My Holland experience

The above photo was taken in October 1970, my first visit to Holland. I am cycling along the Seissingel beside the Seisvest the outer canal of Middelburg. Middelburg is the provincial capital of Zeeland on the former island of Walcheren. It is one Holland’s most beautiful towns with its history going back at least to the 800s. The Count of Holland and Zeeland granted it city rights (Stadsrecht) in 1217.  It had its heydey in the eighteenth century when the Dutch seafarers were sailing the globe, bringing riches back to their country. On the other side of the canal is the well-preserved windmill De Seismolen. It was a culturally exhilarating time for an inexperienced Australian boy on his first trip to the Old World.

Me and one of Ineke’s great aunts

How an unknown country and its people forever entered my consciousness.

Most people have a moment in their lives when they are led in a wholly unexpected direction and only realise it far down the track. One such moment happened to me in December 1968. I was twenty-two. After a restless profitless period of a couple of years, I scored a job with TAA one of Australia’s domestic airlines. My motivation was cheap airfares to Europe. France and French culture were my intended destination.

I had instructions to join a bunch of recruits in TAA’s office in Phillip Street,  Sydney CBD, where we would hear the training schedule for the next three weeks. Stupidly I got the time wrong and arrived after the session had begun. Deeply embarrassed by my mistake and the attention it attracted, I took a seat at a conference table with around fifteen other young people. Despite my confusion, my eyes fixed on an attractive suntanned honey blond directly opposite. It was but a moment. The moment that changed my life.

Ineke was on a working holiday. Her intention was to stay a year and then return to Holland. My mother said (rather ingenuously) that Ineke was the answer to her prayers. We married in January 1970 and in October that year we left for my first visit to meet the Dutch family and see the sights of a country I had scarcely thought about before meeting Ineke. Cheese, windmills and Hans with his finger in the dyke were all I knew of the place. It was only for two weeks, but it was a time of unceasing exhilaration – cultural exhilaration. The experience of another country with a different language, different customs and vastly different physical surroundings was mesmerising. There was fascination and (ancient) newness around every corner.

In May 1971, we left for Holland without any idea about long we would stay.  I was offered  a job with the export department of the Amsterdam-Rotterdam Bank in Amsterdam, a job that wasn’t really me although I loved the Dutch working environment and my lunch-time walks from Rembrandts Square along the Kalverstraat to Dam Square and back along Het Rokin. I noticed Qantas had an office at the beginning of Rokin. A year later I applied for a job there, was successful and joined a great team of young people. We settled into the Dutch way of life.

Languages were my best subjects at school. So I began a program of learning Dutch when things became serious with Ineke. I even sent a recorded request in Dutch to her parents for her hand. So after six months in Holland, my Dutch was competent, certainly good enough for daily life and addressing the people who came to the Qantas office. Learning to speak another language has been one of the great experiences of my life.

The language is the entrance to the cultural mind of those that speak it. This is certainly the case with the Dutch. Many Dutch people speak English (not with the same  competence) but they sound different in Dutch. Dutch is quite idiomatic with expressions that are not directly translatable. One must translate ideas. As my proficiency improved, I was fascinated to hear  the different regional accents and dialects in such a small country. Sometimes there were different dialects in villages less than ten kilometres apart.

I have regularly heard the (sweeping) claim that the Dutch are arrogant. No, it is rather that the Dutch are frank, often to the point of tactlessness. In addition, they hold their opinions robustly. This is mistaken for arrogance. The Dutch are not arrogant. In Holland this frankness is not a problem because everyone is frank. Besides there is a little army of words, scarcely without meaning on their own, that soften and modify, sometimes subtly, what the speaker is saying – ‘toch’, ‘ook’, ‘wel’ to name a few.

The problem comes when the Dutch speak English, a language that has cultural courtesies reinforced in the 18th and 19th centuries. One need only read the great novels of Jane Austen to discover it. It is vulgar and often offensive to pour out the contents of one’s mind without being asked.  The Dutch are at a double disadvantage. Most don’t know the courtesies and do not have that little army of words to modify their frankness. I know of a case in which a Dutch company when interviewing an English speaker for an important position asked whether that person knew the Dutch were frank and whether that would be a problem.

Besides our daily life in Amsterdam, where there were so many ancient buildings and monuments, we went on drives to well-known towns and sights within a day’s reach of Amsterdam – Edam, Volendam, Monnikendam, Den Haag, Gouda among others. The first feature that one sees on a visit to Holland – indeed, before the plane lands – is the unique land- and townscape. The country is flat and divided everywhere by waterways of different types. The residential architecture of the Low Countries distinguishes itself from the surrounding countries.

We made the trip regularly from Amsterdam to Walcheren where Ineke’s family lived. The distance was 210 kilometres, nothing for Australians but a huge distance for Dutch people. I got on well with the Dutch family who were always welcoming – and forbearing with their strange Australian-in-law whose behaviour must have appeared incomprehensible at times. During that first visit, some of Ineke’s (great) aunts were still wearing traditional costume (klederdracht). I loved every minute of the cultural experience.

During this time, two children arrived on the scene, one at the very beginning of our stay. Despite enjoying life in Holland, I came to the conclusion that my prospects for work were limited. As good as my Dutch was (and would continue to improve) my lack of experience and qualifications put me at a disadvantage. I thought my prospects – and the family’s – would be better in Australia. Whether I was right looking back, I don’t know. We could easily have stayed. In any case, we returned to Australia in December 1973 after two and half years in Holland – exciting years for me but perhaps less so for Ineke with two children under two years.

Ineke and I made regular trips to Holland while her parents were alive. And her mother came regularly to Australia on holidays. Her sister and brother with their spouses, and a niece, have been, too. Changes, alas. in circumstances have meant that I am no longer as exposed to Dutch conversation and social intercourse as in previous years.  I must now make a conscious effort to remain in contact with Dutch culture. The main help here is Dutch television which we receive via satellite (BVN broadcasts).

It is unfortunate that Holland and the Dutch receive very little media coverage in Australia. It’s unfortunate because social and political developments in Holland parallel those in Australia, though Australia often lags behind. How the Dutch deal with those problems can be enlightening. I think the character and culture of the Dutch can  be similarly enlightening.

What I admire most about the Dutch is their sober-mindedness, industry, and organizational ability. Holland’s success in industry and business has been astounding for a population of 17 million. In just about every field of endeavour – science, industry, business, fashion, music, IT, sport, you name it – you will find Dutch people in the front line.

The photo above is of me and one of Ineke’s many aunts in October 1970. Note: I gave up smoking in July 1971.

Writer … and still in the fifties