Visiting my family and friends in the Netherlands (aka Holland) is sometimes an interesting experience. Having lived abroad for such a long time, I get a fresh look at life in the Low Countries. They’re special, my people.
It is said that God created the Earth, but the Dutch created Holland. The Dutch, as a people, are a down-to-earth, pragmatic lot. It’s in our genes. For centuries we’ve been in a death struggle with the sea, building mammoth dikes and sluices and windmills to keep two-thirds of the country from being swallowed up by the ocean. Being soft and romantic wouldn’t get that accomplished, we can safely assume.
(And you’re wondering about the little boy who stuck his finger in the dike and saved the country? Well, here he is.)
So we’re no-nonsense, unsentimental folk. We’re born that way. You can see it in our young, as you can read in the story below:
THIS IS HOW IT IS
When you’ve had all your birthdays, you die.
(Als je al je verjaardagen hebt gehad, ga je dood.)
– Dutch pre-schooler
I’m visiting my family in Holland and three of my young nieces are playing around in my mother’s living room, one of them proudly showing me a newly acquired swim diploma. The table is crowded with coffee cups, juice glasses, plates with cookies and other goodies. The adults are discussing the state of the world, confidently offering solutions for all that ails our planet. I am watching the kids.
My youngest brother is the proud father of these three Dutch beauties, bright kids who love fairy tales, like to play in the mud and make up fanciful tales.
Don’t let that fool you.
I sip my coffee and remember an occasion a couple of years ago when Mariska, the middle one, was three. Playing with her Barbie doll, she was trying forcefully but unsuccessfully to reattach the golden-tressed head to the skinny body. How the head had come to be un-attached, purposely or accidentally, is not something I want to think about.
I offered my help.
Clearly seeing this as a practical solution to her problem, Mariska quickly handed me the two pieces of Barbie anatomy and I restored the decapitated plastic goddess back to health and wholeness.
“You’d better be nice to her and give her a kiss,” I suggested.
She looked at me levelly. “Why?” she inquired.
Well, I was tempted to say, if someone yanks your head off and then screws it back on, wouldn’t it hurt? I decided this was not the sort of thing you’d say to an impressionable three-year-old. (I need not have worried.)
“Well,” I said instead, “her neck must be hurting a lot. I’m sure she needs hugs and kisses.”
Mariska’s face took on an expression readable without the benefit of psychology 101. You’ve got to be kidding, her face said. Are you nuts?
She tossed the doll carelessly into a chair. “She isn’t even alive!” she stated with clear disdain.
My mother gets up to pour more coffee. The conversation has changed to my brother’s vacation. He, his wife and their brood spent two weeks camping in France, which was much enjoyed by all. The kids love the beach, the sunshine, and playing with the French children. The girls have learned a few words of French, you know, to be practical. If you want to buy ice cream or play with the natives in the pool, having command of a few words is the only way to go. The French are not going to learn Dutch. We know this and accept it.
My mother passes around a plate of cookies and the phone rings. It is my daughter calling from America. I chat for a while, aware that five-year-old Mariska is observing me intently. When I put down the phone, she looks at me indignantly.
“I didn’t understand a single word of that!” she says, as if it is a personal affront, something just not fair! After all, only a few minutes ago we were talking and she understood everything I said!
We discuss languages and family relationships and the fact that my husband, her uncle, is American and our children speak English.
“When you’re older,” I promise her, “you’ll learn English in school.”
She lifts her chin and gives me a determined look.
“No, I’m not,” she declares. “I’m going to learn French!”
Of course. What was I thinking.
Samantha, the oldest one, is seven and she has just earned another swim diploma, which she brought along to show me. You can dump this child into a body of cold water fully dressed in winter gear, including coat and boots, and she’ll swim to safety. The test included swimming under a raft and through a hole in a tarpaulin hanging vertically in the water.
“Weren’t you scared?” I ask.
She gives me a blank look. “Nee,” she says matter-of-factly.
Obviously, fear is not an emotion she has considered or experienced in this context. After all, when you end up in the water fully dressed, you don’t panic.
You get out.
It’s the sensible thing to do.
I watch Laura, the youngest one, wobbling around on her sturdy little legs, in full swing conquering her world and taking charge. She’s bursting with curiosity and confidence, opening drawers, examining everything she can get her hands on.
I can’t wait until her language fully develops. She’ll tell me straight out how things are, and what I should do. I can see it in her face already, in her no-nonsense brown gaze as she focuses on the plate of cookies, plotting attack.
She’s little, but she’s Dutch.
And now, dear reader, remember the picture of the three of them above? Well, time has passed since that was taken and since this riveting tale took place. So, to update you on their lives, here’s another photo of the three of them:
No, they have not abandoned the watery homeland and moved to the sandy Middle East. They were only checking things out in Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt, to see how things are done over there. Like putting on these scarves.
That’s another thing about my people: They have a travel gene. You find them — the good, the bad and the ugly — in all corners of the world. I’m sure you’ve met some. I only hope they were the nice ones.
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What are the “character traits” of your people? Or of other nationalities you are familiar with? This can be fun stuff, so dish it up!