Monthly Archives: December 2011

NEW YEAR’S EVE

Why was the man pushing his bicycle instead of riding it? He had a 6 foot Christmas tree strapped to the bike and he was apparently taking it home. “Welcome to the Netherlands!” That is what I said to myself when I saw this scene last week. I am sure that was not the only tree carried home on a bicycle this year.

In the Netherlands, Christmas is very similar to an American Christmas. The major difference is that rarely are presents given at Christmas, their focus is on the time spent with family. A lot of time and money is spent on food for the special meals. But the decorations in homes and stores, are like the ones in America.

On the other hand, New Year’s Eve is a different kettle of fish. The focus of a new year’s celebration is fireworks. This is not a light show done by a town or city, these fireworks are lit by individuals in front of their homes. And it is all legal.

Fireworks may only be sold for three days before December 31 at only a few licensed locations. You can make your selections online and then pick the items up during these three days. An average family spends hundreds of euros each year on fireworks. Many colorful circulars arrive that are  full of all types of things to blast from your front or back yard.  Children and adults pour over these pages and start making wish lists many weeks in advance.

The Netherlands is famous for having very strict regulations concerning fireworks, and that increases the prices. It is an understatement to say that this is big, big business—we are talking millions and millions of euros.

It is illegal to buy fireworks before December 29 and it is illegal to have fireworks in your possession at any other time of the year. Last year, police seized 80,000 kilos of fireworks before New Year’s Eve. Safety is a big concern here, just last year two teenagers were killed while setting off their fireworks.

The other big thing about this night and New Year’s Day are the special edible treats. There is the oliebollen-it is a fried dough ball made with or without raisins and served with iced sugar. Also popular is the appelbeignet or appelflap which is saucer shaped with sliced apple inside with a little bit of cinnamon, with sugar sprinkled on the outside. The thing that is tough to deal with is that these gems are only sold during the last few weeks of December and they then disappear until next year. There are outside stalls throughout the country that only sell these pastries and people cannot wait for them to open. As you walk along the towns or cities, you can smell the oliebollen before you see the stall. Your nose leads you to this little corner of heaven and  you  will smile when you walk away with a bag full of sweetness.

So there you have it…it is a night of explosions and fabulous colors, in all the neighborhoods in the Netherlands. And it is not about cheese, it is not about chocolate, it is all about fabulous baked goods. Light up the sky, eat some sugar, drink champagne and toast the new year…Dutch style.

Happy New Year!

New Year’s Eve in Utrecht

Recommended viewing:  there are many films that have New Year’s Eve scenes, but there are two fun films that come to mind, right away:  When Harry met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle.  Two wonderful romantic comedies and a good way to start the new year.

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THE ROCKETEER

Rarely does the evening news open with a story about outer space. But today, December 21, is a special day in the Netherlands. A Dutch astronaut is traveling in space. Andre Kuipers is shooting through the sky in a Russian rocket with an Russian cosmonaut and an American astronaut. Their destination is the International Space Station, where they will live and work for 6 months.

The men were allowed to bring some personal items and Andre Kuipers, a true Dutchman, requested Old Amsterdam aged gouda cheese. The cheese had to be cut in order to fit into containers and then had to be specially sealed. As I type this, cheese is shooting across the sky.

On Christmas Eve if you think you see Santa Claus and his sleigh, it could be the space station with some very special cargo—Dutch cheese. And not any kind of cheese, we are talking old, old gouda. I have been here long enough to know the difference. This is not Velveeta, this is not plastic slices of orange cheese, and this is not cheese in a can.

There is a new star in our world today and his name is Andre.

Happy Holidays from the Netherlands to all of you, wherever you are.   

 

A STAR IS BORN

When the Dutch get excited, they say it gives me “kippenvel” and that means chicken skin. In other words, they have goose bumps. I now have a boat load of kippenvel.

I just watched a concert on TV that has to be one of the best I have ever seen. And if you are looking for a gift for someone or if you are trying to think what to put on Santa’s list, then look no further. Everyone who has a heart and a brain and who loves music, should see this concert and own this dvd: ADELE LIVE AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL. It is one hour and thirty nine minutes of pure entertainment.

This 23 year old woman is simply astounding. She has a potty mouth and her speaking voice is very different from her singing voice. Adele is charming, self-deprecating and very funny. She is also a brilliant singer and her performance seems effortless.

Adele’s voice is powerful and so clear in this recording. She sings the hits we all want to hear and then some extras that she just wanted to share with a few thousand people in the hall.

There are wonderful moments of true emotion, like her tribute to Amy Winehouse. The last two songs of the concert moved me to tears, as it did Adele. It was a glorious night for a woman who has a long career ahead of her.

She has some deep connections to the Netherlands. She comes here quite frequently and was supported by TV and radio at the start of her career, and she has not forgotten that. Even before the current cd came out, she came here to do radio shows just to talk about the new music and to discuss each song. Her cd, 21, was number one here for 30 weeks. The Dutch like the fact that Adele is still grounded and has not let success go to her head. That is a big thing in the Netherlands…you can be successful but don’t be boastful or cocky.

If you loved her cd, then you will love watching Adele sing. Treat yourself to this incredible dvd. The sound is impressive and the filming of this concert is fabulous. Adele never takes a break during this concert and I never saw her sweat once! The lights were hot and she was very nervous, but she looked beautiful. I promise you that you will have some kippenvel too.

Recommended viewing after watching the Adele dvd:  A STAR IS BORN starring Judy Garland and James Mason.

Or watch the third version of this film with Babs and Kris. Personally, I prefer Judy in this story. I would love to hear Adele sing The Man Who Got Away…..

HOOT

They call it hooting here. It has nothing to do with owls. Hooting is using your car horn. Not honking, but hooting.

Hooting has recently made some news here. The government announced that there will be an increase in traffic fines in 2012 and some fines will double in cost. As an example, if you do not stop at a zebra crossing (this is a cross walk, not for the Dutch zebras but for the Dutch people), the fine will go from 180 euros to 320 euros. If you go through a red light or are talking on the phone while driving, you will now be fined 220 euros. BUT if you unnecessarily use your car horn, the fine is currently 180 euros and it will be 350 euros next year. That is 350 euros (about $469.00) for honking your horn in an “antisocial way”.

This fine is to stop drivers from using their horn outside a home, to pick up a friend. It is to stop drivers from honking their horn if they see someone they know. The horn is only supposed to be used in a life or death situation…maybe that means if you are driving through a zebra crossing and a red light, and you are about to hit a bicyclist who is unnecessarily using his bell to tell you to get out of his way.

The fine for going through a red light is LESS than hooting. Apparently, there is too much hooting going on in the Netherlands. It must disturb the cows and it is making them give stress filled milk. Perhaps hooting makes the windmills turn backwards and then all hell breaks loose. I imagine that hooting can be a problem for the red light district…working women are on the job in their houseboats and then they hear the hooting. Is it a potential  customer? Is it someone driving by in need of a cup of sugar? Does too much hooting make the customers too nervous? No matter what, the hooting is disturbing the peaceful activities of the Dutch.

So all of the bumper stickers will have to be removed. You may have heard of them: HOOT IF YOU LOVE GOUDA, HOOT IF YOU TIPTOE THROUGH THE TULIPS, HOOT IF YOU WENT TO IKEA TODAY and my personal favorite: HOOT IF THIS HOUSEBOAT IS ROCKING.

Stop the madness and stop hooting! You will save yourself a lot of money by keeping your finger off the hooter. For all of you who may visit the Netherlands, just remember that this country is a hoot free zone. And never doubt that the Dutch are serious about your hooters.

Recommended reading: That old Cape magic by Richard Russo.

A running theme in this fabulous novel is what he has in his car for almost the entire novel. Hoot if you love this book.

HOLIDAY

Many people have asked me if the Dutch celebrate Christmas like Americans do. The quick answer is no. Christmas does happen on December 25, but it is a pretty low key affair. The big event of the season is on December 5 and the weeks leading up to it…it is called Sinterklaas.

Sinterklass is celebrated on Saint Nicholas Day, which is December 5. St Nicholas is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. The biggest similarities between Santa Clause and Sinterklaas is that they are men who bring presents and they wear a lot of red.

Sinterklaas is an elderly, elegant man who has long white hair and beard. He wears a red cape and kind of looks like a Catholic bishop. He has a big pointy hat too. He carries a staff or stick and a giant book full of children’s names. This is his resource in knowing if a child has been good or bad. Sinterklaas does not have a sleigh, instead he rides a white horse and he and this horse travel from roof to roof of Dutch homes.

Sinterklaas has a helper named Black Piet. In fact there are many helpers and they are all called Black Piet. They all have certain jobs, like steering the boat (more on that later) and another one climbs on top of the roofs. The origin of Black Piet goes back to the Moorish occupation of Spain. But today, people basically believe that Black Piet has a black face because he has come down so many chimneys. Black Piet is dressed as a 17th century page and he always carries a bag of candy for good children.

Sinterklaas arrives from Spain by steamboat in mid-November. He arrives at a different port city each year and this is a HUGE event. His arrival is carried on live TV and the streets are packed with families waiting to see Sinterklaas. There is a parade, candy is thrown at the children, and there are many songs to be sung. Once the children know that Sinterklaas is in the Netherlands, it is time for the shoes to come out. Children put out one shoe usually by the fireplace and they sing a variety of songs. In the morning, there will hopefully be a present in the shoe. This ritual goes on until December 5. Some families put out a shoe once a week, some do it more often…it is totally up to the parents. Then you have the big night of the 5th where families get together for a party. Traditionally songs are sung and poems are read out loud, and then children get lots of presents. And of course, lots of fun Dutch treats to eat.

The most popular treats are Kruidnoten and they are small round gingerbread-like cookies. They also come covered in chocolate. I have never seen so much marzipan in my life, it is at every single store in more shapes that you can even imagine. Big favorites are clementines or mandarin oranges and naturally they are from Spain. As popular as chocolate coins are in the USA, they are super popular here too. Everyone gets a chocolate letter, their first name’s initial, and it is a pretty good size and it comes in a variety of flavors.

As for Christmas, it is not such a big deal here. Some families will have a small celebration with just a few presents for the children and some have nothing at all. There are Christmas trees here and the decorations look just like the ones in America. But children get more presents for Sinterklaas than for Christmas. The big difference in gift giving is that there is not this monument of presents under the tree or near the shoe. Children do write lists for Sinterklaas and they will get just a few things. The stores are full of stuff for the holidays, but parents don’t seem to go crazy beyond crazy to make their child happy with a pile of gifts.

Sinterklaas is celebrated in other countries other than the Netherlands: Belgium and the United States. I found out that Dutch American communities will have Sinterklaas, especially in New York. In Rhinebeck, Sinterklaas crosses the Hudson River and they have a parade to welcome him from Spain.

Since the day that Sinterklaas arrives here, there are daily news updates on TV about what he is up to. There is even a website that you can follow his adventures and even put your name in his giant book (and yes, I did put my name in the book and he said my name out loud). This is a country of 17 million and it feels like everyone is on the same page, all getting ready to party and have fun. There is NOTHING religious about this holiday at all, so people from all faiths can be involved.

In our house, there will be two celebrations. Sinterklaas has been going on now for a few weeks and even my shoe had something in it. We will then be part of a big family party. And because I am now living here, we will also have a more American style Christmas. Then on December 26, the country has a holiday for Boxing Day, just like in England.

In the month of December I will be watching many of the Christmas cartoons and films that I love. Naturally, I have my collection of Christmas cds and there is a radio station here that plays Christmas music 24 hours a day. What I have realized about being away from the former home that I love is that sometimes you can even miss the tacky things. Sometimes tacky can be a comfort and sometimes it can be really eye rolling bad. It just depends on how tacky my mood is.

Later this month, I will tell you about New Year’s Eve. I was stunned when I found out what happens here. I will give you a clue: what does these three have in common? Katy Perry, Boston Pops and Love American Style?

Recommended viewing:  Christmas in Connecticut. This is a wonderful holiday comedy that stars Barbara Stanwyck. This film is timeless, even though it is over 50 years old. Trust me, this is fun to watch, especially around Christmas.