A strange Christmas in the Netherlands

Added: 10-12-2007

I’ve been in the Netherlands for two weeks now and it’s still taking a bit of getting used to. I find it quite funny that I’ve spent the best part of the last 18 months crossing the US telling people all about the ‘civilisation’ of Europe and now I’m having to do some adapting to different cultural practices on my own doorstep.

take Christmas in the Netherlands for example. now, I’ve previously lived in Denmark for four and a half years and had to get used to the abomination of having Christmas presents opened on the evening of the 24th – now I discover that the main event here in Holland (and in Belgium, and probably elsewhere?) takes place on the 5th and is called Sinterklaas. this is the day when the kids get their presents, along with a poem from the gift-giver. so far, so good. what’s odd, however, is the fact that Sinterklaas (AKA Saint Nicolas AKA the basis for that fella who was invented to sell Coke or increase the sale of merchandise in the last few months of the year, Santa Claus), who in Holland takes a much more saintly form than jolly old US or UK Santa, has a helper who looks like he’s just jumped straight out of an old episode of the Black and White Minstrel Show.

yes, this helper is Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) and last week I saw hundreds of him. it was blackface time, an extremely strange thing for a Brit to witness – not only have you got barmaids and barmen dressed up behind the bars of the town, you’ve also got little kids blacked up and enjoying the festivities. I’m living opposite a nursery school and was actually woken up last Wednesday morning by about a hundred little Zwarte Piets all happiily chorusing along to what sounded suspiciously like Gabber Christmas Carols (i.e. Dutch Christmas carols backed by music at speeds of up to 220bpm. not a good way to wake).

soooo…this was all actually extremely strange for me to witness. it seemed a little…well, offensive I guess, and I had to make an effort to take it in its cultural context. Zwarte Piet is, depending on your take on it, either a moor from Spain captured sometime back in the day and is consequently a slave in thrall to Sinterklaas (he also steals naughty children and puts them in a bag at Christmas – be good kids!) or just a man who’s come down a chimney and has soot on his face. either way he’s a prankster and a comic, and the kids seem to love him (apparently this is the case – and it seems so – although my black English colleague has a small son at school here in the Netherlands and Zwarte Piet scares the hell out of him). this blog from the BBC explains a bit more…

it’s funny being a foreigner in a foreign land and then being confronted by something like this, something that could never happen in the UK because of, well, the PC brigade for one thing, but also because we cancelled the Black and White Minstrel Show in the 70s and ‘blacking up’ is seen as really rather offensive to the many black people, English and otherwise, we have in our country. cultural relativism…why should the Dutch not have Black Peter? why should the Brits not have a deeply embedded class system? why shouldn’t the Danes express themselves through cartoons? why shouldn’t the Saudis hands off? why loads of other things that can be construed as offensive to…well, someone is always going to be offended, right?

nah, what I found really intereesting about the Zwarte Piet thing is that the Netherlands, where I have resided for just over two weeks now, is extremely racially mixed these days – it’s certainly not an overwhelmingly white country judging by the look of Amsterdam and The Hague. it’s a country right on the forefront of the European intergration question – along with Denmark I think it’s one of the most interesting places in Europe right now in the way it is tackling/not tackling the ‘immigration issue’. Zwarte Piet I guess is an example of the sorts of cultural traditions we have over here that are going to have to adapt to Europe’s new immigrants, or be adapted by them. which way will it go…all I know is that the kids that were all blacked up at the nursery school across the road from my flat? there were only a couple of white kids among them, the rest coulda come from all over the world…

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From the Netherlands

Added: 1-12-2007

and so it came to pass that I reached the safety of European shores. got back on Wednesday 22nd November, watched England capitulate to Croatia in the Euro 2008 qualifiers, partied a lot, underwent blood tests and had a CT scan, and finally moved out of England after only five days to start a ‘new life’ in the Netherlands AKA Holland.

which is where I am now. I arrived last Sunday evening and started work on Monday morning. things have been moving so quickly I haven’t even really noticed I’m back in Europe…instead I’ve been doing extremely normal stuff like sitting at a desk in front of a PC working, or trying to find somewhere to live here in The Hague. Europe seems similar to the last time I saw it, in that it appears to be overcast a lot of the time and quite cold. mind you, it is December. America…well, America now seems a long way away again, like some fabled country on the other side of the Atlantic. did I really walk across it? apparently, or at least it says I did on this website somewhere. time is indeed a strange thing – I spent 18 months of my life, well, nearly 30 actually, if you include the planning, on a project and then when it’s finished it’s like it was never there at all…

can’t complain though. today being the first day of the rest of my life and all that. it is actually quite a big day, in that it’s the first weekend I’ve had off in as long as I can remember, and I’m safely ensconced in my new apartment. I was lucky enough to find somewhere to live really quickly – I have a small room in a fella called Jean’s apartment right in the centre of the city. so far so good, and he didn’t even kick me out when I tried to get in on my first night and one of my keys snapped off in the lock leaving both of us locked out. so not a good start to my tennancy – I had to kill 5 hours in the pubs of the Hague while he had to get a locksmith to come out and ensure we were actually able to get back into our apartment. suffice to say I was quite embarassed.

anyway, I’m here and it’s good. now I have to get to work on the book. this is going to be interesting seeing as I obviously work all day and when I’m not at work I tend to think ‘oh, it’s the weekend why don’t I go down the pub and watch the football’. perhaps I detect an uphill struggle coming. at times like this I think Dave has it right: he’s checked himself into a hospital somewhere for medical tests and, aside from being bothered every hour to have his blood taken, has plenty of time to read books, write stuff and go slowly out of his mind with boredom. you’re a legend Dave…

anyway, more soon. in the meantime, here is an article I wrote about the walk for the back page of Library Journal (er, THE must read library periodical!)

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