There are few places in the world where you can have a sex change and be euthanized on the national health plan, and then have your wake celebrated with joints for everyone.
The Netherlands is one of them. This land of bikes, dikes, windmills and blazing flower fields is widely celebrated for its liberal attitude toward many things — among them euthanasia and drugs.
However, it is also a major producer of drugs considered illegal even there, and an important gateway for Europe-bound cocaine, heroin and hashish and United States-bound ecstasy.
While a cultural rebel, the country certainly has a place in the center of the world stage: It has adopted the euro as its national currency, and one of its citizens, Wim Duisenberg, is the first head of the European Central Bank.
It has also been one of the keenest advocates international cooperation, helping found NATO and the European Commission after abandoning neutrality in 1945. It maintained neutrality through World War I, but emerged from World War II with deep scars from a German invasion and occupation.
This internationalism is a key component of its modern and prosperous economy today. The country depends heavily on foreign trade, and has a key role as a European transportation hub.
The Meaning of Its Name
The Netherlands is also one of the largest exporter of agricultural products in the world, ranking in value only behind the United States and France, even though the agricultural sector employs no more than 4 percent of the labor force.
The production is even more impressive considering the country's size: slightly less than twice the area of New Jersey. The country has a population of more than 15 million, making it one of the world's most densely populated nations.
The agricultural sector is highly mechanized and the land is fertile, much of it composed of land reclaimed from the ocean by an extensive network of canals and dikes.
The country, in fact, derives its name from the Dutch word neder, meaning "low." More than 25 percent of the Netherlands lies below sea level.