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‘Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg’ is a famous Dutch saying that translates roughly as ‘just act normal and you’re already crazy enough’ and beautifully illustrates the Dutch preference for keeping a low profile.
It may also go some way towards excusing the curious Dutch habits and customs that often amuse foreign visitors.
A Child is Born
Expectant mothers are rarely given a baby shower in the Netherlands and, according to tradition (and arguably a certain amount of superstition), Dutch parents wait to learn the gender of their baby until it’s born. Even if for some reason they do discover the sex prior to the birth, they won’t reveal it, not even to close friends and family. And, although modern Dutch mothers are increasingly opting for hospital births, remarkably the majority still choose for a natural delivery at home, usually without any pain killers. In fact, the Netherlands has the highest number of home births in the west and the Dutch employ a startling variety of methods (including the ever popular birthing bath) to make it as stress and pain free as humanly possible.
Once the baby finally makes an appearance, the proud parents can relax and begin to show off their new addition to the family. Friends and relatives can now enjoy a visit, where they produce a present for baby and enjoy a traditional Dutch treat ‘ beschuit met muisjes’ – a rusk like biscuit coated with butter and either blue or pink aniseed flavoured sprinkles, depending on whether it is a little boy or a girl.
Whilst contemporary Dutch families tend to reflect the open and tolerant Dutch society and come in all shapes and sizes, the average household still consists of two parents and two children.
A Dutch Childhood
Many Dutch mothers decide to go back to work after the birth of their children and the Netherlands now boasts the largest number of part-time workers in Europe. Some mums prefer to take advantage of the superb nursery facilities (that are either partly funded by the government or their employer) and return to full time employment. As soon their children reach four, they are able to pack them off to primary school to begin their elementary education.
There are good selection of primary schools in the Netherlands that promote a variety of different teaching methods (such as the popular Montessori schools) or base their education around the principles of a particular religion (including Christianity or Islam). Dutch children usually spend eight years at primary school, honing basic skills such as maths, history, geography and Dutch. They even grapple with English in the last two years, which is perhaps why the Dutch have such a high proficiency in the language.
Dutch children attend secondary school from around twelve years of age. Many will make the daily journey by bike and join the rush hour throngs of adults who also use pedal power to commute to work or to drop off their youngsters at primary school. Parents can carry up to three or four children at a time in the vast carts attached to the front of their sturdy ‘Bakfiets’ or slung on the special seats to the rear.
After obtaining their high school diploma, many Dutch pupils continue on to further education, either selecting a college course that will train them in a specific trade or a university degree. Despite the fact that many benefit from ‘studiefinanciering’ and receive a regular grant from the government (according to the financial situation of their parents), most supplement this meagre payment with part time jobs. Dutch students typically work in supermarkets or perform seasonal tasks such as strawberry picking or peeling flower bulbs.
In their spare time, young Dutch people enjoy a number of different sporting activities or socialising in their favourite bars and clubs. The most popular student haunts are the ‘bruine café’, so-called because they have an almost uniformly brown interior. These quintessential Dutch pubs are convivial havens where strong Belgian beers and Dutch ‘jenever’ (gin) are routinely supped. Many, known as ‘eetcafes’, offer tasty Dutch snacks or ‘borrelhapjes’ to soak up the alcohol, including ‘bitterballen’ (meat croquettes), Dutch cheese and mustard, ‘leverworst’ (liver sausage) and ‘vlammetjes’ (fiery spring rolls).
Getting Hitched Dutch Style
The Netherlands is a broad minded country and was the first nation in the world to legalise gay marriage, an achievement that it is certainly proud of. In general, the Dutch are getting married much later in life (the national average is now thirty) and these days many favour cohabitation to wedded bliss. When they do decide to tie the knot, it usually warrants a huge celebration.
The official marriage ceremony takes place in a local town hall, which is sometimes followed by a religious and often more elaborate service in a church of the couples choice. The newlyweds then host a brief wedding reception where all their guests can enjoy coffee and pastries, before relatives and intimate friends are treated to an evening dinner and a full scale party.
Work and Play in the Netherlands
Despite an almost unrivalled work life balance, the Dutch are known for their industrious spirit, strong work ethic and above average productivity levels. With an average of three million people commuting approximately 20 km per day by car, they do suffer some of the worst traffic jams in Europe though and regularly spend a frustrating hour or two stuck behind the wheel of their car!
In their free time the Dutch like nothing better than to relax in front of the TV or enjoy some healthy sports and leisure pursuits. They have proved particularly successful at football and ice skating – the national football team reached the World Cup final in 2010 and their ice skaters repeatedly bring home the silverware. Ice skating has been immensely popular for centuries and is traditionally enjoyed on the natural ice of the Netherland’s frozen lakes and canals, before warming up with a delicious ‘warme chocomel’ (hot chocolate) or ‘erwtensoep‘ (pea soup).
The Dutch benefit from more time off than any of their European cousins. During the peak holiday month of August most Dutch offices lie empty and, in an effort to prevent horrendous tailbacks on the country’s road network, the authorities stagger the school holidays. The most favoured holiday is camping and although, the Dutch haul their treasured tent, caravan or campervan all over Europe, the majority choose France for their final destination. During the summer holidays French campsites are literally teeming with Dutch, who not only bring their trusty camping gear, but also their favourite Dutch food products such as ‘hagelslag’ (chocolate sprinkles) and ‘pindakaas’ (peanut butter). Many French campsites are able to cash in on this Dutch desire for a taste of home, by displaying a large selection of Dutch groceries in the camp shop!
Growing Old Disgracefully in the Netherlands
Dutch men and women can officially draw their state pension from the age of 67 (as in many countries, it was recently increased from 65). They actually receive a generous sum, particularly when compared to some of their European counterparts, but many still augment this with a private pension saved during their working lives.
Dutch pensioners devote much of their free time to typical retirement activities such as playing bridge, enjoying a quiet round of golf or visiting their families. The older generation prefer to remain as independent as possible and try to avoid moving into elderly homes, even though they offer an extremely high standard of care.
The Dutch are an increasingly healthy bunch and as a result, are enjoying their retirement years for far longer. The average lifespan for Dutch men is now an impressive 80 years, whilst women fare even better, reaching the ripe old age of 86!