it was easy to agree with the German poet Heinrich Heine, who allegedly said that if a war ever broke out he would head straight for the Netherlands, because ‘everything happens fifty years later there’.
Initially, I had been under the vague impression that it was one of those eco-friendly countries where environmental protection was a top priority – a nation of cyclists, vegetarians and hard-core recyclers. In reality, however, after centuries of battling against the water, the Dutch tended to view Mother Nature not as a life-giving provider, but a menace to be tamed. They even had a word for it: maakbaarheit, the capacity to remake and control the world around you. I often noticed that things someone who was British, French or German might think of as beautiful – a wild meadow, a tangled hedge, a stormy beach – my Dutch friends viewed as an affront to common sense and discipline. Humans, they thought, had a duty to bring nature under control wherever they found it.
Despite all the cycling and recycling, the Netherlands actually wasn’t very green at all.
The Dutch themselves were well travelled and well informed about the world, with an outward orientation that would put many insular Brits to shame.
In a rare exception, the country had established a new regiment of 3000 soldiers after the First World War ended: a regiment of cyclists, with the motto ‘Swift and Nimble – Composed and Dignified’. As Pete Jordan later wrote, their firepower included a military band equipped with bikes with special handlebars that could be steered while playing a horn.
Ironically, just as other countries were increasingly following the Dutch lead in setting social policy – the legalisation of gay marriage in the UK, for example, and of cannabis in much of the US – the Netherlands was entering a less permissive age, introducing a raft of new regulation aimed at restricting things like prostitution and cannabis use. Many Dutch people believed this change of course was long overdue, but for others the prospect of tightening the rules raised serious questions about what the country stood for.
For the Dutch, being tolerant included respecting the right to be intolerant.
There was, as far as I could tell, no such things as a shy or introspective Dutchman.
On average, the Dutch work fewer than 27 hours per week – by far the lowest rate among all developed countries, and more than an hour a day less than the Brits. No fewer than half the adult population work part-time, and I knew several people who were paid a full salary for working a 32-hour week.
In my home country, people’s behaviour was still dictated largely by the need to maintain a stiff upper lip, act appropriately and mind what the neighbours say. Strict rules about things like drug use and prostitution went hand in hand with disapproval of any kind of licentious behaviour or sexual adventurousness. In Britain to dress scruffily, eat messily or arrive late for a meeting was not simply unappealing but downright rude. However, these fustier attitudes were tempered by a pervasive disrespect for authority. Things like speed limits, red lights and pedestrian crossings were all strictly advisory. The British viewed ostensible authority figures like policemen, government ministers and civil servants as kindly meddlers at best, or devious cheats at worst. The rules were often strict, but people prided themselves on ignoring them.
In the Netherlands, the situation appeared to be the opposite. People had absolute freedom to do whatever they liked in their private lives, but minor rules and regulations were sacrosanct. Speed limits and red lights were obeyed, policemen rather feared and the government respected.
Euthanasia was legal in the Netherlands, but saying mean things about the King could land you in jail. Prostitutes could sell sex in Amsterdam, but residents of the same city needed permits to park at their own homes. Anyone calling in sick to work could expect a swift visit from an official inspector to check they were actually as ill as they claimed. Roadside herring sellers – a common sight in Dutch towns – could be fined for peddling fish before the official herring season had started. Military service remained compulsory until the mid-1990s. Dogs needed a ticket to ride on a train. The list continued. To an outsider, the sheer range of petty rules to follow could be bewildering, and many expats found themselves hit with heavy fines for minor bureaucratic offences. I was always forgetting to carry my ID card, which by law I was supposed to keep on my person at all times.
Over time I developed the theory that the contradiction between indulgence and restriction was rooted in the delicate equilibrium between two competing forces in Dutch culture. On the one hand, the Netherlands had a long tradition o providing refuge to religious, political and scientific heretics. The Dutch therefore placed a high priority on protecting individuals’ rights to behave however they pleased, regardless of what others thought. On the other hand, theirs was also a country forged in conflict with nature, facing a constant existential threat from flooding. Good order, cooperation and discipline were essential in order to ensure the country remained dry, and hence the Dutch had developed a strong attachment to these traits. Tolerance of personal quirks was therefore balanced by intolerance of anything that suggested disorder or lack of caution. For an outsider, the hidden undercarriage of restrictive regulation could be both confusing and annoying. I started to understand the sentiment once expressed by the Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren. ‘We hate the bores, Jesus Christ and the Dutch,’ he said. ‘Especially the Dutch.’