Friendly “Street people”

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Deb and I just got back from a two-week journey of the country The Netherlands, otherwise known as Holland. We had the privilege of having some ideas of where and what we might see and do but not have anything in stone allowing ourselves the freedom of seeing what seem to be the right thing to or see on any particular day. This way of traveling is quite different from the way many folks travel as they have every day planned and every motel scheduled. We much prefer to see how the days unfold, opportunities arise, and disappointments come as we trust our feelings. This way of going about traveling reflects what we call a “low boundary” way of life, i.e. seeing how the days, weeks, and years unfold holding to a need for spontaneity and freedom. I will discuss “high boundary people” and “low boundary people” more extensively in a future blog, but allow me to talk about the “street people of The Netherlands” that we met and how they affected us.

The “street people” in The Netherlands are not the street people what we see in all of our US cities, people who are often homeless, helpless, and hopeless getting by on a few handouts by passers-by and maybe a few from a government agency or charity. The folks that I am calling street people are all over the place. We encountered them in every city, often several different places in the same city. They are certainly not helpless, hopeless, and homeless. Quite the opposite. They are, perhaps, the friendliest people we have ever met in our travels, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world. But let me explain how we came to meet so many Dutch street people, or rather how they came to meet us.

If you go about traveling with this “low boundary” orientation, you have to take the joys and the sorrows associated with such an approach to traveling, although a low boundary orientation has more to do with how one goes about life as a whole more than just traveling. Nevertheless, unless you are on some kind of guided tour where you jump on and off a bus and see the standard sites, you will often find yourself at a loss. You won’t know where you are or how to get to where you want to go. This could happen when you are in some kind of busy square in the center of Amsterdam trying to figure out what direction is north, a street corner in another part of Amsterdam wondering how to get to the Rijksmuseum, or in the train station trying to figure out what train to catch to get to Haarlem. Picture yourself in one of these situations looking around for some kind of street sign or directional sign. Deb and I found ourselves in these situations many times, and we must have looked pretty confused in our looking at a map, the GPS on our cell phone, or staring hopelessly at the street signs that are (usually, but not always) on the buildings. It’s a rare thing to see a real street sign on a post where one street goes north and south and the other east and west.

In this state of visible confusion enter the street people of The Netherlands. As we are standing, as stand-out confused Americans, we are approached by one or more street people asking, quite simply, “Can I help you?” “Can I help you” rings a pleasant note in us as we seem to have encountered an angel in disguise. Our American individualism is disturbed by this friendly gesture by a previously unknown stranger who now seems to be something like a long-lost cousin. My heritage is Swedish, so I am thinking, “Is this gal somehow related to the Vikings who tended to raid and pillage The Netherlands a thousand year ago?” while Deb thinks, “Did my Scottish clansmen do the same a few hundred years later?” We’re both wrong, although the population of The Netherlands has indeed been infiltrated by the likes of the Vikings, the Scots, the Celtics, the Franks, and the Germanic tribes over the centuries. All of this thinking disappears as this previously unknown person smiles and is clearly quite comfortable rendering help to what must appear to be quite a spectacle to him. Taken aback for a moment, we accept the invitation to help us find our way in this foreign, but friendly land.

Our first encounter with a Dutch street person took us by surprise, but after the same thing happened at least another dozen times, we began to trust that this sort of thing is a part of the culture of the country we were visiting. So, whether we were in a train station, a bus station, or just standing confused on a street corner, these 12 or more people came up to us unannounced and always with a friendly face and, of course, with perfect English. The best we could respond in Dutch was “dank u wel” (pronounced “dahn-u-vel”), meaning thank you much. Yet these friendly Dutch didn’t seem to need the appreciation as it seemed to be in their national character to render help to a stranger in some kind of need. There were even some circumstances when we were helped by a stranger who actually said nothing but just nodded, like when we were on a train that we thought was going to Schiphol Airport having heard us ask each other whether we were on the right train. Then he just went back to reading his newspaper.

We had a great time with the flowers, as one would expect this time of year, Amsterdam, of course, exploring the dykes and biking the roads, but these encounters with so many kind, unassuming strangers in a strange land truly affected us. Several times we asked these people why they would just offer help without so easily and freely. Their answer very often was, “Of course,” meaning, “Well, this is just natural for us to do. Isn’t it natural for everyone?” So we have come away from our wonderful trip to The Netherlands with great appreciation for the Dutch spirit of helping one another out. We had a few opportunities to express our appreciation for this Dutch spirit of help that seemingly erupts from the best of “socialism,” meaning the feeling that we are all in the world together and we help each other when someone is in need.

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