I'm not in Minnesota anymore...

Yesterday, as the husband and I were heading into the supermarket to buy groceries, a parade of children streamed down the sidewalks holding lanterns and singing a song. Later in the evening, I could hear more voices singing songs outside, moving closer and closer to our apartment until they sounded like they were right outside. The next thing I knew, the doorbell rang ... and I froze.

"Lady, I have a feeling we're not in Minnesota anymore," I said to my cat (yes, I have been known to talk to my cat).

Apparently, November 11 is the Feast of Saint Martin, or Sint-Maarten as it is called in the Netherlands. When the night sky falls, children parade from door to door, singing songs and carrying their colorful lanterns and hoping neighbors will give them some candy or fruit. Their hopes must have been shattered when they reached our door. Because I was completely unaware of this tradition and equally as unprepared, I just hid inside my apartment.

It has now been almost five months since I moved to the Netherlands and this was the first time that I felt completely out of my element. For some reason it never occurred to me that I would find myself in the midst of a cultural tradition I knew nothing about. I had prepared myself for less enthusiasm about Halloween. I have decided to throw a Thanksgiving dinner for some friends as to not miss out on what is probably my favorite holiday of all time. But new holidays jumping out and surprising me? I just wasn't really expecting that.

As I huddled on my couch, wrapped in a blanket and accompanied by my sweet, purring kitten, I started to think of the other things that have caught me off guard or that I've starting getting used to since my arrival. The culture shock that I've experienced here was nothing like what I endured during my time teaching in South Korea -- like when people would stop in their tracks and stare at me as I walk down the street -- but there certainly are some differences.

The Dutch kiss hello.

To greet a friend in the Netherlands, you give three kisses on the cheek, alternating back and forth. Most of the time you just touch cheeks and pretend to kiss, but every so often you meet someone who really goes for it and gives you the real thing. Women will always kiss those they are meeting or greeting, but men will only give kisses to women. The humorous thing about kissing is that in Amsterdam, a city full of expatriates, there is a conglomeration of kissing customs. For example, many countries in Europe only give two kisses, so the going for that third one has the possibility of resulting in an awkward situation. Personally, and despite the occasional awkwardness, I enjoy this custom. The few times that I forget to kiss and put my hand out for a good old-fashioned shake, it ends up feeling very impersonal. It was also really great to receive all of our wedding guests by kissing as well, though after 200 or so kisses, my cheeks were pretty sore from all the puckering.

The Dutch rarely smile back.

I smile at strangers. I always have and I probably always will. In Minnesota, especially in the suburbs where I grew up, it was very common to smile at passersby when on a walk or bike ride. That said, it's only natural for me to do the same here when I make eye contact with someone on the street. But here, such smiles are not returned. It's quite the opposite actually. I've received scowls, frowns and looks of confusion in return. Even when I'm nannying and I notice someone smiling at the cute child I'm pushing in a stroller, they still won't extend the smile to me. I suppose it's possible that I'm just the oddball that will smile at anyone, but I'm going to stand strong by my belief that smiling back is relatively painless and just might make your day better.

Your spot in line is sacred.
Another reason I find the lack of smiling back so strange is due to the fact that other courtesies are offered freely. For example, the other day I was waiting in line at the supermarket when I realized I had forgotten something. It was the after-work rush and the lines were long, but I had no other choice than to step out of line, grab the item I needed, and find a new place in line. Much to my surprise, the woman who was originally behind me noticed me in the back and graciously invited me back to my place in line. I was absolutely baffled by this gesture and even more surprised that it came with a smile. Imagine my embarrassment then, when I realized that I had forgotten another item and once again had to step out of line (apparently I was a tad bit forgetful that day), and the following surprise when the man behind her (she was now checking out) invited me back in line upon my return. At first I thought it was just a fluke, but since that day I have noticed time and again that the rule of the line is strongly enforced.

Dutch parents are relaxed parents.

Ok, so I'm pretty sure that Dutch parents wouldn't pick up their child like in the graphic above, but I have to say that I've been quite surprised by how lax parents can be in the Netherlands. The first time I noticed this was this summer when I saw naked children playing in a fountain (for the record, there are lots and I mean lots of naked children here in the summer). I'd say that the children were between the ages of one and four years, and many of them were walking around as the parents engaged in conversations with others, seemingly oblivious to what their children were doing. I saw one child just take off and start playing behind a tree, naked as the day she was born, and no one seemed to notice. Now, I personally think the whole naked thing is something to be embraced. The kids all looked pretty darn happy to be playing in the water and the openness toward nudity in European cultures is something that helps foster a healthy body image. However, I think if I had a child -- especially one that was just barely walking -- I'd keep a closer eye on him/her as they frolicked in the water.

This more relaxed style of parenting came to my attention again when the husband and I ran into one of his coworkers and her family at the Amsterdam Roots Festival. They had just come from the kids' area, and their son was eager to show off his new creation: a person riding a bicycle made of wire. Apparently, the kids were given metal wire and tools to cut and bend the wire into the shape they desired. She laughed as she commented on how an activity like this probably wouldn't be accepted in the States (where her partner is from), and as she explained that the other activity included a wooden table of hammers and nails for children to pound away.

I admittedly didn't witness this activity myself, but I couldn't help but think back to the naked children running in the fountain and imagine a similar scene -- this time with hammers, nails and a wire cutter. It's all just so different than what is considered acceptable in the States where kids are constantly being watched and protected. It actually reminds me of the stories I heard from my mom's childhood, when she and her siblings would leave home in the morning and come back for dinner with minimal supervision in between. And I must say, my mom turned out great. Maybe more relaxed isn't so bad.

So, there you have some of my first impressions of the Dutch. I'm sure there will be more to come in the following months!


Photo credits:
Women standing in a picket line reading the newspaper PM by Kheel Center (CC-BY-2.0)


  1. Love this - so crazy how much things are different! I honestly can't imagine letting Eli run around naked playing with nails and wire! :)

  2. So fun to read! And, I am happy you think your old mom turned out okay :)
    Keep the posts coming, keep smiling whether they smile back at you and keep being a Cutie Pie! Let's Skype soon! xoxo

  3. So funny to read this Brit. Bob and I just spent Sunday at a St. Martin's Lantern parade at the Landmark center in St. Paul. Tony and Catherine brought the boys and we tagged along. It was a big deal in Vienna as well, but I don't think they went door to door asking for treats:) Had never heard of it till last year.
    Sounds like you are in good spirits and taking this all in stride! I still think a smile can go a long way, even when someone scowls back at you!!

    1. How fun! I bet it's great to have Ben and the boys back in MN! Thanks for reading. And I'll keep smiling ... don't worry :)