Abraham and Sarah?

File this under “Strange Things Dutch People Do”. One of my colleagues is turning 50 tomorrow, and in addition to saying “gefeliciteerd” to her and congratulating everyone she knows, we will also be surprising her with a Sarah doll.

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Apparently when someone turns 50 here in the Netherlands, they are given an Abraham doll (for men) or a Sarah (for women). I can only assume this is a Biblical reference to the advanced age of our religious forebearers Abram and Sarai.

Tomorrow is the actual birthday, and my colleague will bring in cake or sweets for everyone in the office. Yes, on your birthday, YOU are responsible for providing the cake. And I’m told that in my office the standards are quite high: you can bring in a store-bought cake if you must, but you will be judged for it. Homemade is the way to go.

I suppose every expat has a list of the strange, seemingly inexplicable traditions and habits they encounter in their new culture. The only thing more fun than commiserating with other expats about these, umm…unique Dutch characteristics is discussing them with the Dutch themselves. People are either completely unaware of the behavior in question, or they are experts, who will then offer differing (and contradicting) opinions of the origin and meaning of the behavior. I’ve sparked a few lively debates by asking a seemingly innocent question.

The unexpected benefit to uncovering things about my host culture is that it also calls into question my own culture, and makes me think more critically about elements of American life that I would normally take for granted. That is a benefit of any travel, but living and working abroad lets you see a bit more of what really goes on behind the curtains. That is, if the Dutch believed in having curtains.

So tomorrow we’ll eat cake at a ridiculously early hour and I’ll get to practice that rough Dutch “g” sound in “gefeliciteerd”, and maybe I’ll learn a little more about Sarah. I’ll be sure to report back if I do…

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