Monday, October 16, 2006

Amsterdam, Part I: Aalsmeer

On Friday morning, we got up at the crack of dawn to catch a bus for Aalsmeer, a tiny village about an hour outside of Amsterdam. We wanted to see the flower auction, held daily in a huge commercial pavilion, where billions of flowers are auctioned off every year. Flowers come to Aalsmeer from all over the world, including Africa and Asia; are auctioned off; and are immediately transported to whatever country has claimed them—within hours, they could be in France or Spain or even the United States.

Not many tourists make their way to Aalsmeer, but the auction complex has a catwalk system set up so the tourists that do come can watch the action from above. Below us were millions of flowers, arranged by type and color on carts. It’s all very industrial—the flowers are held in plastic containers; the carts that hold the containers are metal; the floors are concrete. The carts hitch together and are pulled around the complex—the size of 160 football fields—by powerful scooter devices. The complex is so large that employees ride bicycles to get from one place to another. But amidst the commercial sprawl and the mechanical equipment were roses and gerbera daisies, mums and lilies, strange orange Japanese lantern-type flowers, even pumpkins and gourds in keeping with the season. The flowers are all evaluated for quality so each plastic bucket was filled with perfect, vital blooms.

Speed is everything in the flower trade, and the auctions move fast—the flower auction if a Dutch auction, which means the price starts high and quickly descends. The auctioneer, rather than call out increasing bids, sets the starting price. Bidders, arranged in stadium-style seating, hit a button when they want to stop the price and buy the lot. If they wait too long, hoping for a lower price, they’ll lose the flowers to another bidder. If they hit the button too soon, they could pay more than necessary. It’s a nerve-wracking system, and it moved so fast I could barely follow what was happening. Each lot of flowers, with copious details about origin, grower, flaws, type, and price per stem, is shown on a large screen while the flowers themselves, in plastic buckets, slide into the room on large carts moving on mechanized tracks. The flowers never stop moving—they’re bid on as they zip from the room, while another lot of flowers follows fast on their heels. Thousands upon thousands of carts wind through the room each day.

We hoped to find some fresh flowers in the gift shop before we left, but the gift shop plainly showed the dearth of Aalsmeer tourists: the shop contained only a few faded postcards and some dusty trinkets. But later, back in Amsterdam, we looked at the flowers in the many bloemenmarkets with new eyes, knowing where they may have begun their journeys to that particular corner of the world.

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