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?


  1. Late reaction I know, but Groningen is not in Friesland. Groningen is capital of the province Groningen and there the people speak Grunnings dialect. Friesland, it's capital is Leeuwarden btw, well ... is Friesland and Friesian isn't a language it's a speech problem (officially Friesian is the Netherlands second language) Friesians and Groningers can't stand each other.

  2. Ah, thanks for clearing that up.

  3. I do think Groningen and Maastricht have something in common. Both are close to the German border and attract a large number of German students.

  4. @ Vincent:

    Personally, I find Maastricht to be weird even for a university city.