28 years abroad: All about…the Netherlands {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by my aunt Colleen Savelkouls, who was born in Pennsylvania and has resided in the Netherlands since 1984. Staying at Colleen’s house in the Netherlands has been the way I’ve slept off jetlag for every single trip I have taken to Europe since 2000. Still strong to her Pennsylvanian roots — and accustomed to welcoming family visitors of all ages — Colleen is a great reference for explaining Dutch culture to Americans and expressing what she loves about both countries.

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As an elementary school child growing up in central Pennsylvania, I still remember an older Dutch woman coming to talk about Holland. All I remember was her talking about wooden shoes and windmills. After all, isn’t that what most Americans think about when they try to picture Holland today — windmills, wooden shoes, and maybe tulips?

But having lived half my life in Pennsylvania and the other half in Holland, I know that there are many misconceptions that exist. First of all, Holland Dutch and Pennsylvania Dutch are not the same. The latter derives itself from the German immigrants who moved to Pennsylvania and introduced themselves with their “Deutsch” language. Second, most stories about Holland that exist in the U.S. are not necessarily about modern Holland, but the Holland that existed during or after World War II. This was the case with the older Dutch lady that I met as a child, who had left Holland to follow her love, an American soldier. Third, the country’s official name is the Netherlands. North and South Holland are actually provinces of the Netherlands from which ships used to sail with spices and Delft porcelain to sell around the world.

Here are a few differences that I have compiled to explain modern Holland, as well as the trials of living an immigrant life.

Learning languages, learning cultures. One month after receiving my Bachelor of Arts degree in 1984, I followed love to Holland. I believed I could conquer the many cultural differences and was willing to try. I was accepted easily by the Dutch, as most people my age learn English at school. Languages abound in Holland: Dutch students begin learning English around 5th or 6th grade, and in high school, they study Dutch, English, and have at least two years of both French and German. (Students going to college often also study Latin and Greek, for a total of six languages at a time.)

However, for me to learn Dutch at age 22 proved to be more difficult than I had thought. While I am now fluent after 28 years of living in Holland, I still cannot write a letter without asking someone to check my spelling. I now have more compassion for immigrants than I once did, especially a husband and wife team who are trying to learn another language as adults. My Dutch husband can correct my writing, but, as it often does with family immigrants, it often lands on the children’s shoulders to translate. After learning Dutch, I was also surprised to find that my language skills would continue to disable me in a job. I have a university level of thinking on how to approach a job, but my language skills have decreased how I can work. I can think and speak myself into a management level, but especially at the beginning, I could not write at a management level. This was limiting and, at times, very frustrating.

Old windmill near Waspik, the Netherlands, 2010
Old windmill near Waspik, the Netherlands, June 2010

Low skies and cloudy days. The first years of living in Holland, I was always asked where I was from, what I missed most about the U.S., and what was the most difficult about living abroad. My first answer was obviously learning Dutch, but the second answer — what I missed — was the mountains. Holland is extremely flat. I also did not expect to be so affected by how far north in the hemisphere Holland is. Holland is as far north as Alaska’s most southern islands, meaning that you get short days in the winter and long days in the summer (in June the sun sets at 10 PM). Due to the Atlantic Ocean, Holland has a sea climate with rain and low clouds. All together, the winters are usually cloudy, rainy, and have only 7 to 8 hours of light! If we get snow, it usually melts fairly fast. In winters, I yearn for sunshine, although I am grateful that neither summers nor winters in Holland are extremely hot or extremely cold. I tease the Dutch that they only have spring and autumn instead of four seasons.

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Sunny view from the bell tower of Oude Kerk, Delft, the Netherlands, 2010

Breaking bread and drinking coffee — together. Another aspect that I had to get used to in Holland was the coffee breaks and the eating of so much bread. The average Dutch individual — blue-collar and white-collar — eat an open slice of bread or sandwich for breakfast, have a 15-minute coffee break coffee sometime between 9 and 10 AM, eat a sandwich for lunch, have 15 minutes for coffee or tea sometime between 3 and 4 PM, eat supper, and have coffee or tea again around 8 PM. In the beginning, I thought that, with so many breaks, I could never get any work done! Now, I have come to love this time. Visitors usually come to visit for coffee or tea instead of a meal; and they usually only accept one or two cookies when sweets are offered. Taking more is considered greedy. The Dutch also have the most delicious (and healthy) bread I have ever tasted, and the aroma of Dutch coffee is phenomenal! I am addicted! Coffee time is also a time to discuss how your day has gone and to plan the next few hours. This must be why Hollanders are known to be good managers!

In addition to bread, the Dutch export excellent cheese. Delft, the Netherlands, 2010
In addition to bread, the Dutch export excellent cheese. Central Market, Delft, the Netherlands, 2010

Windmills and wooden shoes?  I would assume that maybe only 1% of the Dutch still wear wooden shoes on a farm or around the house to keep their feet dry. In contrast, the Dutch are very fashion-minded and follow the latest styles. Amsterdam is getting world-wide recognition for designs and models. Also, while there are still some old wooden windmills existing, many are not in use. Instead, there are a few provinces, especially Flevoland, filled with modern 80-yard-high windmills. This tells you how windy it can get on some days! Don’t try to keep your hair neat!

Not exactly fashion-conscious, supporting the Dutch "football" team in the World Cup. Rotterdam, 2010
Not exactly fashion-conscious, supporting the Dutch “football” team in the World Cup. Rotterdam, 2010

All in all, I have come to love Holland. I would probably have culture shock if I permanently returned to the U.S. after 28 years abroad. In Holland, I don’t have to worry about the violence of guns, and I strongly recommend the Dutch multiple political party system instead of a two-party system that divides the nation. The news in Holland is more international, whereas in the U.S. the media seems to focus just on America’s own problems. There are truly good and bad things in every country, no matter where you live.

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