Nobody wears a Covid mask in the Netherlands. Here we go again, with that famous adage of the Dutch: Rules are there only to be broken. Except on public transit, where they can’t get away with it. Masks are obligatory but even here they’re not always worn ‘correctly.’ They’re diligent about checking your vaccination credentials at concerts, events and restaurants, but the latter would clearly much rather have your business than to make a big deal out of identification codes. Where they did make a big deal out of the various Covid-restrictions was during a protest demonstration I suddenly encountered on a Sunday afternoon, in downtown Amsterdam. The ‘Democratic Forum’ (a political organization that seems neither left nor right, just ‘against’) took part in this massive protest against vaccination, QR codes and other perceived limitations to one’s freedom. Fascism! Corona is just another flu! They’re lying to you! Later on, in the news, I heard this demonstration consisted of upwards of 25,000 people from all over the country. Admittedly, I spent inordinate amounts of my precious tourist time online: applying, making appointments, registering, proving my identity, receiving texts with confirmation codes for the appointments, and yet again receiving emails with more confirmation codes of having successfully applied for and received the local QR code once the validity of my Canadian vaccination had been figured out. A smart phone is indispensable to lead a life in this country, and even I, the die-hard refusenik (I’m Dutch!) had to break down to get one. I am now the proud owner of not only a Canadian vaccination-code, but also one for the Netherlands plus an additional QR code for the other European Union countries (Covid-19 Stats for the Netherlands as of Nov. 10, 2021: total cases so far: 2.24 million;18.637 deaths; Vaccinated 67.8%. Canada: 1.74 million cases; 29.246 deaths; 75% vaxxed. Not surprisingly, after another surge in cases, Dutch society went into a renewed partial lockdown as I write this). It was crazy-making at times, but the re-entry requirements into Canada were no different in this respect. A comprehensive and expensive PCR test was required within 72 hours (amazing, but not surprising, how small private clinics know how to milk the situation, jumping into the act and charging whatever they want for a test; I paid 74 Euro, but fees go much higher than that in places), together with the arriveCAN form that asks you more questions than the national census, just about. Once you’ve fulfilled all the anxiety-inducing requirements, it’s relatively easy to return if you don’t mind standing in line for hours at the airport, patiently awaiting the various checking procedures to run their course.
Not only the seemingly double-Covid rules and subsequent slack uptake by the populace are maddening in the Netherlands. Being a country resembling a postage stamp (approx. the size of Vancouver Island) with 17 million people living on it, its multi-layered, complex governance costs money and lots of it. Unlike Canada with its vast swathes of uninhabited wilderness that’s ‘out of sight,’ this small country cannot afford any wasteful ‘laissez-faire’ on parts of its land anywhere. Seeing it from the airplane above, it reminds me of the ping-pong table in the garage where my brother used to install his miniature train track with its station and the town here, its pasture, mountain and tunnel there, and its lake, bridge, factory and sports field in the middle, all precisely laid out to fit as many elements as possible. Spatial and urban planning, transportation, industry and agriculture, historical monuments, recreation, water and nature management: all of it is tightly interrelated in this country. Nobody can act in isolation. Hence regulation is intense and taxes high compared to other western nations, particularly in North America, but living standards are superb and you don’t see Vancouver’s ’Downtown Eastside’ conditions anywhere. The Dutch penchant to keep an eye on each other and to organize and control absolutely everything shows. The dense neighbourhoods’ low-rise row houses are super-clean, their little front yards display the largest possible botanical array squeezed into a few square metres. Despite their individualistic nature they so like to boast about, the Dutch can be surprisingly conformist. Being a hillbilly with one’s complete social history of furniture and car ownership forever stored on the property is not an option here, but various hokey, cliché garden decorations such as gnomes, wooden-shoe flower pots and flamingos, are.
The level of organization also shows, for instance, in all those separate traffic signs for cars, bikes and pedestrians. I particularly love the purpose-designed bike routes – bike throughways – in residential areas that have signs saying ‘This is a bike road, cars are guests here.’ Most indicative of the managerial intricacies of the place is how the residents receive a quagmire of separate bills from all jurisdictional directions, both public and private: housing corporations, municipal, provincial and national governments, health and social services, roads, water and energy management and supply, and likely many more that I’m not aware of as a non-resident. My Dutch friends constantly use acronyms for these official institutions in common parlance; everybody knows what they mean but I often have to ask for the full name to find out what they’re talking about. These institutions, in turn, offer a maze of possible discounts, rebates and subsidies to various precisely categorized stakeholder and user groups for different reasons, implemented, added to and amended with thousands of small changes over a long period of time, by now almost obscuring the original intent and ruled by completely faceless bureaucracies that cause great run-around grief should you need advice from any one of them. A recent scandal around the ‘dumb,’ inhumanely bureaucratic recall of specifically allocated moneys, accusing recipients across the board of defrauding the system, caused enormous, unexpectedly cruel hardship amongst groups of citizens and is still in the news as a warning to government: how not to allow the overwhelmingly large executive bodies, mainly operating digitally, to become too powerful and independent from parliament. A politics of complete tax overhaul, streamlining existing systems to achieve contemporary goals makes sense, you’d think. It would save a ton of management money and lots of aggravation as well.
The Dutch, despite their very good life, tend to complain. They too often walk around with a frown on their face, in my observation. It’s a bit like their historical windmills whose mechanism was designed to run smoothly, and yet, it sighs under the heavy burden once it’s set in motion. The clash between their freedom-loving, freethinking spirit and the straightjacket of unintelligible rules the people find themselves in, shows. Their famous historical liberal tolerance for, and welcoming of, difference is under stress: how to properly accept, let alone integrate, newcomers from different cultures, when the Dutch themselves are confused and frustrated by the rules? How are immigrants and refugees to find their way in this country when they have to jump through years’ worth of insanely bureaucratic hoops, losing time, resolve and enthusiasm?
So there’s lots of complaining going on in the Netherlands, but there’s also great fun to be had, on the whole. Artists produce quirky work, but to be sure, in Holland you don’t have to be an artist to be quirky: you can be funny/weird in your very own way and that’s OK. Booze, dope and sex are no big issue, they tend to be looked at in much the same way as eating and sleeping: a normal part of life and thus they’re organized accordingly, or so it seems on the face of it when you have a stroll through the streets of Amsterdam. Opinions on these topics may differ of course: many Dutch consider Amsterdam an extreme case, meaning not very representative of the rest of the country where Protestantism still plays a stern role in places. What they do object to is American-style gratuitous violence in film and on TV: by way of careful film classification, they don’t want to expose their children to it.
The world takes note of Dutch architecture and urban planning. It interests me too so I often search out the projects, both old and new, that I’ve read about in the literature. Amsterdam has some of the best master-planned 1920ies and ‘30ies neighbourhoods, often built by socialist laborers’ organizations out to promote the health and social wellbeing of worker communities, but in fact, the idea of social housing started much earlier, in the 17th Century, with the small residential developments aimed at orphans, the poor or single older women for instance.
As a ‘tourist in my own country,’ I gladly solicit critique from my dear old friends who live there and feel amazed by the ‘insider’ stories I hear but also grateful for their help in keeping me somewhat on the pulse of my country of origin. Every time I’m in the Netherlands, I can’t get enough of the intricate in-depth political machinations written up in the opinion pages and discussed on the numerous TV talk shows. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about them too much. The country is in good hands, really, despite its overwhelming complexity. I spend a few weeks or months and I’m off again to return to my other world. It does make for interesting comparisons between the two. I admire the Netherlands for its stated priorities of, for instance, their management of nature: the latest scientific knowledge and methods are applied to benefit the future health of its landscape, firstly, followed by the wellbeing and safety of its people and lastly, to benefit its industries. A good order, I think. It encourages industry to cooperate and find their own ways to reduce their water use and keep ground and air clean during production, knowing they may be ‘up the creek’ if they don’t. Inevitably, I believe, Canada will also have to have a long-term plan with its environment in mind. It needs to begin to govern its inconceivably vast country in more interconnected, integrated ways to preserve the natural systems of the land, and to lead it into a better organized and more sustainable future with a fair outcome for more people. It must move away from its often careless, short-term modes of localized, intensive resource-extraction as the main source of national wealth. It’ll be time-consuming, expensive, difficult, and contentious to find consensus on ways to move forward and take better care of our part of the unhealthy planet’s future. The Dutch would say to you, that’s democracy in action, it’s mostly painful but it must be done, it’s the only way.
I still love my old home country for what it always was and still is: fascinating, frustrating, stubborn and opinionated but down-to-earth sensible, hip, smart and avant-garde, playful, loud. Full of surprises, most of all. It’s good to be part of two completely different worlds, one in Europe, one in western Canada.