The Netherlands is termed as one of the happiest countries in the world, and moving from India to The Netherlands, brought me face to face with multiple cultural shocks. I bet you will be shocked to read some of them as well.
India is a country where I was born and brought up, but my husband moved to The Netherlands when he received the opportunity to work for one of the largest Dutch telecommunications companies.
Soon after he moved here, we got married and I moved to the flattest European country with him. And the journey brought in a lot of cultural shocks than one could imagine!
I will talk about the top-10 of them here —
Why do you see these pictures so commonly floating around on the internet, where you can see a bridge, a canal, and a couple of bicycles parked on the bridge? Well, that’s because that’s what’s the entire country is all about. It is The Netherlands, summed up in one image.
1. Bicycles, Bridges, and Canals
The Netherlands is a country that is so full of bicycles that you will find more bicycles than cars, and I guess more bicycles than people! Well, to put it in numbers, there are more than one million bicycles in Amsterdam alone, and it’s a city in the country, not even a state or a province, so you can do the math about the bicycles in the whole country.
You may or may not own a car, but you have to own a bicycle. Everyone in the country has a bicycle!
But the cultural shock doesn’t just end here, in The Netherlands, you will find very well-constructed pathways for bicycles, the bike riders have a priority on road, they’re considered more important than car drivers, and cars will stop for the bikers, not the other way round. It is one of the most bicycle-friendly countries in the world for sure. You will also find a lot of Dutch parents with their kids in trolleys and baskets of their bicycles, riding on the roads, and it is a very common sight.
The second thing that you’ll notice immediately after entering the country is — canals! The water management system in The Netherlands is amazing. The entire country is several meters below sea level, but yet it never floods. There is a famous proverb in The Netherlands about the Dutch people, that —
The God made the world, but the Dutch made The Netherlands!
The canal system is so vastly spread out in the country that Amsterdam alone has more than 150 canals in the city, with over 1200 bridges.
2. Papadag (Father’s Day)
No, it is not an annual one-day holiday that is celebrated for all things that fathers do, but it is something like a weekly ritual in Dutch households. New parents are stressed. Well, stress would be an understatement, they’re fatigued, exhausted, and might even murder someone with all that sleeplessness and workload piling up, along with a new baby to handle.
And a new baby doesn’t only need attention for the time the mother can afford to take maternity leave, it needs attention till it is at least 3 years old (or 18 in some cases!).
So, to handle the stress and to allow new fathers to spend some time with their toddlers, the Dutch have the provision to take one day off every week citing it to be a Papadag (father’s day), where the father and the child can spend a day together fishing, boating or just slouching on the couch doing nothing.
It is also a relief for new mothers as they can put off one day from their weekly schedule to attend office till late hours, to plan a lunch date with their friends, to do what they have been putting off for a long time, or simply to relax.
Papadag is an official leave granted by workplaces to fathers of kids (essentially toddlers). A leave that they can take every week (reducing the working days in a month to 16!) to spend with their kid.
3. Coffeeshops are not really ‘Coffee’ Shops
If you are visiting Amsterdam and think about enjoying some hot coffee in the cold weather by the canal — do not, I repeat, do not ask for a ‘coffee shop’. That’s not where you will find coffee. Coffeeshop in Dutch culture means a drugstore or a place where you can find weed or weed products like space cakes etc.
But why the confusing names?
Well, there’s a story behind it. Earlier in the days when weed was not legal in The Netherlands (oh it’s legal now, by the way!), the local dealers used to gather in coffee shops to deal and trade cannabis. There was a whole wide population of people that used to consume cannabis and the business was flourishing secretly (of course the government knew about it, but they let it run as long as everyone was happy). But once it was legalized, the trade became more open and more public. Even then, the name ‘coffee shop’ stuck. Call it culture or simply history.
But now the bigger question is, what if you really wanna have coffee, what should you ask for?
Well, in that case, ask for some ‘cafes’ around you or ask for a ‘Koffie Huis’ (Coffee House), or simply find one on Google. There will be plenty. That’s what it’s called here in the local language.
4. Hate For Credit Cards v/s Love For Saving Culture!
Why credit cards have made it to this list is because they’re hated in The Netherlands. The Dutch are not the people who love using credit cards or who love loans. Rather the Dutch culture is the ‘saving culture’, they’re focused on using cash and debit, rather than credits. Rather, don’t be surprised if your credit card is declined in a place as common as a grocery store.
But why is that?
Well, the Dutch are known to be very straightforward and thrifty, they don’t like beating around the bush, and certainly, they don’t like debts or the guilty feeling of paying someone later. That’s why the term ‘Let’s Go Dutch’, came into being. Going Dutch simply means splitting the bill — it’s that straightforward. If you go to lunch with a Dutch colleague, don’t be surprised if you have to pay your share of the bill, because that’s the norm here.
Moreover, a credit card signifies spending money that you do not have — which is not good. Even though around 50% of people own credit cards, more than 60% of them use them only abroad. Not being a popular payment method in the country, credit cards also have lower acceptance in various places, which is why more people simply don’t prefer using them at all.
Another interesting point that I’d like to share here is, grocery stores like Albert Heijn (the popular Dutch supermarket), offer options to ‘save’ more money using their app and cards. Albert Heijn offers a program called ‘Koopzegels’, which is a simple saving method introduced by the supermarket, where you pay 10% of your bill as excess to Albert Heijn and they will give you interest over the accumulated amount.
To keep it simple, think about it like this — If you’re buying stuff worth €50, you have to pay €50 + €5 = €55 to Albert Heijn, and you will see 55 points in your Koopzegels account (plus some interest over time). Finally, when you have accumulated 500 points, you can use that and enjoy one (or more) free shopping session at Albert Heijn. That’s a little reward that you give to yourself for saving some money on the side.
To put it in perspective, many Dutch people here shop in Albert Heijn all year long, and save small excess money in their Koopzegels account that they enjoy later in the month of December, as they get all shopping sessions for free in the holiday season!
5. The Clock Pattern
The Dutch people are among the early risers in the world, some of my office colleagues wake up as early as 03:30 am, only because they have to reach the office at 05:00 am, and naturally, they leave by 02:00 pm. People here have a very different body clock (compared to the rest of the world).
The majority of the country sleeps as early as 08:00 pm, as they all have their dinners at 06:00 pm. Many of my colleagues, friends, and neighbours have admitted to this habit. In my apartment building as well, if we get out at 09:00 pm, there is usually dead silence, and lights in the homes are off.
It is also reported that Dutch babies have more hours of sleep as compared to American babies, and the number of hours an average Dutch person sleeps, is also more than an average American.
Is that also a contributing factor to overall happiness? Well, that can be. This brings us to one conclusion for sure, that for a happy life — sleep is important!
6. Dutch Gender Reveals
The world is still catching up to the Dutch, and when I say that, I want to refer to the recent trend of Gender Reveal parties that people have started throwing to find out if the baby-to-be-born is a boy or a girl. Well, the Dutch have been doing it for years now.
When you need to announce it, you don’t do that quietly in your home, to your family. You announce it to your whole neighbourhood, using colored balloons, banners, and even a stork. Pink for the girl and blue for the boy and the whole house is screaming that a new baby is arriving.
And finally, when the big day arrives and the baby is born, it is typically the father (or a close relative) who rushes to the grocery store to buy ‘Beschuit met Muisjes’. It is a rusk coated with butter and aniseed balls.
It is a treat that is served ‘after’ the baby is born, but if you go to a grocery store and ask for it, they will first congratulate you, and then ask you if it is a boy or a girl, and then hand you over the coloured Beschuit (biscuits). Pink and white for a girl and blue and white for a boy.
Now, you might be thinking why the name ‘Beschuit met muisjes’ (Biscuits with mice)? Well, that’s because aniseed-balls have small ‘tails’ that make them look like mice — that’s why. See! The Dutch don’t complicate things too much, what you see is what you get.
I noticed it when one of my colleagues had a baby, and he was distributing the pink-coloured rusks in the office. And if you don’t accept it, it is considered rude. So, you have to politely take at least one, and congratulate the new parent!
7 . Free Healthcare! (Absolutely free)
More than a culture shock, it was a delightful surprise to know that healthcare in The Netherlands is absolutely free. Health insurance is mandatory for everyone who works in the country, which makes sure that you don’t go without one. And since insurance is mandatory, so you get to choose which plans, which company, and which services or areas you want to be covered (like dental, you might have to pay some extra premium for it, but they will cover it for you).
The Dutch government has set a deductible amount that everyone has to pay before they get completely free benefits, but that is usually a small amount (ranging anywhere between €400 to €900). And after that deductible, if there are big healthcare costs like surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or any expensive procedures, they will all be done for free.
And also, I forgot to mention, the medication is also completely included in your health insurance. So, if you’re living or working in The Netherlands, and you are visiting a hospital, you only need to carry your health insurance card. No credit/debit card, and no cash required. Now that is another reason why people here are among the happiest in the world.
8. Obsession with Appels (Apples)
You are not Dutch if you don’t have any kind of apples at least once a day. Why did I say that? Well, not because the Dutch have only apples, but many fruits/vegetables are named with ‘apples’. When I first entered a grocery store in the country, I was confused because every aisle I went through had ‘appel’ written all over it, but in some aisles there were pomegranates and in some, there were potatoes.
After some Googling, I found out that these are indeed the names of different fruits/veggies here.
- Potatoes are called aardappels.
- Pomegranates are called granaatappel.
- Oranges are called sinaasappel, and
- Apples are, of course, called appels (with different spellings).
If you think that’s enough obsession with apples, wait for it. There is a town named ‘Apeldoorn’ in the province of Gelderland, and inside Apeldoorn, is a park named ‘Apenheul’ (not necessarily apples this time, but still sounds close).
If you’re fascinated by so many different apples by now, you haven’t heard of the apple-based pies, buns, and dishes yet.
Apple pie was the traditional dessert that was served during birthdays in The Netherlands (it still is, in many households). The ‘cake-cutting’ culture, came to a lot later.
9. Taxes, Taxes, and More Taxes
If you think everything’s just rainbows and roses about living in The Netherlands, you’re not all right. There are a few moments when you will feel a pinch in your pockets (or more like a hand going into your pocket and grabbing everything you have!). You guessed it right, it’s about taxes.
The Netherlands is a country that charges an exorbitant amount of taxes from its citizens. The average income tax in the country is around 50% (as of 2021) for higher income brackets. They’re making efforts to reduce it, and if you think 50% is too much, well it was 72% before the 1990s for high incomes!
So, like every other country, The Netherlands also deducts taxes in brackets. From €0 to €68,000 the tax is 37%, and for any income above that the tax is around 50%. But before the 1990s, there were more slabs and higher deductions in taxes.
Now, if you think that’s all, you’re wrong again. After paying income tax, you still need to pay VAT on services and goods, you need to pay property tax if you are living in a house (own or rented house — both), you need to pay water management tax (GBLT) (how do you think those canals look so clean and nice?), then there is garbage tax (well, someone needs to pay people to sweep the streets), and finally, there is road tax if you own a car (those highways aren’t gonna fix themselves!). That’s how many different taxes we have to pay here, after a 37–50% income tax deduction.
So many taxes were indeed a culture shock for me!
10. The Dutch Founded Stock Market through Flowers
Did you know that the Dutch are the people who first started with the concept of the stock market? Well, new information alert: The Amsterdam Stock Exchange was the first stock exchange in the world when it began trading freely transferable securities by VOCs.
It was a history shock for me, more than a cultural shock when I first read about how Bitcoin is always being compared to something called ‘Tulip Mania’. Then I read about Tulip Mania and found out about how the Dutch actually founded the concept of the stock market, by trading tulip bulbs.
So, why is Bitcoin compared to Tulip Mania?
Because tulips were being traded through futures contracts, and before the real, actual bulbs could be traded, contracts were traded, sold, and bought multiple times, thus inflating the value of one contract. Whoever had the contract, at last, could buy tulips with it or sell them later.
So, tulip contracts once became a highly possessed and sought-after commodity, that it rose to exponential prices, soon before it all came crashing down in February 1637. It is also considered the first asset bubble of modern-day history. And some people think that Bitcoin is going on the same path, and hence, they compare it with Tulip mania.
To date, The Netherlands is known for beautiful Tulip fields and various varieties of flowers. Flowers are not just a source of beauty, but also contribute to around $5 billion annually in revenue. So, next time don’t look at flowers with just awe, also look at the sea of money flowing through it!
So, these were some of the major, culture shocks that I discovered after moving to The Netherlands.