Changing views on drugs (and sex) in Amsterdam PART 2

For PART 1 click HERE.

Article written February-April 1997 - Not updated since! Copyright Kees Kaldenbach





Discussion and consensus

The following is a story which actually happened. To me it is most enlightning. It stars my cousin, a treasurer working for a USA based multinational company. He himself has told me this event first hand. He designed a new set of rules and regulations for the capital flows of US Dollars, English Pounds, Deutschmarks, Dutch Guilders etc. connecting the various subsidiaries and the central company for which he managed the treasury. We are talking big bucks and high finance here. So he went on a business trip to Europe. First stop was England, and after explaining the new rules to the financial department the Englishmen said "Yes Sir!". Then along to the German subsidiaries and the Germans said "Jawohl!". Finally in The Netherlands he visited the local financial staff. They heard his story and immediately retorted that this new plan had to be discussed first for a while and the treasurer would hear about the outcome later on. My cousin almost fell of his chair with shell shock.


Discussion and consensus: this is the liquid stuff pumping through the veins of hard working fabric of the Netherlands. The Kingdom of the Netherlands is a Northern European country whose size is about that of the state of Connecticut. For a time span of about 90 years, from about 1580 up until 1672, the incredible economic growth and political importance of Holland made it a world superpower. It formed an unchecked menace to the then politically and economically crippled states of France, England and the fragmented German speaking parts.

During this 'Dutch Golden Age' the economically most important provinces were North Holland and South Holland (the state capital Amsterdam is in the former, while The Hague, the seat of government in the latter). Amsterdam government ruled the waves and built a palatial town hall around 1650. It can still be visited for it has not been changed since: the marble main hall speaks of opulence and glory and the marble seats on which the judges awarded capital punishments speak of power.

Birth of a Nation

The Dutch imprint on economic and political 16th and 17th. C. world history was indeed incredible. The Dutch people drew up the very first Declaration of Independence in 1568, ceding from the Spanish Empire, proceeded to found the first viable Republic (since the Romans did some 17 centuries beforehand) and founded the first multinational businesses in the world, the Dutch East India Company and the Dutch West India Company. These companies traded goods across Europe and other continents, focusing on its colonies (present-day Indonesia and Surinam). The West India company did not shrink from slave trade.

In order to satisfy local markets grains and meats and vegetables were shipped in by merchants and farmers who ran their business according to capitalist market principles, calculating investments and returns, producing and shipping for the market. New very economical types of ships (in terms of bulk load and personnel) were built. These ships boasted the latest technology and only needed a minor crew. Grains and wood were thus shipped in at minor cost from the Baltic, passing the Danish Sont waters. Wine and spices were traded with southern harbours. The warehouses of Amsterdam were bursting with stored goods. There was also land hunger within Holland. Dykes were built around lakes and and areas of land were reclaimed by superior windmill pumping technology. Farmers working these reclaimed lands invested in intensive farming on a large scale.

Both transatlantic trade, stock exchange and moneymarket flourished until England, France and the German states decided in 1672 that their clout had returned and that enough was enough. And went to war.


The Netherlands and its neighbors 

The Netherlands now has about 15 million inhabitants, living in safety one of the richest economies in the world, being cradled by a social security system which is soft cushioned by U.S. standards. The government structure is a well designed and well oiled social democracy, crowned by queen Beatrix.

Holland's eastern neighbour is Germany, the 'big brother', with whom economic ties are strongest. But there is a strange cultural schism in both language and custom. Amongst the Dutch studying German Language is practiced only in small numbers. Popularity polls showed that Germans did and do not rank #1 but then recently the realisation crept in that this old antagonism could not be continued in an unified Europe, World War II being over and gone some 50 years. But an authoritarian voice of a German still gets the hairs right up. I have heard those voices - my hair reacted.

The western overseas neighbor, insular England, lies across the North Sea. Dutch people generally speak a wee bit of English, and sometime even passably so. Dutch nationals work well with English nationals in many companies (Royal Shell and Unilever for instance). This is rather strange as England is known for its many layered class structure whereas Holland is nurturing an all pervading egalitarian view of society, stemming from the philosophy of the reformation age. No deacons, no bishops, no popery were acceptable anymore. Only earnest hard days of work of the individual sinner in the face of God.

Belgium, which is Hollands southern neighbor, was created as a state after the Napoleonic wars had upset the balance of European nations. Belgian inhabitants are either the Dutch speaking Flemish in the north or the Francophone Wallons in the south. The Belgians make wonderful chocolate and are Burgundian in their lust for food and good life but still often wonder who they are. The Flemish/Dutch language is nowgetting the upper hand as in the north the economy grows while the mines and steel mills of the south dwindle. Flemish/Dutch language is allowed to breathes again after a century and a half of Francophone domination. The will power to speak and write correct Flemish is so strong that formal language education is often superior. During TV contests on grammar and spelling teams from Flanders often win from those from Holland. Belgian schools are organized according to authoritarian principles which set them apart from the Dutch ones.


No Flag waving

The Netherlands enjoyed some 300 years of political stability except for two unwelcome incursions by occupational troops, the first by the French (crossing the great rivers under Napoleon in the winter of 1794-1795) and the second one by Germans (under Hitler, may 1940). It may be regarded odd (from the viewpoint of the USA) that most Dutch people feel no inner need to wave flags or sing national anthems very often (these being outward signs, reinforcing national identity). This must be because the Dutch national ego has been so stable for so many centuries that it is self evident and requires no drum beating. Thus events like flag burning would hardly happen and cause no eyebrow to lift.


Merchants and clergymen

This national identity is marked by a sense of egalitarian liberty, a passion for free trade and a profusion of independent religious beliefs including a tendency to preach these and yet, in strange contrast, a primal necessity for mutual cooperation pervades in order to build and maintain protection against the ever menacing North Sea water. The national banner reads 'Luctor et emergo': 'I struggle and I come up (for air)'. Dykes, locks and and pumping mills work hard around the clock to keep the waters out of the soggy flatlands which Dutch forefathers reclaimed from the sea.

This combination of fierce independence when private religious beliefs are at stake and primal necessity for cooperation resulted in the national pastime for discussion. This was necessary in order to reach a consensus and a common ground for mutual action. This desire for consensus actually still permeates every level of society, from factory workfloor upwards to high government offices. As a strange result, Dutch labour productivity is not low as so much valuable time is lost on idle talk.

In fact the opposite is true: national productivity is highly efficient, actually amongst the highest in the world as employees are supposed to use their wits and personal imagination to understand the job and get the necessary work done the best possible way. At work it is quite common to contradict one's boss and come up with alternative plans or ideas. Those plans are then discussed until finally another concensus is reached and work is done with an increased sense of responsability and interest.

The modern, efficient latter day boss often does not need to come in at the work place to monitor his employees on a day to day basis. Employees often work independently and merrily on until it is time to talk about problem areas or to question the master plan. Then the Dutch talk again and get things worked out. And start working again.


To tolerate

To tolerate is regarded as allowing the other to go about their business in a restricted way. The national pastime of tolerating requires a short historical explanation. When the Dutch Republic was founded in the 16th Century the Dutch Reformed Church became more or less a state church. The Roman Catholic minority were still allowed to attend mass. The only outward rule to be observed was that their churches should not be recognizable as such at the street front. Thus in Dutch towns there werea number of Roman Catholic 'hidden churches'. It was outlawed but sort of accepted when not actually seen. Don't ask - don't tell.

Although 'soft drugs' are still nominally outlawed the mind boggling Dutch practice of 'gedogen' (= quietly allowing that which is officially outlawed) allows a great number of coffeeshops to freely sell small quantities (now 5 grams at a time) of hashish/marihuana to anybody who asks for it. This tolerating by the authorities of popular practices which cannot be succesfully quelled has historical roots which are centuries old in the Netherlands. It is a custom which is not understood by the French who believe in a straight line of reason and centralized order - strictly adhering to logic and putting the letter of the law into effect. In discussion these are two languages and philosophies colliding.


Teenage pregnancies?

One of the highlights of the Dutch model of openly dealing with the facts of life is the relaxed way in which sex is discussed with youngsters. The major highway for sexual enlightenment for girls and boys now stems from articles in many girl magazines such as 'Yes' which cater to the needs of girls of about 11 to 16. On a weekly basis questions and answers about sex are candidly and openly discussed, comparable to those in an USA issue of 'Cosmopolitan'. Thus girls know about relationships and where sex and rubber articles come in.

From the 1960's onwards medical doctors or bureaus such as 'Rutgers' offices have advised women on matters of birth control. These matters are also presented candidly in schools. One of the pleasant side effects is that the incidence of venereal disease and teenage pregnancies is exceptionally low when compared to any other country.

Homosexuality accepted - more or less

From the 1950's onwards the gay and lesbian 'COC' organisation advocated 'coming out' and integration of gays and lesbians in mainstream society. Due also to novels and public manifestations of authors such als Gerard Reve the acceptance of the 'gay life style' has rooted quite firmly. Having a gay man or woman or couple living in the neighborhood is quite regular and generally accepted.

Within families the emergence of a gay son or a gay daughter often causes some initial anxiety which has to be worked out before a new equilibrium sets in. Many Dutch are proud of the full scale social acceptance which gays enjoy and consider it an achievement of their society. Ms. Dales, the late Minister of the Interior (State Department) was gay. The Dutch law on race and gender discrimination states it is prohibited to hamper a gay person on the basis of his or her sexual identity. Homosexual weddings are however not yet allowed but city councils provide room for 'cohabitation contracts' which provide many of the legal advantages which are bestowed to married couples. Adoption procedures of a child by a gay couple is still under discussion.

Red Light District

Anybody visiting the Amsterdam Red Light District will notice scantily clad ladies standing or seated behind windows, caught in red spotlights, showing their goods. After eye contact is made these ladies open the door go for a discussion on services to be rendered and fees to be paid.Although still outlawed by the letter of the law the practice has been for dacades that law enforcement and the taxman accept the fact that there is such a thing as paid sex. As society has its irrepairable imperfections city officials wage no war but only arrange health and taxation and let the ladies of the night and their clients go about their still illegal but openly condoned business. Pimping is however frowned upon.

Street prostitution in cold and rainy streets - often by heroin addicted hookers - forms the seedy low price and HIV dagerous end of the prostitution business. Often neighborhoods are not happy seeing men in cars cruising up and down their streets trying to pick up their lady of the night. City councils are then forced by these neighborhoods to move the business elsewhere. So deserted industrial areas have now been reserved for this low life carnal hunt. And the strangest manifestation of an all-out practical approach to prostitution must be the recent introduction of the so called 'afwerkplek'. This is a setup in a remote, secluded parking area in which individual parking spaces are separated by low fences. Men in cars can first pick up their lady of the night and drive to that 'afwerkplek' to go about their business. The word 'afwerkplek' can be loosely translated as the spot (=plek) in which clients are 'worked off'. Trash cans are provided for this business generates some wasted rubbers and kleenex. However, no showers are available. Perfection has its limits.


Seventeenth sentury: In order to get some form of birth control, one could choose several methods: abstinence ; restricting lovemaking to certain days of the woman's monthly cycle ; coitus interruptus ; or using the vaginal syringe. See a unique Dutch example from the seventeenth century.


Copyright april 1997 (Contents has NOT been updated since).

Kees Kaldenbach