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Chapter 5: culture: Travel

Cafe de Zaak, Utrecht – for Sex Education

Utrecht-cafe

August is perfect for sitting outside at the Café de Zaak in the Korte Minrebroederstraat. The decent beers on tap, plus a generous bring-your-own-meal policy make this one of the nicest cafes in town.

If one’s honest, there are really some very intriguing locals here. Floris has just asked if you’d like a mushroom Bitterballen and Saartje is encouraging you to try the latest Pure Noodzaak. There’s someone you like the look of sitting by the window, reading a paperback by Marion Bloem. Maybe you could end up in their bed tonight. It’s not something you’d necessarily rush to tell your colleagues or your parents: but it’s true. Your unconscious knows it. You realise that without quite accepting the fact, you have come to Utrecht as a sex tourist.

Sex tourism sounds horribly sleazy, deeply pathetic and beyond the pale. We associate it (in its poshest guise) with a rich Western man, an uptight, over cerebral, metropolitan character, finding despicable release in the cheaper brothels of the third world. Sex tourism means self-indulgence and exploitation. No one can remotely deny that such things are vile. But to say that all sex abroad is always repugnant is to miss (for very understandable reasons) the more constructive possibilities which lurk in the vicinity of the term sex tourism: the possibility of getting closer to a nation and its virtues by sleeping with a local person.

Why would one even seek to do so? Because we are all inevitably a bit unbalanced. The course of life makes all of us excessively one thing or another; misanthropic or gregarious, competitive or too fearful of rivals, too focused on money or overly carefree… A search for the missing parts of ourselves – for the dispositions which will balance us and allow us to grow more complete – often feeds a desire to travel to a particular place. The uptight person may seek a Latin country. The slightly chaotic one feels drawn to the virtues of a northern Protestant land.

The Netherlands has developed a national talent for ambitious ordinariness. Dutch culture is very keen to stress human equality. Yet its image of what it is to be ‘average’ or ‘ordinary’ is stylish and sophisticated. It’s ordinary to ride a bike wearing a big floppy hat and to take a peek at a poetry book by Herman Gorter at the lights. It’s ordinary to keep your house immaculately tidy. Liking Spinoza’s philosophy doesn’t feel more posh than supporting Ajax or Feyenoord. Psychologically, the Netherlands is the national home of a crucial, elusive combination: dignity and equality. We already have an intuitive sense that the Dutch (like so many other nations) can offer us something we need.

The real question is: how does one access it and make it one’s own?

Our cultural traditions suggest we should visit museums. That’s always where we’re meant to go in order to sense and imbibe the national spirit; in order to be educated. But many of us wind up at the Rijksmuseum more from lack of imagination than any real interest in de Hooch or Van Ruysdael.

In truth, the virtues of the Netherlands are better found in the people, not in the art. But a chat over a beer might not be quite enough. There might be other, more committed places to explore national identity and virtue: in the bedroom. So what’s needed now (and what the Café de Zaak may provide, especially if one dares to say hello to someone soon) is the most potent educational force known to humankind: the brief affair abroad, in a country one deeply admires.

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