The Netherlands is small enough that a burst of vigorous driving will get you from one corner of the realm to the other in a morning, and you can travel by train from Amsterdam to the farthest point of the rail network in an afternoon. The nation's 42,000 sq. km (16,500 sq. miles) are among the most densely populated in the world, holding 16 million people, or approximately 1,000 per square mile. The crowding is most noticeable in the Randstad (Rim City), the heavily populated area that includes the cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, the Hague, Leiden, Haarlem, Utrecht, and Delft. Elsewhere, the land is much more sparsely populated.
For the visitor, Holland today presents much the same face it has over the centuries -- a serene landscape and an industrious population who treasure their age-old tradition of tolerance and who welcome people of all political, religious, and ideological persuasions. In recent years, though, there have been indications that, faced with threats from radical Islamists, the welcome mat is wearing thin.
Holland is a constitutional monarchy headed by the ever-popular Queen Beatrix of the House of Orange (opinion surveys regularly give her an 80% approval rating). The heir apparent is their oldest son, Willem-Alexander (b. 1967).
Let's clear up some matters of nomenclature. Dutch is the result of a 15th-century misunderstanding on the part of the English, who couldn't distinguish too clearly between the people of the northern Low Countries and the various German peoples. So, to describe the former, they simply corrupted the German "Deutsch" to Dutch.
The term Holland, too, is a bit of a misnomer since, strictly speaking, it refers only to the provinces of Noord-Holland and Zuid-Holland and not to the whole country. The Dutch themselves call their country Nederland (the Netherlands) and themselves Nederlanders. But they recognize that Dutch and Holland are popular internationally and are here to stay so, being a practical people, they make use of them.
Dutch people have a passion for detail that would boggle the mind of a statistician -- and a sense of order and propriety that sends them into a tailspin if you mess things up. They organize everything (people, land, flower beds), and they love to make schedules and stick to them. They may allow you to indulge an occasional whim, though they haven't a clue what it means to "play it by ear."
"The Dutch Disease" is what a conservative U.S. columnist called Holland's social liberalism. But not many of the hookers in Amsterdam's Red Light District are Dutch, and relatively few denizens of the smoking coffeeshops are Dutch. If Amsterdam's a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah, it's one mainly for visitors.
The uniquely Dutch combination of tolerance and individualism impacts areas of personal and social morality that in other countries are still red-button issues. In 2001, the world's first same-sex marriage, with a legal status identical to that of heterosexual matrimony, took place in Amsterdam. The Dutch Parliament legalized regulated euthanasia ("mercy killing"), making the Netherlands the first country in the world to do so. And then, there's prostitution and drug use.
Authorities are not duty bound to prosecute criminal acts, leaving a loophole for social experimentation in areas that technically are illegal. It has been wryly said that the Netherlands has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe because whenever something becomes a criminal problem the Dutch make it legal. Don't laugh -- at least not in Holland -- or you may find you've touched the natives where they're tender. The Dutch will take aim at anyone, on any issue, outside their borders. Just so long as it's understood that everything inside has arrived at that hallowed state of perfection.
Popular opinion notwithstanding, narcotic drugs are illegal in the Netherlands. But the Dutch treat drug use mainly as a medical problem rather than purely as a crime. The authorities distinguish between soft drugs like cannabis, which are considered unlikely to cause addiction and pose a minor health risk, and hard drugs like heroin and cocaine, which are highly addictive and pose significant risks to users' health. Both types are illegal, but the law is tougher on hard drugs.
The Netherlands has significantly lower rates of heroin addiction, drug use and addiction in general, and of drug-related deaths than Britain, France, Germany, and other European countries that criticize Holland so fiercely on this issue.
Prostitution is legal in Holland, and prostitutes work in clean premises, pay taxes, receive regular medical checks, are eligible for welfare, and have their own trade union. The streetwalker "heroin whores" need to be excluded from this ostensibly idyllic picture of the world's oldest profession.
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