One of the most prominent cultural differences that Ive encountered during my stay in the Netherlands is birthday protocol. Birthdays, for me, conjure connotations of singing 'happy birthday' in a darkened room, gathered around a birthday cake with candles and wishes. The Dutch, however, do things a little differently. When I asked about traditional birthday foods I was met with blank looks of confusion. You'll find no sausage rolls, pineapple and cheese on sticks or jelly and ice cream here. The main aspect of this that I find most challenging is the lack of actual, real birthday cake. As a kid there was nothing quite like coming home from a birthday party and digging out the piece of birthday cake at the bottom of the party bag; peeling off the icing and saving it til the end. Heaven. A piece of apple tart, lovely though it is on any other day, just doesn't cut the mustard!
And I know you Dutchies love a boterham, (that's a sarnie to you Brits) but is a birthday really an appropriate time to be celebrating this mundane lunch food? It's customary to pulverise the life out of countless things and call it a meal in the Netherlands and sandwich fillings are apparently no exception. They'll blend just about anything and slap the sloppy mess between their bread, the worst being Filet Americains (essentially just a chunk of raw meat passed through a blender). To me, this is no way to celebrate turning another year older. The increasing number is enough to remind me of my impending death, I don't need an early glimpse into the winter of my life by sucking my sandwich through a straw. The Dutch love sandwiches so much that they find them an appropriate figure head to place on the front of birthday cards. No, I'm not joking. Here is the proof:
Also, it is generally just expected that you will provide some sort of birthday party for your friends and family on your birthday. You are the host and you wait on your guests (who you basically didn't even invite) until they have reached their fill of sandwiches, tart and a good old game of shitting nails (you'll have to enlist the help of our trusty friend Wikipedia on this one). But I have to wonder how or even if, anyone ever gets thrown a surprise birthday party here. Perhaps on a surprise birthday no one turns up, who knows? I hate the whole big birthday fuss thing so perhaps next year when my mum asks the annual question as to whether I'd like a surprise party (it's not a surprise if you ask me if I want a surprise party) I'll tell her to throw me a Dutch one!
The other strange thing about birthdays is that people congratulate the other party guests on the birthday of the person whose birthday it is. It has taken me a few times to work this one out and I still just sort of smile and nod when I get lunged at with an outstretched hand. If all else fails, just pretend you know what's going on and that it's not wildly bizarre. Perhaps fill your face with a boterham so it's not immediately obvious that you haven't got a clue how to offer a correct and appropriate response. Oh and if you can help it, try not to buy a 'Get Well Soon card' by mistake for a five year old's birthday. Though I'm pretty sure a cartoon frog with googly eyes on the front is more birthday appropriate than a sandwich, surely?