An old but still hilarious post by Kevin Lowe, a wonderful piece of cultural observation.
So your Dutch colleague (or your girl/boyfriend) says to you, “Hey, why don’t you come over to my place on Saturday, it’s my birthday”… And you think great, I’m making friends here, this is really kewl. Yo, party with the Dutch.
And like a good party-goer, you take a shower, put on a bit of cologne and dress up a bit for that you-never-know-who-you-might-meet moment.
OK, so the party is called for five in the afternoon on a Saturday, but no problem-o, that must mean dinner, and so you get a nice bottle of wine for your host and head off, fashionably late. Bzzzz.
Enter the world of the circle party.
Circle parties are a uniquely Dutch version of hell – which level, I’m not sure, but on the enjoyment scale they fit somewhere between doing your taxes and going to the dentist.
Imagine if you will, a group of adults sitting in a circle on folding chairs. You will be expected to shake hands and introduce yourself to everyone of them. Who brought their grandmother, you might be thinking, and why is she wishing me congratulations? Did I win something?
No, you did not. Take your gezellig seat and sit down for a cup of coffee. Cold coffee. And a piece of could-be-cake, could-be-pie, sure-is-awful.
Respond to every cold fluid and sawdust-flavoured morsel with a grin and mmm, lekker! Who brought their kids, and why are they running around? How can there be so much smoke when the party just started? And the heat… Why is there no heat? It’s November and the bloody door is wide open.
For the next two to six hours, everyone will sit in that neat little circle and try to make polite conversation.
Do not try to impress them with your Dutch or knowledge of Dutch society, because you will be wrong. Rather, talk about the quaint little things you like here; mention your travels; discuss Seinfeld. Keep it light. Do not mention that people are dressed as if in pre-1989 Poland; do not ask if you were supposed to bring a gag gift costing less than five euro.
There is no food. You got your cake, so shut up. Though the clock is moving slowly enough to prematurely age your twin on another planet, though it has struck six, seven, eight o’clock, there is no dinner. Did they say dinner? Maybe you were supposed to eat beforehand.
And so it goes. Even Dutch people hate these things, and how could you not? How can you party with your new friends with Tante Helena showing you her surgical scars and little Jan-Jaap sticking the raisins from his cake up your nose.
It’s not so much a party as an obligation; like flossing.
When Dutch people want to be friends with you or to entertain you, they invite you out, or they will explicitly say dinner-party, barbeque… anything but the dreaded birthday party.
You cannot be part of Dutch society and avoid the circle party, but I do have some tips:
First of all, I limit my Dutch partner to six circle-party-credits per year, each good for four hours of “fun” with the family.
An eight hour circle party (yikes, Christmas) uses up two credits; no more credits, and gosh, we’re so booked up!
The second tip is to set a time limit, say two hours – if you wait for the party to break up naturally, you could have already developed stage ten lung carcinoma, not to mention malnutrition.
Finally, don’t worry about being an oddball-buitenlander. Pick up a magazine and read, wander around and snoop, make calls from the other room. Trust me, nobody will notice.
But don’t forget on your way out to say goodbye to Tante and Oma and cousins Jaap, Jan and Joris – all of them — again with the handshake (or three-kiss if they try) and the obligatory “wasn’t this gezellig“. Well wasn’t it?
Until the next time.
P.S. The Dutch take an obtuse pride in saying gezellig is not easily translated, but I find that it can easily be interchanged with “this sucks.” Try it, and you’ll see what I mean.
Kevin Lowe ia Canadian expatriate living in Amsterdam.