Posts Tagged netherlands
An ethnographer I am not, but if nothing else then I’m enjoying some ‘mini ethnography’ — noticing for myself the differences in custom and culture in this country. There are various things:
To return to my previous cycling theme, I have observed Dutch folk cycling in the following combinations:
- with a second, empty bike held steady with one hand
- with a passenger: often delicately sat side-saddle upon the bike’s luggage rack, chatting away with the cyclist as they travel
- while chatting on the phone
- while writing text messages
- heading for the station, pulling trolley luggage along with one hand
- in one notable case: with one small, very blond child sat in front, one small, very blond child sat behind, while on the phone!
Excepting the final two examples, I have seen all of the above numerous times since arriving. For someone who’s only been in town for seven weeks, I’m impressed by the variety — and the nonchalence with which it’s all done.
This blog can’t entirely be about cycling, though. What else?
Food is mostly similar here: a sandwich and soup is a very common lunchtime choice, for example. Like England, NL is tea-oriented: Earl Grey is commonplace, and the local supermarket stocks more varieties of rooiboos tea (honey, citrus, spice…) than the one back home! (Incidentally, I’ve been asked in a slightly incredulous tone: “Do the English really drink their tea with milk?” Wonderful.)
I’m missing two UK food items. Firstly, the Dutch don’t seem to have the concept of ‘stock’ that we do in the UK, so products such as Oxo cubes aren’t about. Additionally, low-sugar hot chocolate mix has proven impossible to find: hot chocolate mixes exist, but they are few in number, so ‘speciality’ (e.g. low-sugar) versions don’t exist.
I have a theory about the lack of chocolate mix: I’m putting it down to Chocomelk, a very tasty (and unhealthy) local drink. You can probably guess its nature from the name! It’s delicous, so I can see why instant hot chocolate is less popular here.
One of the things I love about Europe is the café culture, particularly the way that most cafés have a set of seats and tables on an outdoor terrace. I was surprised, though, to note the determined clientele using these terraces right now, during the coldest part of the year! They wrap up in coats and scarves, and go for it — perhaps with gritted teeth. More than anything else, this puts me in mind of the (stereotypical) determined Englishman who goes for a paddle and maybe an ice cream at the seaside, whatever the time of year. “We’re at the seaside, it’s what we do.”
Finally, I continue to be humbled every day by how fluent in English almost everyone is — and even more humbled by how readily they will switch languages for me, a foreigner who moved here with barely a word of Dutch. Last week, I apologised to a receptionist for my lack of Dutch as she struggled for an English word: “No,” she said, “it’s my problem” — and she meant it.
I’m not sure it’s possible to talk about a more to the Netherlands without touching upon the topic of bikes. So:
I didn’t learn to ride a bike until relatively late (mid-teens), and never got super-happy-confident on one. My stance has mostly been ‘wary’, I’d say. Well, I can’t have this non-bike thing going on in the Netherlands, can I? Besides, my walk to work is almost two miles, and not especially scenic: good motivation for cycling!
My officemate very kindly spent a lunchtime guiding me to and around a local bike shop, where I acquired a nice secondhand model. Some observations:
Bikes: Dutch bikes are thoroughly sensible. My bike’s lights are built-in (unlike a UK bike, where they’re detachable and thus liable to being stolen). They’re powered by a dynamo – no need to worry about batteries. Huzzah!
Locks: the first advice I received on this subject was “get a cheap bike and an expensive lock”. Well, my bike turns out to have a built-in lock for immobilising the back wheel. Neat, eh? Additionally, I have a decent chain lock. Talking to my peers suggests that two to three locks is a good number, so if anything I appear to be at the low end of the spectrum. Blimey…
Bags: unsurprisingly, the Dutch have also given thought to some very sensible approaches to Carrying Stuff Around on a bike. Many people use double-panniers across the backs of their bikes. As for me, my generous officemate lent me a spare satchel. It has hooks that fit it to the bike frame, meaning I can use it for my commute, but also carry it up to the office and use it as a normal bag. Hooray!
Storage: there are places to lock bikes everywhere, of course. At work, there turns out to be a big basement for bikes, meaning its pretty safe and dry in the day. The basement is locked in the evenings and overnight, so I’m motivated to leave work by 6.30 each night! As for home, it turns out my flat – rather adorably – comes with a mini bike-scale garage. Ain’t that sweet?
I’ve had the bike for two weeks (already! Time is passing worrying quickly): I’m getting used to it fast. It is very convenient, and I couldn’t ask for a better learning environment than a flat country that’s full of cycle lanes and non-aggressive, bike-respecting drivers.
It seems inevitable when settling down in a new town that you make comparisons between new home and the old.
There are some very obvious similarities between Southampton and Eindhoven. Each one is a town of around 200,000, of which about 10% are students. Each has two universities. TU/e, my employer, celebrates its 55th year in 2011, while the University of Southampton was celebrating 50 years when I started back in 2002.
I work at a beautifully-landscaped engineering-centric campus university, which is split in two by a river. I live in a country where everyone (pretty much) speaks English, and popular topics of conversation include the weather and train delays.
So what’s different?
Although I feel very at home here, and although the Netherlands isn’t hugely culturally different to the UK, it does mark a real change. Despite surface similarities such as the weather, the food, and use of English, it can and does feel very foreign. English is a second language; I don’t recognise items on supermarket shelves; I’m still learning about the public transport system.
Food and drink are an interesting area. I have encountered ‘karnemelk,’ which I innocently bought, assuming it to be some variety of standard milk – it is not. It is a strange buttermilk, very sour and not something you’d find in the UK. A Brit might use it for cooking, but they also drink it here! They drink their tea black (of course), and I have started to as well: it’s easier than trying to coax milk from bemused vendors. I am thrilled by the availability (and price) of olives, and even the most basic canteen at the university has a wonderful selection of breads, cheeses and hams.
There are still other things:
* I’m still astounded by how tiny the breakfast cereal selection is in large supermarkets. It’s perfectly adequate for my needs, but in the UK the cereals would easily get ten times the shelf space in a shop of that size.
* Some public toilets provide soap in powder form.
* Supermarket bags are very thin and impractical, though of course they sell heavy-duty ones you can reuse.
* It appears to be relatively normal for people to build their own homes in this country, although apparently the practice is more common in Belgium.
* People eat early here, at six or seven. (Edit: I mean eating out, here. People often book restaurants for 6pm, while in the UK I struggle to convince people to book earlier than 8pm.)
This week, I attended an induction for international employees. It was thoughtfully put together. Amongst other things, it included some work with Hofstede profiles. Interestingly, one of the biggest differences between the Dutch and UK profiles concerns communication: apparently, the Dutch tend to ‘low context communication’ – that is, being direct (or honest, or blunt – depending on which connotations you’d prefer). By contrast, we Brits are all about ‘high context communication’ – being indirect (or polite, or failing to say a damned thing – choose your connotations!).
Really, most of the people I’m working with are of other nationalities again (currently, most of my interactions are with some chaps from Belgium, Serbia and Greece), so I haven’t had intense contact with someone of Dutch origin… but it’s all helpful information.
I’m getting a lot from all of this. Living abroad makes me question assumptions I didn’t even know I had, from small preconceptions (surely a shopping basket can’t have wheels!) through to broader awareness of my own cultural context.