We may hail from different corners of the globe, each with its own bizarre customs and traditions, but there’s nothing like bonding over this quaint little country called the Netherlands and its oddball inhabitants on our way to getting over that inevitable culture shock. Here are 10 of those very Dutch things to get you started.
#1 – You can buy fast food off a wall
Fancy a burger after a night out but too drunk to string a sentence together at the counter? Not a problem. Dutchies have completely eliminated the need for servers to engage in tedious conversation with incoherent, beer-soaked late night customers. You want fast food? How’s a coin-operated vending machine for speedy food service?
FEBO and Smullers are two local fast-food chains where you can find vending machines displaying freshly fried rows of snacks on the wall. Typically offered are classic Dutch snacks like krokets, frikandels, kaassoufflés, chicken nuggets, wings and burgers. Once you have successfully stumbled into a snackbar with an ‘automatiek’, fixate your eyes on your greasy snack of choice, then insert coins, flip the glass door open and it’s chow time, baby!
#2 – Watch where you go window shopping
This innocuous activity takes on a different meaning once you wander into the alleyways within our designated red light districts. There, you are bound to come by large glass windows illuminated by red lamps. What may initially appear as scantily clad shop mannequins behind these windows are in fact sex workers hustling for customers as they go about the oldest profession in the world. Although window prostitution have since spread to neighbouring countries such as Belgium and Germany, it originated right here in Amsterdam’s De Wallen, home to the world’s largest and most famous red light district.
This manner of hustling may soon become a thing of the past though. Window brothels in the Dutch capital have been dwindling through the years – over-tourism, gentrification and human-trafficking concerns have led to a string of window closures of late. This year, the mayor of Amsterdam has even floated the idea of putting an end to window prostitution entirely.
#3 – Dutch coffeeshops aren’t famous for their coffee
If you enter a local coffeeshop expecting to be greeted by the aroma of a freshly brewed cuppa, you’d be in for a surprise. In its place, the whiff of something much greener is more likely to emanate from the smoke-filled interiors. Spot a baby face and chances are you’d even be asked to whip out your ID to prove you’re above 18. And nope. Absolutely no alcohol is served on the premises. Confuddled yet? That’s because you’re looking at a licensed cannabis establishment carrying more weed strains than coffee varieties on the menu. And if you think ‘coffee’ for a place you can buy soft drugs is the only misleading thing about it, read on.
Coffeeshops inhabit a paradoxical grey area in Dutch law. Despite the cannabis culture here, marijuana is actually illegal in the Netherlands and simply tolerated. There’s a hazy drug tolerance policy called gedoogbeleid that allows law enforcement to turn a blind eye to the sale and consumption of marijuana if it falls under certain stringent guidelines. And get this. Coffeeshops may be allowed to sell marijuana, but they aren’t allowed to source it or grow the high volume needed for sale. How then does the weed magically end up on the shop menu? Go figure.
Despite its popularity with tourists ( an estimated 25-30% visitors to Amsterdam spend time in a coffeeshop ), weed smoking, like prostitution, is increasingly being seen as a vice that the city would rather dissociate from. In the last two decades, half of all coffeeshops in Amsterdam have closed as a result of the city’s ‘clean-up’ efforts. In the meantime, the ones still standing will have to continue dancing along the tightrope of an ever-stiffening tolerance policy.
#4 – Chocolate sprinkles for breakfast, anyone?
The Netherlands is officially the fifth happiest country in the world. Experts attribute that to a range of factors, but we happen to think their secret is closer to the expression ‘You are what you eat’ 😉 In every Dutch kitchen lies a cabinet staple – a box of chocolate sprinkles aptly named hagelslag (translation: hailstorm). Rather than using them sparingly as toppings on cupcakes and ice-cream like the rest of the Western world, Dutchies load copious amounts of these endorphins-generating stuff onto the entire surface area of a buttered slice and call it breakfast.
The Dutch take their hagelslag seriously. Fourteen million kilos are consumed every year. Walk into any Dutch supermarket and you’ll find the hagelslag section giving the cereal section a run for its money. With dozens of varieties on offer, why not sprinkle on some of that Dutch breakfast magic tomorrow morning and see if that doesn’t add some spring to your step too!
#5 – Grab it by the tail and dangle it over your wide-open mouth
It’s not quite good enough for the Dutchies if you’ve finally worked up the courage to try haring – a fishy and slimy cured Dutch delicacy sprinkled with raw onions. To pass their high raw herring-eating standards, you’d have to consume it the ‘proper’ way too. Proper way doesn’t entail chopping the herring into bite-sized pieces and serving them neatly on a platter like civilized people do, but is much more akin to holding a dead mouse by the tail and dangling it like a carrot in front of your pet cat. Yummy!
#6 – If it fits on the bike, it goes with the bike
You may have noticed that Dutchies aka bicycle stuntmen have the ability to bike with almost everything imaginable, as long as the object remotely fits on the bike. They would go to great lengths to avoid having to use a car. Cyclist carrying friends, kids or pets, even furniture… cyclist carrying a friend carrying a pet, cyclist riding with two bikes, cyclist carrying a friend carrying another bike…the scenarios are endless. Enjoy the following compilations on our Facebook group of Dutchies with things on bikes.
Dutchies with Things on Bikes Compilation #1
Dutchies with Things on Bikes Compilation #2
#7 – These Dutch fishermen hunt for some very special prey
In a city with more bicycles than people, surrounded by canals in excess of 100 kilometres, plenty of windy conditions, drunks and pranksters prowling the streets at night, Amsterdam’s canals inevitably end up as an open sewer and convenient graveyard for all kinds of stuff, from the typical litter, personal belongings, even people, to bikes… lots of bikes. Unfortunately, bikes in the canals isn’t just an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ issue. They take up lots of space and the jutting metal parts can pose a danger to passing boats. This is where bike Fishermen come in. They are employed by the city to keep the canals clean by fishing for bikes. Each year, the fishermen hauls up an impressive 12,000 to 15,000 bikes from the canal. That’s some serious harvest, eh!
#8 – The Dutch art of swearing with vile diseases
If you cross an angry Dutch cyclist on the road and thought you heard something shouted back at you that sounds like a Dutch term for a disease, you heard that right. More than any other country, the Netherlands has got a love affair with diseases, especially when it comes to using them in their swear words.
Kanker ( Cancer ) is a favourite. It’s also the most versatile, almost comparable to the English ‘fuck’. Pair kanker with any insult to boost its offensiveness ( kankerlul = cancerous dick, kankerhoer = cancerous whore ) or pair it with a nice word for a positive meaning ( kankerlekker = super delicious OR awesome ).
You’ll often hear the word -lijer ( slang for sufferer ) added to different diseases in Dutch swear words, such as pokke(n)lijer ( smallpox sufferer ), teringlijer ( Tuberculosis sufferer ), tyfuslijer ( typhoid fever sufferer ), klerelijer ( cholera sufferer ).
Other notable mentions: takkewijf ( bitch with stroke ), pleur op ( tuberculosis off = fuck off ), Krijg de syfilis ( Get syphilis ), sukkel ( someone limp / suggesting erectile dysfunction = sucker ), heb je soms polio? ( do you have polio or something? )
For a more comprehensive list with English explanations, refer to this Wikipedia article.
#9 – Congratulations! It’s your Dutch pal’s birthday!
So, you’ve successfully made a Dutch friend or two and received an invitation to their birthday party. You enter the party to a room full of your Dutch pal’s friends and family sitting around in a huge circle ( now… that’s a story for another day ). You proceed to introduce yourself to each unfamiliar Dutch person.
“Gefeliciteerd!” ( congratulations ) the first one greets you as they proceed to plant three kisses on your cheek. Puzzled, you return the kisses with a sheepish smile and move on to the next person.
“Gefeliciteerd!” The next person greets you in exactly the same manner as the last.
“Well, it ain’t my birthday,” you think to yourself and shrug. By the time you’ve made your rounds and lost count of the number of ‘Gefeliciteerd’s exchanged, you’d have learnt that it’s customary for Dutchies to congratulate every guest on their friend’s birthday.
#10 – Zwarte Piet
If you have been brought up in a country where race is an extremely sensitive and hotly contended issue, you’d be in for a rude shock come mid-November when the traditional Sinterklaas festivities begin. During this time, there’ll be regular sightings of a Santa-lookalike figure on horseback called Sinterklaas. Tagging along are his popular helpers, individually called Zwarte Piet ( Black Pete ). In contrast to the stern-looking Sinterklaas, the cheeky Piets are generally adored by Dutch kids, as the animated helpers often come bearing Dutch candy and treats, scattering these all around along the way. What could be wrong with this fun-filled scenario, one wonders?
Just one thing. The Zwarte Piet characters are almost always played by Caucasians who have their face painted jet black and wearing thick red lipstick and curly wigs. You could say it bears a strong resemblance to the Golliwog doll. Many foreigners laying eyes on Zwarte Piet for the first time are unable to look past the portrayal of a racist black caricature and until recently, most of the Dutch were unfazed by the character and saw it as a fun, harmless tradition.
In recent years, Zwarte Piet has caught global attention, becoming a polarizing figure at the centre of a controversy dividing the country; the anti-Piets denouncing the character as racist, and the pro-Piets ( which unfortunately also included white supremacists ) upset that meddling outsiders who don’t understand Dutch culture are threatening to take away an innocent Dutch tradition.
Whatever your opinion of Zwarte Piet, the character in its traditional black-faced form appears to be on its way out. In a bid to distance themselves from the negativity associated with this festive figure, several local broadcasters, schools and businesses have begun changing the appearance of Piet, removing certain physical characteristics that are considered black stereotypes.
Love or hate these 10 things about the weird and wonderful Dutch? Let us know in the comments!