Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Missing Amsterdam in November

Amsterdam is at its most beautiful in the spring, when the tulips bloom and the sun comes back and it’s warm enough to sit outside and drink milky coffee. But it’s dark, cold, grey November when I miss it the most.

November in Amsterdam is just fun, fun, fun - for children anyway, especially of the expat variety. First comes the American celebration of Halloween, which generally goes off without anyone being shot. Then there’s the British Society’s glorious Bonfire Night event, which was held at a watersports centre in deepest west Amsterdam - I  got lost on the way every year - and was hugely enjoyed especially by non-Brits who would marvel at British delicacies like parkin and goggle in amazement as we ‘threw our effigies on the fire’.

After that injection of true Britishness for the kids we were free to enjoy the sheer Dutchness of the next two events. First St Maarten’s Night on the 11th, commemorating a saint best known for hiding among a flock of geese when he was appointed bishop and later sharing his cloak with a blind beggar.

In his honour children make lanterns and carry them in a parade around the Vondelpark (a bit dark and muddy as parades go, but nice to see the lanterns threading round the lake) Then it’s time to beg for sweets at neighbours' houses by singing special songs.  ‘St Maarten, St Maarten, the cows have got their tails, the girls have got their skirts on, here comes St Maarten’ runs one. Unfortunately one year we got it muddled up and sang ‘The cows have got their skirts on’ much to the amusement of the Dutch family listening. My children were mortified. After that they refused to sing.

St Maarten is easily eclipsed though by the real star of the Dutch winter. Sinterklaas, or St Nicholas, is the original Santa Claus, but he’s very different from the red-coated guy with the reindeers. Sinterklaas wears a bishop’s garb and mitre, and rides on a white horse. He arrives in Amsterdam mid November, supposedly from his summer home in Spain and parades through the city. Children and adults line the streets, enjoying marching bands and floats and waiting for the magical white horse to appear. When he does they cry out for his attention - ‘Sint! Sint!’- while Sinterklaas waves graciously to them.

Swarming all around are crowds of Pieten - a startling sight to visitors from more politically correct nations. ZwartePiet - or Black Pete - is Sinterklaas’s servant, and he looks very much like an old-fashioned golliwog toy. The sight of massively tall Dutchmen - the tallest nation on earth – blacked up with huge curly wigs causes huge disquiet to outsiders, especially when Piet is leading Sinterklaas’s horse in a servile fashion. Piet is childlike and mischievous. No wonder there’s a movement to change him into BuntePiet – Multi-coloured Piet- to avoid offence.
For outsiders November is a strange month to be in Amsterdam. The main department store, the Bijenkorf, one year had as its main decoration a massive Piet head, hanging above the shoppers. Every shop window display seems to feature him, including the cake shop which features chocolate cakes with marzipan lips. It's shocking enough to Brits. Americans can hardly believe their eyes. When my friend from Boston visited me in hospital after my son was born she nearly fainted when she saw a huge ZwartePiet striding through the children's ward. She grabbed her camera. 'No one's going to believe me without a picture.'

But the Dutch in general don't want a multi-coloured Piet.  They argue that he's a Moor from Spain and anyway, how can he be seen in a negative light when everyone loves him? The children adore him at the parade, calling his name and grabbing handfuls of sweets and pepernoten - spicy biscuits - from his sack. They sing songs about how much they love him. He is an ancient part of Dutch culture. In a time when so much of European heritage is being Hollywoodised and Disneyfied surely he’s worth preserving.

I held out against Piet’s charms for years. But it’s hard to dislike someone who your children love so much. The year I found myself arguing with an American friend against Bunte Piet and for the genuine article was the year I knew I’d crossed over. I was thinking like a Dutch person. Perhaps it was time to move on.

As I was about to post this my son came to say goodnight. 'Why are you looking at pictures of Zwarte Piet?' he asked and then began singing, in perfect Dutch, a song about Piet.  We left the Netherlands two years ago when he was just seven, but my Amsterdam-born English-speaking boy still thinks he's really Dutch.. And my kids always called the Sint's friend Smart Piet.


  1. I've visited Amsterdam quite a few times!
    It is great :)

  2. Keren, as always you paint a lovely picture. ANOTHER great post...

  3. A lovely picture, thank you for sharing.

    And Zwarte Piet--how fascinating! Your blog wins today for teaching me something I never knew before! =)