Letter from Limburg #10: 5 things I hate about the Netherlands


Dear Blighty,

This title is rather misleading.  As you will know, if you’ve read my previous posts, I think the Netherlands is a fantastic and enviable country.  So, in order to balance things, after having now lived here for well over a month, I thought I would focus on a few aspects of Dutch life that could be improved upon.  So, here goes.

  • Staircases:  houses in the Netherlands are, by and large, very well designed, stylish and utilise the space in the most logical and sensible of ways.  Dutch people also tend to take a lot of pride in their homes.  It amazes me, however, that the Netherlands has one of the longest life expectancies in Europe when, with the most narrow and steep of staircases I have ever encountered, I wonder how they don’t have more accidents and stair-related deaths.  How do the elderly manage?  They can’t possibly all afford stair-lifts.  Or maybe, as a previous post explored, they really are so much healthier, perhaps because of the stairs.
  • Cyclists:  I think cycling is a great form of exercise and a mode of transport that should definitely be encouraged.  I love the fact that so many people in the Netherlands cycle every day.  It speaks volumes about the importance they place on their health and the environment.  However, as a driver, I hate it.  As if the roads aren’t narrow or confusing enough, at times, constantly keeping an eye out for cyclists and priority cycle lanes that run across junctions and roundabouts, not to mention the scooters that are also permitted to use cycle lanes (another pet hate), is a continual worry.  As I have discovered, this is the Dutch policy – confusion and worry, thereby encouraging drivers to be far more cautious and alert.  I certainly am.
  • Music:  the Dutch are a pretty talented people, particularly in the creative field.  It would be a lie to say that I hate all Dutch music.  As a country, it does, after all, produce a disproportionality high amount of successful DJs for such a small country and some talented global music artists too.  But there is some Dutch music that simply defies understanding.  Its not that other countries don’t also produce a lot of crap, musically speaking, but that such huge crowds of Dutch people, probably one of the most culturally advanced and sophisticated nations in so many ways, will pay good money to see such people as Frans Bauer or Guus Meeuwis in concert is beyond me.  I defy you to listen to such artists and not be mistaken into believing you are tuning into a music program for kids on CBBC.  Or, at other times, I have, perhaps unfairly, equated such artists to what I frequently describe as ‘German marching music’.  Imagine hoards of people heading to the O2 to see Chaz and Dave in concert.  OK, folk music is one thing, but nursery rhymes for grown adults is quite another.  So banal, childish and basic – everything I don’t identify the Dutch as being, and yet they lap this shit up.
  • Rounding-up:  as someone who was taught (unsuccessfully, sadly) to be as frugal as possible when it comes to money, the principle of ‘looking after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves’ was constantly drilled into me by my father.  So, imagine my shock when it came to paying for my 99 cent knoflook (garlic), giving the cashier a euro coin, but receiving nothing in return.  Just when I was about to complain, my girlfriend held me back and explained that this is what is done here – shops round up, or down, to the nearest 5 cents.  Of course, this works in your favour if the price is, for example, 1.02, thereby save two whole cents.  But, let’s be honest, how often are prices like that?  More often they are something .99.  Why Dutch people give into, what I can only class as corporate theft, en masse, I know not.  But it gets my goat every time!
  • Finding a home:  this is perhaps the most frustrating.  Having moved home several times around the UK and to Spain, I can genuinely say that finding a place to rent in the Netherlands is, by far, the most difficult.  You can’t begin to look until you’re in the country and if you haven’t got a job, forget about it.  Even having a Dutch partner makes the process no easier.  Some have even advised us to look over the border in Belgium, stating that its far easier there.  The search continues and there are some slim possibilities with friends of friends, but until we have built up at least 3 months of work experience, the chance of an agency or a housing corporation taking us on is slim indeed.  What we would do if were literally homeless (although, in technical terms, we are), I shudder to think.  So, if you know of anywhere, drop me a line.

So, there you go, Blighty.  You thought things were rosey and shiny over here, didn’t you?  Well, by and large, (and in most comparisons with you), they pretty much are.  But, in every rose, there’s a few thorns.  Next time you’re over in these parts (although I think you’ve made it pretty clear that won’t be happening any time soon) don’t allow yourself to get a little prick.

Your loving Brefugee,

Benedict x

Letter from Limburg #9: The religion of fitness

Basic Fit Maastricht Bosscherweg_1

Dear Blighty,

Today, I went to church.  It was the first time in years I had set foot inside a religious building, even longer a Christian one.

For many years, I have made the conscious decision not to set foot inside Christian buildings.  You see, Blighty, ever since the age of 11, after I had started at a Church of England secondary school, I soon realised that it was all BS.  Actually, I think it was more the fact that church services were as boring as Hell (which is an unfair comparison, Hell always seems a far more intriguing and interesting prospect than regurgitating the Benedictus and listening to a vicar droning on about another verse of the bible). This stubborn, but, in my opinion, principled position, has meant I have sat outside Winchester Cathedral, Barcelona’s La Segrada Familia and St.Blah Blah Blah Church in Melbourne, while my fellow travelling companions ventured inside to gawk at stained-glass windows, crucifixes and to light candles along with the thousands of other tourists who visit such places every day as yet one more stop on their itinerary.

I somehow felt that, by entering such buildings, I would be condoning their actions, both currently and historically.  I have occasionally, since my church ban, visited buildings of other religions, in order to learn about (and ultimately criticise) them.  But as both an atheist and, more importantly, an anti-theist, it strongly goes against my own values to give these buildings the kind of gravitas such things as the tourist industry bestows upon them.  Now, some among you may point out a hypocrisy in the fact that I have visited Auschwitz.  But Auschwitz, thankfully, no longer functions as it was intended, and exists as a testament to the worst atrocities of the human race.  Functioning religious buildings and their associated faiths rarely make apologies for the historic wrongs, least of all the present evils they continue to poison in the minds of millions across the planet.  While they exist to serve this purpose, I refuse to penetrate them.

However the church I entered today no longer serves a religious function.  It is now a gym.  And its been around 2 months since I last set foot in one.  Now, that’s unusual for me!

Since the age of 16, I have been a regular gym-goer.  In recent years, I would attend 5-6 times per week.  These last two months have, for various reasons, been my most sedate.  And, boy, did I feel it upon my return?!  Lost strength, soreness, stiffness – for the first time, in a long time, I felt unhealthy and out-of-shape.

Up until this two month sabbatical, I may have been described as attending the gym ‘religiously’.  Indeed, the parallel between the rituals of regular exercise and religious practice are frequently drawn, at least in language. ‘Fitness is my religion’, some claim.  As I head towards the pulpit of the former Dutch church, passing treadmills and stationary bikes in the place where pews filled with prayer sheets and hymn books once stood, I reflect on the notion and the extent to which fitness and religion collide and compete.

With a decline in church attendance and a belief in a god, accompanied by the explosion of gyms and fitness-related businesses across the Netherlands and western Europe, has the pursuit of a fitter and healthier physical existence replaced the desire to follow a path of righteousness in order to gain infinite spiritual existence in the after-life?  Have we replaced the notion of being created in God’s image with attempting to mould ourselves into our own version of statuesque living ‘gods’?

Of course, there are perhaps some obvious parallels.  Both impact on the lifestyle of the follower, requiring a slavish commitment and habitual repetition of certain actions and behaviours in the effort of goal reaching – be they physical or metaphysical.  But that is, I believe, where the parallels cease.

While I do my bit to promote exercise, I’ve never really been a part of the ‘fitness community’.  Although I am a qualified personal trainer, I tend to believe that a fitness regime should be part of a balanced lifestyle, not be your life.  Yes, I spend significant time and effort on my own diet and exercise, but I’m not one for attending fitness expos, entering competitions, hanging around with other fit freaks or being drawn into dull convos about who’s lifting what and who’s consuming the least or most calories.  Nor am I one for pushing slogans like “Be a beast”, “Get big or die trying” or “Eat, Train, Sleep”.  I think there should be more to life than that.

However, while I am certainly no high priest or major guru for the fitness world, as a lifestyle choice, it offers something that religion doesn’t: real tangible physical and mental benefits in this world.

So, fitness is actually more than religion.  Its a lifestyle, but not a belief system, but one that actually delivers what it promises.  It requires you make biological, physical changes for benefits in this life, not moral adjustments for the carrot-stick of a paradise in the next.  Religion is an empty, hollow contract between you and an invisible man in a place that does not exist.  Fitness is a promise to yourself to be a better person physically, and potentially mentally, than you were yesterday and than you will be today.

Now, don’t get me wrong, many of the motivations that drive those down a fitter path are often shallow and two-dimensional, driven by a desire to look better, be sexier, and, in turn, feel better.  There’s no reason to feel guilty about it.  As long as its not the only thing that drives us in life, then we should be able to steer  clear of venturing too far down the ‘dickhead’ path (the occasional ‘dickhead’ moments are permissible).  Plus, these are goals many of us pursue through a multitude of avenues, least of all the fashion and cosmetics industries.  Fitness is yet another, albeit one that requires long-term persistent commitment and drive.  Of course, you can’t workout a personality at a gym, that’s something you’ll have to work on elsewhere, if you don’t have one.

Religion rarely fulfils these goals.  On the contrary, it will frequently makes you look less appealing and it certainly isn’t sexy.  Any temptation you may have of evangelising and ‘spreading the word’ or, god (you choose the one) forbid, you decide to impose the judgements of your religion and ‘holy’ book on others, and you too will take a long ol’ drive down the highway of ‘dickheadedness’.  Not only will you share the arrogance of a ‘dickhead’ fitness freak, your arrogance is driven even more by delusion than even his/hers may be.

So, here’s the skinny: fitness people can be dickheads, sometimes driven by their obsession with the gym/pumping iron/the body beautiful (more often steroids), but, there’s nothing from within the fitness industry that will:

  • cause you to stop eating a food just because a book says so (it will be for a REASON, be it calorific, protein/carb/fat content and health).
  • make you hate gays, Jews, muslims, other denominations of your own belief system, non-believers, blasphemists, atheists…
  • require you to wear specific clothing (although being naked in the gym is not usually permitted, keep that to home workouts), cut your hair a certain way, cover your hair, grow a beard, wear a little hat…
  • make you chop off your foreskin and that of your son’s.
  • believe your wife, and every woman, should be treated differently to you just because she was born with a vagina.
  • encourage you to blow yourself up and commit suicide in a multitude of other ways, while killing others in process.

So, if you don’t want to be a racist, homophobic, wife-hating, child-abusing, nonsense-spouting, fairy-believing, deluded dickhead, don’t follow a religion.

If you don’t mind being a healthy, fit, clear-headed, positive-thinking, pumped-up dickhead, then come to the iron-side.

Is fitness the new religion?  Not really.  Its a heck of a lot better for you.

Give it a go, Blighty.  You might like it!

Benedict x