Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A neat and tidy Amsterdam

On my recent trip to Amsterdam we saw a work crew cleaning up the sidewalks of the city. Two men with twig brooms were sweeping, or better stated, trying to sweep the sidewalk while a third man used a stream of water to push the garbage to the curb. What struck me about this is that the men were using a bundle of twigs tied to a wooden pole to try to sweep the sidewalk. My first thought was that this was the third millennium and here are men in a western country in a modern city trying in vain to sweep a sidewalk with a very primitive broom. I wondered why they didn't have a modern synthetic broom, or even one made from straw. Either would have worked better than what they had. My next thought was that they couldn't use either one of those here because you cant buy one. At least I haven't been able to find one. My interest in brooms comes from my own broken broom sitting in my closet and my recent hunt for a replacement. I confess it hurts my back to bend over and just use the bristle part for sweeping (the broom portion has broken from the plastic handle and cant be repaired) or to use my little hand broom for bigger jobs than it was intended for. You can get push brooms very readily. They are available everywhere, but they aren't useful in every circumstance, as the sidewalk cleaners know. At first when I couldn't find them I thought it was because the side sweep broom was unknown here, but seeing the brooms in action in the city made me realize that they were. So now there is a new question. Why wasn't this type of broom updated when the push brooms were invented or imported or updated? Why is it not available? Does everyone who needs one simply get a branch-style broom? Do they make their own? I've never seen one for sale - at least not that I have noticed. Is it a decision to support an ancient craft as part of the culture, like laying bricks for roads and sidewalks? A simple thing to spend so much time pondering, perhaps, but I find there are keen insights into a culture by understanding the "why" of something they do. What lies on the surface is the observation that things are much harder than they need be. What lies under the surface is often a reason that reflects some fundamental and powerful cultural value.

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