It’s holiday season, so it’s a good time to reflect on foreign holidays, and celebrating holidays as an expat abroad.
If you are an outsider looking in, it’s amazing the weird and interesting things you see people to do in the name of religious tradition or secular holiday tradition, or “because it’s the way it has always been done.” Co-habitating with someone with a differing religious background to my own and from a different country as well, is already cause for interesting revelations like this for me every day. Fun fact: Uri and I only share one holiday all year on the same day (New Year’s). I try to explain why coloring eggs and then searching for them around the house for Easter is normal. Or why kids leave carrots out for reindeer on Christmas Eve. Or how bread and wine get turned into the body and blood of Jesus at Mass…every Sunday. Or why you must barbeque on Independence Day, or drink your face off the night before Thanksgiving with your high school friends. Admittedly for myself as well, much that we do or believe is “because we always have.”
I’ve had my fair share of outside-looking-in holiday experiences here in Amsterdam. First there was Konigsdag, or King’s Day, in April, which can only be described as Mardi Gras-meets-Independence Day multiplied by 100. A celebration of the current monarch’s birthday, the Netherlands celebrated it’s first King’s Day this year, changing over from what used to be Queen’s Day since 1890 to the most recent Queen’s abdication in 2013. The entire city of Amsterdam was out on the streets for two days celebrating their country and the King. Everyone wore orange (the national color) from head to toe, and anyone who owned a boat was on it, partying with house music blasting from concert-sized amps on their little floating vessels. The canals were so packed with boats that they appeared to be floating as one continuous barge. You could pick up orange Holland or Amsterdam or Netherlands paraphernalia at almost any store. Then there is the concept of the vrijmarkt (“free market”) where the Dutch sell items from their house on the streets.
By the way, the current King, Willem-Alexander, bears a striking resemblance to a very famous figure in New York:
Ah, Sinterklaas. The Dutch celebrate the holiday season with a few days dedicated to this character. There is the celebration of his arrival from Spain in mid-November, his various visits to children over the next few weeks, and then the Saint Nicholas Eve / Saint Nicholas holiday which feels pretty similar to Christmas Eve/ Christmas Day gift giving and family celebrations. However, there is also a celebration for Christmas Eve/ Christmas Day here as well.
The most interesting part of the whole Sinterklaas experience is his companion, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete. Yes, that’s right. Black Pete.) The stories about this character’s existence and role to Sinterklaas (companion, helper, slave) span the gamut, and there seems to be an exponential growth in division in the country on the appropriateness of Piet. This year there were even several riots in Gouda on the day celebrating the arrival from Spain, in protest to the character. I’ll let Wikipedia summarize Piet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinterklaas#Zwarte_Piet
Regardless of appropriateness, it is still highly accepted to use the Zwarte Piet character as festive decoration here in the Netherlands. I just can’t get used to or comfortable with seeing it. Try googling it and checking out some of the imagery. Oy.
As an American celebrating my first Thanksgiving away from home, I felt more compelled this year to actually stick to the tradition of cooking a Thanksgiving meal. Having only cooked a turkey once in my life 10 years ago, I decided to take the challenge. Thanksgiving arrives this Thursday, and here are some things I learned through the process:
1) Dutch people order poultry from poeliers, which are basically butchers for poultry. You can also order from some “regular” larger butcher shops (slagerij). I had to special-order my turkey through these shops from a farm. I felt a bit guilty knowing a turkey was being slaughtered just for me and responsibility is not shared with the Butterball conglomerate.
2) Buying a turkey is a delicate balance of finger-in-the-air-guessing and providing your poelier the size of your tiny oven in inches-whoops- in centimeters. “Please sir, I’d like a turkey to feed 4 people, and it can’t be larger than 21 centimeters tall or long.”
3) Dutch people do not know what turkey basters are. After several long investigative discussions with many colleagues, we’ve determined the appropriate term is vleesbedruiper, but sounds close to something gross or naughty in Dutch (undetermined what this is). You can only order these online and they cost up to €25. I’ll use a spoon.
4) Expat shops are good for getting things like Stove Top Stuffing mix, if you are prepared to be gouged on the price. The best bet is to stow away a box in your suitcase on your last trip home (check), along with packet gravy mix (check), and Wheat Thins (not for Thanksgiving, but check.)
5) Non-American turkeys are not pumped up with steroids, nor specially bred to have big juicy white-meat breasts. In fact, they are sort of sad looking, scrawny, and lack a discernable stuffing cavity. Any they come with the neck still attached. I hope we have enough meat here for four people!
With that, have a Happy Thanksgiving, and wish me luck this Thursday, cooking my tiny little turkey! Good thing I schlepped home all of that stuffing mix and other fixings for the best part of a Thanksgiving meal anyway- the side dishes!