In 1989, Briton Colin White and American Laurie Boucke first published The UnDutchables, their humorous look at Dutch daily life, its culture and inhabitants. A surprise hit, the 9th edition of The UnDutchables has recently been published.
“We initially bought six copies,” remembers Lynn Kaplanian Buller, co-owner of The American Book Center, which has stores in Amsterdam, The Hague and Leidschendam. They continued to buy more, she says, “until we were pre-ordering 1,500 copies from the self-publishing authors every time they revised the book.”
Within six months of its first publication, Amsterdam’s Athenaeum bookstore also ordered a couple thousand books. “We were selling thousands of copies, with Schiphol airport also selling tons,” remembers Boucke.
The book started out for the White-Boucke team as an excuse for White to learn the burgeoning desktop publishing business in order to get a job in the aerospace industry in the States. It has since become a bestseller in the Netherlands and a must-read for relocating internationals, going through 36 Dutch-language editions and earning its authors enough money to live off its royalties for 30 years and buy a house in Colorado.
“I thought it was the most stupid idea I ever heard of,” says White, when upon leaving the Netherlands in 1987 his wife suggested writing a humorous look at the Dutch gleaned from their years of living in the Lowlands. “But given that its whole reason for being was to get me a job in a different field, it hasn’t done too badly!”
Filling a void
For Boucke, writing the book had a different purpose. “I loved it here. We are huge fans of the Netherlands and its people, but I had never read anything funny,” she says of their 20-plus years living in the Netherlands. “There is so much character and life, but never a word about it. So, we set out to write a humorous look at the Dutch.”
Indeed, their book is widely regarded as the first in what later became a popular genre.
And for that, says Boucke, they have the late Dutch journalist Johannes van Dam to thank. “He saw the book in the window of the Athenaeum bookstore and loved it,” she recounts.
He wrote a review of The UnDutchables in the Dutch daily Het Parool, saying that the book “in a very exact yet funny way discloses all the secrets about us that we really would have preferred to keep to ourselves.”
That was enough to send the book flying off Dutch shelves. From there, it was word of mouth and its unique content—which touched on everything from childrearing and bargain hunting to coffee culture and Dutch idioms—that kept the book selling for the next three decades.
“Dutch customers loved it, sending it abroad as gifts to far-flung relatives and friends,” says Kaplanian Buller. “And newcomers to the country passed it from hand to hand.”
The now-retired couple visit the country regularly and comb through thousands of pages of Dutch news annually to stay up-to-date. Except for during the COVID period, they have released a new edition every three years, revising, as Kaplanian Buller puts it, their “now iconic outside perspective of Dutch life as it has changed since 1989, as well as how much it has stayed the same.”
From strippenkaart to OV-chipkaart
“So much has changed over the years, major little changes,” notes Boucke. For starters, the guilder is long gone, and the Dutch euro features a king instead of a queen.
The paper strippenkaart has been replaced on public transport by the contactless OV-chipkaart (and even regular bank cards), something which White laments. “I miss the strippenkaart!” he says. “It was so convenient. I knew every zone by heart.”
Food, says Boucke, has also become much more international. “It was very limited at first.”
In addition to the so-called “little updates”, such as how to get your Dutch driver’s license, the 9th edition also touches on topics like Jeff Bezos’ yacht and the populist agrarian BBB party. “Nothing surprises us,” says Boucke. “We feel at home here.”
Back in 1991, De Telegraaf called the book a “laughing mirror: readers can only laugh as they concede their ridiculous habits”, while The European noted that The UnDutchables is “a cult among English-speaking expatriates.”
Like Croatian national Nenad Popovic, who read the book soon after arriving in the Netherlands in 1998. “It does catch typical things Dutch people do with strangers and how you react, and that’s good,” he says. “For example, it’s not important for people here to agree upon a subject. You can completely hold your position throughout a conversation. Dutch people can say all kinds of things and you can still finish a beer together.”
“We’re glad people get it,” says Boucke. “5% of readers get mad. Some people get offended by some of the comments, but most enjoy the humour. I don’t read the reviews anymore.”
Adds Kaplanian Buller: “Not everyone saw the humour in it, but Johannes van Dam wrote in a preview to the fourth edition why he valued the book: ‘Yes, we, the Dutch, are a funny lot, but we are much too straight to notice that ourselves.’”
Enough other people have also valued The UnDutchables over the decades, surprising many in the whimsical publishing world. “Our first Dutch publisher said the book would never make it past Christmas,” remembers Boucke. “Now we’re in our 34th year!”
The recently published 9th English-language edition features the same cover illustrator that sets the book apart on store shelves. “We’ll probably do another one in three years,” says Boucke, “if people want it!”
You can order a copy of The UnDutchables: An Observation of the Netherlands, Its Culture and Its Inhabitants from The American Book Center.
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