A Day Out: It's not just wooden shoes and windmills

Sunday, July 20, 2014

It's broken record time here at GSWPL:  London is great.  So is leaving London.  So I left.

To be more specific, I took a few days off to visit my friend Gerald in Amsterdam, which has been on my list since Gerald and I parted in Sochi at the end of our Olympic gig/ordeal.  When I did a bit of digging and realised that a flight and hotel combo deal could be had for a very reasonable cost, I took the plunge and booked myself five days away.  So I got to pal around with Gerald and see the sights with a Dutch-speaking* tour guide and you get another blog that's NOT about London. (*Though in fairness the Dutch-speaking bit was just a bonus because basically everyone in the Netherlands speaks English.  I discovered this when I was traveling and met a very nice Dutch couple in Luang Prabang.  When I asked them why the Dutch speak such good English their reply was simple: "Because nobody else speaks Dutch." They generally have their heads screwed on straight, those Netherlanders.)

The view from my hotel

First, let's address a few terms and stereotypes.  The Netherlands is a small coastal country in north-west Europe.  The people are called Dutch and they speak a language we call Dutch but is called Nederland in Dutch. (Or, as Gerald says; "In Nederland spreken de Nederlanders Nederlands.")  And Holland?  It doesn't really exist, except as North Holland and South Holland, two provinces that contain the biggest cities, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. (Confused? This should make things clear as mud.)

Here are the things people think of when they think of the Dutch: wooden shoes, windmills, bicycles, permissive drug laws, Amsterdam's Red Light district, tulips, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Gouda cheese, and a particularly bloody-minded and steadfast attitude to water management.  As the saying goes, "God may have made the world, but the Dutch made Holland."  In fact, about 17% of the land in Holland has been reclaimed from the sea and only 50% of the whole country is more than a metre above sea level.  They really are clever about these things.

Naturally, being such masters of the water, they have a lot of canals.

Of course there's more to the country than the stereotypes.  The Netherlands is a very socially tolerant place.  They were the first country to legalise same-sex marriage (in 2001) and also have legalised prostitution, abortion and euthanasia.  And though they do have laws about consumption of drugs, they're famously sensible about not enforcing them unnecessarily.  And despite being more densely populated than anywhere expect Bangladesh, Taiwan, and South Korea, they are also the world's second largest exporter of agricultural products (after the US).

So, despite claiming that there's more to Holland than wooden shoes and windmills, what am I going to talk about?  Wooden shoes and windmills!  Because while I was there I saw a lot of both, and in fact they’re both kinda cool.

First the shoes, called klompen in Dutch, which I think is wonderfully onomatopoeic.  One of the fun things Gerald and I did was to the small town of Volendam and the (former) island of Marken.  I say "former" island because Marken is now connected to the mainland with a long skinny dike that forms part of the coastal defences that keep Holland's feet dry.  The island is a popular tourist spot because some of the locals still wear typical Dutch clothing and wooden shoes.  Wooden shoes are apparently quite practical. (Of course they are.  They're DUTCH.) Made of poplar, the raw materials are cheap, they're easy to slip on and off at the door, they're waterproof and they're even classified as safety shoes equivalent to steel-toes. Proponents also claim they're comfortable, though I tried on a few different pairs and didn't decide to toss out my hush puppies.  Nevertheless we did see an old guy pedalling around Marken in his klompen, and Wikipedia claims that more than three million pairs are made every year, not all of which are sold to tourists, so obviously people wear them.

Another oft-mentioned feature of Marken is that the fishermen's houses were built up on stilts to escape periodic flooding, though now that they have the water more or less under control, most people have closed in the lower level of their houses, probably for ping pong tables and klompen storage. (Ok, I made that last part up.  They might also store cheese and reefers.)

The weather on the day that Gerald and I went was somewhat nasty, but we persevered and made our way to the main attraction on Marken, the wooden shoe factory, which turned out to be quite excellent.  Mostly this was because it was full of machines-that-make-interesting-things-out-of-wood, which are one of my favourite things, after gears.  The woman at the wooden shoe factory gave a little demonstration of how they make the klompen, though even I, with my greater-than-average knowledge of machines-that-make-interesting-things-out-of-wood, had some trouble grasping how some of it worked, which I guess is a testament to Dutch cleverness.

This is the first machine, which shapes the outside of the clog.  

The machine works a lot like a key-cutting machine.  A model shoe is put on one side of the machine on a spinning thingy, and the blank bit of wood is put on another spinning thingy on the other side. (Stop me if I'm getting too technical...) Then an arm follows the contours of the spinning model shoe, causing a blade to carve away at the spinning blank.  (I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking “Hang on, that thing is spinning like a lathe, so how can it make a shape that’s not rotationally symmetrical?”  Answer: because it actually spins relatively slowly.  See this helpful Youtube video.)  The shoes then go onto a similar machine equipped with digg-y sort of drill bits to hollow out the shoe, using a similar technique to the shaping machine, with a model shoe determining the shape of the hollow.  The making of wooden shoes creates a LOT of wood chips, which the pragmatic Dutch then use to smoke fish, particularly eel.  (I tried the smoked eel, called paling, for my lunch in Volendam and found it quite delicate and pleasant.)

The most charming thing about the wooden shoe factory was the story the woman told about this particularly fancy style of klompen called wedding shoes.

Unsurprisingly, fishermen from Marken used to spend a long periods of time at sea, and would fill the long hours when they weren't actually fishing by decorating a very special pair of klompen to be presented to their sweethearts when they got back to port.  Traditionally the shoes would be left outside the woman's home over night and if they were gone the next morning, that meant the woman had accepted the fisherman's proposal and a wedding would follow.  If they were still there the next day then the poor guy was out of luck.  This is what happened to our heroine's father, who made a pair of wedding clogs for her mother only to be rejected.  He tried again, but was rejected again.  Finally, he tried a third time and yet again he was rebuffed.  However, he did not give up his quest.  He did, however, give up on the fancy wooden shoe thing and made a trip to Amsterdam, where he bought a diamond ring which he presented to the woman in question.  She finally accepted this token and thus, decades later, there came to be a woman operating the klompen machines on the (former) island of Marken.  Awwww.

But enough about the wooden shoes, because what’s even cooler than wooden shoes? Windmills!  Not content to simply slouch around Amsterdam drinking coffee, Gerald and I took in another tourist spot just outside the city, the charming historic area of Zaanse Schans. (For those of you from Calgary, think of it as the Dutch equivalent to Heritage Park.)  Zaanse Schans is a small cluster of historic houses, barns, workshops and windmills a short train ride from Amsterdam Central Station.  It’s a bit oversupplied with souvenir shops selling wooden shoes, cheese, tulip bulbs, Delft-ware and more wooden shoes, but it does have ten working windmills, one of which we visited.

Mandatory picture of windmills

Of course windmills are used for milling grain, hence the term windMILL, but they're also used for a number of other tasks. In Holland, wind power was often used to operate pumps for keeping reclaimed land dry and arable. (Though in this case they should really be called windpumps because no actual milling takes place).  Mills can also be used for grinding nuts and seeds for oil, threshing, processing pigments for paint and sawing wood.  The mill that we visited in Zaanse Schans was a sawmill, and was unique in that it was built only seven years ago, from plans taken from an old mill that was demolished in 1942.  We got to watch a lovely video about the construction of the mill, which started, naturally, with the reclamation of a bit of land on the waterfront on which to build.  (I loved that.  It’s soooooo Dutch.  No room for a new windmill?  No problem.  We’ll just make a new bit of land.)

The sawmill was gorgeous, full of the scent of fresh sawdust, and pleasingly deserted when we visited. This meant that the miller was very happy to chat indefinitely about the workings of the mill (in perfect English).  The wind was still, so we didn’t get to see all the machinery moving, but this did mean we could get right up close and see all the parts.

And take pictures. Hilariously, when I asked the miller if it was ok to take pictures he said, “Of course it is.  We’re not in Russia!”

The logs bound for the mill get floated up to a dock just outside the doors where they’re then hauled into position (by the power of the mill) onto a sliding sled.  The sled then moves the log slowly forward (again powered by the mill), with the speed governed by an adjustable ratchet system.  When the log moves forward, it passes through the saw frame, which is equipped with a number of saw blades that move up and down, powered by a large and smelly diesel engine out back. (Not really.)  It takes about 3-4 hours for a large log to be completely sawn with wind power, so they’re not breaking any speed records, but they do still operate commercially, selling the beams and planks they produce to help keep the mill running.  It’s staffed entirely by volunteers, and if I lived nearby I think I would very much like to spend a few days a month learning how to operate a wind-powered sawmill.  I might even get myself a pair of wooden shoes to do it in.

All in all, the Amsterdam visit was great.  Of course we did a lot more than just muck about with wooden shoes and windmills.  We went to the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum, both of which were excellent.  And we wandered the Red Light district at dusk (a bit depressing).  And we ate a lot of fun Dutch food, like poffertjes and kroket and patat oorlog and drank lashings of strong Dutch coffee.  And we watched a crushingly boring and disappointing World Cup semi-final match that resulted in there being a lot of very sad orange-clad people and decorations hanging about.  And we visited a house boat and cruised on the canals.  (All of which appear in the Flickr album called "Amsterdam Redux".)  I think I pretty much ticked all the boxes for visiting Holland, but that doesn't mean I won't go back. It just means that when I do I can concentrate on the more important things.

Like eating and drinking and having my picture taken dressed in traditional Dutch clothing while holding a giant wheel of cheese.  Of course.


Anonymous said...

I might even get myself a pair of wooden shoes in which to do it.


Anonymous said...

Pam in a dress! I need a 8x10 of that one! Nice long weekend story. Cheers, rh

Kathryn said...

This is my favourite picture of you - EVER!

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