A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
I had read all the travel guides, scoured the internet, interrogated all my contacts. I felt entirely prepared. Smug even. Nothing about the Dutch could surprise me. Not their height, not their extraordinary bluntness, not even their unhealthy obsession with hair gel. I was, I thought, a veritable paragon of cultural awareness.
Unfortunately, not in all my extensive research had I come across the strange phenomenon of the Leiden wink.
My first encounter with the wink took place when I was discussing with a young assistant what rental properties his agency had to offer. We finished our conversation, but before I could turn to leave he caught my gaze and bestowed a huge, covetous wink. I dismissed the incident as the clumsy overtures of a young man with little understanding of either professionalism or charm, and went about my business without giving it a second thought. That is, until the second episode. This time the landlord whose property I was being shown around seemed to punctuate every other sentence with a lusty wink.
I was taken aback. Such advances hardly seemed appropriate from a man who hoped I would rent his property. Perhaps even more disconcertingly, the rental agent who was accompanying me had not seemed to register that anything was amiss. Was this then considered normal conduct in the Netherlands? Was I to be optically molested throughout the entirety of my stay here? I am quite accustomed to such behaviour having lived in Spain for a year, where leering at young women is something of a national pastime, but I had been hopeful that the Dutch would be a somewhat less lascivious nation.
My third brush with the wink was in a little café on the Botermarkt. I placed my order with the amiable, middle-aged lady behind the bar, who promptly served me both my coffee and a hearty wink. I was confused. Evidently there was some social etiquette at play here that I did not understand. Should I wink back? Smile? Should I register recognition of the wink at all?
I have since asked my Dutch friends about this peculiar comportment. Apparently it’s ‘a Leiden thing’; a sort of visual confirmation that an understanding has been reached, that everything is ok. I’ve moved into the winky landlord’s flat and given that his English is about as good as my Dutch, the winks have become a wonderful indicator of how well our communications are going. We both point and gesticulate and make abortive attempts at words in one another’s language and when we are more or less certain that we understand each other, reassuring winks of comprehension are exchanged.
I’ve grown to love the Leiden wink. It is charming that an action so libidinous in other cultures has taken on so harmless a meaning here, although my ego may have been pleasantly massaged had I not discovered this fact. I am even guilty of partaking in a little mono-blinking myself upon occasion. I must just remember that when I return home, such a gesture will not have such platonic connotations.