Any tourist who has spent any time at all in Amsterdam, perusing one of the mandatory souvenir shops, will undoubtedly have stumbled upon many a T-shirt with the tagline “And as finishing touch, God created the Dutch.” I’ve always been undecided on whether this statement should be taken as delightfully tongue-in-cheek, or as shamelessly self-congratulatory. The peculiar truth will probably lie somewhere half-way; as with most things in The Netherlands. Another famous tagline that goes along similar lines is “God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland.” While this too seems like just another brazen boast, actually the phrase provides at least some insight into the mentality of the Dutch – a distinctive people who pride themselves on the thought that their ancestors once claimed the land from the clutches of the ocean, turning swampy marshlands into a pint-sized European powerhouse renowned for its intrepid attitudes, unflinching egalitarianism, somewhat overlarge ambitions, and cheeky novelty T-shirts.
Better still is getting the opportunity to see a country through the eyes of a stranger. Average, “stuffy” UK citizen Ben Coates ended up in The Netherlands through a twist of fate – and the intervention of love. He has taken it upon himself to familiarize himself with these crazy people and the country they call home, taking up the pen to benefit anybody who cares to read about his Dutch adventures. Because although the Dutch don’t seem very far removed from the British, such first impressions quickly fall apart.
While the British might be forever identified by the reserve and poise of the stiff upper-lip, the Dutch love to present themselves as a chatty, lively, straight-talking bunch, always up for “gezeligheid” – a word that can only partially be translated as “having a good time together”. At the same time, Coates discovers that the Dutchman’s focus on equality and classlessness also entails a widespread no-nonsense attitude to anyone who has the nerve to be fancy about anything; making sure that everyone’s clear that it’s always best to “just do normal”.
And yes, as one would expect, the book is very funny throughout, with Coates playing his deadpan English outlook against the zany and outlandish antics of the Dutch to full effect; his brave and wide-eyed excursions landing him in all manner of awkward situations. But where Coates really excels is at his peculiar brand of home-grown, hands-on anthropology; studying his new countrymen by readily immersing himself in their particular rituals, such as carnival debauchery, Sinterklaas festival, war memorial services, and even protest marches. Chapter by chapter, Why The Dutch Are Different grows into a kind of highly persuasive travelogue, with Coates visiting culturally significant places at opportune moments to get a better, first-hand understanding of the country and what makes its inhabitants tick. It is this high level of honest dedication and curiosity throughout that really give the book a lot of intellectual and emotional weight.
More impressive still is Coates’ determination to always go beyond simply relating How the Dutch are different, but indeed getting into the question Why. Never satisfied with hearing just one part of the story, Coates is not afraid to ask some very serious and perhaps uncomfortable questions about the future of the vaunted Dutch multicultural tradition in the face of increasing world-wide pressures. To his credit, Coates is unfailingly open-minded about the circumstances that gave rise to millennial phenomena like hooliganism, right-wing politics and violent extremism in a nation that always has been about “just talking things over”. Behind Coates’ quest to lay bare the soul of modern Dutch society lies a very clear fondness of these friendly, quirky, sometimes vulnerably open people, as well as a trusting understanding of their fears, taboos, and hopes for the future.
Just for the sake of nit-picking, the book could have done with slightly more diligent editing; every once in a while some unnecessary factual errors creep in, such as The Netherlands having as many as 17 provinces – well, that has been a while – and lobbing together Dutch founding father William Of Orange with his descendant King William I of Orange-Nassau some two hundred years down the road. Still, the amount of details he gets right is impressive enough, making spot-on characterizations that far outweigh the odd goof concerning dates and faces.
Why The Dutch Are Different is a striking portrait of The Netherlands in the 21st century, offering a refreshing and long overdue update of the way the Dutch national character is described by the likes of the great Bill Bryson, foregoing the easy shortcut from clogs and drugs to red-lights. Instead, Coates opts to dig down deeply into the origins of Dutch liberal attitudes, their ingrained notions of what is right and good in the world, and the day-to-day Dutchness that happens as the two collide. Any which way you turn it, Why The Dutch Are Different is a definite must-read; not just for the inquisitive visitor or prospective expat; Ben Coates should be required reading for everybody born Dutch.