Gemeente 2, me 0

Column published  in the Observant, Maastricht

January, for me, has always meant sunshine, beach and barbecues. (This is because I’m one of those upside-down Australians.) And thankfully, that’s precisely the case this year: as I write, I’ve got one foot dangling in a creek and I’m watching a spider crawl idly over the other. Lovely.

It’s a far cry from one year ago, when I was – somewhat harshly, I feel – de-registered by the Maastricht city council. Now, on a scale of evil from 1 to 10, the gemeente is hovering (along with T-Mobile, @home and the tax office) at around a million. But this de-registration was a new low. The reason for it? A trip to an ‘onbekend buitenland’. Um, excuse me? In Switzerland, I was once told I couldn’t give blood because I come from a ‘third-world country’. But now, says the Netherlands, my country doesn’t even exist.

It’s not the first time I’ve been to battle with the gemeente. When I first moved to Maastricht, I discovered that the good folk at the gemeente couldn’t register me until I told them where I was last registered. This presented an interesting dilemma. In Australia, we don’t have registration (much to the consternation of my German partner: “But how will the state know WHERE you ARE?!”).

This meant, of course, that I had no answer to that glaring blank box on the gemeente’s registration form. Couldn’t they register me without filling in that box? Of course not, because if there is a box, the box must be filled in. Finally, I simply gave in and made up an answer (if anyone asks, I was previously registered on Gingerbread Lane, Peppermintville).

But to return to my latest dilemma – my inexplicable de-registration, and after all the hard work it had taken to be registered in the first place – I did learn a lesson from it. If you actually need the gemeente to do something, its ineffectiveness is boundless. But when it comes to something you DON’T need (say, being de-registered), the gemeente goes about its business with spectacular efficiency. Within a week of my return from that ever-enigmatic onbekend buitenland, I found myself concomitantly de-registered from my insurance company, pension fund, and even the dental surgery.

But perhaps I shouldn’t whinge. After all, I’ve heard tell that the registration system that today plagues foreigners in the Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere was in fact installed by the Brits post war, to help them keep an eye on you suspicious continental folk. So it’s for my own good, really.

Nice or nasty?

Column published in the Observant, Maastricht

We’re having lunch at a café, a Dutch friend and I. The waiter brings out the food. Thank you, I say as she sets it down in front of us. Thank you very much.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Far too many thank yous, according to my Dutch friend. What am I supposed to say to a waiter? Not a damn thing, says my friend: a genuine Cloggie (granted, he doesn’t use the term Cloggie) would just sit in silence and watch the food be delivered.

I’m flabbergasted by this and still not convinced my friend isn’t just pulling my leg. But then, it is indeed widely said that niceties like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are used far more profusely in English than in Dutch. This, of course, is not to say that the Dutch are rude in their dealings with one another; it’s just that oh-so-many pleasantries would simply be seen as bootlicking.

But I do wonder how far this famed Dutch ‘directness’ genuinely goes. One day I was trying to change my address at the bank. The woman serving me decided she’d need to consult with a colleague – this was naturally far too complicated a procedure for a solo effort – and in the meantime waved a finger in my face and instructed me to ‘Wait. WAIT. WAAAIT’.

This is how I’d speak to a dog, on a bad day. Would this have been typical between Dutch people, I wondered, or was she so abrupt only when faced with a foreigner?

I recall a meeting I once had with a pair of Dutch managers and a fellow foreigner, herself only newly arrived in the Netherlands. We had the meeting in English. To the new arrival, the Dutch higher-ups prefaced the meeting by saying smugly, ‘By the way, Dutch people are known for being very direct when it comes to business. Don’t take it personally – it’s our culture, you see’. They then reduced her almost to tears with their criticism.

I’ve seen this supposed ‘directness’ being held up as some sort of national trait countless times – usually before some serious rudeness is about to be unleashed. But as the vast majority of Dutch people are as tactful and sensitiveas anyone else, I can’t help but feel that this supposedly ‘national’ characteristic is a beat-up by certain individuals keen to turn their personal propensity to rudeness into some sort of cultural virtue. In other words, this is a column about what I think is not typically Dutch: You’re nice people, really. Stop letting arseholes hijack your cultural discourse and pretend you’re not.