The Dutch: high below sea level

My company sent me to the Netherlands. I was seeing myself enjoying the kind of life I had in Amsterdam when I was 20; Beer, herrings, museums and…no limits fun! But instead, I ended up in the South-East of the Netherlands, in a quiet place called Zeddam.

Zeddam is close to the German frontier, in an area surrounded by forests, fields and picturesque windmills.

It turned out that my stay in Zeddam was a unique experience! I met with local Dutch farmers and workers and had a chance to learn about the Dutch national character.

Some words come immediately in mind when describing the Dutch: open-minded, pragmatic, optimistic, with a good sense of humor. In the same time, Dutch are often told of being mean, like in the expression “to go Dutch”. I suppose this came from the fact that, being good merchants, Dutch are rigorous in their accounts. Dutch are very welcoming. Personally, I never paid my share of the bill when in restaurant or bar with Dutch people in Holland.

Dutch houses usually don’t have curtains. This is to tell they have nothing to hide. In fact, the climate in often cloudy in the Netherlands, so by having large windows with no curtains, it brings more light. There is also another reason for this openness. Dutch are not afraid of showing their sofa or TV to the strangers so their valuables may become a prey for thieves.

Dutch are honest and trustful by nature. I recall 20 years ago in Amsterdam, newspapers were sold in the street, left in transparent plastic bags with a little box nearby. People picked up a newspaper and dropped the money into the box. Newspapers are not sold this way anymore, but still Dutch are honest by principle.

I experienced another example how Dutch are trustful, I was walking in the countryside alone, when I saw a man coming home on his new BMW motorcycle. I stopped by and looked at his bike. I said “hello, I want the same one!”. He chattered with me on the advantages and drawbacks of his machine, while I was thinking that in other countries I may have been taken for a thief or a weirdo.

This also works in trade. Historically, being a trading nation, the Dutch believe in the “merchant’s word” to close a deal. When I used to work with business partners in Rotterdam, I also used this principle, and I would never come to my mind not to fulfil a clause of the contract if it has been agreed only verbally, not on a paper. Business reputation is the asset number one in the Netherlands.

Regarding work, the Dutch have the reputation of being efficient, organised, hard-workers. These aspects of the Dutch personality are often described as being the result of Protestantism. There must be some truth in it, but surprisingly, the Protestants makes only a quarter of the population in the Netherlands, while the Catholics are the majority religion. Not to mention that religion practice in the Netherlands is falling down.

By the way, when travelling across the countryside far away from big cities, I never had difficulties to make me understand.

The Dutch language is close to German to a point that learning it is quite natural for a Dutchman. English, though slightly less related to the Dutch, is even more ubiquitous in the Netherlands, in stores, restaurant, and TV, as English serials are usually not translated, but only subtitled. As a result, almost everybody is able to switch easily from their native language to English or German without any difficulties.

It is not amazing that given the Dutch attitude, a small country like the Netherlands plays a key role in global commerce, financial and legal system and as such, has a huge political lever on other countries like Russia and the US.

The average Dutch person shows that the great lies in the small and the high in the low.

Apart from its inhabitants, Zeddam region has also another thing worth to mention, dozens of well-preserved windmills out of the some 1150 ones still functioning in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands, like no other country, are tightly associated with windmills. But despite the fact that the Dutch built windmills for centuries (and one can say, the windmills themselves built the Netherlands, since they pumped the water away to make the polders) actually, windmills were not invented by the Dutch. In the Middle Age, windmills were a common sight in almost every part of Europe.

Arnhem windmill

Arnhem park windmill.

The fame of the Dutch windmills started in the XVII century, when a man named Cornelis Van Uitgeest, added a crankshaft to a windmill to convert the rotating movement to an up and down movement. This way a windmill could be used to saw wood at a significantly higher speed than a team of workers. His invention came in a perfect time as Holland began to explore overseas territories and needed a huge quantity of wood to build ships.

A great number of mills were also used to pump water out of the polders and keep the land dry, so finally, windmills became a common part of the Dutch landscape.

Windmills for pumping water and windmills for making flour look quite similar; the last ones are usually in a middle of a village mounted on a heap of ground, like the windmills in the Zeddam region.

Zeddam east windmill

Zeddam eastern windmill

Zeddam west windmill and church

Zeddam western windmill and bell tower.

Stokkum windmill 2

Stokkum windmill (postmill type, with rotating top)

Braamt windmill

Three schoolboys at Braamt windmill. Roads for cars are generally doubled with roads for bicycles making the Netherlands a paradise for bikers.

Huis Bergh Castle

Huis Bergh Castle, in the vicinity of Zeddam

Thankfully, I had two days off to visit Amsterdam and Utrecht.


A “postal card” view from a canal in Utrecht.

Utrecht is a perfect example how an extensive historical city centre can be totally spoilt by a bad city management. Chain stores, fast foods and modern building populate the historical centre. With a different city protection plan, Utrecht would have been one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, like Bruges and Gand.

Amsterdam is a neat and charming city, even better than what it was two decades ago.

Amsterdam canal 1

A canal in Amsterdam…

Rijskmuseum library

The Rijksmuseum hosts hundreds of stunning Dutch pieces of furniture and paintings, including the famous Milkmaid by Vermeer.

The flat countryside, bordered with canals and windmills invites you take a bicycle and to ride one whole week. It’s the time necessary to cross the Netherlands. If you feel courageous to do it too, let me know and let’s make it real!





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  • © Sebastian Zelechowski, Moscow 2011
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