How well do I know the Netherlands?
I often ask myself how well I know the country I live in. While things become more familiar, or maybe less foreign, am I really getting to know the Dutch and their country better, or am I merely settling in more, becoming more accustomed to the way things are different to other places I've lived?
After I finished reading a book all about Amsterdam's history, it hit me that while I have learnt a lot about my home city and the people who do live and have lived here, I still didn't know that much about the country as a whole and the Dutch as a nation of people. So when Dutch Discoveries got in touch, inviting me to participate in one of their courses which are designed to provide international residents of the Netherlands with more information and insight about the country, I was very keen to take part.
I've always assumed that time and effort are all I need to learn more about the Dutch and the country I now call home. And yes, it's true that I will no doubt continue to learn more and more and more as the days, weeks and months pass. However, I was very interested to find out if it really was possible to learn more, quicker, by going on a course or attending some lessons.
About Dutch Discoveries
A new company set up by two friends, they used me as something of a guinea pig to see if their courses were covering the right kind of material and I got to spend a morning learning lots (and lots and lots) about the Netherlands and the Dutch, all in the delightful company of two very passionate Dutch women, Jolene and Heleen. Furthermore the location of the course couldn't have been more impressive. Held in one of the front rooms of Museum Het Grachtenhuis on the Herengracht, stepping inside this beautiful canal house felt special and impressive enough; there was nothing classroom-y about my morning with Dutch Discoveries! It added a certain quality to the presentation that all the while Jolene was explaining the Dutch people's unique relationship with water, I saw boats float slowly by on the canals out the window.
Dutch Discoveries offer courses for individuals and companies. The courses for individuals, which is what I attended are held over four mornings and are broken down into four different topics, or activities, because the final morning is spent walking around Amsterdam seeing evidence of many of the things you learn about in the preceding courses which tackle the history, the culture, the people, the lifestyle and the food of the Netherlands. Courses for companies are understandably a bit more bespoke and so cater to precise requirements.
Review of my morning learning about the Netherlands
As I only attended one morning, I only got to enjoy the first session which essentially introduces the Netherlands to those who may have come from a long way away or simply from a neighbouring country. That was definitely something I have to applaud Jolene and Heleen for taking into consideration, that their group of international individuals could potentially be very diverse and come from a wide range of backgrounds, and yet the presentation stayed focused on offering a very simple, easy-to-understand history of the country - which if you know anything about Dutch history is not an easy feat!
It's true that I already knew some of what was included in the history of the country - hey, I've been here nearly two years, it would have been embarrassing if I didn't! - but I learned much, much more than I expected. Like, did you know that the Netherlands has Neolithic sites believed to date back to between 3000 and 4000 BC? And did you know Amsterdam is home to the oldest stock exchange in the world? Furthermore, I bet you didn't know that the Dutch began claiming back the land from the water as early as 50AD with the creation of "terpen", man-made islands in the Fresian marshlands? (This kind of artificial island creation is something Dutch engineering is world-famous for. Those fake islands off the coast of Dubai? All the work of the Dutch.)
What I also liked about the history presentation was that they made suggestions for places to visit relevant to the period of history they were talking about. And later in the talk about the relationship between land and water in the Netherlands, they referred to a number of places you can go in order to see some of the dams that are effectively stopping my home from being under water. I left Het Grachtenhuis that morning with not just new knowledge, but also a long list of places I wanted to go and see.
After the presentations were over, I was invited to take a free tour of Het Grachtenhuis. A museum dedicated to the history of the canals of Amsterdam, many of the exhibits tied in with what I'd learnt about how houses had been built on land reclaimed by the sea. I'll write more about the museum in a separate post, but suffice to say it complimented the morning perfectly and reminded me how innovative and engaging Amsterdam's museums are. I really need to write more about them...
The other service that Dutch Discoveries provide that is a regular Q&A session. This is something I would have found invaluable when we first moved to the Netherlands. Despite already being familiar with many of the "ways of doing things" there were hundreds of things I didn't know and my list of "How do I...?" questions got longer before it got shorter. Knowing I could pop into a bar one evening and ask an experienced Dutch person familiar with expat scenarios would have been a big help, and would have saved me hours of Internet research.
So can you learn about the Netherlands on a course?
Yes, you absolutely can. It seems now that doing so is actually a very efficient and time-economic way to do this. I'm all for life experience and living being the greatest teachers when it comes to learning new things, but I think it's a little narrow-minded to assume this is the only way to learn. I'm so glad I got the opportunity to boost my knowledge, and therefore understanding, of my home country - the place where I'm going to bring up a child - in just a few very comfortable, relaxed and fascinating hours in one of Amsterdam's most beautiful houses with two of the city's friendliest and warmest women. Thank you Helene and Joleen!
The best way to find out more about Dutch Discoveries next courses is on their website or Facebook page, where they also share information about their Q&A sessions. I'm hoping to pick up the course after Baby Bird is here and complete the remaining morning sessions.
Frances M. Thompson
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