Saturday, November 14, 2009


In Dutch cities you have a city center, where you go shopping. There may be small stores scattered throughout the rest of the town, where you can get stuff that you might not want to run all the way to town for, but by and large most of the economy is made in the center of the cities. This is where the life and the character of the city is most apparent--if you want to get a feel for city, that's where you go, sit down with a cup of coffee, and watch the people go by.

Nijmegen is, in many ways, more Dutch than most cities. The open market, where vendors try to outdo each other and the stores in their rock-bottom (sometimes with good reason!) prices, is bigger than it is in many cities, and that's not counting the secondhand book sellers, who set up their shops elsewhere. In the permanent stores, SALE signs abound: they're not trying to entice the young and the broke, who gravitate towards stores like Prijs Meppers (outlet stores) by default, but the older, more established citizenry, who begrudge every penny spent. These are not middling stores like H&M, which have sales every single day, but fairly high-end places--places that will tailor a suit for you, and where a sales clerk waits upon your every whim. But in the end, it's all about the price, and while the citizens of Nijmegen are more than happy to shell out for quality items, there comes a point where the quality is worth less to them than the money spent.

This is, in a large part, why you will never find stores carrying labels like Karl Lagerfeld, Miu Miu, Prada, or any of the fashionista's wet dreams, in Nijmegen. But in Maastricht, where living beautifully is part and parcel of living, there is an entire quadrant of town devoted to these kinds of stores, and on the outskirts of the town center, a loose ring of outlet stores so that even the young and broke can partake of the consumerism.

But I would venture that the citizens of Maastricht are not any happier than their more Protestant counterparts in the rest of the country. In the rest of the Netherlands, your misery or your happiness are largely of your own making--there are always exigent circumstances, of course, but at the very least you are not presented with an unattainable (for most incomes) standard of living every time you venture into town to do your Saturday shopping.

But that's for most people: I must confess that I really like going through this part of town. Not because I imagine that I'll actually own any of it--I'm far too pragmatic to even think of buying a €60 scarf, being the klutz that I am--but simply because it makes me happy to see beautiful things. Beauty is hard to come by these days--in art, you have to MAKE A STATEMENT; in film, it's ALL ABOUT THE STORY; in food, it's as much about TASTE as it is about PRESENTATION. Very few things are as impractical as €500 jackets and €300 shoes--one does not buy such things for their practical value. For me, things create an obligation, one that I'd much rather not have--if you're spending three digits on something, you'll want it to last, and in order to make it last, you'll have to invest in maintaining it.

I think that's what makes most people unhappy: they see something, and decide that if they get it, they'll be happy. But they might not realize how much care they'll have to put into taking care of it, whatever it is, and soon it's not the pretty shiny thing they saw in the window any more, but something that's collected dust and tarnished in the back of their closet. So they whip out their plastic and get another pretty thing, and so on.

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