It is always a great feeling to return home after an extended stay abroad. I may not be new to the expatriate life, nor am I particularly keen to return permanently, but home remains a nice place to visit. Still, even during relatively brief periods away, emerged in a culture other than the one you left behind, it is easy to forget the reasons why – after a suitable period of time – you cannot wait to escape once more.
In the Netherlands Christmas and New Years are marked by distinct cultural phenomenon ranging from the quintessentially Dutch arrival of Saint Nicholas during the first week of December to the nation-wide fireworks which begins shortly after the first Champagne has been drunk during the first few seconds of the new year. 2012 was to be no exception to this rule as many millions of euros worth of festive combustibles set the sky ablaze to the rue of owl enthusiasts and pet owners.
I find the contemporary festivities around the holidays charming (save for their undeniable ties to business and the joys of capitalism), from horribly tacky light-up reindeer in yards to the no longer quite politically correct Saint Nicholas tradition. Imagine a man dressed much like a gay cardinal who, astride his magnificent white steed (or mare, I have never quite been sure of the convention) regally greets cheering crowds of children as his black-as-the-night “helpers,” dressed much as jesters, rain down showers of bite-sized cookies and candies whilst the threat of their retribution ever looms over “bad” children.
I am detached from it. I no longer care in the same way children do and as a result am free to experience the phenomenon in a new and far more interesting way: I can happily analyze it to death. That too is very Dutch – to bitch and moan – while we enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. In fact, nothing makes the average Dutch person more happy as a near perfect experience where he may happily note that he recognized the experience as being slightly off whilst simultaneously relishing the remaining, flawless 99%. The Dutch as a result, being blessed by both aberrant weather off the North Atlantic as well as one of the world’s highest population densities, will always manage to find something to complain about, which is good, for they find it endlessly enjoyable.
Being a writer I avail myself of my blank canvas as I paint for you a picture in prose; a portrait if you will of the Dutch who at times are so unlike myself.
When after a long year spent cooped-up in miniature cars stuck in traffic jams and utterly immersed in the obsessive trivialities that so many of my countrymen confuse for terribly important the final curtain falls, the Dutch breathe a collective sigh of relief that I swear affects weather patterns across Europe. Briefly lifted from their shoulders are the burdens they themselves hoisted there with all the best intentions January last. Having, of course, complained the whole way. More ironically still, once set free from their jobs and obligations beyond the home, the Dutch settle in for the winter festivities where they are then free to bitch and moan about their much neglected yet very near neighbors for a change thereby granting their colleagues a reprieve as well as a chance to do likewise. Such breaks after all are precious and brief, and before long they all return to their offices where they can form a gaggle with the same colleagues they were thoroughly sick of a week ago and happily chat about unanimously awful neighbors.
It should be noted that as tedious as the constant, indeed incessant complaining gets, the phenomenon transcends all social classes and as such enjoys unrivaled popularity, surpassing even the national pastime with the utmost ease.
Some of the most common complaints reek of hypocrisy, making them that much harder to listen to, and making it near impossible to maintain the cool detachment advocated by medical practitioners, life coaches, and zen monks. Even what is written here falls into the category of hypocritical as I am happy to admonish others who do what I do (although, arguably, more vocally and less eloquently). In keeping with a theme however, and for the sake of entertainment, I ask you bear with me.
In fairness, the Dutch have more to complain about than simply the weather and the jam-packed roads. Since the introduction of the Euro (when from one day to the next the currency had been switched and yet the listed prices remained the same) life in the Netherlands has gotten more expensive. Couple that with the US recession, and the problems in the weaker EU nations, as well as a free market economy that cares not one iota for the frail or weak, the Dutch understandably gripe when they are nonchalantly expected to procure four euros from their wallets for a cup of coffee which very few years ago used be closer to one in equivalent currency. Moreover, much like animals, place too many of them in a confined space and they will invent reasons to be upset with one another. Call it friction, marking territory , or simply being incapable of suffering the peculiarities of others, adding more individuals to an increasingly smaller space is a recipe for disaster. One need only summon the image of the center seat in the row of five in the middle of a Boeing 747, imagine the people to either side to be your permanent neighbors and the feelings of resentment will emerge almost immediately. I honestly believe that the only reason airlines do any business whatsoever is that all the people in economy class are (wisely) denied access to weaponry, and each and every person musters elsewhere unheard of levels of self control knowing full well at some point the plane will land whereupon the people with whom they shared the miserable experience disappear from their lives forever. But what if they did not? What if the burly man with the offensive body odor with whom you wrestled for control over the pitifully inadequate armrest to your left were to remain in that proximity forever? Now the mutual resentment you both instantly developed for each other can fester and grow before eventually, perhaps after a week, perhaps many years, into abject hatred and loathing. Now when you have to get up to go to the bathroom you had better hope the people to your right are more agreeable.
Thus the Dutch fuss over the lines that divide their gardens which exist only as lines on pieces of paper collecting dust at the local municipal offices as well as the height of the walls they may build to emphasize their mutual distaste may seem trivial to people who are accustomed to a lower population density, but may make a lot of sense once it’s you who has had to live next door to the family of five whose musically ungifted children nevertheless enthusiastically play the drums and trombone.
Once a pattern makes its way into a culture it becomes all but impossible to eradicate. Thus the Dutch have honed their ability to complain to the level that Rembrandt and van Gogh took their painting: expert. There is even a fun and self-deprecating expression that perfectly describes this phenomenon, “mieren neuken,” or directly translated for those of you who speak God’s language, “fucking ants,” in reference to the ability of the Dutch to take trivial matters and treat them as if the universal constant depended on them.
Enough of this however, let us return to the festivities of the season (and then let us find fault in them and complain!) The Netherlands boasts multi-million euro sales of fireworks each year as every Tom, Dick and Harry is legally allowed access to colorful munitions possession of which during any other time of the year is criminal. Of course there are reasons for that, namely that they are dangerous, but also because they make a lot of noise, disrupt animal life, distract people performing delicate tasks (like driving on the small roads in the Netherlands in American cars which much like the people who make them are too fat to fit between the lines), and of course make a mess of things. Every year thatched roofs of old farm houses and historical windmills catch fire and burn to ashes because pyromania is just plain good fun! Better still is that like most teenagers the people who are really into fireworks can hardly contain their enthusiasm. As such, beginning with the opening salvo on the day fireworks are first made available for purchase up to the agreed upon time to launch said fireworks, stray explosions can be heard for the better part of a month reaching their final deafening crescendo on new year’s eve itself.
The culprits, as you might imagine, are mostly young boys – teenagers who love nothing better than doing what their parents forbade them. Still, most of them are limited in the amount, and scale of fireworks then can safely purchase and ignite due to stringent Dutch laws and the aforementioned nosy neighbors. Far worse are the fiercely independent, wildly moronic crowd in the 25-35 range who believe themselves to be mightily impressive if not by the usual standard than by the respective size of their firecrackers. Characterized by short fuses and needlessly large containers (if only to make them appear more dangerous – and thus “manly” – than they really are), these fireworks apparently fill a void within the lives of these men that I am scarcely aware of. A void that might during other times of the year lead to excessive drinking but during the month of December leads to drinking AND vandalism through arson.
Note that when I was a child it was possible to buy firecrackers of significant potency. “Strijkers” or “strikers” in English, were firecrackers that were lit much like a match by rubbing one end across the surface of the box whilst throwing the thing away in the same motion by necessity. These firecrackers were loud, powerful, and dangerous leading to their criminalization. This is also true for firecrackers auspiciously named “astronauten” or “astronauts” whose fuses remained lit under water. It was not long before someone figured out these firecrackers could be dunked into bottles of absinth that, at 70% alcohol, were the molotov cocktails of suburban Netherlands.
Rockets too used to come in battleship cannon diameters suspended on beefy wooden shafts easily over a meter long. These rockets reached the height of professional fireworks displays (which use mortars, not rockets) and packed a bang fierce enough to shake windows. In their infinite wisdom and potential for “ant fucking,” the Dutch government cracked down on this level of fireworks presumably to ensure safe air travel from Britain to Germany. The rockets produced magnificent displays in the skies when everything went correctly, and terrible injuries and death when they didn’t. Launching them was a challenge too since their wooden shafts were too thick and their weight too great to be launched using the empty champagne bottles strewn about. Not unsurprisingly people concocted impromptu and catastrophically idiotic launching platforms ranging from slanted roofs to car exhausts and even going so far as to stick them in the ground, thus preventing the rocket from taking off, causing it to explode at street level causing damage to more than just ear drums.
Now, doubly emasculated by their own shortcomings as well as far more stringent fireworks laws, the raucous crowd of young Dutchmen lighting fireworks ahead of time are a living symbol of premature ejaculators who, despite their best efforts, cannot contain their enthusiasm until the momént supreme when the rest of the country is ready. For those of you who missed the subtle analogy, the exploding fireworks represent the male orgasm while just after midnight on new year’s eve represent’s the woman’s. When you’re off by as much as two weeks it may be time to have a bit of a talk.
There is something to be said for ending the old year by going out with a bang. I imagine the fireworks tradition is one Dutch traders picked up in our asian colonies long ago where such things deal with scaring away the evil spirits for the coming year. Then, bravely, the sailors of the wooden ships with linen sails took these volatile explosives with them to the Netherlands where apparently everyone was so impressed that it stuck. We’ve all been avid fans since despite the numerous death/injuries/damage it has caused. In that respect we are a silly people. Citizens of other countries often criticize the Dutch for being a bunch of weed smoking, wooden shoe wearing, funny talkin’ farm boys, but in the end I think it’s better to express yourself with festive fireworks than automatic weapons and gang tattoos, and weed smoking hippies rarely gun down every last one of their class mates in middle school.
We stray off topic. No, let me stop lying – I stray off topic since you as the reader can hardly be expected to influence what I wrote whilst sitting here. Though I am ending rather abruptly, my conclusion is simple enough: every culture has its idiosyncrasies and the Dutch are no exception, but if soft drugs, complaining, and the odd blown up mailbox are the only problems, I think we can prize ourselves lucky.
I bid you all a wonderful 2012