‘At the Bar’ is our series of thought-provoking talks hosted in our Amsterdam Studio each month. Our most recent guest was Colleen Geske, blogger and author of Stuff Dutch People Like: A Celebration of the Lowlands and Its Very Peculiar Inhabitants. We thought it would be nice to ask Robbie Checkoway, one of our regular ‘At the Bar’ visitors (you may have seen him in 3D before), to share his experience of the talk. Here’s Robbie’s story:
When Winnipeg native Colleen Geske first arrived in Amsterdam more than a decade ago, she was already a seasoned cultural observer. Having worked in Paris and the south of France, she knew all about how Europeans live, n’est-ce pas? Well, it didn’t take long before she began to notice a new and very different way of life. Three early observations tipped her off.
The first hint came at lunchtime on her first day in the office. Having become accustomed to leisurely midday meals at the local café, she abruptly came face-to-face with a canteen full of sliced bread smeared with unidentifiable, gelatinous matter (vaguely identified as “salad”) and grown men lapping up milk like prepubescent schoolboys.
The next clue that something strange was afoot came when a well-meaning colleague let her in on the open secret of Amsterdam’s infamous “junkie bridge” — an instant indoctrination into two more Dutch obsessions: bicycles and bargains. (Ultimately, she chose to purchase her two-wheeled transport from an actual bike shop.)
The final sign (as if she needed one) didn’t arrive until she began being invited into real Dutch homes. There, perched precariously above the toilet, she would find a curious calendar. Why does it have dates, but no days or year? And who are these people inscribed on it, like a memorial to their bowel movements? Is it some sort of guest book? Should she sign it to commemorate her own personal ablutions? (No!)
Yes, the Dutch penchant for remembering the birthdays of loved ones while relieving themselves pushed her over the edge. So she started gathering field notes — an intrepid anthropologist taking her first steps in a rare and exotic culture.
By 2011, Colleen used these firsthand insights into the life of the Dutch to satisfy her ambitions as an aspiring author. Resigned to the unlikelihood of attracting a publisher to her project, she did what any self-respecting writer would do in an age of social media and self-publishing: she built her own audience.
What started out as a blog evolved into a bestseller, with sales topping 50,000 copies and a Facebook page where a single video (like How To Ride A Bike With 3 Kids Plus Bags) can garner likes and shares in the hundreds of thousands.
To her surprise, Geske quickly spotted that her audience wasn’t at all who she expected. Comments were coming in hot and fast, not just from fellow expats, but from the Dutch themselves. It turns out that she had struck an emotional chord, particularly with those living overseas and feeling detached from their Dutchness. Her musings seem to muster a formidable mix of nostalgia, humour, pride, belonging, and identity for a people too often eclipsed by their better known European cousins.
Unlike other nations, who you might expect to be defensive in the face of perceived criticism, history seems to have made the Dutch uniquely comfortable with outsiders in their midst and able to laugh at their own idiosyncratic behaviour.
But Geske’s observations are anything but ridicule. They are a celebration of all that is weird and wonderful in her adopted land. In her own words, “I write about the Dutch in the same way you would tease a school crush on the playground, slightly taunting, but secretly with great affection.”
Today, Geske has a second book on the shelves (Stuff Dutch People Say) with plans for a third and a product line in development.
If you need any evidence that her powers of cultural observation are as acute as ever, look no further than the aftermath of her talk at Design Bridge. As a few of us were swapping experiences of Dutch frugality, a local colleague joined with book in hand. “Oh, did you buy a copy?,” we asked. “No, I got it for free!”