This morning I awoke to the bellow of cows. At first it made no sense. How could I hear cows through our bedroom window? We don’t live on a farm. We live in the city center of Schagen next to the main square. But my mind accepted these bellowing cows with the same ease in which it accepts my ability to flap my arms and fly in my dreams.
It was a pleasant, familiar sound from my youth. As I lay there, not quite awake and not quite asleep, I pictured cows in an expanse of field slowly walking toward a red barn, their tails swishing lazily in the sunshine.
Of course I can hear cows, my mind said, a bit more awake now. Today is Paasvee, one of the most popular events in Northern Holland. Although this will be the 121st recurrence of Paasvee, it will be my first time experiencing this wildly popular event.
Paasvee, if translated literally, means Easter livestock or Easter cattle. It occurs ten days before Easter every year and is the kind of tradition that everyone and their grandmother and great grandmother grew up with. It’s like a county fair minus all the rides, rodeos and cotton candy. In this case, it’s all about the cows. And later, all about the drinking.
According to the locals and DuckDuckGo, the town square will be transformed into a livestock market, and the cows will be judged, sold and eventually taken to slaughter.
Slaughter is not a pleasant thought first thing in the morning. Not that there’s ever a good time to think about slaughter. I listen to those cows a little differently now. Am I hearing some of their last cries? Do they know the end is near?
I think about the parallels between Easter week and Paasvee. Jesus was betrayed by His people and then taken away to be judged, poked, prodded and eventually crucified in a public place, surrounded by crowds. Sounds awfully familiar. Are those bellowing cows actually saying something to the tune of “My Farmer, My Farmer; Why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus’ death was viewed as a sacrifice for all of humankind, creating passage for eternal life. But the only ‘afterlife’ these cows will experience is as a hamburger, steak or other cut of meat on someone’s plate.
I wonder if there will be animal rights groups like PETA or ProVeg out today, protesting on the square. I kind of doubt it. Although vegetarian and vegan products have made it into the local supermarkets and vegetarian options grace the menu of just about every restaurant in Schagen, this little city is still, at its heart, farm country. And Paasvee is part of that beating heart.
I get dressed and head downstairs. My family is still asleep, but I want to take a first peek at the market before the crowds arrive. We’ve been warned that this will be one of those days where it sucks to live near the city center. Because after the Paasvee closes at 12pm, the second stage of cows to the fodder begins in the form of all day long drinking into oblivion. Think Isla Vista Halloween minus the police barricades and costumes, plus trains packed all day long, bringing the soon-to-be-plastered drinkers to Paasvee.
After I let the puppy out and we’ve both had breakfast, my phone buzzes and my friend Ilse has Whats-App’d me to ask if I want to do a round before it gets busy. Sure. Getting dressed. 15 minutes?
We step out into the cold sunshine and the wind whips our hair about our faces. It’s not even 9:00 am and there are already a few hundred people milling about, but there’s enough room to walk.
The cows are beautiful, but also strange looking. I’ve heard the locals call them ‘dikkebillen’, which means fat butts. They are very literal, these locals. Dikbil cows are bred to have gargantuan bottoms so thick and muscular, that it seems the simple act of walking has become a difficult task. You can almost see the cuts of beef outlined on their butts.
It makes me feel guilty. My friend feels it too, because we talk about how we’ve cut back on meat, how this display of cows tied up, mooing, shifting, eyes looking worried, surrounded by stands serving beef items like sausage and burgers, seems like a new level of cruelty. Both of our families have cut back significantly on meat consumption over the years and I have tried to be both vegetarian and vegan. I’m ninety percent there. But 90% doesn’t count. That’s one of the reasons we prefer our occasional meat consumption to be greatly distanced from the actual creature that dies on our behalf.
Strong, quiet farmers guide the cows to the washing area, where they spray the cows down. They use brushes to scrub their coats sort of like one might do with a horse. I don’t see any love in their faces, but I don’t see hate either. I think of Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and how he described different ways animals are treated. There are cattle and sheep that have good lives: access to open fields, proper food and space, etc. He refers to this lot as only having “one bad day.” I don’t know if these cows qualify, but besides that little walking problem, they seem healthy and well-cared for.
We move past the cows to the other parts of Paasvee. The side street is lined with brand new tractors and farm machinery that is for sale. It’s actually quite fascinating to see these giants close up.
We enter the shopping mall where another section of Paasvee takes place. Cages line the central hall of the mall filled with bunnies and chickens of all different breeds.
Judges in blue coats inspect the animals and take notes on their clipboards. For some reason, I don’t picture these animals all ending up in someone’s stew, but perhaps becoming family pets. My friend confirms this rosy scenario by telling me she purchased their family rabbits here a few years ago.
Later in the morning, I make another round with my friend Anneke and the place has really filled up. You can no longer really walk, but rather shuffle along among the cows like . . . cattle. The significance of this thought is not lost on me. There will be more human cattle coming soon.
By the time I write down my impressions of my first Paasvee, it’s mid afternoon and the sounds of the cows have been replaced with the steady beat of electronic music and the constant hum of a crowd. An occasional exuberant “Whoo hoo!” breaks through the hum. I can tell they’re getting wild.
Many of the locals don’t go to the center after 12pm, as they want to avoid the mayhem. Here’s a bit of legend passed onto me over the last few months:
The trains just keep coming, completely full with people from all over the Netherlands who come just to drink.
People get so drunk they go and pee on people’s front doors.
They pass out on the street or in people’s gardens.
I don’t think anyone will mind if I post some pictures of cow butts, but I’m pretty sure the afternoon cattle wouldn’t appreciate a little photo exposé on my blog post of their butts on the ground.
Now the only question is, do I join them for a drink?