The Netherlands reminded me a lot of Singapore. It is one of the most successful countries in Europe. Not easy, given that its neighbours, France and Germany, are important powers with huge economies. But for a small country, The Netherlands has managed extremely well. Per capita GDP is one of the highest in the world (Singapore is a pretty rich country too; when purchasing power is taken into account, we rank within the top 5 countries in the world, beating Japan, South Korea, North America and almost every other European economy). Prices are relatively low in its capital city, Amsterdam, especially when compared with exorbitant Paris. The country is very clean by European standards. Things work efficiently. And Dutch corporations are important players in the world economy – the airline KLM, the banking giant ING and the conglomerate Unilever all hail from the Netherlands.
Income disparity in the Netherlands is one of the lowest in the world, press freedom is one of the highest, democracy works like magic with hardly any problems like those seen in other industrialised countries, and it has an education system the envy of the world.
Income taxes are above 50% too, by the way. Make no mistake, this is a welfare state, Northern European style.
New Dutch Living
Dutch people themselves identify more closely with Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden than Central European countries like Germany and Austria or Western European ones like Belgium and France.
They are very conscious about their environment and aware of world issues. This is definitely not an ignorant and passive population.
Especially my couchsurfing host in Amsterdam. Oscar is the most intelligent and talented person I have met thus far. I used to have a classmate who routinely topped our class in every subject, but Oscar’s still smarter. He has an active social life and doesn’t study a lot, but seems to remember every single thing he reads. He knows so much about the world and stuff around him – like what era a certain building dates from based on its architectural style. He can play many musical instruments, and most impressively, he has an incredible capacity for languages, being able to converse in Dutch, English, Spanish, French, German, Russian and Bulgarian. This guy is definitely talented, and his enthusiasm for languages rubbed off on me a little as well.
Cliches of the Netherlands: windmills, bicycles and tulips. All true, but none more so than bicycles. There are so many bicycles in Amsterdam, its crazy. All kinds of bikes, parked in every possible place. Everyone has at least one bike in this country and most have two or three (Oscar has 5, by the way). The Dutch use huge locks to secure their bicycles, and because of the sheer number of bicycles and the ingrained cycling culture, safety and theft is not as huge a problem as expected.
It’s a country built for cycling. The Netherlands is as flat as a pancake, with hardly any hills or slopes. It is even flatter than Singapore. The landscape just stretches on and on, and that makes it eminently cycle-friendly. There are dedicated bike lanes everywhere, and bikes are given priority in traffic situations. Cars are respectful of bike traffic, and despite the potential for chaos, bicycles, cars, motorised bikes, pedestrians and trams seem to coexist very well on Amsterdam’s narrow streets.
Dutch bikes have lots of different designs. This cute little fact alone will tell you how central a bike is to Dutch commuting: there exists a kind of ‘pram-bike’, with a little barrow-like structure with a wheel attached to the front of the bike, so that mum can bring her kids along on a bike trip.
Another City That’s Prettiest In The World
Like Porto and Paris, Amsterdam is a breathtaking city. All the European cities are so pretty, I can’t help but fall in love with each one of them. Amsterdam is big but not too large, and crowded but not overwhelming. It's the fifth-most visited city in Europe and naturally filled with tourists, but even so it is surprisingly easy to find quiet picture-perfect streets beside tree-lined canals. The old city is so large, and there are so many old buildings and old canals, that even the massive amounts of tourists can’t be everywhere. Many buildings date from the 17th century, and are perfectly preserved, and I was filled with a sense of wonder as I explored the hundreds of streets on bike, each turn revealing a new picturesque canal.
The Ugliness of Tourism
Amsterdam’s tourism office tries to make as much money as possible out of each tourist. They charge 2.50 euros (S$5) for a city map. A visitor from a foreign country isn’t treated as a guest by the city’s tourism bureau, but as a cash cow presenting an opportunity to be milked of as much money as possible.
Some tourists are just plain ignorant, no doubts about that, but I take the view that treating tourists like cash cows just brings bad-quality tourists to your city. What most tourism bureaus want, I suppose, are discerning, high-income individuals with an appreciation for local customs and an appetite for the new and unfamiliar. They’d like tourists who take the time to enjoy a city, understand its people and go off the beaten track to discover the little gems and treasures that make a destination special. No one likes busloads of tour groups who snap photos, make tactless remarks and buy 4 for $1 Eiffel Tower keychains. Unfortunately, the latter is the overwhelming truth of mass tourism nowadays, and Amsterdam isn’t doing much to help by making tourists buy a S$5 city map and having a visitor centre that gives one the impression of a over-bureaucratized public hospital waiting room, complete with rude service, long waiting times and a completely unnecessary queue system with flashing neon numbers.
Amsterdam, and the rest of The Netherlands, is pretty much all man-made. There’s not much of a choice, really, because the country is low-lying and facing a constant battle with the elements, including a turbulent relationship with water. But its quite beautiful. The interplay of light shining through gloomy clouds, shimmering canals and narrow, historic houses would captive anyone’s imagination.
I spent a lot of time with Oscar during my stay in Amsterdam. We cycled through pretty neighbourhoods, dodging traffic, and I got an excellent crash course into why foreigners should think twice before biking along a main road in Amsterdam. We even did a cycling trip to Haarlem, a town near Amsterdam, and it turned out to be on the same day as a music festival, so I got to witness the spectacle of what seemed like the entire country’s under-25 population doing crazy stuff to weird music, paying exorbitant prices for small portions of grub, paying for a chance to relieve oneself in the bathroom (I used the one in Delifrance instead; yes, Delifrances start appearing once you travel Eastwards from France), and purchasing and drinking so much beer that the ground turned incredibly muddy from all that spilled beer.
I don’t like the weather in the Netherlands, but then again, I might just have been unlucky. Still, it reminded me a lot of England. A depressing and cloud-laden sky. Now my favorite kind of sky is a clear blue one, even in sweltering Singapore.
Besides the weather, I found the ‘suburbs’ of Amsterdam depressing. This doesn’t only apply to the areas surrounding Amsterdam, but to all the parts of the country that weren’t built before the 20th century. Perhaps this great weather of theirs inspired them to conjure up equally unappealing buildings, looking extremely dull and resembling parts of a hospital complex. I really don’t know how to describe it, but my heart sank at the sight of those buildings (and there are quite a few, once you get out of the city centre). They looked like they belonged behind the Iron Curtain, and they all looked Orwellian, unimaginative and nothing more than functional architecture.