Nearly every Sunday, we went to our grandparents. For most of the afternoon, we visited my father’s parents near a village close to Winterswijk. They lived on a remote farm with my father’s youngest brother, my uncle Paul, who had continued and greatly expanded it. On our way home, we went to my mother’s parents for an hour and a half. In 1976, they sold their even-more remote farm in another village nearby. They moved to a small apartment for seniors in Eibergen. And to stress the remoteness, the Dutch call this area De Achterhoek (The Rear Corner). And Winterswijk is at the rear of that area. Thus a farm outside a village near Winterswijk is as remote as it can get in the Netherlands, linguistically, that is. This supposedly is a story in virtual reality. The Netherlands is a tiny country, so it is not like the desert of Algeria, the mountains of Chile, or the taiga of Siberia. Enschede is only 25 kilometres away, and Amsterdam is 125.
The atmosphere at both venues couldn’t be more different. My father’s family was noisy and outgoing, while my mother’s family was quiet and withdrawn. If we visited my father’s parents, all the aunts, uncles, and cousins were there. The men played cards in the living room and blamed their mates vociferously for each other’s mistakes. A dense smoke of cigarettes filled the room, so I often went outside with my cousins to play and get some fresh air. It was always fun to be there. At my mother’s parents, there never were aunts, uncles or cousins. Most people my grandparents knew were old too and gradually dying. They often discussed diseases like tumours, heart attacks and strokes, hospitals, treatments, mostly failing, and funerals, so I usually went outside with Anne Marie to escape the gloom.
Part of the local folklore in De Achterhoek is the rock band Normaal. Their greatest hit was Oerend Hard (Bloody Fast). It is about driving too fast on motorbikes and the accidents that come from that. They also made a song Ik ben maor een eenvoudige boerenlul (I’m just a simple farm prick), a sentence that reveals a bit of the mood in De Achterhoek. The local tradition is not one of pretence and elevated taste. And if you would ask the locals what Normaal is about, the answer would probably be høken, which is having fun in a rough manner. I was not a fan of Normaal, but they had a significant following in De Achterhoek and adjacent Twente.
For those who did not like to say they live on the edge of civilisation, De Achterhoek has yet another name, De Graafschap (The Shire), also the name of a place where an imaginary tale about Hobbits started. That is noteworthy because the character Frodo in the film looked a bit like me when I was young. I mention this to point out how much effort might have gone into this. Other elaborations of this kind in this account serve a similar purpose.
My uncle Paul was a kind man. We could get along, and it began when I was five. He praised my calculation skills and made me do sums on his lap while I became interested in his farm. And so I stayed with my grandparents quite often during the holidays. My uncle bred pigs. I fed the pigs, saw piglets being born and pigs going to the slaughterhouse, witnessed the artificial inseminating of sows dubbed KI, and saw tails being cut from piglets because they would otherwise injure each other by biting them off. And I became familiar with his business operations. Paul greatly expanded the farm to achieve economies of scale. And he focused on efficiency. The farm was clean because the manure fell through a grate, and the pigs lived in confined spaces. As you might know, pigs like to forage in the mud, digging up their meals.
Sows that didn’t give birth to as many piglets as the others went to the slaughterhouse. Paul selected sows based on the number of nipples for his breeding to improve his pedigree. A sow with twelve nipples could raise more piglets than one with ten. From his piglets, he chose the best sows. The others, including the boars, went to the slaughterhouse after being fattened. To Paul, it was a necessity. His business could only survive with efficiency and economies of scale. And I didn’t think much of it as it had been that way since time immemorial, except for the scale and efficiency.
There always loomed dangers, and Paul could fret. An infectious disease could erase his pedigree. And the price of pigs fluctuated wildly. He had years with high profits and years with massive losses. But his business went well. The old and poorly constructed farm was from the 1930s, so when he married in 1977, he had the old farm demolished and a new farm built. The new farm was an eye-catcher as it was in traditional style. It was huge and included a home for my grandparents. I heard he had spent a lot of money on it. People came to the farm to take a picture of it. It was indeed exceptional. But perhaps you should think for a moment, how many pigs were slaughtered for that? Do not see this as a reproach. It is a question you might ask.
Featured image: the farm that belonged to my uncle. Google Streetview. [copyright info]