Rumour has it, as of the new year, Netherland will no longer let itself be addressed as Holland, the name it has become famous with the world over. Whether for the right reasons or the wrong ones, everybody knows about Holland, it's not exactly a forgotten backwater. But fame has its dark sides. People tend to have exaggerated ideas of Holland as a country of milk and weed and wooden shoes and some of its citizens may feel the brand name their society is known under ought to represent more than just one loud mouth sector of their full economic reality. So Netherland it will be. Or Netherlands if people insist, but know the locals have been using the singular ever since Napoleon.
Holland means woodland and refers to the mostly wood free western part of the country which originated from dune protected marsh lands and produced the Wirtschaftswunder following the introduction of asset backed financing back in 1600. After a couple less than distinctive centuries Holland bounced back as the hinterland of the magic centre, Amsterdam, a place which liked to think it had its say in how modern times were enfolding back around 1970. Visitors venturing outwards would refer to any place they went as Holland, why bother with the longer and less swinging the Netherlands? Holland it was. But no more. Just as for a third time in history affluent Holland is making a name for itself as the remarkable one, it doesn't even have a word for austerity in a time when the rest of Europe is suffering the consequences of its malign intent, a change of name is deemed in order.
What's the deal with a wrong name? Lots of countries are known by their nick. And what's with Netherland, for that matter? Who wants to live in a country whose name sounds like it's the worst place on Earth and be proud of it? Well, yes, that's what the Dutch are, proud of their achievements, even those who have never achieved anything can and will be honoured by the thought a compatriot has. We all have ancestors who helped erect the place, built from mud like a northern Ur. Though I was not raised in such thinking, I have always felt its presence, this sense of a shared history. Being Dutch was supposed to be like nobody else. And that's where the myth stops. Because lots of people in Netherland today do not have this link with the past, originating from other parts of the world as they are. So that may be another reason for this name change. It's quite popular these days to radically do away with past traditions rather than to try and update them. Like in many European countries, people seem afraid of their own majority. Yet I would associate such dangers with the true name sooner than with a lazy moniker.
Rich Netherland is a strange place these days. To the stranger's eye, and I must say I have been practising my stranger's eye somewhat, it is extremely clean and well-organised. Entering the country as a visitor, it starts with traffic. Few mistakes are made as people move on bike from home to work to sport to shop to home again. On the train the voice-over proudly tells us our train has departed on time. So as to deny passengers any claims, I guess. We equally arrive on time to everybody's pleasure and are only twice a minute off in a week long journey past a number of provincial towns.
In very few places money is still accepted. You just swipe your card or better still your telephone and everything is taken care of by mister computer. Not always did my good old debet card pass the test, once leaving me with the need to drop my pay in the tip jar as there were no other means available to hold coins. On the tram the service warden had to save my ass by offering me a “free Christmas ride” when I wasn't able to produce a valid travel card. Customers tell waiters and shop assistants to round up the numbers on their bills by lack of tip money. When money is only electronic, it doesn't feel like money any more. It's not the owner-free stuff which promises anonymous spending power, rather it's a measure of acceptance by the system. And at 58 I'm still not sure if I want to be sufficiently recognised in order to live comfortably. Being well-connected to show one's individuality, it's the modern day discomfort with success which back in the 1600s plagued the righteous families as a result of their ungodly profits.
Being connected also implies being in the know. Everybody, it seems, has the same information and the same opinion. In fact, not having the same opinion may to varying degrees hurt your economic and social status. So it's always best to be in the know. The know can be found in newspapers, on television, in bars and shops and on trams. Wherever somebody feels you are in the wrong, doing something which is slightly off-line or voicing an off-limits opinion, you will more often than not be admonished to come to your senses. You can't be serious, is an oft-heard comment in former Holland. That can't be true, is also popular. I knew this was coming when I left the country in 2005. It has always been part of the Dutch soul, something my generation and me intended to stay away from, this self-aggrandising. Now it seems the idea that Netherland is always right, an error the author W.F. Hermans warned not to make seventy years ago, has evenly spread among the population as the implicit cause of the country's phenomenal success, money-wise. It might be the other way round in some cases, that success brings the right to be right, it depends a bit on what type of Netherlander you are, whether you believe the country is yours or rather a place you take a lease on.
Either way, this collective knowing creates a glass sphere around society, a perfect bubble impenetrable by foreign insights. However the official story of the great democracy spreading protestant civilization may have lost its shine around the planet, in Netherland it is still very much alive. Netherlanders look at the end product they see around them and say that everything is well, driving their electric cars to eco-friendly supermarkets without considering the plight of the unknown millions whose misery makes this miraculously neat society possible. All the crimes Netherland has been involved in as an active member of NATO, the destruction of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria for instance, are far from people's minds. Less so are the sufficiently debunked untruths used to stir up contempt for countries which refuse to be subservient to NATO. People generally prefer a Royal Dutch filter on their connection to the internet, forsaking on the possibilities of internationalising their views the place offers.
Striving for perfection, as anyone ever considered imperfect may well know, is not without its dangers. How do you deal with people who lack the edge to always get it right? The other day, I was told how somebody on their first day at work received their first negative reaction on facebook and as a result was almost fired immediately again. It is clear the Dutch don't need a strong government to punish unsocial behaviour, like the Chinese apparently do, they are perfectly capable of perverting society themselves.