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Typical NL: Volcanoes and scuba diving

How well do you know the Netherlands? I always considered myself to be quite well educated and knowledgeable in political geography, but lately I’ve been forced to revise my attitude – the Netherlands is killing me. Somehow I doubt whether even the Dutch themselves completely understand their country.

When I think of the Netherlands, I think of flat fields, the North Sea, dunes and polders. I grew up with the knowledge that the highest point in the Netherlands was just around the corner – the Vaalserberg right at the border to Germany and Belgium, at 323 metres above sea level. According to some rumours, the Dutch even tried to artificially raise top of the hill to make it higher than the German and Belgian areas of the Drielandenpunt point, but I don't know how much truth there is to this. To my great surprise, however, the Netherlands recently grew much higher.

The concept of colonialism seems so alien to the 21st century that I find it difficult to grasp at all. How can a country appropriate a piece of land at the other end of the world? It feels like distant history, times long past. Like so many other European countries, the Netherlands had colonies, for example Suriname, which became independent only in 1975. However, not all Dutch colonies are now independent. The Netherlands Antilles were dissolved only in 2010. The larger islands became unitary states, as part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but the smaller islands (Bonaire, Saint Eustatius and Saba, the so called BES islands or Carribean Netherlands) became part of the country itself. The Kingdom of the Netherlands now officially consists of four countries: Aruba, Curaçao, Sint Maarten and the Netherlands.

To make matters more complicated, these BES islands are part of the Netherlands (country and kingdom), but not part of the European Union: their official currency is the US dollar. Yet, their inhabitants are allowed to vote at national and European elections.

I can't help but feel that it's all a giant scheme to make the Netherlands even more confusing than Belgium, the unofficial champion of complicated states. Or was it merely to finally have a higher mountain than Belgium? Since the BES islands now belong to the Netherlands, the highest point in the country is no longer the Vaalserberg, but Mount Scenery, a volcanic mountain on Saba that stands 877 metres above sea level. Either way, from now on, when I think of the Netherlands I’ll think not only tulips and windmills but also volcanoes and scuba diving – what a country!


Tim Aretz



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