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.
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.
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.