When we bought our end-of-terrace house in a Leiden woonwijk , we spent a week repainting and what-have-you, then moved in. Not wanting to make a fuss or be a nuisance to our neighbours, (see Being English, above), we just kept our music down, smiled politely when we saw them (rarely) and happily left it at that.
Then, after more than two years, a casual comment awakened me to the fact that this was unforgivable; on arriving, I should have invited all our neighbours around for coffee and introduced ourselves. Oops. Luckily our daughter was then nearly one, so we had a clear landmark to invite them round for. We carefully invited them all one Sunday afternoon, put the coffee machine on and I made some cakes and biscuits. All five sets of neighbours showed up, with their children, flowers (of course) and presents for our daughter, and our casual-to-non-existent contact blossomed then and there to the level of giving-spare-keys and asking their children to babysit. Highly recommended.
Lesson learned: Do the Official Coffee thing with your neighbours - just once, and even if you're months or even years late as we were. It will repay dividends in terms of friendly contact, babysitters and feeding cats during holidays, and can make an enormous difference.
I have never been a terribly shrinking violet, and thus wasn't particularly bothered by Dutch bluntness in general; in fact I rather welcomed it as closer to my natural behaviour. But I still have enough residual Britishness in me for introductions to have taken some getting used to in the beginning.
Picture, if you will, your arrival at a social gathering of some kind. You greet the only person you know - the host - and wait for them to introduce you to someone else. Except that in Holland , he won't; it's all up to you. The protocol is to shake hands and introduce yourself to everybody present, with the following immortal dialogue - if you are called Alice and the other Marieke, that is:
[self, shaking hands] Goedenavond, Alice
[other] Goedenavond, Marieke
You repeat this as many times as there are guests, hoping against hope that you'll remember some of the muttered names. Then your socialising can begin - in my case, usually by going up to the last person whose hand you shook, and saying 'I didn't quite catch your name' .
And, oh ye Britons who have read this and are thinking 'how ridiculously old-fashioned, British etiquette has moved on way past formal introductions' - you'd be surprised. I thought that too, and I am a confident person, and still I sometimes find it hard to make myself work round a whole group of complete strangers, particularly at work where the same routine tends to apply.
Lesson learned: Arrive early at parties. Early arrivals have a clear advantage as far as learning names goes; you've no hope of remembering all fifteen complete strangers when you arrive last of the group and go right round the ring. And remember that this bit of protocol is a boon to the forgetful; I no longer need dread my husband hissing to me at a party 'what's his name? You know him - can you introduce me?' when I too have forgotten the name in question.
Crucial, this one. Note carefully:
24h-06u What are you doing greeting strangers at this time? Goedenacht.
If you greet someone with 'Goedemorgen' at 12.03 because you happen not to have been watching for the crucial moment of noon, you will be corrected. Smile and nod, remember; smile and nod.
Lesson learned : Use your watch at all times, but note that - right or wrong - this is often a useful conversation-opening gambit.
Here Marianne's excellent account on the 'Festivals and Traditions' part of this section doesn't leave much uncovered - but there's a refinement to greetings on birthdays which should be observed. Birthdays are such red-letter days that nearly everyone gets congratulated - not just the birthday boy/girl themselves, but anyone present to share the great occasion. As a parent I find this a little strange but also rather endearing; that I get congratulated right and left for the achievement of having kept my child alive for another year. So if you are arriving at Marieke's birthday party - or indeed meeting anyone who's anything vaguely to do with her on her birthday - then this is the deal:
[ Alice ] Gefeliciteerd met Marieke!
Lesson learned: Practise saying 'Gefeliciteerd'. Along with 'Scheveningen', it's quite a mouthful for the beginner.
Although they will eventually accept it as part of your general weird foreignness, the Dutch still cannot really come to terms with someone who Doesn't Celebrate Birthdays. I find it's often easier with casual acquaintances or colleagues simply not to mention that it's your birthday, as repeated exchanges like 'ooh, how lovely! So what are you doing, then? Nothing? What, nothing? You mean really nothing? Nothing at all?' can become a little wearisome, and it seems a bit rude to explain that you really didn't think that turning 37, or 41, or some other non-major-landmark-number was that big a deal.
Lesson learned: 'Ik heb een verjaardag' (I've got a birthday - ie. someone else's) is the last word in copper-bottomed top-level excuses under all circumstances (except possibly funerals). This means that when your new-best-friend (Dutch) declines an invitation because her father's old student landlady's son is turning 23, it is not in fact a weak excuse but a genuine reason.