The Netherlands: No Country for Weak Men

November 15, 2021

"If you want things to get done in the Netherlands, you have to push, push and push hard!". The words of that Dutchman still resonate in my head. For the first time I understood that things are not easy peasy in this country as I romanticized for so long. For the record, I always rather hear the naked truth and that one felt as a shock and relief in equal measure as from that moment onwards, I wasn't the odd one out anymore. As weird as it might sound, our conversation was about my indignation towards how late women start taking preventive measures to reduce breast cancer mortality.

Although this confession and current frustration is not about the lack of routine check-ups here, it is worth mentioning that Brazilian women from 35-years old have annual mammography whereas in the Netherlands the screening program is designed for those between 50 and 75 years old (every 2 years). It didn't surprise me to learn that the Netherlands has the third highest rate of breast cancer in the world (Belgium and Luxemburg rank top of the list). Not to mention pap smears which happen only every five years! It's impossible not to wonder why prophylactic health methods are such a foreign concept to this first world country.

Which leads me to my latest frustration-cum-nightmare: for 20 days, I went without hot water or heating at home. Never did the words of that Dutchman feel so right! My landlord, through the eyes of his real estate intermediary, neglected the need of replacing our 20-year-old boiler for a new one. Such a job was supposed to be done sometime last year when the maintenance company came in and advised so. Our boiler not only wasn't replaced when it should have been but it also almost caught fire. For the record I was at home with my cats. That Friday night scared the hell out of me and the smell of smoke was the most alarming signal I could have to start a riot.

Before I get into that, lesson number one: Dutch people are the least money spenders I've met so whatever they can do to save a coin, they will. Even if this means repairing things thousands of times instead of buying a new - decent - one. Sometimes I wonder if the expression DIY (do it yourself) was invented here...

Would you believe it if I told you that my first complaint about the poor efficiency of our boiler was in December 2020? Back then, the winter was hitting us pretty hard while the endless lockdown plus the curfew aggravated our miserable situation. On top of that, my windows are surrounded by little cracks through which the no-kidding Dutch wind came in harshly to the point I saw myself wearing a scarf, gloves and beanie at home, even if the heat was on. I swear this is no joke.

My first attempt to ask for help was in vain. I told you that Dutch people always have a DIY solution for things in general. The first advice from the landlord's agent endorsed by my DIY neighbor was to purchase isolation tape and glue it around the windows. Are there strong enough tapes to shield a 36km wind? I wondered. Apparently no but still we did as suggested.

I've since come to find out that repairs and renovations in most Dutch properties need to be approved first by the VvE (Vereniging van Eigenaars) which means Association of Owners. If one single member of the VvE is not in agreement, nothing will be done. And boy do they have a particular pace to solve things! (or is it just me spoiled and used to paying to get things done like in Brazil? Maybe).

Bottom line, it all comes down to consensus, an everlasting modus operandi that dictates the way decisions are made: the first inhabitants of this country realized that in order to prevent the land from sinking (at least 50% of the Netherlands is below sea level) everyone should cooperate with each other thereby finding a common purpose to get things done. Which, in most cases, takes ages to happen, from politics to Corona measures to boiler replacement.

Well, the President of my building’s VvE happens to be my neighbor from above and he didn't seem to care that much until I called the non-governmental association called Woon which, in general terms, is the one tenants ask for help when they face serious problems that are being neglected.

Fast forward to October when our boiler almost caught fire. You may ask why nothing has been done before that and my answer is pretty simple: there must be an alarming situation to make things move here. During the preceding months I lost count of how many emails and phone calls I exchanged with the agent, begging them to do something about that bloody boiler and the windows. Afterwards we discovered it wasn't a simple matter of just replacing our own boiler but also all the other ones: the internal system of the building was so battered that all pipes, ducts etc. needed a complete revamp.

On November 5, almost one year after I turned into an eskimo, warmth and order have been restored to our lives again. Never have I felt so cosier at home. The Netherlands might be one of the most prosperous, safe, civilized, wealthy and beautiful countries in the world. And God knows how much I praise this place. But one thing is for sure: the perfect first world country is an illusion and if you choose the Netherlands to call it home, you better be willing to roll up your sleeves.

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