ROBINSON’S GERMAN JOURNEY: DAY TWO
THURSDAY 22 MARCH 2012
Somebody, somewhere - probably a suitably august arm of the United Nations (which God preserve) - should draw up a list of the world’s most surprising or strangest or simply most bizarre countries. And whatever criteria are applied to countries for inclusion on the list, the Netherlands would definitely be on it somewhere - arguably, at the top.
Its geography alone qualifies it hands-down. No country in the world changes its shape as often, or as wilfully, as the Netherlands. 15% of it has come into existence during my lifetime; not through land-grabbing from its neighbours but by draining away the sea itself, Canute-like. Towns, villages and farms now thrive on land that was permanently underwater 50 years ago.
‘Netherlands’ means ‘low countries’ but it comes as quite a shock to realise just how low you can get round here. Almost none of the Netherlands is more than 4 or 5 feet above sea-level and over a quarter of it lies below sea-level - including Schiphol airport. A third of its population lives on land that, but for Dutch engineering ingenuity, would be several feet under the North Sea. An enormously complicated and frankly rather grand system of barrages keeps the sea at bay; if they ever failed, both Amsterdam and Rotterdam would be inundated.
In fact, the fear of rising water levels behind the barrages - global warming is no joke here - has forced the Dutch to pioneer designs for houses that will float. Thus is necessity the mother of Dutch invention.
Dutch floating houses
The country’s shape is a bit weird in other ways, too. Its border with Belgium is a switchback of criss-crossing lines which, in the tiny village of Baarle Hertog, descend into irredeemable lunacy. The frontier runs through gardens, bars, shops and even through people’s front doors. Walking up the main street entails 5 border-crossings.
A confused cock crossing the Belgian/Dutch border at Baarle Hertog
Surely only the Dutch could shrug contentedly and get on with their lives under circumstances of such topographical instability. And they do.
Even the country’s name merits it a place on the list - because it has two. Technically, 'Holland' refers only to a part of the country. Fortunately, the Dutch don’t seem to mind which of the two names you use and happily use both of them themselves.
Another criterion for inclusion on our putative list could be a nation’s idiomatic reputation - and the Netherlands excels at this, too. The English language has cursed its inhabitants with Double Dutch, Going Dutch, Dutch Uncle, Dutch Oven, Dutch Courage, Well I’m A Dutchman and even a Flying Dutchman.
And just in case even more evidence is required for the Netherlands to be in at least the top three of the world’s most startling states….
The Dutch changed the colour of carrots. In the wild, they’re purple.
The Dutch are the tallest people on Earth. The average Dutch man is 6’ tall, the average woman 5’ 7”.
You actually notice this when you’re sitting in hazy morning sunshine drinking strong coffee and dunking a croissant in it, as I was on this Thursday morning. It was the second day of Spring and it felt like it as I watched tall and necessarily slim Dutch people cycling in unpredictable directions all around me.
I’m sure someone buzzed passed me on a motorised, three-wheeled skateboard too, but they’d gone before I could make sure.
It was seductively pleasant just sitting there and doing nothing but ingesting. The broad and calm canal lined with houses built like the people who live in them - tall and slim. Florid and ornate gable-tops looked down on me like benign upraised eyebrows and the constant friendly hum and clang of the trams lulled me into an entirely real and reliable sense of security and comfort.
The Floating Flower Market is one of the more obviously understandable tourist destinations in Amsterdam. Even its name makes it sound seductive and irresistible, which is precisely what it is. A line of cabins half a mile long runs scenically between two of the city’s busiest little squares on the edge of the Singel canal. This is where Amsterdammers themselves come to do their horticultural, window-box shopping.
It was a sunny Spring morning and the market was crowded with locals and tourists gawping, as always, at the colours, smells and sounds all around them. Naturally, there are bulbs of every description - this is the Netherlands, after all. Tulips in full variety - from closed-cup to Rembrandt, splashed and striped with colour; daffodils and jonquils, crocuses, irises, peonies, fritillaries, aconites, bluebells.
And there are dozens of anemones and pansies, both of them much favoured by Amsterdammers to bring colour and life to what are often quite small and cramped flats and balconies. For the same reasons of scale, bonsai is much in evidence, too.
The beauty of the blooms is, sadly, not matched by the temperament of the vendors themselves, almost all of whom look at you as if you drown puppies for a living. If you point a camera at them they become positively bellicose and pull faces. There must be a lot of repatriated Japanese tourists with some very strange ideas about Dutch physiognomy.
As I walked past the Christmas Shop - ‘open all year - NO PHOTOGRAPHY’ - I noticed a couple of twentysomething blokes walk by hand-in-hand. What struck me quite forcibly was that no-one else seemed to notice them at all.
This quiet, liberal, deep-rooted ‘each to his own’ maturity is only remarkable to outsiders like me. To Amsterdammers themselves, no other attitude is even remotely conceivable. Such things are not given a second thought.
I caught a Number 4 tram just to see where it went. Disappointingly, its destination was a trading estate of stultifying sterility. While I was there, though, I took the opportunity of practising my Dutch. Such chances arise only rarely in Amsterdam, where everyone from the tramp I chatted to on Koninksplein to Queen Beatrix herself speaks English in a perfect, Home Counties accent.
In a cafe there, a woman called Julietta tried to teach me how to say ‘Have a nice day’ in Dutch. The resulting garbled mess served only to humiliate me and amuse my fellow-patrons.
My language encyclopedia tells me that the Frisian dialect of Dutch is the direct ancestor of Modern English. You could have fooled me.
In the evening, I walked alongside silent canals and restaurant-noisy streets to Rembrandtplein, one of my favourite squares in the city. It’s been beautifully refurbished and, as I sat clutching a ‘white beer’ and practising my wayward Dutch, I realised that it was my schoolboy German I would be needing from tomorrow….
For the moment, though….Niet iedereen die dwaalt is verloren
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