There is, of course, no good time to be pulled over by the police. But to make for a truly humiliating experience, have it happen around the corner from home with your parents and kids piled up in the back. Fortunately I escaped a fine after the policeman politely suggested that they have the same road signs in Australia as they do in the Netherlands and I muttered something about a child-muddled brain.
I realised afterwards, however, that the road signs in the Netherlands are completely different from Australia. In Australia if you can’t turn into a road there is a sign with a big line through it (including everyone’s favourite ‘no right turn into marriage road’). In the Netherlands though, the signs say what you can do. There’s usually no mention of what isn’t allowed.
I started to see the street sign issue as one big metaphor for life in the Netherlands versus Australia.
What does it really mean to be an Australian?
Living overseas offers the chance to gain a different perspective on home and what it really means to be an Australian. These observations are magnified by other Aussie expats, some of whom are desperately homesick while others said goodbye years ago and never looked back. Compound this further with the observations of the Dutch, which can generally be summarised into ‘Why would you want to be here when you could be there?’
Everyone seems to have an idea of what it is to be an Aussie, and after a while I started to question how accurate these stereotypes are. The most famous one, which all visiting celebrities learn by heart, is how laid back and friendly we all are. Obviously this is going to vary depending on where you are, city or country, Queensland or Victoria, but as a general rule I don’t find Australians particularly relaxed or gregarious.
I think the image of us standing around the barbie, beer in one hand, fag in the other is just an idealised notion of Australian-ness. Australians work bloody hard and for bloody long hours, often with a long commute chucked in for good measure. We don’t have much time off and often are increasingly detached from our neighbours and community.
A huge advantage of setting up our life in the Netherlands from scratch is that that our home, the kids’ school and the office are all within an easy cycle of each other. And the emphasis given to family life in the Netherlands means that there is less pressure to be seen behind your desk when the boss heads home. It is a huge luxury compared with life in Melbourne where long working hours and heavy traffic combined to make time with the family a brief window at the end of the day.
Part of this Aussie notion of being laid back and relaxed is that we welcome newcomers to our shores. But that pretty much seems to depend where they’re from. From asylum seekers to immigrants from the Middle East, in many parts of Australia you’d be hard pressed to win an argument that we’re a welcoming bunch to people who don’t look or sound like us.
The Dutch similarly have a reputation for tolerance, which used to extend beyond drugs and prostitution to include new arrivals. But recently things have dramatically changed, with immigrants from Turkey and especially Morocco being the subject of debate and alienation in the suburbs and in parliament.
What was gob smacking for an Aussie was how politically incorrect the Dutch are about racism. They are not a people to sugar coat their words, but I was still shocked when I rang the city council to ask about a school and was told ‘you don’t want to send your child there, it’s a black school’.
An Australian neighbour in The Hague, who had travelled the world for decades working for an oil company and was about to return home, said he thought Australia was ‘the land of No’. The Dutch have such a vivid impression of Australians being informal (which I think we undoubtedly are), but find it hard to reconcile this with our love of – and obedience to – rules.
From putting helmets on our kids to finding a harness point for the child seat, the Dutch think it’s a little funny how uptight we are. While you may be slapped with a fine for putting out your garbage bin before 8pm in the Netherlands, individual safety is largely up to the individual. So with New Years Eve just passed, as always, kids were letting off fireworks in every street across the country, and there wasn’t a bike helmet in sight.
Perhaps the idea of an Australian stereotype is a ridiculous notion in a country of over 20 million people. But you can always spot an Aussie in a crowd, and it’s not just the accent that gives us away. There is something that binds us. But maybe what that is, is a little too elusive to capture in a slogan or two.