Netherlands – The Dutch Oat

JAMES insists that The Dutch Oat, as he dubbed her, deserves a word of notice, if not of praise. At first I objected; but in the end I, too, felt she should be, according to Dutch custom of memorializing everything significant or insignificant, memorialized at least; immortality is not for such as she. She was the prefix to our servant question, and may serve as an exponent of certain matters of Dutch red tape and elucidate some customs in The Hague.

James’ elation at his success in finding a home so exactly suited to our needs, was so great that he overreached himself and overdid me in attempting to provide further for us and lift all care from my shoulders. But the method he pursued to accomplish this end was peculiar. He started for The Hague in the forenoon, saying he would be at home for lunch in order to return with me and look for a servant. There was little to do in the few hours of his absence except to watch the fires, for everything was in fine order throughout the house and every detail for housekeeping provided for, even to the linen and silver. However, as the kitchen fire, whether watched or neglected, went out under my supervision on an average once in two hours, I found that time did not hang heavy on my hands. Half an hour or so after James’ departure the front door bell began to ring, and continued to ring without intermissions of any account until his return.

It seems, as I learned afterwards, that his method of provisioning was as follows : during his walk into town, a matter of two miles, he hailed every vendor of anything he happened to pass, and, giving him his card, pointed significantly backwards to Scheveningen. Then with a smile (James really has a smile that is ingratiating with foreigners), a polite salute and a substantial “tip,” he would walk on his way, rejoicing in his good work and ready to hail the next corner.

In consequence of this remarkable process, which he had evidently been inspired to evolve from his consciousness, I had the doubtful pleasure of interviewing in pantomime four butchers, two of whom I feared would come to blows at the gate, three bakers, two cokemen, two turfmen, one vegetable-man, two milkmen, two butter-men, one eggwoman and two eggmen, one window-washer, who came with a long truck, loaded with hook and ladders, buckets, poles and hose, and gave me a genuine fright, for I thought the house was on fire and the “hook and ladder” was on the spot to help extinguish it, one fishwife, one fruitman, one grocer, one broom-man, and, lastly, a vendor of soap and scouring sand!

Any of my countrywomen who read this list will, I am sure, offer me their heartfelt, if silent, sympathy. I had, it is true, added in the past twenty-four hours two words to my limited vocabulary, beneden and boven — four in all; but not one of them was applicable to a complicated situation, and not one could help me out. I dared not say ja to this host of solicitors for fear of unpleasant foreign complications on our part and queer doings on theirs. It terrified me to hear them vociferating without a single gesticulation at the gate, after interviewing me. I knew, of course, and through sad experience, that beneden and boven belonged to houses and not vegetables, although some of the latter grow beneath the ground and some above it. That was one gleam of hope, but it enlightened me only for a moment. No one could expect me to order a chicken or a roast of beef, which I really wanted, by repeating with dignity such a word as Hollandschespoorwegmaatschappij. I found that with French and German at my command, no one understood anything but Dutch.

After having in vain tried poulet and Huhn with my last butcher, I cast all dignity to the winds and actually crowed. Even that failed, for Dutch roosters do not crow in the Yankee dialect of cock-a-doodle-doo. I learned shortly afterwards, but not before I had registered another vow to learn enough Dutch to make all my common wants known, that I should have asked for a kip!

I fear James found me in no amiable mood.

The servant question — is the servant question even in Holland, and particularly in The Hague. In attacking it, I came up against a Dutch dyke and failed to make a breach. “Yes, you can have a servant the first of May, but not before. You must then engage her for three months at least. A good girl will only make an engagement for the year. But to engage one by the month, or the week — oh, no, impossible! It is not the custom in The Hague.” In consequence of this custom we found the hiring of a servant bound about, not with red tape — nothing so pliable – but with cast-iron bands of custom that have endured for generations.

One curious touch of the profit system there is in connection with this question which may well be worth mention. If the employer pays any kind of bill on a running account, for example, a weekly or monthly grocer’s, merchant’s, doctor’s, or fuel bill, the service of the house receives one per cent of the amount paid from the merchant who receives the money. This curious custom is regulated by law, and the servant holds the employer to the payment of so much, or so little, as one-half of a Dutch cent, which is less than a quarter of a cent American currency.

We advertised; we registered in service bureaus; we investigated “homes”; we stirred up butcher, baker, and milkman to interest themselves in our behalf, but in vain. Our butcher took pity on us and sent us a Scheveningen werkvrouw, a young, pretty woman, the mother of eight children and “one at the breast.” These women hire out only for the day. In my ignorance I asked her if I could find a woman who would stay nights.

“Oh, no, it is not the custom in Scheveningen.” Would she as a favor remain with us on Sunday ? “Oh, no, it is not the custom for Scheveningen women to hire out on Sundays.” Would it be possible, if we could get a girl from Scheveningen to have her in costume, it was so pretty ? This was, of course, intended for a compliment. “Oh, no, it is not the custom for girls from Scheveningen to wear their home dress; it is not fine enough.” All this by means of an interpreter, be it understood.

But she came to us by the day, our werkvrouw, and, with the most laudable intention in the world, she did her best for a week to make the home uninhabitable for us. The house was clean when we went into it, that is, clean enough according to my ideas, and I pride myself on being a thorough New England housekeeper; but from our werkvrouw’s proceedings I should have inferred that it was other than a human habitation. For one week everything was a-wash. Such scrubbing, and rubbing, and washing, and drubbing, such sousing and wringing out of cloths, such scouring, and polishing, and flooding, as James said, regular squee-geeing, as went on was enough to drive one distracted. It did drive James out of the house, and me to find refuge, as on a Robinson Crusoe’s island, upon my royal dais in the kitchen, where I stood and endeavored to whip an egg with an affair resembling the spiral of a bed spring. She bought soap and sand by the kilo, borax and soda by the half-dozen boxes. She came at nine and went at nine, and when she was not scouring the floors and partitions, she was beating the furniture, polishing the brass, or scouring the kettles. It was only on the Seventh Day that we rested. It is all immensely impressive at first, this grand parade of Dutch cleanliness, but to the clear-visioned American time shows it to be, in part, veneer.

At last we had an answer to our advertisement: a typical lower-middle-class Dutch woman of an uncertain age who addressed me in fairly fluent French! I found that she could express herself in four languages: her own, French, German, which she spoke better than French, and very imperfect English. She was willing to hire out as general help by the week. Hearing this, I thought there was a screw loose somewhere, but James said: “Take her by all means; it isn’t once in a lifetime you can have a whole Berlitz School of Languages beneden in your kitchen. Make the most of your opportunities.” I agreed.

She expressed herself as willing to do the whole work of the house provided the werkvrouw did all the hard outside drudgery. I agreed to this. She asked permission to change her black suit — which it is the custom for girls to wear in service — for a warmer house dress and a more comfortable one. To this, also, I agreed. She informed me she would go into The Hague one after-noon in a week, and arrange to spend every alternate Sunday afternoon and evening away from the house. To this I agreed. She also made it plain to me that it was the custom in The Hague — oh, how I came to loathe that phrase! — for the employer to pay the fares in the tram to and from The Hague. I agreed. She further informed me with perfect composure that she was to receive a certain rate per cent for everything bought at the door which she should, acting for me, pay for in cash! I thought this was going a little too far, but I agreed, under inward protest. She stated that it was the custom in The Hague for a girl in service to receive from a dinner guest one gulden as a fee. Then I took my stand, and refused; but, oh, the weakness of men! James said, sotto voce, that he would supply the necessary amount out of his own pocket rather than have a guest insulted, but, as we were in Holland, we should conform — that was his word — to the customs of the Dutch, and I must not stand for that.

Thus, having come and seen and conquered, this Dutch servant entered into possession of the house. James’ face when she made her appearance to wait at breakfast the next morning was a study. Our Berlitz School, as James called her at first, appeared in a Mother Hubbard wrapper of flaming scarlet flannel, none too clean, and announced with stolid satisfaction in a guttural bass:

“The oat is ready.” She had informed me the evening before that she had come to us to perfect her English! This information I received after I had engaged her, and she at once set to work to perfect it as above. James said nothing, nor I either, because we knew we should laugh out loud in her face if we did.

“You eat the oat — and sugar ?” No response from either of us.

“I serve the oat,” she announced with satisfaction; and she served the oatmeal in her way, which was no way, and took her departure.

“I can’t stand this Berlitz School,” said James when he took his face out of his napkin; “I’ll call her The Dutch Oat after this, and for heaven’s sake, Persis, get that red portière off of her as soon as you can.”

For the thirteen days she was with us the red flannel Mother Hubbard was unchanged except on Sunday. It seems that and the black suit were all her wardrobe. She never failed to announce our breakfast with the formula: “The oat is ready,” and, in the end, James said it was a wonder he didn’t neigh for answer. I helped to make the kitchen fire — unknown to James — for several mornings, and always superintended the upstairs stoves for the night. One evening we went to the opera, and, coming home late and seeing good fires abounding took it for granted that she had attended to them, as she had promised faithfully to do. In the morning I was awakened about eight by a light in my eyes.

As not by any possible chance is there any light of the sun in Holland at that early hour I opened them wide, fearing fire. There stood The Dutch Oat in her flaming flannel, and a candle in her hand. I stared at her.

“The stove is out,” she announced stolidly, without a movement of a muscle of her face. I heard James snicker.

“Out ? The fire?”

“Yaas. He will not burn.”

“Make it then as quick as you can.” I confess I was cross.

“He goes not. I have my pains with him.”

James’ head was under the bedclothes, and I heard him growling out the most unintelligible instructions.

“Well, go out of the room, and never come in so again without knocking.”

“Als’t U belieft.” She fell back upon this Dutch sentence which one hears as a conclusion to everything, whether argument, favor, insult, entreaty, command, refusal, acquiescence, civil or uncivil answer, and went out.

” James, what are you doing ?” The head of James’ Dutch bed was at the footboard of mine, consequently I could see him when he dived under the quilt and gave an exasperated kick at finding this unwelcome presence in our room.

“Quoting Homer.”

“Quoting Homer ? For pity’s sake,’, James, explain yourself.”

“Explain! I was that mad to see the Oat come in here that I wanted to swear, and couldn’t in any one of the four languages, for she knows them all; so I had nothing left but Homer. Anyway it has relieved the pressure; but, Persis, I tell you she must go. I won’t stand it — all this nonsense about stoves; and you have done all the cooking yourself. I’ll break up rather than see you slave over here in a Dutch kitchen that makes me fear pneumonia for you every time you go down into it; it has never been above forty-eight since we came into the house. Send her packing.”

And I did. Mercifully a silk merchant, with whom I had some dealings, knew of our plight and sent us a clerk of his who, to make an extra gulden now and then, kept his eye open for good help for the first families. How James and I laughed when we heard that! In the course of a few days we were provided with a cook and general woman of the house, a second girl in the person of our werkvrouw’s fifteen-year-old Trÿntje, a boy to come in for odd jobs, and our werkvrouw to help out once a week. With this establishment of four, our Stork’s Nest began to seem like home, although we had expected to keep but one servant as we do in America. With the coming of dear little Tryntje and Anna Engelina the domestic atmosphere of our Dutch Stork’s Nest cleared once and for all, and peace brooded above its steep roof on which there never once alighted a solitary stork! But the rooks were fine company, those and the sparrows which Tryntje fed on the colder mornings when they came to the kitchen windows in flocks of hundreds.

The prosaic matters of our expenses may not be uninteresting to some. The wages of the regular house servants came to two dollars and eighty cents a week; the werkvrouw had a gulden, forty-one cents, for her day’s work. The laundry was all done out of the house by a cooperative association, for a year’s membership in which I paid five dollars. The whole linen for the house, including household and personal linen for both employers and servants, came to something like one dollar and seventy-five cents a week: this, of course, included everything, even to the starched clothes, in all, averaging one hundred’ pieces. If the servants do not send their personal linen with that of the family, the employer is obliged by law to pay to each at the rate of twenty-six gulden — about ten dollars and a half — a year for the same. The constant stream of fees, also, must be reckoned with when one is counting the cost of Dutch housekeeping. A boy brings a bundle from The Hague — a fee. A messenger leaves a package or a note—a fee. A conductor on the tram looks to see if he shall give you the extra change of a half cent; one hasn’t the moral courage to refuse — a fee, of half a cent to be sure, but in time it, too, counts. A boy shows you the turn of a street — another fee. You have company to dinner — a fee for both cook and second girl. The werkvrouw helps to carry the ash can to the sidewalk — a good fee this time. All the cabmen are feed, the porters and carriers. In this way it goes on ad infinitum, and, although the fees in themselves are trifling, the aggregate amount must be reckoned with in all Dutch house-keeping and living.

Provisions, meat and groceries, as well as fuel are dear. Eggs, and not fresh ones at that, for all the best are sent to England, average in the winter fifty cents a dozen; butter thirty-five cents a pound; milk and cream are good and not expensive, three cents a quart for the one and fifteen cents a pint for the other. Vegetables are delicious, abundant and, according to our rates, inexpensive. As a rule the fruits are of a poor quality, expensive, and scarce. I know of one day when there was not a banana in The Hague. Cereals are little known. Cheese is of the best, and as dear as with us. The poultry is poor in quality and wanting in substance. The mutton is wool-growing mutton, and, as the Dutch eat little of this meat, it is difficult to obtain even from the Court Butchers the right cuts or the right kind; it is all strong. One almost tastes the oily fibre of the wool. The rents are reasonable, but all furnishings are dear, except the woolen fabrics. This fact is easily accounted for when one considers that there are few manufactories in the Netherlands, but an immense quantity of wool is raised. All dress goods are expensive, but the fine Dutch linens are very reasonable. As for the luxuries, an ice is a parody on that article, the cakes, with one or two exceptions, caricatures on the genuine product, wines poor and too dear for the quality. Dutch living to be good must be expensive, and the weekly bills foot up much the same as at home.

Taking all things into consideration, Holland’s cities are not places of refuge for the poor in purse; perhaps that accounts, in part, for the lack of foreign colonies in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague.