The Netherlands really is filled with canals and windmills. I think stereotypes exist for almost everywhere in the world, but the Netherlands is definitely subject to quite a few cute ones: canals, cheese, windmills, bicycles, clogs and tulips. And they're really all true.
I had the good fortune to attend a workshop in Wageningen - a small town near Utrecht. The first thing that struck me on the train from Schipol Airport to Ede-Wageningen was how densely populated the Netherlands was - high appartment complexes and seemingly far too many people for the space alotted to the country (and hence, or so I thought, the constant need to dike and claim more land from the sea). But it didn't take long to leave the populous surroundings of Amsterdam and find myself in a pristine, empty and very rustic part of the country.
Wageningen surprised me initially because it had a hill. Yes, the Netherlands does have a hill. Actually, they apparently have two - I got corrected by a bemused graduate student at the meeting. Our hotel was on top of the hill, and hence had a gorgeous view over a canal - farmland all around. Wageningen is notable not only for its topography, but also for its history. I was delighted to discover that it was where the Germans unconditionally surrendered to the Canadian (!) general Foulkes in 1945. Other than that, a sleepy, but charming town. With an excellent Greek restaurant and some of the most gorgeous houses around.
In fact, the stylishness of the Dutch greatly impressed me. Every house in Wageningen was extremely well kept - immaculate lawns, painted houses, and through the open curtains you could see magazine-photo-shoot-worthy interiors. Modern art and matching furniture in every living room - classy and matching chandeliers. Rooms either kept to a traditional style, or to the simply-lined ultra-modern Euro style.
However, this should all be taken in contrast to the Dutch love of kitsch. There are plastic bags and bicycle panieres made of bright floral patterns, people wearing the 1970's style checked shirts, and plastic figurines and over-the-top posters in the windows of far too many shops. It is an amusing fixation because it seems to be taken in such a light-hearted way by the Dutch. Fitting in with their tolerant and light-hearted approach to everything. Soft drugs? sure, no problem - as long as you don't bother other people or take them out of the country. Gay marriage? goes without saying. Prostitution? if it's going to happen anyways, might as well control it... Global warming? wish it wasn't happening, but guess we'll try to cut our carbon footprint and at least consider putting sand under every house to raise them up a bit... What a great country. Too bad there aren't more like it...