29 November 2012

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet; Or, How to Make an American Uncomfortable Without Really Trying

Like several Western European countries, the Netherlands celebrates the 6th of December as Saint Nicolas's Day. On the eve of Saint Nicolas Day, Sinterklaas comes and leaves a little gift in the shoes of the good little children, just like the traditional story of Saint Nicholas that you may already know. Saint Nicholas is not as big a deal in the US, mostly because the tradition of Santa Claus (derived from Saint Nicholas) has been made part of the Christmas Eve/Christmas Day celebrations and the feast days of the various saints have fallen out of practice. But here in Holland, Sinterklaas is a big deal. We started noticing the switch over to the winter holiday in the middle of October with the merchandise and decorations appearing in the stores, and the momentum has just been gaining. And with that momentum we've started to learn how different Sinterklaas is from Santa Claus.

A rather blurry picture captured by phone at a recent Sinterklaas celebration.
Sinterklaas doesn't live at the North Pole. He lives in Spain. Toward the end of November, Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands by boat from Spain, riding atop his magical horse and accompanied by Zwarte Piet, his friend and assistant. Again, the arrival is a big deal - it's televised nationally. Then "Sint and Piet" hang out, traveling through the Netherlands and asking people their preferences for a cadeautje (little gift). When the evening of 5 December rolls around, Sint and Piet go from rooftop to rooftop, riding the magical horse, and pop down through the stovepipes into each home. The children have all left their shoes out by the wood stove (or electric/gas heater as the case may be) and Sint and Piet leave a little gift in the shoes of each good little girl or boy.

But here's where the differences between Sinterklaas and Santa Claus start making your average American rather uncomfortable - for lack of a word that fully describes that feeling in your stomach when you hear about the traditional story...

Piet helps Sinterklaas by carrying around a big burlap sack. You would assume that the sack is for the transport of the goodies to be left in the shoes - but you assume incorrectly, as I did. Traditionally, Sint and Piet use the burlap sack to carry naughty children back to Spain where they will be put to work. That's right - rather than receiving a lump of coal as a message that you need to start being a better person, you're put into a forced labor camp. One would think this would be absolutely terrifying for children, but they still run to Sinterklaas when they see him - maybe because they don't personally know anyone that Sinterklaas took back to Spain...

And then, there is the background story of Zwarte Piet. In medieval times when Europeans were obsessed with having light-dark/good-evil/heaven-hell juxtaposed in just about everything they did, Zwarte Piet was a demon-like spirit to balance out the saintliness of Sint Nicolaas. As Europeans were committing the atrocities of the African slave trade to Europe and the Americas, Piet was recognized as Sinterklaas's slave. About 60 years ago (roughly), as people realized how terrible that representation was, Piet was recognized as a friend and helper. In more recent years, Piet isn't necessarily of African decent, but covered in coal dust - you know, from all those chimneys that people no longer have/use... Piet is still a part of Sinterklaas celebrations. Most of the time, Piet is played by someone (or multiple someones when Sint is traveling with a group) in blackface and bright red lipstick. Yup, that's right - blackface.

So in many ways Sinterklaas and Santa Claus are similar. Both have beards, both have their own unique transportation, both wear red, and both have slave helpers from a historically stigmatized group. David Sedaris provides an entertaining summary of Sinterklaas from an American perspective, and so we leave you with that here.

26 November 2012

Celebrating Thanksgiving in Dutch (Kind of...)

Now that Thanksgiving and the horror that is Black Friday have past, we can go over our first Thanksgiving experience abroad. Until yesterday's weekly bier post, we've been quiet on the blog while we were preparing for a Thanksgiving potluck hosted at our home this past Saturday. Thanksgiving Day was just another regular day for us, but Poppa treated Little Man to a movie with dinner while I attended a meeting. The rest of the week was a wicked busy culmination of all things to get ready for our big day on Saturday. If you ever find yourself celebrating an American Thanksgiving in Dutch (or anywhere abroad), you can follow these easy steps to prepare for your revised holiday traditions.

Firstly, send an invitation out to colleagues. Some of Poppa's colleagues are American and have experienced potlucks before - it's a very American kind of tradition for gatherings. For our Dutch friends, a brief explanation of a potluck was provided: a gathering where each person/couple contributes a dish and/or a gathering where everyone provides a dish and you take your chances with the food.

Next, put the finishing touches on the house. There were a handful of things that we'd left to linger since our things from the States were delivered - some things that hadn't found a place yet (and were promptly shoved in a cabinet for a fun surprise later), but mostly we had pictures still sitting on the floor instead of hanging from the walls. Our walls are some sort of fire-rated concrete, making it impossible to hang things without a power drill and difficult at best to hang things with a power drill. Throw in the fact that I managed to kill our first drill in the middle of trying to get one of our larger picture frames hung, and I was ready to start using my own head to get the nails and screws in the walls. But once our new, shinier, more powerful drill was purchased, we managed to get everything up and looking like we've actually been living here for 4 months.

Clean the house. This felt like a bigger task that it should have. It comes from allowing things to slowly build up over time. As huisvrouw extraordinaire I've decided that my superpowers lay more with baking and crafting that actually keeping house. So began the week-long mad dash to keep the house looking good in time for Saturday.

"Borrowed" from a friend's Pinterest posting.

Get your cooking in order. We promised some typical American Thanksgiving foods: Turkey, mashed potatoes, bread stuffing, green bean salad, and good ol' apple pie. We managed to find kalkoenfilet (turkey breast - though they were more like tenderloins), which we baked in the convection oven and grilled. After a previous failed attempt at roasting a whole chicken in the convection oven we determined the tenderloins would be much easier - and (thankfully), we were right. The mashed potatoes were no problem since we've mastered the dish already. The bread stuffing took a little more ingenuity since we were starting from scratch, and generally worked out alright if a little on the dry side. Our fellow American co-host supplied an excellent green bean salad and carrot salad. The apple pie came out pretty well but had a nice burn on one side, thanks to our wonderful convection oven, but I suppose it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without lamenting that the pie didn't look like Martha Stewart Magazine image.

Decorate. Our decorations for our Thanksgiving celebration actually had a bit of forethought instead of my usual, "Oh, crap! We need a tablecloth... or something!" style of holiday decoration. I initially came across this cute acorn idea on Pinterest. With a lot of oak trees in our area and previous success with acorn projects, we were able to take Little Man on an "acorn hunt" and collect more acorns than anyone has any business taking out of the woods. With a little spray paint and a few cheap glasses leftover from another project, voila! Pretty red acorns "artfully" arranged on the table. To round it off, I found some beautiful Gerber daisies in red and orange/yellow - and we actually had a neat, preplanned and put-together centerpiece rather than my usual slap-dash. Ta-da!

A for-real planned centerpiece!
Let the fun begin! We had several people come and share our holiday with us. Delicious traditional dishes from the US (deviled eggs), Holland (pickled herring), Italy (tiramisu), India (curry), and elsewhere were provided and devoured. Adults talked and laughed, children ran around and giggled, and all had a good time. The Little Man especially enjoyed himself and declared, "All these people stay at my house!" as the evening wound down.

All in all, it was a wonderful evening. And best yet - we have at least 10 servings of turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes left - just like Thanksgiving back home.

25 November 2012

[Bier]: Kasteel Donker

The Kasteel Donker is a sweet dark beer with a high alcohol content (~11%) from a family-run Belgian brewery (map). According to the breweries website, the brewery has been in the family for 5 generations. Despite the high alcohol content, the beer is very drinkable and "goes down smooth". It has a complex and rich set of flavors that the brewery claims is "chocolate, banana, liquorice and raisins." To me, however, it just tastes good.

19 November 2012

"Bureaucracy" Isn't Necessarily a Bad Word in Dutch

...Well, maybe it is to the Dutch... but for this American family living in Holland, our transition to our new country of residence has been eased in major ways by the bureaucrats we have come in contact with (not to mention our relocation company, but there are some things even outside of their helpful hands). In particular, we've had brilliant luck getting the Little Man enrolled in school, which involved two separate entities.

Firstly, the Peuterspeelzaal. The Peuterspeelzaal (PSZ) is essentially a government-supported universal part-time preschool (more akin to a "mom's morning out" type of program in the States) and the parents' contribution for tuition is based on the family income. Children ages 2 to 4 typically attend 2 or 3 hour sessions twice a week to encourage socialization, have some additional early-childhood education, and give primary care givers a brief repose from the little darlings. We have successfully enrolled Little Man at our local PSZ so he could have consistent play time with other children and to start his immersion in the Dutch language. We started looking at the PSZ at the end of October and despite the pending space availability, he officially started in his class last Friday. When we first spoke with the PSZ representatives and explained our recent arrival, they were eager to have him enrolled as soon as possible so he has a handle on the Dutch language before starting basisschool (primary school) at age 4. The staff really seemed to go out of their way to ensure Little Man was going to get what he needed, and as quickly as possible.

 Walking to the PSZ .... "First day of school!"

Children's general medical care in the Netherlands is taken care of at the Consultatiebureau (CB). All children under 19 years old visit the CB for all vaccinations and "milestone" checkups - and the CB works closely with the PSZs to ensure that children are thriving and getting any educational services that they require. Within an hour and a half of speaking with the PSZ people the first time, I received a call from our local CB office regarding his enrollment. Because Little Man is not a native Dutch speaker the PSZ contacted the CB to have them do a face-to-face meeting to evaluate his understanding of Dutch. Upon confirming that we indeed, do not speak enough Dutch to make it through school, the CB wrote up an official letter recommending Little Man attend PSZ four days a week in order to speed his language acquisition. The CB office then set us up for Little Man's 3 year checkup and vaccines and walked us to the PSZ office to deliver the letter.

I'm sure there are horror stories for some working with one agency or another, but so far we've had no complaints. We've had our needs met with speed, accuracy, and professionalism - and it's deeply appreciated.

18 November 2012

[Bier]: Grolsch Premium Pilsner

Some of you may have been reading the past few posts in our Bier section and thinking to yourself, "I'd really like to visit the Netherlands, but their beer seems to have too much flavor and color. I'd really prefer something more like home." If so, don't fret!

Grolsch is one of the Netherlands three biggest breweries and you can find yourself a nice bottle of Grolsch bier nearly anywhere. They brew a few different types of beers. This beer is a "Premium Pilsner," though it is difficult to know why they believe it is premium. This may be an issue of comparison. If we compare Grolsch Premium Pilsner to other world famous pilsner-like beer, like Miller Lite and Budweiser, Grolsch comes out ahead. However, if we compare Grolsch Premium Pilsner to other pilsners that are actually good, Grolsch comes out way behind.

I know that some of you are already excited to try this brand of beer. You are in luck! Grolsch products, including the Premium Pilsner, are owned and distributed by SABMiller, a company whose sole purpose is to distribute sub-par beers around the world.*

*Interesting side note: We've noticed that beers that we have had in the U.S. that are also sold here taste different here (and typically better).

16 November 2012

IKEA Vrijdag: Urban Juniorstoel/Junior chair

IKEA Vrijdag and another review! This week we look at the Urban Juniorstoel/Junior chair.

When we moved, we didn't take the Little Man's high chair figuring that even though it was a staged chair with a "booster option" he was already starting to outgrow it and it wasn't worth adding the weight to the shipping container. But, being a Little Man, he still isn't quite big enough for a regular kitchen chair during meals or projects at the table. Enter: the Urban Juniorstoel!

This IKEA children's item is fantastic. It puts the Little Man up close enough to the table (at least an IKEA table) that he's able to eat/craft comfortably but far enough from the ground that he isn't as readily distracted by the fact that he can get up and down easily on his own. It's made from a reinforced polypropylene and the back legs are angled backward, so it's sturdy (can hold an adult's weight); it's easy to wash down (it should be mentioned that right before this picture was taken, an extreme cleaning took place after a mishap - AKA Little Man - with a window crayon, and the chair is fine); but it's also very light (less than 4 kg) and easy for even the Little Man to move to the sink. It's available in a light lime green or white, but we went with the green since kids generally prefer colors and it already looks like a small rainbow exploded in our kitchen.

Little Man in his Urban chair, crafting

For us, this purchase made sense on several practical levels: we have a kid, it's considered "his" chair, it's low maintenance for cleaning, and lets us station the Little Man as close as possible to the sink without tripping over one of the full sized kitchen chairs. Throw in the fact that there are no moving parts and no assembly required and this cute little chair earns a full 5 Swedish meatballs on our rating scale.

Living Dutch Rating for Urban Juniorstoel:

14 November 2012

Little Man is a Little Bigger... and Loves Rhinoceros Poop

Last Wednesday, the Little Man officially hit the milestone of 3 complete years on the planet. He spent most of his day playing in his new bed tent and getting away with things he normally couldn't (as Poppa said, "A kid's birthday is one of the few days that a parent actually cares what you think of them."). After a kipnugget (chicken nugget) and frites dinner, a living room showing of 101 Dalmatians, and homemade happy birthday cake, Little Man was a pretty happy camper as he went to sleep.

For the Little Man's birthday we planned to make a day at a local safari park, but the weather took a while to come around in our favor to make the day work. This past Sunday we finally had our chance when the forecast decided to stay at "sunny and cool" once the morning had arrived. After a couple of previously failed attempts at the outing, Little Man was more than willing to do whatever it took to get out of the house and to the safari park. We rode our fietsen (bicycles) all the way to the other side of town (and a little beyond) for a little less than an hour to Safaripark Beekse Bergen and led a very excited little boy through the gates. He was so happy to finally be at the safari park that as we made our way over to the first group of animals, a crow flapped down from somewhere and Little Man exclaimed, "ooooOOOoooo, they have crows at the safari park!" Don't let it be said that this kid doesn't appreciate all creatures - great, small and common as a crow.

The safari park is sprawling and has a lot of animals. The park doesn't have as large a diversity of animals as a zoo might, but there were more animals that we would have ever expected. There were extensive herds/packs/prides/families and the park seems to have a high success rate for births of animals in captivity (a lioness had a litter of 4 cubs just a few weeks ago, and there were more baby zebras and baby African buffalo than we could count). You can walk around the park, drive your own car through, or take a park bus or boat ride to see the various animals. We walked one section and enjoyed our lunch from a patio overlooking the Cloak Baboon and African Elephant enclosure, watching 75 or so baboons sprinting around as the elephants meandered toward their own lunch.

After lunch we took the bus tour and saw many more animals, but the highlights for Little Man were getting to touch samples of rhinoceros poop, camel hair, and deer antlers; spotting a joey red kangaroo hopping behind its mama; and watching a giraffe stick its tongue through the open emergency hatch just above us on the roof of the bus - but of these, the rhinoceros poop and giraffe tongue clearly made the biggest impression on our little friend as they have come up regularly since we left the park bus. All in all, the trip was a success for the little boy with his intense love of animals, and for his parents.

For your enjoyment, some pictures of the safari park - but sadly, no pictures of rhinoceros poop.

11 November 2012

[Bier]: Judas blond

This is a lighter colored beer by the Judas brewery. It is a blond Belgium beer, which means it has both flavor and a light color. People who are used to drinking Miller, Budweiser, etc. may be confused about the juxtaposition of light color and flavor. But fear not. In Europe these two characteristics often (but not always) go together. Despite the fact that it has flavor, the beer is an easy and smooth drink. Even though the beer is Belgian, Judas is a subsidiary of Heineken (a Dutch company). You can read real reviews of this beer here: http://beeradvocate.com/beer/profile/436/7604

Also, isn't that a cool bottle!

09 November 2012

IKEA Vrijdag: Trollsta Tafeltje (Side Table)

It's IKEA Vrijdag! Today's edition is brought to you by the Trollsta tafeltje (side table).

The Trollsta series is fun if only because it provides just a smidgen of understated flair to your minimalist, straight lined, Swedish furniture. The legs on this series are beautifully curved and give your eye a little something extra to look at without putting on airs. The legs on this series are simple and sophisticated, and they know it, but they don't make a big deal of being generally better dressed than you are. All three pieces of the series come in deep purple or white. As a note, I planned to link to the US IKEA website, but couldn't find the series - I don't know that this series is currently available in the US or Canada. It might be a "coming soon" series, or stuck on several container ships waiting to cross the Atlantic and/or clear customs - or our North American readers are just plain out of luck.

We purchased two Trollsta tafeltjes (side tables) in white for our living room. We have a red/white/not quite navy color scheme in the living room, and these added a little of said flair without going nuts. In general, the tables are  functional - they are tables after all - and have the added bonus of a shelf/cubby hole underneath. While the shelf isn't exactly good for quickly hiding crap if you have someone stopping over, it does provide a way to keep a neat pile out of the way of your guests. The tabletop/cubby hole of the table is particleboard, acrylic paint and some sort of protective coating, so they are nice and shiny and wipe down easily - an important factor when living with a small child or an adult with gross motor skills tuned to the same level as a small child. But, being particleboard and acrylic paint, the surface can chip easily (I put a small ding in the top of one while putting it together). The legs are made of aluminum and are surprisingly durable. The paint hasn't yet chipped despite my best attempts while vacuuming.

Trollsta tafeltje in white. Note cubby hole,  currently storing some of Little Man's devoted army of paper animal dolls.

The tables went together easily enough. The tabletop/cubby hole was simple to put together, and unlike some IKEA furniture items, it was easy to tell which piece was which and what side was supposed to face in each direction. If screwed together correctly, the tables are pretty stable, but the trick is to do it correctly. I spent entirely too much time (or better read as "nearly had an obsessive breakdown in the attempt of") fine-tuning the amount of pressure on each leg with the tiny IKEA allen wrench to make sure the table wasn't going to have any wobble to it. Eventually, I won the battle of the anti-wobble, but I did spend nearly 20 of the 25 minutes it took to put one table together on the legs (as I said, entirely too much time). Multiply this by two and you do feel a small ball of crazy welling up in the pit of your stomach by the time you are done. Bonus point for IKEA, the bottom of the legs are triangular but included with the hardware for each table are furniture pads specifically sized and shaped for the Trollsta tafeltje. The pads are appreciated since I am the type of person who would consider trying to cut the appropriate size out of a larger pad.

We give the Trollsta tafeltje a solid 4 Swedish meatballs out of 5 on our rating scale. Initially, I would rank this at 3.75 meatballs for the 40 minutes of my life lost to the pursuit of anti-wobble, but the custom furniture pads saved it at 4. It is a cute addition to a living room or as a bed side table and recommended if/when available at your closest IKEA.

Living Dutch Rating for Trollsta Tafeltje (Side Table):

04 November 2012

[Bier]: Brand Dubbelbock

Not all beer in the Netherlands is Belgium beer. Some beer has more of a German heritage and some of it a more strictly Dutch heritage. Brand is a Dutch beer brand from the province of Limburg. Limburg is the province that sits between Germany and Belgium and there seem to be a number of breweries there.

Anyways, Brand beers, as far as we can tell, are on average "not bad". These are beers you might buy at the supermarket and drink at home, but you probably won't quite be satisfied. Nonetheless, for a cheaper beer this dubbelbock (double bock) has a lot of flavor. You could definitely do worse. If you judge your beer based on color alone, the color of this beer is quite nice.

This beer has been described as having a "rijke en robuuste smaak" (rich and robust flavor) by none other than Michel Bormans the brew master (brouwmeester) of Brand beers. If you can't trust him, who can you trust?

03 November 2012

Indoor Safari Park Part II

We have had many plans for the Little Man's birthday. Some of the plans were forgotten, some of them were just plane bad, and some of them experienced weather.
It was originally the plan to go to the local safari park (see here). This park has a number of things the Little Man likes and is thus perfect for his birthday. We have watched the weather for a few weeks now and it looked like this weekend would have reasonable weather for our safari park adventure. When we woke up this (Saturday) morning the forecast predicted rain for the next day. When we left the house an hour or two later the "forecast" predicted rain for the rest of Saturday and much of Sunday. We abandoned our safari park adventure for the time being.

Once safely back inside the house (to be clear, we never left the yard), we went right to work building our own safari park. Momma and Little Man made the signs for the park and Poppa went to work constructing the primary exhibit hall (i.e., a bed tent). We organized the animals into their own sections of the park and put up signs. There were sections for Nemo fish, polar bears, armadillos, horses, and kangaroos.

A safari park was born!

Indoor safari park Part I

Today we planned to go to the local safari park to celebrate Little Man's birthday, but it is raining despite early morning forecasts to the contrary.

Instead, we gave the 'Man one of his presents early (a tent for his bed) and built a safari park inside of it. More pictures will come later, but this is a nice taste of things to come.

02 November 2012

IKEA Vrijdag: Rast Nightstand

We decided that since our house is about 90% filled by IKEA furniture we might as well review the IKEA furniture we have since you, dear reader, are also able to purchase the same item at your local IKEA. And by local IKEA we mean the 45 minute-minimum trip to IKEA, since it never seems like there is actually a location "convenient" to your residence. Our IKEA of choice has been the Breda location. Breda is only a 10-15 minute train ride, but the IKEA is another 20 minute bus ride. To date, we've made 3 trips to IKEA and benefitted from the rather reasonably priced delivery service they offer since we do not own a car.

Our first review item is the Rast series nightstand. The Rast series is unfinished wood (probably pine?) and sold as a let-your-teen/kid-do-whatever-they-want-to-it-to-keep-them-happy-without-breaking-the-bank kind of furniture. The IKEA website shows a nightstand and a dresser, but it seems like the stores have other unfinished items as well. We bought two Rast nightstands - one to hold and hide our pile of random electric junk (modem, power strip, etc.) in the living room, and one to hold toilet paper and other related items in our main floor toilet room (so called because it only has a toilet).

The nightstand was easyto put together. IKEA furniture always comes with picture-based directions to make putting items together as idiot-proof as possible... except the Rast nightstand - it's so simple, you don't even get directions for it - just 4 pieces of wood, 12 screws, and an allen wrench all shrink-wrapped together. The allen wrench gets the job done, but we recommend using a power drill just for the sake of making the process move a little faster. And when you put together so much furniture that you start having nightmares and develop the shakes, speed is everything in limiting your exposure. The stands went together easily and there was minimal muttering under the breath during the process.

We decided to paint the stand for the bathroom. The bathroom is boring - grey tile, white toilet, white walls - and desperately needed a splash of color. We went bold with a dark purple and a lime green so the room feels a little less like a cardboard box. The painting was easy enough, but a little annoying because of some deep knots in the wood. Now the room looks more like a cardboard box with a blindingly bright nightstand in the corner - we're taking baby steps.

Post-paint job Rast nightstand for the toilet room

The Rast for electric junk we left unfinished. It seemed like a good way to camouflage everything if there wasn't any color to call it out. This picture was taken from the over the back of the couch, for a better frontal view, but you really can't see the junk from the side.

Neutral Rast nightstand with electric junk

For the ease of construction and the added bonus of personalization, the Rast nightstand receives a review rating of 4.5 Swedish meatballs on a 5 meatball scale. Half a meatball is removed for the unsightly knots left on the wood. Otherwise, we recommend the product should you look to make your home a little more European.

Living Dutch Rating for Rast Nightstand:

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