Saturday, December 15, 2012

Not Without My Calvin's

If you are not old enough to remember a teen-aged Brooke Shields, in all her child-woman glory,  talking about how nothing gets between her and her Calvin Klein jeans, maybe you should stop reading this right now and go outside and play.  I'll be inside doing my roots and inspecting my crow's feet.

Seriously, as that popular tagline went, nothing got between Brooke and her Calvin's and apparently nothing gets between me and my Calvin's either.

Calvinists, that is.

The Dutch and their society draws on their strong traditions of Calvinism or the Reform movement which symbolized a return to the Bible as well as no hierarchical authorities, no experts.  As opposed to the Catholic Church,  Calvinism was a bottom-up approach rather than top-down.  As Calvinism took root in some European societies, the development of their cultural norms often mirrored Calvinism.  Dutch society, which is, at its base rooted in the idea of hard work, modesty and a distaste of luxury can be historically traced back to their Calvinist roots.

I have lived among the Dutch now for eleven years, one month and four days.  It took me a long while to gain whatever modicum of an understanding of Dutch society that I have and even a decade in, there are still things about it that make me laugh, and on a bad day aspects of Dutch life still irritate me although I notice through the years it becomes less and less.

So either I am better at taking it in stride or I've become more Dutch.  I am pretty sure that no Dutch person within a 100 mile radius of this blog would ever accuse me of being Dutch.

Especially since I measured it in miles rather than kilometers.  Fail.

When you live in a country that you were not born in, your mind invariably compares every aspect of life in your adopted country with your home country.  Often of course, because things are foreign, because your cultural touchstones lie somewhere else, invariably you spent some percentage of your life not only comparing how things are "here" with how things are at "home", but invariably the deck is always stacked toward home.  Largely because these comparisons tend to happen over negative experiences, wait too long in a line in the Netherlands makes my brain automatically go to, things are organized much better in America.  

It's just how it is.  A lot of people call this whining, to them I would say, pack up your crap and go move to a foreign country, then we'll talk.

I've emigrated to two countries, so I am doubly guilty of this.  But hey, everyone needs a hobby.

I do think though that after a decade of observing, breaking social compacts and generally offending bending the social rules, I have come to gain an understanding of the Netherlands and it's people.

When I first moved here one of the first things I noticed about the Dutch were that they were awfully polite, and very even tempered.  Voices weren't raised, people were kind, they were interested, they always asked where you came from and how you like it in Holland.  They are willing to make you feel comfortable and speak English.  They will ask how your Dutch is but not put you under pressure to speak it.  Even now, when most people know I speak reasonably okay Dutch and understand well and can express myself, if I am around, invariably a lot of people will speak English to me.  Maybe it's because my Dutch is too grammatically imperfect, but mostly its because for Dutchies, this is how they show their respect, by letting you speak in your mother tongue.

And while Dutch people themselves are pretty informal, I immediately noticed a kind of formality about the place and the people.  While people were perfectly polite and friendly there was also a palpable distance.  People held you at arm's length, even close friends.  Bonds did not form in the same way they did when I moved to Israel, where total strangers want to know everything about you in the first minute and a half and invite you into their little worlds and try to surround you with camaraderie warmth and lots and lots of food.

Israeli society on the outside is not nearly as polite as Dutch society, people are pushy, will take advantage of your lack of Israeli street smarts, but scratch the surface a little and most Israelis are warm, kind people who will open up their lives, homes and hearts to you literally.  When I lived in Israel and first started working there, I had no end to invitations to come around for lunch or dinner on the weekends, because people knew I was new to the country and and alone.  Actually, after a while it got a little embarrassing because I just could not say yes to everyone and there were many people whose doorsteps I never darkened.  I remember once after only having been in Israel a couple of months, my cousin took me along to a Saturday lunch at a friends' house.  Her friends were great and told me that I was welcome any time and they really stressed that I should just 'come on over' if I didn't have plans on the weekend.  I didn't even need to call, just show up.  I took this as a very sweet gesture, but never took them up on it, because popping in is not considered polite, but also because I thought they were just being nice.  About a year later I ran into this friend of my cousin's at a festival, she admonished me for never coming over.

You don't see this kind of behavior in Dutch society.  It is more socially conscientious but also cautious.  People's main social foundation are their family and a smattering of friends, most of whom are lifelong or near-lifelong (childhood friends, school friends, university friends).  Work friends do exist but as a foreigner it's a lot tougher to find your way in.

In both American and Israeli society, gregariousness is considered something of a positive trait, perhaps not in all circumstances, but both societies value going against the grain and breaking molds.  In Dutch society, conformity is something which is highly valued.  Most of the time being gregarious or not fitting into a certain mold is something which is looked upon with curiosity but also scorn.  The Dutch talk quietly, they generally remain composed at all times and feel emotions are private affairs, not to be shown in public.

There's not a lot of spontaneity in Dutch culture either.  They are big on planning.  Spur of the moment Saturday nights are just not done.  When you want to get together with a friend, everyone has to take out their agenda and a date is scheduled, most of the time, weeks or months in advance.  Maya's winter vacation from school is coming in a week and I wanted to organize a couple of play dates for her, I had to do that in November in order to get the dates.  There's just not a lot of, playing it by ear here.

Food is another thing which I found tough getting used to.  Not the food itself, but the idea that food doesn't play a primary role in socializing.  In both American and Israeli culture, food is often the medium of social interaction.  You invite people for meals, when people walk in the door you put stuff out.  At most Dutch people's houses that happens over coffee or tea, with maybe one cookie.  When Maya turned one we had the requisite 1 year old birthday party and I made food, all kinds of dips, vegetables, meatball sandwiches, typical party food.  Nobody touched a thing until I practically hit them over the head with a Pyrex dish full of artichoke dip.  At birthday parties you serve cake and maybe small little snacks and a very limited number.  A snack is a snack and not a meal.  The Dutch are very disciplined in their eating and they frown on excess or waste,  So even if you do get invited for dinner, you receive a plate with your food portioned on it and that's it.  By contrast, I was brought up in a house where a dinner party meant that everyone was going home with a care package of whatever they liked the most.  My mother served meals family style and there was always enough variety of foods so that if you hated roast beef, there was chicken.  I remember once a Dutch person said of my dinner parties, that I made so much food to show off.


I am someone who enjoys cooking for people and over the years I've had many friends and colleagues over for numerous dinner parties.  I've hardly ever gotten a reciprocal invite back.  For many years, I took it as a sign of rudeness or I took it personally, perhaps the people I invited or tried to connect with socially didn't enjoy spending time with me, maybe they only accepted my invite as a courtesy or because they couldn't find any reasonable way to decline me in the first place.

It's funny the way social norms and cultures work, how your habits are based on the culture you live in and something that is meant to be a polite or generous thing is perceived negatively by someone in another culture.  Of course any person understands this, but very few actually live it.

As the years have moved on though, I've realized that it's not coldness or rudeness that drives this behavior but simply that these type of things are not part of Dutch culture.  It's just not common to invite colleagues or anyone other than family or very close friends for dinner.  They just don't do that.  It's not part of their culture to break bread with people.

Once I realized that, Dutch society became a lot more pleasant to deal with because I had a better understanding of how Dutch cultural norms are different from my own and then I no longer felt like I was being slighted at every turn.

Still, I think what being an immigrant to two very different countries has taught me is that in order for you to be happy in another country you have to let go a little of your own cultural expectations and try to see what's good in the society you have chosen to come to.  You don't have to let go of who you are, I certainly never will but you do have to accept that the society you live in may value different things than you value, they may abhor what you value and see it in a completely different light.  You have to peek out a little from your own cultural walls and understand that another culture's practices may be different, may not be what you are used to, but are just as important to the people that believe in them as your values are to you.

Once you can embrace that, than living in your adopted home becomes marginally easier.

So, while I continue to put out a spread when people come to visit, even though they will take a polite nibble and nothing more, even though I will never be a polite, sober, reserved Dutchie, even though I will continue to make Dutchies cringe and I will send out more invitations than I will ever receive.

It's okay.  I have lived here for more than 11 years, longer than any place I have ever lived in my life.

That means something.  Now if only I looked a little more like Brooke Shields.


  1. Maybe I'll be your neighbor soon. I would love to live in a non-food-focused society.

    The mom of kid's with food allergies


  2. Your description of the Dutch reminded me of Japanese or Germans, very different, but similar in their belief that showing true feelings can be rude.

    In Germany it seems they just don't like to infringe on others. Be quiet so we don't disturb the neighbors, rather than the US, be quiet so the neighbors don't complain, or Israel, where no one gives a shit until the neighbor complains, if then. Cultural differences are fascinating, as is our reaction to them. Great post!

  3. Sigh, I remember Brooke Shields!!
    What an utterly fascinating post to read. I love learning about other cultures and your personal perspective makes it all the more interesting. I think that I have now lived in South Africa more years then the country of my birth. Funny how I still consider my home to be New Zealand!