Saturday, October 31, 2009

Netherlands =/= Dutch

It's commonly said by most natives that Maastricht isn't really Dutch, but then again, sometimes I get the feeling that they'd say that about any region of the country outside of the Randstad. Take Groningen, for instance: the regional dialect/language (depending on who you talk to) is actually Friesian, which you might think is related to Dutch, but some reasonably knowledgeable friends assure me it's actually pretty...Welsh. As in, if you went to Wales and started speaking Friesian, people might look at you funny but they'd understand.

Friesland (where Groningen is) is exemplary because the effort to distinguish itself from the rest of the Netherlands is so extreme: when the street signs are bilingual and someone from Holland proper (like my boyfriend) can't make heads or tails of the language, it can indeed feel like an entirely different country. But the region is still unmistakably Dutch--you see it in the architecture, and the (regrettable) organ grinders/accordionists on the street corners, and the people, oddly. There is an unmistakable sense of propriety and hustle-bustle that one gets in the streets of Groningen, the same sense as you'd get in, say, Leiden.

Maastricht, however, is more like what I've always imagined Paris to be like: elegant. The elegance is not just in the architecture, but also in the feel of the city. The sense of propriety isn't like in the rest of the Netherlands, where they live in a continuous fear of the Almighty raining fire and brimstone upon them if they live too lavishly--okay, that's an exaggeration. But in the rest of the country, there is a sense of deliberate restraint, a feeling that one must always guard his actions, lest his neighbors think him improprer. That's not the case in Maastricht. You get the impression that doing things beautifully is simply the way things are. Modern stores are integrated into the 19th century architecture, so that a small colored sign is the only indication that it's there. The sole exception is the outdoors mall, which is entirely new (and by "new" I mean "built after WWII), yet the facade still somehow manages to avoid being butt-ugly-post-modern.

The French influence is not merely wishful thinking: France and its bickering with Germany, not to mention Napoleon, has alternatively taken over, turned back, annexed, redrawn boundaries, with enough frequency that it's a small wonder that the region isn't any more French. Belgium, a country with arguably more identity issues than the Netherlands, shares a greater historical and cultural similarity with Maastricht than Maastricht does with the rest of the Netherlands--indeed, it's as if Maastricht and most of south Limburg was attached to the country as an afterthought.

I bring all this up because my previous lab was very international and all of the people there took great delight in sharing little tidbits of life in China, India, Surinam, England, the US (me), and the Netherlands. It became apparent that the Dutch take their culture very seriously, inasmuch as it differentiates them from the rest of Europe, now that clogs are no longer (actually, they never were--only farmers wore them) in style. But one must ask whether it's possible to have a sense of national identity when there are parts of the country that have their own language, and their own history. The immigration question also poses certain identity challenges.

It's fairly easy to say that someone with dark skin or an epicanthic fold is not Dutch. It's fairly easy to point to someone who speaks Dutch fluently as Dutch, but it's also extremely easy to be extremely wrong on both counts. Being Dutch must, by default, mean something different from being Netherlandish--but is it possible to say it means to be Dutch, when people insist on their own cultural disparities?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

You want persnickety?

This article illustrates a particularly persistence instance of persnicketiness that perseveres in the polders. It's called "The Hague" in English--calling it just "Hague" sounds kind of funny, to me--and in Dutch it's Den Haag. But then, why is the city of 's-Hertogenbosch frequently referred to as "Den Bosch", even in official correspondence? I should know--in my dealings with the immigration office, which is in 's-Hertogenbosch, the return addresses for many of the forms says "Den Bosch".

For most people the two names are the same, and I've gotten to the point, thanks to the many announcements by the train stations, where I really don't notice what name they use any more. I will confess to being very confused the first few times, in part because a name like 's-Hertogenbosch looks intimidatingly scary to hear, much less pronounce, to a noob of the Dutch language; but also because--well, where does the "Den" part of "Den Bosch" come from?

So we can assume that, in the past, the area around 's-Hertogenbosch was a place where nobles hunted. Which begs the question of why it's called "De (Hoge) Veluwe" (a park in the middle of Holland that was a favorite hunting ground of nobles, and is still used for hunting today) rather than "Den Veluwe". Maybe it's because there aren't any nobles around any more--or rather, there are, but they're just not noble any more (my boyfriend can trace his ancestors back 400 years; me, it stops with my grandparents). Or maybe, now that "commoners" can hunt there, it's not worthy of the definite article.

Difficult. Not Complicated.

I often wonder if there's any correlation between a country's language and the way its people think. The Dutch language is very difficult, in that the list of rules of spelling and/or grammar is full of exceptions to those rules--although the exceptions do make sense once you get the gist of them. But it isn't complicated: subject/object placement is, for the most part, pretty constant, and if you have an extensive enough background in Latin or Romance languages (I took Spanish for 5 years) you can usually figure out the vocabulary pretty quickly. Of course, watching Mythbusters with subtitles greatly helps. As does Pan's Labyrinth, although watching that movie made my head spin the first time--the movie is Spanish, the subtitles are Dutch.

This post comes about because over the past few weeks the trash Nazis have become incredibly strict about tagging bags that are put out even a few hours too early. Trash is collected once a week. It must be places in these special trash bags (green, with DAR printed on it), in designated spots, no earlier than 5 pm the day before your postcode's (=zip code) pickup date. Otherwise the TN's will label your bag with a huge yellow sticker, and then you will get a fine, because they will go through your trash until they find your address on it. Difficult? Yes. Complicated? Not really--the rule is the rule. Follow it, and you'll be all right.

That's life in the Netherlands, in general. The absurdly strict adherence to asinine rules makes for what's commonly perceived as a wholesome, peaceful, and prosperous life. To be completely fair, the trash rule does make sense when it's the heat of summer--riding past a midden of trash bags when the sun has yet to go down for another 4 hours reminds you to be thankful that such a rule exists. At the same time, though, you must wonder: is this what my taxes are paying for?