IT'S A SOCIAL THING


Socialising is a strange affair amongst the Dutch. As with every aspect of Dutch life there are definite rules, and one way to proceed - the right way. You must never call on someone unannounced. If you invite someone round to your place at 7 o'clock, don't be thinking they'll roll up around 8.30. Expect them at 7. On the dot. And your coffee pot had better be gently steaming.

That's if anyone turns up, of course. The Dutch, like the coffee, take a bit of time to warm up. Many months of polite chat in the canteen are required before you can even think of introducing your burgeoning friendship into the home environment. Coming from Northern Ireland, where you can meet someone on a bus and end up at a three-day-long party, this is rather unsettling.

Conversely, there's rather a lot of kissing going on in Holland. When saying hello or goodbye you cheek-kiss three times. Three! It takes a good hour to leave a place. I'm still not sure which side you go to first, so I often end up embroiled in an adolescent clashing of heads and suppressed giggling.

A birthday party invitation from a Dutch person is to be treated with caution. The whole event takes place seated in a circle. And where you are placed is key- if you're stuck beside boring Auntie Yolande, or cousin Wim with the odour problem, tough luck, it's not the done thing to move along and sit next to someone more interesting or fragrant. And you'll be forced to drink about 10 cups of coffee before there's even the potential of a hint of a sniff of wine. And it goes on ALL day.

People say that the Dutch are unfriendly, but I don't think that's true. They're not quite like the Celts, who offer you tea and cake within ten seconds of meeting you, but they're not likely to set upon you with a broken glass bottle either.The Dutch are polite, non-aggressive, and direct. Very direct. A Dutch person will never begin a sentence with "I'm really sorry, but…" or "Would it be alright, do you think?" If they don't want to spend the day at the Embroidery Museum with you, they will say simply NO - no apologies or excuses about loving to, but it's granny's bingo night and they have to give her a lift because the bus makes her eczema flare up. It's rather refreshing, once you get used to it.

They are also much less obsessed with 'please' and 'thank you', but it's not rudeness, it's simply a belief that constant thanking of, for example, a waiter reinforces the notion that the waiter is subservient, that the customer is somehow 'better', which the Dutch liberal mind does not like. Dutch society is not classless by any means, but it does not suffer from the gross class distinctions, and resultant prejudice, that Britain does.There is an upper echelon of society somewhere (certainly not in the circles I frequent) but in general the Dutch are informal and unflashy. You don't see many big expensive cars around, or people dripping in gold and diamonds. Most people dress casually and jeans are perfectly acceptable for both work and weddings.

I like it. I like to give the impression that under my shabby, unfashionably frayed exterior there might just be lurking an eccentric millionaire.


copyright Kathy Clugston 2005