“It's weird not to be weird.”
― John Lennon
Alright, cards on the table: as of now, I have been living in Amsterdam for less than three months. Should I be making sweeping generalizations about the Dutch populace? No, probably not. Is that going to stop me? Not at all.
Part I: Baby, you’ve got a big storm comin’
“Why do you all think I’m crazy?”
It was a blunt question, without a hint of irony. I tend to approach such topics more delicately, but at that moment in time I hadn’t slept in 32 hours and the Red Bull, while not delivering on its promise of wings, did give me a certain reckless abandon.
“Well, you see…” somebody started answering.
I froze. I was expecting reassurance. Some good-natured ‘no, we don’t think you’re crazy’, or a polite pretense of incomprehension. Little did I know, I was about to be led into the belly of the Dutch cultural beast, a place from which no-one returns unscathed.
“We have this saying,” they continued. “It translates to ‘just be normal, that’s already crazy enough’, that’s kinda the Dutch mentality.”
The words echoed in my head.
This cannot be real, there is no way this is real, this must be a joke, they have legal weed and shrooms, for god’s sake. But suddenly, it all made grotesque sense. All the confused looks, the scandalized exclamations, the raised eyebrows, the feigned giggles and the condescending nods.
They all made sense.
Part II: For the sake of Context
In order to understand my shock, I think it is important to make clear the expectations I had before moving. Here are a few things I thought Amsterdam would be comparable to:
‘That 70’s Show’ but without the parent characters
New-Age Portland, Oregon with more self-awareness and less home-grown kombucha
The backstage dressing room of a family-friendly Drag Club
I started realizing that Amsterdam was less ‘Sex ’n’ Drugs ’n’ Rock ’n’ Roll and more ‘Work ’n’ Housing Crisis ‘n’ Alcohol’ pretty early on. But on that Wednesday afternoon, all my remaining illusions were irreversibly shattered.
Part III: A spoonful of Buddhism helps the bitter truth go down
My illusions may have been shattered, but I wasn’t gonna go down without a fight. The mind can go to great lengths in order to fit something into its ideological framework. I, as a self-proclaimed open-minded individual, was set on looking past the superficial implications of conformity to find the core of pure genius in this Dutch proverb.
“Just be normal, that’s already crazy enough”
Interpretation 1 - The Absurd Nature of Existence
We are four-limbed creatures that have come into being through ages of evolutionary processes on a flaming rock in outer space. Everything about our existence is crazy. Therefore, the concept of normal is essentially paradoxical, which is the philosophical crux on which this saying rests.
Interpretation 2 - The Hyper-Individualistic Hot Take
We are all unique individuals. So, trying to be unique or ‘different’ is misguided and pointless. So if we take the phrase ‘be normal’ and equate it to ‘be yourself’, then the saying acts as a flag under which all outcasts, underdogs and freaks can unite.
Interpretation 3 - The Middle Path
The word ‘enough’ brings up two main associations in my head.
Firstly, there is Karl Marx’s famous slogan, "from each according to
his ability, to each according to his needs”. However, as a post-soviet
Russian girl, I try not to dwell on Communist overtures. Just a personal
preference. Secondly, there is the Buddhist idea of the ‘Middle Path’,
a way to liberate oneself by existing in the golden center between
self-indulgence and self-denial. This interpretation was my favorite.
It allowed me to think of The Netherlands as an enlightened mecca,
a Western society that transcended Western philosophy while retaining
its civilization and progressive values.
Alas, every Dutch person that I have spoken to about this instantly rejected all three interpretations and instead lead me further down the dizzying rabbit hole of ‘classic Dutch sayings’ which I have compiled for you below.
Part IV: Weird Flex but OK
In fairness, I must clarify that this normalcy craze is not oppressive. There are no gulags for weirdos, which is lucky because I’d be far gone by now. It is not something explicitly stated or enforced. Some foreigners don’t even notice this particular affinity for ‘blending in’ and carry on as they usually would. Others, i.e. me, have a hard time pinpointing the reason why we, i.e. I, feel more like ‘Girl, Interrupted’ with every passing day. The people I’ve met are Tolerant™, just quite perplexed by my general character.
‘Weird flex but ok’ perfectly captures the Dutch mentality. And if you want to know what exactly qualifies as a ‘weird flex’, don’t worry, I’ve done the research.
A ‘weird flex’ can be (but is not limited to):
showing off or acting pretentious
discussing money (or how much you have or make)
showing a little too much personality
showing overt public displays of emotion
not following the ever-important unwritten rules and regulations of the Lowlands
acting or being perceived as too “weird”, “different”, “disobedient” or “foreign”
Courtesy of stuffdutchpeoplelike.com No. 47: Normalcy
So there you have it! The unofficial rules of engagement, laid out in all their mild-mannered glory. So, what now?
Part V: A tiny violin and a bit of self-reflection
Yes, I was spoon-fed individualism from birth. Yes, I have spent years fighting off insecurities in order to finally embrace my weirdness. And yes, Amsterdam makes me feel a little bit like a wayward mental patient for it. But I must say, there is a calmness to it. There is a safety to it. I understand why these unspoken rules benefit the society. It’s a fascinating case study, one that I did not expect to stumble upon.