Back in my other homeland, The Netherlands, where I am currently visiting my father and aunts, uncles, and cousins, I often find myself reflecting on both the differences and the similarities between life in Indiana/USA and the Netherlands.
Of course, Holland (as it is often called) is merely two-thirds of the size of the state of Indiana, but both are rural with long stretches of green meadows and fields where cattle and horses graze.
Both have large urban cities as well. Indianapolis, the capital of Indiana, has a population of 750,000. Amsterdam, the official capital of the Netherlands, has 1,000,000 inhabitants. The Hague (Den Haag in Dutch), further to the south on the coast of the North Sea, is the official government seat and home to the International Criminal Court. It has a population of 500,000. South of The Hague lies Rotterdam, the world’s largest harbor.
Over 16 million people are presently living in this tiny country. Compared to this, Indiana with its 6½ million people feels so much more wide open. So do the freeways where traffic jams are rare except during rush hour in and around the larger cities. In Holland, there is a constant flow of traffic on the freeways. At the top of the hour, the radio always reports a traffic jam on one or more freeways.
Most people in Holland are quite fluent in English and love America and Americans and anything American, except for American coffee. “Tastes like water,” they say. American movies, music, and TV shows – the Dutch love them. My cousin’s 6- and 8-year-old daughters watch “Dora,” but instead of Dora teaching Spanish words, she teaches the Dutch kids English words and phrases. English, French, and German instruction is required throughout basic schooling, but of course, it helps tremendously that one doesn’t have to travel far to be able to practice those foreign languages. Paris is a 5-hour drive south from where my dad lives in the central-eastern part of the country. Brussels is 3 hours south. Dusseldorf is a mere 1 ½ hour east. Not so simple in a country as large as the U.S., although Spanish has gained enormously in importance as the Hispanic population has soared in recent years.
At our family reunion this past weekend, the same 8-year-old cousin I mentioned earlier completely took me by surprise by asking me if I was planning on voting for Barack Obama or James Romney (I let the “James” error slide as I was so impressed!). She asked me why there were only two parties/two candidates to choose from in America because here in the Netherlands there are some 15 different parties.
The Dutch will be going to the polls tomorrow to elect a prime minister. American-style debates and “fact-checks” and polling results have been dominating the TV channels. My father will hop on his bike and ride to cast his ballot first thing in the morning. As in the U.S., the economy and jobs are the most important issues, followed by immigration as well as the euro crisis. The Netherlands is one of the few prosperous countries in the European Union, and many people are growing weary of bailing out the likes of Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland.
I particularly like how green Holland is. Green as in “environmentally aware.” Bikes are everywhere, and the public transportation system is awesome (though not cheap). You should see the mass of bikes parked at train stations. People ride their bike to the station and take the train to work, or they ride or walk to the nearest bus stop and take the bus to work or to the train station.
Bicycles are so important and common for young and old that on both sides of the road, there are separate bike paths with their own traffic lights. When the driver of a car wants to make a right-hand turn and a bike is approaching along the road, the car must wait and give the right of way to the bike. My mother always said, “In case of an accident between a car and a bike, the bike rider is never at fault.” Fuel costs are much higher in Holland than in the U.S., so drivers often carpool, too. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, as an incentive to catch a ride, drivers are actually compensated for carpooling.
Traffic rules are complicated in Holland. Perhaps this is the reason people often fail their first driver’s test and have to re-take it several times before passing. By the way, is the U.S. the only country in the world where you are allowed to drive at age 16?
A few days before Bob and I were to be married in my parents’ beautiful garden in 1981, Bob crashed my mother’s small Peugeot as we drove through the town of Santpoort where I wanted to show him the house where I grew up. He had forgotten that on smaller roads, traffic coming from your right has the right of way….. Not a pretty picture, especially since we had generously been given permission to use my mother’s car for our honeymoon to Austria… We felt absolutely horrible and ended up renting a car.
In Indianapolis, we are proud to recycle glass, certain plastics, and paper. We dump it all in a special trash container which is then picked up by a truck service that allows the driver to stay in the truck as he collects. Even so, only about 50% of Indianapolis residents recycle. In the Netherlands, there is no choice. Every household has a green container for biodegradable materials and a gray container for other materials. All garbage trucks have the arm that attaches to the trash can, lifts it, dumps the trash and sets the can down again. No time wasted by guys getting in and out of trucks. Yard refuse, wood, batteries, furniture, etc. are hauled by the homeowner to a municipal trash site where, for a small fee, your car is weighed before and after trash removal into huge designated dumpsters.
One thing that really bothers me about Holland is that there are no screens in windows or doors. With a relatively mild climate, it’s certainly nice to be able to open windows so much of the year, but the flies and mosquitos spoil that whole deal. Sure enough, if I don’t close my bedroom window by 5pm in the summer time, I’ve got a mosquito or two buzzing around my head just as I am falling asleep.
It’s cute to notice that the “klompen” (wooden shoes) are actually still used by the farmers working in the fields. They wear heavy socks and the klompen keep their feet warm and dry. Sometimes I see them riding their bikes into town wearing their klompen.
I also love seeing young mothers ride their bike around town with a baby in a seat on the handlebars plus a child in a seat on the back. I did that with Julia and Ian a few times, and it really takes some balancing!
How did my mother manage this when my brother and I were little and she would have a bag of groceries hanging on each side of the handlebars? In those days, Dutch families had one car. Most women didn’t drive. My mother learned to drive when she was in her early 40s only because we were moving to Venezuela, where you couldn’t go anywhere if you didn’t have a car, so it became a necessity.
All in all, I can honestly say that I have two home countries. I feel happy and comfortable in the U.S. as well as the Netherlands. Each one has its pros and cons. Each one has its own culture and lifestyle. In each, I have loved ones. But my favorites darlings are in Indianapolis!
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