I lived with my parents until I moved to Holland. This made moving out a double shock. Not only was I going out into the world by myself for the first time but I was also doing it in a completely different country. I had to learn to cook for myself (or choose from less appealing options such as McDonalds or starving) but at the time I could hardly even boil an egg.
My early cooking attempts met with varying levels of success, including giving myself food poisoning from under cooking chicken. Since then my need for a stomach pump has reduced as my kitchen skills have improved. However there is one simple food item that I have not yet been able to master. Many of my attempts have met with bitter failure both figuratively and literally. For some unknown reason I am unable to cook rice properly. The mysteries of this simple ingredient continue to elude me and something always goes wrong.
During my first attempt I discovered that rice expands as it boils. Unfortunately this revelation came when it was too late to do anything about the oozing volcano of rice that was slowly pouring out over the kitchen.
One of my more recent attempts was awarded the title of worst tasting rice ever. At the time this statement seemed like an unfair over reaction. How bad can rice possibly taste? When I sampled it for myself I found nothing wrong. In fact it was light, fluffy and all the other things that rice should be. At least it was for the first few seconds before the hidden after taste kicked in. Suddenly it tasted as if a sickly rat with bad breath had decided to end its life by jumping into the boiling pot of rice when I had not been looking. Luckily it was only because I had accidentally let all the water boil away.
Rice is my kitchen nemesis and the source of much amusement for my friends (as long as they don’t have to eat it). The sound of rice boiling in water might as well be the sound of mocking laughter.
However, there can only be so many ways to get rice wrong. One day I will get it right even if I have to burn the kitchen down doing so. Then I’ll eventually be able to move onto the next challenge, boiling an egg.
Me: “Have you got any plans for the 19th? Your Dad is trying to arrange something.”
Me: “No, nothing at the moment. Why? What is he organizing?”
Mum: “I’m sworn to secrecy but we’re going to book tickets and it should give you another funny story for your blog.”
Me: “Considering that most of my funny blog entries involve me getting trapped in lifts, breaking bones or some other kind of physical injury, should I worry about what you have planned?”
Imagine that you have been living in Holland for half a year. You are still unfamiliar with most of the countries customs and quarks. You are walking down the local high street one chilly but pleasant afternoon in late November. It is an ordinary day like any other. Suddenly you hear some kind of commotion up ahead. Imagine your surprise when you suddenly see coming into view a parade of men and women dressed in what looks like Renaissance jester out fits. You would find it a little strange wouldn’t you. However, my description does not end their. Visualize that they are all white but have covered their faces in black shoe polish, painted their lips bright red and donned large fake afros upon their heads. If you do not find that extremely strange then you might be perplexed by the group of children cheering and singing as they pass.
If you can imagine this scene then you might understand my introduction to the Dutch custom of Sinterklaas. This is exactly how I experienced it for the first time. I did not know it but I had just witnessed a parade of Zwarte Pieten (Black Piets). At first I thought I had found myself in the middle of an Al Jolson appreciation ceremony or something much more sinister.
The Zwarte Pieten are the helpers of Sinterklaas who arrived in Holland again this weekend and should not be mistaken for Santa Claus. As every Dutch person will inform you they might both be old men with white beards who dress in red and give out presents to good children but they are nothing alike.
To avoid confusion I have put together a quick reference of the key differences:
1) Santa Claus delivers presents on December 24th but Sinterklass arrives in Holland during November, does some sight seeing, delivers presents on the 5th of December and returns home in time to enjoy a quiet Christmas.
2) Santa Claus rides on a sledge pulled by 12 over worked reindeer but Sinterklaas rides a white horse and saves money on animal feed.
3) Santa Claus comes from the North Pole but Sinterklaas comes from Spain (by boat) and saves money on his yearly heating bill.
4) Santa Claus puts presents for children under a Christmas tree but Sinterklaas puts presents in children’s shoes regardless if they are smelly.
5) Santa Claus gives a lump of coal to children who have been naughty so that they might learn from their mistakes. Sinterklass on the other hand has a zero tolerance policy and orders Zwarte Pieten to throw naughty children into a sack and drags them back to Spain while beating them with twigs.
6) Santa Claus has an elf equal opportunities program which has helped keep the fairytale creature unemployment rate down. However, Sinterklaas employs a 1920s racist stereotype which most other countries have not dared to mention since the 50s apart from in movies about racism (but it’s not intended to be offensive).
Looking for more? Find a full list of all humorous sinterklaas guides and posts right here:
All About Sinterklaas
After five years of living in Holland I have come to a conclusion that has not been easy to accept. I have been trying to ignore this revelation for some time but I must finally accept it. I would be a terrible spy. The child in me has taken this as a heavy blow. During my day to day life in Holland I regularly find myself in situations that would result in my cover being blown if I was an undercover spy.
It can happen in a supermarket queue, on a train platform or any other place where random people gather together in close proximity. It might begin with an observation about the weather, a comment about something amusing or any random topic that can spark a conversation between strangers. All that matters is as soon as someone says something to me in Dutch that I do not understand I only have a moment to decide; Apologize and tell them I don’t understand or react as if I did understand (and hide my identity as an Englishman).
Being honest usually results in a look of sympathy with out the comment being repeated in English so I often try to hide my lack of linguistic skills with a smile and a nod. It’s a simple plan designed to avoid the awkward moment but it usually back fires.
The fake response is sometimes so convincing that it starts an actual conversation. Although it is sometimes possible to continue this sham for a short while ‘something’ usually happens that brings the whole charade crashing down to the ground.
Even if it’s impossible to understand what they are saying the rising inflexion at the end of their sentence is unmistakable. They just asked a question, a question that demands an answer, a question that can’t be answer with frantic nodding and smiling unless I want to appear very simple and slightly scary.
If I was living in a World War 2 Spy movie (in Germany) it would probably not be long before I was dragged away to a basement to spend sometime in the company of a man who has an unhealthy interest in dentistry. However, my Dutch language skills would not be a complete loss. If my interrogator asked if I ‘had a bonus card,’ or ‘wanted mayonnaise on my fries,’ as he was pulling teeth I would be able to reply convincingly and still hide my true identity as an Englishman.
Luckily this extreme example has not happened yet but my failed attempt at blending in does mean I course myself much more embarrassment then I would have. This is why I would be a terrible spy but maybe it also means the Dutch would make great interrogators.
“The bar is on new new street? There is actually a street called new new street? Cool.”
(Commenting to Dutch co-worker)
“New New Street? Floris your people are dumb.”
“And that’s coming from an American.”