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?