Say Cheese: Day Trip to the Alkmaar Cheese Market

Cheese is a big deal here in the Netherlands.  Where else in the world can you find shops devoted entirely to this dairy delight? It doesn’t matter if it is breakfast, lunch, or dinner- cheese almost always makes an appearance somewhere during a typical Dutch meal.   The Netherlands is also one of the biggest exporters of cheese, with Gouda (the true Dutch pronunciation is how-da, not goo-da like we tend to say in English) and Edam cheeses recognized the world over.

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In four towns in the Netherlands, this long-standing obsession with cheese translates into major tourist dollars. These towns–Alkmaar, Gouda, Edam, and Hoorn–all hold traditional cheese markets (kaasmarkt) in the summer months in order to teach visitors about the history of the industry in the Netherlands.  Out of these four towns, Alkmaar is the undisputed mother of all cheese markets.

Every Friday morning, starting on the first Friday in April and ending on the first Friday in September, visitors flock to Alkmaar’s Waagplein (weighing square) for the market.  Anyone wanting a decent view should ensure they arrive long before the bell rings at 10:00am signalling the start of the market, because it gets very crowded. And Dutch people are tall, so unless you play professional basketball you are going to want to be as close to the front as possible to make sure you can see.

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The crowd by 9:30am

Once the bell rings, a flurry of activity begins on the square.  Members of the historic Alkmaar cheese carrier’s guild (who are the only ones allowed to move and weigh the cheese at the market) rush around carrying eight cheese wheels at a time on wooden racks hung across their shoulders.

Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein

In the meantime, sellers and buyers haggle over and eventually agree on a price for the cheese through a system called handjeklap (“hand clap”). The system involves both parties literally clapping hands together in a specific fashion to signal how much they are willing to pay/accept.

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After a price is agreed, the cheese carriers bring the cheese over to the weighing station. Back in 1365, when the first cheese was traded on the Waagplein in Alkmaar, the city only owned one scale. Now three scales, each larger than a grown human being, are used at the market!

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The cheese carriers have to be incredibly strong to shuttle the heavy cheese wheels back and forth across the square.  Each wheel of cheese weighs over 13 kilos (29 lbs.)! Carrying a full load of cheese wheels on the wooden barrows means having to lift over 130 kilos (287 lbs.).  Now think about the fact that there are approximately 2,200 wheels of cheese displayed on each market day- an incredible 30,000 kilos (66,000 lbs.) of dairy.  Those guys deserve a reward!

Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, WaagpleinMost of the market is purely a “spectator sport” with no active participation by the audience. However, one fascinating aspect of the cheese market that I got to partake in was the tasting of the cheese. The price of the cheese at the market is largely determined by the quality of its appearance and taste.  Trained inspectors use specially designed cheese scoops to bore cylinders of cheese out of the wheel in order to test the quality of the cheese before it is bought.  One of the inspectors came around with a wheel of cheese and broke off pieces of the fresh cheese for the crowd to taste.  My verdict on the product: that was some tasty stuff!

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Although the market provides commentary through a microphone for the crowd lining the square, do not expect to get much information out of it unless you speak Dutch. The commentator translated the proceedings into English, German, and Spanish for the benefit of the mostly-foreign audience, but I know enough Dutch by now to realize that the translations were terrible.  Anyone visiting the market would get much more out of the experience by reading up on the market traditions and procedure before they arrive.  A great resource for this is the Alkmaar tourism website (VVV).

Alkmaar, Cheese Market, Kaasmarkt, Cheese, Waagplein, Canal

Even if you get tired of the crowds at the cheese market (as I quickly did), there is still plenty to keep you occupied in Alkmaar for a few hours.  The medieval center of the town is very picturesque, and the Waagplein is surrounded by market stalls where Dutch handicrafts of all kinds are sold.  If you’re looking for a place to buy nicer souvenirs than the typical t-shirt and keychain-fare that line the streets of Amsterdam, Alkmaar is a great place to do it.

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A man makes traditional Dutch wooden shoes in Alkmaar

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And, if you just can’t deal with the complete overload of cute, traditional Dutch things, then you can always head over to the museum dedicated to the Beatles (the band, not the insect).  Apparently John Lennon’s first guitar was made in Alkmaar. Who would’ve thought?

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Lang Leve de Koning! Queen Beatrix’s Abdication and Queen’s Day 2013

Royals on Balcony

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima pose with their daughters on the balcony of the royal palace in Amsterdam

Queen’s Day 2013 is over, and what a day it was! As you may know from my last post on the tradition of Queen’s Day, I was worried about the weather.  Well, the day couldn’t have been better! The weather cooperated, the people were orange, and we now officially have a king in the Netherlands for the first time in over 120 years.

Leading up to the event, we had been DSCN7130hearing all week about how crowded it was expected to be in Amsterdam. Some of Willem’s work colleagues were even planning to go away from the city for the day in order to avoid the crowds.  But I was determined to go all out for this Queen’s Day–right in the middle of all the action.  Who knows how many chances I will get to see something like this?  I was lucky enough to see the Queen of England in person last year as she floated down the Thames during her grand Jubilee celebrations, and so the “cultural anthropologist” side of me was also curious to see how the Dutch celebrate their own monarchy compared to the British.

On the morning of the big day, we woke up by 6:30am (I dragged poor Willem out of bed at the crack of dawn on the one day he has off from work) so we could catch a train to Amsterdam before the crowds got too terrible, and so we could be in the Jordaan in time to find some treasures from the vrijmarkt.  It was rough getting up that early, but at least now the days have lengthened enough that it was daylight outside.  On the way to the train station in Haarlem we saw the first people setting up their stalls for the vrijmarkt, but we didn’t stop. We were on a mission to Amsterdam!

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Marking their territory for the Queen’s Day vrijmarkt

The trains were running smoothly, and we made it to Amsterdam Centraal with no problems before 8am.  There was no public transport, so we walked to the Jordaan with coins burning holes in our pockets, ready for some haggling at the vrijmarkt.  It was fascinating to see how the whole business worked.  Enterprising Dutch citizens had marked their “spots” on the pavement outside their houses and shops with tape or signs in the days prior to Queen’s Day. There is a kind of unspoken honor code that you respect the tape marked out on the street and do not steal someone’s spot.  Willem said he had read stories in the Dutch news about people fighting over the best locations on the bridges, but everything we saw was perfectly civilized.

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Willem checking out some vrijmarkt wares

We spent the next few hours meandering along the streets of the Jordaan and along the canals, looking through the goods.  Our biggest problem was that Willem and I are both obsessed with books, but we quickly agreed that we would have a miserable day if we actually bought all of them and were forced to carry our body weight in paper for the rest of the day.  Willem couldn’t resist though when he found an amazing, complete set of Russian literature–all for only 5 euros! My reaction was something along the lines of, “Good luck carrying those all day, buddy”.  We later bought a backpack from a girl for 3 euros, so the load turned out to be manageable.

Around 10am we started getting hungry and began looking for a place to sit down and have a snack.  We realized we were quite close to Dam Square, where Queen Beatrix was supposed to officially abdicate at that exact time.  So we decided to walk in that direction and see how close we could get.  We arrived just in time!  We ended up right next to the Royal Palace, but we were around the side of the building slightly and thus could not see the balcony where the royal family was expected to appear.  We could see a giant screen though, so we got to witness Queen Beatrix signing the abdication papers!  And we were there in crowd when the royal family walked out onto the balcony.

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The crowd in Dam Square

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On the big screen in Dam Square: Queen Beatrix, (now) King Willem-Alexander, and (now) Queen Maxima sit down to sign the papers

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Trying to get the best view

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The media flocks to the best location for the perfect shot of the royal family

I did find the adoration slightly odd, in a way that I can’t really put into words.  For me, it was an electric atmosphere just being in a crowd that was witnessing history (likely the only time this event will happen in a generation), but I confess that I really don’t understand the Hollywood-style celebrity worship of the royal family.  It was strange to see them in person, because it is easy to forget that these people are real when the only time they are seen is generally on TV or from a distance.

We decided not to wait in the Dam Square for the investiture of Willem-Alexander, which would be happening in a few hours at the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church).  Instead, we made our way south to the Vondelpark.  The neighborhood directly surrounding the park is gorgeous, with massive (we’re talking many millions of euros) houses.  We wandered around the vrijmarkt in that neighborhood before entering the park.  It is interesting how universally little the amounts of STUFF everyone was selling.  Even the people selling their wares out of these huge Amsterdam McMansions only had a blanket or two laid out with things to sell.  Either these people own nothing, or they are very stingy with their yard sales!  If yard sales in the U.S. were limited to a few blankets laid out on the sidewalk, the blankets would have piles six feet high!

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The beautiful Vondelpark

The Vondelpark, it turned out, was where everyone brings their children for family-friendly Queen’s Day activities away from the drunken hordes on the canals.  It was a nice atmosphere, with children getting in on the vrijmarkt action, selling everything from their homemade lemonade to Legos and Barbies.  If the Vondelpark is anything to go by, the Dutch are bringing their children up to be quite the savvy entrepreneurs! Another plus to the Vondelpark was that it had some of the only accessible free toilets in the city.  In most places, restaurants and other portable toilet areas were charging 1 EURO to use the bathroom.  It was pure gouging, and ruined a little bit of the experience to know that the shop owners were using the lack of public toilets on such a crowded day to their advantage. I can see why they did it, but it is bad enough having to pay .30 or .50 cents to use public toilets on a normal day.  Paying a euro to use a disgusting port-a-potty or shop bathroom with no toilet paper? No thanks. I’d rather pee in the canal.  It’s no wonder Amsterdam has such a problem with public urination.

We rested in the park for a while, enjoying the green grass and blooming tulips before we headed back towards the city center. I’m pretty sure we walked at least 10km back and forth across Amsterdam over the course of the day. The entire city was festive, which lent the day a really amazing atmosphere (as long as you weren’t desperately looking for a bathroom that didn’t cost more than the drink you were holding).  There were smiles and dancing on every street corner, and the sunshine certainly didn’t hurt the mood.  I only wish we had had a boat to cruise the canals! Below are a few of my favorite pictures from the day. I wonder what this country will do next year to top this for the first King’s Day (Koningsdag) in history!

Ringing in the New Year with a BANG!

It’s been a while, but I am now back in the Netherlands.  A lot has happened since I last posted.  During the two weeks in between leaving Virginia and touching back down in the Netherlands, I officially graduated with my Master in Global Politics from LSE (!), visited friends in London, and spent Christmas with Willem and my family in the Bavarian Alps of Germany and Austria.  I may write a post later that details these travels, but I am going to spend most of this post focusing on my first time experiencing a Dutch New Year’s Eve.  I had assumed celebrations would be similar to the ones we have in the States, but as always, the Dutch had a few surprises in store for me.

I woke up on December 31st in Tilburg to the sounds of a war going on around me.  My first thought when I heard the booms was “Ohmygod someone is shooting a gun VERY close by…I hope when I look out the window I won’t see a body lying on the street.”  I then decided that the chances of hearing a gunshot on my street were highly unlikely…heck, the chances of there being a gun within fifty miles of me in a place with as much gun control as the Netherlands is even more unlikely.  Willem, of course, thought my initial distress was hilarious.  He had neglected to prepare me for my first Dutch New Year tradition: the popular practice of carbidschieten (carbide shooting).  I will explain more about this a bit later, because a few hours from then I got to see firsthand what this crazy tradition was all about.

So after the morning’s excitement, we made the two hour train ride to Goor, where Willem’s mom picked us up and drove us the twenty minutes to his house in Neede (Willem’s hometown, in the Eastern region of the Netherlands less than five minutes from the German border), where we planned to spend New Year’s Eve.  We had lunch at Willem’s house, while we listened to the Top 2000 song countdown on Dutch radio.  This is a well-loved end-of-year tradition in the Netherlands, where Dutch citizens vote on their most favorite songs of all time.  Each year, the 2000 songs with the most votes are published in a list, and every song is played in a countdown that leads up to the #1 song, which is played in the final moments before midnight.  The list is pretty eclectic, with songs ranging from traditional Dutch songs to American pop, classic rock, and everything in between.  The #1 song for this year was….Bohemian Rhapsody!

 

In the afternoon, we walked to a field on the edge of town where a group of people were watching some men setting off the “carbide cannons” that had awoken me that morning.  Carbide shooting is a tradition that supposedly hearkens back to an ancient practice of scaring away demons and bad spirits with loud noises to ensure a positive atmosphere for the coming year.

Carbidschieten, or “carbide shooting”

This is definitely a “don’t try this at home” kind of activity!   Safely creating a carbide cannon is apparently as difficult as correctly setting up a controlled dynamite explosion, and requires significant skill to determine the exact second to light the cannon without posing a danger to spectators.  To make the cannon, an empty steel milk urn (the kind that are used on old farms) is propped up and a small hole is drilled in the bottom of the can.  Then a few blocks of calcium carbide (which is an easily available substance) are dropped into the can, and a small amount of water is added before the lid is tightly replaced.  The water causes an immediate chemical reaction with the carbide to produce a gas called acetylene.  As the gas begins to escape out of the hole in the bottom of the can, a torch is used to light the gas at the proper moment.  Presto, you have created your own cannon! The ignited gas causes a massive explosion, launching the lid off the can and into the air with a sound that can knock out your eardrums if you stand too close.  Carbide shooting is actually illegal every other day of the year due to the fact that people get seriously injured every year doing this, but on New Year’s Eve some municipalities (especially in the Eastern Netherlands where the tradition is most popular) allow people to shoot them off as long as they get a permit.  Woohoo! Below is a video of carbidschieten in action!

 

As it got closer to midnight, we left the carbide cannons and got ready to go to the house of a family friend of Willem’s.  It is relatively uncommon for the Dutch to celebrate New Year’s Eve like we do in the U.S., with First Night celebrations and city fireworks displays.  Instead, most people stay at home or with close friends until the clock strikes midnight.  We spent our time cozily counting down the minutes with Willem’s family and friends, sipping drinks, eating oliebollen (a tasty and traditional Dutch NYE treat; they taste exactly like funnel cakes), chatting, and watching TV specials that detailed the events of the past year.

Oliebollen: Traditional NYE treat in the Netherlands

This was all really nice, but I was still slightly disappointed because I thought that by being in the Netherlands I would miss seeing the epic fireworks displays that make this holiday so enjoyable for me. Luckily, I soon found out that the real fun of a Dutch New Year’s Eve doesn’t start until after midnight.  We counted down the seconds until the clock struck 12, and then everyone toasted to the New Year.  Within a few minutes after midnight, it sounded like a war had erupted in Neede.

FIREWORKS!

If this morning was a skirmish, then that hour after midnight was Gettysburg.  I can hardly describe the intensity of the noise that was coming from every possible direction.  It was the kind of sound that creates shockwaves that you can feel booming in the pit of your stomach.  I absolutely loved it!  We rushed outside to watch as every family in the neighborhood set off their fireworks at the same time.  And in case you were wondering, these were no ordinary fireworks.  I didn’t know where to look, because the entire sky was lit up with exploding lights of pure awesomeness.  I was shocked at the kinds of fireworks that were being shot off here (and it is all perfectly legal).  These were some high quality rockets, people!  Due to fire and safety restrictions back home, there are strict laws in each state regarding the fireworks that are legal.  In Virginia, if it’s fun, chances are it’s illegal.  Unless you are willing to suffer through the crowds and bitter cold to see one of the fireworks celebrations sponsored by one of the metro areas, you are essentially forced to be happy with poppers and sparklers.  That is certainly not the case in the Netherlands!

New Year’s Eve fireworks in Utrecht, Netherlands

New Year’s Eve fireworks in Alkmaar, Netherlands

As much as I love fireworks, the nicest Dutch NYE tradition has to be the practice of wishing all of your neighbors luck in the coming year.  While everyone is outside setting off fireworks (or spectating, in my case), it is common for neighbors to walk from house to house, shaking hands and giving each other their beste wensen (best wishes). Once the last sips of champagne had been drunk and most of the neighborhood had exhausted their supply of fireworks, we biked home.  I think I can safely say I rang in this New Year’s in a truly Dutch fashion: with a bang!

An Irish Girl in the World

When I spent two weeks traveling throughout Ireland in the summer of 2011, I encountered a curious shared sentiment among the Irish I met there.  Before I describe this experience, though, I feel I need to first provide some background.  I was born and raised in the United States, and my last direct relatives to live in Ireland were my great-grandparents on my mother’s side.  So am I Irish?  Technically, the answer is no.  I have never held an Irish passport, nor had I ever been to Ireland until my 2011 trip (upon which I will elaborate shortly).  I do have red hair and my favorite holiday is St. Patrick’s Day, but that is as close as this American girl has ever gotten to “being Irish”.

Despite all of this, I have always strongly identified with my Irish heritage.  My mom’s family is one of those supremely organized families, with biennial reunions held in the small town in rural Pennsylvania where our Irish ancestors originally settled.  I swear Saint Patrick himself frowns on you if you miss the Kinsley family reunion!

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Kinsley family property in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania. The Kinsleys were one of the founding Irish families of Wyalusing.

Genealogists have traced our family roots back hundreds of years in Ireland. I know the exact county and village they emigrated from on their way to America. I know the family crest, and the origin of our surname. In fact, I would venture to say that I know more about Ireland and my Irish ancestors than the majority of Irish citizens today:

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Kinsley Family Crest. Kinsley comes from the Irish “Kinsella”, which is an anglicized version of the Gaelic name “Cinnsealach.” The earliest records of the name come from the Southeastern part of Ireland in the modern day County Wexford, in the second half of the 12th century

So when someone asks me (as is not uncommon to hear in the United States), “Where is your family from?” or “What are you?” I do not hesitate to include “Irish” as one of my identifiers. To me, being “Irish” is no less a part of me than being a redhead, a soccer player, a writer, or a woman.  I know that many of my American friends share this strong identification with their own heritage, be it Irish, Italian, Chinese, Dutch, or any of the myriad of nationalities that have immigrated to this melting pot of a country at some point in history.

Back to Ireland for a moment.  My best friend and I spent months planning a backpacking trip through Ireland (more like “roll suitcase-ing”—we love adventure, but hey, we’re still girls!) that was to be our graduation present to ourselves.  We are both history nerds, so Ireland was the perfect place for us. We even attempted to teach ourselves some Gaelic, in order to fully appreciate the Ireland that we were about to see.  And I was ecstatic to finally be able to see the place from which my family originated. I had heard so much about Ireland that it felt like I wouldn’t just be visiting, but more like I would be coming “home.”

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Margaret and I at the Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare, Ireland

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The beautiful Irish countryside, as seen from the Rock of Cashel, Co. Tipperary

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Learning how to properly pull a pint of Guinness

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Biking through the Irish countryside, Co. Kilkenny

Multiple times during the trip, I made a point to engage in conversation with locals about Ireland and what their views were on American tourists in the country.  After all, almost 900,000 Americans visit Ireland each year, a massive proportion of the approximately 6.4 million yearly tourists to the small island nation. The almost universal (and unexpected on my part) response was that Americans were lovely, smiling people, but that they were obsessed with pretending they were Irish.  The locals were utterly confused by the waves of Americans that come to Ireland for the sole purpose of connecting with their past.  Some even seemed to hold a sort of disdain for these American imposters, as if it were blasphemy for the Americans that visit to proclaim Ireland as their own.  In their eyes, Americans are just that- Americans. They were curious as to the allure of Ireland for visitors from the United States, and could not understand the enthusiasm that we hold for rummaging through dusty piles of records trying to find mention of our ancestors.  This revelation did not bother or offend me in any way when I heard it.  To me, it merely represented an intriguing cultural difference between the two countries.

I did not think much more about it until very recently when I came across a blog post on the subject by a Dutch woman living in the United States.  The post details the author’s annoyance at Americans who announce themselves as “Dutch” but in reality are long removed from their connections to the Netherlands.  For the first time, I considered the notion that this disdain for Americans who assert their ancestral connections could be a widespread sentiment, and one not limited to the Emerald Isle.

The thing I cannot fathom is what exactly is so wrong about an American identifying with a different place.  The United States was founded on a culture of shared ideological values, not developed from age-old traditions.  Because we have only a short history in comparison to much of the rest of the world, American traditions are invariably formed from a mash-up of the various ones brought from immigrants to the U.S.—cultural syncretism at its best.  Many American families have roots in dozens of cultures, to the point where it is difficult to say where they came from at all.  In some cases this is a blessing.  But I would argue that it is only human nature to know our past, particularly with respect to our own personal histories.

Being “American”, while wonderful, does not necessarily provide that feeling of being rooted to the earth, of having that place that is so ingrained in our being that we feel we belong.  So we adopt a culture. Usually this is the culture of our immigrant ancestors.  Perhaps an American who calls themselves “Italian” cannot speak the language and has never tasted a pizza cooked in a wood-burning furnace in Naples, but that does not make their experience as an Italian any less real.  Who really has the right to decide whether someone is [insert relevant nationality here] enough or not? I dare say that the author of that post will still consider herself Dutch if/when she becomes a U.S. citizen.  Yet at this point, she will also officially be an “American”. Where does the cut-off occur then?

Americans are the brunt of many stereotypes around the world, with the “ignorant American” only one of the most prominent.  Yes, some of these unfortunate stereotypes contain an element of truth (something I am ashamed to admit, yet have often observed in fellow Americans while traveling).  However, if an interest in one’s cultural heritage (no matter how distant) results in even one American learning something more about the wider world around them, then that is something to be admired, not lambasted.

Slainte!