THE EXPAT MAKES A VISIT HOME: LITTLE DUTCH TREATS

by missfootloose on April 17, 2010 · 23 comments

in Culture and Customs, Expat life, Netherlands

Visiting my family and friends in the Netherlands (aka Holland) is sometimes an interesting experience. Having lived abroad for such a long time, I get a fresh look at life in the Low Countries. They’re special, my people.

It is said that God created the Earth, but the Dutch created Holland. The Dutch, as a people, are a down-to-earth, pragmatic lot. It’s in our genes. For centuries we’ve been in a death struggle with the sea, building mammoth dikes and sluices and windmills to keep two-thirds of the country from being swallowed up by the ocean. Being soft and romantic wouldn’t get that accomplished, we can safely assume.

(And you’re wondering about the little boy who stuck his finger in the dike and saved the country? Well, here he is.)

So we’re no-nonsense, unsentimental folk. We’re born that way. You can see it in our young, as you can read in the story below:

THIS IS HOW IT IS

When you’ve had all your birthdays, you die.
(Als je al je verjaardagen hebt gehad, ga je dood.)
– Dutch pre-schooler

I’m visiting my family in Holland and three of my young nieces are playing around in my mother’s living room, one of them proudly showing me a newly acquired swim diploma. The table is crowded with coffee cups, juice glasses, plates with cookies and other goodies. The adults are discussing the state of the world, confidently offering solutions for all that ails our planet. I am watching the kids.

My youngest brother is the proud father of these three Dutch beauties, bright kids who love fairy tales, like to play in the mud and make up fanciful tales.

Don’t let that fool you.

I sip my coffee and remember an occasion a couple of years ago when Mariska, the middle one, was three. Playing with her Barbie doll, she was trying forcefully but unsuccessfully to reattach the golden-tressed head to the skinny body. How the head had come to be un-attached, purposely or accidentally, is not something I want to think about.

I offered my help.

Clearly seeing this as a practical solution to her problem, Mariska quickly handed me the two pieces of Barbie anatomy and I restored the decapitated plastic goddess back to health and wholeness.

“You’d better be nice to her and give her a kiss,” I suggested.

She looked at me levelly. “Why?” she inquired.

Well, I was tempted to say, if someone yanks your head off and then screws it back on, wouldn’t it hurt? I decided this was not the sort of thing you’d say to an impressionable three-year-old. (I need not have worried.)

“Well,” I said instead, “her neck must be hurting a lot. I’m sure she needs hugs and kisses.”

Mariska’s face took on an expression readable without the benefit of psychology 101. You’ve got to be kidding, her face said. Are you nuts?

She tossed the doll carelessly into a chair. “She isn’t even alive!” she stated with clear disdain.

*

My mother gets up to pour more coffee. The conversation has changed to my brother’s vacation. He, his wife and their brood spent two weeks camping in France, which was much enjoyed by all. The kids love the beach, the sunshine, and playing with the French children. The girls have learned a few words of French, you know, to be practical. If you want to buy ice cream or play with the natives in the pool, having command of a few words is the only way to go. The French are not going to learn Dutch. We know this and accept it.

My mother passes around a plate of cookies and the phone rings. It is my daughter calling from America. I chat for a while, aware that five-year-old Mariska is observing me intently. When I put down the phone, she looks at me indignantly.

“I didn’t understand a single word of that!” she says, as if it is a personal affront, something just not fair! After all, only a few minutes ago we were talking and she understood everything I said!

We discuss languages and family relationships and the fact that my husband, her uncle, is American and our children speak English.

“When you’re older,” I promise her, “you’ll learn English in school.”

She lifts her chin and gives me a determined look.

“No, I’m not,” she declares. “I’m going to learn French!”

Of course. What was I thinking.

*

Samantha, the oldest one, is seven and she has just earned another swim diploma, which she brought along to show me. You can dump this child into a body of cold water fully dressed in winter gear, including coat and boots, and she’ll swim to safety. The test included swimming under a raft and through a hole in a tarpaulin hanging vertically in the water.

“Weren’t you scared?” I ask.

She gives me a blank look. “Nee,” she says matter-of-factly.

Obviously, fear is not an emotion she has considered or experienced in this context. After all, when you end up in the water fully dressed, you don’t panic.

You get out.

It’s the sensible thing to do.

I watch Laura, the youngest one, wobbling around on her sturdy little legs, in full swing conquering her world and taking charge. She’s bursting with curiosity and confidence, opening drawers, examining everything she can get her hands on.

I can’t wait until her language fully develops. She’ll tell me straight out how things are, and what I should do. I can see it in her face already, in her no-nonsense brown gaze as she focuses on the plate of cookies, plotting attack.

She’s little, but she’s Dutch.

*
And now, dear reader, remember the picture of the three of them above? Well, time has passed since that was taken and since this riveting tale took place. So, to update you on their lives, here’s another photo of the three of them:

No, they have not abandoned the watery homeland and moved to the sandy Middle East. They were only checking things out in Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt, to see how things are done over there. Like putting on these scarves.

That’s another thing about my people: They have a travel gene. You find them — the good, the bad and the ugly — in all corners of the world. I’m sure you’ve met some. I only hope they were the nice ones.

* * *

What are the “character traits” of your people? Or of other nationalities you are familiar with? This can be fun stuff, so dish it up!

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Marja April 17, 2010 at 5:36 am

Oh what a beauties these kids and your post makes me a little homesick. I love lefe here but part of my heart is in Holland
Heel veel plezier Ik heb straks speculaasjes gekocht voor bij de koffie straks Doei

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Heather April 17, 2010 at 6:21 am

what a great post, i love getting little insights into the way people are and the world works in other countries.

My kids are half Finnish and half English, I am waiting to see which traits of which country they end up with as they grow.

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Boonsong April 17, 2010 at 7:41 am

What an enchanting post. Thanks for this

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Mary Witzl April 17, 2010 at 9:03 am

Your nieces really are lovely! And the amazing thing is, in ten years or so, they really will speak English, I’m sure. And French, and possibly German and Italian. I knew at least a dozen people in Holland who spoke five languages with near native accents.

My ancestors were an assorted lot, some of them Dutch. They left Holland for Brooklyn and New Amsterdam and eventually, made friends with the English, Irish, Iroquois, Danes, Germans, etc., and here I am today, the proud result.

You know all about Americans. We too are practical and tend to get around…

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Mara April 17, 2010 at 9:23 am

Well, since my ‘people’ are pretty much the same as yours, your story sounds about right.

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Welshcakes Limoncello April 17, 2010 at 8:54 pm

Haha! I loved this post and could imagine Mariska looking at you as if you were nuts. Characteristics of my people, let me see: Well, all Welsh people can sing, except me!

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Hesselz April 17, 2010 at 8:56 pm

I love those little anecdotes and these especially since they’re about my own girls. Thanks sis. And Mary Witzl is right, all three of them read the post and laughed out loud. Their English is a whole lot better than their French by now!

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Miss Footloose April 18, 2010 at 1:25 am

@ Marja, I hope you get a chance to visit Holland again some time. And I’m glad yoiu’ea ble to buy speculaasjes (windmill cookies, spice biscuits)to have with your coffee. Lekker.

@ Heather, yes it will be fun to watch what you kids will be like. Growing up in Finland, they’ll most likely pick up their social cues from their peers there.

@ Thanks, Boonsong. I’m enjoying your posts!

@ Mary Witzl, you’re a “real American hybrid” with all these nationalities in your genetic make-up. And yes, my nieces already speak more English now than French. They’ve been on the computer since they could walk and they just pick it up before they even learn it in school these days.

@ Hesselz, leuk je hier te vinden!

@ Mara, hi there fellow Dutchie!

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Sayan April 18, 2010 at 9:24 am

You wrote “That’s another thing about my people: They have a travel gene.”

When I was living in Thailand, I was member of the Royal Siam Society. It took people to places off the beaten track. I went with them to the Lost Islands, a place located on the Andaman sea. Our group composed of expatriates and Thais traveled by bus then by boat. It was a long journey. Finally we reached the Lost Islands, crossed sleepy fishing villages that produced shrimp paste (The Stench!), then reached our modest place of stay. We went swimming in the turquoise sea, enjoying a place that had escaped from the whirlwind of tourism.

While snorkeling between rocks looking at the amazing marine life a blond head emerged behind the coral reef then another, then a whole group. About ten Dutch people were snorkeling. They were there since a week and looked rather disappointed to see our expat group us arrive there all of a sudden. I have met Dutch tourists in every Third World country I had been to. Since I am not Dutch that is all good. I wouldn’t like to meet my own people. A reflection of myself is not exactly what I look for when I am traveling, looking for new impressions.

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planetnomad April 18, 2010 at 5:37 pm

I’ve known Dutch people here in Africa as well as in America, and every one I’ve met spoke English very well! Your nieces are adorable and what fun personalities they have.
Me, I’m actually half Dutch on my father’s side. His family were Mennonite and came to the US in the late 1800s. I’m blonde and stubborn. Although my mother was Welsh, 100%, and I might have gotten my stubborness from her, along with my curly hair. I do sing too, in reference to Welshcakes’ comment, but my Welsh cousin can’t.

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Kelly April 20, 2010 at 12:55 am

What wonderful stories of your nieces! I’m stepmom to 2 Peruvian boys – and I’m from the US. The comment I get most from people is that they suppose Americans to be a ‘cold’ people, unemotional. I find it hard to believe, but there you go. We have a pretty large Expat community here in Peru, and there are quite a few Dutch. Now I know why – it’s the practicality of living somewhere inexpensive and fairly unregulated.

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GutsyWriter April 20, 2010 at 10:01 pm

OK, Miss Footloose, I am sure there are more Danes traveling than Dutch! HAHAHA. Anyway, I love the way European kids are allowed to develop their own personalities without being told, “Oh, honey, don’t do that, or please come back, (there’s a man over there) or this or that. My 15-year-old met two Dutch girls in Florida last year on vacation, and said they were much more interesting to talk to than the OC girls he meets, who talk about hair, make-up and the stars, and that’s it. I might be over-generalizing, but it’s always refreshing to hear kids and parents from other countries.

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Ann April 21, 2010 at 4:21 am

When you’ve had all your birthdays, you die.
(Als je al je verjaardagen hebt gehad, ga je dood.)
– Dutch pre-schooler

No wonder some people don’t want to celebrate their birthdays. In fact, my dad told me in Australia, a 40th birthday girl was sitting on her bed crying and refusing to come downstairs to her own party.

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Steel Magnolia April 21, 2010 at 12:55 pm

My son and I adore visiting new folks the world over. Like you, he is a citizen of the world. Comfortable experiencing cultures in developing countries, as well. Me, too. So it is compassion, wanderlust, imagination and humor that propel our journey.

Your nieces are precious! And, I love visiting Hollan. Especially in the spring as tulips are my absolute most favorite blooms.

Cheers!

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Miss Footloose April 22, 2010 at 4:39 pm

@ Sayan, what a great story! It illustrates very well how you find the Dutch in every nook and cranny, and behind every rock, even in the Lost Islands! Thanks for sharing.

@ Planetnomad, your stubborn streak may also come from the Frisians, if your genes happen to have come from the northern part of the Netherlands, the province of Friesland (where I am also from.) They’re known for being stubborn and hard-headed!

@ Kelly, lots of Dutch expats in Peru? Well, maybe I’ll feel at home there, too. Wouldn’t mind a slower pace of life and a different culture. Americans are not cold, but all is relative, I guess. Good luck with your two Peruvian step sons; let’s hope they don’t find you cold!

@ GutsyWriter, The Danes or the Dutch, who travel most? Who knows? Nice to know your fifteen-year- old son like the Dutch girls he met. Exposure is good, and as far as Orange County girls go, well, OC is a rather special place I understand 😉

@ Ann, the crying 40-year-old birthday girl — was she Dutch?

@ Steelxmagnolia: Welcome to my blog, fellow adventurer. I think it is wonderful if young people like your son have the opportunity to travel and explore the world. It’s good for all of us to have a better understanding of each other and to learn to appreciate each other as well as learn to be patient and tolerant.

Tulips are wonderful and Holland is know for them, but they were originally from Turkey!

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Tahereh April 22, 2010 at 8:03 pm

great post and fab pictures! i think traveling is such an important element of being human. meeting people from all over the world and connecting to share experiences? delightful.

thanks for sharing!

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Angie April 24, 2010 at 3:04 am

Great post! I think traveling and getting to know other cultures is so important today (besides being fun)!

Characteristics of Mexicans?? They have a party for everything, even funerals! Anything is an excuse to get together and eat!

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LadyFi April 24, 2010 at 4:45 am

Wonderful observations of these three! Love their attitude to life. The Swedes (I*m a British ex-pat) love to travel too. I think that most people living in small countries have a yen to explore the world outside their own little area…

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Mia April 27, 2010 at 6:39 pm

The character traits of my people can be summed up by Woody Allen. “The lion and the calf shall lie down together. But the calf won’t get much sleep.”

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Carolina May 10, 2010 at 11:14 am

Yeah, you can see that they are of the no nonsense kind. Very Dutch indeed. Doe maar normaal, dan doe je al gek genoeg.
They are little beauties.
Love that close up photo. Those eyes. I’m just a tiny bit afraid of her now, hehe.

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Miss Footloose May 10, 2010 at 10:53 pm

@ Tahereh, I hope you get the chance to do lots of traveling! The more we all experience life outside our own home environmnet, the better we will learn to understand each other.

@ Angie, celebrating everything with a party is a wonderful Mexican character trait! We need more fun and happiness in the world.

@ LadyFi, you made me think with your comment about people from small countries having more lust for travel. I always thought the Dutch just had it because of our history of colonizing big chunks of the world at one time or another and having huge fleets of trading ships hauling around sugar and spices and (sadly) slaves.

@ Mia, I love reading Woody Allen quotations!

@ Carolina, Don’t worry about Laura and her big brown eyes! She’s a doll. Leuk je hier te vinden!

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Jose GB May 18, 2010 at 8:51 pm

Great story, geweldig verhaal bedankt!

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kate June 3, 2010 at 12:07 pm

I enjoyed your stories very much and as I am going back to the UK next week for a holiday I look forward to seeing ‘my people’ with fresh and good humoured eyes. But really I need to go to Scotland to find my ‘own folk’ Last time I was there I noticed how very fat most people are and how important sugar is in the diet. It made me sad as Scottish people are fantastic and warm and funny and so why do they eat so badly? reading your blog is a very enjoyable way to spend some time. thank you Kate

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