Typical (old-) Dutch: Mondriaan mentality

‘I’m having three birthday parties’, a friend sighed wearily.
Illustration: Henk van Ruitenbeek

‘One for family and a few close friends that know the family, one for the neighbours, and one for my tennis club friends. For my colleagues I’ll bring cakes in for the coffee break, of course’. I was a bit surprised. Why not throw one big party for everyone? Wouldn’t your tennis buddies enjoy meeting your colleagues, your family like to get to know your neighbours? And if you’re so tired at the thought of organizing all this, give yourself a real birthday treat and just take your best friend to the cinema instead.

The Dutch organize their lives like a Mondriaan painting

 Life’s not that simple if you’re Dutch. Besides the different birthday customs involved, I was intrigued by my friend’s apparent wish to keep the different groups in her life apart. This turned out to be quite a theme in Dutch culture. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first. Then another expat suggested the Dutch liked to organize their lives like a Mondriaan painting: clear-cut compartments separated by thick lines. It’s not just about friendship groups. It was a principle that used to order Dutch society: verzuiling or ‘pillarization’: an embodiment of the idea that good fences make good neighbours. Nowadays, luckily, the church you belong to no longer determines which milkman you patronize. It used to though, and it may still affect which school you or your kids go to. But the world is changing, and the Netherlands too. Just look at the international WUR. Mondriaan meets Kandinsky?

Clare McGregor, translator with Resource. This Typical (old) Dutch was first published on 19 November 2009

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