Carved out of wood

By Annewil Schippers and Juliane Glahn

Blue, pink, black, small and large – clogs of all colors and sizes decorate the shelves of the Van der Meulen shoe store, located in the small Dutch village of Eenrum, in the north of the province of Groningen. Here, we meet Robert van der Meulen, who has been making the traditional Dutch footwear for over 30 years. He leads us through his workshop, where he turns tree trunks into wearable clogs (called “klompen” in Dutch) nearly every day.

The first thing Robert does when he goes from the front of the store to his adjoined workshop in the back, is to take off his regular shoes and slip into his own pair of black clogs. “Otherwise, you’re permanently vacuuming the store,” he jokes. Wood shavings and dust cover the floor and stick to the shoes of whoever sets foot in the workshop.

Countless wooden shoes are stashed here: they are stacked in small piles on the floor, placed on every table there is, and lined up on the shelves. Robert estimates that he makes “a few thousand” wooden shoes every year.

A piece of history

Though many think of the clog as typically Dutch, the wooden shoe has its origin in the north of France. For centuries, the footwear was popular in countries throughout Europe, such as Norway and Italy. Clogs made their way into the Netherlands in the 16th century and reached their peak of popularity in the early 20th century.

The Van der Meulen Klompenmakerij (clog workshop) is a family business. Four generations have mastered the clog making craft. In 1900, Robert’s great grandfather, Douwe, opened the shop. His son joined the business once he was old enough.

In 1920, he went to Germany and brought back machines that helped produce the shoes. “He was one of the first in this area to have machines,” Robert explains. The use of machines severely sped up the process and reduced the amount of work that had to be done by hand.

Robert himself started making clogs in 1985. Together with his father, who is 79 years old, he still makes the traditional wooden shoe to this day.

In this video, he shows us part of the clog-making process.

A disappearing craft

Wood from the neighborhood, mostly willow, is used for the clogs. “We go through several trunks per week,” he says. Once Robert gets to work, the room is filled with the sound of machines whirring to life, and metal scraping wood. Robert cuts the blocks into the desired size, and (with a bit of help from a machine here and there) forms them into the typical shape. He then polishes them, and adds some carvings. For one pair, he needs roughly 45 minutes. As a finishing touch, he adds different colors. “Red is frequently sold, blue is frequently sold, pink, purple… and even black.”

The wooden shoe might be a stereotype of the Netherlands, but the amount of people making them is quite low. “There are around ten companies that still produce clogs to wear,” Robert says. Others make smaller versions as souvenirs or produce the wooden shoes for museums. The Van der Meulen Klompenmakerij is the only clog workshop in the province of Groningen.

People who still buy clogs wear them for gardening or handiwork. Robert makes shoes in all sizes – for adults, but also for little kids. “These clogs are often given as birth gifts.”

After Robert, who is now 55 years old, the family business might stop: “I don’t think anyone will follow after me,” he says. For now, however, he and his dad continue the craft and do not plan on stopping anytime soon.

“I think and dream in Grunnegs”

By Juliane Glahn and Annewil Schippers

If you’ve ever been offered a “puutje” by the cashier at your local Groningen supermarket or been baffled because someone yelled “moi!” at you, you probably assumed you just misunderstood or that the person had a speech impediment. But, actually, these are perfectly normal words in the Grunnegs dialect, spoken by most people in Groningen. We speak to Marten van Dijken, a true Grunneger, on the dialect’s special celebration day.

The smell of cooked broccoli and boiled potatoes fills the room, while outside it’s raining cats and dogs — or as the Grunnegers would say, “t regent jong katten” – but nonetheless the spirit inside the Groninger Archives is high. Today, the Archives, located on Cascadeplein in the city, jam-packed with people who are desperately trying to dry their trousers, is the set of Dag fan de Grunneger Toal, or Day of the Grunneger Language. Here, enthusiasts of the local language, and artists such as writers and musicians, celebrate, as well as talk about their ties with the language, including Marten van Dijken.

The day is dedicated to the Grunneger dialect, which bears similarities to Dutch, Frisian and West Low German, and is spoken by approximately 65 percent of the population of Groningen. With around 550,000 speakers, it’s one of the Netherlands’ most prevalent dialects. Although it’s not an officially recognised language, it does have its own dictionary which was published by Kornelis ter Laan in 1929 and reissued in 1952.

“I think and dream in Grunnegs,” says Marten van Dijken, who has done translation work for over 40 years. After retiring at 57, he now spends his days translating literary works to Grunnegs. Van Dijken is passionate about translating, because working with language never gets boring, he says. It’s always new, always different. Each book has its own problems and curiosities.

His biggest project perhaps was the translation of the Bible into Grunnegs. Collaborating with 60 others, the translation was finally published in 2008 after years of hard work. “I worked on it from 10 AM to 8 PM. Even when I visited my daughter in Chile, I brought the Bible with me to work on it,” Van Dijken says. The project was funded by the province of Groningen and foundation called Liudgerstichting.

Van Dijken reciting Genesis 1: 1-5 from the Grunneger Bible

But why do we need Grunneger books, when everyone in the Netherlands understands Dutch perfectly fine?

According to Van Dijken, every classic should be translated to Grunnegs, because while Dutch is a language that is taught to Grunnegers, “Grunnegs is the language of the heart.” Van Dijken grew up in Groningen, speaking the dialect with his family. After the translation of the Bible was published, Van Dijken suddenly had people come up to him saying that they had started reading the Bible again. “This is what appeals to me, this is in my language’, they told me.”

However, the translation process is not always smooth sailing. Sometimes, certain idioms, sayings, or cultural contexts are in the way of translating a text literally. Sayings like “it’s raining cats and dogs” can’t be translated word for word, so Van Dijken has to be creative. 

But he never gives up: “Whenever I’m stuck, or when my translation doesn’t satisfy me, I go for a walk. And usually I have a Eureka moment that same day. Eventually, the right translation always comes to me,” he says. Of great help is also Ter Laan’s dictionary. Van Dijken uses it every single day, as well as his own digital dictionary which encompasses over 20,000 Grunneger words.

Although the average age at the annual Day of the Grunneger Language event is somewhat higher than that of our journalists, Van Dijken isn’t worried about the popularity of Grunnegs. He tells us that the dialect is still very much alive among younger Grunnegers, and that it’s even a subject in primary school. Exemplary of this is a new magazine called Wiesneus, that was presented to the public on the same day, and which will be used in primary schools to educate young children about the history of Grunnegs, in Grunnegs.

After the publishing of translations of the Bible, the Children’s Bible and several Dutch comics, amongst others, Van Dijken’s newest work is a translation of Hector Malot’s Sans Famille. This work, titled Allain op Wereld, was translated from both the French original as well as the Dutch translation Alleen op de Wereld (by Gerard Keller, 1880), and will be available in regular bookstores from November 2019.

language barrier netherlands

Crossing the Language Barrier in the Netherlands

By Juliane Glahn

Internationals coming to the Netherlands are struggling to integrate into Dutch society until they learn the language. But improving language skills is hard if there is no one to practice with.

“I felt really isolated before I learned the language,” Samantha MacKenzie (24) says.

Originally from Canada, she moved to the Netherlands two years ago to be with her boyfriend. Living in a small village where most of the population is older and unable to speak English, she could barely communicate with others. Often MacKenzie relied on her partner to help her with everyday tasks such as grocery shopping. “It was a big loss of independence for me.”

Ashley Richardson (33), a migrant from the U.S., agrees that learning Dutch helped her integrate more into her country of choice. “You can get away with English in places like Amsterdam or other international places such as Groningen,” she says. But in order to form connections with citizens, speaking Dutch is important.

Even though the two are constantly surrounded by Dutch and learned it through language courses at the University of Groningen, native speakers’ desire to be helpful often got in their way of practicing. “A lot of Dutch people speak really good English,” Richardson says.

MacKenzie always tries to speak Dutch, but “if I hesitate at all, then everyone switches to English.”

Especially in grocery stores, cashiers are quick to address customers in English if they notice the person is not a native speaker.

This is a phenomenon that Maarten Sijpkes (52) vowed to counter. Many internationals come to his stand ‘Stropiewafel’ at the Vismarkt in Groningen, where he sells the popular traditional Dutch treat. When non-natives order in Dutch, he responds in Dutch as much as possible. “You learn through speaking,” Sijpkes says. He doesn’t want to stop people from learning the language but rather encourage them.

He even teaches his customers who don’t speak any Dutch some words: When two girls approach his stand and ask for a “waffle” in English, he tells them the proper pronunciation of the sweet. The rest of the exchange between the three is bilingual. “Geniet,” Sijpkes says while handing over the stroopwafels, “enjoy.”

“More and more internationals are trying to speak Dutch to me,” he says, adding, “here they can at least learn a few basic words.”