I’m having an awkward moment with the transition from group emails (remember when??) to blogging. Firstly it feels weird writing without knowing who might read what I put out there. Second, it seems presumptuous to launch into a monologue just like that. I should at least first ask how you are. And check for that glazed look when it’s not fun any more. Although I guess it’s up to you to move on at that point – I won’t be hurt. The free version of WordPress doesn’t let me know you did it, so you’re safe (maybe I should sign up for the full version…)

On the bookshelf in my current abode, there is a very useful book entitled “Minding your manners: a guide to Dutch business and social etiquette”. My landlord & lady have inscribed it: “To inform all our guests” (which is not weird at all). It includes useful culture-specific details such as the proper way to eat an artichoke, and a working definition of “fashionably late” (i.e. not more than ten minutes after the stated time, unless you are an academic, and then you can – and are expected to – make it fifteen). But it doesn’t say anything about how to write a polite blog opening, so I’m on my own there.

I also can’t find the chapter on cheese-slicing etiquette: I made a terrible blunder today by cutting my cheese with a knife and not a cheese-slicer (looks like a cross between a cake-lifter and a vegetable peeler, in case you had as deprived an upbringing as I apparently did). It seems slices over 2mm thick are considered wasteful, and therefore “not done” (clearly Tim Noakes has not been translated into Dutch). “Zuinig” is the word for this special national outlook. I just looked up the translation: Afrikaans: “Suinig”: stingy, miserly. Dutch: “Zuinig”: frugal, thrifty. One definition actually included “cheese-paring” alongside “tight-fisted”, so it’s definitive – but the Dutch consider it a virtue rather than a fault. Which is really weird considering how much good cheese they have lying around. My guess is that what the cheese-makers lose to this cultural phenomenon, they make up for by buying shares in the slicer industry, which markets different tools for jonge and beleggen varieties of cheese. I’m really curious to know what they do with brie.

The Dutch do have some pretty good words, it must be said. My favourite to date is “schminken” – to put on make-up. I’m not sure that my version (waving a mascara brush in the general direction of my eyelashes) qualifies, but it definitely captures what happens when a three-year-old finds your pink lipstick. Maybe my schminken is zuinig. (Have been trying out my Afrikaans-with-fake-Dutch-accent with varying success, but it’s fun being able to half-understand a foreign language without having had to sweat over it. Almost makes up for my perpetual shame at still speaking terrible Xhosa).

Another very cool Dutch cultural phenomenon is Sinterklaas. He sounds like St Nicholas aka Santa Claus aka Father Christmas, but Coca-Cola and Hallmark never got to him, and he has his own day for present-bringing on the 5th December. A week or so before, he arrives in the Netherlands on the stoomboot [steam boat] from Spain, and visits all the Dutch towns on a horse, wearing a robe and a bishop’s hat. There’s apparently a whole story every year about his travelling hiccups, generally involving mischief by Zwarte Piet (still in evidence in spite of the heated debates). There’s a lot of national spirit around Sint, and although people complain that it’s got too commercial, he’s still got more soul than Santa. I bet he’s employed by the Ministry of Culture and Etiquette.

Apart from all that, I’ve made peace with liquorice (surprisingly addictive once you get going), built a special relationship with mayonnaise, and identified the possible peak of Dutch technological achievement: the fact that when you get on a train, you can put your takeaway coffee on the little tray by your seat, and leave it there. The train pulls away, travels through the landscape, stops at stations – and your cup stays dead still, until you see fit to move it. Amazing.

Contrary to my previous comments though, apparently the Dutch landscape is less stable than I thought: there are earthquakes! But even these they made themselves. By fracking. In a tiny portion of land built mostly on water, someone thinks its OK to blast toxic chemicals (and more water) into the already fragile crust on which they all subsist. Which makes me think that their oil companies are actually run by terrorists. At least they are way ahead on shifting to electric cars though – there are even municipal charging points in the street. No inyoka’s here, clearly, and no Eskomplications. (That would solve the Cape Town traffic problems: sorry, we couldn’t come to work because of load-shedding. Or because they stole the cables. Again.)

[Cultural note: Inyoka’s (lit. snakes) are people who steal copper cables to sell for scrap. As if Eskom (SA parastatal that sometimes provides us with power) wasn’t making life interesting enough. Apparently Cape Town is now a net exporter of copper, even though we have none naturally occurring]

Otherwise, the PhD continues apace, and is flourishing in the rarefied air of academia. Except when I get distracted by the weirdness. I’m learning to contain my aghast-ness at much of what I hear at academic events (thanks to my safety valve Whatsapp friends back in the real world, who field frequent can-you-believe-it rantings), and to ask fewer awkward questions. I have also thankfully met some gems in between it all, and in spite of all the warnings at how unfriendly Dutch people can be, they have been really lovely to me. I have already seen the inside of at least four Dutch houses, not counting the two I’ve lived in, which is apparently unheard of for an “outsider”! I’ve also hosted the junior researchers’ Sinterklaas party, with much gluhwein and cheesy music and pepernoten – and really good company. Working hard on persuading them all to come immediately to South Africa, which is not that difficult after 4pm when it’s dark outside and there are train delay warnings because of the weather.

And suddenly, I have only a month left here. It feels really strange.


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