North and South
February 8, 2011 7 Comments
“How different could it be?”
When I came to the Netherlands in 2007, I already knew, to some extent, what to expect. I’d visited my Dutch boyfriend three or four times before, so I knew the basics of life already: what the big supermarkets were, how to use a strippenkaart, and how to ride a bike. His never-ending commentary on Dutch culture prepared me well for my first job, which was in Leiden—I knew how to celebrate birthdays, and the importance of coffee breaks. In Leiden, I got a taste of the Dutch reputation for zuinigheid, and my time on the train exposed me to the whimsical Dutch fashion sense.
I was commuting between Nijmegen, which is a scant 18 km from the German border just north of Limburg, to Leiden, which is just a little farther east than Amsterdam. I did this every day, for a whopping total of 120 km of rail, or four hours a day, for seventeen months. This sort of schedule can be murder, especially during the summer, when the trains suffer from an electrische storing every other day (or so it seemed). So it was just as well that my contract with Leiden was not a permanent one. After it expired, I was able to find another job in Maastricht, in the southern province of Limburg—also two hours by train from Nijmegen. I knew I would have to take an apartment there during the week to keep my sanity. When I told my boyfriend this, he gave me an odd smile, and said, “Well, Maastricht isn’t really Dutch.” So did every Dutch person I told.
But nobody could tell me why this was the case, or what they meant by it. I knew about the Limburg dialect, and I knew a little bit about the history of Limburg—how it was ceded to the Dutch in the nineteenth-century—but none of this really explained why or how Maastricht could be so different from the rest of the Netherlands. The first time I went to Maastricht to sign my contract, then, I was expecting people to be wearing lederhosen or have purple hair—well, not really, but something to differentiate themselves from the Dutch. Needless to say, my first impressions of Maastricht were far more flattering to the city and the people, and Maastricht is still my favorite city in the Netherlands.
At first, it was rather difficult to pinpoint exactly how Maastricht isn’t really Dutch. The scions of Dutch consumerism—the Albert Heijn, the HEMA, the V&D, the Blokker—are all there. The vishandel sells kibbeling like in Nijmegen, and the shops still close at 18.00. The contract that I worked under was pretty much the same contract as I’d had in Leiden: full-time, in a lab. My coworkers, as in Leiden, never hesitated to give me a piece of their minds. When you work in the sciences, as I do, many of your coworkers will be international, probably more so than most, so the language barrier wasn’t really an issue. If anything, the language barriers are smaller in Maastricht. Due to the relatively large international population, everybody speaks English—and indeed, if your Dutch deviates from the standard in any way, you will get strange looks and then “English?” For some reason my botched pronunciations can pass muster in Nijmegen, but rarely gets understood in Maastricht.
I had to go to Rotterdam, and then Amsterdam, to fully comprehend just how different Maastricht is from the north. Certainly there are the cosmetic differences: the waffles (or lack thereof–north) and stroopwaffels (or lack thereof–Maastricht); brick streets versus cobblestone; austere Protestant churches contrasting with the opulent design of Catholic cathedrals. Perhaps the biggest difference, on the surface, is the restraint of OP=OP and SOLDEZ signs—you actually have to look a little to find them, and they take second place to the antiquated architecture of the city.
What ultimately sets Maastricht apart from the rest of the Netherlands has nothing to do with these superficial traits—if you go to smaller villages such as Blokzijl, in that vast expanse of polder land between Utrecht and Groningen, you’ll see nothing that begins to approach the frenetic pace of Amsterdam. But Blokzijl is still, unmistakably, Very Dutch. The difference lies in the je ne sais quoi that makes New York different from Philadelphia from Paris—that mysterious thing called “atmosphere”.
It’s said, for instance, that life is slower and that people are more relaxed in Maastricht, and I will not dispute that part of the charm of Maastricht is the aesthetic appeal, inviting you to slow down and drink in the beautiful sights (and smells—the food!). The emphasis on pleasure—good food and drink, fine clothing, delicate jewelry—and living life well, as opposed to enduring one’s time on this earthly plane, also contributes to the attitude difference. But I think there’s another component to this: over the last decade or so, the Dutch have been experiencing an ugly side of themselves that they’ve never had to deal with before—the limits of their famed tolerance. The Van Gogh stabbing brought the questions of acceptance and tolerance to the national conscience in a way that had never been addressed before: how, exactly, does a society engage in a conversation with people who insist on being “outside”? And what exactly does “outside” mean, anyway? Who’s “in”, and who’s not? It’s my guess that people are not liking the answers they are finding, if they find any at all.
This fear is missing Maastricht, but not because the people here have reconciled themselves to an international existence. For all the city likes to tout how many internationals live and work in Maastricht, it neglects to mention that many Limburgers also voted for Geert Wilders*, best known for his xenophobic views. I don’t think the region is any more or less hostile than any other place in the world, but more that Maastricht and Limburg have never wrestled with the question of what it means to be Dutch, because for most of history, the region simply was not Dutch. Limburgers know who they are, and they’re cool with it, even if the rest of the world isn’t.
I think that’s what I like about Maastricht: it’s not Dutch, it’s not Belgian, or German, or French. Maastricht is Maastricht, a city forging its own identity, and totally at ease with itself, and therefore not caring who’s German or Romanian or Chinese or Sudanese. I’ve never really fit any singular descriptions, either, not in the US, not here. In Maastricht, I see a city like me, part of the Netherlands, but not quite Dutch.
By Judy Lin
Judy Lin lives in Nijmegen and works in Maastricht, and writes the blog Outside Looking In. She is an expat from Philadelphia.
*: I must confess that I don’t really quite see what’s so terrible about the guy—but then again, I used to live in the country that violently opposed a mosque and tried to repeal the desperately-needed health care reform. So my idea of “right-wing extremism” probably isn’t the most accurate.