Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Tale of Sinterklaas

Did you know that Santa Claus is not the original Saint Nick?  Nope, he's not.  The Dutch Sinterklaas beat him to it.  In fact, it was the Dutch who brought the tale of Santa Claus to the US (as Sinterklaas which was then modified over time) back when New York City was New Amsterdam. And get this, everyone celebrates him, no matter what their religion.  He is a patron saint of children - it does not matter what their belief system is, he gives to all.

Both Santa Claus and Sinterklaas are based off Nikolaos of Myra, a Greek bishop known for secret gift giving.  He became Saint Nicholas around the 4th century.  Like our American Santa Claus, Sinterklaas is all about the children and giving gifts to those who have been very good.  But this is where the similarities end.

First off, he arrives via steamboat from, get this, Spain.  Yes, Spain.  How ironic given we've just arrived from Spain ourselves.  A sign perhaps?  And once he arrives by water, he gets on his white horse, Amerigo, to go from home to home giving gifts to the children.  The gifts don't go under a Christmas tree, after all, he gives the gifts weeks before Christmas on December 5th!  No, they go in the children's shoes that are left by the fireplace.

It's not Sinterklaas that goes down the chimney either.  It's one of his Zwarte Piets that go down.  More on him soon as he's pretty controversial these days and I don't want to miss out on giving you the details about that.  Anyways, Zwarte Piet goes down the chimney to deliver the gifts to all the good girls and boys.  Hopefully the children have left carrots in their shoes for Amerigo!

Sinterklaas arrives by boat sometime around November 15th to a city designated each year.  This year it was Gouda and it is televised around the country.  After his initial arrival, he will then visit each town and city in the Netherlands (via boat and horse) on different dates.  Our date here in Naarden is Saturday, November 22.  This marks the start of the festivities and children receive small (usually food) gifts each day like pepernoten, speculaas or a chocolate letter (the child's first initial) until December 5th which is Sinterklaas' birthday and that is when they receive the majority of their presents.  The sack is left at the front door of each child's home with presents in it.  It is also tradition that Sinterklaas leaves a funny poem about the recipient of the gifts.

As this is a holiday to celebrate children, I want to touch upon the Zwarte Piet controversy but I don't want to linger upon it.  And while I'm of the opinion that I can see the racism in this celebration, I can also see tradition and how much the Dutch embrace their beloved Piet.  It seems to be that outsiders, like ourselves, are the ones that are offended by the blackfaced character and how he is perceived.  I think that this is where we as the outsiders go wrong - there is perception and there is intent.  This festival for children is meant to be innocent and not intended to be hurtful in any way.  Interestingly both of my children are in agreement and have said that they will not dress up as Zwarte Piet (many children often dress up) and find him to be offensive.  According to some news I have read online recently while researching this entry, the majority of Dutch people do not see Zwarte Piet as a racist issue and that he is just the helper of Sinterklaas and that it is a childhood tradition - is this ignorance or just people trying to hold tight to a tradition that they feel too many are trying to take away?  Some say his skin color comes from being a Moor that Sinterklaas rescued and others say it is the soot from the chimneys that he goes down to deliver presents to the children.  Regardless of his origin, this has become a hot button subject and also has caused a few arrests during the most recent Sinterklaas celebrations over the last week.

So back to Sinterklaas, we had not one but two outings this weekend where we get to meet the "real" St. Nick.  First off was down to The Hague to Josh's manufacturing plant (which was very cool to see) where they put on a puppet show for the kids as well as a visit from Sinterklaas and two Zwarte Pieten. I learned a few things here that I feel I need to share:

1.  As an American it's hard to not see the Zwarte Piet character in a racist viewpoint.  However, watching the local children and how they sang songs with him, embracing these traditions and seeing him through innocent eyes, put a different perspective on him for me.  I want to be offended by the blackfaces painted on the children but when you see the happiness and joy on their faces because they look just like Zwarte Piet, you see that it's not about skin color but about being just like a character that they, and generations before, adore.  Many were even dressed in medieval costumes just like Piet.

2.  While we couldn't understand a word of what was happening, it was easy enough to understand that Sinterklaas is a funny guy.  The kids loved him.  And the Pieten.  From what I've read, Sinterklaas has become known as a bit of an absentminded kind of guy and Piet has become more of his assistant, helping him out and I could definitely see that even though we could not understand the words that were spoken.  I could also see how enraptured the children all were.

3.  This one was a big one and a party foul on our part.  Aidan's gift happened to be first and so we let him unwrap it.  Only to find out that all the little children, down to just one or two years old, waited patiently before unwrapping the gifts until Sinterklaas gave the ok and then all tore open their presents at once.  Thankfully Liam's was the last gift and we were able to give him eye signals to wait until the others opened theirs before he opened his.  I have to say, I have never seen so many children be able to wait so patiently to unwrap a present - that is some willpower!!

4.  While I think this type of event would not be acceptable in many places, I think you truly have to experience it in order to understand the culture and history behind it before judging.

Arriving at the Albumprinter plant

Liam watching the puppet show

Zwarte Piet in the puppet show

Sinterklaas arrives

As do the Zwarte Pieten

A video of a traditional Sinterklaas song:

A child in blackface - something you would never see at home but it is the norm and tradition here

Kids singing - Liam wants nothing to do with it

Present time... this one is Aidan's, the only non brown paper one in the group (had I known!)

An attempt at a group picture

Waiting to get presents

Aidan with his present - he already didn't believe but then Sinterklaas butchered saying his name and he believed even less because Sinterklaas should know everyone's name, right?  Except Aidan's name isn't Dutch...

Liam with his present

The kids singing a song before opening the presents:


Liam and Sinterklaas

We returned home from the Hague mid day and just relaxed til our next big event - Sinterklaas was coming to Naarden Vesting.  As I mentioned above, it's traditional for Sinterklaas to arrive by boat from Spain.  That is no different here in Naarden.  Every town has it's own celebration - after all, there are no towns here that don't have some waterway for him to arrive by.  Ours was in the Vesting, our center of town.  We arrived around 4PM, about an hour before the festivities were beginning.  In the US we are not as it was practically empty.  However, we did score spots right across from where Sinterklaas gets off his boat and were in the front row (of what later ended up about 7 or 8 people deep).  Eventually it got pretty crowded and space was at a premium - between Aidan and the kid next to me, I was being stepped on or elbowed every 3 seconds.  I think we were all ready for Sinterklaas to arrive!

But because we were so early, it took some time, about an hour and a half after our arrival.  The kids were pretty antsy to say the least.  But we had some fun distractions with amazing jump ropers (not sure what they have to do with Sinterklaas but was still cool to watch) and then a local marching band.  We had the occasional visit from Zwarte Piet as well - I think just to whet our appetite to get ready for the big guy.

Walking into the Vesting... how cool is Liam's Angry Birds hat that I got him in Madrid?

There were signs all over town welcoming Zwarte Piet

Het Arsenal where Sinterklaas will arrive

Waiting, waiting, waiting...

Where the man of the hour will sit, right across the canal from where we were standing

Turns out he will actually come from this direction

Some kids dressed up as Sinterklaas and as Zwarte Piet

As I mentioned, part of the festivities was jump ropers.  I'm not really sure what they had to do with Sinterklaas but it was incredibly entertaining.  All I could think of was those damned double unders from crossfit that I could never do - these guys made it all look like a piece of cake!  

Sun setting

Bored out of his Angry Birds head... that is Aidan's foot right next to his head and yes, he did kick him shortly after this picture

We had a teaser of Zwarte Piet and thought the time had come but alas, it was only that, a teaser!

Zwarte Piet - here is the video: - I'm not sure if I'm the only one who sees the irony of the man dressed in medieval costume riding a Sea Doo?

All excited thinking this was the start but actually some people who had the privilege of getting to come down the canal before Piet and Sinterklaas

The canal all lit up

The marching band playing

Finally the moment came - first it was the Zwarte Pieten that came on several boats, doing their water acrobatics in a sense, getting the crowd warmed up.  Then Sinterklaas arrived by steamboat as promised.  The boys, who were so done by then, suddenly got their second wind and were excited by Sinterklaas' arrival.

Some of the Zwarte Pieten arrive

I really don't understand how this boat could stay afloat with all these people on it!

Lots of Zwarte Pieten helpers!

Finally here he is!!  The video is long but you'll hear all the kids (except ours since they don't know the songs) screaming out the tunes to welcome Sinterklaas to Naarden!  While I know it's long, it's worth watching to see how they lead up to Sinterklaas' arrival on the steamboat.  And yes, he arrives in our little village by steamboat called the Espanje III (Spain 3).  The Pieten throw treats into the crowds - both Aidan and Liam managed to catch some!

Here he comes!

There he is!

No flying reindeer for this guy!

Sitting on his throne

All the boats lined up

However, minutes later they were done.  We'd been there over 2 hours and they were done.  What we didn't realize was that after the "ceremony" with Sinterklaas that there is a parade which ends with Sinterklaas riding his horse, Amerigo.  Liam and I saw him riding but my picture came out blurry.  We went to walk around the Vesting to see all the lights (it was pretty but nothing spectacular) and found crowds upon crowds of people for the parade.

The boys walking along the parade route

Streets lit up very simple but elegant which fits the simple but elegant homes

The face

The church behind one of the homes

Another "face"

The Marktstraat - market street with the church in the background

Eventually we made our way back to the car and headed for home.  It was a fun night and a new tradition to learn about.  So tonight the boys will put their shoes by the fireplace and who knows what magic will happen... here is to a new country and new traditions.

The edges of the Vesting lit by candles as we were leaving

The Vesting as we were leaving


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Growing Up

Kids these days are different than a generation ago.  We've all seen article after article about how they aren't anything like us kids of the 70s and 80s and it's true.  In some ways they are more mature and in others, incredibly naive.  They don't have the common sense or survival skills that we had in our generation... mainly because they haven't needed it.

But what are the consequences to them not learning how to fend for themselves?  To learn coping skills and to figure out how the world works, on their own terms?  You read about kids who's parents say "we" are applying to Harvard - because the parents don't know how to let go of their child and let them figure out their lives.  They call up the school and get them out of trouble rather than letting them suffer the consequences of their actions.

It's also a result of society today.  We've coddled our kids because we are afraid to let them go.  We are afraid of all the crazies out there, of all the harm that could come to them if we don't keep an eagle eye on them 100% of the time.  It's not that we don't trust our children, but we don't trust the other guy, the one that could hurt them.

I could go on and on.  But the point is, it's a very different generation than we were.  At some point though, we have to let them try to fly.  They may crash and burn and they may soar, hopefully the latter.  But without letting them try, we can't let them succeed or learn from their failures.  The hope is that the failures don't have fatal consequences - none of us want that.  But we need to let them take chances or they will never grow up to be the leaders of the world.

Aidan's at an age now where we are letting him take more and more chances.  We are letting him test those wings and see where they will take him. And I think living abroad has lessened our fears, at least a little.  I think of the parent I would be if I had stayed home in the States and the parent I am here. That's not a judgement on any other parent in the States - that's saying that I think I would have been a different parent there than I am in Europe.

With us now living in the suburbs again, it's a little easier to give our little bird a push towards independence.  Sometimes this seems to come with a lot of "can I watch (xyz)?" or "can I play (abc)?" and "I want (an iphone, tv in my room, ps4)".  He wants to grow up before we are ready for him to. And it's hard sometimes to find the happy medium of our little boy and the tween he now is, getting ready for more independence and maturing every day into the young man he is becoming.

It's amazing to watch how he's maturing.  The questions he asks are more thought provoking.  Some often annoying (how many times in one day can we discuss the iphone that he's dying for?)?  But all coming from a boy who is growing up fast.  Next year he starts secondary school and I expect us to see even more changes as he will no longer be the oldest in the school but looking up to the older kids and learning from the behaviors he sees.  As it is, he's regularly talking with a boy that he's befriended that goes to the secondary school and already picking his brain on what to expect.  Planning ahead!

We're letting him do more things on his own. He plans his own playdates (or at least makes the calls and tries to coordinate as best he can).  He is riding his bike 1.5 miles to the skateboard park which requires him to ride his bike through the center of town on his own.  And he's allowed to roam our neighborhood by himself.  And we know this is just the start of so much more that's coming.

I know some of you probably have kids his age that are already doing these things but you have to remember that for the last 5 years, he was a city kid who was not able to do them because of his geographical location.  It's hard to let a 9 year old roam city streets on his own.  And while he had great city smarts living in Barcelona, he's forgotten what it's like to have suburban skills so we know we've got to work on those too.

He's become a citizen of the world and that is also something we are incredibly proud of.  This is a life lesson that he could not have learned had he stayed home in the US all this time.  As a result, I find that our conversations are very different than I would expect at 10 years old.  He sees the world from a very different perspective than you or I - it's a much smaller place than we have grown up with.

Unfortunately some of this growing up also means he needs us less and less and is becoming more independent (some of these things are also really good like not having to tell him to take a shower in the morning 5000 times!).  Hopefully his desire for independence means we are doing something right in how we are bringing him up!

Not little boys any more...

When we left the US almost 5 years ago, we had a toddler and a little boy with us.  How far we've come since then.  It's hard seeing these guys growing up so quickly but as we take on this new adventure in the Netherlands, I'm excited to see what happens next!


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sint Maarten Day

With just about 3 months under our belts here in the Netherlands, we're now at our first Dutch holiday. Sint Maarten.  Almost identical to Halloween (and comes only days after we celebrated the American goodness of that holiday), we were excited to start learning more about the traditions celebrated here in our host country.

Sint Maarten is celebrated in much of Europe and in a variety of ways.  No matter the country, the origin is the same.  Sint Maarten is considered to be a friend of children and to the poor.  Celebrated since around the 4th century, the legend that is most famous is that Sint Maarten cut his cloak in half during a snowstorm in order to help clothe a homeless man.  As he died on November 11th, this is why Sint Maarten is celebrated on this evening.  In older times, children and the poor would go door to door looking for food for the winter.

Here in the Netherlands it is celebrated similar to Halloween, it's a holiday about the children.  They carry their handmade lanterns (or store bought ones) door to door.  They are not in costume but instead they sing a song at each home and are then given a candy treat, similar to Halloween.

Sint Maarten Sint Maarten
De koeien hebben staarten
De meisjes hebben rokjes aan
Daar komt Sint Martinus aan
Sint Maarten Sint Maarten
The cows have tails
The girls wear skirts
Sint Martinus is coming
Supposedly the boys learned some songs at school though when I asked them, they both denied it. Typical boys.  But since they didn't know the songs, I didn't really feel comfortable throwing them to the wolves in search of candy.  My plan was to kind of toss them in with a group of kids that would eventually come to our door and we would just tag along, learning as we go.

Let me back track for just a moment here.  Back in the States, we always celebrated Halloween.  It's the start to the holiday season in my mind and we were always out enthusiastically trick or treating.  When we first moved to Attleboro, I was sooooo excited for our first trick or treaters and bought bag upon bag of candy for our first year there, ready for the onslaught of kids that would be coming to our house.

Unfortunately we moved into our house in Attleboro on October 29th.  Our street was under construction and only our house and one other was complete.  Though it was the last street in a neighborhood full of homes, no one knew we were there since we'd only moved in 2 days before.  We literally got one trick or treater that night much to my disappointment.  The following years more than made up for it but I remember how disappointed I was that first year when only one little girl showed up at our door and that was it.

So fast forward 15 or so years to our first Sint Maarten in the Netherlands.  Yup, only one group (of 2 kids) came to our door.  We never got that opportunity to throw the kids out with a group of kids to enjoy the holiday.  Aidan didn't really care, but unfortunately Liam was fairly devastated by this turn of events.  I've told him that he's just going to have to work on his Dutch to be ready for next year...

I'm not sure if there just weren't a lot of kids out (my babysitter said she didn't get many either) or if it's that many of the kids did their thing on Halloween and so the families opted to skip Sint Maarten, but I'm hoping the next holiday goes much better.  Sinterklaas!  More on that coming soon!


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Halloween in the Netherlands

While the increasingly cold weather is not one of my favorite things, I do love fall.  And I love it for several reasons.  The foliage, breaking out the jeans and cozy sweaters after a long, hot summer, apple pie, soups and the start of fire season (the last 5 years of which we didn't have or need a fireplace and now we have one but it doesn't work).  But what I really love is the start of the holiday season, starting with Halloween.

I've always loved the holidays but living in our neighborhood in Attleboro, made me love them even more.  It's a neighborhood that doesn't do anything half assed - we go big or we go home.  From neighborhood Easter egg hunts to luminaries at Christmas and everything in between, our neighborhood does the holidays right.  And it's a big piece of what I miss from home each year.

One of our favorite memories from home is trick or treating in our neighborhood.  Now to trick or treat in our neighborhood meant buying a minimum of 500 pieces of candy, no exaggeration.  Given we only have about 75 houses and not all of them have children... well, you do the math.  A lot of kids are driven in to our neighborhood from neighboring towns.  It's part annoying (all the cars when the kids are walking around our safe neighborhood) and it's part heart warming to know that other parents think our neighborhood is both safe and fun for their children - not to mention all the great candy!

Anyways, we've always loved Halloween in our neighborhood and it was hard to move to Spain where it's not really celebrated.  The boys' school put on a really great Halloween party every year but it wasn't the same as going door to door to trick or treat.  There is just something really special as a kid when you get to dress up and go door to door collecting candy.  To be someone or something else, just for a day - whether it's a princess or a pirate or something really scary!  To let your imagination run wild.

Liam didn't really remember trick or treating in the US so it wasn't a big deal for him to just have a party.  And since he loves to dress up on a regular basis anyways, it was just an excuse to go out in public in one of his many costumes ;)  For Aidan, it took the fun out of Halloween.  He loved going to the party, but he lost the interest in dressing up for the holiday.  It made me sad to see him both growing up and growing out of such a fun part of childhood.

However.. while Halloween does not have a big presence in Europe, it's getting bigger.  Which is really funny because Halloween actually started in Europe, went to the US and then now is making a comeback here in Europe.  Some countries have always celebrated like England and Ireland.  But in others, it's a relatively new thing.  It's becoming more popular in the Netherlands apparently than it was in previous years.  This being our first year, I can't vouch for how it was before but given I was able to find some things in stores but not the huge amount that I would find in the US says something to me about it's slowly increasing popularity.

And here in our little neighborhood of Naarderbos (part of the town of Naarden), we are having trick or treat for the first time.  The timing couldn't be better with us just having moved here.  While the boys know that neither Spain nor the Netherlands is the US, it's always nice when we get a little piece of home along the way.  And when it's something that puts a smile on their faces, even better.

So we were sooooo excited to get the flyer in our mail from a neighbor offering to organize Halloween here.  I immediately replied and was also excited to find that the neighbor was an American who has been here for about 8 years.  I don't know much about her yet, but it's nice to know there is someone from "home" right down the street.

Anyways, we bought a few small decorations (in hindsight, apparently not nearly enough but more on that later) and the kids chose costumes.  Liam, a devil, and Aidan, a vampire.  In the end, Aidan decided to go with a more combo kind of costume - Camp Wekeela sweatshirt, Scream mask, nunchucks from a ninja turtle costume.  A mish mash of sorts.  But it's Halloween and his choice - he's 10 and can decide these things on his own.  Liam was beyond excited, counting down the days and then hours and minutes til it was time to go out (and yet he was the first one done for the night).

The kids each invited a friend over (who happened to be brothers) and when the sun set at 5:30, we were off and running just like in the US.  Well, sort of.  Since this was the first time the holiday was being celebrated in our neighborhood, not all houses were participating.  So we had a list of those that were and we were told that there would be orange balloons at each house that was joining the festivities.  We took off through our neighborhood with glow sticks and bags in hand, ready to enjoy our first trick or treating in 5 years.  The excitement was hard to contain!
Scott, Stanley and Liam

The 4 amigos, ready to go!

At first we didn't see many kids.  We went to a few houses and I have to say, for the first Halloween, some of these houses went all out with the decorating.  It truly put us to shame and we need to up our game for next year.  I don't know if it's habit or because pretty much everyone celebrates at home but beyond standard "fall" decorating of pumpkins, corn stalks and the like, we don't do much at home for decorating for Halloween (Christmas is another story).  Some people certainly do but I can't say it's the standard.  So I really wasn't expecting such great decorations and was totally blown away!

My favorite was a simple house though - no elaborate decorations.  In fact, it was a bit dark even though they had balloons at the end of their driveway.  The boys rang the doorbell but not much happened.  Then a fluorescent green head came out of no where (he must have been lying on the floor as the door was see through glass) in front of the kids.  You probably heard their screams in the US.  It was awesome and truly in the spirit of Halloween.  I laughed so hard that I almost peed myself.

The kids loved running down the streets and collecting candy from the neighbors.  As it got a little later more and more kids came out.  For only 36 houses (out of probably 200), there were a lot of kids out! And they were all having such a great time!!!

By just before 7, my kids were done.  They were ready to head home and check out their loot and play with their friends.  All in all it was a great success and we can't wait to do it again next year.  Though we'll make sure to stock up on decorations when we are home this summer (after all we did see the Halloween store was open when we were home in July!)!!