‘Tis the Season

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.”

King’s Day

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.

Konigsdag revelers floating on a canal

Konigsdag revelers floating on a canal

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!

The Do’s and Don’ts of Expat Meetups

Having moved to Amsterdam in February, we’ve decided to use the Meetup group as a forum to meet other expats or people interested in befriending internationals.

We’ve had two successful nights out (if the score is kept by number of quality people you end up meeting), and we’ve learned a few things along the way:

Do:  Take special care in who you approach.

On our first night, Uri (my boyfriend, or as they call here in the Netherlands, my “partner”) and I showed up right on time for the Meetup event (we’ve heard time and time again that the Dutch are always on time), to be reminded that this event is all internationals that like to show up late.

We sat at the bar for a bit and eventually saw two small groups form.  One was a couple sitting to the right, and the other was two couples chatting to the left.  We nervously plotted our plan (it was our first time, and we were apprehensive, feeling a bit like we were speed dating for friends). We approached couple #1, and as we pulled out our chairs to sit, we asked them if we could join them.  They seemed very uncomfortable and by the looks on their faces it seemed right to ask, “Wait.. are you here for the expat Meetup?” (“No.”)

So basically we invited ourselves to sit in on this couple’s date, appearing briefly to be swingers or something.  This story has apparently circulated, and when we went to the Meetup again, several people mentioned hearing about the time some expats sat in on a date asking to join in! Oops!

Do:  Be outgoing and ask questions.

Both times we’ve attended these events, I’ve been lucky to get friend-digits and meet some really great people.  By the end of both nights we stayed out later than expected, had a few extra drinks than planned, and felt really comfortable with the people we met.  We were often in the largest or seemingly most fun/ laughter-filled circle.

What I’ve found that works is to ask people questions; we all love to talk about ourselves, and it’s a much nicer way to get to know someone than to just prattle away with your own story.  The effect is cumulative; once you are in a group of chatty people, others will join.

Listening… what a novel idea!

Don’t:  Give out your phone number to the opposite sex without clear intention.

At our second Meetup event, we started off strong again, creating an energetic circle of laughing people.  We chatted at length with one guy, who eventually got a phone call needing to leave.  He said he was coming back and asked me for my phone number, which I thought was a bit strange. But as I was in the center of the newly formed group, I assumed he was using me as the doorway back to the crowd.  I turned and asked Uri if it was okay that I gave this strange man my number (he said yes, assuming it could only be for the same reason).  Then the guy says, “Wait, this is your boyfriend??”  With his phone still in my hand, I deleted my number and returned with, “Wait, are you hitting on me?” (I had been holding hands or standing close with Uri the entire time, and I’m pretty sure we introduced ourselves together.)  Everyone got a really big laugh out of that one.  Well, except for the guy, who seemed to bolt out of there pretty fast.  And he didn’t come back.  Oops again.

Don’t: Take yourself too seriously.

In both bumbling situations, the mishaps we had at the events ended up being great icebreakers.  It’s humanizing to remember that all of these expats are just like you: many are far from home (many for the first time), and everyone there really wants to make friends to better call this new place home.  Our little social “blunders” cut through the formalities pretty quickly and I really believe helped us to make quick connections with great people.

… as did my numerous glasses of cava, of course.

So basically, the expat Meetup is a great way to meet like minded people that are in a similar situation to you. I was pleasantly surprised that the age did not skew super young. There were plenty of young-minded 25-30-something professionals looking to meet new people.  Just make sure to remain attentive to the intentions of those around you 😉