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If I had a column in the Delft op Zondag

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Delft op Zondag



Hoe laat is het? (What time is it?)

DELFT - Unless you are of a punctual frame of mind, church bells will tell you the time. They ring on the hour and can be heard anywhere in Delft. A person has only to pause, listen and count. A simple system.

On Sundays, they also ring about 10 minutes before services so you know how much time you have to get there. It is old fashioned, but the bells are calling your soul. The difference between Dutch and Americans is that the Dutch ask how late is it, which does not quite mean the same as what time is it, not to American ears: late means past time for something. And time is just an hour of the day. That is the same here in Holland, but it is said differently and says a little about perspective.


"On the street outside the Emauspoort hotel, you are behind the Neuwe (new) Kerk (church). If the internet fails or your watch stops, you just have to look up to know the time."

If the bridge is raised to allow barges to pass, it is 'open', and you have to wait. It can take a while if water traffic is heavy before it is lowered again to allow people to cross. When someone is really late, then the standard reason is 'my bike tire was flat'. Both excuses are accepted without anyone thinking twice.

On the street in Delft, you will see people walking quickly. You will mingle with bicyclists pedaling at speed on their way to somewhere, often loaded with children in rumble seats, groceries in bulging sacks or balancing cases of beer (it is a university town). It is not because anyone is particularly late, and if they suddenly stop to chat with a friend, blocking your way, they are unhurried.

In the photo, the time is half past 3 or three-thirty to Americans; it is half 4 to the Dutch. They seem to be anticipating the hour to come while Americans seem to be holding on the the hour just past. It is perhaps a small thing but captures an attitude.

The hours of the day begin at midnight and count forward to 24; thus, 8 at night is spoken as such but written 20:00. Americans write a pm after 8 for night. Spoken, both will add 'at night' to be clear about morning or end of day, evening.

Dutch trains may be 'on time' but little else is so exact. When someone says they will go and be back in 10 minutes, an American starts a mental timer. To the Dutch, 10 minutes is any amount of time from departure until that person comes back.

When I worked regular hours, I noticed the Dutch did not always show up on time, and no one made a remark on it. The most common excuse, even to being a joke, was that 'the bridge was open'. There are a lot of bridges over a lot of canals here.

Maybe Dutch simply like speed when and where possible but otherwise are relaxed about time. It is going to pass regardless; things are going to move along. They are thinking about the hour to come, not the hour that cannot be relived and is done.

G. Wiley / NLStrabo - © Copyright - All rights reserved -
In memory of Herb Caen