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Case Study: Dutch Cultural Heritage

The Netherlands is noted for many delights. In sports, I could talk about the rivalry between Amsterdam’s Ajax and Rotterdam’s Feyenoord, which you can compare to the Yankees / Red Sox rivalry in American baseball.

A young Feyenoord fan expressing his affection for Ajax

A young Feyenoord fan expressing his affection for Ajax

Or their love of ice skating, especially the 120-mile Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour), which has been run only fifteen times in the last century because it doesn’t get cold enough in the Netherlands every winter. Or their outsized performance in the Olympics.

2014 Winter Olympics – Sochi, Russia
Top Five Medal Winning Countries

# athletes # medals
Russia 226 33
U.S. 230 28
Norway 134 26
Canada 222 25
Netherlands 41 24

(source: Wikipedia)

The world’s best skater – Sven Kramer

  • The world's best skater

    The world’s best skater

    an all-time men’s record seven World All-round Championships

  • a men’s record seven European All-round Championships.
  • the Olympic champion of the 5000 meters in Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014
  • a record (for both men and women) 15 gold medals at the World Single Distance Championships (held since 1996); six in the 5000 meters, three in the 10,000 meters, and six in the team pursuit.
  • the current world record holder in the 5000 m, 10,000 m, and the team pursuit and broke the world record in each of those events three times.
  • the first speed skater in history to win four consecutive world all-round championships, and eight consecutive international all-round championships
  • undefeated in the 14 international all-round championships he participated in since the 2006/2007 season.

Instead of sports, I’ll focus on two other integral parts of Dutch culture: bicycles and their pride in their Golden Age.

Father and kids out shopping

Father and kids out shopping

Bike Culture

In the Netherlands, there are more bicycles than people. How come? It is a small, crowded country. If everyone drove a car, there wouldn’t be enough room. In the last hundred years, while the car culture grew as it did in the U.S., the far-sighted Dutch developed an alternative: bicycles. What does it mean when riding bicycles becomes a major social policy with wide support over many generations?

The Dutch have built a safe and convenient nationwide infrastructure for bicycles (fiets, in Dutch). The bike path in the picture on the right is part of a continuous (as in unbroken) network of thousands of miles of bicycle paths throughout the Netherlands. In other words, you can go anywhere on a bike that you could go in a car without stopping for cars or red lights. Ever.

The red pavement is for bikes only.

The red pavement is for bikes only.

Where are the cars, then? Below is a bird’s eye view via Google Earth of an example of how the bike paths relate to the car lanes in Leiden, the town I lived in just south of Amsterdam. All the red-paved lanes are for bikes only. Note the roundabout and the tunnels under the roadway. Note the convergence near the top where the car and bike lanes go over the Rhine River. The bicycle infrastructure is parallel but separate and you can see for yourself that it is clean. It is also safe. According to the International Road Traffic and Accident Database, the Netherlands has the safest roads of several dozen industrialized countries. Over a hundred cyclists die per year, but per mile traveled, it’s a very safe activity. Did I mention that it’s healthier than sitting in a car?

The Dutch bike infrastructure is parallel but separate.

The Dutch bike infrastructure is parallel but separate.

What about convenience? The picture below left shows the parking lot at the main train station in Amsterdam. People ride one bike to the train, take the train to where they work, and ride another bike to work. Thus, this parking lot has the bikes of people who live in Amsterdam but work elsewhere, as well as the bikes of people who live elsewhere but work in Amsterdam. No matter that people in other countries have so many myths and excuses: narrow streets, population spread over great distances, cheap gas, hills, snow, and on and on. According to the Dutch Cyclists’ Union, on any given day in the Netherlands, 5 million cyclists make around 14 million cycle journeys. That’s in a country of 16 million people. They ride in the cold, in the rain, and in the snow. They ride to work. They’ve been doing it for a long time. In short, Amsterdam Loves Bikes!

Bike parking, Amsterdam train station

Bike parking, Amsterdam train station

One area where so much biking has a curious effect is in the independence of teenagers. In a car culture, people younger than the driving age are dependent on someone else to drive them in a car. Or they take public transportation, which can be expensive. Dutch kids have an alternative. At a very early age and certainly as teenagers, Dutch kids get on their bikes, go around the corner, and they’re gone! They are independent of their parents in a way that they seem to enjoy. And speaking of close observation. Look again at the two pictures on the left of people biking. They don’t wear bike helmets in the Netherlands, either.

If you’re interested in learning more, here are some bike parking pics and a collection of images: Amsterdam Bicycles, (82 pictures of bicycles taken during 73 minutes on 9/12/06 in Amsterdam, Netherlands).

More video

Cycling in the US from a Dutch perspective

How the Dutch got their cycle paths

Dutch cyclists talk helmets and bicycles

Best Dutch bike video:

Golden Age

17th century tile made in Delft

The first modern nation-state, the Dutch Republic, also had the first modern economy. For two centuries, it was the most healthy, prosperous, learned nation on Earth. For things like cuisine and music, it did not distinguish itself. However, in other areas it led the world. This period, from around 1600 to around 1800 is known as the Dutch Golden Age.

Dutch Golden Age science

What do you do when you see things that no one has ever seen before?

When you show these things to the people around you, they don’t see them. Or they can’t see or won’t see them.

Small enough to fit into the palm of your hand.

Small enough to fit into the palm of your hand.

So then what do you do?

The Lens on Leeuwenhoek web explores how Antony van Leeuwenhoek, a curious, methodical Dutchman, responded to just that situation more than three hundred years ago.

On the right are four brass magnifying glasses aka microscope made by hand by Antony van Leeuwenhoek in the late 1600’s. The plate of each is about 5 cm (2 in) high. One would fit easily into the palm of your hand. The single spherical glass lens is a little more than a millimeter (4/100th’s of an inch) in diameter.

These microscopes were an order of magnitude better in terms of magnification and resolution than any other microscopes available in the 1600’s. Everything that Leeuwenhoek saw through them, he was the first human ever to see: protozoa, bacteria, sperm, and red blood cells and much, much more.

Judith Leyster Self-Portrait

Judith Leyster Self-Portrait

Judith Leyster Happy Couple

Judith Leyster
Happy Couple

Dutch Golden Age genre painting

The Dutch ruled the world of commerce, education, and visual arts in the 1600’s, their Golden Age. They had a society that was noted for its lack of interest in religion, its tolerance, and its (relative) empowering of women. The religiously themed paintings that were produced in other European countries were replaced by genre paintings in the Netherlands. Genre paintings depict scenes from everyday life, usually with anonymous subjects, such as this happy couple on the right. The Dutch could also deal with women painters, the most prominent of whom was Judith Leyster (1609 – 1660), who painted the happy couple as well as the self-portrait on the left. On the other hand, she did all of her famous paintings in the six years before she started bearing her five children, only two of whom lived to adulthood. She died at age 50.

More painters: Life in Holland in the 1600’s: Pieter de Hooch, Jan Steen, Adriaen van Ostade, Gabriel Metsu, and Jan Luyken.

Although when they died in 1669 and 1675, they were just two more dead painters, today the Dutch Golden Age painters Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer are recognized as the best of the best. One of Vermeer’s paintings is Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Girl with a Pearl Earring

the painting
by Johannes Vermeer
the movie
starring Scarlett Johansson
the book
by Tracy Chevalier
The painting
The Painting
The Movie
The Book