typically Dutch," Coates discovers, "could be attributed to the country's ongoing battle against the tides."
Coates uses a visit to the Rijksmuseum to explore not only Dutch art but the history of trade and exploration that helped the country flourish in the Golden Age. Rembrandt, we learn, was born in a windmill and acquired his sensitivity to light and shade by "lying beneath spinning sails that gently strobed the sun." He takes part in the Dutch Carnaval and their Sinterklaas festivities, criticized in recent years for its portrayal of Zwarte Piet, a black-faced companion to Santa Claus.
As he moves from museum to festival to football match Coates examines the strange contradictions between permissiveness and restraint, tolerance and tradition that permeate Dutch culture. "'Oh dear,'" he overhears his colleagues lament after drugs are discovered in his workplace bathroom, "'someone's lost their drugs. Shall we give them to the security guard to put in lost property?'"—yet he comes close to being apprehending by police for the minimal offense of jaywalking.
To explain such cultural contradictions, Coates looks to a history of religious tolerance fueled by the desire to protect individual rights in a country where success depended on those individuals working together. While such juxtapositions within a culture can often be a source of confusion and frustration to an outsider, Coates' playful dalliance with the history of the Dutch people does much to further understanding of their unique culture and, in doing so, promises to make more tolerant travelers of us all.
A Longitude Interview
In this discussion English expat Ben Coates explains the contradictions, joys and frustrations of living among the Dutch. His new book speaks to why the Netherlands is such a fascinating country, significant beyond its size. Coates explains the importance of the color orange, the ongoing battle to keep water out, the Dutch love affairs with milk and beer, their attitudes toward nature and their world-famous culture of tolerance.
LONGITUDE: As your title itself states, Dutch culture can be quite different from the rest of Europe. What differences compelled you to stay and make your home there?
COATES: One of the most obvious differences between the Dutch and the rest of the world is how they live their day-to-day lives: the Dutch work the fewest hours in Europe, take long holidays, often work part-time and generally are ruled by the kind of governments which would have Bernie Sanders jumping for joy. Having previously worked in conservative politics in the UK, I was somewhat surprised to find that this approach actually works terrifically well: the Dutch are among the wealthiest and healthiest people in the world, and have such a low crime rate that jails are being closed because there are not enough criminals to fill them. All this means that the quality of life in the Netherlands is very high. Compared to when I lived in London, I now earn more, work less, feel healthier and spend much more time having fun with friends and family. In countries like Britain and the US, there seems to be endless anguished debate about how people can achieve the best 'work-life balance', while the Dutch seem to achieve it without even trying.
LONGITUDE: Cultural differences can also be a source of conflict for travelers and expats. What was the most difficult aspect of Dutch culture for you to acclimate to?
COATES: One of the most appealing things about the Netherlands is the welcoming and friendly atmosphere; outsiders are much more likely to get bought a beer than shown the door. But for me it's been a real challenge to acclimate to the lack of space. The Netherlands is one of the most crowded places in the world—in the book, I calculate that if the United States had a similar population density, it would contain more than four billion people. This means that it's easy to find bars, restaurants and people to talk to, but rather harder to find peace and quiet. Dutch cities are heartbreakingly beautiful, but other than a few patches of forest and coastline, there isn't much in the way of green countryside or unspoilt scenery. And of course, the whole country is as flat as a Dutch pancake. As someone who grew up in the rolling English countryside, and is still a country boy at heart, that's been very hard to get used to.
LONGITUDE: Window seat or aisle?
COATES: Window, every time. How could you not want to see the view outside, unfolding like a map underneath you?
LONGITUDE: Many travelers know or have at least passed through Amsterdam. What are they missing if they don't see the rest of the country?
COATES: Amsterdam is a wonderful place, but it also showcases only a certain side of the Netherlands: all historic townhouses and ancient churches and beautiful seventeenth century canals. Visiting only central Amsterdam is a bit like going to Manhattan and thinking you've seen all of the United States. If you want to get a real flavour of the Netherlands, you should also try to see places which represent other sides of the country's character: the daring modern architecture of the industrial capital of Rotterdam, the miles of sandy coastline north of The Hague, the sunken waterways of Utrecht, or the pretty little towns strung along the Belgian and German borders. The whole country is only about twice the size of New Jersey, and has excellent railways linking most cities, so there's no excuse for not venturing a little further afield.
LONGITUDE: What piece of art housed at the Rijksmuseum is not to be missed?
COATES: The obvious answer is Rembrandt's Night Watch; one of the most famous paintings in the world. However, I'd also recommend hunting down some of the Rijksmuseum exhibits which aren't actually art. Far from the Rembrandt-spotting crowds, you can find fascinating relics from the days when the Dutch explored, and ultimately ruled over, a large swathe of the world. Other favorites include the lively river paintings of Hendrick Avercamp, showing dozens of people ice skating on frozen rivers. They're packed with funny little jokes and details which you can spend ages hunting for, like a seventeenth-century version of Where's Waldo.
LONGITUDE: The Dutch are known for their tolerant views on issues like drug use and prostitution, yet you have been lectured for jaywalking and the appearance of your house. How do you explain, and live with, such societal contradictions?
COATES: One of the things which surprised me most about the Netherlands, and which is a major theme of the book, is that the Dutch aren't actually as liberal as everyone thinks. The famously tolerant approach to things like prostitution and marijuana is balanced by quite conservative attitudes to things like family and wealth, and by a bewildering array of rules and regulations. My theory is that this is due to two competing forces at the heart of Dutch culture. On the one hand, there's the long tradition of being a place of sanctuary for minorities and dissidents from elsewhere in Europe, which has helped cities like Amsterdam become playgrounds where almost anything goes. But on the other hand, there's the Netherlands' centuries-long battle to keep the sea out and keep nature under control. This has given the Dutch a certain love of order, discipline and good behaviour which can catch visitors unawares. If you want to roll a joint then that's absolutely fine, but if you put your trash in the wrong trashcan, you might get in real trouble.
LONGITUDE: What books do you recommend reading, besides your own, before a trip to the Netherlands?
COATES: Although they're not widely known outside the Netherlands, there are a number of good Dutch novelists producing sharp state-of-the-nation novels about their homeland: Arnon Grunberg, Tommy Wieringa, Herman Koch. For non-fiction, try one of the many quirky books by the Dutch journalist Frank Westerman. Or another of my favorites is Wanted Women by Deborah Scroggins, a fascinating account of the rise of radical Islamism and the mainstream political reaction to it, both in the Netherlands and elsewhere.
LONGITUDE: Do you plan to write more on the Dutch, or is there another culture you plan to explore?
COATES: Yes, on both counts, I'm currently exploring some ideas for a second book which would combine another look at the Dutch with some exploration of their neighbours. At a time when much of the world seems blighted by economic and political uncertainties, I think there's a lot we can learn from the story of how a boggy, soggy corner of northern Europe with bad weather and not many natural resources managed to become one of the richest, most culturally prolific, most influential places in history. I'm interested in not just why the Dutch are different, but how they and their neighbours helped change the world.
For more recommended reading on The Netherlands, click here.