Birthdays in Holland: Before Facebook, the Dutch Showed the Love on Real Walls, and Other Notes on the Netherlands

Birthday Love!

I celebrated my birthday three weeks ago. Hooray, 34! Dozens of friends and family members sent me their congratulations, greetings and all around good vibes on my Facebook profile. A friend recently said, “I love Facebook birthdays. You really feel the love.” I very much agree. (That’s the Leo in me talking.)

Not everyone agrees with us, and I see their points, though I myself disagree. Sam Biddle of Gizmodo’s User Guide said, “On Facebook, your birthday is automated and empty because nobody has to devote a single shred of mental energy to remembering or celebrating it.” And JD Rucker at Soshable commented, “We used to get cards. We used to get calls. We used to get visitors. Today, we get wall posts.” 

Maybe Sam and JD should take birthday trips to the Netherlands.

Recently, I visited my cousin Marissa in the Netherlands, and our first day out, we spotted something interesting: A house decorated with balloons – er, one huge inflatable statue – and a giant homemade banner for someone’s birthday. And it wasn’t for a child’s birthday, interestingly. In the United States, some parents and grandparents go all out for their children’s birthday parties. (Don’t even get me started on the uber-materialistic MTV’s My Sweet Sixteen.)

This Dutch lady celebrated her twenty-fifth birthday.


In the Netherlands, someone’s birthday is a big deal. I’m waiting for an accurate English-language translation – not from Google Translate! – but, basically the banner praises the birthday celebrant and her life.

Now that’s showing some birthday love.

What’s up with the half-lady inflatable statue? Another birthday celebrant on the other side of town answered that question.

This birthday celebrant rang in her fiftieth birthday! The decorations included an elderly lady mannequin riding a Harley-Davidson planted in the front yard (very regrettably, I didn’t get a picture of that).

“Oh cool!” I said.

“A fiftieth birthday is a VERY BIG DEAL. They call it their Sarah or Abraham birthday,” my cousin said. And here I was thinking someone else named Sarah was celebrating her birthday…

The Dutch tradition of a Sarah/Abraham birthday references Sarah and Abraham of the Bible. In the Dutch culture, when one reaches the age of 50, it’s a sign that one has become a complete man/woman with the wisdom of the years. So, therefore when one reaches her 25th birthday, she’s half a woman. Get it? (Check out the links in Related Articles below for some awesome blog posts about Sarah/Abraham birthdays and other Dutch birthday traditions…)

Passing my 34th birthday, I find it completely refreshing to see age celebrated and praised so publicly, since I come from a (media) culture that prizes and is obsessed with youth. Especially when it comes to women. Men, as they age, become distinguished, dashing gentlemen – a là silver fox George Clooney; women get older, haggard and obsolete. I say, like a fine wine, I get better with age! Well done, Dutch!

Soused Herring is Yummy

It’s herring, marinated in brining or pickling sauces. So it’s not cooked per se with heat or over fire. Ok, shoosh – you eat sushi, so don’t hate. While the innards, head and scales are removed, they leave the tail on, so you have a nice – though slippery – little handle to hold your food with.

The Dutch have a very interesting way of eating their soused herring, too. Of course, when in Holland, do as the Dutch do… Except I didn’t eat the thing in one ginormous bite. But I ate it all, and yes, it was delicious!

But my favorite Dutch food still to date are stroopwafel. And any self-respecting town with a Sunday market has to have their own pastry truck where you can buy the stroopwafel fresh off the griddle, along with other goodies… I waited over a decade to have fresh stroopwafel! You just can’t replicate this at Trader Joe’s. Nope, not by a long shot.

Gas is Eight Dollars a Gallon?!?!!

The herring truck happens to be across the street from a gas station. A liter of gasoline in the Netherlands costs €1,73, or $8.08 per gallon. And the Dutch government, through the imposition of taxes on gasoline and car permits, makes it very expensive to own an automobile. Combined with the very flat terrain of the Netherlands, the natural choices for transportation are either public bus or train or bicycle. And, boy, everyone – young and old alike, without helmets – bikes here. Dedicated bike lanes snake everywhere around the town and the country. Protests in the 1970s forced the Dutch government to change, responding to spikes in children fatalities caused by automobiles, the oil crisis in the Middle East and the over-congestion of cities with ancient city centers not designed for automobiles. The Dutch are now the gold standard when it comes to countries with cycling-friendly and encouraging policies (though the Finnish are attempting to take that title, according to the New York Times). Bust out the padded bike shorts, it’s time for a bike ride!

And speaking of the Dutch Government…

After our Sunday market square jaunt, we happened upon this banner. Of course I was like, Gee, this country really knows how to welcome a gal with banners and everything. Of course it wasn’t for me (Sarahlynn Pablo), it was to promote the Dutch Socialist Party. Yes, that SP! We stopped to talk to one of the guys giving out information. Elections for the Dutch Prime Minister will be in September. And the political parties start campaigning a few months ahead of the election, which is so nice compared to a year’s worth of ad saturation and stumping back at home. (Incidentally, yes – I will be voting in the US Presidential Election, and you can too, even if you are traveling abroad on November 14!) When we returned home, I did some research on Dutch politics and learned that a few months ago in April, their Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his cabinet had resigned since his coalition government failed to pass EU austerity measures. I need to do more research on how and why the Rutte resignation took place (obviously the Dutch parliamentary monarchy system is different), but it makes me wonder: how would things be different in the United States if the President and his/her cabinet were forced to resign once talks to pass specific legislation failed or when consensus across party lines could not be reached?

10 thoughts on “Birthdays in Holland: Before Facebook, the Dutch Showed the Love on Real Walls, and Other Notes on the Netherlands

  1. About the Dutch government. This is a multi party system. To make decisions you need to have the majority. To form a govenment some of the parties have to compromise and make a coalition. If one of the parties in the coalition disagrees with certain actions they’ll get out of the coalition and elections are needed.

    • Bert, thank you for the comment and the clear explanation. I wonder how things get done, how does the nation move forward if one disagreement (though the issue may be important) can dissolve an entire coalition government. If you have any thoughts on this, please share. I find it fascinating. Thanks again.

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