Holland and its People/Chapter XII

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Holland and its People by Edmondo de Amicis
Alkmaar

The vessel, passing beyond Zaandam, went on for a long time between two rows of windmills, touched at various villages, turned into the Marker-Vaart canal, crossed the lake of Alkmaar, and finally entered the Northern canal. I cannot describe the feeling of solitude, and of distance, that came over me in the midst of that crowd of peasant women, bediademed like queens, and motionless as images, on the steamboat as it glided along with the placidity of a gondola across a boundless and uniform expanse, under a melancholy sky. I found myself at certain moments wondering how I came there, and where I was going to, and when I would come back; I felt home-sick for Amsterdam and the Hague, as if the country through which I was passing were as far from South Holland as the latter was from Italy; I made a mental resolution never to travel again alone, and felt as if I should never see home again.

At that point I found myself in the very heart of North Holland, at that little peninsula bathed by the North Sea, and the gulf of Zuyder Zee, which is almost all lower than the waters that surround it, and is defended on one side by the downs, and on the other by immense dykes, and intersected by an infinitude of canals, lakes, ,and ponds, which give it the aspect of a half-submerged territory destined some day to vanish under the waters. Over the entire space that can be embraced by the eye there are to be seen only a few groups of trees, some sails of vessels, and windmills.

That part of the Northern canal which the steamboat was going through runs along the Beemster, the largest extent of land that was drained in the seventeenth century, one of the forty-three lakes that anciently covered the province of Alkmaar, and which were transformed into beautiful meadows. This Beemster, which embraces an area of seven thousand hectares, and is administered, like all the other polders, by a committee elected by the proprietors - the expenses being covered by a tax divided at so much per hectare - is laid out in a large number of squares, surrounded by paved roads and canals, so that the country looks like a gigantic chess-board. The surface being almost three metres and a half lower than that of Amsterdam, the rain-water has to be constantly drawn off by means of windmills, which drain it into the canals, and they carry it to the sea. There are in the whole polder almost three hundred farms, possessing about six thousand beef cattle and more than four hundred horses. The only trees to be seen are poplars, elms, and willows, grouped about the houses as a defence against the wind. It is all meadow-land, and all the other polders are like the Beemster. The only salient objects upon those verdant plains are the posts which support the storks' nests, and here and there some enormous bone of a whale, the antique trophy of Dutch fishermen, planted upright in the earth, and serving for the cows to scratch themselves against. All transportation of produce from farm to farm is done by boat; the houses are entered by a drawbridge which is raised at night, like the bridge of a fortress; the herds pasture without any herdsmen; ducks and swans swim freely in the long canals; all things breathe security, plenty, and peace. These are, in fact, the provinces where flourish, in all its beauty, that famous race of cattle to which Holland, in great part, owes her riches; those large, pacific cows, which give as much as thirty quarts of milk a day, descendants of those glorious animals which, in the middle ages, were sent to ennoble the race in France, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, and Russia; one head of which, if tradition may be believed, crossed the continent as far as Odessa, going back, step by step, over the road which had been followed by the great Germanic invasions. With the milk of these animals is made that exquisite cheese called Edam, after the town of that name in North Holland. On market days, all the towns in this province are overflowing with these handsome reddish forms piled up like cannon-balls in the streets and piazzas, and pointed out to the stranger with a sentiment of national pride. Alkmaar sells more than four millions of kilogrammes per year, Horn three millions, Purmerende two, Medenblick and

Enkhuysen from seven to eight hundred thousand, the whole of North Holland more than fifteen millions of francs worth.

As the steamboat drew near to the city, I went on as usual, exciting my curiosity by recalling to my memory everything that I knew about Alkmaar; far from foreseeing, poor soul, the disagreeable circumstances in which I was to find myself within its walls. I imagined it destroyed by John of Avesnes, Count of Holland, in punishment for rebellion. I followed the courageous carpenter, who crossed the camp of the Spaniards, carrying to the governor of the province the order of the Prince of Orange to cut the dykes, and who afterwards lost the governor's answer; which, being found and read by Frederic, the Duke of Alva's son, caused him to raise the siege in the fear of being drowned. I saw a troop of schoolboys amusing themselves by looking at the snowy landscape through bits of ice applied to the tubes of their ink-stands, and the good Mezio coming amongst them to find in their play the first idea of the spy-glass. I met at the corner of a street the painter Schornel, his head all scarred with the sticks and fisticuffs which he had got in the taverns at Utrecht, where he had been drinking with that good fellow John of Manburg, his master in painting and debauchery. And, last of all, I imagined the lovely women of Alkmaar, who, with their modest and innocent air, had the power to indemnify Napoleon for the ennui of Amsterdam and the boredom of Broek. Meantime, the steamboat arrived at Alkmaar; where a porter who knew three French words, Monsieur, hôtel, and pourboir, took my valise and conveyed me to my inn.

To those who have seen other cities of Holland, Alkmaar offers nothing remarkable. It is a town of regular form, with broad canals and streets, and the usual red houses with the usual pointed façades. Some of the larger squares are entirely paved with small red and yellow bricks, disposed in symmetrical designs, and looking at a distance like a carpet; and the streets have two sidewalks, one of bricks for passengers, and one above it of stone, projecting from the walls of the houses, upon which no one must place his foot if he wishes to avoid the angry looks of the inhabitants who may observe him from the windows. Many of the houses are whitewashed, no one can tell why, halfway up; some are painted black as if in mourning, and some are varnished like coaches from top to bottom. The windows being very low, one can see, through the beautiful tulips and hyacinths that adorn them, the parlors glittering with mirrors and porcelain, and the family gathered about a small table covered with beer-glasses, liquor-stands, cakes, and cigarboxes. For long distances in the streets you meet no one; and, what is unusual in a town of more than ten thousand inhabitants, the few people, men. women, and. children who pass, or stand in the door-ways, all salute the stranger courteously. A company of collegians, accompanied by a tutor, passed me; at a sign from the latter, they all raised their caps; and my dress was certainly not that of a person of distinction. The city has no noticeable monuments, beyond the city hall, an edifice of the seventeenth century, partly Gothic and partly of no style at all, resembling in miniature the one at Brussels; and the large church of St. Lawrence, of the same date, in which is the tomb of Count Florentius V of Holland, and, hanging over the choir, like a lamp, a model of the flag-ship of de Ruyter. To the east of the city lies a thick grove of trees which serves as a public garden, and which is used occasionally for certain grand festivals called harddraverij, or trotting matches, for the thoroughly Dutch prize of a silver coffee-pot. But notwithstanding its fine grove, its church, its city hall, and its eleven thousand inhabitants, Alkmaar looks like a big village, and so profound a silence reigns in her streets that the music of the steeples, wilder even than in the other cities, is heard all over as distinctly as in the quiet of the night.

Passing through some solitary streets towards the centre of the city, I began to see more people, principally women, who, as it was a holiday, were dressed in all their bravery, particularly the peasants. Truly, I cannot imagine what ailed Napoleon's eyes when he arrived at Alkmaar. There are certainly some pretty nun-like faces which express the utmost simplicity and innocence, and in especial some cheeks of the softest rose that was ever diffused by modesty over a virgin visage; but the effect of these simple graces is quite destroyed by the abominable head-dress and the still more abominable fashion of the garments. Besides the tufts of curled hair, the earrings like a horse's blinders, the gold band across the forehead, and the white cap concealing the ears and the nape of the neck, they wear upon their heads a great straw hat of an almost cylindrical form, with a broad brim lined with green or yellow silk, turned up in front, and having a large gap between the forehead and the brim, reminding one of the open mouths of those monsters which Chinese soldiers used to wear to strike terror into their enemies. Their hips are absurdly high, either made so by the fashion of the petticoat or by nature, and the bust, which is very large at the girdle, grows smaller as it rises, contrary to our women, who make their chests broad and their waists small. And as if this were not sufficient, they compress (as I suppose, because I cannot believe that nature has treated them so badly) the bosom in such a way that not the slightest curve is visible, as if that, which in other women is the perfection of beauty, in them were a ridiculous defect or something to be ashamed of. Even the prettiest of them scarce look like women in such a costume, and the appearance of those less favoured by nature, who are the most numerous in Alkmaar as elsewhere, can be imagined.

Thus passing the fair sex in review, I reached a large square full of booths and people, and became aware that I had arrived in Alkmaar on a kermesse day.

This is one of the strangest and most characteristic points of Dutch life.

The kermesse is the carnival of Holland; with this difference from the carnival of our own country, that it lasts only eight days, and that each town and village celebrates it at a different time. It is difficult to say in what this festival consists. At the time of kermesse there rises within a Dutch city another city, composed of cafés, theatres, shops, tents, and kiosks, which vanish at the end of the festival, break up like an encampment, and are piled in boats and carried off to some other place. The inhabitants of this vagabond city are traders, musicians, actors, jugglers, giants, colossal women, monstrous children, deformed animals, wax figures, wooden horses, automata, monkeys, trained dogs, and wild beasts. In the midst of the innumerable sheds under which this strange population shelters itself, there are hundreds of little painted and gilded houses, each composed of one large and four small rooms, in which some young girls in the Friesian costume, with the gold helmet and lace cap, serve all comers with that peculiar sweet cake called broedertijes, which is the emblematic delicacy of this festival, as the panetone at Christmas and the focaccia at Twelfth-day are with us. Beside the booths of the mountebanks, and the cafés, there are bazaars, circuses, theatres for musical performances, and every sort of entertainment to suit the taste of the people. Such is the place for the occasion provided for the kermesse; but the festival itself, properly speaking, is quite another thing. In those cafés and booths, in the streets and squares, day and night, throughout the time of the kermesse, servants and laborers, peasant men and women, all classes and both sexes of the lower order of the people, get drunk, dance, jump, sing, yell, and make love, with a fury and license beside which the disorders of our carnival are innocent and childish diversions. In those days the Dutch people change their character so as to be no longer recognisable. Habitually serious, economically modest, and domestic, in the time of the kermesse they become boisterous, laughing at decency, and passing the whole night away from home, while they spend, in one day, the fruit of a whole month's labor.

The servant-women, to whom extraordinary liberty is conceded at that time, and who would take it if it were not given, are the principal performers in the festival. Each one is accompanied by her betrothed husband, or her lover, or by some young fellow hired for the occasion, the price varying according as he wears a hat or a cap, or if he be handsome or ugly, a clown or a smart fellow. The peasants come into the town or village, to enjoy the kermesse, on some fixed day, which is called the peasants' day. The culmination of the uproar is on the Saturday night. It is then no longer a festival, but an orgie; a saturnalia, which has not its parallel in all Europe. I refused for some time to believe some Dutch friends, who painted the kermesse to me in the most horrible colors, and thought that they were too rigorous in their judgments. But when I heard the same things confirmed by unprejudiced persons, native as well as foreign, I was obliged to accept the judgment of the Hollanders themselves, who call the kermesse a national disgrace. It must be said, however, that for some time the custom has been losing ground. Public opinion is divided upon the point. There are some who favor it, because it amuses them both as actors and spectators; and these deny or excuse the disorders, and insist that a prohibition of the kermesse would cause a revolution. There are others who wish to see it suppressed, and desire the substitution, of honest and decent public entertainments, the want of which, in their opinion, is the principal reason for the excesses to which the people abandon themselves on the occasion of the kermesse. This latter opinion is growing stronger day by day. In some towns measures have been taken to restrain license; in others an hour is fixed, after which all shops and booths are closed; in others the booths are erected away from the centre of the city. The authorities of Amsterdam have fixed a certain number of years, after which no preparations will be allowed for the festival. It may therefore be affirmed that the time is not far distant when the famous kermesse will be reduced to a cheerful and temperate carnival, with great advantage to public morality and national dignity.

These festivals, however, are not everywhere noisy and scandalous in the same degree. At the Hague, for instance, they are much less so than at Amsterdam or Rotterdam; and I fancy (perhaps because I was not there at night) that at Alkmaar they are still less objectionable than at the Hague; which, however, by no means indicates that they are models of decency.

The piazza when I reached it was full of booths, painted in different colors, at whose doors mountebanks in pink tights, and female rope-dancers, attitudenised and chattered to attract an audience. Before each one stood a crowd of lookers-on, from which two or three peasants would every now and then emerge and enter the booth to see the spectacle. I never have seen gentler or simpler mannered people, or more easy to amuse. Between one tune and another, a boy of ten years old, dressed as a pantaloon or clown, and parading upon a platform in front of the booth sufficed to entertain and keep in good humour a crowd of two hundred persons. And this he did, not by telling funny stories and making puns like the mountebanks of Paris, nor by jumping and grimacing, but simply by every now and then making and throwing among the crowd, with a smile, a little paper arrow. This was enough to make them all laugh in the best possible humour.

As I wandered about among the shops and shows, I met a few peasant women slightly overcome with liquor, a little shaky on their legs, and singing in cracked voices; saw a few couples exchanging amorous glances, and met some groups of women who were preluding the nocturnal exercises by giving shoves with hip and shoulder strong enough to throw each other down; but nothing worse than this. The whole thing seemed to be a confusion of people who did not know what to do with themselves. But as I foresaw that with the evening would commence a much more dramatic spectacle, and did not care to find myself alone in an unknown city under such exceptionable circumstances, I decided to leave at once for Helder, and returned to my inn by the shortest way.

Upon my arrival there in the morning I had spoken with no one, because the porter who accompanied me had arranged about my room and had taken my valise to it. However, I imagined that the landlord or some one of the waiters would be sure to understand French. When I returned, landlord and waiters were probably drinking at some booth; for at the inn there was no one but an old woman, who showed me into a room on the ground-floor, and giving me to understand that she did not comprehend me, went about her business. In the room there was a company of fat citizens of Alkmaar, who were seated round a table where they appeared to have been solemnly consuming quantities of food and drink, and were now chattering and giggling with extraordinary vivacity and in a cloud of smoke. Beholding me mute and solitary in my corner, they turned upon me from time to time compassionate glances, and whispered in each other's ears words which I imagined to express the game sentiment as the glances. There is nothing more disconcerting to a stranger than to find himself the object of commiseration to a company of cheerful natives. The figure which I made at the moment may, therefore, be imagined. After a few minutes, one of the stout citizens rose and took his hat to go out; but before doing so, he stopped opposite me, and said, with a smile of polite commiseration, while he pronounced every syllable with emphasis, "Alkmaar pas de plaisir, Paris toujours plaisir." He took me for a Frenchman. This said, he put on his hat, and, believing that he had administered sufficient consolation, went gravely out of the house. He was the only one of the party who knew three words of French. After about fifteen minutes, during which I had fallen back into my miserable state, a waiter came in. I breathed again, ran to meet him, and told him that I wished to leave. Oh delusion! he did not understand a word. I took him by the arm, led him to my room, pointed to my valise, and made signs that I wished to go. To go! it is easily said, but how? by boat? by rail? by trekschuyt? He assumed that he did not understand. I tried to intimate that I wanted a carriage. He caught the idea, but said or signed that there were no carriages. I thought that I would try and find the railway station myself, and made signs that I wanted a porter. He answered that there were no porters. With my watch in my hand, I asked at what hour the landlord would be back. He answered that the landlord was not coming back. I signed to him to take up my valise and carry it. He answered that he could not. I demanded, with a gesture of despair, what I was to do. He made no reply and stood looking at me in silence. On such occasions I have an alarming facility in losing my patience, my courage, and my head. I began to rave in a dialect composed of German, French, and Italian, opening and shutting my guide-book, tracing and effacing lines in my note-book which were intended to represent ships and locomotives, and rushing up and down the room like a madman, until the poor waiter, either frightened or bored, I know not which, slipped out at the door, and left me in the lurch. Then I seized my valise in my hand, and went down-stairs. The citizens below, warned by the waiter of my eccentric behaviour, had come out of the dining-room, and were standing in the hall as I came down, looking at me as if I were some patient escaped from a madhouse. I grew red as fire, at which they were still more astonished; and dropping my heavy valise, stood with my eyes fixed on the floor. Everybody looked at me, and no one spoke. I was more humiliated than I had ever been in my life before. Why? I cannot tell. I only know that I had a mist before my eyes; that I would have given a year of my life to have been able to vanish like a flash of lightning; that I cursed travelling, Alkmaar, the Dutch language, my own-stupidity; and that I thought of my own home like one abandoned of God and man. All at once a boy emerged from I know not where, seized my valise, signed to me to follow, and made off with speed. I followed without questioning, crossed a street, went through a large gate, crossed a court, and reached another gate that opened on another street, where the boy threw down my valise, got his pay, and making no answer to my questions, vanished as he had come. Where had he brought me? What had I to do there? How long should I stay there? What was going to happen next? All was mystery.

It began to grow dark. Troops of peasant men and women went by arm in arm, boys singing, lovers whispering in each other's ears; everybody gay and happy, and everybody looking at me as I stood there forlorn, with a glance of astonishment and pity. Just as I, in a rage, was about to seize my valise and go back to the inn, where my revenge should be swift and sure - behold! a diligence. It stopped, and the conductor signed to me to come. I inquired anxiously, "To the railway station?" "Oui Monsieur," he answered readily, "to leave for Helder." "Ah! may heaven bless you, conductor of my soul!" I exclaimed, as I jumped in and put a florin in his hand; "you have brought me back to life!"

The diligence took me to the station, and in a few minutes I was on my way to Helder.