I remember raising my eyebrows when I first heard that question. I was viewing rental properties at the time with one of my expat clients. The house was not furnished and without any linen. I simply could not imagine what one could do in a bathroom while visiting an empty house. Did my client want a wash during house visits?
Carefully I formulated my answer. You want to use the bathroom? “Yes,” she replied and headed towards the bathroom door only to find out there was no toilet in it. Now she was the one to look puzzled.
I explained that in Holland, the badkamer is where you actually take a bath or shower. It may or may not have a toilet. Most houses have a room that is just the toilet, almost literally a small closet called WC (water closet). The Dutch consider their bathroom a separate and private entity. When guests come, they get to go to the toilet – and not fish through their hosts’ medicine, dirty laundry and make-up in the bathroom. When a house doesn’t have a separate toilet, this really is considered a disadvantage when trying to sell or let it. To Dutch people, at least.
Relieved, she headed towards the toilet, but turned again in shock to find out that there was no sink to wash her hands afterwards.
Ashamedly, I had to admit that toilets in Holland often don’t have a basin either and if they do, they will be the size of a handkerchief and with just one, cold-water, tap. Hot water in toilets is simply not the norm in Dutch houses. When you ask a Dutch person why this is, they seem quite amazed you should ask and clearly have never given it any thought. Could it be that Dutch men (and therefore usually the ones building the houses) are simply too manly to wash their hands? Or is it because they are simply too stingy to go to go the expense of adding a basin, let alone one with hot and cold running water? Are Dutch hands simply more resistant to the cold (most houses are still single glazed) or is washing hands in warm water seen as wasteful and decadent? Don’t forget that Calvinistic doctrine forbids most luxuries, which is where Dutch thriftiness and cheapness could possibly be rooted.
All I can say is that in the traditional Dutch houses the downstairs guest toilet – which I know Brits confusingly call a cloakroom and Americans call a powder room, so believe me, the expats I work with are not the only ones getting confused – is on the ground floor, while the water heater is located in the attic. Adding a long warm-water pipe would include a full-on renovation of the toilet and that would be quite expensive. Besides, by the time the hot water finally gets to the tap in the toilet, minutes have passed and you may have resolved to just wipe your hands on your trousers. You see, cold water is actually a better idea than no water at all, isn’t it? But what about hygiene? Does the cold water remove all those nasty germs? Fortunately studies have proven that the temperature of the water doesn’t really matter when it comes to getting your hands truly clean. The hot water needed to kill bacteria is way too hot and will burn your hands. Cold water can do the job, but it will take at least 30 seconds of vigorously scrubbing your hands and fingernails with soap to be effective. Tepid water is just fine for the impatient.
In the end, I too can understand that our charming old canal houses and brown cafés have such ancient plumbing that it will not allow for a connection to the boiler, but how can we explain the lack of hot water in a newly built apartment or a luxury renovated property? If it makes sense to have a new state-of-the-art kitchen and several breathtaking bathrooms with rain showers, how difficult can it be to install a mini-boiler a bit closer to the loo? All you need is an electrical outlet for the boiler and a tap that mixes the hot and cold into a single mixed stream. Piece of cake! Yet, sadly, even when you enter the toilet in these gorgeous new homes you are still likely to find only icy water flowing from a single shiny new tap.
Historically speaking, the Dutch are still considered the cleanliest people in Europe. Reports from early Italian travelers show the incessant scrubbing and cleaning of the Dutch, which had to do with the necessity of hygiene in butter and cheese production. But why are they not interested in combining hygiene and comfort? In Spain and Italy you often find a bidet or hand-held shower next to the toilet running lovely warm water. Somewhere between France and Belgium this small but crucial part of civilization got stuck on its way to the Netherlands. Perhaps the Dutch have never experienced the luxury of washing their hands in warm soapy water after a visit to the toilet. If they did they might suddenly and inexplicably be filled with joy and find themselves humming for no reason. I wonder whether the builders out there have realized that this little luxury alone might just bring some sunshine to the current crisis? Until then however, we’ll focus on the saying ‘Cold Hands – Warm Heart!’
Monique Brans is owner of Quality Rentals in The Hague