Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Royal Birthday in Cheese Town

We heard the hype about Queen’s Day when we moved to Holland.  There were always tales of orange-wearing revelers jumping on boats, dancing and drinking enough Heineken to boost company stock until at least August.

The celebrations began in Alkmaar this year on April 29th, the day before the marked celebration of the birthday of Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands.  The city center was packed with local folks selling and trading their old, unwanted household goods in a festive atmosphere of food  and live music swirling in the wind.

Photo by Camille
We were returning  that afternoon by train after spending Easter school vacation in France.   Our little old BMW was parked in a nice residential spot on the edge of the city center not far from the train station – easily retrievable when returning so we could load suitcases and drive home.  Or so we thought…
My ten year-old daughter and I jogged from the station to get our car while the rest of the family sat on suitcases and waited.  She and I started to see crowds of people as we neared the parking spot, and I was becoming sure that our car had been towed away.  All we could see were people shuffling through the biggest outdoor garage sale that I had ever seen.  Somewhere I could faintly hear Bob Dylan's voice taunting us when the wind blew our direction.
Camille and I laughed when we arrived at a blocked street and racks of used clothes for sale on our car.   The people selling the clothes found our predicament funny and suggested we take a taxi from the station, and then retrieve our car later.  I offered them a commission if they sold our old car and we returned to the station by foot.
Photo by Camille
The celebrations in the city on the next day were very lively.  People wearing orange wigs and shirts were in boats motoring down the canals by mid-morning.  We decided to join them by renting a boat at the shop near our house.
We were warned to watch out for plastic in the water, and to stay away from the crowds and craziness of the canals that lead through the heart of the city center.  We were then on our way to the city center just to have a look.

by Camille

Our boat propeller caught some plastic at less than 100 meters into our boat trip.  We pulled over to the side of the canal and were able to get back going after removing the plastic and flooding the engine with too much fuel while trying to restart.  We caught more plastic as we neared the very center and our boat kept cutting off at low speeds and bumping into other boats anchored there to party.  I really felt like a foreigner in this rented boat, not speaking much Dutch and running into other boats like this.  We did find our rhythm after a bit and enjoyed cruising around.
It was late afternoon by the time we were back on foot and touring around town. People were packed tightly near stages for live music and DJs, while many streets were hard to pass because of the crowds.  Not many children were playing around, as perhaps they were the day before or earlier in the day.  I would occasionally sound a “drunk monster” warning for my wife or kids to move out of the way of some nearly seven feet tall, staggering Dutchmen - the tallest people in the world.   These were probably gentle folks during normal times, but one Frankenstein with beer foam coming out of his ears nearly crushed my wife’s ankle as he staggered past with a distant look on his face.  She was OK after a minute, and I think he had no clue what happened or even where he was.

All together, it was a good time. But we will be sure to catch the day-before activities next year, and see how much of our old stuff that we can sell.  I will also keep my old combat boots ready for the family to wear when getting into crowds of drunken giants.  And perhaps we will try a canoe to better navigate the hidden obstacles in the canal.
by Camille

This post was first published on 12 May 2011.

Friday, May 6, 2011

A Real, Live Windmill Museum

It is not hard to gander at the 17th century windmills scattered around the polders (low-lying tracks of land with controled water) of North Holland.  The numerous icons, seen in distant fields or viewed up close, keep part of the past alive and are constant reminders that this is indeed Holland.
The taller, modern windmills about the area generate the “green” electricity to which we chose to subscribe with our local power company when moving here, but what about the old windmills?  A short drive - or long and pleasant bike ride - up from Amsterdam will reach the Museummolen at  Schermerhorn, which calls itself ‘’a top-class museum below sea level.”  Visitors can climb inside the big old devices to learn more at this neat little museum that looks like it is sitting in the middle of nowhere on highway N243.
“God made the Earth, but the Dutch made Holland.”  I thought this statement sounded a bit strange when I first heard it at the museum, but the fact is that most of Holland is 1 – 4.5 meters below sea-level, and the inhabitants here hundreds of years ago had to find a way to drain the land where they wanted to live and farm.  No electricity yet, but lots of wind around here made windmills famous for pumping water out of areas where people wanted to be.   As strange as the statement sounded at first, the Dutch accomplished some almost supernatural feats in making their own land.
It is all pretty basic in the design of how wind turns the sails (arms), which turn an inner wheel, which turns the upright shaft going down in the body of the windmill, and is connected to another wheel at the bottom that turns the Archimedean screw down in the water.  This large screw looks like the screws on the bottoms of power equipment made to dig holes for fencing and farming.  The water rides up the ridges of the screw in its spiraling motion, to be transported to the next canal over, where another windmill not far away could take over by sending the water onto other directions and holding canals.  Yes, just that simple and effective.

The museum itself is relatively small, but has old-world character.  A cinema room shows a short film about the history and technology.  The staff was glad to put the films in English and French for our visiting group.  Various tools and models are on display inside, with a little cafĂ© and of course, a gift shop.
Continue out the main building to enter one of these old devices.  The miller’s living quarters on the lower level is preserved as it was back then, complete with manequins for atmosphere.  And it is almost exciting to climb up the narrow stairways inside to reach the top as the internal shafts are turning nearby.  Outside, there is a farmhouse with old tools and plenty of polder to stare at while imagining how things used to be.
The man and woman working at the museum were polite during our visit, but they made sure we were on our way out of the museum at 4:55, five minutes before closing.  The man was dancing and making drinking gestures behind the front counter, while telling us that they were on their way to a marriage anniversary party as soon as the doors shut behind us.   A tour bus pulled up outside the museum at 5:05 as we were getting on our bikes to head back to Alkmaar.  The 50 or so '50-something' aged group unloaded the bus, and then looked disappointed to learn that the staff had locked up and were on their way to a hoedown.