So the other day I went to Amsterdam for a couple of hours. Yes, it’s a long way from Australia, but I have form in this area. I once flew to Benidorm for lunch from Lancashire, but that’s another story.
This time it was a very brief stop on a flight from Melbourne to Glasgow. The Silver Fox and I had four hours to kill and while Schiphol is undoubtedly a fine airport, we thought it would be more fun to jump on a train and go and visit the canals. So we did.
On the basis that any time away from the airport counts as a visit to a country, this was my fourth time in the Netherlands. I’ve explored Amsterdam, of course, but also the other major cities, and even made it to a wedding in Wemeldinge, a small village in Zeeland, where the bride and groom had their photos taken atop a dyke.
Going back for the first time in a decade, albeit briefly, reminded me of how much I love the place. There are so many reasons.
Obviously, there’s the cycling. Getting around on two wheels is the norm for many people, and drivers respect that. The infrastructure for cyclists is great and it’s so safe no-one ever needs a helmet. People ride in their everyday clothes and when it rains, it’s not unusual to see a bicyclist carrying an open umbrella as they pedal along.
There’s the amazing public transport, that can take you from one end of the country to the other in a couple of hours, and that never lets you miss a connection because it’s just so well planned.
Then there’s the people. I am fortunate to have a couple of good Dutch friends in my life who can be relied on to tell me the truth when I need to hear it. That attitude also seems to extend beyond those who have known me for a long time. At the aforementioned wedding, a guy I had literally just been introduced to suggested that I was perhaps a little too pale to wear my chosen summer dress with bare legs. Rude? Possibly, but my legs were threatening to blind the other guests with their whiteness, and he was clearly just keen that I consider tinting my skin the same colour as his – a rather artificial hue in a shade that I can only imagine was a tribute to the Dutch royal family. I wasn’t offended.
And there’s the pragmatic approach taken to social issues that other governments spend years arguing about. Gay rights ceased to be an issue a long time ago, and while there are some critics of the Netherlands’ liberal approach to prostitution and drug use, on the whole the laws seem to work. Equality is everywhere – even the female flight attendants on KLM are able to wear natty blue trouser suits that are far more practical than the tight skirts and high heels of other airlines, should they need to do their most important job of saving your life in an emergency.
For these and so many other reasons, I love the Netherlands. So much, in fact, that I even considered – quite seriously – learning the language. I thought my Scottish accent would give me a head start on many of the guttural noises needed to sound convincing; I changed my mind after I tried leaving a message on a Dutch friend’s answerphone, asking ‘How are you?’ in Dutch, and she asked why I was speaking Japanese. It’s also not the most useful language for the world traveller – something even the Dutch would admit. They know it will never be a lingua franca and while they appreciate any efforts to speak it (even with a Japanese accent), there is no expectation on the visitor to do so. In fact, I’ve found most of the Dutch people I’ve met are embarrassed by their (few) countrymen who can’t speak excellent English.
I probably should have tried to move there for a while when I was young, but I missed my chance, if it ever existed. I had to wait until I was in my 30s to do what was the next best thing – move to Melbourne. It’s not so dissimilar: it has trams, bikes and, at least in the inner city, a liberal (with a small L) attitude. Most Australians also fulfil the plain-speaking requirement quite nicely. Umbrellas on bikes haven’t caught on yet, but given Melbourne’s climate and inherent sense of style, it’s surely just a matter of time.