Marken boys proposed to girls with shoes, not rings!
If you’re looking for quaint cultural experience of a different kind, venture just half an hour from Amsterdam to Volendam. Then, if you can tear your eyes away from the picturesque waterfront, board a ferry across the lake to Marken, an island surrounded by a dyke, where a tiny population of 2000 lives on reclaimed land.
Amble around the adorable village, and get enamoured by the houses surrounded by lovely gardens…many of which are listed as National Heritage Sites. Serenity now. Just the chatter of childrens’ voices and the sight of sheep, cows and green grass. Houses resting on dikes showing off their original character…in all imaginable shades of greens…olive green, bottle green, pea green, and apple green painted houses with white trims topped with pagoda-like red roof-tiles…their weathered paint declaring their true lineage. Little pathways meandering in and around the charming dwellings and canals slicing through the landscape adding pitcherfuls of beauty.
Reflect a little on the background. Once livelihood had depended heavily upon the sea, but when dams were created to save them from periodic flooding, the fishing and shipbuilding industries were swept away forever. Marken, like many other villages, reinvented itself with tourism, freshwater fishing, and cheese production.
And now for the cultural experience. I highly recommend that you go for a live demonstration at one of Marken’s famous traditional wooden shoe factories. Wooden shoes, apparently, are a true symbol for Netherlands, just as much as windmills, tulips and cheese. You will be informed that the oldest wooden shoe ever found in the Netherlands dates from 1230 AD…now that’s heritage!
Would you believe if I told you that in the olden days, a local fisher boy was expected to propose to a girl by decorating a pair of wooden shoes for her and if she was ‘floored’, they got married and the shoes became a lifelong memento. Picture the scene…a young man down on his knees, offering not a diamond ring, but a pair of hand-painted shoes. Clearly, those were days of modesty and practicality!
Wooden shoes gained popularity in the 16th century and until after World War II, almost every village in Netherlands had its own signature wooden shoemaker, who created his own brand of style with unusual colours, carvings and decorations. There were plain wooden shoes for working days and painted ones for Sundays. Even now, gardeners, farmers, blacksmiths, fishermen, masons and road workers sport sturdy wooden shoes in the rugged countryside.
Though the clogs are now machine-made and a pair can be created in less than five minutes; the process of drying, polishing and treating the shoe takes an additional few weeks. However, the shoes continue to be hand-painted and that’s where the traditional craft comes in. Clog souvenirs are very popular, not to wear, but to store stationery, loose change, or even use as flower-pots! Our choice was a pair of tiny red wooden clogs attached to a key chain…easy to carry and close enough to the real thing.
In the comfort of my seat on the bus, I looked down at my shoes, and wondered about the disregard even contempt associated with footwear in our country…its lowly to point your shoes at someone or walk into a holy place with shoes. Back in the Middle Ages, people used to walk bare feet and shoes were worn only by the elite…what a contrast in belief systems!