Why Dutch people believe the world is flat

I took my green bike on its first out-ride last weekend. West of Leiden is the sea, although I didn’t really believe that until I saw it. Actually, even then, I didn’t really believe it.

As I was whizzing along the perfect tar bike lane, green fields with well-behaved livestock on either side, I started thinking about how the landscape you live in might shape how you see the world. It occurred to me back in the Transkei, when on a run in the hills near the hospital, you might encounter an incline that just got steeper and steeper, until you had to clamber on all fours with your fingernails in the mud. I remember on a hike along the coast, getting stuck on what turned out to be a cliff, although it had started as a hillside. At some point you suddenly realise there is no way you can go back, and you also can’t go down. You didn’t see it coming, and then you’re about to die (kind of like the traffic on the N2). Then there are the roads in the rain, and in the space of a bend, sure gravel becomes ice-slick mud. And the rivers that flood, sweep tractors off bridges, tear away the bridges themselves. Just your feet on the ground let you know that you are not in control, and even as a privileged professional living there, that’s how most of life is.

The Netherlands, on the other hand. Physically claimed from the sea by human effort and technology, and almost perfectly level, all of it. The water always seems just a scratch below the surface, but it occupies the still and straight canals provided for it without challenge. Along the larger canals outside the city centres, houses are built a mere foot above the water level, garden chairs arranged at its very edge. Even the sea is muted. I walked down to touch it, to make sure it was really there, but it has no presence. And it doesn’t seem interested in taking on the dykes.

Between the farmland and the sea, there are the dunes. They are pretty, full of vegetation, and of people on a Sunday afternoon, walking with their kids, riding bikes or even riding horses. I only realised afterwards what felt so weird about them: the path I rode through them was paved. What kind of a place has sand-dunes that you can build a paved path on??

You don’t need gears on your bike in the Netherlands. That’s kind of how life feels. I know I’m an ignorant foreigner, here for only five minutes, but it’s fairly clear that there are firm boundaries on the range of what can happen to you. Which is really rather wonderful, in many ways.

But what might be dangerous about it is that it allows you to maintain the illusion that you are in control. Which is possibly why most Dutch people see no need for faith, and cannot understand people who do. When your ancestors have wrested the ground under your feet from the sea itself, it’s easy to believe that all you need is science and your own effort. Which is not to say that well-off people all over the world, South Africa included, don’t at some level feel the same way. I’m beginning to think that this might be the thing that divides the entire population: those who believe they are in control, and those who know that they are not.

A flat country doesn’t fit you well to step out on other landscapes. I first noticed this with the Rabobank exec who felt that Dutch farming successes qualified them to help with African food security. Putting aside the obvious trade tariff issues – how can you not notice that their land just doesn’t look like yours? Contours make a difference in farming, I learnt that in Brownies (I often wonder at my early education). Never mind an attentive water table, or any of the other countless things that just aren’t the same.

But maybe that’s why I’m here. A different landscape to put mine in perspective. To notice the things I take for granted.

And to ride a bike…

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