Straightforwardness is so intrinsic in Dutch society that there’s even a Dutch word for it: ‘bespreekbaarheid’ (speakability) that everything can and should be talked about.
I’d only been living in Amsterdam for a year when we met my husband’s friends in one of the many cafes and bars in the city’s famous Vondelpark.
We chose our seats and waited, but the waiter was nowhere to be seen. When he finally materialised, seemingly out of nowhere, he didn’t ask ‘What would you like to order’, or ‘What can I get you?’. He said ‘What do you want?’. Maybe it was the fact that he’d said it in English, or maybe he was just having a bad day, but I was shocked nonetheless.
My Dutch teacher later explained that the Dutch are very direct and nowhere are they so direct as they are in Amsterdam.
Ben Coates, who wrote Why the Dutch Are Different, moved to the Netherlands from Great Britain eight years ago. He recalls similar experiences, specifically one situation when he got a haircut and a friend immediately pointed out that it didn’t suit him at all.
“I think the Netherlands are a place where… no-one is going to pretend. For example, when you say something in a business meeting that is not a very smart suggestion, people will always point it out,” he said.
To Coates, the differences between his native Britain and the Netherlands were immediately noticeable. In Great Britain, he says, people tend to communicate and behave in a way that minimises offense to other people.
“You don’t talk too loudly on the train because it’s not too nice for the people in your compartment; you don’t play your music too loud in your apartment because it’s not so nice for your neighbours; there is this constant calibrating of your own behaviour,” Coates explained. But in the Netherlands, there is “the sense that people have the right to say whatever they want and be as direct as they want. And if other people don’t like that, it’s their fault for getting offended.”
To many foreigners, this give-it-to you-straight mentality can come across as inconsiderate, perhaps even arrogant. One time, I found myself at the supermarket staring with disbelief at the groceries that had spilled out of my hands onto the floor. Within seconds, I was surrounded by no fewer than 10 Dutch people, all of them giving me advice on what to do. But not one lifted a finger. To me, the situation was obvious: I needed help immediately. But the Dutch saw it differently: unless I specifically asked for help, it probably wasn’t necessary.
“We think truthfulness goes before empathy”
“Others may think that we don’t have empathy. Maybe that is so because we think truthfulness goes before empathy,” explained Eleonore Breukel, an interculturalist who trains people to communicate better in multicultural environments.
In the end, it all comes down to differences in communication patterns, said Breukel, who is Dutch but has lived all over the world. She believes the Dutch tendency to be very direct has to do with straightforwardness, which in turn is connected to the historical prevalence of Calvinism in the Netherlands (even though, according to Dutch News, the vast majority of Dutch people don’t associate with any religion today).
After the start of the Reformation in the 16th Century, Calvinism spread to France, Scotland and the Netherlands. But it only had noticeable impact in the latter, where it coincided with the fight for independence against Catholic Spain, which ruled over the Netherlands from 1556 to 1581.
In 1573, the Dutch prince William the Silent (called Willem van Oranje in Dutch), the founder of the Royal House of Orange that rules the Netherlands today, converted from Catholicism to Calvinism and united the country behind him. As a result, the Calvinist religion had a large impact on national identity because the Dutch associated Catholicism with Spanish oppression.
From that moment on, “Calvinism dictated the individual responsibility for moral salvage from the sinful world through introspection, total honesty, soberness, rejection of ‘pleasure’ as well as the ‘enjoyment’ of wealth,” writes Breukel in an article on Dutch business culture published on her website.
This straightforwardness is so intrinsic in Dutch society that there’s even a Dutch word for it: bespreekbaarheid (speakability) that everything can and should be talked about; there are no taboo topics.
In fact, directness and the idea of transparency that goes with it is a highly desirable trait to the Dutch. Many of the older houses in the Netherlands have big windows, allowing visitors if they so wish to peep inside.
“There is a totally different concept of privacy,” Coates said, noting the tendency of the Dutch people to discuss intimate topics in public.
“You sit in a restaurant with a friend and they will happily, in a room full of strangers, talk quite loudly about their medical problems or their parents’ divorce or their love life. They see no reason to keep it a secret.”
There is a totally different concept of privacy
In fact, from an outside point of view, it seems that every topic, no matter how difficult, should be up for debate. The Netherlands is unique in the way it treats treats topics such as prostitution, drugs and euthanasia. The latter is fully legalised but highly controlled, while the Red-Light District is a famous part of Amsterdam. While marijuana is no longer entirely legal, authorities have a so-called tolerance policy where coffee shops are not prosecuted for selling it.
But Breukel disagrees with the premise that the Dutch don’t have taboo topics. “We don’t discuss salaries, we don’t discuss pensions. Anything to do with luxury. We don’t talk about how beautiful our house is. We don’t discuss how big our car is,” she added.
Moreover, she said that the Dutch don’t want to acknowledge anything that might hint at inequality or power relationships. This is because of the socalled poldermodel, the Dutch practice of policymaking by consensus between government, employers and trade unions. The word ‘polder’ refers to pieces of land reclaimed from the sea. According to The Economist, to make the building of polders possible and to guard the country from the everpresent threat from the sea, the Dutch had to cooperate and work well together. This seeped down to family life where children’s voices count almost as much as those of the parents.
“We have an egalitarian culture. And in that egalitarian culture, we don’t want to make a difference between the boss and the employee,” Breukel said. In other words, there are rules of behaviour that everyone has to follow, and that, again, is visible in language. Proverbs such as ‘Doe maar normaal, dan ben je al gek genoeg’ (just be normal, that’s already crazy enough) or ‘Steekje hoofd niet boven het maaiveld uit’ (don’t put your head above the ground) are there to remind us that we are all the same.
As for me, I am learning to communicate better in the direct, Dutch way. Breukel advised me to start with the subject for example, ‘I would like an appointment’ instead of listing all the reasons why I should see the doctor. I’ve also learned to ask for help, instead of expecting it to be offered. And although I may complain about Dutch directness, I’m grateful to live in a country that allows me to be just that.
Why the Dutch are Different, A Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands
The Queen had resigned, and it was the new King’s first day at work. Amsterdam was ablaze with colour, the city’s narrow brick streets flooded with an estimated one million people celebrating the inauguration of the first King of the Netherlands in more than a hundred years. The concentric canals were gridlocked with small boats, many of them in danger of sinking under the weight of the scores of people drinking and dancing on board.
It was April 2013 and the Dutch capital had been hit by a serious outbreak of what the locals called oranjekoorts, or ‘orange fever’, a non-fatal disease whose chief symptom was the urge to cover oneself from head to toe in bright orange clothing. The choice of colour was a tribute to the Royal House of Orange, itself named after the small French town of Orange over which its members had once ruled. Orange banners floated from the windows of the slender canal houses, orange bunting spanned the crooked alleyways and orange balloons hung from the tilting iron lampposts. The cobbled floor was littered with discarded orange wigs, hats and miniature flags. Babies wore orange face paint and a barking dog sported an orange hat, coat and miniature feather boa.
Wearing an orange T-shirt emblazoned ‘IK HOU VAN HOLLAND’ (‘I love Holland’), an orange top hat and orange sunglasses, I felt I hadn’t really made enough of an effort.
In Dam Square, site of the dam on the river Amstel that gave the city its name, some 25,000 people had gathered to watch the retiring Queen Beatrix hand the family business to her son, the new King Willem Alexander. At one end of the square, the six-storey Royal Palace was draped with Dutch tricolour flags, the golden railings of its first-floor balcony laced with orange flowers.
In front of the palace was a vast crowd of well-wishers, many of them dressed in orange fur-trimmed capes and inflatable crowns. Necks craning and cameras held high, they strained for a view of the minor royals and celebrities walking to the palace from the ancient Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) where the King had just been formally approved by the Dutch parliament. The UK’s Prince Charles sweated his way across the cobbles under a mass of gold braid and medals; Ghana’s Kofi Annan grinned and waved to the cheering crowd.
Queen Beatrix had announced her intention to step down a few months previously, after thirty-three years on the throne. It was, she said, time for the crown to pass to ‘a new generation’. Now, appearing on the palace balcony above the square, the nation’s kindly grandmother looked close to tears. ‘Some moments ago I abdicated from the throne,’ she told the tangoed masses in Dutch, a light breeze ruffling her dark purple dress. ‘I am happy and grateful to introduce you to your new King, Willem-Alexander.’
The national anthem began to play, and the former Queen stood back from the balcony. The new King stepped forward, ruddy as a farmer in his dark suit and pale tie, flanked by his wife Maxima, an Argentinian beauty who had shaken off her past as a junta leader’s daughter to win millions of Dutch hearts. Next to the royal couple stood their three cherubic daughters, visibly nervous but as pretty as Disney princesses in their matching yellow dresses. They waved to the tangerine crowd, and applause rippled through the city like thunder.
My own journey to Dam Square had begun some three years previously, more than five thousand miles away in the Caribbean. Until 2010, I had worked in London as a kind of low-rent political hitman, crafting snide talking points and tubthumping speeches for ambitious politicians, skilfully misrepresenting opponents and raking over expense claims to force the resignation of otherwise competent cabinet ministers. It was the kind of job that guaranteed invitations to cocktail parties and impressed girls in bars, and I didn’t like it at all.
When a national election and coalition agreement put my jubilant former colleagues in power, I found myself faced with a choice. I could either angle for work carrying a minister’s bags around expensively catered international summits, or I could submit to the lucrative PowerPoint grind of a corporate lobbying job. After mulling over my options for an afternoon, I did what any sensible person would: I booked a one-way flight to Cuba.
By September that year, I was on a battered forty foot sailing boat off the coast of Belize, in possession of little more than an oaky tan and the kind of beard that guaranteed a strip search at airports. The vessel’s dreadlocked crew were more interested in listening to reggae than in actually sailing anywhere, and time had collapsed into a blissfully monotonous cycle of drinking rum punch, swimming with turtles and broiling gently in the sun. The House of Commons seemed a long way away.
The few other passengers on board included a pair of sunburned English girls celebrating their graduation and making plans to save the world, and four sunburned Dutch cousins with backpacks, boisterous and over-friendly in the way that tall people released from a small country usually were. Bored of the rum and the turtles, I struck up a conversation with the only girl in the Dutch group, a skinny blonde with salty hair, a starfish-patterned bikini and eyes the colour of the sea. We discussed nothing memorable, but when she disembarked that evening I somehow convinced her to leave behind her email address, scrawled on the back of a Cubana Airlines ticket stub.
Several months passed in a haze of beer, beaches and bus rides, and I had all but forgotten about the girl on the boat until a series of agitated messages from my bank indicated it was time to find a new job. Unfortunately, the plane carrying me back to Heathrow met with a sudden snowstorm and was diverted to Amsterdam. With all flights cancelled, an unkind security guard kicked me out of Schiphol airport and I trudged through thick snow to a series of hotels, each overcrowded with other stranded passengers. Shivering in a T-shirt and cotton trousers better suited to Caribbean climes, l was seriously contemplating sleeping in a subway station when I remembered that I did, in fact, know someone who lived in the Netherlands. Kneeling by a frozen canal, I dug a sun-bleached ticket stub from the bottom of my backpack and sent a message to the skinny girl asking if she’d like to meet for dinner.
She invited me round to her place in Rotterdam that evening, and I never left.
Rotterdam is not a beautiful city. A sprawling industrial conurbation of some 600,000 people, the Netherland’s second largest metropolis has none of the canals, cobbles or picturesque bridges of its more famous rival, Amsterdam, and as such is rarely troubled by tourists. However, much to my surprise, it soon began to feel like home. Literally hours after walking out of the airport in the snow, I found myself living in a tall, crooked townhouse, on a tree-lined street between a canal, a tram stop and a bar selling tiny glasses of Heineken. My Caribbean suntan swiftly faded, and my long beard joined my tattered beach clothes in a rubbish bin on the rain-soaked balcony. By the time the snow melted, my belongings had already arrived in the post from England, and l was eating bright green erwtensoep (pea soup) with gusto. The skinny girl a feisty, fiercely intelligent Rotterdammer with a pretty smile showed no signs of kicking me out, and I began the slow process of integrating into Dutch society.
One of the first things to figure out was what to call my new home. Even the Dutch themselves couldn’t quite decide, referring to their country as either Holland or Nederland (the Netherlands) interchangeably. Consulting a heavy book in the library, though, I learned that strictly speaking the country was actually called ‘The Kingdom of the Netherlands’. Just as the United Kingdom included Wales, Scotland and assorted overseas territories, the Kingdom of the Netherlands included both the main territory in Europe, the Netherlands and three colonial relics in the Caribbean: the islands of Aruba, Curacao and St Maarten. (Three other specks in the Caribbean Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba also had the status of ‘special municipalities’.)
The European part of the Kingdom could therefore be termed simply ‘the Netherlands’, but to label it ‘Holland’ was wrong, as that name referred only to the country’s two most populous provinces: North Holland and South Holland. Calling the whole country ‘Holland’ was therefore rather like calling the whole of the United Kingdom ‘England’ a common mistake, but a mistake nevertheless. So the country was ‘the Netherlands’, and the people who lived there were Dutch, and spoke Dutch, a language that sounded to an outsider like a drunk man gargling soup.
Next were the bikes. In Britain, bicycles are sporting accessories used only by children, the fit or the foolhardy. In the Netherlands, though, a third of the country ride one as their main mode of transport. Within a few weeks I had bought two: a sturdy shopping bike with handlebars like a Frenchman’s moustache, and then a lean white racing bike that weighed perhaps a fifth as much as the first one.
A few weeks later came what the Dutch called a snorfiets, or miniature motor-scooter, an absurd little machine the same colour as a fire engine and almost as noisy. Helmets are optional, and the miles of flat, traffic-free cycle lanes are perfect for wobbling home after a few too many Heinekens.
Thirdly, unfortunately, I had to get a job. The generosity of the Dutch welfare system made it tempting to stay in bed, but sadly I soon found gainful employment, an incredibly lucrative but boring position with a major Anglo-Dutch company, sending emails from a cubicle in The Hague and trying to understand the curious habits of my Dutch colleagues.
Finally came the language. Nearly all Dutch people speak perfect English, thanks to an excellent education and a population small enough to mean it isn’t worth dubbing American films and television programmes into the local language.
However, outside of Amsterdam it is relatively rare to hear English spoken in the street, and I quickly became frustrated at being unable to follow conversations, read menus or tell the difference between alcoholfree beer and real beer in the supermarket. Dutch friends provided a crash course in key phrases every Englishman abroad should know: ‘Mag ik een biertje’ (can I have a beer); ‘Je bent mooi’ (you are beautiful); ‘Ik heb het niet gedaan, ik wil een advocaat’ (I didn’t do it, I want a lawyer). When this vocabulary proved insufficient I took a few lessons with a private tutor, a kind, curly-haired woman who’d broken her hip in a cycling accident and was consigned to a Hitchcockian convalescence watching the birds through her rear window. We never studied as such, but gossiped in a mixture of Dutch and English, and I quickly reached a level where I could understand almost everything people said and stammer my way through a reply.
Reading was harder, though, and I battled my way through picture books belonging to a Dutch friend’s eighteen-month-old daughter. Miffy (Nijntje) was fun, but The Very Hungry Caterpillar was beyond me.
Out in public I still regularly made mistakes, such as the time when instead of asking someone whether she was cold, I accidentally called her something else beginning with ‘c’.
Surprisingly quickly, the Netherlands began to feel like home. I learned how to cycle while holding an open umbrella, how to slip slimy pickled herrings down my throat in one vinegary gulp, and how to pronounce words like ‘genoeg’ and ‘hottentottententententoonstelling’. However, there was still much about the country that was deeply confusing.
For a tiny nation, smaller than Togo or Kyrgyzstan, the Netherlands has had a huge influence on the world. The Dutch ruled over an empire stretching from the Caribbean to East Asia, founded the city of New York, discovered Australia, played the world’s best football and produced some of the finest art and architecture in Europe. Everywhere one goes in the world, one can always find Dutch people.
A country half the size of Scotland, with a population of just seventeen million or so, claims to have invented the DVD, the dialysis machine, the tape recorder, the CD, the energy-saving lightbulb, the pendulum clock, the speed camera, golf, the microscope, the telescope and the doughnut.
The Netherlands has been, and still is, a kind of hidden superpower. Yet to many outsiders including me it remained a land defined entirely by clichés: clogs and canals, tulips and windmills, bikes and dikes, pot and prostitutes.
Bookshelves in the leafy English village where I grew up groaned under the weight of volumes about Italian cuisine or the difficulties of assimilating in rural France, but when it came to the gastronomically and climatically challenged Netherlands, most people were completely uninformed.
Those well versed in the history of the Berlin Wall or the French Resistance often knew nothing about swathes of Dutch history: the vast land bridge that once connected the Netherlands to England; the famine that devastated the country in the 1940s; the Catholic traditions of the carnival-loving south; the long battle for independence from Spain; the bloody wars against the English navy; the engineering marvel of the Delta Project; the poisonous politics of the Dutch far right.
The millions of tourists who visit each year rarely leave Amsterdam, and many expats manage to live in the country for years without speaking a single word of Dutch.
Like Canada or Sweden, the Netherlands is a place about which everyone knows a little, but no one knows very much.
As my own ties to the country deepened, I was determined to learn more. In 2013 I set out on a series of journeys through my adopted country. Some were many miles long, while others were confined to a single city or even building, but each aimed to understand a different aspect of the Netherlands’ culture and history the battle against the rising tides, the ‘Golden Age’ of empire, the Second World War, the effects of immigration, the liberal approach to drugs and prostitution and how these shaped the Dutch themselves.
This book is the story of those journeys. In the course of undertaking them I not only saw the new King inaugurated in Amsterdam, but dressed as a tiger for Easter, got drunk in a world-famous art gallery, had a picnic in a concentration camp, found Noah’s Ark near the North Sea and watched small children put on blackface before Christmas.
I even broke the habit of a lifetime and went to a football match. I learned why the Dutch are always cleaning their windows, why prostitutes pay income tax, and why the Netherlands are not quite as liberal as they seem.
Some things, however, remained a mystery. Chief among these was where the Netherlands was heading. During my first few months in the country, I often thought the Dutch had built something close to a perfect society. They live in one of the richest countries in Europe but work the fewest hours, with profitable multinational companies and excellent public services to boot. Compared to their British counterparts, the average Dutch person works an hour a day less but is about twenty per cent wealthier. Violent crime is almost unheard of and even major cities are bucolic, with little of the stress, pettiness and grime that plague places like London.
With memories of my daily commute to Westminster fading fast, I cycled slowly to the office, worked a few hours a day and had my bank account replenished with an unspendable torrent of euros every month with special extra pay cheques provided to cover the cost of Christmas and summer holidays.
Despite drinking dozens of cups of coffee a day, the Dutch are relaxed about almost everything. Working on weekends is unheard of, while suits and ties are reserved for weddings and funerals only. (For a job interview, a clean T-shirt will suffice.)
The Netherlands often seemed a charmingly timewarped place, with children playing safely in the streets at night, road-sweepers using wooden witches’ brooms, and teenagers rollerblading in the park while listening to Michael Jackson. Wandering the canals of Delft or watching the royals wave from their balcony in Amsterdam, 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’.
Over time, though, it became clear that my initial impressions of peace and prosperity were not entirely accurate. Although there was much in the Netherlands to admire, there were also some things to be concerned about.
For centuries the country had benefited from its exposure to the outside world. Its geographical position and long seaboard helped it get rich from trade, while its overseas empire funded the development of cities like Amsterdam and artists like Rembrandt. The Dutch people’s outward-looking, internationalist attitude had given them a place on the world stage that it was hard to imagine being rivalled by, say, Finland, or Montenegro.
However, in recent years, exposure to outside forces had also created challenges. A journalist from the New York Times had described how ‘the Dutch tend to be a little world-weary these days. The past 35 years of Dutch history is the story of innocence lost,’ he wrote. ‘The noxious malaise that has long been eating at the vitals of most of industrialised Europe seems finally to have reached the Netherlands, taking much of the bounce out of this quiet, bustling nation as the stout-hearted Dutch got their first taste of domestic terrorism, racial extremism, corporate scandal and massive unemployment.’ That was in 1976.
Since then, the sense of uncertainty had only intensified. The economic crisis had hit the Netherlands hard, climate change had threatened the country’s watery borders, and immigration had caused tensions in many communities. Perhaps most strikingly of all, many former liberals now thought the whole Dutch social experiment had gone too far. The country’s famously permissive approach to tricky social issues had been questioned, and sacred cows like legal drug use and prostitution sacrificed.
In the teenage years of the twenty-first century, one of Europe’s smallest countries seemed to be a microcosm for the challenges facing the continent at large.
Would the Netherlands be able to maintain its traditional freedoms, or were the good times over? No one seemed entirely sure, but as Amsterdam erupted in orange, the country was determined to defy the doomsayers.
In their laidback, pragmatic, untheatrical way, the Dutch were responding to change just as they always had: with drinking and dancing and a quiet determination to maintain their unique outlook on life. For now, the country remained an island in time: arguably the most tolerant, peaceful and prosperous corner of a generally turbulent world.
‘We’ll keep making the wrong decisions,’ a friend told me, ‘and we’ll keep enjoying the consequences.’
Water, Water, Everywhere
Windmills, Climate Change and the Battle against the Tides
One night, Johan dreamed it was going to rain. In his dream, it rained for forty days and forty nights. The sea rose, the rivers flooded, and still the rain kept falling. People raced for higher ground, searching for tall trees and mountaintops where they could survive the deluge, but it was no use. The waters kept rising and the whole world was drowned. When Johan awoke, he decided to build an ark.
Some two decades later, the completed ark floated in a dock off the River Maas in Dordrecht, an ancient cathedral city some fifteen miles southeast of Rotterdam.
Approaching on foot from the train station one grey February morning, I had expected something smaller and, strangely, did not notice the ark until it was right above me: a vast wooden box of overlapping, honey-coloured pine that towered over the weedy wasteland around it. As high as a fivestorey building, the ark looked exactly like those I’d seen in illustrated bibles as a child, with a bowed profile and a squat cabin on the top. The high sides were studded with portholes and hatches, from which plastic animals peered out at the empty car park: a black-and-white cow at one window, a gloomy-looking horse at another. More oversized toys gazed down from the open top deck, including a life-sized plastic giraffe at the stern and an elephant at the bow. On the murky water below, a single live swan bobbed serenely like a bath toy; waiting, perhaps, to be offered a place on board.
Of all the places in the world where a modern-day disciple might choose to build an ark, the Netherlands was perhaps the most logical. With more than a quarter of the country lying below mean sea level, canals, rivers and lakes were almost as common as trees. Even a short walk or drive would involve crossing countless bridges, and even the most modest homes could be fronted by open water. More than three thousand miles of waterway were used to transport everything from cars to cows, and many towns retained the names of the water features on which they were originally based, such as Amsterdam’s dam on the River Amstel.
‘The Netherlands isn’t below sea level,’ a Dutchman on a ferry once told me. ‘The sea is above Netherlands level.’
Mark Twain was supposed to have said that any investor seeking profit should buy land, as it wasn’t being made any more. In most countries that would be sound advice, but in the Netherlands the opposite is true. Huge swathes of the country consist of land reclaimed from the sea, including the entire province of Flevoland. While England and Belgium are rough patchworks of fields and forests, the Netherlands is a man-made chessboard of straight lines and sharp corners.
‘God created the world,’ as one popular saying goes, ‘but the Dutch created the Netherlands.’
Unsurprisingly, the endless battle to stay dry has had a profound effect on the country’s history and culture. After living there for a while, I came to realise that almost every distinctive feature or cliché about the Netherlands was, in some way, a result of the country’s unique relationship with water: from the windmills that were used to pump fields dry, to the flatness of the land that was left behind, to the bicycles that travelled easily across the smooth terrain. Bricks paved roads built on dangerously soft ground; tulips thrived in the silty reclaimed soil; cows grew fat on rich, moist grass; glasses of milk and beer were safe to drink when clean water was in short supply; people grew tall from drinking all the milk; and thick wooden clogs kept farmers’ feet dry when trudging through boggy fields. Almost everything that an outsider might think of as typically Dutch could be attributed to the country’s ongoing battle against the tides.
The omnipresence of water had also, I came to see, had a profound effect on the Dutch themselves. Earthy and honest, with nothing to hide, the Dutch people I met were as dependable and unexotic as the landscape in which they lived. Having worked together to build a country the way others might build a house, they also had a deeply ingrained belief in the need for hard work and order, equality and cooperation. To begin to understand the Dutch, therefore, I had to understand their relationship with water. And a journey along one of the Netherlands’ largest rivers, from Noah’s Ark through my adopted home city of Rotterdam and on to the North Sea, seemed like a good place to start.
Into the Ark
I walked along a narrow jetty, pushed open a wooden swing door and entered the ark. Inside, a young Dutch woman in a Noah’s Ark fleece jacket sat behind a pine reception desk in a pine reception area. I bought a ticket €12.50 for eternal salvation, paid with a credit card and the receptionist pointed out animal footprints painted on the rough wooden floor, leading away from the counter and into the belly of the ship. ‘Volg de voetstappen,’ she explained. ‘Follow the footprints.’
I did as I was told and soon reached a series of nativity-style displays nestled in the curves of the hull, each housing doeeyed plastic animals waiting for the waters to subside. Next to them, recovering in bed from his frenzied carpentering, was Noah, his grey beard cascading over a grubby smock, dead plastic eyes staring at a splintery ceiling. On the wall was an enlarged page from a Dutch bible: ‘The flood continued forty days upon the earth and all flesh died that moved upon the earth Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark.’ The whole place smelled like IKEA.
The ark had opened in 2012, some twenty years after the Dutch creationist and amateur prophet Johan Huibers had his apocalyptic dream. A well-off building contractor sporting a Mario Brothers moustache, Huibers had become convinced that the Netherlands would be submerged in an Old Testament-style flood. In 2005 he built a half-size replica of Noah’s Ark, followed by the full-size replica in which I now stood. Three years in the making, it reportedly cost well over a million euros to build. Huibers told reporters he hoped to offset the costs by taking thousands of passengers on a tour of London during the 2012 Olympic Games, but those plans were scuppered when British authorities refused the vessel permission to visit, understandably concerned that a huge floating wood pile filled with people and candles might present something of a fire hazard.
According to its creator, the scale of the vessel followed the instructions laid out in the Book of Genesis. However, some concessions to modernity had been made, unable to identify the ‘gopher wood’ stipulated in the Bible, Huibers had resorted to building a Scandinavian pine skin over the metal hulls of several old barges that had been welded together. In a more serious break with tradition, rather than two specimens of each living creature, the ark included only a handful of small farmyard animals, outnumbered by plastic 200 animals. Perhaps for this reason, visitors were not exactly flooding in. Newspapers had reported a recent spike in interest in the ark when an apocalyptic cult claimed the end of the world was nigh, but when I arrived the queue to board the ark was not long. In fact, it was non-existent, and the car park outside was nearly empty.
Passing the plastic Noah, I walked deeper into the ship, ascending a series of wooden ramps and walkways through the maze of animal pens and cabins that filled the belly of the ship. Most of the pens were empty, but some contained live rabbits that were scratching their way through a dusty carpet of straw. A black plastic monkey swung from the rafters overhead, and a pair of plastic rhinos thrust their horns menacingly in the direction of the ostriches and dodos. Elsewhere, a six-packed plastic Adam with a shaggy brown wig and amorphous genitals was ignoring a terribly sexy Eve, her generous breasts obscured by long blonde hair and a carefully placed plastic flamingo. Posters on the wall offered a creationist view of world history, implying that the Grand Canyon had been created by the same deluge that sent Noah to sea.
Ascending the sloping walkways, I soon reached the top deck, where an empty café offered rookworst (sausage) sandwiches but no alcohol. Outside was a panoramic view of the river Maas curving towards the steeples of Dordrecht city centre. Milky grey and as flat as a table top, the river isn’t much to look at, but is in fact one of the continent’s most important arteries, one main channel of what geographers catchily refer to as the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta. Roughly 600 miles long, the Maas (or Meuse in French) flows north through France, Belgium and the Netherlands before bending westwards and joining a dense web of other rivers on their way to the sea, including the Lek and the Waal and what Lord Byron called ‘the wide and winding Rhine’.
Before leaving home, I had tried to follow the course of the rivers on maps online, but quickly gave up it was like trying to track the path of a single thread through a knitted jumper. Suffice to say that should they wish, a boat owner in Dordrecht could in theory sail upriver not only to Dutch cities such as Maastricht, but on to Strasburg, Mainz, Cologne and even Basel. Going in the opposite direction, the river carries traffic from Dordrecht to Rotterdam before reaching the sea at several points along the Dutch coast, most notably at Hoek van Holland, from where ferries continued the journey across the Channel to Essex.
Although not widely known outside northern Europe, the Maas is mentioned in the first verse of the German national anthem (‘We stand together as brother, from the Maas to the Memel’). The river even gave its name to a dinosaur: the Mosasaur, an alligator-like creature whose existence helped disprove the previously accepted theory that it was impossible for any animal to become extinct. The Maas is the lifeblood of the southern Netherlands, and I intended to make my way along it.
Dizzy from the smell of pine, I decided i had seen enough of the ark. I retraced my steps, resisted the temptation to buy stuffed toy animals from the woman at the reception desk, and disembarked. I had nearly an hour to spare before the ferry would depart for Rotterdam, and was happy to have the chance to explore Dordrecht, a city I had never visited before.
Dordrecht: A Smiling City
Just as Parisians must tire of fireworks over the Eiffel Tower, and Egyptians yawn at the sight of pyramids at sunset, a couple of years in the Netherlands had made me rather blasé about pretty little towns with historic churches and canals. Dordrecht, however, was undeniably charming: a warren of spindly old buildings tilting over rust-coloured brick streets dusted with fallen leaves. ‘Dordrecht, a place so beautiful, tomb of my cherished illusions,’ a lovesick Proust once called it. For Alexandre Dumas, it was ‘a smiling city’.
On a wintry weekday morning, the streets were quiet but the city felt quietly prosperous, unsullied by the tour groups and stag parties that blighted towns further north. Cyclists rattled over bumpy cobbled streets, weaving between shoppers carrying plastic bags filled with bread and potatoes. As in many Dutch towns, water was omnipresent. Around almost every corner came another small harbour, tucked between tall warehouses and houses lined up like books on a shelf. The city seemed like a jigsaw puzzle with many pieces missing, the gaps filled with spillover from the river.
Why the Dutch are Different, A Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands
by Ben Coates
get it at Amazon.com