The Netherlands captured me on my first visit in 2001, and following that first visit to Amsterdam, I visited the country in May 2003, November 2003, April 2005, October 2005, and this is my 6th visit to this small but dynamic country.
My love for the Netherlands has nothing to do with soft core drugs – initial interest may have been sparked by this, but what has made my interest and admiration stay for this tiny nation is how it manages to sustain what I view as one of the most well integrated, tolerant, progressive socities in the world.
It is true that with the current globalization, there are now increasing numbers of cities where you can observe people that appear to be from all over the globe sharing a common space. In most of Western Europe, North America, and even Australia, you will see many different ethnicities in larger cities. However, over the past year of my traveling, I have strongly begun to feel the lack of integration in many places. Ethnicities are sticking together, rather than identifying themselves as part of the culture that they now live in. It is true that even in the Netherlands there seems to be a growing problem of integration with Moroccans and Turks. There is job discrimination when it’s not allowed, and many of the older generation of immigrants don’t speak Dutch.
However, I don’t know exactly how serious this problem is, and if you were able to put this aspect aside, it is really well integrated. In Amsterdam, Eelco took me to a photo exhibit on a street in the east side of the city. It’s an exhibition called “The World in One street” (Het wereld en een straat? God my Dutch is pathetic) and has portraits of different residents of this one street. Although there are no written descriptions, it is easy to see from the photos that there are Indonesians, Sub-Saharan Africans, North Africans, people from the Middle East, “Dutch” Caucasians, and mixed color families all in the same street. Perhaps you could argue that in the really wealthiest parts of the city you would only find rich whites; but the reality is that in the normal neighborhoods it’s an ethnic mélange that’s managing to work itself out.
Eelco asked me in Amsterdam why I love Holland so much. I proceeded to name my list; I love that the quality of food is very high, especially considering its location towards the north, and that so much food is produced within the country; I love how green it is all over the country; I love that people cycle everywhere; I love that people are liberal and progressive; I love that people are curious. What really makes Holland Holland is the Dutch people.
Talking with Inge about the same topic, she said that the Netherlands is a small country with a small population. Dutch people are aware that in the grand scheme of things, the Netherlands really don’t matter that much. There’s 17 million people in a country you can drive across in 2 hours. Comparing with its neighbors, it’s really insignificant. This makes the people humble, and always looking outward. A large percentage of Dutch travel abroad regularly, and those that don’t are also well-educated and keep up to date on current events around the world. You go in a supermarket (Holland really might have my favorite supermarkets in the world) and you will be able to find food from all over the world, that people are cooking and consuming on a daily basis. Its colonial days are seen in the Surinam and Indonesian food that is widely available.
In the past week in Holland I’ve spent lots of time at home with little kids, a day trip in Friesland sailing with Corianna, Wilko, Inge, and Frank, with a lovely homemade picnic, and a hot chocolate in Sloten. Sloten is one of the dozens of tiny traditional Dutch villages that don’t seem to be changing at all. The government recognizes how important it is to keep these villages intact, with their well-known windmills, cobbled streets, bridges and canals, and they are so picturesque it’s hard to believe that it’s an actual village with people living and working there.
It may have been sheer coincidence nearly 6 years ago when I approached the pair of tired-looking, shabbily dressed Dutch girls in the Galapagos, but what’s made my admiration for this country stay is this unmatched combination of appreciation of what’s available inside and outside of the country.