How To Be Happy Though Little by Jerome K Jerome

Story type: Essay

Folks suffering from Jingoism, Spreadeagleism, Chauvinism–all such like isms, to whatever country they belong–would be well advised to take a tour in Holland. It is the idea of the moment that size spells happiness. The bigger the country the better one is for living there. The happiest Frenchman cannot possibly be as happy as the most wretched Britisher, for the reason that Britain owns many more thousands of square miles than France possesses. The Swiss peasant, compared with the Russian serf, must, when he looks at the map of Europe and Asia, feel himself to be a miserable creature. The reason that everybody in America is happy and good is to be explained by the fact that America has an area equal to that of the entire moon. The American citizen who has backed the wrong horse, missed his train and lost his bag, remembers this and feels bucked up again.

According to this argument, fishes should be the happiest of mortals, the sea consisting–at least, so says my atlas: I have not measured it myself–of a hundred and forty-four millions of square miles. But, maybe, the sea is also divided in ways we wot not of. Possibly the sardine who lives near the Brittainy coast is sad and discontented because the Norwegian sardine is the proud inhabitant of a larger sea. Perhaps that is why he has left the Brittainy coast. Ashamed of being a Brittainy sardine, he has emigrated to Norway, has become a naturalized Norwegian sardine, and is himself again.

The happy Londoner on foggy days can warm himself with the reflection that the sun never sets on the British Empire. He does not often see the sun, but that is a mere detail. He regards himself as the owner of the sun; the sun begins his little day in the British Empire, ends his little day in the British Empire: for all practical purposes the sun is part of the British Empire. Foolish people in other countries sit underneath it and feel warm, but that is only their ignorance. They do not know it is a British possession; if they did they would feel cold.

My views on this subject are, I know, heretical. I cannot get it into my unpatriotic head that size is the only thing worth worrying about. In England, when I venture to express my out-of-date opinions, I am called a Little Englander. It fretted me at first; I was becoming a mere shadow. But by now I have got used to it. It would be the same, I feel, wherever I went. In New York I should be a Little American; in Constantinople a Little Turk. But I wanted to talk about Holland. A holiday in Holland serves as a corrective to exaggerated Imperialistic notions.

There are no poor in Holland. They may be an unhappy people, knowing what a little country it is they live in; but, if so, they hide the fact. To all seeming, the Dutch peasant, smoking his great pipe, is as much a man as the Whitechapel hawker or the moocher of the Paris boulevard. I saw a beggar once in Holland–in the townlet of Enkhuisen. Crowds were hurrying up from the side streets to have a look at him; the idea at first seemed to be that he was doing it for a bet. He turned out to be a Portuguese. They offered him work in the docks–until he could get something better to do–at wages equal in English money to about ten shillings a day. I inquired about him on my way back, and was told he had borrowed a couple of forms from the foreman and had left by the evening train. It is not the country for the loafer.

In Holland work is easily found; this takes away the charm of looking for it. A farm labourer in Holland lives in a brick-built house of six rooms, which generally belongs to him, with an acre or so of ground, and only eats meat once a day. The rest of his time he fills up on eggs and chicken and cheese and beer. But you rarely hear him grumble. His wife and daughter may be seen on Sundays wearing gold and silver jewellery worth from fifty to one hundred pounds, and there is generally enough old delft and pewter in the house to start a local museum anywhere outside Holland. On high days and holidays, of which in Holland there are plenty, the average Dutch vrouw would be well worth running away with. The Dutch peasant girl has no need of an illustrated journal once a week to tell her what the fashion is; she has it in the portrait of her mother, or of her grandmother, hanging over the glittering chimney-piece.

When the Dutchwoman builds a dress she builds it to last; it descends from mother to daughter, but it is made of sound material in the beginning. A lady friend of mine thought the Dutch costume would serve well for a fancy-dress ball, so set about buying one, but abandoned the notion on learning what it would cost her. A Dutch girl in her Sunday clothes must be worth fifty pounds before you come to ornaments. In certain provinces she wears a close-fitting helmet, made either of solid silver or of solid gold. The Dutch gallant, before making himself known, walks on tiptoe a little while behind the Loved One, and looks at himself in her head-dress just to make sure that his hat is on straight and his front curl just where it ought to be.

In most other European countries national costume is dying out. The slop-shop is year by year extending its hideous trade. But the country of Rubens and Rembrandt, of Teniers and Gerard Dow, remains still true to art. The picture post-card does not exaggerate. The men in those wondrous baggy knickerbockers, from the pockets of which you sometimes see a couple of chicken’s heads protruding; in gaudy coloured shirts, in worsted hose and mighty sabots, smoking their great pipes–the women in their petticoats of many hues, in gorgeously embroidered vest, in chemisette of dazzling white, crowned with a halo of many frills, glittering in gold and silver–are not the creatures of an artist’s fancy. You meet them in their thousands on holiday afternoons, walking gravely arm in arm, flirting with sober Dutch stolidity.

On colder days the women wear bright-coloured capes made of fine spun silk, from underneath the ample folds of which you sometimes hear a little cry; and sometimes a little hooded head peeps out, regards with preternatural thoughtfulness the toy-like world without, then dives back into shelter. As for the children–women in miniature, the single difference in dress being the gay pinafore–you can only say of them that they look like Dutch dolls. But such plump, contented, cheerful little dolls! You remember the hollow-eyed, pale-faced dolls you see swarming in the great, big and therefore should be happy countries, and wish that mere land surface were of less importance to our statesmen and our able editors, and the happiness and well-being of the mere human items worth a little more of their thought.

The Dutch peasant lives surrounded by canals, and reaches his cottage across a drawbridge. I suppose it is in the blood of the Dutch child not to tumble into a canal, and the Dutch mother never appears to anticipate such possibility. One can imagine the average English mother trying to bring up a family in a house surrounded by canals. She would never have a minute’s peace until the children were in bed. But then the mere sight of a canal to the English child suggests the delights of a sudden and unexpected bath. I put it to a Dutchman once. Did the Dutch child by any chance ever fall into a canal?

“Yes,” he replied, “cases have been known.”

“Don’t you do anything for it?” I enquired.

“Oh, yes,” he answered, “we haul them out again.”

“But what I mean is,” I explained, “don’t you do anything to prevent their falling in–to save them from falling in again?”

“Yes,” he answered, “we spank ’em.”

There is always a wind in Holland; it comes from over the sea. There is nothing to stay its progress. It leaps the low dykes and sweeps with a shriek across the sad, soft dunes, and thinks it is going to have a good time and play havoc in the land. But the Dutchman laughs behind his great pipe as it comes to him shouting and roaring. “Welcome, my hearty, welcome,” he chuckles, “come blustering and bragging; the bigger you are the better I like you.” And when it is once in the land, behind the long, straight dykes, behind the waving line of sandy dunes, he seizes hold of it, and will not let it go till it has done its tale of work.

The wind is the Dutchman’s; servant before he lets it loose again it has turned ten thousand mills, has pumped the water and sawn the wood, has lighted the town and worked the loom, and forged the iron, and driven the great, slow, silent wherry, and played with the children in the garden. It is a sober wind when it gets back to sea, worn and weary, leaving the Dutchman laughing behind his everlasting pipe. There are canals in Holland down which you pass as though a field of wind-blown corn; a soft, low, rustling murmur ever in your ears. It is the ceaseless whirl of the great mill sails. Far out at sea the winds are as foolish savages, fighting, shrieking, tearing– purposeless. Here, in the street of mills, it is a civilized wind, crooning softly while it labours.

What charms one in Holland is the neatness and cleanliness of all about one. Maybe to the Dutchman there are drawbacks. In a Dutch household life must be one long spring-cleaning. No milk-pail is considered fit that cannot just as well be used for a looking-glass. The great brass pans, hanging under the pent house roof outside the cottage door, flash like burnished gold. You could eat your dinner off the red-tiled floor, but that the deal table, scrubbed to the colour of cream cheese, is more convenient. By each threshold stands a row of empty sabots, and woe-betide the Dutchman who would dream of crossing it in anything but his stockinged feet.

There is a fashion in sabots. Every spring they are freshly painted. One district fancies an orange yellow, another a red, a third white, suggesting purity and innocence. Members of the Smart Set indulge in ornamentation; a frieze in pink, a star upon the toe. Walking in sabots is not as easy as it looks. Attempting to run in sabots I do not recommend to the beginner.

“How do you run in sabots?” I asked a Dutchman once. I had been experimenting, and had hurt myself.

“We don’t run,” answered the Dutchman.

And observation has proved to me he was right. The Dutch boy, when he runs, puts them for preference on his hands, and hits other Dutch boys over the head with them as he passes.

The roads in Holland, straight and level, and shaded all the way with trees, look, from the railway-carriage window, as if they would be good for cycling; but this is a delusion. I crossed in the boat from Harwich once, with a well-known black and white artist, and an equally well-known and highly respected humorist. They had their bicycles with them, intending to tour Holland. I met them a fortnight later in Delft, or, rather, I met their remains. I was horrified at first. I thought it was drink. They could not stand still, they could not sit still, they trembled and shook in every limb, their teeth chattered when they tried to talk. The humorist hadn’t a joke left in him. The artist could not have drawn his own salary; he would have dropped it on the way to his pocket. The Dutch roads are paved their entire length with cobbles–big, round cobbles, over which your bicycle leaps and springs and plunges.

If you would see Holland outside the big towns a smattering of Dutch is necessary. If you know German there is not much difficulty. Dutch–I speak as an amateur–appears to be very bad German mis- pronounced. Myself, I find my German goes well in Holland, even better than in Germany. The Anglo-Saxon should not attempt the Dutch G. It is hopeless to think of succeeding, and the attempt has been known to produce internal rupture. The Dutchman appears to keep his G in his stomach, and to haul it up when wanted. Myself, I find the ordinary G, preceded by a hiccough and followed by a sob, the nearest I can get to it. But they tell me it is not quite right, yet.

One needs to save up beforehand if one desires to spend any length of time in Holland. One talks of dear old England, but the dearest land in all the world is little Holland. The florin there is equal to the franc in France and to the shilling in England. They tell you that cigars are cheap in Holland. A cheap Dutch cigar will last you a day. It is not until you have forgotten the taste of it that you feel you ever want to smoke again. I knew a man who reckoned that he had saved hundreds of pounds by smoking Dutch cigars for a month steadily. It was years before he again ventured on tobacco.

Watching building operations in Holland brings home to you forcibly, what previously you have regarded as a meaningless formula–namely, that the country is built upon piles. A dozen feet below the level of the street one sees the labourers working in fishermen’s boots up to their knees in water, driving the great wooden blocks into the mud. Many of the older houses slope forward at such an angle that you almost fear to pass beneath them. I should be as nervous as a kitten, living in one of the upper storeys. But the Dutchman leans out of a window that is hanging above the street six feet beyond the perpendicular, and smokes contentedly.

They have a merry custom in Holland of keeping the railway time twenty minutes ahead of the town time–or is it twenty minutes behind? I never can remember when I’m there, and I am not sure now. The Dutchman himself never knows.

“You’ve plenty of time,” he says

“But the train goes at ten,” you say; “the station is a mile away, and it is now half-past nine.”

“Yes, but that means ten-twenty,” he answers, “you have nearly an hour.”

Five minutes later he taps you on the shoulder.

“My mistake, it’s twenty to ten. I was thinking it was the other way about.”

Another argues with him that his first idea was right. They work it out by scientific methods. Meanwhile you have dived into a cab. The result is always the same: you are either forty minutes too soon, or you have missed the train by twenty minutes. A Dutch platform is always crowded with women explaining volubly to their husbands either that there was not any need to have hurried, or else that the thing would have been to have started half an hour before they did, the man in both cases being, of course, to blame. The men walk up and down and swear.

The idea has been suggested that the railway time and the town time should be made to conform. The argument against the idea is that if it were carried out there would be nothing left to put the Dutchman out and worry him.

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