Keep it keurig!

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Blogger Michaela Smith explains the true meaning of 'keurig' and its role in Dutch society.

Brits were always amazed that I’d choose to live in the UK rather than in tolerant, clean and wealthy Holland. I used to pre-empt lengthy explanations with “my mother lives in Holland and the place ain’t big enough for the both of us”. Now that I’m back here, Mother is everywhere.


Uniformity reigns supreme.

She’s Balkenende’s norms and values, complying with the letter of each and every law; she’s the driver wagging a finger at a Speedy Gonzalez “just you wait - they’ll catch you”; she’s the neighbour scrubbing the pavement on Fridays and wagging her finger at me on Saturdays over my unscrubbed patch. She’s the respectable, house proud, status driven, brand conscious middle class that eats potatoes at six o’clock sharp, opposes Sunday shopping and thinks a big house and a generous pension are the highest ideals. She’s pro everything that’s good for the Dutch economy but against multiculturalism. Her grandchildren should not want to watch the BBC – they live in Holland now. The place ain’t big enough for the both of us.


The problem I have with the politically and socially dominant class of people like my mum and Balkenende is that they’re ‘keurig’. This is a word like ‘gezellig’, that the Dutch will proudly tell you has no translation. Gezellig is a concept, a typically Dutch sentiment. The word is related to gezel (companion) and gezelschap (company) and expresses a kind of togetherness, a common experience of enjoying the occasion. ‘Keurig’ means something like respectable or proper. It comes from the noun keur meaning select, choice (as in: a choice cut of beef) but the verb keuren means to inspect, to control. By extension, add the prefix ‘be’ (bekeuren) and you have ‘to fine’ or ‘af’ (afkeuren) and you have ‘to disapprove’.

Keeping it 'keurig'

Redecorate your house anywhere in the world and your friends will praise your colour scheme, use of space, creativity or perseverance. In Holland, they will tell you it is painted ‘keurig’, that the curtains have been hung ‘keurig’. The countless things that the Dutch do to a near-obsessive degree, like wash their cars on Saturdays, rid the garden of every fallen leaf and petal, mow lawns and verges to the prescribed number of millimetres all derive from a deep-seated need to be seen to be ‘keurig’. You are what you present. In fact, the famed Dutch custom of leaving the curtains open is for the sake of presentation.

They’ve even coined the phrase ‘residential tourism’ for wandering aimlessly around towns and villages peering into people’s houses and gardens. Holland’s reputation for cleanliness, then, rather than hygiene being rooted in the public consciousness, actually is merely because the neat and tidy domestic sphere is extended into public space. I have a sneaking suspicion that the same is the case with what foreigners think is tolerance – if you can confine or contain prostitution, drugs and even dying, you can keep it neat and tidy. Keurig.

When Ugandan-born author Moses Isegawa came to live in Holland, he quickly sussed what made Dutch people tick. Asked why he spent so much time indoors in his flat, where he was writing his first novel, he’d answer he was studying bookkeeping. His Dutch audience would nod approvingly, a ‘keurig’ occupation.

Keurigheid or respectability - for want of a more accurate translation - is at the very core of the national identity. To make a sweeping generalisation, it determines everything from individual behaviour and routines through policy-making and legislation to town planning and interior decor. And so logically, laws and regulations emerged, mostly in the 1970s, which define Holland’s need to be keurig in terms of uniformity. Own a house in a terrace and you will only be granted a permit to put a dormer window in the roof if the rest of the terrace joins you. Heaven forbid that your house sticks out like a sore thumb. Sheds and other outbuildings must be placed at a certain distance from the boundary of your land so that you’re able to access the blind side for maintenance. Heaven forbid it looks scruffy.

It is also not keurig not to pay your bills and again, this is embedded in law – individuals must pay their bills first and argue later, even if the bill’s not right. As if you’ll ever get your money back from giants like KPN, Nuon or Vodafone! But the epitome of keurig must be what the Dutch call ‘welstandscomité’ – a kind of voluntary vetting committee that determines the tone of the neighbourhood and tells you whether you are allowed to have green rather than brown window frames, or to build a garage at the front or back of your property. Finally, many social groups – sports clubs, student houses, music societies – have what’s called ‘balotage’, a committee that decides which of the many candidates on the omnipresent waiting lists best matches the standing of the club.

The smaller the bricks,
the costlier the house.

Toning it down


So you see keurig to contain umpteen layers of inherent values, prejudice and judgement. It’s much easier to dismiss things as not keurig than to define what is. Subdued, toned down is keurig; flamboyant or glamorous is sluttish – even when very expensive. A measured attitude and interest is respectable; enthusiasm or passion is not. In other words, doing or being anything that sets you apart from the crowd is simply not done. Not surprisingly, even children must be keurig. And if they’re not, if they’re overly enthusiastic, rebellious, contrary, loud, they’re diagnosed as having something wrong with them and are transferred to a special school. If they’re overly intelligent or quick, they get cut down to size. The expression is ‘if you stick out above crop level (maaiveld), you get mowed down’. Hardly surprising that this economy is desperate for expats to bring a wind of change and add a touch of excellence.

In essence, the concept is Calvinist. Oddly, when a Dutch person says ‘Calvinist’, again there’s a whole range of inherent behavioural values. Wikipedia gives: “in common usage, Calvinism denotes a collection of characteristics that would appear to be typically Dutch. Restrained conduct, restraint in expressing emotion, thrift, a hard work ethic and not flaunting your successes or wealth”. In other words, the more restrained and thrifty you are the more respect you command. This presents a dilemma because being thrifty; people might just think you’re poor. How then show the outside world that your wealth puts you a cut above the rest?

What Golden Age Dutch came up with is this. You have your house built out of tiny bricks. You use hardly any cement. In fact, the most expensive houses used rye porridge, a potent adhesive of no thickness at all. The tinier the bricks and the thinner the pointing, the longer a bricklayer had to work and the higher the cost of your house. Translated to more recent times, this same kind of snobbery affected brand-name clothing. 'La Coste' shirts were all the rage but no-one wanted to flaunt the price of their garb. So they removed the alligator logo. Next, to prevent people from thinking the shirt was a cheap imitation, they left in some of the thread to hint at the original presence of the logo.

Some one else will tidy up.

There’s always a lash back, though. The generation of 40 to 50 somethings that are now the dominant tone-setters have raised their children in such an ostensibly respectable but stifled way that when the offspring leave home, they have few skills. Dutch mothers don’t allow their children in the kitchen lest it gets dirty. So today’s youngsters cannot cook. Parents tidy up after their children so the kids drop everything where they stand. Keurig may just be on the verge of extinction. Pity its death throes are accompanied by so much litter.


21 June 2007

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[Copyright Michaela 2007]

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