Rotten, naked and headless

Column published on 24 February 2011 in the Observant, Maastricht

Living abroad means learning excellent new words. And Dutch names are among the most excellent of these. Me being me, I’m a big fan of all those names that mean something completely different in English. Having a girl? Try Joke, or perhaps even Floor. A boy? You can’t go past Flip. Or Taco. Or better yet: Harm (no-one’s messing with that kid in the playground). Two of my all-time favourites are Canoe for a sweet little girl, and the enigmatic Hunger for a strapping young lad.

Then there’s Aad, Aaf and Aag – perhaps not much in themselves, but these would certainly put you first on any alphabetical list. And Coen: this is one I’ve never been able to bring myself to say, given its unfortunate homophony with a word meaning ‘nigger’ in Australian slang. (Hoor – as in, ‘Wilt u de bon?’/‘Ja hoor’ – is another word I’m still averse to saying, given its equally unfortunate homophony with the English ‘whore’.)

Sometimes I’ll avoid a word less because of what it sounds like and more because I just can’t say it. Geert is a tough one for foreigners, as is just about any word starting with that infamous g. Working as an English teacher here, I once asked a new student his name. ‘Ghh-ghlhrgh’, he said, which I took to be him clearing his throat. I waited. He cleared his throat again. I asked again. He coughed up some phlegm. This went on for some time, until eventually it transpired that he was simply saying his name, Guy. Needless to say, I stuck safely to the English pronunciation for that one.

Last names are a barrel of laughs too. Fun fact of the day: last names weren’t common here until after 1811, when Napoleon conquered the Netherlands and decided he’d want to collect taxes. This required a census, which required family names. The Dutch, for their part, figured this French folly wouldn’t last, and thus many of them chose funny or offensive names. Rotmensen (‘rotten people’), Naaktgeboren (‘born naked’) and Zeldenthuis (‘seldom at home’) are some real winners. Then there’s one of my personal favourites, Kaasenbrood (‘cheese and bread’), not to mention the just-plain violent Zonderkop (‘without a head’).

To really rub the joke in, when asked to register their name some quick-witted individuals ended up with De Keizer (‘Who are you?’/‘I’m the emperor’). But the joke wasn’t always on the French, it seems, as it’s also left some families handing down through the generations names like Poepjes (officially ‘excrement’, but perhaps more accurately ‘poopie’).

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Agreeing to … agree

Column published in the Observant, Maastricht

The saying goes, “God made the world, but the Dutch made the Netherlands”. This is because much of the country lies below sea level, and so consists of polders (land reclaimed from the sea). The upshot: if you lived in the Middle Ages and were at war with your neighbouring city, you still had no choice but to cooperate when it came to maintaining the polders. Do so, or drown.

This is said to be the origin of the term polder model, that particularly Dutch version of consensus decision making. In fact, the Dutch republic was itself based on consensus, made up of seven autonomous provinces which all had to agree on big decisions. Likewise, in modern-day Dutch politics, no party has ever managed to win a parliamentary majority, meaning that all governments are necessarily coalitions.

All this means that the Dutch are said to be inherently disposed to cooperation and consultation. Indeed, in the 1982 Wassenaar Accords, trade unions famously agreed to accept lower pay for employees, in exchange for more employment in return. (Before this, the Netherlands and its absurdly generous welfare system were said to suffer the ‘Dutch disease’ of ‘welfare without work’.) But the agreement helped kick-start what became known as the Dutch economic miracle, and is still held up as a shining example of polder-model decision making.

But the polder model isn’t quite God’s gift to efficiency, as anyone who’s ever worked in the Netherlands will know. Because EVERYone’s opinion must be heard – from the boss and staff to the window cleaner, the intern and the office pot plant – the process takes as long as Linda de Mol’s botox injections are many. This has meant a fall from grace for the polder model in recent years, and a shift towards the more American-style free-market capitalism while maintaining the European social welfare model.

Nowhere is the tightrope over this middle ground more evident than in that age-old Dutch business favourite: the Meeting. Nothing – no seachange in corporate ideology, no earth-shattering revolution of economic practice – will ever shake the sacrosanctity of this staple of Dutch business culture. Meetings have always been held in abundance here, and doubtless always will be. It’s just that now they exist as a peculiar reincarnation of the polder model, where you’re forcibly made to attend, handcuffed to a chair and impelled to voice your opinion – or worse, ‘feelings’ – on decisions that have already been taken. Welcome to the new wave of consensus decision making.