ORANGE CITY, Iowa | The Orange City Tulip Festival had all the makings of an idyllic Dutch countryside with tasty poffertjes, blooming tulips, wonderful windmills and wooden shoes. But one thing was missing. Bikes.
Their unintentional omission didn’t seem right to Jay Wielenga after he went on Northwestern College’s first alumni bike tour of the Netherlands in 1998.
They pedaled 25-40 miles a day to dip their toes in the chilly waters of the North Sea and watch these graceful old windmills gently turning in the breeze by the historic village of Zaanse Schans.
One night, they gathered and learned a silly little song, “Lang Zal Ze Leven (May You Live Long),” which is often performed for special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries.
All that biking and singing went to Wielenga’s head and made him say something to festival committee member Ron De Jong that he couldn’t take back.
“If we don’t have bikes at the Tulip Festival, we’re missing something,” he urged De Jong. “It’s part of the culture over there.”
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The wheels were turning and Wielenga got swept up in the excitement.
There was a gap in the schedule that event organizers were eager to fill, so De Jong went out and bought a bunch of used bikes, painted them black and outfitted them with bells and crocheted skirt guards for the women riders. Then, he tasked Wielenga with finding singers.
The Fietsen Zangers, or bicycle singers, have been performing a cappella and riding their signature black bicycles at Tulip Festival since 1999.
Between noon and 1 p.m. each day of the festival, about two dozen singers spontaneously stop along the parade route to serenade visitors with old Dutch melodies in four-part harmony.
For the first few years, the group only knew two songs: “Lang Zal Ze Leven” and “Kom En Laat Ons Dansen (Come and Let Us Dance).”
They know eight songs now, and they’re trying to learn another new one this year, thanks to an unexpected friend in the Netherlands.
Nearly two years ago, Wielenga tried to email his son but messed up a couple letters in the address. The message went to a Dutch woman who replied to make him aware of the mistake. Her name was Tineke Wielenga, a 65-year-old widow who lived in Rotterdam. They kept emailing.
During a 10-day trip to the Netherlands in March, Wielenga and his wife hopped on a train in Amsterdam to go meet his accidental pen pal. Wielenga told her about the Fietsen Zangers and how he was looking for new songs. Tineke Wielenga, who had worked at a bookstore for many years, knew exactly where to look.
In one of the books she showed him, Wielenga noticed four familiar titles that were already a part of the group’s repertoire. He asked her to mark other songs in the book that would be a good fit for the Tulip Festival.
This year, the leisurely cyclists will sing a new song, “In Holland Staat Een Huis (In Holland There is a House).”
The hard part isn’t pedaling down Central Avenue in full costume with clogs – it’s learning the Dutch pronunciations.
“It’s amazing to me – every year we sing, I’ll see somebody mouthing the words to a song, and it’s some Dutch tourist that’s in Orange City, and they know the songs,” Wielenga said.
He’ll pick the international visitors out of the crowd afterwards and ask for a brief performance review with one question: how’s our Dutch?
Eh, give it another year.