Edam, Netherlands: Cheese and Slavery

Sorry, Amsterdam. I don’t mean to totally dog you for the second post in a row. You really are great. Your waters calm my soul and your church bells lighten my steps. You’re bike-friendly. More than that, you’re PRO-bike. But even I, the normally happy-go-lucky, hopelessly-optimistic, yours truly wants to fly the bird at the world sometimes. I wanna leave you. It’s me, not you. 

Edam. A town that proves that you haven’t seen a country until you’ve seen its country(side). 

Leaving the city center, the bus entered the highway and lulled me to sleep. Sleep was a land I’ve avoided all too well the past few days, as the cancerous bile of recent events infected my spirit. I was jolted awake by the feeling I’d missed my stop, but thankfully, I hadn’t, and instead was greeted with cattle in the meadows, blonde and blue-eyed children running along the dykes, elderly couples riding bicycles and modern windmills presiding over the pastoral landscape.

I was the last one on the bus to the last stop, Edam. I approached the bus driver.

“Excuse me, this bus goes to Edam?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you. I was told it was a nice place to visit. Have you been there before?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Is there anything in particular I should visit?”

“Well, I don’t really like it, it’s fine for me. Nothing special. But, give it a shot.”

Gee, thanks. You have to appreciate that brutal honesty, however. It’s so typically Dutch. “How often do the buses leave Edam for Vollendam?”

“Every 15 minutes.” I guess if ‘nothing special’ holds true, I can skip early to Vollendam and take the ferry over to Marken, I thought.

Just off the bus stop was a little eetcafe. After an Orangina and a hot dog, I lingered a bit in the shop to ask the keeper if she knew something interesting to do. Though she was quite nice, she claimed not to know, but advised me to walk to the center of town, where there should be a tourist center. HOW CAN PEOPLE NOT KNOW WHAT TO DO OR SEE IN THEIR OWN TOWN?

Looking back, I believe now every resident is sworn to secrecy. Ok, visitors, you go buy our famous cheese wheels (delicious!), take a few snaps in some wooden shoes and then, quickly, get the heck out of our lovely little town before you spoil it.

Or maybe they were being truthful, because there really is no _one thing_ that should be visited – no tower, no palace, no geographic wonder. The mundane is the real attraction. Everything is well cared for. Nature is not much interfered with. It’s got a human, a humane pace. Time doesn’t franticly slip by. A few hours pass and they feel right and real and full. Tendrils from a weeping willow skim the waters. More boats parked in canals and bicycles propped in gangways than cars. Laundry hung out to dry in the famous Dutch wind. A bit of lace in the windows.

I spotted some shipbuilders still in business after 300 years taking a beer break. Edam made its wealth on shipbuilding in the Golden Age of the Dutch in the 16th century. Back then shipyards and warehouses of ship building materials dotted the area. Seeking fortune, men came from all around to help build ships or to crew them. The Dutch ruled the seas then, with either colonies or trade outposts or relationships on the Americas, Asia and Africa. Edam was one of their major launch sites. I was harshly reminded of the Dutch quest for Empire while in Marken. More on this later.

Wanting to return to Amsterdam by sundown, I bade Edam adieu, hopped on the bus for Volendam. On the way up to Edam, I actually almost got off the bus at Volendam first, where most of the visitor-looking folk stepped off. Glad I didn’t. Volendam was congested with tourists walking about, perusing the souvenir shops hawking Delft porcelain knock-off tchotchkes of just about anything. Best thing I found there were the many seafood carts (both raw and fried available) set up along the harbor. Not wasting any time, I hopped straight to the ferry to Marken.

The ferry crosses the Markenmeer, described as a giant lake. But it looks as if you could sail clear through to the North Sea. The wind reminded me of the one back home off Lake Michigan, the kind that’ll cut right through you heartless, throat to toes. Sailboats clipped around us at wonderful angles. And just a few times the blue sky peeked through the overcast. But that’s typical Dutch weather for you.

Marken is a fishing village which sits on a former island now connected to the mainland via causeway. I was surprised to see the black painted houses. Seemed very austere; though, I can imagine how in winter, being practically surrounded by water, nothing feels cheery at all. Maybe with the white trim, it made the houses easier for the fishermen to see from faraway against the grey skies as they bid their wives and children goodbye and their boats pulled out of the harbor. Wandering off the main trail as I am apt to do, the clustering of houses gave way to sheep in the field, and yes, more windmills.

I decided to grab a light dinner before heading on the bus back to Amsterdam, not knowing how long the ride would be and wanting something warm in my tummy and an hour to defrost and take the chill off inside. Found a little place off the harbor that menu wasn’t completely deep-fried fill-in-the-blank. I ordered a bowl of seafood stew.

It’s not these folk in 1910 who look much like the traditional dress of the bergers of the 16th century with the balloony pants and the all-black except the bonnet attire that I noticed. And it’s not remarkable to me that this building was here in 1910 (that’s it to the far right in the picture). It’s that seal in the upper right corner of the placemat. It appears to me to be the head of an African slave.

I was startled. Using a slave as your town’s emblem? In 2012? I asked the waitresses at the end of my meal if they knew what it meant. One said she thought it was Spanish. (Spain and the Netherlands were at war for 80 years until 1648 when the latter gained its independence.) Other than her, none of the waitstaff had a guess. Or none of the waitstaff were willing to admit to knowing.

When in the Rijksmuseum, I heard a lot about the Golden Age of Amsterdam, when its merchants’ wealth grew because of trading spices and textiles with India and Indonesia (another former Dutch colony) and porcelain and tea with China, via The Dutch East India Company. One hears less, well, to be more accurate, close to nil, about the slave trade and about the Dutch WEST India Company. Not sure why I was so naive or why my memory was faulty (presumably I’d learned about Dutch participation and profit from slavery in school) or why I was so surprised by the placemat in Marken.

What I (re)learned about the Dutch and their slave trading past came later from the Internet – particularly this site called Breaking the Silence, an educational UNESCO project, long after I’d left Marken and the Netherlands altogether. (The site gives disturbing information on slavery in the past and how slavery continues today: child labor, bonded labor and sex trafficking.) The Netherlands entered the slave trade between its colonies in North America, the Antilles, South America, Asia and Africa to maximize labor capacity for its sugar plantations. It seems the Dutch’s famous tolerance extended to the buying and selling of human beings, too.

Race relations between the Dutch and immigrants from former colonies and other countries are interesting to say the least. One timely example I was led to by Google News. Meet Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete who is a slave or “good friend” of the Dutch version of Santa Claus (depending on who you talk to). Zwarte Piet is more often a Dutch (white) man or woman in blackface.

I read a little bit about Black Pete from this Slate article that ran last November, and more interestingly, from the 217 (!!) comments to a post on Black Pete from the blog Stuff Dutch People Like. Black Pete accompanies his friend/master Sinterklaas from Spain by boat to the Netherlands. The Slate article calls the Dutch tradition out as racist right out of the gate, and the commenters on Stuff Dutch People Like include defenders and detractors duking it out online. Essayist David Sedarist pokes great fun at the six to eight black men who accompany Dutch Santa, in this recording at Carnegie Hall and originally in Esquire.

So, is Black Pete racist? Tell me what you think in the comments if you wish. I find it difficult to understand why some Dutch don’t at least acknowledge that Black Pete’s origins are clearly from African slaves, instead of a Moor (oh yeah, the Moors were also Africans!) whose hands and face turn black from the chimney soot. Further I don’t understand why some Dutch don’t (or can’t) at least acknowledge their hurting of another’s valid feelings, instead of chiding the tradition’s detractors that it wasn’t meant as racist and why don’t you go ahead and leave then. The rhetoric sounds sadly familiar to these American ears. Here I would also like to remind you, my kind readers, of the important yet sometimes subtle difference between telling someone they are racist and telling someone what they did sounded racist.

With that strange taste in my mouth, I returned on the bus to Amsterdam before just before dusk, that time that photographers call the Golden Hour.

If you’re in Amsterdam… 

And you’re interested in visiting Edam, Volendam or Marken, buy an OV chip card for one day from the GVB bus driver for €7,50. Several bus companies run in the Netherlands (like the train system in Tokyo), each requiring separate tickets, meaning one ticket is for one bus company only (map). The temporary bus terminal is behind Centraal Station (side closer to the water). And the buses are one level up from the ground. Seems like everything is under construction at Centraal – apparently they’ve been working on extending the subway here for like, a decade – so if you get a little distracted with the whirring and drilling and foremen yelling, look up. The 110, 118, 312, 314, 316 and 317 buses go to Edam, at the end of the line. The ferry from Volendam to Marken, one way, costs €5,50 for adults.

And you’re interested in exploring more about post-colonialism, the documentary Empire: The Unintended Consequences of Dutch Colonialism is premiering at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, November 14 – 25, 2012. A seven country journey to former Dutch colonies, filmmakers “found the descendants of Indonesian slaves in Cape Town, South Africa, who sang loves songs in old Dutch dialect; war re-enactors in Java who dressed in Dutch Waffen SS uniforms; and the great-grandchildren of escaped Ghanaian slaves digging for gold in the jungles of Suriname,” reports Vice Magazine.

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