21 November, 2012


I’m the master of playing Chicken.  It’s not quite farm boys and tractors, but more bicycles and pedestrians, with the odd truck thrown in for good measure.

When I first arrived here and started cycling every day I was the chicken.  I hadn’t been on a bike for years, and although I grew up riding push bikes and motorbikes, it was always on the farm or in the middle of nowhere, not in the big city with cars, trucks, buses, or pedestrians who refuse to look anywhere except straight ahead.

So, I wobbled back and forth to work, seemingly having a near-death experience at least once a day.  Did terrible things to my blood pressure.  Maarten kept insisting I toughen up and cycle like a Dutchman: “We don’t give way, we take way,” but I never had the balls to cycle like him.  This is a man who is afraid of nothing on the bike.  Conversations like this were perfectly normal:  

Maarten:  “Oh by the way, I was hit by a car today on the way to work.”

Me:  “You what?!”

Maarten:  “I had way, but he drove straight into me anyway.”

Me:  “Are you hurt?”

Maarten:  “Nah, I did end up with his side mirror in my lap though.  Called him a klootzak and kept going.  He didn’t even notice that he hit me.  I just threw the mirror in a canal and went on to work.”

Seriously.  That was an actual conversation.  No wonder I was shitscared.

But, I knew it was time to grow a pair.  So I would tentatively hold my line, wobbling a bit through intersections with eyes half closed bracing for impact and after a few encounters, my confidence started to grow.

By encounters, I mean a head on smash with another cyclist (she tried to cut a corner without looking and took me out - her bike was a write off, but I toddled off unscathed, but shaken), hitting a pedestrian who stepped out in front of me at the last moment without looking (I smashed my face on the edge of the curb and he disappeared into thin air) and more close encounters of the car kind than I can even remember.

As my confidence grew, so did my attitude.  I mean, I had been in a couple of big smashes so my fear left me.  I started cycling like it was the Champs Elysee on the last day of The Tour - fast, but not aggressive - and I adopted the policy of always holding my line.

So far it has served me well.  I don’t come home traumatised from my experiences on the road (and there are still many, many near death experiences) and I take no prisoners.

Here’s how to win a game of Chicken - Dutch Style:

Step one - Always look straight ahead.  Under no circumstances may you turn your head one way or another.  Do not make eye contact.  As soon as you make eye contact all is lost.

Step two - Assess the situation.  How big is the other cyclist/pedestrian? How close are you going to come to actually colliding with said person?

Step three - Hold your line.  Be confident!  No wobbles.  Do not waver.

Step four - Veer ever so slightly to the left (this is a dirty intimidation tactic that I use when I’m in a particularly bad mood).

Step five - Pretend that you are the only person on the planet and do not slow down.

Step six - You’re through!  Now cycle on with a little smile on your face, you’re a winner!

Slight variation:  If you’re coming up behind someone, ding your bell about 20 metres out, then again at 10 and 5 metres.  If collision is imminent, stick your elbow out and aim.

Note that I only ever employ these tactics when a cyclist is on my side of the path, a car is not giving way (I still waver a bit when it comes to cars though!) or a pedestrian steps out in front of me.  I don’t actively seek these situations out, I’m an idiot magnet!

If you want to play Chicken with me, you will lose.  I’m a hardened commuter cyclist.

Just for fun, here’s a clip of the best game of Chicken ever:

PS.  Remind me one day to tell you the story of how Maarten went berserk after a pedestrian stepped out in front of him on an icy day.  Pure comedy gold.

How do you cycle?  Do you take no prisoners or are you a bit timid?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been nominated in the ExpatsBlog Expat Blog Awards, 2012. Voting is nearly over, and you can show your support by clicking the image below and dropping a quick line about what you think of this site.

I'd be ever so grateful if you did.

Expat Blogs

15 November, 2012

Sinterklaas is coming to town!

Last week I talked about the celebration of the patron saint of lollies, Sint Maarten and this week we’re joined by his taller, better known and more controversial brother, Sinterklaas.  Well, it’s not so much Sinterklaas who is the controversial one, but it his entourage of Zwarte Pieten that are the cause of much discussion every year.

To be honest, I’ve shied away from talking about Sinterklaas in the past, mostly because after being shouted down in the first year I was here I don’t want to offend by being offended, if you know what I mean.  However, this year I’m giving it a go.

First of all, let’s talk about the Sint himself.  Sinterklaas is who we anglophones know as Saint Nicholas.  Or Santa.  Or Father Christmas.  He is the patron saint of children, sailors, thieves,  and Amsterdam (along with many, many other people and cities).  Saint Nicholas Was a 4th century Greek bishop in Turkey, but in the 11th century his remains were moved to Bari in Italy, before finally coming to rest in Venice in 1100 (although the Irish believe that he is actually buried in Ireland).

He was well known for giving gifts in secret; putting coins in the shoes of people who would leave them out for him.  One of the most famous legends attached to Saint Nicholas is how he secretly paid gave the dowry to a poor man for his three daughters by throwing three purses filled with gold through his window in the dead of night to save humiliating the father by offering public charity.

His name day is celebrated in the Netherlands every year on the night of 05 December, or the morning of the 6th.

So why are we talking about Sinterklaas now?  It’s only mid-November!  Well, Sinterklaas officially arrives in the Netherlands this weekend.  He comes from his home in sunny Spain in a steamship (patron saint of sailors, remember) and upon arrival rides through the city streets on his white horse Amerigo while his entourage of Zwarte Pieten dance, prance and make jokes while throwing pepernoten to the adoring crowd.

Here's the Sint, with the world's most awesome beard.

This is undoubtedly one of the Netherlands’ most beloved traditions.  Every year we watch the arrival of the “Real” Sinterklaas on telly while there are parades in almost every city to celebrate.  Most people get ridiculously excited about pepernoten (and with good cause, those little suckers are delicious!) and catching a glimpse of the Sint as he passes by.

Then, between the 17th of November and and the 5th of December kids everywhere put their shoes out at night to see what little gifts they will receive while they’re asleep.  Traditionally, kids would put a carrot or some hay in the shoe for Amerigo - in much the same way I would leave a beer glass of milk for Santa on Christmas Eve as a child - and place the shoe next to the fireplace (or central heating these days!) and in the morning would receive a small treat.  The most popular treat today is the chocolate letter.  This last weekend we had a family weekend away and on Sunday morning we all woke to see that the sint had been to visit and left us all a letter.  Mine is obviously already long gone...

Other popular treats include speculaas, mandarins, chocolate coins and marzipan.  Then, on the 5th of December it is “Pakejesavond” (present evening) where the real gifts are exchanged.  However, there’s a catch.  You don’t just hand your gifts to one another.  You have to create a “surprise” (said with a French accent) or write a funny poem about one person.  This is a secret process - nobody is supposed to share who they have created the surprise or poem for, and it’s usually a kind hearted dig at something that has happened to the person during the year, or a personality trait to be made fun of.  It is supposed to be all in good fun, but I have heard some horror stories...  

In my first year living here I was initiated into this event and considering my level of creativity is pretty much zero, my surprise (are you still using a French accent to say that in your head?) wasn’t the greatest success.  Some of the family had gone all out though and built fabulous, hilarious creations and it was a fantastic fun evening.  If you look up gezellig in the dictionary, you’ll see a photo of us on pakjesavond in 2008.

This all sounds lovely doesn’t it?  So why all the controversy?  Why is it that this time every year migrants, expats and social commentators all climb on their soapboxes and start shouting about this event?

Well, it’s all about that entourage I mentioned.  The all dancing and mischievous helper Zwarte Piet, whose name literally translates to Black Pete.  How did he come to be a part of this story?  His origins are hotly contested.  Some sources claim that he was a slave boy freed by Saint Nicholas.  Wikipedia talks of an older possible origin, where Zwarte Piet evolved from the legend of Wodan and his two helpers; ravens Huginn and Muninn.  The ravens would listen at the chimney tops and report to Wodan on the good and bad behaviour of those who lived in the houses.  Yet another version is that he has evolved from being the captured devil, forced to assist Saint Nicholas.

Nobody seems to have a problem with the origins of Piet though (aside from being unable to agree upon where he actually came from).  The big issue is what he has evolved into.  Today Zwarte Piet is a character dressed in renaissance attire, with brightly coloured pantaloons, a funky hat with a feather, bright red lips and a black face.  When I first arrived, I was horrified by the black face.  I could not believe that it was socially acceptable for a person to paint their face in the manner of a character that has been considered a bit of a poster child for racism.

The general consensus however, is to explain the coal black face is that Zwarte Piet is dirty from climbing down the chimneys at night.  I personally find this stance difficult to reconcile.  Why is he completely black?  Why are his lips painted bright red?  If he is really dirty from climbing down the chimney, why not make him look like that?  Why is the make up even necessary?

However, my views have mellowed in the years that I have lived here.  While I still find the black face repugnant, I can accept that there is no racist intention in the tradition, and the problem is mine and mine alone.  To be perfectly honest, I’ve found it hilarious to be sitting in the car at the lights on a dark Pakjesavond to look over and see Zwarte Piet on his way to a party, filling a tiny hatchback with his presence.  How can that be a racist image?

I can very slowly see the character evolving commercially too.  Just this week going through the Sinterklaas catalogues that were pushed through the door, the blackface was virtually non-existent and only in cartoon images actually.  In the V&D catalogue for example, the (model) kids were dressed in the cool outfits, with no make up whatsoever and in other catalogues there were hints of soot here and there.

I think this is a great step forward in the evolution of the character.  After all, it is the retail giants who will slowly push the changes onto society, much as we hate to admit it.

But enough of the sidekick (if only Robin scored this much press, he would have his own comic.  Or does he?).  Let’s focus on what’s important:  celebration.  Sinterklaas is coming to town this week.  He arrives on a ship and rides a beautiful horse.  And best of all, we all have an excuse to stuff our faces with pepernoten, guilt-free.

And between now and for the next few weeks kids will be having their shoes filled with goodies some mornings (not every morning, that would be greedy) and then comes Pakjesavond where we all get together as a family and celebrate Saint Nicholas’ birthday by taking the piss out of one another with funny poems and surprises (oui oui).

As a bit of a tradition of our own, I’ll be making roast pork with all the trimmings and we’ll be replacing that gezellig 2008 image with one from 2012.

What's your experience of Sinterklaas? Can you help me write my poem, by any chance? I'm useless...

07 November, 2012

The Silly Season has begun

In Australia we are lucky that we don't really have to worry about the Silly Season until some time in December.  Well, it does get a bit silly around the second Tuesday in November with the Melbourne Cup, but it tends to die down again for a month or so before the onslaught of Christmas parties and catching up with friends and the ritual scoffing of crayfish and champagne begins.

In the Netherlands the Silly Season is kicking off this week with the celebration of Sint Maarten (Saint Martin).  I could mention Halloween, but it's not really celebrated here.  The tradition is slowly infiltrating society with more parties and calls for "trick or treating;" especially in expat circles, but I myself am resistant to celebrating Halloween.  Although it is not a wholly American tradition, I still see it as being yet another way the world is being americanised (along with those stupid yo bro handshakes and half-arsed man hugs) and it grates on my nerves.  

But I digress.  Where was I?  Right.  Sint Maarten's day.

In the Netherlands there is a wonderful tradition where children make lanterns and walk through the streets singing songs and are rewarded with sweets.  Well, that’s how the tradition is intended, but in reality happens (in my neighbourhood, anyway) is that kids knock on doors and sing songs for sweets.  

When I first moved here I thought it was tedious, but now I open my eyes and actually see the joy in the kids faces (at getting lollies) and how proud the parents are of their little ones.  I has become one of my favourite traditions and I have to make sure we have plenty of sweeties to give away.  It’s always a bit of a let-down when you realise that it’s all over and there have only been four groups of children to the door.

This year we have the added bonus of Raina, who can answer the door with us and be involved.  Too bad it’s still too early to go singing songs with her and earn me her some lollies.

What I have realised though is that I am completely clueless as to the origin of the festival and none of my friends seem to know either. Even researchers seem to draw a blank when it comes to a definitive origin.

Martinmas was celebrated as something of a season changer, a harvest celebration.  All the preparations for winter are finished so it's time for a feast.  In the middle ages (and earlier), the celebration marked the beginning of what evolved into Advent; forty days of fasting. A final fling, so to speak.

It seems (but don’t quote me!) that the tradition in the Netherlands evolved as a festival for the poor, begging for food for the winter and it gained momentum during the 20th century and has been embraced as a festival with no particular religious basis (other than the name).

In some parts of North Holland the festival is celebrated with the parade and lanterns and song singing, in parts of the south of the Netherlands it’s celebrated with a bonfire, and in other parts of the south the festival is not celebrated at all (perhaps they’re too busy with the kickoff of the carnaval season).

It never ceases to amaze me how such a small country can be so diverse.  In Australia the whole country celebrates holidays together without much deviation from the middle line.  Australia Day is a sausage sizzle and cricket.  Anzac Day is the dawn service and Two-Up.  Easter is chocolate and the occasional trip to church.  Nobody cares about the Queen’s Birthday and everyone loves Labour Day (free day off).  Melbourne Cup Day is sweepstakes, feathery hats and champagne, and Christmas Day is about family (either celebrating or avoiding). Then, New Year is a giant slurp-up.  There are no divisions between how we celebrate state to state, even though the distances are that much further.  I feel like I have more in common with the average North Queenslander than a person from north Holland has with someone from south Limburg...

I put the call out on Facebook to my Dutch friends and family asking what Sint Maarten means to them and some of the replies were fabulous!  From “Its getting together with family and friends!” to  “It's that day I lock my door, close my windows, turn off all the lights and watch youtube video's under a blanket with a headset,” to “It's a stubborn way of saying, "We're Dutch!!! Not American!! Don't force us to celebrate Halloween!"

Overwhelmingly though, Sint Maarten is about lollies, and who doesn’t want to celebrate lollies?  So, if you stop by my house on Sunday evening at around 6pm, you’ll find me tapping my feet to silly songs and handing out candy to very happy little children.  Can’t wait!

Here's the trick to getting all those lollies!

What do you think of Sint Maarten?  Sound like good fun?

The Silly Season will continue with the Arrival of Sinterklaas (I've avoided discussing this one for YEARS), before rolling on into Christmas and Oud en Nieuw (New Year).  Stay tuned!

01 November, 2012

Not quite as famous as Lady Gaga...

This week I have been interviewed by expatblogs.com about my experiences and life in the Netherlands.

Head over and take a look: Expat Interview Nerissa

Incidentally, I have also been nominated by Expat Blogs in their 2012 Top Blog Blog Awards which is a fabulous nomination.  Expat Blogs is a site that unites expat bloggers from all over the world into one place, with 700 blogs listed, and counting.  It is also a great location to keep up to date with global news that affects expats, along with a very active forum and regular writing contests.

Now, if I want to win the Top Blog title, I need your help.  One of the major judging criteria is recommendations from you, the amazing people who take the time to visit this page and bother to read about my life.  Of course winning is not the goal, but it's wonderful to be able to spread the word about life in Almere.

So, could you do me a favour and click on the image below and leave me a small comment on my profile page there?

Expat Blogs

Now, back to regular programming.

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