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Wooden Shoes, Wooden Head, Wooden Listen

I was born in the south of the Netherlands and, surprisingly to most people, had not seen a pair of wooden shoes until I came to Canada. At the time, people here were astounded that I did not wear them every day, but it was understandable, as I was shocked not every Canadian wore a Mountie uniform. On one of my numerous trips back to the old country, I decided to do a little investigating into the wooden shoe industry and was surprised to learn it is still a thriving business. It is important to note, wooden shoes or ‘klompen’, the Dutch word for the clogs, were first used in medieval times and worn by farmers and fishermen. The farmers liked them because they did not get stuck in the mud, which of course makes up a great part of the northwestern Netherlands. Fishermen found them handy for the same reason as farmers, plus the added benefit of not getting fish hooks in their feet. To add comfort to what appears an uncomfortable product, leather socks are worn to protect the feet. Today, mind you, only a handful of people actually wear klompen, and the majority of the shoes produced are for tourist sales. Wooden shoe wearers claim the shoes are warm in winter, cool in summer, and provide support for good posture. The wood also absorbs perspiration so that the foot can breathe. The very first klompen guild was established in 1570 in the Netherlands. Although no one makes a pair by hand anymore, it was customary for a husband to present his would be bride with a very intricately carved pair of shoes on their wedding day. The love-smitten groom would spend up to 50 hours creating the perfect shoes for his soon to be wife. They make wooden shoes from willow or Canadian poplar wood. Willow is preferred because of its natural resistance to water, but it is harder to find and quite expensive. Today the shoes are made on a duplicating lathe, and then the insides are bored out with a drill-like gizmo. Most people in the industry know how to carve a pair from scratch, but only do so to impress the tourists. If you get a chance to visit the Netherlands, pick up a pair of wooden shoes as a souvenir. Are they comfortable? The Dutch have been wearing them for 550 years, so either they are comfortable or there is something wrong with the Dutch. Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. Watch his show, ‘Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel’, on Rogers TV, the Standard Website or YouTube.

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