Cycling through the Dutch Psyche

It is tempting, as a Coastie Liberal, to point at the European system and say “See? Life is better there. They’ve got legal pot, prostitutes, gays can marry, no one pops off all crazy with guns, free school, free healthcare, etc, etc.” It’s the sort of argument that enrages my Libertarian friends, who are just about ready to cave in my skull with copies of ‘Atlas Shrugged’ whenever I allude to the above.

And rightfully so. The Euro vs America debate is often ridiculously over-simplified, although this excellent NY Times article is anecdotal and informative, a rare combination. I will simply say this: during my time in the Netherlands, I was struck, repeatedly, by how two societies that claim to love freedom and liberty can have such different ways of ordering the world.

Famke, my couchsurfing host, had put me up in an empty room in a student housing block in her university. Every day she would take me out to ride bicycles around her small hometown of Wageningen, a name that I cannot pronounce to this day. And every day I would marvel at how much power the Dutch cyclist possesses in comparison to their American counterparts. Bike paths run parallel to almost every main road, and bicyclists have uncontested right of way when ranked against cars  (which is of course the case in America, but i’d argue more so on paper than reality).

Of course, there are about 16 million people in the Netherlands, and 12 million bikes, so it makes sense cyclists act with such impunity. The Dutch passion for bicycling is long and storied. The bike was introduced to Dutch society in the late 19th-century and has been ubiquitous on Dutch roads since roughly the early 20th century. The Dutch Army once fielded a unit of machine-gun mounted bicycles. The country is flat and temperate, practically engineered for bicycling. Even the street signs seem to swear (in English) at car drivers to ‘Move on the effing shoulders’ when confronted by cyclists.

Cycling through the Dutch Psyche

See? 'Move on the effing shoulders.'

Famke and I rode our bicycles past canals where the sound of croaking frogs and newts chirruped against a bright blue sky.

“You hear those?” my host asked. “Those amphibians were once threatened here, but we convinced local farmers to stop using toxic pesticides. Now we don’t have such bad run-off, and the returning animal population help keeps the water from going stagnant with insects.”

Further on, we passed several large fields overgrowing with fresh produce. Famke stopped her bike, walked over to one particular plot of land, and plucked some greens.

“This is a cooperatively owned field. Those of us that kick in money on the field on an annual basis are allowed to pick some of its fruits and vegetables. We also try to maintain the land as much as possible.”

We rode on, past pretty little cottages and horse pastures, although I will admit there were no windmills tilting lazily in the middle distance. After about 20 minutes, we pulled into the parking lot of another farming cooperative. Famke bought several bunches of boerenkool (kale), which the Dutch mix with mashed potatoes and serve with smoked sausage in a dish called stamppot. Stamppot is good stuff – hearty, filling fare of the Northern European kind – tastier than the average home-cooked Dutch cuisine. There’s a good, if perhaps overly enthusiastic guide to its preparation, here.

Cycling through the Dutch Psyche

The author and a bicycle loaded with boerenkool.

I digress. As Famke loaded the boerenkool onto bike, I noticed several laughing mentally retarded men carrying stacks of produce and playing with chickens. Famke smiled at them.

“We try to employ the mentally disabled in manual labor positions like that. It helps them feel useful, it keeps us from exploiting illegal immigrant labor, and they really enjoy it, especially the parts where they get to play with animals.”

I think, at this point, I lost it. “Enough!” I yelled. “Enough of you people and your legal hash and sensible healthcare and winsome prostitutes and organic co-op fields and bike paths and gay marriage and happy Downs Syndrome cases! You’re making me feel bad!”

The really funny thing? Famke stopped. I don’t think she had any idea that the things she was saying were, to my American ears, out of place, imminently sensible, and therefore ignored at home.

The Netherlands is a small, densely populated country that built itself on foreign trade and commerce. Flooding has been an ever-present danger. Land had to be shared if folks were to survive. The frontier sense of individuality that is at the core of the American identity was never really the Dutch thing. There is a sense here that society does not exist to hold you back – the idea that drives so much of American adulation of the Rebel Without a Cause – but rather is crucial to individual growth. In the USA – excuse the generalization – we generally have a negative conception of liberty. Freedom is lack of external interference. In the Netherlands, and much of Europe, liberty is a positive function – the ability to fulfill one’s potential.

Because they do care about the rights of the individual here, although the right to bear arms is not a privilege the Dutch trust their civilians with (I admittedly take issues with the Netherlands in this regard). But to make a long story short – its not just welfare collectivism versus free market individuality when we compare the Netherlands and the USA. Because in the former, we also have a recognition that the well-being of the society is based, partly, on the happiness and self-actualization of the individual.

Of course, sometimes individuals take advantage of their societies. Famke took me to a ‘Dead Celebrity’ themed-party. There were a lot of Michael Jacksons about, a few Elvises, and one guy dressed normally with a sign hung around his neck: “The Eternal Student.” He was bemoaning the recent loss of a protected status of student in the Netherlands, the sort of kid who mooches off government-provided tuition for decades, a folk hero amongst the university crowd.

I was only able to reflect on this at the time for a few minutes, because a DJ started playing that particularly noxious form of Dutch popular music known as ‘Happy Hardcore. ‘I would define the genre thusly: people on helium raving to the sound of kittens being tortured at high speed. The Dutch, I thought, may have an interesting take on the divisions of the public-private sphere compared to Americans. But when it came to music, we were still, firmly, kicking their asses.

Adam Karlin was born in Washington, D.C., raised on the Chesapeake Bay, and has been traveling for about a decade. He seeks things odd, interesting, intoxicating, alluring, enlightening. And ’ho ...read more

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