View from the terrace of the family's Brooklyn Heights apartment

Monday, April 11, 2011

The friendly villagers of Spakenburg

           Because I’m a sailboat enthusiast, on my way to an academic conference in Germany a few years back I decided to take a side trip for a day or so to Spakenburg, an out-of-the-way Dutch village that harbors the largest surviving fleet of botters--the sturdy, traditional fishing vessels that have survived as pleasure craft. I got off the bus there at about noon on a Wednesday right around the corner from the VVV, the national tourist agency, a block from where the main street divides to form a basin for “the brown fleet.” To my surprise, the woman in charge spoke neither English nor German, so my meager Dutch and sign language had to suffice. I agreed to stay at a pension two kilometers distant for $18.00 a day, breakfast included, about half of what I had been paying for a tiny five-floor walk-up overlooking a canal in Amsterdam. When much to her surprise the agent realized I didn’t have a car, she phoned the pension and the proprietor, an amiable and talkative fellow in his sixties, drove in to pick me up.
          On the way to the Pension De Poort in Bunschoten we worked out a system of communication involving a few words in Dutch and English, supplemented by gestures and facial expressions. My host’s amiability was a harbinger of the treatment I later received from the villagers. When I stowed my gear and indicated I was going to walk back to Sparkenburg, the innkeeper led me to an outbuilding and offered me the loan of a bicycle!
          Though it rained on and off for two days, I managed to check out the old boat basin and the modern marina on forays from the village tavern, my headquarters. The brown fleet is maintained by an organization of owners who cover their expenses by chartering the boats to groups. I spent some time aboard one of the botters whose cordial skipper was tidying up, but regrettably the weather argued against going for a sail. On my jaunts to and from the pension I visited the village’s mini-museums, which featured model boats, folk costumes. and exhibits illustrating village trades and crafts of yore.
          The second time I entered the village tavern, I was treated as if I’d been coming there for ten years. I was included in the rounds the regular customers were ordering, and I found myself talking with Dennis from Surinam, whose English was pretty good. When he learned I was headed for Münster, Dennis introduced me to Edwin, who would be traveling there by car with two friends, and I was invited to join them. I was also invited to--actually ordered not to miss--the party that night for Christine, the tall, blonde, convivial barmaid, who would turn eighteen at midnight. I had taken her for about twenty-five!
          When I bought some postcards before heading down to the Oude Schans to take photographs. it was clear the clerk knew who I was and where I was staying! Outside the shop I was surrounded by a dozen or more schoolchildren who were excited by my Red Sox baseball cap, which reminded them of a character on American TV. Later that evening, in the tavern, everyone--including me--had to offer a toast to Christine and dance with her. When I commented on how friendly the villagers were, Dennis said, “Everyone in this town knows everyone else.”
          “Everyone here seems to know me too,” I added.
         “I told the people at the pension I was leaving today, but I changed my mind when the sun came out. I had dinner tonight at the Petersheim, the restaurant you suggested, and I bet you can’t guess what the waitress said when I walked in. I’d never been there before.”
          “What did she say?”
          She said, “Oh, it’s you. We thought you left this afternoon.”
          The villagers of Spakenburg were indeed friendly--and inquisitive.

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