Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Paradoxically speaking

The Netherlands is a country of the most amazing paradoxes and contradictions. Almost every week, I learn something that leaves me shaking my head foolishly in astonishment.

Consider this: Hollanders pride themselves on their tolerance and liberal approach to life, but these are the very qualities that allow pockets of the country to be so strictly religious that even the most rigid conventions are observed in entire villages, not just households.

As an example, I had a student once who came from a village in Zeeland where she was treated as an outcast because she wore jeans and long pants and did her gardening on Sundays. Absolutely true! When I commented on how fantastic such a situation was in so progressive a country, I was told that it is because the Dutch are so tolerant that this intolerance can exist. Get it? I wish I did!

On a similar theme, the country can still be divided along loose religious lines, i.e the north is protestant and the south catholic. Although this is fairly diluted these days, and like most other western countries, religion is not that big an issue, you can nevertheless still see the divide clearly in the culture. The south is home of the carnival and grand festivities. Wine and good spirits flow with typical catholic extravagence. In the north, though, there is little in the way of this type of hair loosening event, and in fact it is still seen as rather 'low' behaviour.

Add to this that some of the major broadcasting networks are run by the dominant religious groups, and you start to wonder how it is that so secular a country whose government is a mystery of concensus and coalition can also be home to such noticeable spiritual boundaries.

And there's another oddity I learnt a week or so ago from Invader Stu: Amsterdam, city of the coffee shops, all night parties, red light district, the gay games and basically an 'anything goes society ' closes its liquor sales at 3 a.m on a weekend night and absolutely nowhere can you buy anything but alcohol free beer after this time.

The list continues: Illegal acts such as smoking weed are not prosecuted or even fined, but walking your dog without a lead is; the police all carry guns, unlike their counterparts in the UK, but as a force, they are considered by most people to be little more effective than rather feeble social workers; voluntary euthanasia and gay marriage were first legalised in the Netherlands, but fail to turn up at a family birthday party and you are in trouble for the rest of the year!

I find it a source of constant amazement and fascination - if only because it is always so unanticipated. "We are tolerant", said a Dutch friend "As long as you don't expect us to be, that's all." And that's a paradox in itself, isn't it?


  1. You are such a keen observer.
    And the pleasant thing is I feel it is a great compliment for us as a society - and you know I love a good paradox, like: tolerance means accepting other people's intolerance.

  2. Hi Val,
    You are a keen observer indeed.
    The intellectual part of our society will understand what you are saying. The non educated part still goes to church. This will go on as long as people are afraid to die or whatever. Don't worry, the educated part gets bigger and bigger....We have a lot of well educated immigrants as yourself.
    I would like to take the opportunity to invite even more foreigners to our lovely country. (Beware of the weather!!)

  3. I wish I could have found out with out the long search for beer :)

    I guess it means they are tolerant of intolerance people. I don't really understand it but I agree that it is very strange.

  4. I read your blog, think of the happenings that you describe in the Netherlands (one of my favourite countries - no lie) and then compare it to other countries .... and you know what? the similarities and differences occur in a lot of other (so called) progressive countries. (as I chuckle to myself and think of crazy Switzerland and the U.S., which are probably two of the most crazy cultural countries with rules, cults etc.) We have this type of craziness in Canada too. For example it was only until a decade or so that it was illegal to play outside on a Sunday in Toronto!

    Thanks for another fantastic and thought provoking post. Oh, and also (((((Koos)))))

  5. Interseting.

    I agree with Lanio though, such diversity is evident in most countries when you really think about it. In fact, I honestly think we have those "extremes" in just this one city.

  6. Hmmmm. It's all Dutch to me......

    Koos - so nice to hear from you! You said "tolerance means accepting other people's intolerance"... a paradox - yes, and true too; but Erik-jan is also right, I think.

    As long as people fear death and embrace ignorance (not necessarily the same thing BTW), we will have intolerance... and it is everywhere.

    Accepting that innate intolerance as a facet of human nature is, I suppose, a step towards wisdom.

    Val, at the risk of sounding like an echo, you really are wonderful at observing people and behaviour. It might be because you are a 'newcomer' to the Netherlands... but I think it's more because you are a writer and have trained yourself to observe.

  7. Hey mama, i think you notice things because they affect you in some way. If I am correct, you have either had an experience where this type of thing has left you speechless, or it has made you giggle uncontrollably, or it has made you so angry you talk with your teeth clenched. You also have the imagination to picture an entire scenario beyond the facade of the tale you hear. I imagine you thought of granny packs leering at your student over low cobbled walls, their bluish purplish head scarves casting a menacing shadow over wrinkly brows, and that you thought that it was ridiculous and funny and so you remembered it. hmmmmmm
    I also definitely agree with your blog buddies, ignorance leads to intolerance.
    Love you XXXXXXX

  8. Ah yes, the eternal paradox. This has always been a favourite topic of conversation aboard the Vereeniging. Maybe it is indeed that we foreigners see the paradox in situations more clearly than our dutch counterparts but I agree with Lannio that paradox can be found in most countries, and I dont think its only the progressive countries either.

    One only has to look to Northern africa to see the glaring paradox of religion trying to "save" people while all it does is cause mass-murder and violence.

  9. Hi Val,
    I thik I agree with those who have said you can find these cases in every country. I know there's a book floating around here about bizarre Canadian laws, and I suspect every country has their own edition.

    You are keen observer for two reasons: immigrants always see what the locals either take for granted or ignore, and writers have a keen eye for details and things that are contradictory, out of the ordinary, or would help make a good story.

  10. Kate - www.lovetolead.info6:06 pm, March 08, 2007

    It certainly does seem to be a country of contradiction! I think it is great that you take it in your stride and find it fascinating, as well as educating the rest of us. Thank you!

  11. Denver Colorado (USA) it's illegal to do handstands on the sidewalk...

  12. but many Americans carry hand guns?

  13. The USA has many obscurities too, go to for more crazy laws, but the funniest I thought were

    It is illegal to set a mousetrap without a hunting license

    In San Francisco, it is illegal to wipe one's car with used underwear.

    New Britain, the speed limit for fire trucks in 25 mph, even when going to a fire

    In Miami, it is illegal for a man to wear of any kind of strapless gown. Unmarried women who parachute on Sundays may be jailed.

    In Idaho it is prohibited for pedestrians and motorists to display frowns, grimaces, scowls, threatening and glowering looks, gloomy and depressed facial appearances, generally all of which reflect unfavorably upon the city's reputation.
    Boxes of candy given as romantic gifts must weigh more than 50 pounds.

  14. What an astonishing place! A land full of contradictions, and some values that defy logic. Still, I expect logic is over-rated. I wonder how you went when you first arrived, before you knew the “rules?” I’m picking up an idea of the answer in “Watery Ways”. I do know from my Dutch friends here that to have a grubby window or front step is to invite absolute contempt, and that a scrupulously clean house at all times is a minimum requirement. Yet, as you say, some of the “bigger picture” issues are treated quite liberally. As I’m not gay, terminally ill (I hope!) and I am domestically very lazy (except for cooking), perhaps I’d better stay where I am! Would love to visit though ...

  15. vally peee!!!..i'm back!!..thankyou for all your
    i'll read your post properly soon just catching up ..yay!!!..

  16. Oops! It's been a busy week and I have failed as a blogger to asnwer all your comments - bad blogger Val ;-/

    Anyway to redress the situation, thank you Koosje and Erik Jan. As two 'natives', you will be only too familiar with these paradoxes but at the same time, probably don't see them as anything strange!

    Stu - I think you'd probably had enough beer that night already ;-)

    Lesley, it seems that you have your share of inconsequential 'rules' in Canada too then! Not being allowed to play outside on Sunday, hey? How odd is that?

    Ian, does that city happen to be Nottingham? I don't know so much about it, except that it is home to Boots the chemist and also the old lace industry!

    Rache, "Accepting that innate intolerance as a facet of human nature is, I suppose, a step towards wisdom"
    I think that shows you have a great deal of wisdom yourself. thanks for your kind words, dear!

    Momo, you know me too well! And there I was trying to sound so very objective about it! But yes, you're right my pet...on all counts ;-)

    Jojo, yes, we do talk about it quite a bit don't we? I suppose that's what inspired me to actually write about it ;-)

    Anne Marie, the more I learn the more I realise I have to learn, especially when it's about cultures and their differences. You are right about the benefits of being an immigrant. We see things from a completely different perspective and of course, I love telling stories ;-)

    Kate, thanks for your interest!

    Dale - that's a good one! What's wrong with handstands??

    Mo again, those are brilliant! I especially like the one about needing a hunting licence to set a mousetrap ;-) must come and visit! We would love to give you a tour of all these oddities;-)
    But you have hit the nail on the head there. The attention to the detail and principles of 'cleanliness is next to godliness' seem to hold good here, but I was talking to another Dutch friend yesterday and he told me the main attitude to being tolerant is that most people believe in a kind of laissez faire approach, as long as it doesn't affect them. He told me it was an 'everything is alright as long as it's not in my back yard' feeling. In other words, he admitted that their tolerance is not really acceptance.

    GYPSY!!!!!! You're back!!! Yipeeeeee. Time to celebrate.

  17. Tolernance is such an interesting concept. I have always considered myself quite tolerant, or did, until I became a journalist and saw some extreme injustices even in our fair valley, let alone the world. And now as a youth worker, I find my level of tolerance for what some people consider parenting waning.
    I have an interesting story that fits well here.
    While attending a workshop in Vancouver a month or so back, I met and befriended a fellow photographer who had spent last summer in the mountains of Mongolia with a tribel of Eagle Hunters. Michael had spent his entire youth dreaming of seeing these romantic foriegn places, collected National Geographics like other kids collected sports cards and posters. Finally, as an adult, he was able to visit these places, and in working with Atira, a non-profit group in Canada, found himself living with said tribe, which is to some extent nomadic in nature. When the USSR came crashing to a halt, they were forced out of their native Khazikstan and into the mountains in Mongolia. They do not hunt eagles, but hunt WITH them. How excited he was to live with this tribe, live his childhood dream, and immerse himself in the romance of their existance...
    It was not long before he realized the romance would be tarnished. The eagles, when not in use, were chained near the banks of a nearby river. And each spring, the people of this tribe would steal a new wolf pup. Wolves, of course, are the enemy of these people, who keep various animals as livestock, mainly goats. The wolf pup is chained up in the village, on a short chain, and fed just enough to survive. The children taunt it and throw rocks and sticks at it. After four or five months, the animal is killed. This is to teach them to hate the animal, which raids their herds. Their herds are their survival. It is vital they remain diligent about protecting them. Of course my new friend was devastated. His romantic image of this tribe, which he had long hoped to see with his own eyes, has dimmed considerably. I myself was close to tears as he told me this. While relating this story to me, and telling me of this "brutality of these acts," both chaining the eagles and the kidnapping and eventual killing of the wolf pup, which were in his eyes intolerable, you could see the pain in his own face.
    I asked him, after we had spoken a little more, how it is we could see these acts and be so devastated by them, and yet accept the immense brutality we see every day in our own society. The cruelty we see animals suffer here in so many homes, the way we allow our society, and in that acceptance, allow ourselves, to treat our homeless, our elderly, our mentally disabled and ill, and so many other examples.
    I find it curious how we are tolerant of our own brutality, but can condemn others for what we see shocking in their society.
    I have been thinking about this a lot since meeting Michael, and taking a hard look at my own intolerances, and that of our society and governments. Not judging, but trying to look at it all from many angles. It has so far been an interesting journey, and will no doubt continue to be one for some time to come.
    Thanks for this blog Val. Once again you have made me think.

  18. Wow, Stevie. I have quite a lump in my throat after reading this story, but yes, it's true, we often turn a blind eye to cruelty and injustice around us, but condemn that which we see as barbaric but which is merely different from our own forms of cruelty and injustice. Civilisation is only a thin veneer at best, isn't it? All we can really say is that we hope we would never do anything like that ourselves, but we can never guarantee that. We are, after all, human beings...

  19. And I am curious about the handstands myself... hmmm... perhaps it is considered indecent exposure if not properly attired whilst doing said handstand... hee hee!

  20. Men in kilts? That's be an interesting handstand... depending of course on whether the theory about what they wear under them is true...

  21. men in kilts doing hand stands??..this is pure filth!..shame on you stevie..

  22. Hi Val,
    Thanks for the good wishes! I've left you a few chapters on EG.

  23. the handstands might scare the horses...

  24. As far as paradoxes go, I've been trying to think of something witty to say upon the subject, but I have drawn a complete blank.

    I've not had much time to surf our blogs - my computer is moving at a snail's pace now and I'm busier than ever - do the math.
    It all adds up to very little time left for blogging and thinking on the blogs.

    At least I've drawn something and it's complete...

  25. Val the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon in chronological order:

    Dragonfly in Amber
    The Drums of Autumn
    Firey Cross
    A Breath of Snow and Ashes

    I saw your question on Mary Beth's blog.

  26. Thanks Dale, I've been very rash and order Outlander now, so if I like it I'll know which one comes next ;-)

    I like what you've balnk is as complete as you can get!

  27. I think the dutch are far more liberal and laid back than us uk-ers..we used to be..but we are fast becoming a nanny state..babysat by bureaucrapic self serving bastards..

  28. men in kilts doing handstands = Filth? My my Gypsy, I guess you have a better understanding of what's beneath than I do.

  29. Hi Val,

    *L* I think a lot of ountries have their oddities like this, but you are one of those good observers! Perhaps places like Amsterdam try to compensate for their wild times by enforcing strict rules like closing the liquor know, so nobody can say they're *completely* wild?? If that makes sense....

    I put a list of the Diana Gabaldon books on my comments for you so you know what the order is. :)

  30. Lannio, I've witnessed at first hand at many a wedding do, men in kilts..its not for the faint hearted put me off my sunday lunch for a while..;)

  31. I always enjoy your interesting perspective on your adopted country.

    That particular point of view could only come from someone who has experienced a different world.

  32. A man in a kilt will turn my head any day!

  33. Rachel, do writers train themselves to observe, or are they innately observant, therefore writers?

  34. Both.

    As with all skills, some people have more innate aptitude for observation than others. Maybe that predisposes them to share their observations by becoming writers. Maybe.

    The more one writes, the more one must observe, in order to paint with words the story they are writing. They further hone those powers of observation by the act of writing.

    Some start with a high level of skill, others with less. So at any level, the training begins with the desire to express oneself through writing - and doing it.

  35. Val - quick thank you for the heads-up on Watery Ways' next instalment. Stupidly I responded over on mine after your comment, instead of here. I still haven't got a firm handle on blog etiquette! Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading it tucked up in bed tonight!

  36. I have to interject.
    Real writers are born. You can observe and study all you want, and most definitely you have to hone and grow and learn, but if the gift is not within you, your words will never ring true. It will sound stilted, encyclopedic and passionless.
    I have a friend who fancies herself a brilliant writer and inflicts it upon the world constantly. I know, that is elitist and cruel of me, and I shall burn in hell for being so judgemental and arrogant.
    She is educated, intelligent, and can string words together, but they have no flow, are forced and formulated. May as well read the encyclopedia, as it will be equally dry and likley offer more info. But of course, I read everything she offers me with a smile, and learned long ago not to critique and therefore hurt her.
    I can't paint. Not for real. Not like Ian of Nottingham. And I certainly cannot draw like Dale... geez, I wish... I think your true calling is still waiting for you Dale... in your pencils and paper...
    But I love to paint, but was born without the talent, and so do it dreadfully, just as my friend writes dreadfully. So I have to acknowldge that my canvas is meant for words and photos, but never paint... sigh.
    Val was born a writer, and her observant nature enhances it.
    Geez, I gotta get off this soapbox.

  37. Hi Val, my computer crashed & I've been out of the loop the past week or so.

    I had a quite productive week-end & this week-end is turning out to be equally as productive!

    Lots of creativity going on...

    I'd love to visit the Netherlands some day. One day I plan on going to Europe & absorb all that culture.

    Here in the States, culture is in it's infancy still. We are only 230 years old after all!

    Mere babies in an otherwise older-world.

    Hope all is well!

    Love from across the 'pond'


  38. oh man, Val, you should just delete my last post. The one about "real writers being born."
    Cripes, I need to shut the heck up for a while. Snippy, snotty little git I am today.
    Other than the part about you, Dale and Ian Gordon being talented from birth I am not even sure what the hell I was trying to get at with that drivel, and it is certainly not worthy of reading or being on your blog site.
    Obviously I am still not quite feeling myself, and I need to go get some tea and sit and get the harumphs out of my system.

  39. Quote - "Real writers are born. You can observe and study all you want, and most definitely you have to hone and grow and learn, but if the gift is not within you, your words will never ring true."

    That is true, Stevie, and is true of all great talent. We are blessed to be able to share the fruits of many extremely talented bloggers here - writers, artists, philosophers....I know my world has been enriched and made more interesting and fun by being a part of this community.

    As you pointed out with your example, the desire to write (or paint, or draw) doesn't equal the ability to do so - but if it is enjoyed by the person doing it, who cares?! :)

    And yes, Val is a born writer, as is Anne-Marie and as are you - and you all work hard at it because you love it, as do Ian and Dale with their art. This puts all of it on the highest level of excellence.

    I still believe, though, that someone with a lesser degree of 'born' ability can learn to write, draw or whatever well enough through practice and observation - just perhaps without as much of the flow and passion you speak of - and produce upon your soapbox.

    Don't change.

  40. :)

    I am still in a weird funk is all, and not quite sure how to crawl out of it. Tried Dale's suggestion again today. But it is raining. She forgot to tell me not to hang my head out of the window when it is raining. Kind of stings.
    And you are right, whether the talent is natural or not, do it with abandon and never let anyone tell you you can't.
    One of my favourite quotes is by Eleanot Roosevelt:
    "No one can intimidate you without your permission."
    Got to get to piano.

  41. Sheesh!! Look what's been going on while I've been Dale, you started it! ;-) I mean the part about asking if true writers are born. I'm glad you like my "outsiders" point of view, dear.

    Rache and Stevie, what you've said is really interesting, and has made me consider what makes a good writer too, so thank you for your kind words about mine! I feel honoured to be considered such. But Stevie, you don't need to feel bad about what you've written...honestly, sweetheart! The wonderful thing about blogs is that we have a forum to say what we think, and as long as it doesn't hurt anyone, then it's a great way to explore different subjects.

    About art in general, I agree some are born and some have to work at it, but then sometimes, those that are born don't use their talents and those that have to try really work hard and enjoy it so much more that they get far more out of it. When you talk about your painting Stevie, it sounds like me, because I have little natural talent, but just love to do it, whereas my sister has heaps of talent and hardly ever puts pencil to paper!

    Gypsy, I agree with you about the UK. I've been listening to the beeb a lot lately, and freedom to go to hell your own way is just not allowed now is, but what you say about Holland...well, it's going the same way, believe me! I could give you a doen examples of things that used to be tolerated, but aren't any longer...and definitely not men in kilts doing handstands! ;-)

    Lannio, Gypsy comes from a land where the Duke was called "Cock o' the North" yes, I guess she would know more about it than we do ..he he ;-)

    Anne Marie, dear, I hope you're having a good one!

  42. Oh my, it snowballed on me...pun entirely intended.

    We might want to mention that a writer loves to write, right?

  43. Nice post, always like hearing your observation...a window into another world.

  44. Dale, Stevie and all you lovely lot here; I would go further. I believe a really good writer writes because he or she HAS to write, as a good painter paints because he or she HAS to paint. It works in all areas of the arts; music, drama, literature, chicken sexing - no - scrub that last one. Obsession and compulsion are part of the make-up, otherwise it's just someone playing around - not that there's nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, I don't think drive always equals quality, but I've never met a good painter or writer who doesn't feel that drive. They're not hobbyists. They may not be famous (yet, Val!), but that's not the motivation. Eating is, of course, nice, so being paid is a plus, but it's not the primary goal. (That's why a lot of writers and artists have "real jobs"!)

    Speaking of obsession, hey - that makes most bloggers candidates for genius status!


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