Twenty Questions

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written Wednesday 30 June 2004

Twenty Questions

Everyone asks these questions. I don't blame them. My Dutch coworkers, my family, the movers, my American friends, the woman preparing my visa termination, passport control--they all ask variations of the same questions. I sat in a restaurant and jotted them down quickly between bites of tonijnsteak. The answers are not always easy. But here we go...

1. Are you happy to be moving back home?

Uh...Chicago has never been my home. I've lived most of my adult life in Florida, which is 2000 km from Chicago, as far as Amsterdam from Rome. I guess Chicago will by my home, but with corporate life these days, one never knows, do one?

2. OK, so are you happy to be moving back to your home country?

Very mixed feelings. I am not happy to be leaving the Netherlands, a better place to live than the US. There, I said it.

The US is a better place to work, however. So if your idea of life is to work a lot and spend the extra money you earn on cars and overeating, if you like cutting down trees to put up walls of billboards along your roads, if garish radio adverts for liposuction seem normal to you, if you don't mind spending your life in cars, if you measure everyone's life by how much money they make, then by all means, the US is your place. But if you refuse to submit to the "economization of all life", if you value peace, and proper justice, and happy children who bring a smile rather than grimaces to the next tables in restaurants, then the Netherlands excels. More about this below in this post, and in a later post.

By the way--I'm not trying to outrage anyone here, except perhaps Ann Coulter. But Dutch Straight Talk is now deeply in my blood. If so moved, you are free to post polite comments in agreement or rebuttal.

3. In America, are you going to ride a bicycle to work?

Only the Dutch ask this one--Americans know better. (The answer is No Way.) US bicycle paths are generally cute, useless little frills in parks, etc.. They go nowhere, are totally nonfunctional except for riding in circles. You cannot share roads with cars in the US. They go too fast, they are much too wide, and the drivers are both less competent and much more aggressive. Anyway, the distances are also much greater, and the weather is too restrictive. A loser all the way around.

Riding on American bike paths remind me of a caged tiger: you can pace back and forth, but it's the same old thing day after day, accomplishing nothing. The network of bike paths in the Netherlands allows a freedom I've never known in travel, like a tiger in the wild. Just because they're called the same thing doesn't mean they are at all the same.

Anyway, bicycling in the Netherlands doesn't map to bicycling in the US. It maps to motorcycling in the US--distances, wonderful road network, fuel prices, and weather work in motorcyling's favor. Now, that may get interesting in its own right (possible future blog).

4. Are you going to vote in the presidential elections?

Four years ago I lived in Florida, and hell--still no one can say if my vote was counted. So, who knows?

5. You mean you're going to sell your bicycle!?!

Ouch. Yes. In fact, it's done. Something like giving away a beloved pet. (Can we please talk about something else?)

6. What was the best/most memorable of your bicycle rides?

Tough question, but a happy one. After much difficulty, I'm going to pick...um...the first German-border ride, archived post HERE. In fact, I'm going to pick just two hours in the middle of the ride, during which I found the easternmost point in the Netherlands, discovered the somehow fulfilling central plaza of Bourtange, somehow crossed with the bike over locks without falling into the canal, and rode on a shell trail between a canal and the most beautiful forest imaginable. An afternoon to be glad one is alive.

7. What is the worst Dutch town you found?

Another tough one. The list is short. The town I most desperately wanted to escape was Scheviningen, on the North Sea near Den Haag--see my post archived HERE. But overall the most depressing town was (don't hate me if you're from there): Tiel. It's what Americans would call "rough." (I might add that Tiel would be the best town in certain American states.) I could also answer Hoofddorp, which has managed to distill all the worst parts of American, even Japanese urban life. I have different advice to those of you afraid of black cats, witches, and things hiding under your bed: avoid Urk.

8. OK, so what is the best Dutch town you found?

Much easier, thank you. But I simply have to give answers by size of town.

Best Dutch BIG city. We choose from four: Den Haag, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht. I'm going to disappoint the tourists here. My answer is Den Haag, the Hague. To me, it is most of what the Netherlands is about--and I'll explain this a bit in a later post. It is cosmopolitan without being tourist-driven, a rainbow of people, and arguably the most just city on the planet. Anyway, to proclaim Amsterdam "real Dutch" would be proclaiming Honolulu to be "real American". Rotterdam--too new and reconstructed. Utrecht might rank second to Den Haag. Your mileage may vary.

Best Dutch Mid-size city. This choice is incredibly easy: Delft. Honorable Mention goes to Maastricht. I admit that I never spent time in Leiden and Dordrecht, of which I've heard excellent things.

Best Dutch small town. This choice is impossible. There are SO MANY smaller towns of excellent quality. (I'm guessing at the populations, please don't grill me if some of these are mid-size.) I could name Enkhuizen, Makkum, Katwijk, Harlingen, Gorinchem, Naarden, Bourtange, Hilversum, Vlissingen, Wassenaar, Marken, Huizen, Rhenen, Medemblik, Bellingwoude, Gramsbergen--I'm sorry, I can't do this, I can't go on. Each name evokes specific memories, specific characteristics, like naming friends. And I'm not even a small-town person, but the richness is just completely outside my previous experience.

9. Where will you live in the US?

I gave up on buying a house, my heart wasn't in it. I have purchased an apartment (not yet finished!) next to a station on the train line to Chicago. The drive to work is 12 minutes--incredibly short by US standards. Across from the apartment will be shops of various kinds, and I can walk to any number of bars, and crawl back legally. I will take care not to pass out on the tracks. In any case, you can see Dutch life has had an effect.

10. What's going to be the hardest habit to change?

Not to utter "Alstublieft" every time I hand over money, or stand aside or hold the door open for someone else. At first in the Netherlands, it was a struggle to make myself remember to say this at the rushed grocery counter, etc. In the US it's easier--you just shove the money across. Never in the Netherlands. "Alstublieft" is a gentle courtesy of which I've grown quite fond.

11. What's the biggest difference between the US and the Netherlands.

Regarding the physical country itself, the biggest difference is in land use. The Dutch know their land is limited, and the degree to which they have organized physical layout is simply astonishing. What is even more remarkable is how most of this planning is hidden. The heide (heather) south of town may look natural and a casual refuge from your crowded village, but you can bet that some office has a computer database storing the boundaries of this heide to the centimeter. Nothing is left to chance. Whereas the US is suspicioius of land planning, fretting that it will somehow limit your use of your land. (Get over it--of COURSE use of your own land is already limited--after all, you can't even legally smoke pot on it.) Thus in Houston you get service stations next to mansions, and eyesores like power poles and garbage dumps everywhere you turn. The US is ugly, partly because its voters suspect land planning to be the Devil's work.

There is a second big difference in the two nations' atmospheres: the high rate of violent crime in the US and the low rate in the Netherlands. This changes more than just your insurance bill. It means that night is never really dark in US cities due to all the security lights (I find this sad). It means that the Dutch bicycling system would never work in the US--you would worry (rightly) every time you went through a bike tunnel that someone with a baseball bat was waiting for you on the other side. It also means that millions of crazies legally buy guns of their own, which they think will protect them but which only serves to put more guns on the street. It means the US police might conclude in a split second that YOU are armed and shoot YOU. If you don't believe me about the gun business, spend a couple of hours next Saturday night in a large county hospital in any American city, and count the gunshot victims brought in. Violent crime changes everything.

Another difference: most things are cheaper in the US--food, automobiles, clothing, certainly petroleum. Coffee is a spectacular exception, being much cheaper in the Netherlands. Autos and fuel are more expensive per unit in the Netherlands, but you don't need to spend your life in a car as you do in the US, so this largely cancels the difference. And the Netherlands' beauty and safety and peace count for zero in purely economic standards of living,

In fact, I believe that the use of economics to measure life quality is the biggest difference between the two nations' cultures. The US tends to present "standard of living" (meaning income) as the best or only measure of life quality. The Americans make a little more, so the Dutch just have to catch up, right? Uh, no. What the Dutch (and many other European nations) have done is to resist the "economization of all of life". That is, in the Netherlands, the economically best choice is not automatically put in practice. When a billboard goes up, someone makes money, but is the nation enriched?

What the Dutch ask in addition is this: "What kind of country do we want to have?" The bike paths are not tollways, they don't make money--they are built and maintained because that is part of the nation they want to have. By contrast, US education is spotty at best because the US doesn't ask the same question "What kind of country do we want to have?" Schools aren't profitable, so they suffer. When someone is shot in the streets, the nation's economic activity is incrementally increased--but is the nation a better place for it?

"How many dollars would we pay for less violent crime?" is one way to frame they question--and it would make a nice start--but ultimately it's not about money. It's about what kind of country to have. For example, the US insists that Europe import and eat genetically modified foods. Monsanto screams, "There's no science saying it's unsafe. It's cheaper, so you have no reason not to eat it." But the Europeans simply don't want them, money or no money. Their answer is not phrased in money, which makes it an answer the Americans still cannot understand. Americans are impressed by money, and they are driven to reduce questions to money, they have to "economize all of life" or they can't make policy (unless religion gets in the way). To me, this is the biggest difference between Americans on the whole and Europeans on the whole. They compare not apples and oranges, but apples and meteorites. There is no overlap, no meeting of the minds.

OK, one more difference. The average Dutch teenager is roughly as mature as the average American adult. Sorry, but it's true. Now, that probably makes Dutch adults seem a bit stuffy--and that's indeed the stereotype--but even stuffy maturity of a populace is not overall a bad thing.

12. What is the biggest difference between the Dutch people and the American people?

Unfair question, and some overlap with the above. But I heard this question a lot, so I'll give it a go. Certainly the difference is not in wealth, or in intelligence, or in general kindness of the two peoples--the two nations are remarkably similar so far as I can tell.

In simple, overall maturity, though, I have to admit the Dutch have an advantage. Being an American adult, this is not particularly comfortable to admit. But American adults just too often act the child--selfish, helpless, overly sure of themselves, out of touch with the world and especially out of touch with its history. On the whole, Dutch teens are about as mature as American adults.

Also, in some way that I cannot quite put my finger on, but Americans seem to believe that history is a one-way street to Progressville, with America of course holding high a bright torch for the rest of the world to follow, if the rest of the world would just be reasonable and do things the American way. But Europeans, and the Dutch in particular, believe that the world should be a community, that people are not necessarily getting better or worse than they have been.

The Dutch suffered quite horribly--as much as anyone--at the hands of the Nazis. They may be excused for now being deeply suspicious of All-In-One global solutions, of zealotry of any sort. They have not always been a peaceful nation, but their record over the past 100 years of valuing peace and justice over Marching to Apocalypse is perhaps unequalled. The words "Your lifestyle is wrong, my lifestyle is right, so you must change yours right now or we'll end up fighting" flow much too easily from many Americans' lips. But I cannot imagine a Dutchman saying this. You can call it permissiveness if you like, but look at the last 50 years' records of peace (internal and external). I'll say more about peace in a later post.

13. What will you miss most about the Netherlands?

The Netherlands' natural beauty, which of course is only partly natural. Also: the utter freedom from fear of physical violence. And bicycling.

14. Did you succeed at your job in the Netherlands?

I'm happy to say: yes. I did what I came to do, but this blog is not about my job. Next question, please.

15. What's the best thing about the US?

That's easy: the energy of its people. Sheer raw energy. Like a nation of teenagers vs. the Europeans' old fogeys (the analogy applies in more ways than this). Think rock-and-roll, Wall Street, Lance Armstrong, longer work hours, extreme sporting...even think of a, er, certain older American guy obsessed cycled around the Netherlands.

16. What's the worst thing about the US?

It's Puritanism, linked with this weird, obsessive Holy March to the Future. What happens sometimes is this: all that energy can get misdirected, or opportunities for cooperation are wasted. Sometimes people even get hurt.

17. OK, then. What's the best thing about the Netherlands?

They have built a society that unarguably works. And depending on what you value, you might argue that it works as well as any society on the planet. They have crafted compromises between economic stability and economic lawlessness, and between security (with the risk of oppression and intolerance) and anarchy (with the risk of...everything). The Dutch have been working for 350-400 years on these balances, and they seem to have gotten them pretty close to right.

18. And the worst thing about the Netherlands?

Whew, back to an easy answer: services. Not all services, thank goodness, but Helaas most of them. Would you like the examples chronologically or alphabetically?

  • It took KPN 11 visits to turn on my (already wired) phone service.
  • It took Wanadoo.NL only one try to turn on my dial-up internet service...(wait for it)...BUT they never hooked up the DSL service in 13 months. They don't start billing until DSL is on, which means HA HA HA that DOA was largely posted on free internet access.
  • Gemeentehuis Bussum changed the numbering on my apartment, but never told anyone else. So I get these calls from the Immigration police asking why I moved apartments without telling them. I finally had to get a letter from Bussum and take a train to Hilversum to explain it.
  • Getting a drivers' licence application took 8 months. Of course, the limit for driving with a US license is 6 months. Worse, they insisted that I give up my US license, and after 6-8 weeks they would give it back, they said. But with my travelling, I could never give up my license for that long. Stalemate. And now that I have turned in the company car the truth can be told!...I never got a Dutch drivers' license. Nyaaaa nyanya nyaaa nyaaa.
  • American Express Netherlands (yes, such a thing exists) promised to bill my company directly for company expenses. They forgot to bill me, and they forgot to bill the company. The next month, they did remember to bill me for late charges. Which I paid just before I cut my card in half.
  • Policy at work states that certain documents must be shredded. When we moved lab buildings, they forgot to buy a shredder. So for months, our shreddable stuff just stacked up in our cabinets. Which was fine until they issued a new Clean Cabinets policy...you get the idea.

The main principle regarding services in the Netherlands seems to be this: Do the minimum to get the client to leave. When he does leave, you can mark it up as a successful transaction and get credit for it. When the client must come back (at their expense) because you left out some information, simply repeat the process--that is, give him the minimum that persuades him to leave, then record a second successful transaction. Continue repeating until you are promoted.

19. What are you going to do differently after your Dutch experience vs. before it?

I would like to take up the guitar. I might get a motorcycle. My work has some problems addressable by object-oriented programming, so I'd like to get really good at that. I'm going to live in an apartment rather than a house (for the first time in many years). I'm going to make more friends if they'll have me.

20. Are you going to keep writing to this blog, Downwind of Amsterdam?

No. In July 2004 this blog will stop. It will stay available on the web, but I will not extend it. Its mission in life is complete.

I am considering a new blog about Illinois, and the Midwest's ubiquitous, amusing, and generally innocent "undercurrent of weirdness", and about the US, and...uh, I'll let you know.

But not DOA--it will definitely stop.

posted by eric at 15.08 CET

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Readers' Comments

thank you, i've enjoyed it! ;)

Posted by: vavega on July 5, 2004 09:46 PM

You make it sound as if America is the most violent place on earth. I know you didn't say that but your words say it for you. Since there are millions of gun owners in the U.S. you are basically saying that they are all "crazies". Not only is this wrong but ignorant of the facts. Your comment about spending time in a county hospital is laughable at best. I happen to have worked in the emergency room at Sacred Heart Hospital in Eugene, OR. and in the 4 months that I was there not once did we receive a gun-shot victim. Keep in mind that Oregon is a state that issues concealed carry permits to anyone who is a resident, meets certain training requirements and isn't a felon. Once again you are showing your ignorance.

You blog was interesting for showing us the Dutch culture but you seem to have forgotten what being an American is all about. You are obviously partial to the Netherlands, why don't you stay there? I for one don't appreciate you painting Americans as gun toting crazies who are immature and obsessed with money. You need to get out sometime and travel the U.S. highways. See the America that you scorn. It's not all bad.

Posted by: JJ on July 10, 2004 03:48 PM

That's just silly: I never suggested that all American gun owners are crazies. Nor did I suggest that America is the most violent place on earth. Or that the US is all bad. Please read more carefully: I wrote plainly that work life and services are better in the US than in the Netherlands. But America is indeed the most violent industrialized nation on earth, and its murder weapon of choice is guns. These are mere statistics, whether you can bring yourself to "appreciate" them or not. I'm sincerely glad that you've found an unusually safe corner of the US, but in the past 12 months *25 times* as many Americans have died from domestic gun murder as from the entire Iraq affair. America's murder rate (overall) is shameful.

Having moved my home across US state lines nine times, and driven through 40 of the 50 states, I'm hardly worried about "not having seen the US." You really stepped in it there! Perhaps it's you who should try living in the Netherlands. More Americans should try the ex-pat experience. Whether its citizens can admit it or not, America could learn a lot from other countries (as could the Netherlands).

Not that I'm obliged to say, but I moved back to the US because the same job that moved me over there moved me back. That's fine--I like my new company, and I'd like to stay with them, then retire--maybe in the US, maybe in Europe.

If one of America's gun crazies doesn't get me first.

Posted by: eric on July 11, 2004 12:58 AM

"It also means that millions of crazies legally buy guns of their own, which they think will protect them but which only serves to put more guns on the street." Copied directly from your blog. If that isn't implying that gun owners are crazies then maybe I should re-learn how to read the english language.

I agree with you completely that America's murder rate is shameful. However the picture you paint with your words is that one is not safe in the U.S. and this is just not the case. Some places are more safe than others obviously.

If you have indeed driven through 40 of the 50 states I wonder if you took the time to get out and enjoy your trips. Your words make you seem a bit paranoid.

I would love to live in the Netherlands. AS I said your blog was great for showing us the culture and the country. Having spent a good deal of time living abroad I would agree that more Americans should try it. I lived in the Congo, Hungary, Japan and currently reside in Bahrain. I spent more than a year in each of those places and enjoyed my time there but not once was I reluctant to return to the U.S. In fact I greatly look forward to returning from Bahrain. My wife has also lived abroad but only in Sweden and now Bahrain. We are very open to living and working abroad. My point is that even though I have experienced the ex-pat life I still look forward to returning to America.

Posted by: JJ on July 15, 2004 07:54 AM

Sigh. This is not a political blog. But it tries to be accurate, so I seem to have to make some more corrections.

(1) One more time, slowly. The previous commentor generalized my statement incorrectly. While millions of US gun owners are indeed crazies, brandishing guns openly and sporting bumper stickers like "Charlton Heston is My President." (a sentiment they would scream was treasonous if an gun opponent mimicked it); perhaps tens of millions of US gun owners are presumably not crazy, and I wrote nothing about the latter. QED.

(2) Of course the US is not safe. I invite readers who don't already know the obvious answers to poll women whether if they feel safe walking in American cities at night. Ask policemen if the women (or men) would be wise to attempt it.

It is far from paranoid to take heed of the US's universally recognized violence statistics--simply realistic. Perhaps by standards of the Congo the US is "safe", but by the standards of other nations commonly named as civilized, America's murder rate is shameful. America does so many things well--it is hard to understand why they let their murder spree continue.

Posted by: eric on July 15, 2004 02:29 PM

I happen to be a young, American, female..oh yeah...and a gun owner. The majority of American gun owners are not out killing innocent people on the street corner, they are people like me, who enjoy the sport of hunting. P.S. You seem to be enjoying the same right of free speech that "crazies" are when they display their bumper sticker. Kudos to the crazies!!!

Posted by: Susan on July 22, 2004 09:47 PM

(1) It is just silly to suggest that the majority of US gun owners are game hunters. Many, certainly, but not a majority.

(2) Read more carefully, please--I had dispensed with someone else's "majority of gun owners" accusation even before you wrote yours.

(3) Yes, I enjoyed Dutch free speech very much (do, please, read more carefully--I wrote that post before I returned to the US).

Posted by: eric on July 23, 2004 04:39 AM

Thanks Eric for adding your small voice to the whisper asking Americans to stop patting themselves on the back and rationalizing their odd norms and behaviors, and open their eyes to the possibilities outside their home country. It's a big world out there guys, you should

Sorry you have to take the abuse from ignorant people who are so sure they know that America is infallible, gun nuts and all.

Good luck back in the land of the paranoid and the home of the self-congradulating.

Posted by: Lud on January 3, 2005 08:20 PM
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