Nieuws - 18 november 2009

Mondriaan mentality


'I'm having three birthday parties', a friend sighed wearily. 'One for family and a few close friends that know the family, one for the neighbours, and one for my tennis club friends. For my colleagues I'll bring cakes in for the coffee break, of course'. I was a bit surprised. Why not throw one big party for everyone? Wouldn't your tennis buddies enjoy meeting your colleagues, your family like to get to know your neighbours? And if you're so tired at the thought of organizing all this, give yourself a real birthday treat and just take your best friend to the cinema instead.

Life's not that simple if you're Dutch. Besides the different birthday customs involved, I was intrigued by my friend's apparently strong wish to keep the different groups in her life apart. This turned out to be quite a theme in Dutch culture. I couldn't put my finger on it at first. Then another expat suggested the Dutch liked to organize their lives like a Mondriaan painting: clear-cut compartments separated by thick lines. It's not just about friendship groups. It was a principle that used to order Dutch society: verzuiling or 'pillarization': an embodiment of the idea that good fences make good neighbours. Which church were you brought up in? Luckily that no longer determines which butcher and milkman you patronize. But it used to, and it may still affect which school you or your kids go to. (You might need a separate birthday party for your church friends too.) What about the change being called for in Dutch higher education? No distinction between a professional BSc and an academic one? Whatever next. If we don't watch out we'll soon all be living in a Kandinsky. /Clare McGregor, translator with Resource
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