If you're a Seinfeld fan like me, you may remember "The Butter Shave" episode, where Jerry and George discuss the differences (or non differences) of the Netherlands, the Dutch and Holland. Having lived in Amsterdam for six years and recently brought a Dutchman (aka my fiancé) back with me to New York about a year ago, this conversation is all too recognizable.
While this small country may be relatively unfamiliar to many -- who confuse its guttural language with German and tall, blonde citizens with the Danes -- there is actually a wealth of life lessons that Americans can learn from the people of the low lands. Here are my top 10. And no, none of them have to do with red lights or herbal delights.
- Don't spend more than you have. If you understand this, you understand the Dutch people. They simply don't buy things they can't pay for in cold hard cash. I once had to painstakingly explain to a colleague the difference between a debit and credit card; because in Holland, your credit card balance is generally deducted from your bank account at the end of each the month. I resisted it at first -- I mean, why even have a credit card if you're just going to pay it off in full?! But once I did, I found it's liberating to live within your means. And that's a feeling even money can't buy.
- Travel to places where no one speaks your language. Dutch is spoken by just over 25 million people around the world (compared with the some 1.5 billion who speak English), and all of Holland would fit in the state of Maryland, give or take. That's why traveling abroad and exploring new cultures and languages is vital to the Dutch people's existence, dating back to the days of New Amsterdam. With their casually styled blond locks and six-foot-plus stature, they may stick out like an American tourist in white running sneakers; however, they are generally hungry to leave the comforts of home and discover new sights, sounds, and people.
- Realize less choice is often more. Some pulp, no pulp, low pulp, lots of pulp - whenever I used to visit my family in the states, the grocery store always reminded me of how far away I had moved from America and its "consumer choice". Albert Heijn, one of Amsterdam's main grocery store chains, stocks only two types of orange juice: "cold" and "not cold". (You pay more for cold.) Market researchers have often written about the fact that too much choice can paralyze consumers. And as an indecisive gal myself, I'm not immune. I love the idea of lots of choice, but find it overwhelming in reality (I'm looking at you laundry detergent aisle!), so pour me a glass of OJ any way you like.
- Always offer guests coffee or tea. The English word cookie comes from Dutch -- koekje. This is not surprising considering every time you're a guest at an office or home, you will inevitably be offered coffee or tea and one small cookie (never two). While the American in me always wished for just one more sweet treat, this little detail, however small, seemed to make that difficult business meeting a little friendlier or that evening with friends a little cozier. As they say: this is gezellig, no?
- Eat fried food. In moderation, of course. It's ironic that one of the things I miss most about Amsterdam is the fried bar snacks or hapjes. Now, it's probably not the batter dipped cheese sticks that I'm missing, but the fun times with friends down at the neighborhood pub. That said, a bitterbal (a deep fried sphere, filled with a creamy mystery meat) can be heavenly, especially when accompanied by a three-euro glass of house wine. Fortunately, I never felt pressured to deny myself these little pleasures, and I miraculously managed not to pack on the pounds but actually lose weight. (Hey, it's not just French women who don't get fat!) Most importantly, though, I came to learn that moderation doesn't always mean less, but sometimes more.
- Integrate exercise into your everyday routine. This goes hand-in-hand with eating in moderation. Part of the reason the Dutch manage to stay so fit is because they cycle everywhere, come rain or shine (well, more like rain and rain). Exercise isn't a chore -- something you dread and have to squeeze into your busy schedule -- it is simply a means of getting to work (even if you're a CEO!), picking up the kids from daycare, or avoiding driving home in your car after one too many Heinekens.
- Take time for lunch, even if it's just 20 minutes. Lunch in Holland may be basic (read: boring), consisting of a couple of slices of Gouda cheese on generic bruin bread and a glass of milk. But this midday meal is not about the food, like in France or Italy; it's about taking a moment to recharge, to breathe in and out, and perhaps even catch up with colleagues, assuming you like them. Regardless of the country, there are people who work hard and those who don't; those who are team players and those just out for themselves. But taking 20 minutes out of the day for yourself does not place you in one of these categories; nor will it make or break your career.
- Appreciate the little luxuries in life. The Dutch can appear frugal, but when they decide to "splurge," they appreciate their indulgences to the fullest. Ladies, don't expect to pop into an Amsterdam nail salon, for instance, and expect to be accommodated without an appointment. A basic manicure alone takes about 50 minutes and requires you to book more than a week in advance; according to my Dutch manicurist, getting your nails done is a luxury that should never be rushed. What a contrast to my experience in NYC, where I used to squeeze my weekly mani/pedi into my 30-minute lunch break, as if it were just another chore on the checklist. But as a nail polish enthusiast -- and owner of my own lacquer line -- I must agree that when treated as something special, a manicure can help you appreciate the little things in life. Now, I bet you didn't know nail polish could do that!
- Tell it like it is (politely). "You're wearing so much blush." That's what a gangly looking male colleague said to me in a thick Dutch accent one morning before a big business meeting. In the early years of living in Amsterdam, I would have taken offense and agonized for the next hour about how I should have used less bronzer (what's a girl to do -- it's cloudy over half the year!). But eventually I learned to take on board this direct feedback and use it to my advantage, recognizing that the Dutch rarely say things to be cruel and never leave room for interpretation. You always know where you stand...and what you look like.
- Ice skate every chance you get. I just painted you a picture of a grounded and rational bunch. That is, until the first snowfall. For some reason, when the weather decides to throw moderation to the wind, so do the people. It only takes a few below-freezing days to get the whole country worked up in anticipation of the elfstedentocht, when masses of Nederlanders skate the canals through eleven different cities. It only happens once every 10 to 20 years, but this hasn't stopped grown men from playing hooky from work, grabbing their ice skates, and enjoying a winter moment with childlike enthusiasm. Because in Amsterdam, as with anything in life, the rain will come soon enough, so play while you can.