For those of you who are not yet aware, Dordt has some pretty strong, pretty rooted ties to the Netherlands. And by strong and rooted, I mean Redwood Forest status. From being named after the Synod of Dordrecht to hiring a slew of Professor Van [insert Dutch surname here] to attracting a high percentage of students whose grandparents and great grandparents were Dutch immigrants and, consequently, grew up on Sinterklaas and stroop waffles – the Dutch vibe is strong at Dordt and in the wider Sioux County community, where everything is closed on Sundays and, instead, people are unusually hospitable, inviting random college students into their homes for meat-and-potato Sunday meals complete with dinner-table-devotions.
When I first arrived at Dordt, I expected the stereotypical slew of questions freshman answer repeatedly. What’s your name? Where are you from? What’s your major? So on and so forth. What I didn’t expect, however, was to be asked if I am Dutch. Um…. No? Honestly, I’m not even sure which nationalities pepper the melting pot that is my family. Until arriving in Sioux Center, nobody had ever asked me about my ancestors. I was simply Annie, and I was simply American. And when I met new people back home, they were usually more interested in my first name than my last. In Sioux Center, though, people are always interested in your family name because they’re interested in playing Dutch Bingo, in seeing who you’re related to and which Dutch pocket you hail from and how they can place you in their understanding of social circles as a result. Who knows? Their great uncle might have been your second cousin’s roommate at another Reformed college back in the 80’s. I realize that this conclusion sounds ridiculous, but trust me; I’ve overheard that conversation once or twice before. If you’re a soon-to-be Dordt student, prepare yourself. These sorts of people-connecting conversations are sure to litter your Sunday morning, after service, generic coffee conversations. And if you’re Dutch, they’re pretty fun. You’ll always find someone who knows someone you know or who is related to you somewhere down the Dutch line. Having dated a Dutch boy, I’ve been able to partake in the Dutch Bingo exchange even though I’m plain-old American Annie, and the game sure proves that this is a small world after all!
Since I’m not Dutch, though, I resented this sort of culture at first. I felt out of place. Nobody I met could connect me to my family tree, I’d never heard of the phenomenon that is Tulip Time, and I couldn’t hold my ground when the Dutch Blitz cards came out on Friday night.
However, I’m in the Netherlands right now for Core283, a three-week summer Dordt course in Dutch culture and reformed worldview that meets students’ cross cultural requirement. Seven of us Dordt students from various grades and majors are exploring the Motherland, guided by Professor van Beek, who was born and raised in this small but spectacular country. And now that I’m here, seeing all the windmills firsthand, I more fully understand and appreciate the hype around Dutch culture that permeates Dordt culture.
This country is astounding, and everything here is marinated in history. The Dutch will claim that Amsterdam is a young city, since it wasn’t officially established until the late twelfth century. When compared to America, though, Amsterdam seems like a much older sister to the accident baby conceived at Plymouth Rock. Our history books are so thin compared to Dutch ones, our monuments so few, our sense of long-time belonging on our land so weak. But in the lengthy paragraphs about the original Dutch people who pushed back the sea, the details are never lost. In fact, if I had to choose one word to describe the Dutch people I’ve interacted with so far, I’d choose detail-oriented. (Okay, so that’s technically two words with a hyphen. Oh well.)
“Follow me through these narrow streets, and I’ll tell you our stories.”
That quote belongs to the sweet man in traditional Dutch garb that toured us through the fishing village of Urk, which happens to be home to one of the Dutch students that spent an exchange semester at Dordt this last school year – hooray for reunions! That quote also perfectly represents the desire for details that people cultivate here. In America, we will often listen to somebody ramble about their life because we care about the person, not often because we care what they’re talking about. Here in the Netherlands, though, people care about both the people and their subject matter because they care about collecting stories, collecting knowledge, collecting details. And if Dutch people don’t care about your subject matter, they won’t ask you. Unless you’re really good friends with a Dutch person, they won’t greet you with a, “Hello! How are you?” If they don’t know you or don’t care, you’ll receive a simple, “Hello.” There aren’t any unnecessary pleasantries here, just genuine curiosity and lots of collected details that people care to remember.
As a result, rather than a tour filled with birthdates of important figures and the number of nails in a particular house, our Urk tour was filled with life, with details about the ordinary, genuine, non-famous people that call Urk home. For example, our guide told us about a nonsensical old lady that the townspeople used to think was crazy, since she repeatedly claimed she was living on a rock. When she died and a young artist moved into her home, though, he cleared out the cellar to use as storage space for his canvases and found a gigantic boulder lodged in there – the woman had been telling the truth all along! Urk also collects stories of the fisherman who drowned at sea, remembering all their names and ages by carving them into a memorial near the lighthouse.
I found the same sort of attention to detail on our canal tour of Amsterdam. The entire town is made out of brick, every shutter window is painted a shade of something vibrant, every flowerbox is perfectly arranged, and every wooden shape atop every pointed roof has a meaning for the people that live there, whether a heart or a cross or an anchor or a bird. Think of all the stories laid with each of those bricks, think of the engravings on each light post, think of all the light bulbs that line the under-bridge arches for open boats to pass beneath, and think of all the strokes of paint that collaborate to make those Dutch-fronted houses so darling. The people here care about making their home beautiful, and these beautiful details are precisely what make Amsterdam’s people and places so enchanting.
And in thinking about my Dordt home, I’m realizing that the details are what make that place so special too. When Sioux Center residents want to know if I'm Dutch, when people want to be able to fit me into my family and its accompanying history, it’s only because they want to have a base layer of details about me to stack other details upon. When Sioux Center residents flock to Pella, Orange City, and Holland for tulip festivals, they’re creating a prominent detail to cherish communally. When Sioux Center residents do their family devotions regularly, when they cook their meals diligently, when they hold to their ancestor’s customs religiously, they’re accumulating the details that make their life darling. Some may say that’s true of any given small town, but I think it’s heightened in Dordt’s Dutch small town.
I’ve only been in the Netherlands for a week, which means I’ve only learned a third of everything I’ll be able to learn from this small country – the Netherlands is only a fourth the size of Iowa, which is crazy to me! I’m expectant that my remaining two weeks will result in a lot of bricks added to the stack of details I’ve already accumulated. And though I’m still proud to be American-mut Annie, I’m also proud to claim my time living in this tiny country with its darling customs. I’m marinating in all the details here, and I’ll hold to them a little tighter when I return to detail-saturated Dordt in two short months – maybe I’ll even have the itch to bike instead of scoot around campus by then!