Thursday, February 22

The Dutch Way

9 March 2006

We have passed our six month mark here in the Netherlands and it would be fair to say we have learned a great deal in the past six months. Collectively and individually we have discovered many things about ourselves and about the world at large. Chief among these discoveries is the realization that there is a ‘way’ to do things in life and then there is the “Dutch way”. Take for instance: toilets. Not everyone’s favorite subject I know. But it must here be discussed that Dutch toilets are a wonder to behold. In a country where there is no water shortage and indeed no threat of drought, these are the most extreme water saving apparatus on the planet. These are low flow toilets taken to the lowest extreme. Most toilets here consist of a tank and seat as you would expect, but the bowl itself is built with a "shelf" above the water, where all leavings must first fall. I know, ooo-ick, but bear with me please. I borrow here heavily from “The Undutchables” by Colin White and Laurie Boucke (a must-read for any ex-pat or long term visitor to Holland) to explain the Dutch way of bathrooms and other unmentionable acts within.

“Nowhere is the sense of claustrophobia more pronounced than in the water-closet. The Dutch have taken the term literally, and made that most private of rooms the size of a cupboard.… By far the most distressing feature of the Dutch WC is the toilet itself. The bowl is uniquely shaped to include a plateau well above the normal water level. Its purpose becomes obvious the first time you see (or use) one. Why the worldly, cultured Dutch have this sadistic desire to study the recent content of their stomach remains a mystery…”

I know what you’re thinking… you are saying, "that’s just exaggeration for purposes of satire", but I am telling you this is true! And add to this the strange ways of flushing said contents into the nether regions. With the conservative water supply (again-in Holland? Why?) there is rarely enough pressure generated to sweep the bowl clean if you get my meaning. Among the other decorations in a WC the one of utmost importance is the toilet brush. Which oddly enough, is an item "ever present, never discussed, yet always wet."

Second on my ‘Dutch way’ list is the traditional line or ‘queue’ as the British would say. The Dutch don’t seem to have a word for it ‘cause they just don’t do it. Occasionally, you may see a proper line form in front of the cash register at the neighborhood shops or behind an ATM machine, but that’s as far as it goes. In general, while waiting for a turn at the Butcher’s counter, at the cheese shop, or at any of the stalls in the Market, you must be courageous and bold to get yourself positioned at the counter. You must be willing to push past the masses who in turn are trying to push past you and answer the question “Wie is aan de buurt? (Who is next?) with a very loud “Ik!!” (Me!!)
As for boarding a bus or a train? Well, forget everything your mother taught you about courtesy or waiting for your turn. Join the pressing throng and position yourself so that as soon as the door slides open you can move forward and fight your way in. I think there are points awarded for the number of people you can step in front of or elbow out of the way as you vie for position. And, by all means please begin the press before allowing passengers on the vehicle to disembark. Oh, my, allowing others to “uitstappen” (exit) before you clamor to get on could very well cost you a seat.
As Emma and I await our second bus in the mornings, I grab the back of her coat as the bus approaches, push her forward a step and whisper “be Dutch” in her ear. This has proven to be an effective method in getting ourselves properly placed in the crowd and we can beat others to the seats on a busy morning bus.

So as to be fair to the Dutch, I move now on this list to the things about the Dutch way that I am entertained by, or that I deeply appreciate. There are quite a few of those, but I will mention just these few.

The typical Dutch way to greet a friend, to say goodbye or to offer heartfelt thanks is to enact the three-kiss tradition. A right cheek-left cheek-right cheek kiss is typical, along with warm words of expression. Probably for my benefit as a foreigner, I am also reminded after the kiss-kiss-kiss that this is the ‘Dutch way’.

We have sampled and dabbled in a lot of traditional Dutch cuisine since our arrival here and the hands down favorite for everyone in this house is the Dutch pancake. Pannenkoeken are thinner than the typical American pancake, though not as thin as the French crepe. Made with flour, sugar, salt, eggs and milk, they have the most delightful texture! We eat them quite often, even for dinner occasionally. (much to the dismay of our Dutch friends-as pancakes for dinner is NOT the 'Dutch way') Traditional approach to the Pannenkoeken is to serve them with butter and Poeder Suiker (powdered sugar) and to eat them with knife and fork. My personal favorite is to smear them with chocolate spread, roll them up and gobble them down. It may not be the Dutch way, but it certainly works for me.


  1. hmm, about the not standing in a line...that is quite a Belgian tradition as well :p. But we do have normal toilets!! In parts of Germany they have the same toilets as you described as well.

    I lived in The Hague for one year and my boyfriend for a couple of years. When I left, I also received the book "the Undutchables". Very good isn't it?

  2. Heehee. The toilet thing. When staying with our friends in Leiden I distinctly remember a fight between the two of them over this. She reamed her husband to be for not using the brush to scrub away the remains of his recent excretion. And at that point they had been living there for about 6 months. In the USA the argument between sexes is over leaving the lid up. For the Dutch it is over forgeting to scrub after using the toilet.

  3. Those toilets have a bad nick name: flat shitters! much for Dutch