Friday, December 21, 2012

I Hear You Knocking

I Hear You Knocking - Dave Edmunds

Sinterklaas visits Leiden

  It’s dark, cold, misty, and I’m standing outside of my house with a grocery delivery crate full of presents.  I carefully weigh my options.  My head instinctively looks to my right.  The Dutch house we live in is similar to the brownstones of Boston or Brooklyn – tall, thin, and we share walls with our neighbors.  “Well, I could ask him.  Perhaps this will be the olive branch I’ve been looking for,” I think to myself.   I’ve spoken to the right-side adjoining neighbor once.  After months of listening to his fabulous piano playing through the walls, I tried to give him a compliment as he was entering his home.  He has an alarm, parks his bike indoors, and ducks his head to avoid conversation.  Everything about him implies introvert, but yet, I attempted determined conversation one sunny afternoon as we were both entering our homes.  With his wild grey hair and thick glasses, he just looks like a concert pianist.  He was trying to shove his bike into his foyer as quickly as he could.  “Excuse me?  You play piano, right?”  He stared at me and his eyebrows furrowed.  “Piano?” I repeat, and I make an air-piano motion with my fingers.  He still just stares at me.  “It’s very good, I enjoy hearing it through the wall.”  He shakes his head, shoves his bike indoors, and shuts the door with a heavy thud.  I instantly became paranoid.  Babies crying all hours of the day and night and/or the agonizing responses to said crying by sleep-deprived mother might not be as melodic through the walls in response.  Besides, for all I know, he’s the principal pianist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and I just gave him an ignorant compliment.  He could be.  He’s that good.  And I’m that clueless.   
  I sigh and look the other direction.  Two doors down is a girl whose mom is American and her Dad is Dutch.  She’s nice, does not mind speaking English to me, and I watched her dog for her once.  She was clearly desperate, as her dog just had surgery and she had an emergency meeting at work.  She rang my doorbell, the kids were screaming, my two large dogs were barking, and her poor tiny dog had one of those lampshade things on her neck.  With uncertainty on both sides of the exchange, she shuffled her dog inside my house while I, with Little Man on my hip, corralled my dogs upstairs.  Baby Girl dizzily sprinted from the front door to the kitchen, ridiculously excited about our new furry visitor.  Even my neighbor’s black cat had decided to join in on the party and wandered into the house as well, but after eyeing the conditions of her canine sister’s caretaker’s home, did not approve and scattered back out the front door.  It was a zoo.  The dog, probably scared out of her wits, peed on my rug and I put her in the backyard.  Minutes later, I found the tiny dog had escaped both her lampshade and our backyard.  I called V in a frenzy, “Our only friend on the street!  She trusted me with her dog and now I’ve gone and lost the dog!!” I wailed.  This was the height of the summer, with the limitless sunshine and equally limitless rain, everyone’s back gardens had turned into jungles – complete with tangled, thorny vines and swarms of spiders.  The dog, with the help of the man three doors down, was spotted back her own yard and my husband, using a Swiffer duster as a sword, cutting through the spiderwebs, trespassing through back gardens, bravely rescued the poor little dog from her own yard, put the lampshade back on, and Baby Girl fed her treats as an apology and celebration in our kitchen.  Hum.  Maybe I could ask her.  That whole event ended well, at least.  She’s probably my best bet to help me with this project, and I started to walk towards her door. 
  At that exact moment, the neighbor directly to our left opened his door.  According to the American-Dutch neighbor, a family lives there.  The parents live on the bottom floor, and their two grown boys live on the top floor.  A common living area is in-between.  I’m hoping it’s the Mom or Dad, but instead it’s one of the grown sons.  I’ve seen him a handful of times, usually when I’m wearing whatever shoes are by the door (typically my husband’s) to throw a dirty diaper into the large trash bins outside.  He is tall, with longish dark hair, and probably in his mid-20s.  I saw him affectionately kiss his girlfriend goodbye one Sunday afternoon around 2:00 p.m.  We had been to Home Depot (okay, Praxis – the Dutch equivalent) and I was planting flowers in our front garden.  She leaned in, wet hair and all, gave him a kiss, then hopped on her bike and rode away.  The bike-of-shame is infinitely more efficient than the walk-of-shame.  I watched her go, stared at the closed door, and just reminisced about my youth for a minute while quotes from Old School distractedly flashed through my head, “Maybe Bed, Bath, & Beyond, I don’t know, I don’t know if we’ll have enough time. . .” Sigh.  Youth.           
  Anyway, so he’s walking out his door, ready to unlock his bike and speed off to whatever good-looking 25-year-olds do at 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday nights and I stop him.  Here’s my chance!  “Hi!  Uh, I know we’ve never met, but I’m Celeste and I live next door, and so, I read somewhere that Sinterklaas is supposed to leave presents on the doorstep tonight, ring the doorbell, and then he just runs away.  So.  Uh.  Will you take this crate of presents, wait about 30 seconds, ring our doorbell, and then just uh, run away?” I deliver the whole speech without taking a breath and smile brightly.  He looks at me and laughs.  But not really laughs.  More like the laugh that sounds like air just coming out of your nose.  “Sure,” he says.  “Uh, okay!  Thank you!!” I respond, a little too giddy.  Smooth, real smooth.  Perhaps Beethoven next door would have been more impressed with my American family’s noble attempt at partaking in their Dutch customs.  Or perhaps I have this whole leaving-presents-on-the-doorstep-and-asking-a-neighbor-to-assist all wrong.  (Dang you, Wikipedia!)  Oh well, too late, now.  I hand over the crate and hurry back inside.
  My kids are being so loud and rowdy, I realize I’m the only one who heard the doorbell ring, anyway.  6:00 pm, is the absolute worst time of the day to try and do anything productive with the kids.  But I hear it, and excitedly say to Baby Girl, “I think Sinterklaas is here!” and we open the door.  She’s so thrilled and we bring the presents into the living room to unwrap.  Her attention is short-lived and I can’t help but think about why Santa Clause comes at night when the kids are asleep and then families open presents in the morning when the kids are happy.  Compared to Sinterklaas, Santa Claus is a genius. 
  That was Pakjesavond,  (package evening), the evening of December 5th and the presents on the doorstep represent Sinterklaas’ final farewell.  After delivering all the toys to the children of The Netherlands that night, he supposedly hops back onto his steamboat with his Zwarte Piets and returns to Spain.   Spain?  Steamboat?  Zwarte Piets?  Final Farewell?  What the heck, you say?  Okay – let me back up and explain, or at least try to. 
Sinterklaas arrives in Leiden by boat
  Baby Girl first met Sinterklaas at noon on November 24, the Saturday after (our) Thanksgiving.  There were hundreds of children and parents gathered on the Beestmarkt (a part of Leiden where originally cattle were sold at market – so it’s one of the few largely open and paved spaces in town).  The pavilion is not far from the train station and there are docks in the adjacent canal where tourist boat rides usually depart from.  Dutch Sinterklaas songs played loudly through the speakers and there was a festive feel to the air, although as time went on, the moods of the children tipped rapidly towards unruly and frustrated as Sinterklaas’ hour-late arrival overlapped with most of the children’s lunch and naptimes.   With happy hearts, we all celebrated the moment the bridge lifted and Sinterklaas’ boat arrived into the canal.  The children cheered and sang as the boat, which held Sinterklaas and his gaggle of Zwarte Piets, docked.  They waved and danced and Sinterklaas exited the boat and mounted his white horse, Amerigo, who was awaiting him at the end of the dock.  He wore a ceremonial bishop’s outfit complete with a red alb and mitre.  From atop his horse, he nodded wisely and regally at the children, but definitely did not break into a smile, at least not one with teeth.   I imagine a family reunion in the summer, and Sinterklaas shaking his head in annoyance at his overweight, cheery, loud American cousin who drinks way too much Coca-Cola.     
  According to history, Sinterklaas is based on a Greek Bishop, Saint Nicholas, who was born in 271 and lived in Myra (present-day Turkey).  In 1087, his relics were secretly moved to Bari, Italy, which was later conquered in 1442.   It became part of the Kingdom of Aragon, which later became Spain until the 18th century.  Because the remains of St. Nicholas were in Bari (then a Spanish city), the tradition is that Sinterklaas comes from Spain
  The first known reference to Sinterklaas arriving in Holland on a steamship dates back to a children’s book written in 1850, by a schoolteacher named Jan Schenkman.  The steamboat in 1850 was a new invention and perhaps Schenkman introduced the image while building upon the fact that St. Nicholas is also known at the patron of sailors. 
  Santa Clause enlists helps from hard-working, serious elves who are so dedicated to their professions; they never seem to take a holiday to leave the North Pole.  Sinterklaas, for all his stoicism, is assisted by the mischievous Zwarte Piets.  The Zwarte Piets play in a marching band, constantly give boat-loads (literally) of cookies and candies to any and every child the encounter (at least before the American mother steps in with a panic – no more sugar, Piet!), and they supposedly act as Sinterklaas’ spies to determine which children are naughty or nice. 
Waag Huis - Sinterklaas' Home in Leiden
  The few weeks after arriving in Leiden on the boat were like a never-ending celebration.  Baby Girl made art projects at school and sang Dutch Sinterklaas songs. Supposedly, at anytime between Sinterklaas’ arrival and departure, kids can put their shoes by the fire in hopes of receiving small gifts.  Sinterklaas took up residence in the Waag Huis (Weigh House) near the Stadhuis (Town Hall.) during this time.  Baby Girl first visited him with her Dutch preschool, and then we attended an Expat-only event (marketed as Sinterklaas speaks English!) one Sunday morning.  We all stood outside the Waag Huis freezing in the wind, as we waited (again) for Sinterklaas’ arrival.  (I guess he’s on Spanish time?)  It was a nice event and I’m glad we attended.  The Zwarte Piets were quite friendly, handing out sugar to Baby Girl and even Little Man.  Sinterklaas’ house and furnishings were a bit on the shabby and dated side.  The carpets were dirty from all the crushed Kruidnoten (tiny cookies) from days prior.  I recollected the perfectly built and expensively marketed winter wonderland scenes currently present in every American shopping mall.  This was a far, far, far cry from any of that, but at the same time, spending a hundred dollars on pictures with Santa was not what this was about, either.  Baby Girl chased Sinterklaas around the event – but when he turned to her, she kind of shied away.  Throughout the event, she was pleased to give him high fives, but at the end of our visit, as we were almost out the door, she suddenly turned to V and I and said that she wanted to give Sinterklaas a hug goodbye, and she did.  While tradition says that you can leave your shoes by the fireplace any evening between Sinterklaas’ arrival and his departure on Pakjesavond, we limited ourselves and only left the kids’ shoes out once, and left some water for his horse (Sorry, Amerigo - we didn’t have any carrots).   The next morning, Baby Girl was excited to see the empty container after Amerigo drank it, and the Kruidnoten (still wrapped in the package, but then again, presents in shoes goes along with the Dutch disregard for those things germy. . .) left by Sinterklaas.
  Upon his departure, the whole country shifts its focus from Sinterklaas to Christmas.  While I was afraid I was never going to be able to buy a real Christmas tree or candy canes after searching for these things in preparation for hosting my book club Christmas party on December 1st, I realized that I was just too early.  After December 5th, Christmas tree (Kerstboom) vendors popped up around the foot of the De Valk windmill in town, random street corners, and even some grocery stores. The train station, previously decorated with white lights, added large glowing Christmas trees after December 5th.  I actually enjoy this idea – of separating the children’s celebration of gifts and fun from the actual celebration of the religious and more family-oriented holiday.   Plus it makes the Christmas season and celebration last all month long.   With the snow falling and cold temperatures, it just puts everyone in a happy mood.  Maybe I should bake some cookies for my neighbors.     

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