Netherlands II: Trading Places

Haarlem and Amsterdam are good cities to ponder the Dutch Golden Age, when a backwater became a superpower, with some remarkable things happening along the way. The story illustrates how everything affects everything else, usually with unintended consequences. Catholic Spain kept its hold on the Spanish Netherlands, now Belgium, and expelled all Protestants, Jews, and non-Catholics of every stripe. Antwerp and Bruges kicked out their most mercantile peoples, and Amsterdam took them in; they entered a steep decline and Amsterdam boomed. Where other states were run by aristocrats or churches, the Netherlands were run by middle-class merchants. With no altarpiece commissions, the painters turned to domestic subjects, with thrilling results. More interested in trade than evangelism, they eclipsed the Portuguese as seafaring explorers, and were the only people permitted to have contact with Japan in its two centuries of sakoku. The Dutch East India Company arguably laid the foundations of globalised capitalism that we so dearly cherish today.

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Netherlands I: Orange Order

I was worried I might find the Netherlands insipid. Belgium I really like for its chips, chocolate and beer, its well-documented strangeness, and because a country that is more of a buffer zone than a country, with two tribes who hate each other and are incapable of sharing it obviously resonates with me. The Dutch have their flare-ups around race, immigration, Zwarte Piet and Geert Wilders, but compared to most it seems a sorted and grown-up place, quite bereft of self-importance and happy to live and let live. This may come from having been conquered by Napoleon and Hitler; had we been invaded since 1066, it might have done us some good. Here, you can walk into a shop and buy drugs as easily as a pint of milk, and treating people like adults appears to make people behave like adults (we ought to try it some time). Indeed, I appear not to have come back with any spectacular stories, but I have come back with a full appreciation of the pleasures of a country where everything works, and everything is remarkably easy.

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