By Mandie Rose van der Meer
You don’t know what you don’t know (#YDKWYDK)
An ACCESS column for expats in the early stages of their Dutch journey
If you’re new in the Netherlands – however you define ‘new’ – you don’t know what you don’t know. That’s why ACCESS is here for you, with answers to the questions you didn’t think to ask. There is a lot to learn about how the Dutch live, and how they schedule life well in advance.
This month’s focus: Keeping schedules with the Dutch.
A complete life
Possibly the number one rule in successful integration in the Netherlands is embracing the Dutch agenda. By agenda I mean a calendar or schedule, which for a typical Dutch adult – or child – is filled nearly every day, and months and months in advance.
Usually a shared family calendar, the Dutch agenda comes complete with the following commitments: the children’s field hockey roster for the next six months, mom’s tennis on Fridays, dad’s football on Tuesdays, visits to oma and opa on Sundays, a playdate for the kids next month, niece Romy’s 14th birthday two months from now, oom Henk’s 50th birthday three months from now, son Daan’s 9th birthday in four months, that dinner with an old school friend four-and-a-half months from now, a cousin’s Christmas choir concert in early December, drinks with colleagues to celebrate Oud & Nieuw in middle of January, a ski holiday in Austria at the end of February, a family reunion weekend in Schiermonnikoog next May, a camping trip to Germany in August, a snorkelling trip in Gran Canaria next October, and a resort holiday in Turkey whenever the aanbieding is best.
For the Dutch, in my experience, a full programme for the week, month, even year, is the sign of an active, well-balanced, complete life. I imagine that somewhere in the unwritten commandments of Calvinism there is a line about how a sedentary life (a life without movement) is unfavourable, wasteful, and frankly no fun.
Agendas side by side
You can guess then that given this full lifestyle, it is challenging to make a date with a Dutch friend or family member. Doing so always requires that you both have your (updated) agendas handy to be sure of the openings.
Despite my six years of living here, I continue to be stupefied―and thoroughly annoyed―that some appointments end up to be as far as seven months in the future. Take the example with a couple that my husband and I were hoping to have dinner with. Is this conversation familiar to you?
Cornelis: “Uh… Nope, that weekend is not available either. We have my in-laws over for Thijs’s birthday.”
Jeroen: “And then the next two weekends don’t work because of my tennis competition.”
Cornelis: “What about the third weekend of November?”
Jeroen: “No good. My parents have arranged a bowling night for all the kids and grandkids.”
Cornelis: “And then it’s Sinterklaas, then the Christmas holidays… We’re away in February… Looks like it’ll be April for us to see each other.”
Mandie: “Seriously? April? Seven months away?! Can’t we just see each other right now? Let’s go over there right now!”
Jeroen: “Well we can’t just show up unannounced. We should have booked something earlier.”
Mandie: Sigh. “I miss New York…”
Impulsiveness is overrated
Spontaneity is not the norm here. Last-minute appointments are not unheard of or impossible, of course. But the preferred way of living is to have a plan ahead of time. To know where we’re meant to be and what we need to prepare before arriving. Such as new tennis balls for the match on Friday, flowers for the visit with oma, cash in a card for Romy, directions to the church concert, board games for the reunion, peanut butter for de camping, a neat and clean home for (expected) visitors… Et cetera.
Take note, however, of the great exception to last-minute change of plans: the sunshine. You may have observed this exception to Dutch peoples’ lack of spontaneity this past September, for instance, as nearly every day the sun was bright and the temperature high, inviting the locals to skip out of work a little early, even on a Thursday, and pack up the family for an impromptu picnic dinner in a city park or on a boat through the canals. If the opportunity presents itself to recharge on Vitamin D, do join your Dutch neighbours for these rare and pleasant sun-soaked breaks.
A foreigner’s challenge
I sympathise with my foreign friends, especially those of you from the southern European countries like Spain and Italy where “dropping in” or making all new plans is acceptable and entertaining. I sympathise in part because trying to get a New Yorker to commit to an event that’s more than a week from now – well, it’s a joke. A fruitless task. At best, the answer you’ll get from a New Yorker is, “Thanks, I’ll think about it.” Then you’re either surprised or disappointed when they do or do not show up to your party. We’re all about feelings and moods and circumstance back in my hometown, but such a non-committal attitude is simply rude and un-neighbourly here in the Netherlands.
This adjustment—from carefree, independent, impulsive, spur-of-the-moment living to a planned, structured, tightly organised programme—has been the most difficult cultural and practical change for me. However, resisting the structure is useless and only inconveniences all of us. I’ve debated getting myself a T-shirt with my favourite line: “I’ll see how I feel.” I say this frequently, trying to buy some time before deciding.
For the Dutch, this hesitation doesn’t make sense. Either you are available, or you are not available. What do feelings have to do with keeping a calendar?
Mandie Rose van der Meer is a writer, editor and ACCESS volunteer originally from New York City. If you’d like to join her for a latte macchiato and speculaas cookie, she has an opening in her calendar at 2:45 pm on… hmm… Let’s see… Ah!... 10 March 2017. Reactions to firstname.lastname@example.org
For more experiences of expats’ and internationals’ personal experiences here in the Netherlands, check out the book Ready, Steady, Go Dutch, published by DutchNews.nl and ACCESS. See Chapter 5, “Play: making the most of your spare time”; and Chapter 7, “Traditions and habits”. Available for purchase at English bookshops in Holland, or via the website: readysteadygodutch.com