By Samuel Holleran
I have a soft spot for The Netherlands that more often than not raises eyebrows. When I told one instructor that I’d just returned from a year at the Universiteit van Amsterdam he gave me a wink and a wry smile.
“Amsta-dam, huh?” he quipped, “You go to any-a those coffee bars?” I’ve gotten used to this response and always feel the need to defend myself with some heady sounding aphorism like,
“I was studying immigration and emerging concepts of civic nationalism” or “they have a highly developed visual culture and some great new architecture.”
I love The Netherlands, especially its cosmopolitan centre, A’dam for short, but the fact that the city’s name has become an alias for balls-to-the-wall party time disturbs me, mostly because it is untrue.
Although I don’t claim to know everything about the city, I learned a bit in my seven months there. In my experience many tourists are baffled when they arrive in the city via train from Schiphol airport. They descend into a place that they had imagined as a veritable Pirate’s Island; where hookers, nomads, and party people roam the chaotic streets in a debauched orgy of drugs, booze, and shameless exhibitionism. Instead they’re presented with the sight of decent Dutch professionals; riding off on their foldable commuter bikes, eco-friendly grocery bags in tow, with safety lights fastened to their clothing. It is very hard for groups of British bachelors, Kuffiya-wearing Catalan hippies, and American jam-band-enthusiasts to accept that this restrained and well considered hybrid city is the hedonistic party land they were promised.
What most of these people don’t know is that relatively few Amsterdamers live the Pirate Island existence that the tourist industry promises. These people are not going to all-night raves on floating barges, nor are they snorting lines of coke from ripped abs. They’re probably also not patronizing the sultry hookers of the Red Light District. They’re far more likely to be rushing home so they can cook their low-fat wok mix before the eight o’clock broadcast of Jornaal.
The fact that these upstanding members of society would tolerate such loathsome acts of debauchery in their city is a bizarre paradox to many who come to visit. Why is it that a group of people so restrained would tolerate such excesses on their own (relatively scarce) soil?
A typical Dutch expression holds the answer: “Doe eens normaal”.
“Just be normal,” the saying goes, “because normal is crazy enough.” The expression “doe eens” is used to chastise someone acting mildly out of line, or in a manner other members of society deem asocial. The frequent use of this expression would lead one to believe that acting “normaal” is highly valued in Dutch society, and it most certainly is.
However, within the parameters of the behavioral status quo the Dutch have established a separate place for things that are irreverent, weird, kooky, and sometimes offensive. In other words, part of being “normaal” is tolerating a bit of craziness in the interest of fostering normalcy.
This sounds a bit paradoxical, but the general reasoning behind it is sound; if, on occasion, you let people do things that are inherently a bit screwed up they will no longer have the desire to eat the proverbial forbidden fruit, and they’ll find their own route to normalcy. This seems to work much better than an imposed “normalcy from above” (the massive failure of Ronald Reagan’s wholesome revolution in the States is an example of this.)
In The Netherlands a comparatively small percent of the youth smoke weed (far fewer than in the US or France.) The fact that these things are legal is probably one of the main deterrents. Youth culture in The Netherlands is not automatically suspect as it is in many other countries, thus the mystical and rebellious image of smoking weed is lifted. The Netherlands’ “gedoog” (tolerance) extends far beyond soft drugs and into many realms of society. Therefore things that the public might not generally approve of are accepted, provided they’re practiced at the appropriate place and time.
This is very apparent at a visual level. One often stumbles across striking, fantastic, and gaudy examples of modern architecture in the smallest and most provincial of Dutch towns. Aaron Betsky, director of the National Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, asserts that this is mainly due to the importance that The Netherlands’ polder model places on compromise: there is a “long Dutch tradition in which aberrance and plain bizarreness are accepted, as long as they have a proper place,” he says, “it is even valued as a useful safety valve and source of renewal.”
Thus, the “doe eens normaal” coin appears to have two, very different sides to it and if its wacky side was said to manifest itself in a certain place, it would certainly be in The Netherlands’ western cities. As the political and tourist capital, Amsterdam is the most visible example. From “De Wallen,” to the squatted houses, the coffee shops, “broodplatsen” (the artistic breeding places), and the leather clubs, it is obvious that the ‘Venice of the North’ has made ample room for aberrations in what is considered “normaal.”
These areas are the specific places that have been set aside for what the Dutch deem kooky behavior. The fact that Dutch people are sensible enough to set aside geographic areas in which people are allowed to get a little crazy, speaks of their ingrained rationality. What makes Amsterdam so great is that junkies and wanderers exist within close proximity to straight-laced businessmen, heady intellectuals, and preppy students, in what is ostensibly an amicable mix. While Amsterdam is eternally equated with debauchery, it has an extremely stable civic foundation that makes the occasional excess possible.