Hello, my name is Tineke de Boer and I’m from Holland. Well, who cares where I'm from these days? Aren't we all part of one global culture, one consciousness connected through this wonderful media we have at hand now? I don't know where in the world you are when reading this, but I’m sure you’ve been watching the same Disney movies as a kid, you love your Macbook just the way I do, and when we meet, we'll talk about things like the Occupy movement. It's the reason I can type this article fully confident you can relate. We are probably quite similar.
It doesn't seem to matter anymore where you're from within the postmodern Western world, we all understand each other and share many of the same likes and dislikes. The fact that I’m Dutch just adds superficial and quirky differences - like the fact I love cheese, think it’s fine to smoke joints anywhere, and am not shocked by nudity on TV. But is it actually true? Has place indeed lost its meaning, its impact on our ways of being, our view on the world? I've found that it's not so, as I'll explain in this article. Because I've been born and raised in Holland I do see the world very differently than you. But I haven't been that aware of it until now. And you can be sure that your being Canadian, American, German, Norwegian, or whatever, definitely shapes your consciousness in deeper and more important ways than you may be aware of.
In this article I'd love to take you with me on a discovery of my own cultural lens, and try to show how we’re all probably more deeply embedded in our own cultures than we’re aware of. Who knows, maybe it’ll inspire a closer look into your own consciousness and the history of your country to find how you're connected to your motherland.
The outside perspective of visitors to Holland
It's a rainy afternoon in Amsterdam and I’m walking through the crowded wet streets of the old city centre with its crooked houses built centuries ago. I notice a group of elderly American tourists. How do I know they're tourists and how can I see where they are from? Well, nobody here dares to walk around in such white sneakers seemingly purchased specifically for this occasion. Only white Americans. I laugh to myself, how easy to tell the differences! I overhear them musing about how large parts of Holland lie below sea level; it seems to freak them out. How do these Dutch live here so quietly and undisturbed while they're living in a bathtub, the roaring sea kept at bay with a few high piles of mud!?
I shrug, it's such a normal part of life for me. In the Netherlands, a small country in the north of Europe, 60% of the population lives below sea level (for those counting that’s about 10 million people!). Large dikes prevent the country from flooding. I myself was born in a Dutch town that lies more than two metres below sea level, in an area pumped dry by monks back in 1631. Many generations have lived in the 'Low Countries' ever since. We don't really worry about drowning, especially after the government built the impressive Deltaworks, a set of large dams which were a response to the huge flood of 1953 (video). This system has indeed kept us dry for over half a century. The result? We don't really seem to be afraid of the water anymore, or even aware of it.
The Americans made me think
But those curious tourists got me thinking as their conversations gave me a bit of space from my own cultural perspective. Maybe it's not as 'normal' to live below sea level as I think it is. What does it actually mean? Wouldn't it be healthy to have some sort of fear or wariness that one of the most prosperous and developed countries in Europe can be washed away when the moon and the sea agree, and the wind joins the party?
After overhearing the American tourists I started to take note of articles in the newspaper about the dikes and the dangers of living under water. I found reports about the height and quality of the dikes, warning that they won't hold when mother nature gets frisky. And we all know what’ll happen then: think of New Orleans after the short but intense visit of Mrs. Katrina, or think of Bangladesh after yet another heavy rainseason. Still there is no public upheaval or sense of unsafety in Holland. Just recently the 'Hoogheemraadschap', the national institution responsible for water maintenance, launched an awareness campaign, showing people how low under sea level they actually live. Living under water has become so abstract we need an awareness campaign to remember!
Image from a Dutch awareness campaign, the caption reads: 'Farmer Schagen from the Beemster is living 4.4 meters under sea level. Living safely under sealevel is less normal than you think'Taking the outside perspective – travelling to the Rocky Mountains
After overhearing the American perspective on living in the Netherlands, I had a chance to travel to the US and attend a retreat in Colorado. Getting out of my own country, meditating for hours on end, and being exposed to a new geographical landscape helped me see my own cultural lens more clearly that I ever had before. Let me explain why!
Remember, I was born in a 'swampland', as my cheeky Canadian partner likes to call my home country. I’ve lived behind a dike my whole life. I’ve heard the stories of the terrible floods, the back-breaking labour of building dikes and pumping the water out. The sea is never far away in Holland. Water all around. So imagine travelling to the Rocky Mountains, Colorado. I was suddenly in the middle of a huge landmass, surrounded by mountains and not the green Dutch flatlands. No water to be found, it was so dry my skin was starting to chap. I wasn’t used to the low humidity up in the mountains. I even started to get a bit anxious to recognize there was no water around me. I never realized that the brooks, puddles and sea were such an orientation point for me.
In these surroundings I started meditating deeply, in a huge tent that was moving, cracking and shrieking whenever the strong wind would blow. One dark night I was in meditation and the wind was blowing especially hard. It was a full-blown storm and rain was pouring down. The huge tent barely stayed on the ground, the only thing it seemed to want to do was to lift off and go where the wind would blow it. It wasn't a safe situation, sitting under a pole with a heavy speaker attached that could land on my head any minute. Not to mention the wild animals outside – bears, wolves, cougars - that are long extinct in Holland. There were a lot of reasons to be afraid and I was.
But one particular deep fear was absent and I felt relief from it. I felt lighter. After a few seconds it hit me. However hard the wind would blow and no matter how much rain would pour down, the water wouldn't come. High up in the Rockies there are no floods! I suddenly saw how a deep fear, or to say more accurately, a deep alertness, is always in my awareness. I feel it when it's raining especially hard in Holland and a storm is coming up. It's not terror or fear, it's more a feeling of alertness. Alert to what I know has happened time and time again: cold dark water breaking through the dikes and washing our villages away. Only if you were lucky would you get to the attic or roof and wait for the water to withdraw. I see now how these images imprint a healthy awareness of our own vulnerability. Until now I didn't notice the ebb and flow of this deep awareness and alertness in reaction to the weather, a pattern imprinted in the national psyche.
Coming home again– my first flood
That insight in the tent in Colorado was the moment that I acknowledged that 'water' actually plays a bigger part of the Dutch psyche and culture than I was aware of. It strengthened when I was back home again and the rain was pouring down just like it was during that stormy night in Colorado. I was on my bicycle working myself through the whipping rain to my little house in the old city centre of Amsterdam. It was night when I arrived home and found a growing puddle in front of my door. And more was coming. The drain was jammed and it didn't look like the storm was ending soon either. A good 20 cm high water column had already formed an impressive lake in front of my neighbour’s door.I actually felt a strange mix of excitement and relief: finally I got to act on my constant alertness in times of bad weather. I could fight the familiar enemy that now had come to visit my house. My alarmed neighbours hurried outside in their nightgowns (I live in a medieval 'hofje' with 15 other women), carrying buckets, towels, sandbags. (Sandbags? Yes, we realized we keep sandbags in the bicycle shed). We didn't need to say much, there was an immediate camaraderie and a natural working together to get the water out and the pump fixed. It felt very... natural. The maintance man hurried to help and fix the pump, and he sat for hours under his umbrella on watch beside it to makes sure it would keep working. He had a seriousness within him that seemed inherited from those who guard the dike and with that guard the lives of many living behind it.
Wow... suddenly the things I read about my culture, but never really believed, came to life. I had read that the common responsibility to maintain the dikes had made the early Dutch work together, and had helped create the consensus-type of decision making we’re now famous for. Now I was actually experiencing this part of culture as it acted through me. We're all needed when the storm comes, if one person doesn't maintain their part of the dike we’ll all perish. So we'll keep on talking with each other until everyone agrees and cooperates. We call this 'polderen', the word used to describe pieces of land claimed from the sea... I've heard that our negative take on life and work ethic relates to this deep fear of the water. There's always a dyke or something that can be strengthened, fixed. We have to keep searching for what's wrong. Have to keep working because one time the big storm will come. No time to relax, to have parties, to think about nice banquets (ever heard of the famous Dutch kitchen? No? Well.. you shouldn't be surprised anymore!). And it's true, I experience it in myself. I don't trust the bright skies, good weather doesn't last forever: if things go well for too long a tension builds up. It can't be safe! It's the very same experience when I am lying in bed and it's raining, slightly tense and thinking I've been living too carelessly. That I should've been working on something as if my life depends on it.
The water is ruling our perspective on life in general and has influenced our culture in deeper ways than we would think. Even when it's been over 50 years since the last big flood, these cultural structures are built over centuries and have become such a part of our way of looking at life that they don't need actual floods to strengthen them anymore. The water has, so to say, submerged itself in culture.
Seeing oneself as product of geography and culture
Looking back to my experience I‘m amazed at how thick my cultural lens is. How hard it is for me to see how the place I've grown up in and my culture I am part of shape the way I look at life. As a human geographer I've learned that we all use perspectives and see the world through a lens (re)created in culture, we make meaning of what happens around us in a way that it fits our set of cultural beliefs. It’s easy to study other cultures and see how this is true. But trying to understand my own cultural blindspots and biases means taking the position of observer and the subject being studied at the same time. And that is not easy. The things I think are normal - beliefs about the world, social and moral shoulds and shouldn’ts – are so hard to see because of just that, I think they’re normal.
Only when in contact with other cultures – as with the American tourists- or in actually leaving one’s country and culture there is there some space, some objectivity about yourself and the cultural lens we are wearing. Only then I am forced to think again about things I take as 'normal'. But letting go of the whole mental framework alltogether and seeing the world as it is objectively, without any lens or any cultural distortion seems close to impossible. And a bit scary as the world itself seems to crumble. The only moments I've had perceiving my surroundings without any lens or value distinctions is in deep meditation, when I let go of all the ideas and thoughts of what the world is. And I think that’s the closest place to objectivity a human being can get.
Go explore for yourself
The main point I want to make in this article is that the way we see the world, the way we feel, is in more ways influenced by the geographical place that we grow up than we might think. And when realizing this, you may start to feel more connected to the world and your country than you once were. It can bring you home in a certain way, not separated anymore from that which has created you and your worldview – it's your own culture.
So I invite you to get out of your own comfort zone, your own country and culture and see what happens. I bet you're much more your culture than you're aware of. Read about your national history and see how your own experience falls together with the history of your country and its geographies. I’m curious what you'll find – take North America as an example:
I’ve always wondered how culture was formed in the New World. The European settlers were desperate individuals, leaving their families and home country behind to settle in a vast open space with no one around to depend on. They fought wolves, bisons, and bears - animals almost extinct in the old world, but still ruling the woods of America. They fought Natives and lived an often lonely life in the large woods or on the endless plains. But they were free. Renagades, fortune seekers, criminals and people with faiths clashing with European culture. Into the wild. What does this collective experience in the New World with its huge mountain ranges, forests and plains do to someone who came from a poverty stricken Irish village, living according to strict societal rules enforced by an established elite? What culture emerges when more and more immigrants come join you in the new land?
I hope you'll share with me what you find!!