Friday, September 10, 2010

A Dutch Decade Q&A with Nicola McCall

As part of the Dutch Decade week I threw the floor open to you to ask me any question you liked about expat life or life in the Netherlands.....

Nicola McCall asksWhat significant societal changes have you seen in life in the Netherlands whilst living there and noticed from afar about the UK?  Which have surprised or worried you?

My Answer: There are three events of the last ten years which spring to mind when I thing about Dutch society and the way it has altered: the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh and the attack on the royal family on Queen’s Day 2009.

Whilst none of the three events had a direct influence on the lives of the majority of the population, each atrocity gnawed away at the fabric of Dutch society. One result has been that people live more in fear than they did a decade ago - look at the reaction of the crowd during the war remembrance ceremony on 4 May on the Dam in Amsterdam (see video below). The other consequence is a reduced tolerance in a country known for its tolerance. Geert Wilders and his increased popularity is a testament to that. It is a reflection of economic circumstances too of course, but I feel there is an unconscious collective feeling of a threat on Dutch society from an outside source. People feel more vulnerable.

One other marked change in Dutch society that I have seen, and it has been a gradual change, is that people are distancing themselves from each other. It is a phenomena hitting many western countries I think, but to see it happen in front of you is quite something. (The image of Londoners on the underground ignoring each other is the best visual for this).

The Dutch are known for greeting each other (strangers) in waiting rooms, lifts and the like but I do see this happening less. More and more people turn their heads away walking past each other, rather than saying hello. In my own little world here, I see a trend towards individualism and a lot less consideration for each other - new neighbours in our street no longer introduce themselves, people are more quickly verbally aggressive if you address small scale anti-social behaviour with them (blocking paths, roads, smoking on trains/trams etc), doing DIY to 10pm. I could fill a blog post about anti-social acts I have encountered this year alone........

The strangest thing I have heard and seen about changes in the UK centre around health and safety. It seems that UK authorities have gone health and safety mad in the last ten years and are doing everything to avoid liability issues. Nynke Bruinsma raised it in her interview with me  in November last year and it made me realise how often I had heard from people back in England about a nanny state; kids are being banned from doing things in school seen as normal when I was a kid – like British bulldog and other playground games – out of a fear of being sued by parents. I have read articles about parents being criticised for letting their children cycle to school – seen as too dangerous in some parts of the country – and being asked to sign waivers for this, that and the other. It ties in with the image I have of tiny children being dropped off in big, black, shiny 4x4s, which is something you don’t generally see in the Netherlands. Parents here in the Netherlands cycle or walk with their young children to school, and the rest make their own way there by bike or on foot because of the close location of schools.

What I also notice about the UK now that I haven’t lived there for a long time is the very obvious wealth differences. The gap between the well-off and low income families is very noticeable. It is something my husband commented on very early on (i.e. ten years ago) that I had never really noticed as it was the norm for me. Now, I notice it much more because the gap in the Netherlands is not so obvious – ‘average’ is a much larger group of people here. Not so much a change in society in my absence, but it came as a surprise to realise it.

What changes have you seen in Dutch society and back in your country of origin during the time you have lived here?

Nicola McCall is a trained coach specialising in expat life and work related issues. An expat herself, she is British and lives in the Netherlands. For more info, visit She is also an online expert for Parenting in Holland and an expat aunt for Expatica. She brilliantly describes life as an expat "like living in porridge....things take longer and you're having to work hard for the same things that came easily before".

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