One thing that was very notable was the public presence of quite elderly people. This was an extreme example: an elderly man on a gurney (see him in the lower right of the photo) had been brought out to a cafe, and the woman with him was feeding him. He lay in the sun, among people. Adult women were frequently pushing very old people in wheelchairs in the market streets, giving them pastries, gently tending to them. The wheelchair-bound people greeted friends and seemed to be enjoying the sun and their friends. And the people pushing the wheelchairs, or tending the man on the gurney, seemed to be simply living their lives, not doing the old people a favor, or acting irritated or resentful. This is one of the biggest differences I noted between Holland and the US.
Like everywhere else, there's an enormous variety in the way people look. But there are a couple of frequently recurring Dutch 'looks.' This man looked characteristically Dutch to me. I see why people often use the adjectives 'sturdy' and 'hardy' to describe Dutch people:
And this young girl was just so beautiful, extremely self-possessed. I could hardly take my eyes off her, and shot this photo on the train without lifting the camera off my lap so she wouldn't know I was taking her picture:
This boy was on the same train with us. He had black leather wrist bands with wicca symbols, this backpack ("Six Feet Under") studded with enormous spikes, and heavy metal coming from his iPod. But his face was that of a young accountant, with silver-framed glasses, very square, and short, trimmed hair with mousse. He was impossible to put into any one category.
I'd bet my bottom dollar this guy is NOT Dutch:
The level of friendliness was interesting. People don't smile at you when you pass them (even if you smile), they don't nod or say hello, they will speak to you if you speak to them, and there's nothing unfriendly about it, but nothing more. I fell off my bike once (what a faux pas!) and the Dutch man right next to me simply stood there looking at me -- not a move to help. The proper response to nearly everything is pronounced "dahnk oo vell" which is thank you very much. In the US, transactions are ended with "thank you" but in the Netherlands, they say goodbye afterwards, which always took me off guard.
However, Marc's experience was different. Marnie and I would smile and nod at people and no one responded in any way. But Marc said that people frequently said hello to him in passing, even without his doing anything. Perhaps it's something about men vs women.
One really funny thing that happened a couple of times involved language. Someone would say something to us in Dutch, we'd smile and shake our heads and say "English", and they'd just carry on speaking to us in Dutch. They didn't talk louder, as dumb Americans sometimes do to people who don't speak English, they just continued the conversation as if we understood them. It made me happy.
We felt comfortable there, our presence was unexceptional, but we were easily able to get any assistance we needed. People were nice but not overly so, and they were never intrusive. They greet each other in passing but there doesn't seem to be an obligation to stop for a chat. I really liked it, a lot, and came home feeling kindly and positive about people from the Netherlands.