Opinion pieces, columns and insights into Dutch news and current affairs from key commentators


How to go Dutch: The waiting continues as the stakes are unexpectedly raised

Five years ago Molly Quell moved to the Netherlands with her husband, an academic, for a short-term project. Now she’s single, has fallen in love with the country and finds herself in the unexpected position of having to integrate. Read the first, second and third parts of her series. Well, I did it. I have officially passed all five sections of my inburgeringsexamen. Four language sections (reading, writing, speaking and listening) and the infamous culture exam. Before anyone jumps in with: ‘Well, now you should speak Dutch!’ and immediately switches to some complicated narrative in their regional dialect, this exam does not prove I am fluent in Dutch. It proves I can pass a standardised exam about a basic level of Dutch. In my third instalment, I had already passed Reading and Listening. In the three months since I have added Writing, Speaking and Culture to the pass list. Exam results But first I had to wait. Because in the Year of Our Lord 2016 the Dutch authorities send the test papers in a rocket to Mars and Elon Musk has to build a human colony there before they can be reviewed, results take eight weeks to come through. Despite being warned that this was the case, I compulsively checked the website for my results, starting two days after I’d taken each exam. The website itself doesn’t tell you your score, only if you passed – so once I’d discovered I’d passed, I then anxiously waited for the letter with my numerical score. Under duress, I will confess my scores here. Straight 9s with one 10 in Reading. Anyone who has heard me speak Dutch (which is a handful of Belgians and an Albert Heijn cashier in Amsterdam, once) is aware that this demonstrates just what a poor job the exams do of assessing one's actual ability to speak Dutch. As I said before, all it proves is that I can pass a Dutch exam. Exam practice As I had suspected, writing and speaking were the most challenging elements. The biggest challenge, for me, was that you couldn’t really take a practice exam. Reading, Listening and Culture are all multiple choice, so in my preparations I took a number of practice papers and had a good sense going into the actual exam that I would pass. Writing is an actual written exam (on actual paper) and for Speaking, you must record your spoken answers to be graded later by an examiner. As such, the best I could get for feedback was to have my Dutch instructor and unlucky Dutch friends grade my responses. For the writing exam was relatively straightforward: you print the practice exams, you take them, you give them to someone to grade. The Speaking exam proved to be more difficult, since you can’t send your recorded answers via the practice exam system. Instead, I recorded my answers via WhatsApp and sent it off. Shout out to my friend Paul, who was subjected to my 35 answers to questions such as “What do you think of the weather in the Netherlands?” and “What is your favourite thing to cook?” Dutch culture My final exam was Culture, which I left until last because, well, it’s supposed to be terrible. Everyone who has taken the Culture exam has their favourite absurd question. Mine involved a worker who felt he was being maligned by a colleague. First, you watch a short video clip of two men working on an assembly line. One of them, Ali, who is darker skinned, is working next to his blonde-haired, blue-eyed colleague Jeroen. Jeroen appears to be avoiding Ali’s attempts at conversation. Ali thinks that this is because his colleague is racist and is unsure what to do. Your options are: Ali should speak to the company director Ali should speak to his wife Ali should speak to his colleagues. Since you're not given the answers, I still have no idea what the correct response is. Feel free to comment below with your thoughts. Comedian Greg Shapiro has written extensively about the various absurd questions on the culture exam if you’d like to see more. I accidentally scheduled this final exam for the day after the US elections. Being both an American and a person who doesn’t want to spend the rest of their life living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, I was deeply unhappy with the election results. Being a journalist, I had several stories to file about the election results. Being a crazy person, I stayed up all night to watch the election results. It started out fine, with a group of friends drinking beer and watching the news, but as the night dragged on and the outcome became more and more inevitable, the crowd slowly drifted away. I took a short nap at 8:00 in the morning, filed my stories and then got on my bike to head to the test centre. The stakes for the exam results were suddenly a bit higher. At the counter, looking like a person who has had 30 minutes of sleep, I handed my ID off to the testing official. He glanced at it. Glanced up at me. Glanced back at it. Glanced up at me and leaned forward. Then he whispered, 'I’m sorry'. 'Ik ook,' I replied. The next step Now that I have successfully passed all of the required (I think, though I’ll only believe it when the IND sends me my permanent residency card), I had to prepare my permanent residency application. The form itself is 18 pages and required everything from copies of my passport to a letter from my employer. Ultimately, I mailed the IND 68 pages of supporting documentation proving that I am a good citizen, that I passed my exams, that I am financially secure, that I have a job and that I eat both cheese and hagelslag. Since the IND system is an old-fashioned paper one, I had my short video demonstrating my enjoyment of cheese printed into a flip book. I anticipate this will be sufficient. Two weeks later (much faster, incidentally, than it took for the exam results to arrive) I got a letter from IND confirming my application and a request to pay them a lot of money to process it. With that final bit arranged, now I wait. Again. Molly will update us with her progress in the spring, when her application is processed.   More >


Nice work if you can get it – no wonder so many 20-somethings still live at home

Most people in their early 20s are not financially independent – which is hardly surprising when you consider how few of them have real jobs, writes DutchNews.nl editor Robin Pascoe. A while ago Dutch newspaper Trouw published a report which found that only 25% of 20 to 25-year-olds in the Netherlands can support themselves financially nowadays, compared with 45% at the turn of the millennium. As a parent of two sons in that age group, I can only nod in agreement and mail the link to all the other parents I know who are bewailing the fact their offspring are still turning to the Bank of Mum and Dad. Independence You know that when your 23-year-old son rings on a Monday morning, he’s not after a jolly chat. The conversation always starts with 'Hello mum, how are you?'. To which my reply is inevitably 'How much?' It’s a scenario that has everyone with children in their 20s nodding and reminiscing about how gloriously independent we were in our day. But it would be wrong to say that my children are not doing their bit. They work and always have done: stacking shelves in our local organic supermarket for the princely sum of €2.30 an hour, delivering leaflets door to door for a few spare euros, carrying coffins at funerals, flipping burgers on boats, manual labour… everything they can to keep down the student loan to a more manageable size and pay the bills. But now they are graduates, or nearly graduates, things are changing. The world of eternal internships looms. Working a 40-hour week for expenses of €300 a month is far from unusual. So how can you pay the rent, your health insurance, your dry cleaning (a sharp suit being compulsory for your office-based work experience) and go out for the occasional beer without a handout from the most reliable of banks – the one based at your parents’ kitchen table? Start-ups Of course, there is the ever-popular option these days of going it alone: founding your own company and becoming that most glamorous of persons, a start-up entrepreneur. Start-ups are so achingly hip. Every Dutch city wants to be a start-up hub. And they all seem to rely on interns who are expected to take on grand job titles for pocket money, a pat on the head and the glory of being exploited by a company with a silly name. The government sees start-ups as the key to future economic growth and job creation. Unless, of course, they are looking for an endless supply of interns to make sure operations keep ticking over. Those 20-somethings struggling to earn their keep could do worse than join the ranks of start-up entrepreneurs. There are lots of initiatives out there to help get them started. And who knows, a loan from the Bank of Mum and Dad might even lead to great things – and a decent return on our investment.  More >


The strange death of the Dutch Labour Party

The Dutch Labour party (PvdA) might be part of the current coalition government, but its support has plummeted since the last election. Gordon Darroch examines the party's collapse. Just before Christmas the Dutch parliament gave Diederik Samsom the kind of send-off reserved for much-loved colleagues who are moving on after a spat with the management. Most MPs joined in a standing ovation for the departing Labour (PvdA) leader, who was praised by parliamentary chair (and party colleague) Khadija Arib as ‘indefatigable and combative’, ‘the type who pointedly refuses to accept that there are only 24 hours in a day’. Prime minister Mark Rutte, whose full term in office owes much to Samsom’s ability to keep his party on side, commended him as a man of his word who had instrumental in putting the economy back on course. Samsom himself contended, in his swansong speech, that the economic recovery ‘should silence the cynics for all time’. So why was Samsom quitting parliament, having been deposed as party leader in a contest that he brought on his own head? The immediate reason is obvious: the PvdA is haemorrhaging support. At the last election four years ago Samsom almost single-handedly steered the party out of the doldrums to win 38 seats, more than double the number the opinion polls predicted at the start of the campaign. His combative style and articulate case for a ‘social’ solution to the economic crisis made him the star of the television debates and took the PvdA to a close second place behind Rutte’s Liberals (VVD). On current projections it could be down to single figures when the votes are counted next March. Policy programme From the outset, Labour found itself bound to a policy programme with a distinct Liberal flavour. The leitmotiv of Rutte’s second cabinet has been to shift the focus of accountability from the state to the individual. The welfare state was repackaged as a ‘participation society’ in which everyone, including the elderly, disabled and sick, was expected to do more for themselves on fewer resources. Responsibility for administering these services was transferred from central government to the municipalities, fulfilling the small-state dream of the fiscally conservative VVD. Funding for the arts was slashed. The increase in the pension age, one of the last acts of Rutte’s first cabinet, was confirmed and extended. The ambitious plan to put the Netherlands in the vanguard of renewable energy is being bankrolled not by central government, but by consumers through their power bills. Many of these measures were devised and enacted by PvdA ministers such as Lodewijk Asscher and Jeroen Dijsselbloem. But in doing so they had to sacrifice a large part of the PvdA’s raison d’etre. Samsom had promised a ‘social way’ out of the recession; in practice the economy recovered, but society became more polarised and fragmented. And the voters who had rallied behind the party in the summer of 2012 simply drifted away. In the most recent opinion polls Labour was projected to score as little as 7% of the vote, compared to the 25% share Samsom achieved four years ago. Despite being under little serious pressure in his party, Samsom called a leadership election, hoping to shore up his position and revive the party’s fortunes before March. But Samsom’s success in 2012 had been eclipsed by the unremitting decline that followed. The party faithful no longer believed in their saviour. Instead they chose Asscher, the deputy prime minister who was brought into government on Samsom’s recommendation. Aboutaleb NRC’s political commentator Tom-Jan Meeus speculated recently in an article for Politico Europe that Labour might have saved itself if Rotterdam’s mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb, had been persuaded to run for the leadership in the spring. Some senior PvdA figures, including Dijsselbloem, suspected Aboutaleb of putting his own ambitions before the party and in the end, Meeus writes, the mayor decided not to put his reputation for integrity on the line. I wonder if Aboutaleb didn’t simply take a more practical view, namely that not even he could rescue the PvdA from its current predicament. Labour’s downfall has been cataclysmic. Some national polls have the party in eighth place. In the local elections two years ago it lost control of Amsterdam for the first time since 1949. Cities that were once impregnable Labour fortresses, such as Groningen and Nijmegen, fell to its rivals – chiefly the ‘soft’ liberal D66 group. In many ways Samsom’s achievement in 2012 was a blip that obscured a long-term malaise. The PvdA’s working-class voter base has splintered. The white working classes have thrown in their lot with Geert Wilders’s PVV or the Socialists. Metropolitan progressives have switched to D66. Older workers, anxious about the erosion of their pensions, put their faith in 50Plus, which is the latest party to overtake the PvdA in the polls. And minority ethnic voters are dumping the party for Denk, a new party formed by two ex-Labour MPs, of whom more presently. Economics In a recent television interview, Samsom commented that ‘one of the paradoxical developments [of the last five years] is that as conditions have improved in this country, increasing numbers of people, with increasing anger, have perceived that they are not sharing enough in that progress.’ But the situation is only paradoxical to a politician who focuses on the economic figures. Unemployment has fallen from 700,000 to 500,000 in the last two years, but at the same time the proportion of permanent contracts has fallen to less than 75%. The casualisation of the workforce has continued apace. Many people coming back into work are on short-term or flexible contracts where they were previously employed full-time, and now have a reduced pension and a later retirement age. The cost of greater prosperity in a Liberal-led age has been greater insecurity. Samsom accepted that the economic improvement had so far mainly benefited people with jobs who owned their own homes. Those who feel left behind include much of the PvdA’s core support. Identity crisis Demographic changes have hurt the party too. Meeus writes that the Netherlands has entered the era of identity politics, but perhaps Labour’s bigger problem is that it is grounded in a form of identity that people no longer recognise. For years the PvdA hoovered up migrant votes, because most migrants identified as working class. Increasingly nowadays, however, the fault lines are between communities, shaped by Wilders’s fixation with the ‘Moroccan problem’ and the late onset of the debate on race relations. Historically the PvdA was the most diverse group in parliament, reflecting its support among minority voters. But under Samsom’s leadership two of his six minority MPs, Tunahan Kuzu and Selçuk Öztürk, split from the party following a bitter row with Asscher and formed DENK, chipping away another layer from Labour’s support base. Shift to the left It remains to be seen whether Lodewijk Asscher can revive the PvdA’s fortunes as spectacularly his predecessor did five years ago. He has already signalled a shift to the left with a pledge of a new 60% tax band for people earning over €150,000 a year and an increase in corporation tax. The extra money raised would be interested in elderly care and raising wages for low earners, in a clear bid to restore Labour’s core vote. Asscher also plans to use the Brexit negotiations to argue for reforms to freedom of movement within the EU so foreign workers are no longer brought in purely to push down wages. Asscher is admired as a behind-the-scenes negotiator, but that is unlikely to cut much ice in the heat of an election campaign. As deputy prime minister he is arguably even more closely associated with Rutte’s policies than Samsom. And given his role in DENK’s breakaway, it seems optimistic to expect him to win back the confidence of minority voters. One of the Dutch folk tales I learned growing up was the story of the little boy who sticks his finger in a dyke to stop his village flooding. It’s a simple tale that seems to epitomise the Dutch spirit of pulling together for the common good. Only recently did I learn that the story was the creation of an American children’s author and far less well known in the Netherlands. But perhaps it’s an apt image for the fall of Samsom, who plugged the dyke but couldn’t save himself from being swept away by the tide. This column was first published on Gordon Darroch's blog Words for Press  More >


I’m tolerant – and don’t tell me otherwise

I’m tolerant – and don’t tell me otherwise

Think you’re no stranger to the pitfalls of cognitive bias? Think again, says social psychologist Marjoka van Doorn. Pitfall 1: Intolerant? It’s them, not me! When I was writing my PhD thesis on tolerance, people would frequently come to me with stories of intolerance in others: Muslims repressing women, PVV members protesting against immigration, civil servants refusing to marry same-sex couples. Why not write a thesis about that, they would ask rather pointedly. As I was researching intolerance towards Muslims in the Netherlands it was invariably pointed out to me that Muslims were far from tolerant themselves. These conversations had one thing in common: it was always the other party who was painted as the intolerant one. The speakers themselves were clearly the epitome of tolerance. Someone who thinks that people who protest against the arrival of an asylum seekers centre in their neighbourhood are intolerant is apparently positive about immigration, but at the same time intolerant towards those who think otherwise. I came across as much intolerance against Muslims as against PVV members in the course of my research. That’s the trouble with tolerance: we accept what we believe in but reject ways of life, outlooks and preferences we don’t share. So there we are: we are tolerant and intolerant according to what or who we are judging. Tolerance is not accepting refugees, it is accepting the fact that others may protest against their presence. It is high time we recognised the intolerance in ourselves. Only then can we begin to understand how difficult is it to turn around intolerance in others. Pitfall 2: It’s nobody’s business but my own Tolerance can be regarded as a common good, like the environment, food safety and health care. We all benefit from it and we all contribute to it financially. Here’s an example. Separating household waste is a fiddly job. It takes time to go to the bottle bank, I have a smelly container in my kitchen, all of which puts me in a bad mood. But I do it all the same because in the long term it serves everybody’s interest. The gain, i.e. a clean environment, outweighs my own short-term ‘pain’. The same is true of tolerance. It is difficult to accept opinions and groups in society you don’t agree with. So why should I? But again, an investment in tolerance, i.e. the acceptance of opinions that are not mine, serve the common good in the long term. I live in a society which puts diversity in opinion and the freedom to think and do what you like above state controlled uniformity. My appreciation of this freedom means I must allow my opponent, with whom I wholeheartedly and passionately disagree, the same measure of freedom. Pitfall 3: If we don’t eradicate intolerance our tolerant values will come under threat. How far should we tolerate intolerant opinions? At what point does tolerance towards intolerance start to damage our free, open and democratic society? People are worried and rightly so when women are being sexually harassed in Cologne, imams are preaching hatred and gays are being beaten up. And yet the greatest danger posed is not the intolerance of some minorities. A much greater threat is the suppression of opinions which are being labelled as undesirable by a majority of people. A democratic society not only means that the majority decides but that the rights of minorities are protected as well, especially the right of minorities to have their own opinions. Christians as well as conservative Muslims have the right to reject homosexuality. As long as the line between thinking and acting (rejection is not the same as discrimination) is clearly drawn everyone is free to think whatever they want in this country. You may not like it but you cannot ban it. And certainly not in the name of tolerance. Pitfall 4: We must impose our norms and values In Scandinavia, and in the Netherlands as well, reactions to the sexual harassment of women in Cologne included proposals for a mandatory course for asylum seekers in ‘Western’ (sexual) norms and values. Asylum seekers find this humiliating. They are not against Western norms and values, they only reserve the right to have a different opinion on, for instance, the position of women in marriage. Often the right to think and live the way they wanted is one of the things that was taken away in their country of origin. The moral acceptability of telling people how to live and what to believe is doubtful. And even if it weren’t nothing was ever achieved by force, quite the contrary. This brings us to the next paradox: promoting tolerance only works if the acceptance of ‘new’ opinions, group norms and values takes place voluntarily. Participation in society and mutual acceptance of differences form the climate in which changes of opinion can and will take place. Showing tolerance, i.e. respecting the opinions of others, is more effective than prescribing tolerance. In a free and democratic society there will always be tensions between groups who disagree and will fight each other tooth and nail. And that is how it should be. It’s the mark of a tolerant country that this tension leads to public and political debate. Intolerant voices also have a place in this debate. Welcome them and show how tolerant you really are. This article was published earlier in the NRC  More >


Short-haul flights? Take the train instead

Short-haul flights? Take the train instead

Tens of thousands of people will be heading back to their homeland from the Netherlands for the Christmas break. And train services must be brought up to scratch to compete with airlines, says Liesbeth van Tongeren, deputy chairwoman of the parliamentary GroenLinks party ‘I would question whether flying to and from Barcelona for €30 is socially acceptable,’ Schiphol director Jos Nijhuis recently said in the NRC. ‘Personally I think it isn’t. I am in favour of stronger competition from fast trains for short-haul flights to places like Paris, London and Berlin. Fewer short-haul flights means Schiphol would have more capacity for long-haul flights.’ It’s not every day that Schiphol and GroenLinks see eye to eye about something. I wholeheartedly agree with Nijhuis. Flying to a Spanish costa for a couple of tenners may be very attractive  but it pollutes the air and contributes to climate change. Fine particulates and noise pollutions plague those living near airports. There is a good case to be made for environmentally friendly alternatives for short flights. The aviation sector has been heavily subsidised by the state for years. Airlines profit from fiscal perks, such as an exemption from VAT and tax on kerosene. Only a very small part of the huge social costs of air travel is reflected in the price of the ticket. Passengers pay a pittance for flights at low-coast airlines but all tax payers are paying for the pollution and other negative consequences for public health and the climate. There is an excellent alternative for short-haul flights: the (international) train. Most European destinations, such as Paris, London and Berlin, can be easily reached by train. Within a radius of 850 kilometres, short flights, including checking in time and waiting around, will not be quicker. The effect on the climate would be enormous: a passenger on a train to Paris will produce about 8 kilograms of the global warming agent carbon dioxide. Were he to make the same journey on a plane he would produce 75 kilograms. High speed network Train travel is still falling short compared to flying when it comes to pricing and service. That must change, especially for European short-haul flights. Schiphol Airport, airlines, Dutch Rail and junior infrastructure minister Sharon Dijksma must combine their efforts to make international rail travel more competitive and attractive. The Netherlands has an excellent high speed network which has been sorely neglected in the wake of the Fyra debacle. But the presence of a high speed network is not enough. Rail travel will have to be competitive both in price and service. Airlines will send your suitcase on to a connecting flight and in case of a delay your flight is rebooked. You can book connecting flights in a single booking. A flight-train combination doesn’t include this service. In order to book an international train journey online you have to google for hours. What we need are reliable, frequent connections, including during the night. This means international night trains need to be brought back. But first and foremost train travel should always be cheaper than short-haul flights. This can be achieved by incorporating the real cost in an airline ticket. Only then can train companies and airlines compete in a level playing field where trains can be considered a serious alternative to planes. Schiphol can become a true green airport if CEO Nijhuis joins forces with GroenLinks to replace short-haul flights with affordable and comfortable train travel.  This article was published earlier in the NRC   More >


Reform the EU and ditch the euro, says SP leader Emile Roemer

Reform the EU and ditch the euro, says SP leader Emile Roemer

Far from being a unifying force the euro has turned out to be a dividing one, breaking down social and democratic rights, writes Socialist Party leader Emile Roemer. At the start of  December 2010, the leaders of 10 European countries came to Maastricht to overhaul Europe. The Maastricht Treaty established the European Union and a steady move towards complete economic, monetary and political union was started. The Maastricht Treaty became solely about budget deficit numbers and national debt numbers. Countries ruled by these numbers are being forced to lower public spending, limit wages and strangle the post-war welfare state. The present EU rules are a straightjacket for countries who favour a social policy. Most people in the Netherlands see a mutual advantage to cooperation with other European countries. But they don’t like to be dictated to. That is why the SP wants to change course in Europe. The European Union is due another overhaul. We want a new kind of cooperation, a new Europe no longer ruled by Brussels and in which member states control their own budgets and have the freedom to instigate  policies which put people first instead of bankers and multinationals. Labour migration Mutually advantageous cooperation means that we tackle the problems caused by labour migration. The Netherlands has half a million unemployed. Meanwhile foreign workers from countries such as Poland are being exploited in all kinds of surreptitious ways, far away from their families and working for a pittance. They are often crammed too many to a room in homes in run-down neighbourhoods. The government misses out some €1.5bn in taxes and premiums. Who profits? It’s companies and employment agencies whose earnings model is based on exploitation.   We say down with the race to the bottom. Wages should go up instead of down and unemployment must be tackled in the interest of workers here and abroad. Euro A new Europe needs an alternative to the euro. It is time to put an end to the mad adventure of forcing countries into a monetary one-size-fits-all while the financial markets are free to operate in any way they like. At the time of the Maastricht Treaty the SP warned that a single currency could only be the result of a broadly supported unification process. Now it has been forced our throats top down. Far from being a unifying force the euro has turned out to be a dividing one, a sledgehammer breaking down social and democratic rights. We want European cooperation. But we want an end to the meddling from Brussels and the insidious move towards a European super state in which multinationals have free reign and citizens find themselves increasingly powerless. This column was published earlier in the AD  More >


The hell of finding a home to rent in the Netherlands

Attempting to rent a home in the Netherlands turned Julia Corbett into a paranoid spammer with stalker tendencies thrown in. She explains how the rot set in. After not one, two or three, but four properties slipped from my fingers I can safely say I have experienced the housing hell in the Netherlands. Our adventure began when my Dutch partner returned home after some years in England and I became a student in the Netherlands. It has been a more bumpy start than expected after experiencing a lack of suitable housing options. From Hilversum to Leerdam and Den Bosch to Busson, I have learnt that luck and timing has more to do with finding a place to rent than most people will feel comfortable with. My Dutch boyfriend of nearly five years took eagerly to the rental sections of housing websites and arranged a day crammed full of viewings of apartments, houses and loft conversions. Having donned a smart outfit and brushed my hair for the encounter with our future landlords, I found myself being scolded for turning up five minutes late to an appointment that lasted no longer than 30 seconds. We dashed in and out of the four rooms in a supermarket sweep-style daze, wondering where our furniture would fit, before we were ushered out and abandoned in the street as our suited agent sped off on his company moped. 'Where is the carpet?!' we cried at our next viewing only to be informed that carpets, paint and exposed piping were a luxury we must solve on our own. Dream evaporates Things seemed to be looking up when we met a new potential landlord, a 94-year-old retired businessman who rowed for 30 minutes every day and had a garden that was more perfectly manicured than the lawns of royalty. Would I like to live in the grounds of a mansion boasting nine deer, six chickens three dogs, a cat and six small caged birds? Yes, absolutely, sign me up! After my partner negotiated an agreement and I chatted to his wife in broken Dutch while being fed home-grown tomatoes, we skipped away from the viewing giddy with excitement. A home, within our budget, complete with lovely landlord. Success! However, our property bubble was swiftly deflated when we tried to initiate the contract process, only for the estate agent to claim our new landlords no longer wanted us as tenants. Our upset turned to anger and paranoia: what was wrong with us? Why were we unworthy of their out-house? Deciding to carry out the somewhat stalkerish task of returning to the owners for answers, we learned that they had been told by the estate agents we were not interested and rented the property to someone else. Saturated market Though I try not to sound bitter about my experience, I have learned that our tale is not at all unusual for those who cannot yet afford to buy but must live independently. The average rental property in Amsterdam now costs €2,000 a month and businesses have claimed the city is unable to accept more growth because there is not enough suitable rented housing. For the first time the University of Amsterdam has been unable to match the demand for student accommodation and in other cities students are having similar experiences. 'Just buy a house!' has been a solution put forward by family, friends and colleagues, both who are expats themselves and those who were born and raised in the Netherlands. But that's not the easiest thing to do either. The Dutch phrase Van 't kastje naar de muur  – being sent from the closet to the wall - best sums up the experience of being forced to hunt down estate agents and demand answers and information, to discover only bad news. Meanwhile, our search for a home to rent and make our own, like many others in the same situation, continues.  More >


How a day trip to Amsterdam turned into a confrontation with death

How a day trip to Amsterdam turned into a confrontation with death

A day trip to Amsterdam to catch a film and do some Christmas shopping ended up becoming a train journey Brandon Hartley will never forget. It was just another perfectly normal Sunday. I went up to Amsterdam to see a movie and buy a few early Christmas presents. As the sun was setting, I joined a few hundred people waiting on Platform 1 at Amsterdam Central to cram themselves and all their shopping bags onto a crowded train. I managed to find a seat in a second class compartment across from a woman reading a Murakami novel. A group of international students were chatting in English across the aisle. As the dusk turned to darkness, we rolled through Haarlem and on towards Leiden. Somewhere north of Oegstgeest, the train’s driver hit the horn. Its wheels screeched against the rails while he pumped the brakes. I bounced around in my seat like I was on a ride at Efteling. Then we all heard a chilling noise. It sounded like a stick getting dragged across an old wooden fence. The noise rolled down the train as it ground to a halt. ‘We’ve hit something,’ a conductor said in Dutch over the intercom a moment later. ‘Possibly an animal. Maybe a person.’ Not understanding the message, the students began muttering complaints. One of them only had a three minute connection to make at Leiden Centraal. Meanwhile, a family in first class gathered around an iPhone to watch a comedy sketch. The rest of us just sat there staring into space uncertain of what to do. In my experience, this is usually what happens when normal people are suddenly catapulted into the middle of a tragic or violent situation. They don’t scream or wail. Most just sit in stunned silence. Loss and pain The summer after I graduated from high school, I worked at a hospital where I ran equipment back and forth between clinics and a busy emergency room. I bore witness to countless families dealing with loss and pain. A few years ago, my girlfriend and I got caught in the middle of three soccer hooligans determined to beat themselves bloody on an overstuffed bus. All the while, the passengers around us simply stared at them or looked out the window like it wasn’t happening. And that’s what occurred on the train after the conductor returned to the intercom and announced that the train had killed someone riding a scooter. Someone gasped, the comedy sketch was hastily shut off and we all sat in silence after the woman with the Murakami novel told the students what was going on. The chorus of an old Radiohead song immediately wedged itself in my head. ‘I’m not here. This isn’t happening.’ While that song kept rolling around in my thoughts, our wait began. A few hours of eerie quiet broken by occasional translations for the students whenever the conductor made an announcement. I tried to avoid watching emergency workers walking back and forth outside. I’ll never forget the sounds of them pulling…..something out from under our carriage. Memories I don’t think anyone on that train is going to be able to erase their memories of what happened. Maybe the boy I walked behind while we were evacuated onto another train. His father had placed his own baseball cap over the kid’s head, perhaps to prevent him from looking out of the windows. The boy focused on the floor instead and counted all the candy wrappers he could find as we were ushered to a metal platform across the gap between the trains. I wound up in a carriage across from two parents with their young daughter. She cheerfully rambled on and on about Hello Kitty while her parents did their best to keep her distracted. Collisions like this are one of the Netherlands’ largest taboos. The names of the victims are never revealed to the public, nor the details. Some are suicides and some are accidents. I don’t know and will never know why that scooter was on the tracks that night. Maybe it was somebody impatiently trying to zip through the crossing to avoid waiting for the train. Or perhaps that’s what they wanted their friends and loved ones to assume afterward. When I got off the train at Leiden Centraal nearly three hours after I departed Amsterdam, the screens on the platform were still overwhelmed with cancellation notices. Downstairs, frustrated travellers were gathered around wooden tables slowly sipping cups of Starbucks coffee. Surveillance Just another perfectly normal Sunday? Unfortunately, yes, but thankfully less so in recent years. In the late 2000s, the Netherlands was considered the European leader for railway suicides. In 2011, ProRail was contending with an average of four suicides per week on train tracks around the country. They’ve since installed fences, surveillance cameras and improved lighting in many areas in an attempt to combat the problem. The railway operator began an extensive €30 million project in 2013 to install additional protective fencing along tracks. An area between Heemstede and Hillegom is now one of at least a few stretches where train drivers are required to slow down in order to prevent collisions with jumpers. While recent statistics from Eurostat suggest that these incidents are currently in decline, they continue as trains collide with suicidal people, copper thieves and others. The impact that these incidents have on train operators and passengers is dramatic. I and my fellow passengers are unlikely to forget what happened earlier this  month anytime soon. I can’t imagine how the driver must feel. If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, 113Online offers assistance in both English and Dutch. It’s an independent care provider funded by the government with telephone help lines staffed day and night and an online chat service.  More >


Trump, Zwarte Piet and how to prepare for prime minister Wilders

Election Day 2016. Too bad America won’t have its first female President. But we hope you enjoy America’s first president who’s legally insane, writes Greg Shapiro. Congratulations America, you just had your own Brexit moment. And - in classic American fashion - it was bigger and badder. Yes, the Brexit campaign featured misinformation and xenophobia. But the Trump campaign had all that plus p***y grabbing, pathological lying and Russia-mania! And in America - just like in Britain - on election day it looked like cooler heads, saner heads, would prevail. It wasn’t politically correct to think otherwise. Perhaps that’s why so many people lied to the pollsters. And perhaps that’s why we might continue to end up with hotter, insaner heads in charge. In the Netherlands, one politician’s head gets so hot it even bleaches itself platinum blonde: the populist politician Geert Wilders.  Not a good year From the US to the EU, it is NOT a good year to be in the ruling class. Even if voters aren’t sure which class is ruling them, they’ll tear it down. The day of the Brexit vote, half the country said ‘No to the EU!’ The day after, a top search on Google was ‘What is the EU?’ Brexit voters wanted to be free from an unelected, upper class elite. So they ended up with an unelected, upper class leader who appointed a cabinet full of millionaire elites. But at least their foreign minister - Boris Johnson - is not politically correct.  Where does this resentment of the politically correct ruling class come from? According to one writer: Dorkiness, Arrogance and Smugness. In the Harvard Business Review, professor Joan C. Williams writes that Hillary Clinton was the perfect storm: 'The dorkiness: the pantsuits. The arrogance: the email server. The smugness: the basket of deplorables.' Indeed, the Deplorables remark was a classic gaffe, i.e. that moment when a politician accidentally tells the truth. Hillary said 'you could lump half of Trump supporters into a Basket of Deplorables. Racist, sexist, homophobic… you name it.' And let’s not forget in 2008 when Barack Obama was caught off camera saying of small town America: 'they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them.' He not only insulted small town America, he used the word antipathy. Well, who wouldn’t revolt?   Anti-politically correct backlash Perhaps it’s no wonder there was an anti-politically correct backlash. Perhaps a backlash is what happens when people feel they’re being judged. If my 12 year-old son kicks his sister under the table and she says 'Stop,' sometimes he’ll stop. But if she says 'Stop, you’re so immature!' then it’s a full-scale kicking war.  Is there a populist backlash waiting to happen in the Netherlands next? Look no further than the great Zwarte Piet debate. Zwarte Piet is of course the blackface sidekick to Sinterklaas, the Dutch Santa. My wife, who is Dutch, insisted for years that Black Pete’s face is black 'from the chimney'. I would reply that the Dutch must have magical chimneys to produce not just soot, but full blackface, afro hair and big red lips. We agreed on a Dutch-style compromise: if Zwarte Piet would lose the blackface, then he could stay. If he’s black 'from the chimney' then let his face have soot from the chimney. And this common sense 'Soot-face' approach is now being phased in on TV and in Amsterdam’s Sinterklaas parade. Is there a populist backlash? You bet! And some people are doing their best to make it worse. First came Quinsy Gario with his Zwarte Piet Is Racism protest. I’ve been part of Quinsy’s movement, but I also encouraged him to be a bit more specific. Saying 'blackface is racism' one thing. But by labeling the entire Zwarte Piet tradition as racist, it may be doing more harm than good. In 2013, the UN’s Verene Shepherd issued her (unauthorized) statement that the entire Sinterklaas tradition was racist. And that’s when the backlash of resentment made its way to social media. On Facebook the Pietitie page became the fastest-growing Facebook site to reach a million likes. Current polling says 90% of Dutch people want Zwarte Piet to stay. And - even though the blackface tradition is evolving faster than anyone thought possible - this year in Amsterdam a chocolatier with Zwarte Piet treats in its front window was covered with graffiti saying 'You’re racist!' And yes, the graffiti was in English. Thanks. Now - when the inevitable populist backlash comes - they’ll be sure to target us English speakers first. Wilders a winner? So does this mean that a populist politician like Geert Wilders will top the polls next March? His Zwarte Piet policy is simple: blackface mandatory. In other words: yes, he’ll likely win. All the pieces are in place: a holier-than-thou, politically correct elite and resentful, neglected would-be populists. But don’t forget Geert Wilders was in the ruling coalition before, and when the populist joined the ruling class, it didn’t end well. The cabinet fell. And there’s every reason to believe he will overplay his hand again. I use that metaphor deliberately. When the last Dutch coalition fell in 2012, one headline compared the process to a famous Dutch card game, in which the loser is the one left holding the joker, or the Zwarte Piet. The headline read 'Zwarte Piet For Wilders' In America, most likely Donald Trump will also overplay his hand, and his bizarre experiment in the ruling class will be crushed under its own weight. In the card game that is American politics, Donald Trump is the joker, and he will end up holding the Zwarte Piet. Comedian and writer Gregory Shapiro is the author of How to Be Orange, Making Dutch People Take Their Own Assimilation Course and How to Be Dutch: The Quiz. Shapiro is also the host of the weekly United States of Europe on YouTube.   More >


For the Dutch, wearing a bike helmet would be a cultural affront

For the Dutch, wearing a bike helmet would be a cultural affront

While in Amsterdam as a visiting professor at the VU University, Clay Small realised the superiority of Dutch culture when compared to the US is best illustrated by their attitudes to bikes. Sure there are differences in the size of our countries. One’s a socialist society, the other a capitalist bastion. The Dutch painstakingly preserve their 17th- century art and row houses while we remain ever ready to move on. So what if the Dutch citizens of all colours and creeds gel just fine? Hey, we’re working on our issues. No, the hallmark of our differences is in the attitude to cycling. We all know Amsterdam is a river of bicycles from sun up to sun down. There are more bikes than people in Amsterdam, where 67% of the citizens commute by bike daily. The bikes, like Amsterdam’s citizens, come in every colour and shape. Some are lovingly cared for, others look barely functional. Transport Some seat one, two, three, even four! Many bikes have a three-foot basket between the driver and the front wheel. These cargo bikes, with names like Big Babboe, transport everything from children to construction waste. (Cargo bikes, with their smaller front wheels and stretched frames, look like a Dutch version of an American dragster.) Some bikes have large thick wheels, others tiny fold-up wheels for carrying up the office stairs. Many sport plastic crates on the handlebars for books or the day’s lunch. Others have saddlebags slung across the rear tire bumper. Like the unwanted flyers we find tucked under our windshield wipers, Amsterdam businesses go round fitting little plastic saddle covers with their logo and phone number to parked bicycles. Dutch cyclists like to multi-task as they pedal along: smoking, grooving to music, talking, texting, holding hands while ridding side-by-side, telephoning, singing and drinking. The one thing apparently prohibited for both adults and children is helmets. Their faith in the intelligent planning of their bike paths and their trust in fellow cyclists is so strong that for the Dutch, wearing a helmet would be a cultural affront. Rules of the road At rush hour the thousands of cyclists stream through the streets in tight formations. They rarely slow down. They abide by a series of mind-boggling rules of the road, glide along unfazed through relentless near misses, but remain, at least outwardly, happy and consistently polite. The steady rush of bikes weaving in and out looks like a video game compared to the reality of a normal American city rush hour. Dutch bicyclists appear to symbolise a better-organised and superior culture. The system works based on the peoples’ abiding mutual trust – not something in abundance in 21st century USA. My conclusion about a superior culture was based, in some part, on the fact that in my many trips to Holland I never saw a bike accident. That said, I have been shaken to my core by bicyclists. They whizz by, tranquil and insouciant, inches from my leg, scaring the bejesus out of me. Then again, all day long, cyclists calmly miss each other by even narrower margins. The citizens understand and, more importantly follow, the bike culture. Why wear helmets if there is no chance of an accident? The helmetless daring stands as the sceptre of a superior culture. Miscalculation Then, on my last night in Amsterdam, it happened. I strolled out of my Plantage neighborhood toward the Brouwerij’tij brewery and walked along an esplanade named Sarphatisstraat. Instead of a line of trees running down the middle of the esplanade there is a ribbon of mellow grass hiding the trolley tracks. To the sidewalk’s left was a soft green bank along a canal adorned with ancient weeping willows. It was a beautiful Amsterdam evening at 5pm and bikes were, of course, everywhere. I watched at a distance of 200 yards as two bikes prepared to cross from the other side of the esplanade, over the trolley tracks to my sidewalk. One of the cyclists miscalculated. The bikes’ frames clanged together, entangled and crashed to the ground in a loud, hard clatter. Immediately pedestrians rushed to the scene and numerous people jumped off their bikes to help. As I got closer it was clear both riders were hurt. A 10-year old girl was screaming and holding the left side of her head. There was blood. A Rastafarian man, apparently the girl’s father, was bending up and down from the waist, moaning and holding his shoulder. Comfort His daughter was comforted by an elderly woman with long, bright red hair wearing a full-length emerald green coat. She affectionately wrapped the girl in her arms. A middle-aged man in tweed, perhaps a doctor, guided the injured Rastafarian to a bench and bent over examining the left shoulder. Others attended to unraveling the bikes. The crowd around the accident site was calm and made sympathetic sounds. Since everyone was speaking in Dutch, I have no idea what was actually said. I stood on the crowd’s edge feeling useless. I hung around to admire how people of all ages and colours stopped to offer genuine help. It was a community effort. Twenty minutes later the pair regained their equilibrium, thanked everyone and began walking their bikes towards home. Despite the reality that bicycle accidents do happen, there is much to admire about the Dutch culture. It must be the bikes. After a 30-year career at PepsiCo, Clay Small is now a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas where he teaches at the Cox School of Business. His first novel, Heels over Head, will be published next year.  More >