Once a year during November Sinterklaas arrives in The Netherlands and brings with him his helpers the Zwarte Pieten. The black face paint of Zwarte Piet often causes a few raised eyebrows from those who are not familiar with the tradition. In recent years there has been a lot of debate about whether or not the look of Sinterklaas’ trusted helper should be changed. There have been a few attempts at creating alternative Zwarte Pieten; Blue Piet, White Piet and even Rainbow Piet. None have fully taken off yet but here are a few alternative Zwarte Piet whacky suggestions of my own which I think might help:
Alternative Zwarte Piet:
Do you have any other alternative Zwarte Piet suggestions?
My first real St Maarten experance.
Every morning I start my work day by travelling from the far away land of Friesland to my office in Amsterdam. This normally takes about two hours by train. Although it has resulted in most people thinking I’m crazy for wanting to live so far away it does give me lots of time to write, draw and re-watch the entire seven seasons of Buffy The Vampire Slayer with in just a few weeks. It’s time I use well.
The Curious Incident of The Frisian Swan
During one of my more recent morning trips I noticed that my train had started to slow down while we were still within Friesland. Eventually we were just creeping forward a section of track at a time. A few moments later the train conductor provided an explanation over the intercom system in Dutch (which I have translated into English):
“Ladies and Gentlemen. As you might have noticed we are going slower than normal. This is because there are reports of an injured swan on the tracks… It is a Frisian swan so ‘that’ is why we are going slower.”
He seemed to be stressing the fact that it was a ‘Frisian swan’ and not any old injured swan from some other lesser province. Was that the only reason we were slowing down? Would we still have been going full speed if it was a Dutch swan or would he have stopped the train, got out and given it a fine for travelling on the tracks without a valid ticket? I guess he was just a proud Frisian train conductor or Frisian Swans are rarer than unicorns.
Ten minutes later we started to speed up again and an even prouder sounding train conductor returned to the intercom.
“Ladies and Gentlemen. We have returned to normal speed since we have passed the Frisian swan. It is now safe and being taken care of so it’s all good news.”
I was surprised that there was not a stirring instrumental version of the Frisian anthem playing in the background as he made his announcement. I half expected the other Friesian commuters on the train to throw their hats up in the air and cheer. As a resident of Friesland I was ready and willing to join in but sadly the train carriage remained quiet. I guess I was in the carriage with only Dutch passengers.
Whenever a group of British expats get together the conversation always ends up leading to the same subject; what products and tasty treats do you miss from England? Everyone has at least one thing that they miss, something that they can’t find here in The Netherlands or something that simply does not compare to its British counterpart. This usually involves childhood favourites, items for special occasions or just something that is considered quintessentially British. It’s the kind of conversation that leads to me browsing the British Corner Shop website at two in the morning, while trying to resist the urge to lick the screen.
So when the British Corner Shop actually contacted me a few days ago and asked if I would be interested in receiving a free selection of their items I was not able to say yes fast enough. Of course I would love to receive a free care package from home… But what items to get? I started thinking about all those conversations I’d had with other British expats and asked myself the same question; what are the things British Expats miss the most when they are living abroad?
Things British Expats Miss: Food
Tea is more than just an important part of British life. It ‘is’ British life. A lot of the things that we have achieved as a country would have been impossible without our unique ability to solve any crisis with ‘a nice cup of tea’.
Once a British person has chosen their favourite brand of tea they will stick with it for life with a devotion not seen in most marriages. In fact, if you believe in such things it is possible to say that ‘you don’t choose the tea, the tea chooses you’. That is why sometimes only a British brand of tea bag will do.
This might also explain why my Dad sometimes carries around a pocket full of his own favourite brand of tea bags when visiting The Netherlands and sneakily switches them with whatever tea bag he has been given.
The British love a good biscuit almost as much as they love a good cup of tea. This is possibly because of the important role the biscuit plays within the tea drinking experience. The Dutch might melt their stroopwafels above their coffee cups but we Brits have a proud tradition of dunking. A good host always offers a packet of biscuits to their guests for tea dunking purposes.
The category of biscuit is very important too. There are two main options: Basic biscuits (such as Digestives and Rich Tea Biscuits) or what is sometimes referred to as ‘the fancy biscuits’ (such as Chocolate Digestives, Jammie Dodgers, Bonbons, etc). The biscuits you choose to serve can tell your guests a lot about you and what you think of them. Likewise, the way your guest reacts to an offer of biscuits can tell you a lot about them. For example, a good guest always politely refuses at least once before accepting a biscuit. It’s traditional.
In England no school pack lunch or visit to the pub would be complete without a packet of crisps. The Dutch might be very adventures with their flavours (paprika, bolognaise, etc) but for some reason they have never fully embrace the good old British salt and vinegar or cheese and onion crisps and that is a shame.
It’s not just these two flavours that a lot of Brits miss either. Britain has a proud tradition of novelty crisps that have never quite made it to Holland; Monster Munch, Quavers, Skips, Wotsits, Hula Hoops, Squares, Space Raiders and (one of my personal favourites) Frazzles which are technically more like real bacon than Dutch bacon.
Yes, technically the Dutch have bacon but it is not bacon as we Brits know it. To us bacon is not bacon unless it is thick with streaks of fat in it. However, to the Dutch bacon is not bacon unless it is sliced as thin as possible and can be mistaken for sandwich meat. Neither side will ever truly agree on which one is correct (even though we all know it is the British thick bacon). It’s one of the things British expats miss the most.
Out of desperation I once tried to make British bacon by frying a whole pack of Dutch bacon together into a single block… It didn’t work.
The Dutch have some very good mints but I’m talking specifically about Polos; the mint with the hole. Until they have tried them I don’t think the Dutch are able to fully understand why anyone would want a mint with a bit missing from it. Surely it must be broken. It’s certainly not value for money. They simply don’t understand the joy of being able to put the tip of your tongue through the hole in the middle or seeing how thin you can get it before it breaks.
My Dutch wife was very easily converted to ‘the mint with the hole’. In fact, as soon as she heard that I would be receiving a package from the British Corner Shop her first reaction was to shout, “Get Polos!!”
Anyone who grew up in England will know that Cadbury is the one true chocolate to rule them all. There is not much more that can be said on the subject.
Other things British Expats miss when living in another country include; Yorkshire Pudding, Clotted Cream, Branston Pickle, Mr Kipling (who makes exceedingly good cakes), Bisto gravy, Heinz Baked Beans and anything else made by Heinz.
Is there anything I missed from the list? Did I make the right choices? What food do you miss the most from your country? Do you think there are other things British expats miss?
If you are a British expat and have never tried out The British Corner Shop you really should. They have everything you might miss from back home. Just try not to drool on your keyboard too much while browsing (as I did).
If you have spent any amount of time living in the Netherlands you’ve probably been invited to a Dutch Circle Party and thought that you have experienced the strangest thing the country has to offer. However, you would be wrong.
It is true that a party where everyone sits in a circle, drinking tea or coffee while enjoying a slice of cake and a polite conversation with an elderly family member is strange, but it is not the ‘strangest’ party experience possible. There is another far more bizarre level to the Dutch Circle Party that not everyone has experienced yet… The Children’s Dutch Circle Party.
The first strange thing that you might notice upon arriving at a Children’s Dutch Circle Party is the slight lack of children. That’s not to say that there won’t be children at all, there will be at least a few. They will just be greatly outnumbered by the amount of adults present. In some extreme cases there might not even be any other children attending at all beyond the birthday girl or boy themselves. This is because the invites are usually organised by the parents and they will invite people that they want to hang out with. This also means that having no children of your own does not protect you from an invite to a Children’s Dutch Circle Party. The only real way to avoid such an invite is to make sure you and your partner never make friends with anyone who has children or is thinking of having children.
Before you sit down you’ll be expected to shake hands with everyone in the room and congratulate them for simply knowing the birthday boy or girl, just as you would at a standard Dutch Circle Party. The only difference is that where you would usually start with the birthday person themselves you will now finish with them instead (if you actually congratulate them at all). This is usually because they are too busy running around the room on a huge sugar rush (from eating all the sweets on display) with all the other children.
If possible you’ll then give the child their birthday present (or give it to the parents if not) and they will happily open it. However, they probably won’t play with it much yet. Once the gift is opened and everyone has seen what it is the parents will put it up on display on a nearby table or shelf with the other gifts for later guests to see.
Once the introductions and congratulations are complete it is finally time to take a seat. Of course it would not be a Circle Party without the typical Dutch Circular seating arrangement. Luckily (depending on how you look at it), the Dutch adults are on hand to provide it. As if by natural instinct they will form the familiar seating circle in which to enjoy their coffee, tea and slice of cake. The children however who do not fully understand the rules of a Dutch Circle Party yet will be running around the circle, through it, across it (and in some extreme cases) over and under it (in a manner that might have some of the adults requesting them to, “doe normaal”).
When it comes to requesting a drink the chances of there being alcohol are surprisingly much higher at a Children’s Dutch Circle Party than at a standard Dutch Circle Party (where it is often considered strange behaviour to request a beer). This isn’t because the children have a serious drinking problem. It’s because one of the organisers of the party is probably a Dad who (since becoming a Dad) misses beer and knows that the other Dads will probably miss beer too. He has thus used the excuse of being a good host and the event having the word ‘party’ in it to buy a crate of beer. The children however are still only allowed non-alcoholic drinks (no matter how much they ask).
For the most part the children are usually left to entertain themselves while the adults try to continue the kind of conversations they would have at a normal Dutch Circle Party (but with their concentration occasionally interrupted by having to react to the sound of something breaking). To the outside observer it probably looks like a standard Dutch Circle Party that someone has just released a random group of wild children into.
By the end of the day the room will look like a toy bomb went off in it since the children have had several hours to scatter their playthings over and under every available surface (this will not include the gifts on display of course). The adults will be exhausted from being in the vicinity of hyperactive children all day, the snacks will be finished and the children will be going through sugar withdrawal. It will be time to say goodbye and go home. In honoured Dutch tradition each child will receive a goodie bag from the hosts with a small toy and a selection of more sugary sweets (which the parents will sometimes start eating the moment they are out of view).
If everyone survives the party they will get to do it again next year and the year after. Eventually the Children’s Circle Party will evolve into a standard Circle Party. The sugary snacks will slowly be replaced with ‘kaas & worst’, more elderly family members will be invited and the availability of alcohol will slowly decline (after the teenage years of course). The circle party cycle will be complete.