High Time in a Low Country: Exploring the Netherlands

Working windmills near The Hague continue to help regulate water levels.
Highly sought-after as homes, people can live in the roomy structures as long
as they can maintain them

My first brush with the Netherlands was probably the same as most international travelers, passing through Schipol airport while waiting for a flight to another city. The facility seemed to embody the vaunted Dutch ideals of organization, efficiency, modernity, but with a bit of a twist to keep things interesting. I was through passport control in mere seconds and no lines greeted me at the security checkpoint. As I readied my carry-on bag for the requisite x-ray machine, the security guy good-naturedly asked if it contained a laptop computer. I nodded and proceeded to unzip my bag. While I was doing so he prodded me with a chuckle, saying “Go on, take out the bomb.”

Jo the lonely bear sits on a bench in Aldenhofpark in Maastritch. His right
paw looks creepily like the bones of a human hand

I froze, but everybody in the security crew just smiled and took his “joke” in stride. I was already past their purview by the time my thoughts about how we civilians couldn’t get away with saying things like that had time to sink in. And so with black humor at its most unnerving, I was welcomed into Holland…

Sex, Death and De Stijl

“Apocalyps” stands in the otherwise serene garden of the Bible museum, a relatively undiscovered quiet corner converted from two canal houses

Little bits of dark Dutch wit dotted the rest of my jaunt through the Netherlands: In Aldenhofpark in Maastricht there’s a statue of Jo, the last bear who lived in the park and died there, depressed and alone. This sad sculpture is actually part of an installation called ‘the half automatic consolation machine,’ where morbid figures of extinct animals mingle among the young students sunbathing. Not far from Amsterdam’s heavily-promoted Torture Museum, in the garden of the Bible Museum looms “Apocalyps,” a moss-covered monument crowned by the disembodied heads of beasts mentioned in the book of Revelation. In Dam Square, bounded by the Royal Palace, the New Church and a monument to the victims of war, I saw Darth Vader hold court with Poseidon. In Delft, a pack of bikers in black leather prowled Markt Square under the shadow of towering Nieuwe Kerke, home to the Dutch royal burial vault.

In Amsterdam’s Dam Square, performers costumed as Darth Vader and Poseidon vie for attention (Vader is the clear winner)

It’s this (almost) anything goes atmosphere that makes the Netherlands the poster child for progressive attitudes. Ever pragmatic, the Dutch were ahead of their time in doing away with silly superstitions and stifling social mores. But with this enlightenment also came a certain austerity. Most post-reformation architecture in the Netherlands, from churches to palaces, seem rather stark in comparison to their more baroque brethren. Centuries later, this artistic asceticism would eventually be elevated to its zenith with such Dutch-led modernist movements as the Amsterdam School and De Stijl.

Some buildings and other structures in the Netherlands have been completely painted in garish graffiti

But all this still didn’t manage to explain to me the Dutch predilection for having large glass windows, which they then leave clear to view by anyone walking past on the street. Differing hypotheses abound: A Dutch friend explained how before gas and electricity, people would burn fires indoors for light and warmth. This necessitated high ceilings to allow the smoke to rise above breathing level, and high-ceilinged homes needed tall windows to let the sun in. A British friend posited how glass must have been expensive even during the Dutch Golden Age, and wealthy homeowners would have grand glass windows installed just to show off. But the most psychologically interesting theory comes from a Belgian friend. A Catholic, he explains how the Dutch, who were predominantly Reformed Protestants, adopted the convention of putting in big glass windows to show to everybody that they weren’t doing anything reproachable in their homes.  Closed shutters or drawn curtains just mean that something wicked was going on within. And with all that’s legal in the Low Countries, that’s a whole lot of wicked you can get away with. The Dutch themselves take it for granted that it isn’t polite to peek inside, and those who do are either crooks, voyeurs, or tourists who don’t know any better.

Shops catering to a wide array of fetishes brazenly display their wares in the streets on the fringes of the red light district

But this unspoken rule doesn’t apply to Amsterdam’s most famous window displays – the prostitutes in the red light district. Safe (and mostly bored) behind glass, you can look at the hookers all you want. But “touching” them will cost you (around 50 euros for a few minutes) and snapping photos can get you in big trouble with the pimps. Better catch the show while you still can. After eight centuries of brisk trade, the government is planning to ease out the world’s oldest profession to make way for fashion boutiques.

continued in next entry, Canals, Cannabis and Culture

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

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  1. Canals, Cannabis and Culture « judefensor
  2. Layover in Limburg « judefensor

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