Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The free-willed Dutch and the Anne Frank tree....the view of a boorish American

The Anne Frank Tree, Amsterdam

OK, now I am really rambling!

When people hear that I live in Amsterdam, I am usually asked loads of questions about what life is like here and if Amsterdam is really as free and liberal as its reputation.  Legalized soft drugs, prostitution, gay marriage have earmarked Amsterdam as a bastion of liberalism.   Compared to Americans, even your more conservative Dutch people are liberals (by American standards).  I have yet to meet a Dutch person who is pro-death penalty or against abortion in any circumstances.  While everyone here complains about taxes, the Dutch always kick up a fuss about things like the American health care system, where literally millions of people cannot afford health care or basic human services.  To them, that is absolute insanity.

Of all the many things people ask me about living in Amsterdam, one of the most frequent questions I have gotten in my 8 years of living here is about the Dutch people and they are always asked with the littlest spark of admiration, "are the Dutch really as accepting and liberal as people say?"  Dutch people have this reputation of being so open and accepting, with a real 'live and let live' attitude.  Hence the legalised prostitution, soft drugs, etc.

One example of this is a charity which is ironically located just across the street from where I work.  The purpose of this place is to provide IV drug addicts a place to go for the day, to keep them off the street and off of drugs during the day.  They provide meals (some of which is donated by my office), courses, shelter, a library, things to do, etc.  While of course they are not promoting drug use, they clearly state on their website that their purpose is not to get their patrons off of drugs (of course if they want that, they can offer references to many organisations who help with that) but their raison d'etre is to give drug addicts 'something to do during the day'.  In a million years a place like this could probably never be opened in an American city, they would be squandered with protesters, passionately pleading that a place like this is promoting drug use rather than trying to stop it.  Where the Dutch attitude is, "hey it exists, it's not going away,  so let's let 'em play Parcheesi during the day."  Whatever your stand on this, you have to admit, there is a real absence of personal judgement on the part of the Dutch. 
So, I would definitely confirm that the reality lives up to the myth but that doesn't mean that there weren't things surrounding this myth that were not suprising to me.  The myth is true, but I think the reasons for this openness and lack of judgement are not what you expect.  Bottom line, the liberalness is at least partly a myth.   I can't speak for the world, but for me I always had this idea that it was the Dutch love of freedom of expression, openness and humanity which made them light years ahead of other countries with respect to certain societal issues.  After living here 8 years, I have come to the conclusion that it is something else in the Dutch psyche which is responsible or at the very least influences the live and let live culture and that is  indifference. 

The Dutch (and I mean collectively, I am not referring to individual people here) are extremely kind and polite (and truly polite, not in the American superficial way), but with that politeness is a palpable distance which is always present and in conversation there is a certain air of going through the motions.  There is a lot of uniformity in Dutch culture, perhaps largely so because the Netherlands is such a small country.  There's an interesting dichotemy here and while individuality is something to be embraced, the process for achieving that individuality is pretty uniform.   The Dutch are not very spontaneous as a people.  Even in everday conversation, certain things feel almost scripted. 

In order to see friends you often have to "book an appointment" months in advance.  It is just unheard of to call up friends and say "hey, do you want to come over tonight and hang out".  There always needs to be a plan.  People stick more or less to their group of friends and find it difficult to bring new people into their circle.  When I lived in Israel, I always had a zillion invitations for weekend lunches and dinners with colleagues, friends or even friends and family of friends (people once removed), that it almost got embarrassing to turn down people so consistently.  In the Netherlands, it is nearly the opposite phenomena, social contacts don't seem to go much beyond the niceties.  Dutch people are so insulated into their own families and social groups that there just is no room for joiners or fluidity.  They just don't really care about what doesn't affect them personally and I don't mean that in a negative way.  And I submit that it is this, which is just as responsible for their 'live and let live' attitudes as their open and accepting nature.

At the same time the Dutch can be extremely passionate about issues that affect society but in a strange way.  One example which has stuck with me a number of years was the debate about what is known here as the "Anne Frank tree" which went on here in 2007.  In 2007, one of the trees near the hiding place of Anne Frank, which had been sick for many, many years was supposed to finally be cut down.  International tree specialists were hired from the world over, giving their professional opinion about what could be done to save this very old and disease-ridden tree.  Finally, nothing could be done to save the tree and it was decided that the tree would have to be cut down.  The tree, one of the only outside things visible from the hiding place of Anne Frank (who is of course a Dutch heroine) and her family was considered an important symbol of the period and most Dutch people felt that the tree had to be saved and could not be cut down, that cutting it down somehow represented cutting down all that Anne Frank and her diary symbolized. 

Literally for about a month, you couldn't pick up a newspaper or turn on the tv without hearing one or the other expert, politician, pundit, celebrity or talk show host discuss the fate of the Anne Frank tree and discuss why more needed to be done to try and save the tree that young Anne Frank wrote about in her now famed diary. Every day on the metro I heard people talk about the tree, in the cafeteria at work, they were talking about the tree, on the news they were talking about the tree, on the about 1 zillion talk shows on the air here, they were talking about the tree.  And what they were saying collectively is that the tree had to be saved.  That there was no way the tree could be cut down and there had to be something to try and save the tree. 

Now, I must admit that I was moved by the passion of the Dutch to feel so strongly about keeping alive the tree that Anne Frank gazed at from the window of her attic home and I must admit I am proud, not only of their passion but also that it was Anne Frank's voice that meant so much to them.

Then, I started thinking (dangerous, I know).  It's true that many Dutch Christians risked their lives to hide and try to save Dutch Jews during the Second World War, actually per capita there were more Dutch martyrs than in any other country, but still more than 70 percent of Dutch Jews were killed during the Holocaust, despite all those acts of heroism.  When the Germans occupied Holland there were initially some protests, but largely the Dutch let's say tolerated German rule.  Clearly they did not welcome the Germans, but there were not large protests either.  Compared to Denmark, who also borders Germany and whose King and people staged protests which are well known and did not accept the Jews to be singled out (and nearly all Danish Jews survived the war).

Now I don't wnat to make some huge, unfair leap here, it was the Nazis afterall, they were not invaded by Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie (who would have thought I would ever use Paris, Nicole and Nazis in a sentence?).   Granted those were different and extremely trying circumstances and there wasn't the freedom at that time that we now enjoy, but still there is something that makes me think about why a tree would ignite such passion and hundreds of thousands of people being deported and murdered would not.  There is something in that social distance of the Dutch that makes me wonder if they are more passionate about objects than about people?  Or perhaps there is some sense of collective guilt that there was not more protests or protection offered to Dutch Jews during the War, that they are expressing that through their passion for Anne Frank's tree?

Eight years of living here has taught me a lot about the Dutch, but obviously there are still a few mysteries yet for me to unravel. 

Still, despite my cynicism, I love the Dutch, they're full of little ironies!


  1. Josh from Long Island, NYJanuary 6, 2010 at 12:40 AM

    Good blog! Nice to see you found a way to vent (just teasing)!

    Me thinks the Dutch have a passion for symbols and ideas (the Tree), and not so much the living, breathing objects (e.g., the Jews of WW2). And I don't mean that in a nasty way at all. It actually makes sense, in a weird way: the things that symbolize our cherished ideas are more tangible, and easier to deal with, then the living expression of those ideas, which aren't always as pretty and neat.

    Or, stated in my hawkish right-wing speak: dead Jews like Ann Frank are uncomplicated and idealized; living Jews - who scream about anti-semitism - are complicated and annoying. Easier to identify with the dead Jews, no?

  2. As always, love your writing girl! Keep it up. How's your Dutch reading skills? I'll give you a paper to read on Dutch resistance if you like, which may very well challenge your "dangerous" paragraph, which nowadays is more popular opinion than dangerous even amoung dutchies. It's a simply view and reminds us to try to see things in perspective, meaning that the world of 1940-45 was quite a different place than the world of the 21st century. Still part of me also agrees with your from Josh.
    Ellen from Israel

  3. @Ellen it was a different world and I definitely am looking at things from more of a 21st century perspective. I think I state that pretty clearly in the post.Wassn't really trying to do a historical piece, more just an interesting observation.

    Ik kan heel goed Nederlands lezen, ik ben heel interesseerd in jouw papiertje!

    Bedankt for de comments. Dikke kus!