Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Dutch...

Before we came to the Netherlands we did a lot of reading on Dutch culture. We wanted to understand the people and the rules of social etiquette so we wouldn't find ourselves making too many faux paus... unless of course we decided we wanted to. We read over and over again that the Dutch are a rather cold bunch, not normally interested in inefficient small talk with strangers. We learned that customer service is a concept that is foreign to the Dutch and to not expect much from the staff of most retail stores, not even a "hello" or "can I help" you most of the time. We read that if we decided to learn Dutch we would probably have people looking at us with scorn in their eyes as we fumbled in our early attempts to "speek de Nederlands". Umm... no.

To be fair in all of this I must talk about geography for a second. Most of the people who come here see very little of the country. The vast majority only visit Amsterdam, if they are really adventurous they might go to The Hague or Rotterdam. This makes some sense. These are the three largest cities in the Netherlands and they are all located in "Holland" and when most people talk about coming to the Netherlands they refer to it as "Holland" The Netherlands, however, is not Holland. The Netherlands is made up of twelve provinces. Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague are all in two of these provinces, North Holland (Noord Holland) and South Holland (Zuid Holland), and along with several other provinces these are places that are known as being "North of the rivers".

The Netherlands can be divided in many ways, but like the United States there is a different way of thinking in the North and in the South. It is really more of a difference brought about by religion than geography though. Most of the Netherlands comes from a strong, no nonsense, practical, Protestant and specifically Calvinist tradition. But there are also two provinces in the South, Limburg, and Noord-Brabant (the province where we live) where Calvinism never took hold and where Catholicism remained the dominant religion. No part of the Netherlands is highly religious any longer but the separate cultures and traditions of the North and South show just how much these religions still influence life today even if almost no one would call themselves and adherent.

So back to our study of Dutch culture. Since very few visitors from English speaking countries ever come to the southern Netherlands all of the information we were seeing related the writer's experiences in the more Protestant areas. This means that we have been pleasantly surprised by how friendly and outgoing the people here are. Everyone in our building says hello when they meet you in the elevator or in the hall. We have quite a few elderly persons in our building and even though most of them speak little or no English they go out of their way to try and carry on a conversation with us. Recently I bought an old, used camera and I had to find a replacement battery for it since the one it was designed to use is no longer made. The friendly gentleman in the camera shop opened several different packages of batteries, without me even asking him to do so, to find one that was the right voltage and that would physically fit into the camera. Just like in the southern US things here are a bit slower, a bit warmer, and a bit nicer here in the southern Netherlands. One person we have met really stands out to me though.

Every Saturday there is a market held right outside our building where vendors sell everything from fruit to bicycle parts to underwear. Of course this being the Netherlands there are several booths selling fresh flowers. On a whim one Saturday we decided to purchase a bunch of flowers for our dining room table, they are so cheap here it would be hard to not buy flowers from time to time. We stopped in a booth where a lady in her 60's offered us a hearty "Hallo" and then started to chat away in Dutch. We could only understand about 3 words of what she said. In English we apologized for not speaking Dutch and she responded in very broken English that it was not a problem. It could have been a problem however, you see most people from the Netherlands who are under the age of 50 speak very good English, over the age of 50 not so much. This is of course a generalization and there are some older people here who speak wonderful English, but noticing this woman's age and they way she phrased her response in English didn't offer us a lot of hope.

As it turns out our assumptions were right. The lady at the flower booth has a very limited knowledge of English, but this is where it gets good. My husband and myself and the woman selling flowers all tried to find words we thought each other would know, we used hand gestures, smiles and frowns, anything we could think of to help us communicate and it all worked. We wound up having a great conversation and she was able to help my husband find the highly fragrant flowers he was looking for. We paid for our flowers and said our good byes having had a very good time, at least we had a good time. We hoped it hadn't been too time consuming or frustrating for the terribly nice woman.

When we returned to the market the next week I quickly found out that our new friend had enjoyed it too as I saw her waving to us from a couple of lines of booths away. We bought more flowers and once again had a good time with her. This scenario repeated itself over the next few weeks but today it changed a little. You see we have started taking a course in Dutch and while we know very little we have already gained enough knowledge in the language to be helpful in a few situations.

Today when we walked up to the flower booth I saw bunches of flowers that I had never seen before. I have worked in a florist shop and so it is somewhat uncommon for me to not know what I am looking at when it comes to flowers. So when our friend walked up I decided to try and ask her what they were called in Dutch. In our first Dutch class we learned simple sentences such as "what is your name?" which in Dutch is "Hoe heet je?". This literally translates as "what are you called?" and I took this as a clue on how to proceed with my question. I pointed to the flowers, apologized in English for how I might be about to butcher the Dutch language, and with a deep breath said "Hoe heet deze?". Suddenly a huge smile spread across the woman's face as she beamed at me with the kind of pride you only normally see a mom show for her children when they say their first word. She quickly told me the name in Dutch, and I won't even attempt to spell it, and then she went on and on about how wonderful it is that we are learning Dutch and how smart we must be to be picking it up so quickly. I think her compliments were a little over stated, but it was pretty amazing, we walked up to buy flowers and walked away feeling like someone wanted to adopt us and take us home. All of this from a bunch of cold, unfriendly people.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Things that are different so far, part 4

So today my husband and myself had our first doctor's appointment since arriving in the Netherlands. We called to set up an appointment last Wednesday and they offered us a time two days later but it was earlier than we wanted to get up so we opted for the next available time which was today. So far socialized medicine isn't causing us to have to wait to see a doctor. When we arrived at the doctor's office we each had a single page form to fill out since we are new patients and right on time the doctor walked out and asked us to come back to his office/ exam room.

Upon entering the room the first thing that struck me was how pricey some of the furniture in his office was. I used to sell high-end modern furniture and so I immediately recognized some chairs and other items from the German manufacturer Vitra. If you know Vitra's products then you can understand how obvious it was to me it was that this doctor is not hurting for money. So we spoke with the doctor for a while, told him about the medications I am on, he took a look inside my husband's ear because of an odd sensation he had been experiencing, wrote out a prescription for some ear drops, and the doctor explained that if we need a prescription we can simply send him an email and if it seems reasonable he will send the prescription to the pharmacist without us having to come in. I then made another appointment for 3 months later (I am a type 1 diabetic and so they want to check me out every 3 months) and we were back on our bikes headed home. The visit cost, for the two of us, a grand total of nothing except for the calories we burned cycling to the office and back.

The entire event was so efficient, so easy, so pleasant it made me wonder how the American health care system could have become so screwed up. We received the care and advice we needed, we were never rushed or hurried, we were able to ask all the questions we wanted, and we left knowing that any future care we need will be handled in the same efficient and effective way. In the US a doctor would never write even a simple prescription without seeing you first, because A. they don't want to be sued and B. they want to charge you or your insurance company for an office visit. Here it seems their top priority is simply to provide good health care.

The Dutch are a people known to enjoy complaining about things, but I have heard zero complaints about their health care system. Politicians in America complain about it, but that is because they are either misinformed or lying. Patients in America tend to not complain about the Dutch health care system as most are too busy complaining about the US health care system.