I’ve moved to the Netherlands four months ago. People around the world usually think about marijuana, alcohol, and the color orange when they think about the Dutch.
But there is something else, something truly admirable and inspiring about the Dutch people which has inspired me in many ways: the elderly people.
Older people in the Dutch community are much different than any other elderly people I’ve ever seen in my life. They’re independent, strong, shining on, and generally happy.
I’m grown up among the people who were much older than me, and the culture of the place where I’m coming from dictates that the elderly are dependent on the youth, and the youth must take care of them. Not so surprisingly, one of the most common reasons for young men and women in Middle Eastern cultures (including Iran) is to have a spouse and children to take care of them when they’re old.
This culture made me hate the elderly for how dependent they are, and also prefer dying over becoming old, as the culture offered no other paths than relying on the others.
The Dutch culture, however, dictates the opposite. It encourages and offers an alternative path. I see the older people riding their bikes, doing their own shopping, participating in social activities, and even investing in startups, and I see this every day. The elderly are not a burden and isolated part of the community, but an active and effective group of people who are still willing to have an impact on their community. Truly admirable.
One of my very first encounters with the Dutch happened on the second day after landing in the country. My partner, one of our friends, and I were walking in a park when we saw a sweet, sweet Dutch old woman, holding 5 heavy bags of groceries she was carrying these bags on foot with difficulty. I couldn’t unsee her, and not offer any helps. I knew she might not speak English, and I couldn’t speak Dutch to her. So, I tried to offer my assistance in the most non-offensive way mostly using my body language.
“Can we help you with your bags, madam?” I stepped forward and I asked as gently as I could. The lady was easily over 90, and you could easily see how tired she was. She must have walked a long distance.
“Well, if you’re so kind. My house is not very far from here. It’s less than a kilometer.” she instantly replied in relief, and in English, of course. I was surprised. She spoke clearly, with excellent English, and accepted our offer with a smile that I won’t forget.
Each of us took a bag or two. “I go shopping every two weeks. I have to buy enough to suffice me for two weeks. I have to walk two kilometers to get to the center, and two kilometers back to my house.” she said.
We had to pause every few minutes, so the lady could catch her breath. “You’re not Dutch?” she asked me. “No ma'am. We landed here two days ago.” I replied. “Where are you from?” she asked, “Iran,” I replied. “Do you know where Iran is?” I asked. “Well yes, it used to be called Persia, am I right?” she responded.
I was surprised by how well her memory is. “There’s a very nice Persian supermarket near Stadshart.”, she noted, “I bought the stuff I put in that white bag from there.”, she said while pointing at the shopping bag that my partner was holding.
When we reached her house, I asked her “your grandchildren help you, right?”, “Well, yes, dear. But they’re busy living their own lives. They visit every week, but on Sundays.” she replied.
Amazing, amazing. She wasn’t expecting that her grandchildren let go of their own lives, and help her, even though, she clearly could use some company. Independence, even when you’re old, is a total contradiction to what my culture dictates.
A few weeks later, I told a Dutch person this story, and she replied: “You’re lucky she accepted your offer. Most of them won’t. They’d be insulted. They don’t want anyone else’s help. They want to keep their independence by working so hard when they’re able to, working out, studying, and contributing.”
I used to hate getting old. The Dutch took another path and showed me how getting old is not synonymous with being a burden or a pain in your [grand] children's asses.
This, one happy moment of realizing that you don’t have to follow your ancestors, made me take a very different course of action. I used to think that I want to die when I’m 50, but hell no, I want to live up to 100. I want to keep my independence through the years and live as I want to. I want to project some light on the dark, brooding shadow of despair and hopelessness of getting old.
I’m still trying to figure out the correct course of action in order to achieve this great goal. But, now that I see such a goal is defined, and it’s in my reach, it’s much easier to try my best.
Thank you, oma, for inspiring me!
Image credit goes to Aaron Andrew Ang