Friday, October 3, 2008

The grand tour: the Netherlands

Goodafternoon everyone!

Today our Grand Tour finds us in the Netherlands. Now if ever there was a country that has a worse reputation than it deserves in the US, it is the Netherlands. I've studied for four and a half years at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands and I can say from personal experience that it is an absolute lovely country. There is much more to the Netherlands than windmills, wooden shoes and tulips, although those last are certainly spectacular and more than worthy of all the praise they get. The tulip fields in Keukenhof are a special treat, not just a tourist trap, and the Dutch themselves enjoy touring them.But... we will not just focus on those lovely flowers, no matter if I could devote an entire post to them.
Welcome to the Netherlands!

Let me first adress a few of the points of the Netherlands that have given it such a bad reputation as an extremely 'liberal' country. I dislike that word immensely by the way, since it has become such a containerword, an insult devoid of meaning or a credo devoid of contents. Nobody knows exactly what is known by liberal. Still... when I hear about the Netherlands, all I hear is about prostitution, drugs, euthanasia, and other controversial subjects. I won't pretend these topics and what you have heard about them are all untrue. What is untrue though is that they are uncontroversial in the Netherlands, or that they portray the Netherlands as a whole. Currently the Dutch (the inhabitants of the Netherlands) are actually going through something of an identity crisis. Tolerance has for years been the credo of the Dutch. This meant that you could be as liberal, but also as conservative as you want. I remember that, when I graduated, each of the students got a personalised speech by thier promoting professor. Mine talked, aside from my academic achievements about my personality, and about my faith and the way I had to make people look at another side of things. Being an exception, either conservative or liberal, was not just tolerated but respected, as long as you were not obnoxious about it. This tolerance also led to an acceptance of immigrants and a great respect for their individual traditions and ways of life. But now they are finding out that some of those traditions and ways of life do not respect their tolerance, and it is creating tensions.

But... let us add a bit more factual information about the Netherlands. First of all... where are they? Well... you see the big green France, then the tiny yellow Belgian triangle, and right above that the beige Netherlands. At least, that is the European part of the Netherlands that we will focus on today. The Netherlands also have teritory overseas, namely Aruba and the Dutch Antilles. The Netherlands is a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Beatrix leading the country in a slightly more active fashion than the Belgian King, but still having to abide by the rules of a democraticly chosen government. Although Amsterdam is the most famous Dutch city (something that rival Rotterdam does not like to admit) the capital of the Netherlands is Den Haag (the Hague)
The Netherlands and Flanders (the Dutch speaking part of Belgium) have a closely interwoven history. Until the sixteenth century they were called the Northern Netherlands (the current Netherlands) and the Southern Netherlands. (Flanders), and they were considered one. Like Flanders, the Netherlands boasted cities of enormous economical influence in medieval times. The great merchant history of Europe took shape here, and though there was a strict competition between the cities there was no special division between the regions. That division started in the 15th and 16th century with the religious tensions that plagued Europe and the harsh wars between protestants and Catholics. Religion mostly was state regulated and it depended on the whim of the ruler how much freedom was given to the individual conscience. In the current Netherlands, the protestant faith had enormous following and when in the sixteenth century Philips II of Spain tried to cut down the 'new faith' and instill uniform Catholicism in his realm, the northern provinces reared up and a fiercely fought war of independence raged for nearly a century, but in the seventeenth century Spain recognised the independence of the Dutch. Unfortunately in the religious tensions of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, a lot of magnificent artwork was lost in the iconoclast against religious imagery. In that same eventful seventeenth century the Dutch started the colonisation of Indonesia, and became in a few years a merchant world power. This of course led to wars with those other world powers: France and England. Like the Southern Netherlands though, in the early 19th century Napoleon incorporated the Netherlands in his expansion wars, but as everyone knows his succes was shortlived and the kingdom of the Netherlands was quickly restored. For a short time, the current Belgium was added to the Netherlands, but the Dutch king had not learned much of the mistakes that Philips II made centuries ago. While he was much more civilised on it, he proclaimed several measures that curtailed the rights of Catholics and tried to stamp out the French language where it was native in his new teritory. This led to a revolt very shortly after and since then the two countries are separated and yet tightly linked through a same language.
For more on the history of the Netherlands, and other factual information, I would like to refer to this link:

Another thing you will find more information on on that page are the famous Dutch waterworks. The Dutch and water have always been a special combination. They are famous sea farers since centuries and have lately made enormous contributions in the ecological cause for water winning and water preservation. No wonder that they know water so well, they have been battling it for ages. While they have been building dykes and winning land on the sea for centuries, the biggest projects however were started after the disasterous floodings of the year 1953 in which many lives were lost. Despite concerns about the environmental inpact of the project, it was started and completed. To give you an idea about how impressive this project is: one sluice gate weighs about as much as two Eiffel towers....

The Dutch are, in particular, a practical lot. They have, since medieval times, a merchant mentality. And, though they are more patriotic than the Belgians (but then just about everyone is) they can laugh with themselves. If you would like to read an excellent, quirky review of the Dutch comical and interesting habits, see if you can find the book: The Undutchables. A testimony of the fact that the Dutch do not take themselves too serious is that the books is enormously popular in the Netherlands. In fact, that is where I read it. They like to joke. There are very few taboo topics in the Netherlands, which is why it made such headlines recently, when a man was actually fined for insulting the queen to a police officer. Immediately journalists and other defenders of free speech started to jump into the breech and worrying about censorship. Still... it is harder for the Queen and her children to file private lawsuits to settle these things than it is for other citizens, so I wonder how this latest debate will be settled.

Although it has less of a reputation for it in the US, the Netherlands are a country of art lovers! There are few countries where creativity is so apreciated and stimulated as in the Netherlands. Crafts are especially popular, but from spinning and weaving to avant garde theatre, everything has a place and is given an intricate value. This should be no surprise as, with the riches of the developing trade, came a great wealth which was devoted to beautification of houses and buildings through the arts.
This has given a chance for such famous painters as Rembrandt, Vermeer, or later Mondriaan and illustrationists like the world famous Escher. Literature became very important later with writers like Vondel and Hooft. Writing was popular, even for those who were not or not yet writers, think of the world famous diary of Anne Frank. A special place should be made here to mention authors of childrens books. The Dutch have a marvelous tradition of childrens books which really should be translated in every language in the world. Annie M.G. Schmidt and her irreverent stories and rhymes being perhaps the most famous, but certainly such great writers as Thea Beckman, Evert Hartman and Jan Terlouw should not be forgotten.
The Dutch like their arts and their artists. They go to the theater often, either to see professionals or amateurs, there always is a wealth of new musicians and genres going from medieval ensembles to avant garde fusion music and everything in between. Few people look down on what is considered 'popular culture'. Beign highbrow is not really considered a virtue here. While people apreciate it if you have culture, they most definitely do not apreciate a snobish attitude. Their response to that would be: "doe maar gewoon, dat is al gek genoeg" or basically :"just act normal, that is crazy enough."

That last is typically Dutch. While they are fierce talkers and the victim of quite a bit of stereotyping from the Belgians (from loudmouthed braggards to notorious pinchpennies) they like living their life the way they chose to. Home, family and friends are very important to them. One of their highest compliments to a gathering can be that it is "zo gezellig", an expression that is hard to translate, but would probably best be aproached by 'so cozy'. To impress however hos difficult this word is to translate and how many connotations it can have, I invite you to check this link:
Impressive isn't it? How much can be conveyed by a single word? The Dutch however are amongst the champions of homey coziness, and they do it with simple means. Flowers, a cup of tea, a cookie, and a good chat. Hospitality for them need not be complicated. They don't like to show off, but have more a 'come as you are' attitude that would resonate well with the American hospitality.
Dutch food is more simple and could be considered a bit plain compared to the French or Belgian cuisine with its rich sauces, but when prepared well, it is both wholesome and tasty, and very much it's own style, and especially their pastry is SO good. Before I go to the recipes, I want to have a quick mention of what many consider a fun Dutch quirk in it's fast food tradition: the automaton. In small villages and large cities alike, you will easily find a snackbar and aside from it an automaton, with tiny doors where you can put in a coin and get an unhealthy but warm and delicious snack in return. However, let me see if I can not tempt your tastebuds with some other Dutch specialities:
Moorkoppen (Dutch pastry): (rich and delicious) Boterkoek (buttercake): Advocaat (eggnog) Banket letters (Pastry letters) (this IS timeconsuming, and most Dutch will just buy it at the bakery. It is a traditional food for Saint Nicholas day)Dutch Baby (breakfast recipe): Asparagus: (This recipe is simple and delicious.)Bitterballen (ragout snack) (this ultimate dutch snack may be a bit of work to prepare, but it will be popular with everybody! The same filling can also be used for croquettes)Oliebollen (Dutch Beignets) (traditional at new years, but also at fairs. VERY good)Preisoep (Dutch leek soup) (savoury and great)Snert (Dutch pea soup) bonen soep (Brown bean soup): kool (red cabbage) ( agreat favourite with children, though I remember my mom sometimes adding apples to the recipe)Slavinken (A different way to prepare ground beef)Uitsmijter (an easy grilled cheese snack)Hutspot (mash) (this is the ultimate winterfood! Especially with smoked sausage or ham)

Well, with the recipes... here we are at the end again. I hope you enjoyed our short visit to the Netherlands. As always, there is much more to tell... but not enough room.
What I want you to remember of todays visit:
- The Netherlands are not just a nation where everything is allowed.- The Dutch were one of the greatest merchant nations of the world in the renaissance. - The Netherlands is a constitutional monarchy, and the current queens name is Beatrix.- The Dutch are specialist on water.- The Dutch do not like a snobish atitude, they like life normal and simple.- Three Famous Dutch painters are: Rembrandt, Vermeer and Mondriaan.- The Dutch put a great value on tolerance.

So... with that, we go to our homework. Thank you Elizabeth, for handing in yours. *G* And don't worry, I know the feeling. There are more than enough people who do not want to hear anymore about Belgium by now. *W*
Research assignment:
Do an internet search on:
Deltawerken, Queen Beatrix, Union of Utrecht, Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt, Dutch colonies, tulips, Dutch East India Company, Vermeer, Kampen, Saint Nicholas, speculaas, the Hague, Annie M.G. Schmidt
or locate and read the book: The Undutchables or Max Havelaar
Practical assignment:
-Make one of the Dutch recipes from this blog for your friends and family. Both the pea soup and the Uitsmijter, as well as the Dutch baby are quite easy, and you probably have the ingredients on hand.- OR: offer hospitality Dutch style. Ask a friend or neighbour over for coffee. No need to exhaust yourself: just the two of you at the kitchen table with some cookies (can very well be storebought) and coffee will do.
Easy assignment:
- Tell someone you know three facts that you now know about the Netherlands.

Until tomorrow! I hope you are enjoying our tour!Be loved and blessed,

No comments: