Ian Buruma Reflects on His Birthplace, the Hague


People from The Hague, so the old story goes, pack their potatoes in violin cases instead of ordinary shopping bags. That is to say, they eat potatoes, just like you and me, but they like to put on airs, show off their refinement. This tale is not meant kindly. The Hague, where I was born, has a reputation for insufferable snobbery.

To understand why, one must consider the peculiar nature of The Hague. Even though Amsterdam is the cultural and commercial capital of the Netherlands, The Hague is where the government is and where the royal family normally resides. The business of The Hague is politics, diplomacy, and bureaucracy. The snootier sports and gentlemen's clubs still won't accept members who are "in trade."

Wealth in The Hague tends to be more than a generation old, or so Hague people like to think; passed on from illustrious forebears, with double-barreled names, or accumulated in the colonies, specifically the former Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia.

In fact, since it never had walls, The Hague was never officially a city, but a mere town, established in the 13th century around an aristocratic hunting lodge. In the 17th century, when Holland was at the peak of its power, The Hague was known as "The Mightiest Village in Europe." Not much is left of that period. There is more 17th-century architecture in Amsterdam.

The grandest houses in The Hague date mostly from the 18th century, when French Huguenots, escaping from Catholic persecution in France, built in the elaborate style of Louis XIV. Naturally, the upper class prided itself on speaking in French, even to one another. Remnants of these airs were still around when I grew up there in the 1950s and '60s. Some people insisted on pronouncing perfectly ordinary Dutch words in the French manner, which might have made them unintelligible to regular folks, but that, one assumes, was precisely the point.

Pretentiousness, trying to be something you are not, is a mark of many great cities. It is part of the urban decor, the desire of city people to live out fantasies. Think of the neo-baroque, neo-Tudor, neo-renaissance homes in Beverly Hills, or of the prewar Berlin mimicry of Vienna, or the smarter districts of Shanghai that aped the styles of Paris, London, and Chicago.

It takes money to keep up appearances, and the mimicry of foreign grandeur tends to be typical of the upper crust. Like many snobbish cities (Washington, D.C., comes to mind), The Hague also has a proletariat that is the opposite of genteel. The roughest soccer hooligans are from The Hague, and its criminal underworld is notorious. Perhaps the large number of Turkish immigrants who now live in old working-class districts will have a civilizing influence.

I grew up in a place called Benoordenhout (literally, North of the Woods), which is the heart of Hague gentility. The only sounds to be heard on sunny Sunday mornings were the swish of water sprinklers and the plop of tennis balls. French airs, especially since World War II, had been largely replaced by the English style, mixed with a few American touches. Cricket was the preferred game of gentlemen in North of the Woods, although some went in for tennis. In the case of one tennis club, I was once told that to become a member one had to give a full account of the pedigree of one's grandparents.

The sartorial style for men, as well as boys, at least in my time, was English blazers, English club or regimental ties, and English college scarves (those stripy things) wrapped around the neck. Some gentlemen also carried the Times of London in their blazer pocket, less to be read than to be displayed.

Like all cities, or towns of a certain size, even The Hague has changed. The center of town, now filled with high-rise buildings in various modernist and postmodern styles, is unrecognizable for one who lived there in the 1960s. But I'm glad to report that North of the Woods is still intact. On a recent visit, I noted the very same people I grew up with, blazered, corduroyed, and cashmered. Then, to my dismay, I realized that these were the sons, or even grandsons, of the people I had known. Still, it is reassuring that in a world of many bewildering changes, a little bit of one's childhood will forever remain the same.

Buruma is the author, most recently, of Taming The Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.