Over the past year we've accumulated first-hand examples of startling cultural differences between people we're meeting in Holland and Americans. From casual scatology to graphic sexual innuendo to pointed insinuations about one's significant other, folks here are much more willing to venture willy-nilly into bluntness, regardless of present company or circumstances or how well they know you. A counter-intuitive discovery, given the stereotypes. But consider the following:
I was asking our tax guy's assistant to explain a surprisingly large bill we got from the city. "This number is the property tax," she said. "And this is, how do you call it -- foulness?" "Garbage." "Yes, garbage. And this is for the foul water -- you know, when you flush and the turd goes down?"
T was talking to a colleague about a writer whose work she is editing. She said he wasn't very clear, wasn't good, even though he appears to be the top of his field. Guy says, "Well, when you are in the toilet and have to pee you must pull down your panties, and so must he." We're guessing this is some Dutch version of everyone having to put their pants on one leg at a time.
First class back from the holiday break, one girl in T's Dutch lesson took one look at another and exclaimed, "______! You got fat!"
An acquaintance offered his opinion that when T first arrived, she didn't look so good, but now she's better looking. This was while talking to both of us. He felt free to cheerfully speculate, "Now, if I slept with her, how long would it take you to forgive me?"
Another acquaintance cautioned me that if T did not do well on her impending Dutch test, I should "give her a good spanking." He proceeded to illustrate by holding my imaginary wife over his knee and playfully swatting her with his palm. He felt it necessary to add a little dance to it, shuffling sideways and swaying his own backside to some sort of interior soundtrack as the performance went on for, I thought, a tad too long.
Then we have a fellow -- a cross between Cap'n Crunch and Captain Kangaroo, but more "pirate-y" -- who never fails to seek us out and make some suggestive remarks. "My moustache is curly from oral sex," is a typical one. He claims to be a shaman and, recently, has identified our spirit animals. "Yours," he says to T, "is a big bird, an eagle. Always flying, high up in the air!" His eyes are wide, his arms open. "You want to go, go, go, and try new experiences.
"Yours," he says, turning to me and frowning, "is a little black bird -- a crow. He flies lower. He is dark. He is closed. He looks up and says, 'Oh, there's that big bird again.' He thinks the big bird is eating him. You want to try new experiences, but you say to yourself, no, I don't want to. I think you should try! She is flying very high and very fast, and you are low to the ground, flapping and flapping." He brings his hands up to his shoulders and flaps them pitifully. "And this is what I see between the two of you." Big friendly hands on our shoulders, he suggests getting together for a 'session.'
"I will give you my Web site." He writes down the URL on a coaster -- which I will not be linking to. "Don't scare!" he says, "but it is BDSM. That is my thing."
I cover my face with my hands, peek with desperation at my empty glass, and cry out down the bar, "Can I, for Christ's sake, get a beer down here?" Our interlocutor's twinkling gaze moves, like a minute hand, from me to T.
"Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, and Masochism," he clarifies. "I am a master. Everyone knows me. But it's only ... if you want it." He then mentions -- so, so casually! -- that another acquaintance of ours is his 'submissive.'
To T: "When you are under me..." -- this is helpfully illustrated by some gentle arrangement of his hands -- "I never do anything you don't want. I have a rope. Many people," glancing at me, "are afraid of such new experiences. But I say, try it, and if you don't like it, don't do it!"
My beer comes, and I down about a third of it. "I'm not afraid," I say.
"No, not afraid. Just closed, like the black bird."
"Well, I'm not sure you're on the right track here."
I'm not even sure what that means. I don't want to take offense, since I believe none was meant, but I'm not sure how to ease him off this topic. T, meanwhile, is ready to bust a gut.
He raises his palms. "It's just -- what I feel."
Eventually he drifts away, leaving in his wake bafflement, titillation, squirming, hushed comparison of notes, and unbidden mental images of the Quaker Oats guy in studded black leather wielding a riding crop. In my best moments I like to see myself as a worldly and sophisticated ambassador of good will -- a friend of ours here calls us the "unamericans," meaning atypical -- but by gosh if I'm not often reminded that deep down I'm just a small-town Midwesterner, picking my way through a slightly alien land.