Our man [formally] of Amsterdam

December 7, 2009, 00:47
Filed under: Amsterdam, Netherlands

Christmas and Santa Claus comes early in the Netherlands. December 05 (the eve of St Nicholas’s feast day) marks the main day/evening for gift giving, when you’re meant to not only buy a gift, but also compose a poem that pokes fun at the foibles or otherwise of the intended recipient. Purists say the gift should be hand made though. Young children would have spent the last few days at school making prizes for their family. So it’s not something that should be left to the last minute, which probably explains why my lecture on Friday 04 December had less than half the normal student numbers attend. Not a bad excuse, I guess, but you could only drag it out once a year.

Anyway, in Holland, the big jolly man in the red coat with a white beard however doesn’t have any reindeer to help him; he has Black Pete (Swarte Piet) instead. As the name (and the photo below) suggests, this single helper is very dark skinned. The story goes that a Moorish boy was sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit, and a bishop intervened to spare his life. In gratitude, Pete vowed to help Sinterklass deliver the presents to all the children who had been good. You can imagine the attempts in more PC times to correct this legend. Judging by the number of Swarte Piets I saw roaming the streets this weekend, those ‘corrective’ efforts have largely failed.

American tourists recoiled in shock at the sight of all the Swarte Piets ambling along the steet.

As this is very much an in-house family affair, and with no one to buy presents for (or receive presents from), it was shaping up as a very quiet Saturday ‘Sinterklass’ night; perhaps a glass of gluewein and a slice of apple tart at one of the Jordaan cafes would suffice? But a last minute invitation to share the evening with some other rootless, friendless expats quelled by aching heart.

I had to get to Heineken Plein on the city’s south side. It was raining (as usual) and I don’t like riding my bike in the rain because my specs get wet and I can’t see. Plus the roads get slippery. Public transport wasn’t really an option so I rugged up with gloves, scarfe and beanie, and wheeled out the two-wheeler, flicked on the lights and rode head first into the freezing dark Saturday night.

We drank Chilean cabernet and ate French food at Helden Cafe, which has an unusual entrance: you walk straight through the kitchen to get to the dining area. Somehow the discussion topic of birthdays emerged, mainly because two guests had recently celebrated theirs. At about 10.30pm when the belated toasts were all done, I added that my birthday was about 90 minutes away. Well, having a birthday on St Nicholas’s actual feast day turned out to be a big deal, according to the Dutch floor staff at least. When the clocked ticked over to the 6th at midnight, a single sparkler atop a scoop of vanilla ice cream covered in crushed nuts appeared to a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday from one and all. Esther, the cloak room kiddie, was especially vocal, but I’m not sure why. With a lot of women in attendance, the congratulations can take ages because you have to kiss each girl 3 times, alternating from cheek to cheek, and when I finally got to Esther, my lips and neck were getting a little sore from all the turning and pouting. After that drawn out embarrassment, we adjourned to a nearby bar and drank Cognac until the wee hours.

Then, sometime around 2am – and a little worse for wear – I bid my farewells and thank yous and commenced the long, unsteady pedal home. On cue the rain ensued, but with a little Dutch courage on board, I popped my umbrella, and with the confidence only alcohol and a sub-zero tail wind can instill, ‘sailed’ along Prinsengracht to the Westerdoks in record time, running red lights (traffic, that is) like locals do and arriving at the cell door drenched but mostly sober.

And wouldn’t you know, Sinterklass and Swarte Piet had paid a visit in my absence, for a large parcel of dark chocolate in the shape of an ‘S’ had been left on the landing leaning against my door with a note that read:

Vrolijke Kerstmis van de de huisbewaarder en coöperatieve vereniging van de dekeyhuisvesting.


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Also – the staff Christmas party must’ve been channeling some Dutch traditions, as it was held last Friday, with plenty of dress-ups. Will arrange to get some pics through to you!

Comment by Jan

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