When you travel the world and live in alien places one thing becomes clear very soon: You cannot get away from Dutch people. Not that you’d want to necessarily; they can be loads of fun once in a while. It’s just that they are everywhere. The Netherlands is a tiny nation that claims some 16 million citizens and half of them appear to be roaming the globe outside its borders at any given time. You find them in every nook and cranny, as well as in wide open spaces such as the Sahara Desert.
Being Dutch, I have found, to my chagrin, that my people do not universally enjoy a stellar reputation. The Dutch are judged to be opinionated, blunt, bullheaded and sometimes (it hurts to say it) cocky.
Our American friend Max tells a story of what he considered a typical Dutch incident which occurred while he lived and labored in Mali, West Africa. At the time Max was working on a water project with one other American aid worker and two Dutch ones. The story goes like this:
The four of them one early evening were trekking through the desert on camels in search of nutritional fortification after a day of toil.
Can you see them? Four good-looking, rugged guys with deep tans and meters of cloth wrapped around their heads to protect against sand and sun — dusty, dirty and starving. Straight out of the movies I tell you.
They finally arrived in a small desert village–sand, mud huts, donkeys, camels, you get the picture–and went foraging for beer and food.
There are no restaurants of a recognizable sort in remote Malian hamlets, the kind that have stocked refrigerators and freezers and pantries, the kind that can produce a plate of artificially flavored, colored and chemically preserved victuals within minutes.
However, there are eating places where you tell them what you want and someone will go off into the wild yonder and catch it, slaughter it, cook it over an open fire and serve it to you. In the mean time you enjoy the local brew and fight off the flies.
The exhausted foursome located such an enterprise, the only one in the village, and parked themselves on the rickety wooden benches. They discussed the dinner possibilities. Lobster not being one of them, they decided on sharing a sheep, a selection heartily recommended by the owner of the eating establishment.
So, this decided, the next step was to negotiate a price for the unfortunate animal not yet caught and butchered.
Not surprisingly, the price mentioned by the proprietor was exorbitant by local standards. The Malian knew an opportunity when he saw one: These blokes were foreigners, which meant they had lots of money; so why not relieve them of some of it?
Having resided in the area for some time, the four were quite aware of the local standard. The two Dutchmen were outraged. They did not take well to being cheated. That’s just how the Dutch are. It’s not that we’re cheap, mind you, it’s just that we don’t like to be swindled. It’s a matter of Dutch pride.
The Americans were not burdened by Dutch pride. They were hungry. They figured that under the circumstances being cheated was a given, a fact of life. They didn’t particularly care what they paid as long as they were going to see some food before their blood sugar sank to coma levels. They made some appropriate and expected noises about the price being too high and the Malian generously offered a slightly lower one.
The Dutchmen were incensed. The Americans were starving. The Malian was stubborn. He had a captive audience and he knew it. Smart man. The Americans tried valiantly to make the Dutchmen see the error of their ways, which was a futile endeavor. That’s another thing about Dutch people: We don’t like to be told we are wrong, and certainly not by Americans.
The Dutchmen were not about to give in. They professed to rather starve than be defrauded. They wanted to pay what the locals paid. Period. The Americans were losing their patience and ordered more beer. The Malian scratched himself and stuck to his price. The haggling went on for another hour, while the four kept downing the millet beer and getting progressively more wiped out and hungry.
Photo courtesy Michael Stein
Finally, surprisingly, the Malian caved in. Okay, all right, they could have the sheep for a price low enough not to wound the pride of the Dutchmen.
You must understand, dear reader, that the Dutch have a long history of sailing the high seas and buying, selling and negotiating prices in the world market: Sugar, spices, slaves, you name it. It’s in our genes; we’re good at it. Even in the desert haggling over a sheep with a native.
So, the deal was made. The Americans were relieved. The Dutchmen were smug. The Malian went off in search of a sheep.
Hours later, the night in its final throes, our starving Development Cowboys were finally presented with their meal of roasted mutton.
It must have been quite a sheep: It had only two legs, and some other choice parts were missing.
The Malian looked smug. The Americans attacked the food. The Nederlanders followed suit. That’s another thing about the Dutch: Sometimes we lose, but we’ll never admit it.
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Now, I hope I have not offended my fellow Dutchies (niet de bedoeling). Here’s a question for the rest of you: What are some national characteristics or idiosyncrasies you have discovered about your own people, or the ones you now live with? All in good fun, of course. Humor appreciated!