More handy – and more available – than a Dutch residence permit – The Low Sky is one of a handful of invaluable guides if you’re a newcomer to the Netherlands or simply a Netherphile. It’s not the sort of book which will name the best cheese market in the country or give you the opening times of a windmill, but the sort that really gets under the skin of your hosts, the Dutch.
Want to know why you can never get hold of a Dutch person when they’re in a meeting? This book will reveal all. Want to know why a meeting is not really a meeting, but a group of people who are determined to reach some sort of consensus but could take four-and-a-half days to do so, providing that time is already booked into their diaries? Then read on…
Differing from the other worthwhile tomes on this subject – The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Dutch, The Undutchables: An Observation of the Netherlands, its Culture and its Inhabitants, and Here’s Holland, The Low Sky is written by an insider, Han van der Horst. As a keen observer of the changing face of this country, Van der Horst has updated his book six times since its first publication in 1995 – and more than a decade on has radically rewritten it to include some of the latest political and social developments, taking in the trauma this country suffered after the murders of politician Pim Fortuyn and film-maker Theo van Gogh.
In the wake of these two events – the latter was described as a ‘terrorist attack’ by then Deputy Prime Minister Gerrit Zalm because it was carried out by a radical Muslim – there have been endless debates about security and who should or should not be allowed to live in the country. Van der Horst though doesn’t believe the Netherlands is any different to any other country dealing with a multi-cultural society: “What’s happening in Holland, of course, is an expression of what’s happening all over the West. Now there is another threat that some fanatic blows himself up on your train. That creates an enormous sense of insecurity.”
Van der Horst explains in the prologue how he divided this edition into six chapters, five of which are based on the traits identified by the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam, which has carried out research into the Dutch way: egalitarian, utilitarian, organised, trade-orientated and privacy-minded.
Along with a final (and most relevant) chapter, A land that is ticking like a time-bomb?, which explains all the background to the current navel-gazing within Dutch society about immigration and integration.
There’s a nice observation about King Abdul Aziz, founder of Saudi Arabia who, in the 1930s, sought advice from the then Dutch Queen, Wilhelmina because, after all, she was the ruler of the most important Muslim kingdom in the world – present-day Indonesia.
From there, Van der Horst goes on to detail the tetchy relations between the Dutch and their former colonies and why to this day the Dutch are still debating whether during the Second World War, they resisted the German occupiers enough, or were all too willing to collaborate.
The rest of the book weaves you through the minefield of social etiquette, including why it’s best to keep your riches under wraps, because modesty is a virtue in the Netherlands. This is illustrated with a photo of Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner mounting his bicycle at the foot of the steps of the palace of Huis ten Bosch in The Hague after a meeting with Queen Beatrix.
Van der Horst also tries to debunk a few myths like why the Netherlands is generally viewed by the outside world as being a very radical, free-thinking society, yet outside of Amsterdam it really isn’t. And why women’s rights took a long time in coming: for a long time it was normal in a Dutch household to rely on a man’s wage while the woman stayed at home with the children, and the welfare state would be the safety net if anything went wrong.
Even now workers’ organisations are still urging the government to make it easier for women to go to work. As a woman from another Western European country, the Netherlands often seems to be stuck in a 1970s timewarp with its attitude to women in the workplace.
And if you’re able to get out and earn some money there are other handy tips too – don’t criticise your boss; save don’t spend; and keep your private life to yourself, or at least don’t burden your family and friends with the information – Van der Horst claims that the Netherlands is home to the greatest concentration of psychiatrists in the world! So just lie back on that couch and start talking…
This leads on to one of the most fascinating sections in the book, the author’s musings about the privacy-minded aspect of the Dutch. To the casual visitor, the Dutch appear brash, outspoken thinkers and talkers with an amazing command of the English language, but pry into their private lives at your peril. The writer illustrates this with a personal story about his father’s funeral: he was writing a short speech to read out at the service and asked some of his father’s friends if they would like to contribute – or contradict – what he was going to say.
Few of them were prepared to do so, some even considering his request for more information “extraordinary” and chose to keep their thoughts to themselves. The mourners too kept their feelings to themselves. No one cried. There were no outpourings of emotion and the service passed off in “silent dignity”.
He contrasts this with the type of television programmes which the Netherlands has so successfully spawned. The likes of Big Brotherand reality shows featuring the everyday lives of Dutch celebrities would appear to be the antithesis of this buttoned-up emotional state. But Van der Horst argues that in reality, the people who participate in this kind of programme are not revealing their deepest, darkest secrets to their friends and families, rather laying it all bare to the anonymous masses – the television audience, and that’s different.
One irritation with The Low Sky is that is doesn’t come with an index so you can’t go straight to the passages on Pim Fortuyn or William of Orange, although perhaps this was a deliberate ploy to make you read the book more as a narrative than a guide. Van der Horst knows his stuff and doesn’t try to make any great sweeping statements, simply setting out why the Dutch may have developed the way they have and he succeeds in giving a very balanced view of life under the low sky. He’s not pessimistic about the future either:
“I think that in ten years’ time we will look back at this day and age as a turning point towards a society in which we are learning, developing a new sense of citizenship, in which there is room for multiple identities. Don’t underestimate the adaptability and the continuity of the Dutch establishment.”
For more information: radionetherlands.nl