Between 2009 and 2013 VVV, the Dutch Tourist Office, handed out prize to the most welcoming and hospitable city in the Netherlands. Four out of five times, Den Bosch won this prize. We can all agree: ‘s-Hertogenbosch is an incredibly charming, quaint and welcoming town. Yet once a year, most people from Den Bosch would rather ditch all visitors from outside the city; during Carnival, it’s painfully obvious who’s from ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and who isn’t. A few weeks ago, InDeBuurt published an article why people from outside the region are so unwanted. The article, called Why we don’t want to see people from above the rivers during carnival, explains that people from the north (in Dutch: van boven de rivieren/from above the rivers) don’t seem to understand carnival, and just use it as an excuse to get wasted. Many of the cultural differences in the Netherlands are influenced by geography, and today, I’ll try to explain why such a small country, has so many different cultures.
In 2011 and 2013, Dutch dating website Parship conducted a study on sexy dialects in the Netherlands. Around 40% of the respondents, both men and women agreed that Brabants was the sexiest accent in The Netherlands. Obviously, it is incredibly appealing. Especially one feature of the Brabantine accent was unequivocally mentioned as the most entrancing: the soft ⟨g⟩, a phonological phenomenon of the pronunciation of the letters ⟨g⟩ and ⟨ch⟩. As many of you know, the ⟨g⟩ and ⟨ch⟩ are pronounced the same in Dutch (except when it comes to weird toponyms such as Gorinchem, which for some reason, is pronounced as /gorkum/). In the north, or above the rivers, ⟨g⟩ and ⟨ch⟩ sound like the noise you make when you’re choking on a peanut. In the south, or below the rivers, the ⟨g⟩ and ⟨ch⟩ are pronounced like an Englishman would pronounce it.
A common misconception among many people is that everyone from Brabant speaks the with this adorable accent. Yet even within the dialect, there are regional differences that make this map a gross oversimplification: in the western part of Brabant and Antwerp (Belgium) people do choke over those ugly letters.
I think we’ve covered this quite extensively already, although I do have to stress that a) Carnival is about more than just getting drunk, it’s about letting your inhibitions and worries go for a few days. b) Northeners migrate to the south to celebrate carnival, or at least they try to. c) There are a few catholic enclaves above the rivers that celebrate carnival, although most southerners would agree that what they’re doing isn’t the real deal. d) There is a huge difference between burgundian carnival and rhinelandic carnival,which ironically, has little to do with Burgundy.
Let’s make it a little bit more confusing: there is a separate cultural group between the north and the south: the Dutch Bible Belt. In Dutch, it’s also known as de bijbelgordel and de refoband. This small strip of orthodox christianity has its roots in the 19th century. Most of the people living in the bible belt, vote SGP, the orthodox calvinist party that opposes gay marriage, freedom of religion, universal suffrage, abortion, equality between men and women, the use of technology on sundays and euthanasia. This strip of land found its identity in the 19th century, when the Netherlands installed a liberal (i.e. pro freedom, anti government involvement) constitution, allowing all religions of the Netherlands to build churches. Many orthodox christians in the Netherlands believed that the calvinist leaders of the country were becoming too free and were swerving away from the Word of God. In the 1860’s, they founded their own politico-denominational pillar in Dutch society. This reactionary part of Dutch society looks similar to the rest of Dutch society, but it’s slightly different in many aspects. British novelist J.P. Hartley once wrote: “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The same goes for the Dutch Bible Belt, in many aspects, it’s a foreign country and they do things differently there. Many orthodox christians refuse to vaccinate on biblical grounds, oppose blood transfusions and deny CPR, believing all is in God’s hands, although in the last few years, the vaccination rate has gone up. Ironically, the upper class of Rotterdam seems to be less favourable of vaccinating their offspring. Whether this comes from their proximity to the Bible Belt, or because of the recent ridiculous trend in not vaccinating your children, is unknown.
Have you ever seen mountains in The Netherlands? Neither have we. According to the UN, a land mass can be considered a mountain if it has an elevation of 300 meters, with a 300 meter elevation range within 7 kilometers. According to that definition, the Vaalserberg in Limburg is in fact a mountain, and therefore the Netherlands have a mountain. The Vaalserberg however, is the sight of a tripoint between The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany (and formerly a quadripoint between The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany/Prussia and Neutral Moresnet). The Germans and the Belgians call Vaalserberg a bump in the road.
What’s the highest point of North Brabant, one wonders. This blog about mountains in The Netherlands sounds comical already, but it even gets worse: the high point in Brabant is a former land fill between the villages of Nuene en Geldrop. At 60 meters tall, it’s probably not something you want to see. The highest natural point is a forest near Luyksgestel, at 44 meters. To make matters even more laughable: in the man-made province of Flevoland, the highest point is the slope of a bridge, at 14 meters. Take your time to laugh at us, it’s ok, we can handle it.
The Netherlands houses about 17 million people, making it the most densily populated countries in the world, and the most densily populated country in the EU, after Malta. The most populous area is the Randstad, a megolopolis between Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht. It’s the home of the Port of Rotterdam, the biggest seaport in the EU, Schiphol Airport, one of the biggest airports in Europe, and around 7 of the 17 million people of the Netherlands. The Randstad (lit. rim city) is more than just a populous area: when people think of Holland or the Dutch culture, they generally refer to the culture of this region. You’ve read all about the difference between the Netherlands and Holland in this blog, so we won’t cover it any further.
On land reclamation:
Probably one of the coolest maps in relation to the Netherlands, is this map. For centuries, the Dutch have expanded their territory. Not by conquering other countries, but by simply claiming (and therefore) reclaiming land from the sea. The history of the Netherlands is intrinsically linked to the history of the sea, of storms, and of calamities due to the rising sea level. Although the province of North Brabant has only seen a little land reclamation in the 18th and 19th century, it’s still an interesting process. One way to fight back the many storms that the country has suffered -like the North Sea flood of 1953– is by reclaiming what was once sea. The biggest reclamation project in the Netherlands is the creation of the country’s 12th province, Flevoland, which was created in the 20th century. TenneT, a transmission system operator, is even considering building an energy island between the Netherlands, Denmark and the UK, in order to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. A few years ago, a journalist and former cyclist wanted to build a mountain in the Netherlands, so that people wouldn’t have to leave to country to go skiing. Insane, right? Obviously it never happened.
Now you know a little bit more about the Netherlands. You know about our highlights and high land marks (for instance the 14 meter slope in Flevoland), why we used to have 11 provinces instead of 12, what the difference is between above the rivers and below the rivers and a lot more. All this combined, means that every 10 kilometer you travel in this country, you’ll find a new culture, with a different history and a different dialect!