“China? Have you come from China?” asked the stewardess as she flipped through my passport. I was transiting via Dubai in the first week of February—a time when we traipsed through airports without temperature checks or protective gear, barely a mask in sight. Confined to my house for three months now, I look back at a trip that might be my last for a long, long time.
“Who visits the Netherlands in the winter? There has been no sunshine in the past two months,” my friend exclaims. Indeed. Throughout January, the temperature remains entrenched in single digits and the weather app indicates a hard rain’s gonna fall every day. But as my flight descends to Schiphol Airport, I see clouds casting shadows on a sea of lucent yellow—the sun has finally glossed over the grey pall. Over the next few days, it retreats, but the rain is usually a drizzle and it seldom gets uncomfortable. The layers of fleece, wool, down and waterproofing I packed in anticipation of bone-wracking weather are redundant. But soon, the heavens subjected me to something I was not prepared for—winds so ferocious they flung away my jacket, made my eyes water till I could not see and left me barely able to walk. But I was lucky. In January 2018, 90mph gales not only made walking a punishing task, but also toppled trucks and trees and tossed around shipping containers. I should have guessed though—after all, the country is synonymous with windmills.
I took the bus departing at 10.06 am so that I could reach Rotterdam Centraal at 10.14 am, in time for the 10.26 am train to the airport, where I arrived at 10.51 am. And I had planned it all the night before. One of the pleasures of travelling in the Netherlands is the excellent public transport. The network is extensive and punctual, and signboards, apps and real-time updates help you precisely schedule your trip. There are rare occasions, though, when a delay strikes. In Culemborg, a small town near Utrecht, signs of “defective platform” greeted me at the station. Trains sped by as I tried to make sense of the Dutch announcements. I joined a group of commuters in conversation, only to find that everybody at the station was getting free coffee! While I was rather impressed with the caffeinated apology, I still needed to get to Utrecht immediately. But I needn’t have worried. Soon, a bus arrived and took us for free to the nearest station. In case of delays, you also get a refund on your ticket. While India could learn plenty in this regard from the Netherlands, there are lessons we too can offer—public toilets are as hard to come by here as late trains and not a day goes by when my bladder isn’t wistful for a Sulabh Shauchalaya.
Although Amsterdam is officially the capital of the Netherlands, the seat of the government is the Hague, the third-most populated city in the country. To make matters more complicated, Amsterdam is not the capital of North Holland, the province in which it is located. That distinction goes to Haarlem, a suburb of Amsterdam. However, it is the name of the country that confuses English speakers more—many refer to the Netherlands as Holland, which might offend residents of Flevoland, Gelderland and Zeeland. For North Holland and South Holland are just two of the 12 provinces constituting the Netherlands. The name has become synonymous with the entire country because the region has dominated trade and economy. But that is not the sole reason. For it was only in 2019 that the Dutch government finally decided to ditch Holland as a moniker for the Netherlands—part of a strategy to rebrand its image and promote tourism to lesser-known destinations. So now, the real name of the country will be used in the Eurovision song contest, at the Olympics as well as for the national football team. It all sounds promising—other provinces might finally get their due—until you find out the website of the Dutch tourist board: holland.com.
Outside the Escher Museum in the Hague, a great crowd has assembled. There is a makeshift, albeit elaborate, stage with colourful banners, in front of which people are animatedly chatting and occasionally yelling in response to the speaker’s exhortations. There are babies strapped around their parents’ chests as well as the elderly with walking sticks. I am not sure what’s happening—the gathering has the groovy vibe of a concert, but the speeches are not ceding ground to music. What’s going on, I ask a bystander. School teachers are protesting, he replies. Having been detained at a protest in my hometown and seen video after video of brutalities against demonstrators, this comes as a culture shock—it’s incredible how relaxed everyone is. There are no menacing men in uniform swinging batons, no ‘counter-protestors’ trailing the fringes and no spectre of violence haunting the gathering—just the demos of a democracy putting forth their voice in a public square.
Syed Saad Ahmed is Assistant Editor, Outlook