Years ago, while listening to a group of Dutch men conversing in the bar of an overnight ferry, I realized that the tone and rhythm of their language was like the latenight chit chat of a group of inebriated Yorkshiremen. The music of the Dutch language has always sounded to me like something I should be able to understand, but can’t. And the idea of how similar the Dutch are to the English, and yet so very different, is a recurring theme for me. We are geographically close, we look similar, and the language shares the same Germanic roots (if you can read German and English you can get the gist of Dutch.) But their thinking could be from another planet. I’m convinced that the Dutch brain was made by a completely different maker.
You see it in their architecture as you pedal through the towns. The Dutch do not think it enough to build a functional, weather-repellent dwelling, it also has to bestow happiness on the onlooker. This friendly beauty is evident in the older buildings with their multi-coloured stonework and stepped facades. Soon after departure on Monday morning we saw a modern example of such architectural playfulness in the Inntel Hotel, Zaanstad. It’s a 12-storey building that looks like about twenty buildings stacked into a rough cube. You look at it and think, “Was it really worth all the effort and cost just for a bit of fun?”
I’m not saying unusual buildings don’t exist elsewhere but it does seem that the Dutch have made a bit of habit of it.
Pedalling over a wide bridge across the River Zaan we see several windmills slowly turning on the horizon: it is Zaanse Schans, a working museum of Dutch innovation – and today’s destination.
Think about a windmill. What does it do exactly? Have you ever looked inside and seen the workings? Have you ever cared to? The extent of my knowledge could be summed up by: Dutch windmills were historically used to pump water but now serve mainly as the decoration on blue and white plates. But, thanks to the Zaanse Schans museum (and tour guide Hugo’s ability to bring the past to life) by the end of the day I was a changed person.
First stop: – the clog museum. Those clunky wooden shoes the Dutch are famous for may seem archaic but they are more common than you think – especially as footwear for work – it’s not unusual to see someone clomping across the road in their coveralls and clogs to buy a sandwich in their lunch hour. (The Dutch word for clogs is klompen where we get the word clomping from.) Clogs are inexpensive, protective, comfortable and hard-wearing. As we gazed into display cases of historical clogs, we learned about the variety of uses and looks that clogs have been given.
Clogs have been carved to look like leather shoes. They’ve been decorated with flowers, faces, geometric patterns and scenes from the bible (church clogs!) I saw dilapidated dyke worker’s “wellington” clogs – with protective high leather leggings for working knee deep in water. Pyrenean clogs had dangerously pointed toe ends curving upwards a good eight inches. There were ice- and roller-skating clogs and even sexy lingerie clogs for the boudoir (I made that last one up, but hey – why not?)
Then to a public workshop where we watched a solid block of wood get turned into a wearable clog in about 10 minutes. Afterwards, in the gift shop, I tried on a comfortable pair of bright yellow clogs. And I might have bought them if I’d had any room left in my carry-on. The shop did offer a shipping service but at that point my mind flashed forward to what these would look like back in Britain where I’d quickly become the local “crazy man in clogs” – so I took a photo for posterity and gave them a miss.
Next came a visit inside one of the country’s last working windmills. Instead of pumping water, as part of some land-creation project, this windmill is an oil factory. Today’s product was peanut oil. We began by going upstairs to view the workings.
The same sensibility that draws me to the low-tech friendliness of the ukulele also attracts me to the sort of age-old technology I can actually understand. The four-hundred-year-old machinery whirred and clunked as smoothly as a giant wooden clock. Every few seconds a heavy vertical post lifted up and thudded down to crush the peanuts. Interlocking wheels and rotating shafts turned heavy grindstones and processed the nuts. The fresh peanut oil ran in a small but steady flow along a chute and into a container. Two men worked the mill and one of them answered Hugo’s questions which he translated for us.
Bit by bit I learned about a wind-powered industrial revolution that pre-dated the British one by over two-hundred years. By the 1500’s Dutch ingenuity had created windmills for every conceivable industrial function. Making, amongst other things, oil, paper and most notably milled timber. Wind powered lumber mills made it possible for the Dutch to cut and shape mighty ship’s timbers at a prodigious rate enabling the Dutch to become the world’s leading ship builders.
In 1602 the Dutch East India company was formed, setting up trade routes to places such as Java, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. And now I understand why the Dutch have such good coffee and chocolate – they’ve been enjoying the stuff for longer than any of us.
Only yesterday I’d been marvelling at how the Keukenhof music machine created complex sound from a single rotating wheel. This ability to take a turning spindle and make it perform an array of varied uses is the exact same thinking as you get in windmills. If I had some, I’d bet my last pair of clogs that the inventor of the music machine spent their life working in windmills.
Hugo told us that the awesome technical abilities of the Dutch were so admired by the rest of the world that Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, came here and lived incognito in order to study how ships were built using windmill technology. His cover was blown, however, when he happened to tell his hairdresser his true identity and the word spread… “But can you believe,” Hugo continued dramatically, “that nowadays Obama or President Trump might secretly go to work in a Chinese factory to learn their secrets?”
I said, “What I don’t believe is that Trump has a hairdresser.”
It was a silly quip but it made Hugo double up with laughter, “That is the best joke!”
I looked at the line of windmills along the Zaan and imagined this land, as it was in the 19th Century, with 9000 of these elegant machines working to create the wealth of a country using renewable materials and free energy. How nice if things could have stayed like that – with the whole world, turning, like the windmills, towards this beautiful industry.
The Dutch windmill era lasted well into the 1800s when the more powerful, but filthy, steam and internal combustion engines came into being. Nowadays a modern factory produces the equivalent of a day’s output of wind-pressed peanut oil in about ten minutes.
Still, wouldn’t it be splendid if our economy was partly boosted by happy people working in clean, sustainable windmills? Another thing I think about is that, for hundreds of years the Dutch had all this incredible ingenuity at their disposal, but never got around to inventing the bicycle. Hmmm.
And speaking of bicycles…
It was Becky, probably one of the better riders, who sustained the most visible injury of the trip. Cycling as a group provides plenty of ways to collide and crash. It just takes two people to head for the same spot at the same time and gravity quickly takes its course. I happened to look back just as Becky and another rider got into a momentary spot of confusion and she did a slow-motion fall down the front of her bike. Her cheekbone hit the handlebar. She was soon back up and smiling and insisting she was more embarrassed than hurt. Becky was in no pain but that tap on the cheek had the disproportionate result of turning a third of her face black and, for the rest of the tour, she endured concerned looks, the odd joke and the nickname Black-Eyed Becky– which she accepted with a grin.
Meanwhile, Susanna’s smaller bike had arrived and, though she gave it her best shot, a topple at a traffic crossing made it clear that two-wheeled locomotion was not her forte so she decided to bow out. Giving up the cycling part of her holiday wasn’t exactly a disaster, for now, instead of pedalling from place to place, she would travel exclusively by water. Not bad really.
Less time on two wheels made more time for ukulele and, somewhat unusually for an American, Susanna is a George Formby fan. The humour of Formby is a peculiar and nostalgic 1930’s British style that still has merit in its smutty innocence but, if you’ve never paid much attention to his music, I highly recommend his playing. Although Formby couldn’t read music he had a knack for playing tight, fast, syncopated rhythms that are difficult to figure out and even harder to play well. (How he got to be so good so soon after the instrument came on the scene is a mystery to me.)
And Susanna wasn’t the only one travelling in style. Others, succumbing to sore legs, sore arms and sore saddles, gave themselves a day off from self-propulsion. Becky summed it up hilariously by stating, “I’m saving my tushy for tomorrow!” But Susanna was a keen student of the Formby technique and, while others soaked in the hot tub or sipped Sauvignon Blanc while strumming fair-weather songs, Susanna and I practiced our Formby split-strums together as the world went gliding by.
To be continued…
Next time – It’s not all bicycles and chocolate you know – we discover a not so pretty truth behind Netherland’s world domination and perform in our final onboard concert.