Book Review: Why the Dutch are Different - Into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands

25 Oct 2016 | Ute Limacher-Riebold

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Why the Dutch are Different - Into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands 

By Ben Coates | Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2015.


ACCESS Book Review Why The Dutch Are Different Book Cover


In Why the Dutch are Different, Ben Coates, UK citizen and writer who moved to the Netherlands for love, shares some insights into Dutch history, mixed with some story-telling and his personal journey through the country, mainly in the Rotterdam area and the Southern part of the Netherlands.

Coates explains some facets of the national character by the geographical creation of the country, which, "after centuries of battling against the water, the Dutch tended to view Mother Nature not as a life-giving provider, but as a menace to be tamed" (p.38), and seems to have lead Dutch people to "view the environment not as something to protect, but as something to protect from"(p.39) (Chapter 1, “Water, Water Everywhere”).

In the following chapter, the author describes why the Dutch are different from a religious point of view, in "The Religious Divide". He garnishes his journey through the South of the Netherlands with interesting historical insights and clarifications to which he adds some personal experiences and observations that, considering the research he did, sound a bit naive, when he describes details of the Carnival Parade (p.52) wondering about the costumes and the “badly played instruments”, which is characteristic for this kind of celebration and can be observed in other European countries too.

He chooses a visit to the Museumnacht in Amsterdam to start a discussion about the Golden Age (chapter 3), continuing with the “Nazi destruction of the Netherlands” in chapter 4 ("Fire and Ashes"), and a visit to the Nazi transit camp of Westerbork, that he uses to illustrate the ravages of the Second World War. He ends this chapter by focussing on “A Nation of Cyclists” (p.154), describing the recovery and recrimination, and the legacies of war. The entire chapter 5 is dedicated to the national sport – football, the "Dutch pride”.

Reconnecting with chapter 4, Coates then focuses on the "Mosques on the Maas" (chapter 6), explaining allochtonen (p.203) and immigration in the Netherlands. He illustrates Pim Fortuyn’s exploitation of the post-9/11 anxiety about Islam (p.214-219), followed by Theo van Gogh (p.220), Ayaan Hirsi Ali (p.223), and Geert Wilders (p.227).

The author explains how his own view about immigration shifted when moving from London to Rotterdam, shaped by his experience with poor integrated immigrants and describes the raising tensions and limits of tolerance in this country. In "Anything Goes" (chapter 7) he talks about "Sex, Drugs and the Tradition of Tolerance", where he tries to explain these values and beliefs of "the Dutch".

Although the chapters on politics and immigration are insightful, his alternating historical background facts with ramblings about Dutch habits and values give a clear impression of what he thinks about the “why's” he mentions in the title of the book, and to which he doesn't give a clear answer in the book. It is more a combination of all the aspects he describes that can give the reader an approximate reason for the Dutch being "different"—but "different" from whom? Coates filters living in the Netherlands through a British perspective, describing the Dutch being different from a historical, social and cultural point of view, which could be applied to every other non-British society.

Coates' statements and tones are occasionally ambivalent towards his host country, and can be perceived as "disrespectful to the people he is showcasing". He tends to drift off to clichés when he mentions birthday parties and circle parties (p.86), and seems uncertain of his assumptions, mainly when talking about Dutch values, language and ways of talking.

Although this book is an interesting read because the author takes the reader beyond the usual tourist attractions and focuses on the historical component in the attempt to make sense of what people usually know about the Dutch, some more editing of the personal anecdotes and the travelogue could have improved it.


Ute Limacher-Riebold


Paperback copy of the book can be ordered via American Book Center and Amazon

 Ute Limacher-Riebold (PhD in Romance Linguistics and Literature) is an expat-since-birth. She is a language coach and trainer, an expert in bilingualism and expat life coach.

Ute is a Trainer with the ACCESS Trainer Network.  She offers courses on topics related to “Expat Life” and “Parenting TCKs (Third Culture Kids)”, workshops for internationals and coaching support in English, Deutsch, Français, Nederlands and Italiano, and offers language coaching and training (German, Italian, French).

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