Discovering the Dutch

Here are my portfolios that I wrote for my course discovering the Dutch. Every week we had to write a short piece reflecting on what we had learnt that week and how it compares to our own countries.

Topics such as tolerance, world war II, architecture, immigration etc.


Discovering The Dutch: Introduction Assignment

When you think of the Dutch the first thing that comes to an English mind is weed. When I told people in England that was where I would be studying, their response was, “That’s going to be fun, you can get high all the time!” However, as I had already visited the country previously I knew that weed really wasn’t a massive thing – but I was curious about student’s actual usage.

I have already lived in the Netherlands for five months as I am on exchange for a year so I have already had time to make initial impressions, and test my initial judgements. However, as I feel the purpose of this essay will be the reflection at the end, I will recall what I first thought of the Dutch when I arrived back in August.

The general external impression of Dutch society, and what you hear about it, is that the people are very “laid back” about things, but I am also told that they are very direct and to the point, something I have yet to really see and believe. An ex-exchange student also told me that the Dutch are very serious and so although sometimes they are joking, you can’t easily tell – so try not to be offended.

Twice I have been to an international Scout camp in Haarlem, and from this I got the impression that they are also very eccentric. This is because the organisers put on many shows and developed a whole “over-the-top” story for the week. For instance, sustainable energy is an issue and so everyone had to take part in the activities to earn “Jambo Joules” in order to power a big surprise at the end. This meant that the organisers were dressed as a scientist and Indiana Jane who would walk round the whole site dressed like this, and in character. Then in the end they were able to go off in a rocket ship – which involved lots of fireworks.

I’ve also heard that the Netherlands is the best place in Europe for children to grow up in, whereas England is the worst, so I am interested to find out what makes it so amazing. I also know it is quite high up in the lists of ‘happiest’ countries and, again, we are normally quite low for this. I hope this can be seen in the people and it will rub off on me, and perhaps I could take some tips home with me to improve our ranking in these tables.

My impression of the Dutch themselves in the first few weeks is that they are very friendly and will happily talk to you in Dining Hall even if you only partially know them. They are also nice to me in the shops and when I need help they will switch to English, which is good as I have little or no knowledge of Dutch. However I cannot get over the fact that students go home every weekend as I never visit home during term time. At the beginning I hoped this was just a phase as they were first years and a bit home sick.

Present day culture isn’t very well known about, however the stereotypical things such as the traditional dress for the women (with the hat and yellow clogs) is the thing that is most prominent when you think of the Netherlands. There is the tulip too – which I have noticed they are selling all the time in the flower markets, in Utrecht for example. The colour orange is also important to the culture, as you can see at international football matches. I know that this is because of William of Orange, but that is as far as my knowledge goes for this and in general I know little about Dutch history.

Something I also have been told about by the ex-exchange student is that Queens Day is something I have to go to. I then did a little research about the holiday and found that it is actually in celebration of the Queens mum – and not the current Queen, Beatrix. I learned that on this day the no free-trade law does not apply, and so people sell lots of their things on the street – kind of like a British “car boot sale”. In Utrecht especially it said that this goes on all day, where as in other cities it doesn’t. More importantly, and the reason I was told about this, is that there is a big street party in Amsterdam where lots of bands play and that sounds really fun.

In addition Dick Bruna is something about Dutch (and Utrecht) culture that I know a bit about. I am a big fan of his Miffy series (she has a different name in Dutch). I really like his simplistic style and how the stories are so perfect and satisfying when you read them. I especially like the one entitled “Miffy Is Crying” where she loses her teddy when she awakes in the morning, and then asks everyone she knows if they have seen it. Sadly they haven’t and she has to go to bed alone and sad, but luckily she feels something at the bottom of her bed and it’s her teddy so it’s all fine in the end. However, I have already visited the Dick Bruna Huis in Utrecht – if I hadn’t it would definitely have been a cultural highlight I would have looked forward to.

Food is an important aspect of culture and I know pancakes are a big part of this which I am very happy about. The special thing about Dutch pancakes is that all the extra ingredients are baked into the pancake instead of just put on top. Cheese is a part of culture too, with cheese named after towns like Gouda and Edam – though I am not as much of a fan of cheese.

Overall, over the past five months, my knowledge of Dutch culture has not really progressed as –due to previous visits to the country – I already knew a lot before I came. The main new thing I have learned about is Sinterklaas and how to celebrate correctly, which included having a Sinterklaas party where we gave out surprises.

However, it is worth looking back at my early expectations in three areas, as before (or shortly after) I arrived I hypothesized that:

1) The Dutch will stop going home every weekend and spend more time on campus as they will get used to living away from home and so this will reduce the time spent at home;

2) Every Dutch person will be able to converse with me in English (including outside UCU) as I have not met one person yet who has had any problem with it;

3) Public transport will be cheaper than at home because I am always complaining about the cost of trains at home – especially as we are always told that the UK public transport is the worst and most expensive in Europe. So the Netherlands must be better!

Since August I have found that Hypothesis 1 was entirely wrong – the Dutch still go home, but I understand why now as this is the only university with a campus and they get the free OV card. Yet it still confuses me a lot as it is so different to the way we perceive university at home. We see it as gaining independence from your family, which I don’t think is so true for here.

This brings me onto Hypothesis 3 – where I was part wrong, and part right. The train system here is also bad but in a different way. The train prices make sense as the further you travel the more expensive (this is not true at home), but there are other things such as a return costing the same as two singles. I learnt this when it cost €20 to visit Rotterdam. In addition there is no way to make the ticket cost cheaper e.g. by buying them in advance. The trains themselves however are much nicer to travel in as they are quieter, but they have just as much disruption on journeys as our trains do, so I was wrong on that. When it comes to buses, though, they are extremely expensive, €2.50 from UCU to the station is way too much!

However, for Hypothesis 2 I was correct, and I learned from talking to my Dutch friends that people are considered stupid if they can’t speak English. Plus a reason why they speak better English than say German or French is because Dutch movies are subtitled, whereas in other countries they are dubbed – and this makes a great difference.

For now, however, I will keep my reflections short, and address them more in the future. As this is mainly a study of first impressions, a fuller and more detailed reflection of those impressions will be more appropriate for the critical review stage.


I was surprised to learn that the laws that are tolerated, i.e. allowing coffee shops, are also flexible in practice. For instance I would expect coffee shops to be under strict rules if what they are doing is technically illegal such as no advertising and no offers on drugs, for which a leaflet was shown in class and also I had seen advertisement for ‘free adam’ in Amsterdam. I however also see that these rules, which are being broken don’t really have victims, but I’m sure if the no sale of hard drugs rule was broken then this would be a different story.

I also joined in Carnival last weekend in Breda. I think this is a big part of Dutch culture, at least in the South. I really enjoyed dressing up and dancing in the street. However when it got dark it turned more into like a club night like at home where we would be dressed up for some social event and queuing in the cold to get into a venue. Except for the fact the scene here was bigger and the music playing was different from club music. It was also quite amusing to see the expressions of our Dutch friends when we said we quite liked the music, apparently you are meant to be ashamed that you’re listening to it!

We also looked up the reasons for Carnival and it is a mix of a Pagan and Christian tradition to celebrate before Lent. At home we celebrate Pancake Day for this on the Tuesday before Lent (Shrove Tuesday). The reason for this is to get rid of all the rich food in your cupboard before the fast. It seemed foolish for the Dutch and their mastery of pancakes to not have this holiday so I also did some sharing of my culture with my Dutch friends. They all agreed that the Netherlands should have carnival and Pancake Day combined.

Monarchy and Politics

This week we learned about politics and the monarchy. I have to say I don’t think I learned that much then I already knew, as my Dutch friends are very political and often discuss the situation in the Netherlands a lot. Although I did learn how the church plays a major role in politics whereas in the UK they don’t feature at all on the political scene. Dutch politics in general is very confusing as to start off with you would have to know about all the parties and there is just too many to be able to understand easily the situation. In the UK there a two main parties with a third who are semi-big, especially recently as they are currently in the coalition. I can just about understand this so the Netherlands is  not comprehensible as I am not that interested in politics as much as other people seem to be, from home and in the Netherlands.

From my views on the Netherlands, I have changed to consider them as being very politically involved and interested, whereas before I just assumed it was the people I hung around with. Coming from the Maarten van Rossen talk and seeing how full the auditorium was and how much interest they are taking in the American elections I think it is bigger than our interest in it. To hear that so many vote consistently is quite impressive, 80%. However I do believe that they should get rid of the parties and start again as I don’t think being in constant coalition is a good thing as it was not what is originally planned for a democracy, though I guess when you have done it long enough you can make it work.

On the side of the monarchy I liked hearing more about William of Orange, but on the Netherlands having a constitutional monarchy it is not very interesting to learn as the UK obviously has their own monarchy. I feel sad however that the royal family does not have many official roles anymore for instance not being able to say what they like whereas Queen Elizabeth II gets to say that every year on Christmas day. I also enjoy how this royal family is more scandalous than our own with much more ‘juicy’ stories, whereas our best one is when Harry dressed as a Nazis for a fancy dress party which was ages ago and yet people are still going on about it. It was of course interesting seeing how another monarchy works but it is pretty similar to our own.

Religious History

As I am not really that interested in religion or churches I did not find this week’s lecture very interesting.  If anything I learned more how religion is involved in the law in Dutch society as my friends were talking about it before, about how religion should be completely taken out of law as there are advantages for certain religions. This confused me as far as I am aware in the UK the two are highly separated and I can’t think of any part of government or law that involves it. The most interesting aspect, which is not purely to do with religion, is the fact that anyone is allowed to set up their own school in the Netherlands. This is curious as they’ve recently opened this scheme in the UK in the form of academies where anyone in principle can open and run a school. However I do not know how the money works with this, but I doubt it is through the government paying for all of it.

The other curious thing was when we visited the hidden churches and how many religious buildings had varying uses before and after they were religious. Such as a brewery which I would assume people wouldn’t be very happy with now if someone said that they would be praying in a place that’s product is associated with such immoral things. It was also strange that many religions use the same building which appears to be for a completely different religion. I imagined one of the evangelical Christians saying “I’m off to meet the Christian group”, “where are you meeting them?”, “The synagogue” as quite an amusing conversation. However it makes sense if it is just a meeting room.

Overall this hasn’t changed my idea of the Dutch as their religious history is reasonably similar to that of the UK with a to and fro between different Christian groups ending in now having many different Christian groups that live in pretty much harmony. Of course it is also similar that most of the country is atheist  and this is the main reason talk of religion hasn’t change my opinion as people aren’t that religious now so I can’t see it much in their society today.

Muslims and Prejudice

Immigration and the threat of Islamization is definitely a hot topic among the Dutch. One of the first thing I was told was about Geert Wilders and how he is a crazy politician and people don’t like the fact he is in government and people don’t think he is representative. There has been quite a few dining hall discussions about Muslims and the politics that goes with it. This is quite interesting but not totally new as the same fear and talk of Britain being full exists in the UK. However it has not led to the extremist groups being elected. The British National Party, in fact lost seats in the last election. However the bigger voice on the anti-Islam scene in the UK is not a political party but just a national group the EDL or English defence league. It is interesting in the UK as this group’s leader lives in the same town as the Muslim extremist leader, Luton, which is quite close to my home town.

The best thing I learned in this week’s talk and readings is why the minority party is Moroccan. I first learned it in social psychology class when talking about stereotypes and the teacher describe how in a virtual world people would stand closer to a Dutch person then a Moroccan. But now I understand that they were brought in as cheap labour. It seemed quite odd geographically why the Moroccans and Turks would come to the Netherlands. It was also interesting to learn how the first mosque wasn’t built to relatively recently even though the Dutch owned Indonesia; I hadn’t put the two together before.

I also am increasingly realizing from these talks that the Dutch do see themselves as tolerant a lot of the time, but this is strange for me as it is not a characteristic I associated with them and I only learnt it from this class. It was especially brought home when a joke was put on Facebook about the Dutch and the photo for “what we think we do” is tolerance, which makes me wonder how much foreigners do see the country as tolerant anymore. As from my perspective, before coming, I only thought of drug toleration and not general toleration. I also didn’t understand the caravan in the picture so I am obviously not an ‘other European’.

Dutch Cinema

Watching the movie Simon has not really changed my view of the Dutch that much. This is because it did not really differ from my estimations of the topics in which the movie is concerned, for instance homosexuality. In the movie there is only harmless jokes made about the fact that Camiel is gay and whilst the main character says he does not like them you can see that they are just signs of affection. Otherwise the fact that he is gay is not a problem at all, something that I have seen is tolerated in the Netherlands.

Euthanasia in the movie is portrayed similarly to a documentary I saw about euthanasia in one of the states in America. From this documentary I generalized that the Netherlands would be the same and from the movie it is. In both it shows how the family struggles with the decision and that there is a lot of rules you have to follow in order for the procedure to go ahead. Though in the American documentary there was more emphasis on the person dying with dignity than there was in the movie, however this idea was not excluded from the film.

The theme of drugs only changed my view a little in the fact that I don’t consider adults to smoke it which of course was the case in the movie. This is mainly to do with what I see at home and the fact that I hang out with people my age and so do not know that much about how adults act when it comes to the use of drugs. However as was mentioned in class the movie did glorify the use of cannabis a bit which I think is different from the view of the Netherlands, where it is not really a done thing to smoke weed. It is something that tourists do. Hence it is probably not the case that someone who smoked would get so many women and have so much money. Especially as in the book it said that coffee shops were closing down so maybe there isn’t so much money to be made from owning a coffee shop as shown in the film.

Overall I liked the film, but it did not give me a feeling that I would want to watch more Dutch movies. Perhaps this is because I feel it was more a portrayal of the Netherlands than a movie. In other words it tried to make a story out of all the different controversial topics that foreigners see in the Netherlands. Perhaps other films would be different in this case, but I would like to see a film with more of a story. I, however, am not decided on wiping all Dutch movies off my films-to-watch list.

Medieval Utrecht

I didn’t think this week’s classes were that interesting as I am not that interested in history and so didn’t have much of a basis to add this new information onto. Also it was very confusing as in history the boundaries of countries in Europe are forever changing which makes it even harder to follow. From this I realised the fact that the UK is an island is nice as you never really have to worry about things like boundaries as they are pretty much always the same.

I also don’t think I learned a lot either, but I like that I had the wharfs’, by the canal, story retold to me as I went on the boat tour last term and they said the wharfs were unique but I couldn’t remember why.

In the week I did the Trajectum Lumen night tour around Utrecht and it was nice to see that I recognised some of the things from the class. For instance I pointed out the ¾ house, however as the Trajectum Lumen tour was at night so my pictures didn’t come out very well and I had also forgotten to look up the class assignment before we went out. Hence I wasn’t looking out for medieval things but just took a few pictures of the things mentioned in class. I liked it though and enjoyed some of the art especially the trees that play music and the lights that sparkled under the canal.

My dad and brother have come over for Easter and we visited the Fourtress Bourtagne near the German border in Gronigen. It was very pretty and told me a bit more about William of Orange. It is funny as how the borders are now it looks like the fort was built against Germany, but it was really built against Spain? Luckily there were some signs to tell me how this worked. The Spanish had an important trade route with Gronigen which William ordered this fortress to be built along. Eventually Gronigen gave in and since then the fortress has not been taken. This was a much easier way for me to learn the history and I felt more involved with it than in the classroom. We all agreed that this was the most beautiful fortress we had been too including ones in England.


I learned a lot this week on the Dutch Education. It filled in a lot of gaps in what other Dutchies had told me about education. I think next year it would be really useful to have this as one of the first lectures as everyone in the class was clearly really interested and it helps in understanding what you are actually part of whilst studying here. Especially if you haven’t realised that UCU is a different set up to normal Dutch universities.

The major comparison I have to make is that the UK used to have this split, in sending people to different schools at the age of 11. Everyone would sit the 11 plus test and this would decide if you went to a grammar school (like the VWO) or a comprehensive (HAVO). Though I think the education given was similar and not the kind of practical v academic split they have here, though obviously it must be along those lines. The most important thing for this comparison is that the UK has gotten rid of this system. This is because the people who didn’t pass the 11 plus were severely disadvantaged. There was a fear that the middle class were able to get into grammar schools and the working class were left behind. Creating an even wider divide between the two.

This point is interesting as I had my family and friends to stay over for Easter and I had a chat with them and one of my Dutch friends about the class system. She obviously thought it was weird and asked if we always talk about it as I was teasing my boyfriend about being upper middle class. The conversation went on and I said how sociology had told me that even if a country doesn’t have a class system there will be something that divides one part of society from another. My Dutch friend thought about it and then said that education was probably the defining line of ‘classes’ in the Netherlands. This did change my view of the Netherlands as I now understand how society moves and works to prepare its next generation.  Though I am curious to see if the CITO will stop as it has in the UK, though in class they said that the CITO was being made compulsory so in that case I guess not.

Grammar schools do exist still in the UK and you pass the eleven plus to get into them but they are not available for everyone so, for instance, I didn’t go to one as there wasn’t one in my area, hence I went to a very normal state school.

The other thing that is interesting in comparison in education is that private schools aren’t valued very highly here, whereas in the UK they definitely are. If you go to private school then you are generally considered to get a better education (though the ones in my area aren’t amazing) and will have many advantages in life which include going to the top universities. Coming from the lower rung in schools it is nice to know that money does not get you a ‘better’ education as it does at home.

It is also amazing that university finances are much better for a studying student then they are at home. I mean we get a loan from the government too, but a BIG difference is we have to pay ours back! Hence at the end of my 4 years at university I’m going to be £40,000 in debt to the government and my parents. I would be very happy not to have to pay that back. I am also jealous of the OV card all students get as I can’t get one and as I think travel costs here are extortionate, I am extremely jealous. So I was happy to hear in class that they were actually a money-saving scheme, this at least lightened my day a little bit.

The most impressive thing to learn was that all Dutch universities are in the top 200 worldwide. Exeter is considered to be a very good university at home and has been around the top 10 in the UK league tables since I’ve been there. However it is barely scraping into the top 200 tables, some years not even making it at all. This kind of thing then of all universities being pretty equal is an odd concept, but I think the Netherlands should be very proud of their universities in that case. I think all universities being excellent is far greater than having a couple of amazing ones.


I am not really that interested in fine art in general and so this week’s talk on art in the golden age was not really that interesting for me. I knew Van Gogh is Dutch and I have heard of Rembrandt (but did not know he was Dutch), but I could not tell you what paintings he did. Hence from this I have taken an idea of what some of the famous Dutch paintings might be such as night watch, but other than that it has not affected my idea of the Netherlands a lot.

The only thing that did change my view was the discussion of how much does art and history give you a national identity. As I said in class I cannot think of who the most famous British artist would be as I honestly cannot draw one-off the top of my head, not fine art anyway. For modern art I can say we have Tracy Emin, Banksy and Damien Hirst. The thing is when it comes to art I am much more interested in the art and its meaning then who has done it so in general my knowledge of artists is pretty slim.

Coming back to the discussion it seems that art does play a big role in how the Netherlands defines itself and history probably comes in on equal parts. Whereas for us I would believe we are almost wholly defined on history otherwise why would lots of other countries know about British history. This is also because our history is quite entwined with other countries which seems to make our history so important. Our empire is a major thing that defines us whereas the Dutch colonies don’t seem to be such a big part of Dutch history, it hasn’t come across in this class anyway. They only ever seem to come up when the conversation about how Dutch is such a small language in which case they point out that these colonies speak Dutch too.

Overall I would like to have seen more things that relate to the present day Netherlands in this class as they affect me the most, even though I understand that culture doesn’t just appear in modern times, i.e. it comes from somewhere. Hence ruling it completely out of the course doesn’t make sense. For instance more on the schooling system would have been nice as I could tell everyone was really interested in that especially as it is something we are involved with. So I was a little disappointed in the discussion when we didn’t really have time to talk about this.

WWII and Architecture

The war was really interesting to learn about as the Netherlands is not at all mentioned when we learn about it in history at school. It is also interesting to learn about a country under occupation as obviously for us it is all about fighting the war and the great British morale everyone had during the Blitz. Germany never broke us etc. I did not know that Germany attacked the Netherlands and Belgium without warning and that they bombed Rotterdam anyway. This explains the huge disgust the Dutch give, so my grandpa tells me who works in a castle, when you mistakenly identify the Dutch as German. Though I have asked a few people on UCU whether they are offended if I was to say they are German and most of them say they would be a little annoyed, but not as offended as the older generation. It’s good to see that views of the war are changing.

For our remembrance day on 11th November I do not think it is as discussed who the day is for. I just gather it is for all the veterans of any war since then. I would like to think that the subject of the boy’s poem would be able to be included as a thought in our remembrance, though I am not sure if others would think the same. I think it is much more personal and the idea is for you to remember and not specifically to talk about victim groups and who they were. On our day we meet at our town memorial and speeches are given by a minister of the church and then representatives of various local organizations, such as the Scouts, each lay a poppy wreath down at the memorial for the victims and then there is a 2 minute silence at 11am.

It was also interesting as I talked about WWII with a Dutch friend here and she said she didn’t get why people were wearing poppies for a long time before all the lead up to remembrance for what she said was months. Though I guess it would only be a few weeks. She said that she didn’t even know when it was, which surprised me as I assumed it was a common thing to know what happened on November 11th at 11am. I had never considered how other countries showed respect to their war veterans beforehand. I assumed it was all the same, but obviously that wouldn’t make sense for the Netherlands as they were neutral in WWI so why would they have that date as a special day?

Something I’ve noticed about the Netherlands a lot more than at home is the amount of architecture around. It seems that any building is either traditional or very architectural and I think this defines the Netherlands quite a bit. Especially with places like Rotterdam with the cube houses etc. which is especially known for its superb architecture. I also really enjoyed visiting the Rietveld Schröder House. It is crazy to believe it was built nearly 100 years ago when it is so modern, even for today. I especially liked the flexible walls and black for things you touched so they wouldn’t get dirty. Very clever. I had mistakenly thought, though, that the house was based on the painting by Piet Mondrian because of the use of white and black with the primary colours, though I was wrong.

I do not think the UK goes in for architecture in such a big way, perhaps because we have so many beautiful old buildings, that having modern ones against it would be an odd combination. We do have many ugly 70s tower blocks though, which are horrible. I was however happy to read in the book that architects wanted to build on the English garden city principle which I was very pleased about as my town at home is the world’s first garden city, Letchworth, and hence was the template for the rest of these garden city developments. It was interesting for me to hear this as people at home go on about it all the time, but it has made me realise that this principle was a big deal and something that other cities in other countries really wanted to put into action.


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