We are celebrating our 75th anniversary as British Council in the Netherlands in 2021 by sharing 75 personal stories from people who have a special connection to both the UK and the Netherlands. Read the 75 NL-UK stories and join us in celebrating our 75th anniversary. Watch the video messages by Anna Holligan and David Gregson here and expand the boxes below to read the full stories by Anne-May Janssen, Alex Lawrence, Marcel Levi and Marlise Kruishoop.
75 UK-NL Stories - Culture
When I moved to the UK four years ago, I didn’t know that I would come to feel so very much at home in this country. Everything from exploring the countryside with its rolling hills, sweet cottages, local pubs (can I get an Amen for local pub food?) and visiting grand historic houses, to sipping G&Ts after work with colleagues in wonderful over-the-top London bars. I love it all.
My colleagues at Universities UK International are excellent people who have been kind enough to take me along for the ride. Starting out though, I did have to decipher the British way of giving feedback and learn that ‘good’ means ‘start over’. So now, anything below excellent is not going to cut it for me anymore.
I have developed a deep respect for The Queue (and give death stares to anyone who dares to cut it), drink copious amounts of tea (without milk – sorry, I just can’t), apologise all the time, and use hyperboles left, right, and centre. This all came so easy that I think I may have been British in a previous life.
Though I am moving back to the Netherlands this summer, the one thing that will always tie me to this beautiful country is that my now husband proposed to me in the Cotswolds. It was the most romantic proposal in the history of proposals (she said completely unbiased) and cemented my years here in the UK as some of the happiest of my life (yes, yes, cheesy, I know – but true nonetheless). I am going to miss you, my dear UK.
But! I foresee many trips back to stock up on proper tea, brush up on British etiquette, and walk lazily through the streets that feel like home.
Having moved from the UK to Amsterdam nearly 15 years ago at the age of 23 to be closer to my then girlfriend (now wife), I was determined to immerse myself in the Dutch way of life and make this place my home. That proved easier than expected in some ways, but far harder than you may imagine in others. Being British in the Netherlands, you can feel a shared idea of culture and history everywhere, whether the artworks in the Rijksmuseum, or the love of football, or the fact that English is spoken so widely (in Randstad at least). From day one, it doesn’t feel so far from home. But perhaps that conversely makes it more difficult to fully assimilate? There are so many people in Amsterdam with similar stories, Brits and other nationalities here for work, or love, or both. You can find your very British rut and stick in it. For me, this was all the more acute for having worked at the British Embassy in The Hague for a number of years, I wasn’t likely to feel any more Dutch surrounded Brits all day! Not that any of this was a bad thing of course…
But then came my three children (our oldest Bo, and twins Toots and Jones) and it all began to change. Suddenly I was right in the middle of real Dutch life with the mostly Dutch parents at daycare, I was hearing far more Dutch at home, and generally spending more time wading through the Dutch system. And you know what? That early feeling of arriving in Amsterdam over a decade earlier was ebbing back – this really is a culture and a way of life not so different to the UK and being part of it felt more comfortable than ever. So much so, that we did something that would have been outrageous to the mind of the 23-year-old who arrived at Schiphol with one bag – we sold up in Amsterdam and moved the family to the beautiful countryside of Friesland, to the small Frisian village of Menaam. Not even a year on from the move, and I often think about the UK more frequently than ever, feeling nostalgic for all the things it has to offer, perhaps a feeling that is inflated because having lost all the bars and Brits of Amsterdam. But I’ve also been given such a wonderful warm welcome by neighbours and the community here that, maybe, it doesn’t feel so far from home after all.
After you, please
To make my way in London I quickly realized that using a car was not going to be very convenient in view of the continuous congestion in the city. But an excellent network of public transportation provided a good alternative and as a Dutchman I joined the thousands of cyclists in London.
Traffic in the UK is definitely different from the Netherlands. As in many other situations British people are polite, obedient and considerate of others. In contrast, in the Netherlands there is a continuous battle –if not war- between pedestrians, cyclists and cars and most traffic users will not stop at a zebra crossing and ignore red traffic lights.
For longer distances I decided to purchase a nice Italian scooter. Most of my English colleagues thought that riding a scooter was nothing less than a latent death wish. I did not realise that, although I am an experienced scooter driver for many years, in the UK I needed to have a motorcycle driving license. So, I passed the compulsory basic training and the theory exam and then it was time for my driving practice test. In most European countries the general rule is that traffic approaching from your right has priority but as people drive on the left side of the street in the UK, I was not sure whether in that case one has to give way to traffic approaching from the left. But even after repeatedly studying the Highway Code I could not find an answer to this simple question. Desperately, I eventually decided to ask this to my driving examiner before the test. When I asked him my question, he looked at me with a bewildered face and said: “In the UK, Sir, we do not have priority but we give priority”.
Neem nou Londen -Take London
The first cut is the deepest, so this is going to be about my first visit to London back in 1976. I was a student, just turned eighteen, and I had never been to the UK before, so it was mostly a land of mist and myth to me. Fortunately there was Peter Brusse’s invaluable guide of Neem nou Londen to steer us.
The rough sea of the channel crossing made for an unhappy start. Then, as now, the ship smelt of stale grease and musty upholstery. Not good on a seasick stomach. Still then, as now, most passengers made a beeline for the taxfree beer and the gambling. I saw a girl my age lose what looked like her entire holiday budget.
However, once we reached London things started looking up. We took one of those Black Cabs to our hotel on Bayswater Road and all was fine. The next day we worked out the intricate bus and Underground fare system and we thought nothing of stepping onto the rickety clunking lifts of the Underground. The only tricky thing left was to remember to LOOK RIGHT when crossing a street. We walked for miles to see all the sights.
The pound was historically low against the guilder in those days, so even we students could afford a lovely high tea at Fortnum & Mason’s as recommended by Peter Brusse. After that we stuck to milky strong tea and sticky tarts in museum cafés. Yes, of course the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery deserved our attention too!
After the free museum visits and the cheap lunches we could also still afford to buy a lot of tea in beautifully designed tins. At Harrod’s of course, like Neem nou London said. I kept those tins for years after. However the highlight of the trip had to be buying stacks of books at Foyle’s. What a selection! How wonderfully affordable!
Laden with tea and literature we walked to the railroad office on our last day and tried to make a reservation for the trip back to Harwich. Despite my new-gained experience of London I must have sounded a bit panicky, because the reassuring answer came, ‘Don’t worry, darling, everything is perfectly under control!’.
And it has been. Weird, wonderful Britain, with your rundown arcades, your charity shops on A-locations, your roads full of potholes, your strange politics and your lovely people: I hope to see you soon!