Bennekom – Summer, 1984

In Bennekom, everything changes on Friday mornings. The modest Dutch village burbles with commotion. Watching from the first floor, the double-glazing on my window turns this activity into a pantomime. Beside the stone church, the cobblestones are disappearing under canvas tents filled with trellis tables. Round steel bars slide into place in experienced hands. Edges shiny from use, the pieces assemble knowingly.

Men in blue overalls, with dark shirts underneath, are busy erecting stalls. They line them up in a large square around the outside, leaving room for an opening to allow people access to the lined up rows in the middle. It’s all very orderly, considering how quickly the market is put together. I suppose that’s not surprising, this market has taken place every Friday for decades, possibly longer.

Across the street on the footpath is the flower-seller’s stand. Plastic buckets full of flowers and plants line the footpath, and he is busy constructing a kaleidoscope of colour. Amongst the ericas, gerberas, crocuses, and fuchsias, it takes time to spot the ever present tulips and daffodils.

Opening the front door, the pantomime recedes in a rush of raucous racket. To the left, the street looks festive. The cobblestones under my feet are worn shiny from a lifetime of traffic. It’s a slow procession once I near the entrance to the square. Everyone knows everyone in this small town, and Friday is the day to catch up on old friends, family, and gossip. Negotiating between clusters of the local community takes careful planning.

Oestrogen abounds in the market place, from every generation. Grey-headed grandmothers, with salon coiffed hairdos sprayed stiffly into place, are graciously allowed room to manoeuvre past young mothers wielding heavy old-fashioned prams.

There are men, grandfathers dragged along for the outing still wearing their clogs, stall holders wearing blue caps with rounded peaks, and small boys who dart fearlessly around in the chaos. However, the market seems to be a largely female domain.

Lined up along the outside wall of the church are the cheese sellers. Large yellow rounds of cheese are everywhere. Already cut rounds are ready for tasting. Few seem to buy before tasting. Slices are thrust into hands, and people stand comparing the smoothness of one against the sharp tang of another. Cheese buying is a social occasion. Against the back wall, rounds of cheeses wobble, yet remain in steadfast towers. Before the morning is over, I notice most have been sold. The Dutch love their cheeses. It’s a love I probably inherited from a Dutch grandmother; I’m a shameless cheese addict. I crave the way the smoothness lays on your tongue, and as it melts, how it even tastes yellow.

Wafting over the market is the smell of cooking fish. The stalls are filled with more fish than I realised existed. Haring, fresh and salted is a favourite. They sell it on a sheet of paper, resting on a bed of chopped onions. Try kissing a Dutchman after that, not an experience I’d recommend. Paling (eel) is a delicacy, unlike New Zealand, in Holland the smaller the better. The measuring stick they use is their thumbs; never buy paling thicker than your thumb.

“Lady, anything bigger than your thumb, is too much fat,” was the fish-monger’s opinion. “Try this one; it is the right size, very tasty.”

“Umm, no that’s okay, I believe you.” They just resemble snakes a little too much for me.

The middle rows of stalls are supermarket straight. Vegetables spill from tables into large buckets coloured green on the ground in front. Book stalls mingle old with new; Bibles placed a discrete distance from copies of the Karma Sutra. The market place is a statement itself about the many contradictions of lifestyles found in Holland.

In amongst the row consisting of stalls with a rainbow of wool and material, is the most popular stall of the moment. A new fad has obsessed the country. What started as a kids’ craze has quickly turned into a must have item for their mothers as well. This is done under the guise of buying for the kids. Boxes line the table, filled with tiny plastic figures. Most no bigger than a thumb nail. Animals, everyday items such as buckets, books, tiny cars, all are replicated in miniature. The biggest seller however, is the plastic dummy. Every week the collection is added to, I have one as well. Most are worn around the necks of kids, adults tend to keep theirs hidden at home. Mine lies in a box in my suitcase, presents for niece at home should anyone ask.

On the far side of the market stands a rounded old caravan, in front is a long queue.  A sweet smell surrounds it and is all the advertisement they apparently need to bring the customers in. Fresh stroop-waffles are a delight to the senses. That aroma grabs you immediately. Round flattened thin slivers of dough covered with raised squares are sandwiched together with a sticky syrup.

The high point of Friday morning market day for me are the lekkerbekjes, tiny pieces of filleted fish, deep-fried in a delicious spicy batter. The fish monger will be my last stop on the way out. By the time I’ve made it out of the market the smell from the wrapped paper will have my stomach grumbling in protest at the wait. I enjoy the walk back to my room, the warmth from the paper parcel in my hands, and the smell dragging my attention to its contents.

11 thoughts on “Bennekom – Summer, 1984”

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