Last weekend I was sitting out in my garden, drinking coffee in a T-shirt and shorts. The sky was a vivid blue speckled with fine clouds and the temperature had languidly risen above 20 degrees for a third successive day. It was October. And my thoughts drifted inescapably towards the peculiar relationship the Dutch have with their weather.
There’s a website called Stuff Dutch People Like that’s a bible for new arrivals trying to negotiate the quirks of Dutch customs: the Byzantine birthday rituals, the lethal staircases, the mystifying things they spread on their sandwiches. But one major omission from the list is “pretending it’s cold”. As soon as the mercury dips below 21 degrees for longer than five minutes the Dutch dust down their puffer jackets and cycling waterproofs, head for the nearest cafe and huddle around mugs of hot chocolate with marshmallows, planning their next Mediterranean break, while the Scots and Norwegians look on in bemusement.
When I arrived in The Hague in April I spent a week with my in-laws at a beachside chalet while the builders put the finishing touches to the house. One afternoon I went out to the patio with a cup of coffee. It was maybe 18 degrees, a few podgy clouds were making a half-hearted attempt to conceal the sun and a gentle breeze was wafting over the dunes – the kind that might inspire a newspaper to drift up from the table momentarily before settling down wearily, like an old dog reacting to a scuffling at the door. But my mother-in-law greeted my announcement that I was going outside as if I was stepping onto the deck of a ship in a force 10 gale. When I suggested it was fine weather she declared: “There’s a cold wind”, pulled her arms around herself and scrunched up her face in a parody of someone battling to carry their groceries home on a blustery February night in Shetland.
A few weeks later I met my next-door neighbour for the first time. After introducing himself he said almost immediately, unprompted: “Well, you can’t have moved here for the weather.” This was odd, because one of the things I was looking forward to about moving to the Netherlands was the long summers and frequent sunshine. And so it proved. Since early May I’ve been taking the children to school by bike every morning, and in all that time I’ve been in danger of getting wet about three times.
In Glasgow shorts and T-shirts were things that came out for holidays and went straight back in the drawer once the fortnight’s respite was over; here they serve as standard school-run wear before and after the summer holiday. In The Hague it’s a disaster if the sun doesn’t show for three days, a phenomenon which in Scotland is known as a decent July. Once when I lived in Glasgow, in the middle of an unusually tepid summer, the TV reported that the mercury had soared to 27 degrees for the first time in four years. The Dutch are scandalised if it hasn’t hit 25 by May.
And the statistics back me up. Over the course of the year The Hague basks in more than 1800 hours of sunshine – that’s nearly 50% more than Glasgow manages (1280). The average temperature in August is nearly 3 degrees higher (22.3 degrees to 18.5). To be fair, Scotland’s best months are usually May and June, after which the rain arrives, just in time for the school holidays, and continues to pelt down until mid-March.
Granted, the west coast of the Netherlands sees a fair bit more rainfall than its Scottish counterpart – 828mm per year compared to 668. But again there’s a key difference. Rain in the Netherlands falls in concentrated bursts – sometimes extreme enough to cause major flooding – after which the skies clear and the pavements are usually dry within an hour. Scottish rain can linger for weeks at a time, as persistent and irritating as a swarm of midges. Dutch rain, typically, is more efficient. It comes in fast, puts in a heavy shift and then clears out.
Moreover, there are little clues that the weather isn’t quite as unforgiving as the locals would have you believe. If you look at an aerial shot of a Dutch city you’ll see that every available scrap of roof space is crammed with potted plants, sunloungers, candles on sticks and miniature sheds. In Scotland anyone who regarded the top of their house as a suitable place for recreation and entertainment would be committed to a psychiatric institution, if the wind didn’t take care of them first. Dutch houses are also equipped with zonwering: colossal shades overhanging the giant upstairs windows that are diligently lowered at the first hint of sunshine. Because the one national pastime that marks the Dutch out even more than pretending it’s too cold is pretending it’s too hot. As soon as the temperature juts above 24 degrees for longer than five minutes the Dutch pull on their vests and shorts, crank down the zonwering and sit about drinking iced tea, planning their next skiing holiday, while the Spaniards and Australians look on in bemusement.
The odd thing about all this is that in winter the Netherlands gets properly cold. Most Januaries the canals freeze over and the rooftops reverberate to the sound of Dutchmen rooting around in their sheds in search of their long-lost skates. (If you think Dutch bikes are the terror of the highway, incidentally, wait until you’ve seen them out skating.) Every couple of years it gets so bitterly cold that the country spends weeks in the grip of a near-mythical event known as the Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour), a mass skating marathon, last staged in 1995, that depends on the province of Friesland living up to its name. Only when the ice along the entire 200km route is 15cm thick can the race go ahead. Hence winter news bulletins are often given over to shots of lycra-clad middle-aged men pulling measuring rods out of the ice and scrutinising them as if they contained the formula for eternal life. Competing in the Elfstedentocht is the Everest of Dutch sporting achievements and, like scaling Everest, chiefly involves trying not to freeze to death in a hostile snowbound terrain. The most famous race was in 1963, when 10,000 people set out in the silvery pre-dawn gloom but just 69 finished. On the plus side, sales of hot chocolate and marshmallows went through the roof.