‘If you don’t like it, just wait for an hour’ – About the Dutch and their weather.
March 2022 | Written by – Willem van Hoorn
A recommendation that I sometimes give to international friends and colleagues is this one: ‘If you want to start a conversation with a Dutchman, just say something about the weather. Before you know it you will have a conversation going on’. The weather makes a favorite conversation topic in this country, because we have so much of it. And, by the way: complaining about the weather is just about our most important national pastime. This little paragraph formed the introduction to my blog post of this month: some observations about the Dutch weather.
From a meteorologist’s points of view: there are three main factors that determine the Dutch weather. The first is the relatively high northern latitude of the country. The second is its close proximity to the sea. And the third is the predominant direction of the wind here: from the west.
The northern latitude causes the wide variance in the length of daylight over the different seasons (actually it causes these seasons in the first place). To be more precise: the shortest duration of the sun being above the horizon in the Netherlands is below 8 hours, around December 21. And the longest is well over double that: around 16 hours and 45 minutes around the 21 of June. Both are give or take a bit depending if you’re in Maastricht in the south, or on the Wadden Islands in the north. These differences between summer and winter may be smaller than those you will find in, for instance, northern Scotland and Scandinavia, but they are still considerable, certainly for people that come from much closer to the Equator (*).
The close proximity of the sea is the reason that the Netherlands (and most of coastal north-western Europe for that matter) have a so called ‘oceanic climate’, also known as a ‘maritime climate’. Locations with oceanic climates tend to feature cloudy conditions with precipitation, though they can experience clear, sunny days. Despite the frequent precipitation, thunderstorms are comparatively rare, since hot and cold air masses do not meet frequently in the region. Precipitation comes in the form of rain for the majority of the year. However, some areas with this climate see some snowfall during winter.
Finally, this predominantly western direction of the wind makes the oceanic climate what it is. Most of the time the wind here comes from the Atlantic Ocean, and over the North Sea. It has more than enough opportunity to pick-up a lot of moisture. And those big water masses have a moderating influence on the air temperature: with the wind coming from the west it will neither get extremely hot nor extremely cold. It is only when the wind comes from the east, so from the continent, that we get hot and dry weather in the summer, and cold and dry weather in winter. Prolonged periods of these are infrequent, but may arise when a large area of high pressure settles over Scandinavia, causing a longer period of easterly wind.
Impact on culture
Living in an oceanic climate has had a profound impact on the Dutch culture, including the arts and the language. As an example: the relatively low angle of the incoming sunlight, for a large part of the year, in combination with the flat landscape and the sometimes massive clouds hanging over it, was a main source of inspiration for what are now known as ‘the Dutch masters’, the famous Dutch landscape painters of the 16th and 17th century, among whom the famous Jacob van Ruisdael, Adriaen van de Velde, Jan van Goyen and many more. Many of these painters seem to ‘work magic with light’. Well, they were surrounded by that light, for all of their life. In later days, someone like Vincent van Gogh, also created many ‘Dutch style landscapes’, especially during his early years. And many of these were painted in the area around the village of Nuenen, just east of Eindhoven.
In the do’s and don’ts of the Dutch you can see the weather reflected in a culture of living mainly indoors, compared to many countries in for instance southern Europe. Over the centuries the weather simply wasn’t that inviting to spend most of your time outdoor, and that has been embedded in the mindset of the people.
Finally, you can find the weather deeply entrenched in language. As an example: some peoples in the arctic have dozens of different words for ‘snow’. Because knowing those differences and being able to communicate them effectively can be a matter of life and death. In a similar manner, the Dutch language has many different words for rain. From the equivalent of ‘downpour’ and ‘cloudburst’ on the one hand to that of ‘a mild little drizzle’ on the other, and everything in between.
‘And there are also many Dutch proverbs and sayings about the weather, or with weather based metaphors in them’. Just to mention: ‘de wind in de zeilen hebben’ (‘to have the wind in the sails’). That is good: it means that things are being beneficial for you, things are going your way. Not so good is ‘de wind van voren krijgen’ (‘to be given a headwind’): you have done something wrong, and someone is very firmly telling you so!
I could spend entire blog posts about Dutch proverbs and sayings, and I may actually do so somewhere in the future. For now just some sayings that have to do with the weather in the weeks to come. Like ‘Maart roert zijn staart’ (March wags its tail). Meaning that the weather in March can go all over the place. One moment you can have ferocious showers (‘Maartse buien’, as the Dutch call them, ‘March-like showers’) while the next moment you have the brightest sunshine possible.
And for a bit later in the year: ‘April doet wat hij wil’ (‘April does what it wants’) and ‘Aprilletje zoet heeft soms nog een witte hoed’ (‘Sweet little April sometimes still has a white hat’). Indicating that even in April, a month that usually sees the weather here become much milder, you can sometimes still have some snowfall).
I will stop here, for now. Maybe with this one recommendation that I heard someone say the other day, about the Dutch weather being so prone to changes: ‘If you don’t like the weather, just wait an hour’.
(*) If you’re interested in these data about the sun: there is a nice app to monitor the rising and setting of the sun and moon, their azimuths, altitudes, the length of daylight and much more, for every location on earth. It is called ‘LunaSolCal’, and it is available for IOS, for Android and for PC.
Willem van Hoorn
He works as a Policy Advisor Internationalization at Eindhoven University of Technology. He has been leading several projects and initiatives in the Brainport region to achieve integration and internationalization. When he’s not reading or writing, Willem is often brainstorming for innovative ideas, connecting with others, or bicycling towards the coast.
He is an exceptional Dutch Culture Expert and Storyteller!
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