Kop Profiel The Netherlands

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The traffic jam as national symbol

H.J.A. Hofland

'THE TRAFFIC JAMS started early today. There are twenty in total, including two unusual ones,'' said the girl from the ANWB traffic centre. It was a beautiful afternoon on the fourteenth of May 1999. The government crisis was so far behind us that only the historians still remembered it. The war in Kosovo was over - at least so it seemed at the time. The Holland Festival was in full swing. And besides the eighteen ordinary, boring traffic jams, the ANWB girl had two interesting ones on her list. She spoke perfect Polder Dutch, as this newest version of our mother tongue has been labelled by Dr. Jan Stroop; the ultra-modern Dutch that, with its distinct R's (ghw or hgw) and OO's (light auw), exudes a distinctly carefree spirit. No wonder she sounded bright. It typifies the Dutch paradox.

Photo Magnum, Martin Parr

The nation is changing as we near the end of this century, yet at the same time it remains the same as ever. We are a blessed people. The Central Planning Office has just calculated that our economic growth this year will not be two percent, but two and a quarter. There will be 25,000 less people on unemployment benefit than we had expected. The number of millionaires is growing by the day; there will be over 200,000 of them by the beginning of the next century. Car sales were up 14 percent in 1998, equivalent to 543,000 new cars on the road. At the same time, beer consumption increased sharply, especially that of the more expensive special brews. We are projected to drink about 90 litres per head of the population this year and almost as much in soft drinks. Wine consumption is up by more than a quarter, while milk sales are falling (to less than 70 litres). Despite all this, the number of traffic deaths has again fallen slightly to 1066, still enough to fill a sizeable cemetery. All in all, this is a country where everyone would want to live. Indeed, the government is visibly struggling with the question of how to deal with the enormous flood of legal, semi-legal and other asylum seekers in such a way that they can be got out of the country again in a humane fashion. Young people are optimistic: more and more babies are being born. As for the old, they are far from gloomy: their life expectancy is on the rise. Who wouldn't want to live in this country? In the first year of the next century, the sixteen millionth Dutchman will be born.

The nation is changing. Less than ten years ago, most young people in the Netherlands wanted, more than anything else, a steady job with decent prospects for promotion and a good pension. The young had long ago become more adventurous, but this spirit of mobility had yet to make its mark on the labour market. It was not until the end of the Cold War, at the dawn of the free market, that the revolution gathered pace again. What the Americans call the rat race had reached our country. Within a short period of time, things had got so bad that the government felt obliged to do something. The Environment Secretary at the time, Margreeth de Boer, called for 'dehastification'. This provides us with our first example of the way in which we remain ourselves: by formulating good intentions that have no effect except in dictionaries. The minister had enriched the vocabulary, but the haste only got worse. Haste is a consequence of the pressure of work. And pressure only increases as one seeks to maintain one's position, climb up the societal ladder as far as possible and make ever more money.

Why do people want that? Silly question, really. To enjoy life more. In 1999, more Dutchmen and women have more stimulants and leisure machinery at their disposal than at any time in the nation's history. Mushrooms, pills and cocaine are there to make life more enjoyable. Using a mobile phone in the tram and racing around town on a scooter with the radio blasting: that too is leisure. Transporting your first-born in a fast three-wheeled buggy: try calling that boring! Come home (the mortgage is three hundred grand or six, it really doesn't matter) and let the dulcet tones of the Art of Fugue emanate from your hi-fi: double pleasure! Book a holiday bungalow on Aruba: the sweet fore-pleasure of the next high. Buying a lottery ticket because your calculations show that you may have a pass up on something in the future? Enjoy the hope! And if you don't believe in luck, just work a little harder. Console yourself with an evening watching Fun TV. After all, even that is a form of enjoyment. In the end, it leads to situations well described by old-fashioned sayings: to bite off more than you can chew, and: a bow long bent at last waxes weak.

Nothing in our country escapes research. According to recent figures from the Central Statistics Office (April 1999, eighteen months after the Minister's appeal), 43 percent of the working population regularly works too hard and 10 percent is burned out. The first symptoms of burnout are sleeping problems, irritability, irrational fits of rage, followed by proper stress, perhaps exacerbated by mouse-arm or some other form of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). Stomach complaints start to increase. The most serious cases end in burnout. The patient becomes convinced that everyone is conspiring to thwart him at every turn, he has a breakdown and ends up in the place he had always feared most: in the margins of society. Teachers and doctors are most at risk.

Some forty or fifty years ago, there was a professor of Sociology at the University of Groningen called P.J. Bouman. He was not just an erudite scholar, he was gifted with sociological intuition. In the latter half of the 1950's, he toyed with the idea of writing an essay that would be called 'Sociology of Dutch Fullness'. The population then was only 11 million. Bouman warned about the enormous changes in behaviour displayed by the higher mammals when packed together in great numbers in a small space. They become nervous, start biting each other and not infrequently themselves too. (He spoke a little ceremoniously). Bouman's sociology of fullness has come back to me increasingly frequently in recent years.

Things have not gone as he predicted. In some ways, things have turned out better; in other ways, worse. We still share approximately the same area of land, but now with almost sixteen million people. But the Dutch of fifty years ago were completely different to those of today. They are more prosperous but, above all, they are more mobile in every sense of the word. At the same time, what we used to call 'social discipline' is no more, to put it modestly and without too much grumbling. That, too, has become a fact of daily life. Simple mathematics reveal that the chances of any two people in the Netherlands getting in each other's way in some manner - physically, with their personal mannerisms, in their career, or with the noise that accompanies their daily lives - have increased enormously. Is it not to be expected that we sometimes start behaving in the fashion of Professor Bouman's higher mammals? This change in national behaviour is the common denominator of all change. In New York City, I spoke to a man born and bred in the city. The pace of public life in Manhattan is, I would estimate, about twice as high as here in Holland. He told me how happy he was to be home again after visiting the Netherlands. ''You're all so feverish'', he said.

The girl at the ANWB traffic centre had twenty traffic jams to report. There may have been thirty the day before and when everyone returns from their summer holidays, we will have days with forty traffic jams. This is the one aspect of the Netherlands that never changes. We have identified it as a major issue, commissioned studies, appointed committees of experts, held public consultations followed by broad public debates. This does nothing to decrease the scale of the problem, on the contrary. We tolerate growth in order to spend the time we have won on reconsidering our decision. In the meantime, the government and the political parties seem to cling desperately to the vain hope that the problem will somehow go away. The system of tolerating the intolerable (a deceitful attempt to accommodate everyone at the same time) and then reconsidering (the next phase: fobbing everyone off with half-truths) breeds stagnation. The best example has long been the question of Schiphol Airport. Another major national stagnation was on the matter of the high-speed rail link to Belgium and France. The 'drugs problem' lies at the heart of the third stagnation, which yields tragicomedy after tragicomedy without bringing a solution closer. The traffic reports illustrate the essence of the Dutch stagnation, the traffic jams themselves are the symbol.

The Netherlands is a beautiful country. The Dutch nationality is an enviable one. But every day, the rapid changes that the Dutch undergo collide with the stagnation that they have built into their system. It brings about the disadvantages that are part and parcel of being Dutch in 1999.

NRC Webpagina's
1 JULI 1999

















Snack bars are an essential part of many people's eating habits in the Netherlands. On average, they eat 29 grams of 'nuts, seeds and snacks' per day. Bread is the most popular food at 135 grams per day. The photograph shows a kroket (croquette), a deep-fried roll containing meat stock, breadcrumbs and wheat flour.
(Source: Food Institute)

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