Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Good Taste, or, Why I Will Never Fit In

Produce stand

Lately, I've been getting a lot of compliments on my things, which isn't exactly blog-worthy except that, according to my Dutch language class, just saying, "Thank you" isn't quite enough. The typical Dutch attitude is to apologize, almost, for having given the other person a cause for complimenting you. To explain:

Person A: Oh, what a lovely jacket!
Person B: This old thing? It's been sitting in my closet for years, and the zipper sometimes get stuck.
Person A: But it's got such a nice color.
Person B: I suppose, but it was out of season...

I think this is another genetically embedded behavioral meme. In the heyday of the Puritans, dressing gaudily was frowned upon, so if you were caught out, you had to explain: "Oh no, I didn't just buy this in Paris, see, I had this in my closet for ages and now it's 'in' again, and I wouldn't even be wearing it except that I have a meeting with some sleazy French guy." If anybody else has a better--or correct--explanation for this, I'd love to hear it. Seriously.

Now, if I were anywhere else in the Netherlands, I could also downplay my things, because really, aside from my purse, everything was either a) on sale, b) secondhand, c) a relic of my time in the US, or d) too cheap to justify any compliment. I have a pair of bright red ballet flats, for example. They were €9, from the Schoenen Reus, a store well-known for dirt-cheap shoes, but every time I wear them, eyes get bigger and someone always says, "I love your shoes!"

However, I live in Maastricht most days of the week. As the Dutch are fond of saying about Maastricht, and Maastrichites are fond of saying about themselves, "Maastricht is not Dutch." There are a host of cultural oddities that delineate Limburg from the rest of the Netherlands, and it is my belief that anybody who would buy Prada/Gucci/Armani/Miu Miu/Balenciaga would not be so gauche as to buy it on sale. And if you're spending more than my month's paycheck on a watch, I somehow don't think you'd truly mind the compliment.

But Maastricht is Dutch enough: there are stores selling overpriced and understyled furniture; the Dutch chain stores do brisk business promising low prices; you can always get appeltart at a cafè; the supermarkets still sell microwave stamppot; zoning laws still apply. The cultural confusion that bewilders any expat is manifestly doubled in light of the fact that I spent my first two years in the Netherlands in Holland, or "the part of the Netherlands that's not Friesland, Limburg, or Zeeland", and have gotten used to the Dutch way of, amongst other things, accepting compliments.

So what do I say? The only thing I can: "Why, thank you."

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