The Attack of the Killer Rhododendrons (4 page)

BOOK: The Attack of the Killer Rhododendrons
Universal Qysters


to explain morris dancing. In its place is my rather feeble attempt. Somewhere back in the mists of time, British villagers would gather for general silliness in an attempt to ensure a good harvest or to put an end to bubonic plague or to cure marital fidelity. They would don funny folk costumes and dance funny folk dances to the general derision of more sober-minded members of the community. Luckily, the tradition virtually died away until regaining its popularity in the 1960s and ‘70s. I attribute this to recreational drugs. Today across the width and breadth of the United Kingdom, town squares are filled with people with bells strapped to their knees and streamers attached to their elbows, waving white handkerchiefs and smacking stout sticks, recreating early fertility-inspiring dances to the accompaniment of drums, pipes, and accordions, while being scoffed at by people trying to complete their weekend shopping.

While on a short holiday in Kent, my dear wife, Lisa, and I decided to celebrate May Day by travelling to the seaside community of Whitstable to see a performance by the Oyster Morris Dance Troupe. The whole affair was scheduled to kick off at ten
o’clock, but by ten thirty most of the troupe was in the local watering hole, downing pints of ale. Whatever else might be said about morris dancers, they are not a temperance group.

Whitstable is well known for its oysters, which have been harvested from its shallow waters for more than 2,000 years. When the Romans set up shop in Britain, they exported Whitstable oysters to all corners of their empire. Charles Dickens wrote frequently about oysters on that part of the coast. Indeed, Whitstable is so proud of its oysters that it hosts a week-long Oyster Festival in late July, highlighted by the Official Landing of the Oysters, followed by a Blessing of the Oyster Waters, and an Oyster Parade featuring delivery of oysters to local pubs and restaurants by the Lord Mayor of Canterbury. And despite millennia of harvesting, populations of the oysters of Whitstable are doing just fine.

On the east side of the North Sea, things are not so rosy. A once lucrative oyster fishery had long since been fished out, and in its place was a foreign oyster with designs on universal domination. Lisa and I were on our way to see it.

with an awful lot of people. Less than half the size of South Carolina, the country has managed to cram in over 16 million citizens. After their border disputes settled down in 1839, the Dutch realized just how little land they were dealing with and decided to get some more. However, they found themselves completely surrounded, sandwiched between Germany to the east, Belgium to the south, and the ocean everywhere else. The Dutch did not see much potential for expansion by conquest, and so the solution was obvious, at least to them—they would just have to convert a chunk of the ocean to dry land.

According to writers who weren’t around at the time, land reclamation began in the region as early as the eleventh century, or maybe the fourteenth century, or perhaps the seventeenth century. Without the technology available today, the enterprise really didn’t get ramped up until about 100 years ago. Before then, a wild and turbulent arm of the ocean, the Zuiderzee, sliced a mighty swath
through the heart of the Netherlands. As far as the Dutch were concerned, the Zuiderzee was just going to have to go. Consequently, in 1932 they built the Afsluitdijk barrier dam, which stretched from the northern tip of North Holland east to Friesland, leaving a much tamer body of water, the IJsselmeer, to the south.

It then became a simple matter of dredging some ditches, using the earth to build a bunch of dykes, and pumping out the water. As a result of all that terra-forming, the Dutch managed to create a whole new province, the Flevoland, and expand the size of Holland by 10 percent. All of this mucking around did not come without consequences, of course. With several mighty rivers flowing into the IJsselmeer, the whole region turned from salt water to freshwater in about three years. If you were an ocean-dwelling creature caught on the wrong side of the Afsluitdijk, you were pretty much out of luck.

Lisa and I were rather fond of accepting invitations to weddings in exotic locales that required us to travel further than any other guests. Of course, we were working on the assumption that the invitations were genuine, and not a matter of the happy couple assuming that they could politely invite us, safe in the knowledge that we were unlikely to travel halfway around the world to attend.

We had met Sabine Muth, known to her friends as “Bini,” an obstetrician/gynecologist from Germany, while we were living in Glasgow. We met her beloved Arjan de Roy soon after. We had become friends so quickly that we had been invited to their wedding. The celebration was to be held in Stavoren in northern Holland, quite close to a site of oyster invasion.

Although Stavoren is a remote and tiny community, finding it proved to be reasonably straightforward. It was largely a matter of getting on a train at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport and then making a series of random changes to trains that seemed to be going from somewhere to nowhere. A lot of other folks seemed to be going nowhere, but we managed to secure a small wedge of standing room in the atrium at the end of a carriage where luggage is normally stored. With our backpacks at our feet, we were held in
place against the sway of the train by the sea of humanity around us, including eight youths drinking cheap lager from cans. This meant that we got to listen to their prattle, mostly in English, and frequently had to shift ourselves and our bags to allow the beer-fuelled young people to make trips to the toilet.

The ringleader made reference to his home, asking us: “You’ve heard of Amsterdam?”

“No, we have never heard of Amsterdam.”


“Biggest city in the Netherlands; place where our airplane landed; relaxed attitudes toward recreational drugs and prostitution … nope, we’ve never heard of it.”

Wanting to show that he wasn’t as silly as he seemed, the fellow tried to guess where we were visiting from.

“I’ll give you a hint,” I said. “It isn’t England.”

“France? Germany? Spain?”

Bonjour, Guten Tag,
but no, none of those.”

“Russia?” He was doing his best.

“Look, I’ll give you another hint. I am speaking English, but we are not American.”

“Australia? New Zealand?”

“And I have a big red maple leaf on my backpack.”

“Then it must be Canada.” He congratulated himself by opening another can of lager.

We were lucky that so many residents of the Netherlands speak English. Before leaving home, I had failed to purchase a contemporary Dutch phrase book, and so had to rely on a rather antiquated one picked up at a flea market. It was entitled
How to Get All You Want When Travelling in Holland,
and was clearly designed to meet the needs of those who were determined to make arses of themselves while travelling. The words “please” and “thank you” did not appear anywhere in the book, although I am assured that such phrases are used in Holland. I suppose a lot of the suggested phrases could have been used with greater effect in a generation earlier than mine. These included such gems as:
Wanneer komen we
bij de grens?
(When shall we arrive at the frontier?);
Ik wou graag een bolhoed en enige paren zijden kousen
(I want a bowler hat and some silk stockings); and
Kruier, geef deze pakjes in bewaring. U krijgt een fooi
(Porter, put these parcels in the cloak-room. I will give you a tip). If all else failed, the pushy traveller could always fall back on
We gaan zeker ons beklag indienen bij de Spaans Consul
(We shall certainly complain to the Spanish Consul). It is hard to believe that travellers ever required expressions like
nu mijn haarpunten afschroeien
(now singe my hair) or
mijn nagels moeten geknipt worden
(my nails require cutting). To my way of thinking, the most appropriate response would be
Snijd eigen verloekte vingernagels.

I had read that the Dutch have become very fond of outdoor sex. From the window of our train, this seemed entirely unlikely. Periodically we could see wooded landscapes that hoped to grow up to be forests. Otherwise, we saw very low-lying, canal-dissected pasture and crop land, with no relief in sight. It was pretty straight shot to the horizon. I couldn’t imagine where one would have a discreet pee, let alone engage in prolonged shagging.

Lisa and I were joining a strange new fraternity off limits to most. I found an 1881 document by Ernest Ingersoll describing the peculiar language used by those in the oyster industry. He told of bateaux, brogans, bugeyes, and cunners in which men would row to the oyster beds. They harvested oysters in all shapes and sizes, from blisters no bigger than a 25-cent piece to long slender stickups and coon-heels, to fancies and saddle-rocks of the highest grade. Writing of industrious men, Ingersoll described crackers, shuckers, and stabbers who opened oysters and transformed into hookers when harvesting sponges in the off-season. When shells have been opened and the contents removed, the offal left behind is called rim or gauch. Finger stalls are rubber or cotton gloves worn for protection while shucking oysters. Proggers scratch out a pitiful living on the oyster beds without real application to the task, and ten-fingers go one better by stealing the oysters of other men.

I cannot claim to have ever cracked, shucked, or stabbed an oyster. As a vegetarian, it is unlikely that I will do so anytime soon. However, in the interests of a complete story, I looked up how to do so in case you ever decide to have a go. I consulted a 964-page treatise on marine and freshwater products by Roy E. Martin of the National Fisheries Institute in Arlington, Virginia, and
The Joy of Cooking.

First, ensure that your oysters are still alive. If they don’t close their shells when handled, toss them away to avoid food poisoning. Then use a small hammer to chip a piece of shell at the margin to make it easier to insert a knife. Cut the muscle that holds the two sides of the shell together. Alternatively, you may choose to insert the knife into the shell’s hinge and twist. At this point it is best to engage a friend to drive you to hospital to have your thumb sewn back on. Before departing, ask your friend to put your oysters in the refrigerator, where they will remain fresh for up to three days.

Upon your return, if you haven’t lost your taste for shellfish, wash your dried blood off the knife and cut the fleshy bits from the shell. Check for particles of shell and sand, and place the flesh back in the deeper half of its shell, resting on ice. You will be pleased to know that the juices that oozed out of the oyster while cutting it open, known as liquor, can be strained and then poured over the meal before serving. I am told, although I can scarcely believe, that etiquette now requires you to swallow the oyster whole. Enjoy your meal.

the wedding celebration suffered from its own success. Bini and Arjan are friendly and affable enough as individuals, and are even more engaging as a couple. Between them, the happy pair amassed a guest list of 200. To their surprise, most of this throng wrote back to say that they would be delighted to be part of the happy day in Stavoren, which promised to swell the population of the small town considerably. Beyond us, the guest list included friends from Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, France, Sweden, the United States, and Scotland.

Bini had planned the day to within an inch of its life, and had
made it clear that nothing good was going to happen to anyone who dared to show up late. There was to be a general welcome at noon, complete with pre-sailing drinks, followed by a boat trip on the IJsselmeer departing promptly at 12:30 p.m. Anyone who was late would be required to swim to the boat.

A furious wind had turned the great freshwater sea to foam, and so we sailed up and down the Johan Frisokanaal instead. Two boats were needed to accommodate all of the guests. It must have been down to some Dutch naval regulation, but having boarded one boat, we were absolutely not, under any circumstances, permitted to jump between boats, so just forget it, cowboy.

Wedding celebration day was also Nationale Molendag (National Windmill Day), on which about 600 of the nation’s 1,000 windmills were opened to the public. Surprisingly, no one that I spoke to on the cruise seemed to know this. It was also Landelijke Fietsdag (National Cycling Day), but I didn’t bring this up, fearing that the other guests would take me for one of those know-it-all trivia freaks. The canal was orderly, tidy and straight, with some very straight and tidy locks. By Canadian standards, the wedding party itself was far too tidy and straight. In Canada, a group like this would soon have descended to throwing beer glasses into the canal and peeing over the rail, and I briefly contemplated holding up my end by mooning passengers on a passing sailboat.

The day’s celebrations continued at de Potvis, a restaurant named after the sperm whales that were hunted in the region in the past. Not itself a behemoth, the restaurant was clearly not designed to serve as many people as Bini and Arjan counted among their friends. The venue might have been able to seat us all if we had been able to spread onto the patio, but a cold wind and drizzle kept us inside. I ran out of small talk rather quickly. I faced the difficulty of speaking to persons struggling to use English as a second (or third or fourth) language, while trying to smother my embarrassment at speaking only one. I spoke with a teacher, a computer programmer, a bioengineer, an investment banker, several retirees, a dental prosthetics specialist, and a startling number of gynecologists. I asked
one of them what made somebody decide to become a gynecologist. She said, “It’s mainly about the babies.” “So, you don’t wake up one morning and decide that your life doesn’t have enough vaginas?” Her glare reminded me that I am not nearly sufficiently genteel to be European.

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