Sinterklaas is Coming to Town.
Before I get into the festivities that came about today, I'd like to preface this by saying that the time to leave was 8:00am and I didn't manage to fall asleep until about 2:30 in the morning. But regardless of my lack of sleep that night I still managed to wake up, more or less, on time and we managed to get out of the gate all before 8:30am. One thing I realized that morning is that there are two problems with my iPhone map system which I have grown so fond of (and this map system is essentially Google maps with GPS capabilities). The first problem it has is that when you pre-load a map onto this thing, you are not loading that map in it's entirety. What you are apparently doing is loading this map at whatever level of zoom you happen to be at while the map is loading (and I was zoomed in pretty far because I wanted to be able to see the street names while I was in this new and exciting city). So while the first turn might seem as though it was about 2km away if this map had been loaded at a much more rational zoom, in actuality it was only about 2 feet away from us. We quickly figured this out about 2km down the wrong path when the next turn never showed up. The second problem with my map system is more of a problem with Google itself and it's ability to get you to your destination. Now while I will admit, Google is pretty good at finding the quickest way to your destination, it's problem area seems to be in finding the most rational set of directions to get you where you want to go. At first everything was going great until right about the time when the road turned to dirt and mud... Now if this was the only thing Google had done to us I wouldn't have had too many qualms with the venture to Hardewijk, but as we continued down this road we realized that this was much more that just a little dirt road. This road took us directly through the middle of two different farms (and not like in front of the farm, but literally right through the middle of the farm, past the open barn and farm machinery and all). And on top of this, as with most farms, there was a guard dog just desperately waiting for someone to come by so it could do good by it's master and protect it's family from these suspicious intruders who clearly have no right being here. So not only were we biking on the rugged surface of mud and dirt, but I was also given a very stark reminder of what it was like to be a paper-boy bordering on a semi-sketchy part of good ol' speedy creek.
Although, as luck would have it, we managed to out-manoeuvre the dog desperately trying to take us out at the shins (and keep in mind, Google thought we were walking. Never once did Google even consider the notion that we were on bicycles and had pretty decent odds of out running a pissing off guard dog from the get-go) and made it to Hardewijk in one piece. Now once we were in Harderwijk, the first problem with my iPhone map system became even more amplified when I asked it to tell me where I was on my journey to the harbour to see Sinterklaas. Instead of merely pinpointing my location it, in one fell swoop, zoomed me out, erased my map and only after destroying any potential of being able to navigate the city once reaching our destination, told me where on I was on this purple highlighted path (which was now placed over a featureless grey grid instead of a map full of helpful street names and general functionality).
But even through-out all of these set-backs we found a place to lock our bikes and continued to make our way to the harbour (only deriving ever so slightly from the, oh so helpful, purple line of direction). Before we could get too far from our bikes we were hit with the unmistakable aroma of marijuana as a couple of youth whom were clearly too old to be in the thoughts of those planning this event walked by. It was not unlike passing by that group of teenagers who were too cool to attend these events, so they went with the intent to drink and make fun of the event (but secretly you knew they really just wanted to see Santa Claus in the flesh)... but that thought really has no importance whatsoever, so... During this deviation we came across a few things worth noting, the first was a band playing in the city square (which I found out only after the initial shock of the stage setup, was actually a pop music school for kids). The band was, for the most part, a pretty average depiction of an 80's stadium rock ensemble (not unlike that of the E-street band without the gruff voice of Bruce Springsteen fronting it), complete with a horn section and keyboardist. Where the analogy breaks down was with the wall of six drumsets seating 5 percussionists (I assume the sixth one was running a little late... but in all honesty who's really going to come away from that performance saying "It was good... but you know what would have made it better? Another Drummer!". So I think he was pretty safe in in his decision to be fashionably late). And then, almost as if to say "we cater to all sorts here in Hardewijk", the very next stage we came across was a Dance-pop DJ duo for children which was just around the corner (one of whom looked and danced a lot like Buster from Arrested Development). One thing that struck me as I wandered through the growing crowd of children was their costumes. Now it wasn't the fact that they were all dressed up like their favourite characters from this unique dutch version of Christmas that was shocking, but the way in which they dressed. For you see, the peppy little sidekick of the dutch version of Saint Nick is a fellow by he name of Zwartepieten (or Black Peter for those who find themselves reading this journal that are less familiar with the Dutch language) who is essentially the slave version of Santa's cute little elves. Now what one might expect back in Canada from someone dressing up like Zwartepieten might be a fancy hat and a poofy shirt topped with a feather and some parachute pants (for good measure)... But that's way too half-assed for the people of Nederland, if you dress like someone you'd better go the full mile to make sure you look just like them, and that includes adorning some good ol' fashioned blackface, just to make sure you capture all of those Black/African features of Black Peter that the average Caucasian may be a little to pigmentally challenged to pull off. So while we were trying to make our way to the harbour, every once and a while there would be a kid that was just covered in black paint with bright red lips. It was so frequent that at one point in the day we saw a young black girl riding her bike through town and didn't realize until she was almost out of sight that she was not painted that colour as all the other children were. So I'm just going to chalk this one up to another one of those things we have added a negative connotation to (with good reason I believe) that they have yet to follow suit on.
So we find the harbour with 2 hours to spare and decide to find a good spot to see Sinterklaas from. And even two hours before the event, it was packed (apparently they expect around 10,000 people to this event every year, and this is an event specifically designed for children... like almost every performance stage featured children that were under twelve and part of an organized group of some sort. That would be like if the Santa Claus/Christmas parade in Saskatoon drew in everyone with a family from all over the Prairies... It was intense to say the least). So we found a spot in front of a gymnastics school with a good view of the open draw bridge, which we had assumed he would be coming through, and the Dock we assumed he'd be docking at. So we stood there for about two hours watching this gymnastics group doing all their little routines several times over (which for the younger ones essentially consisted of walking across a decently high bench, desperately trying not to strike those at the front of the barricade with the hoola hoops they were walking through (although there were also a few slightly older ones that could do flips on the little trampoline like inflatable mattresses that they had set up, so it wasn't all balance beam antics). The highlight of this showcase/routine (in my opinion) was when they were all given gifts to drop into the chimney (which they wound up repeating over and over again until Sint finally arrived). One of the children, who clearly was in the wrong organized activity, kept chucking her gifts into the chimney like an aspiring basketball player going for the three pointer (just cause she can). After having landed a few successful baskets, she chucked the gift at the chimney which then ricochet off the rim and into the back of the head of a police officer who was just minding his own business and trying to make sure everything was running smoothly when Sinterklaas arrived. But luckily he kept his cool and like the professional he was, he picked up the gift and handed it to he next kid in line (whom was terribly confused about why she had just been given another gift, and from a law enforcement officer rather than her gymnastics instructor no less (clearly she wasn't watching the aspiring baller miss the shot and retreat to safety).
However, before Sinterklass arrived we couldn't help but notice an unmistakably black gentleman, who was clearly supposed to be a modern version of Zwartepieten by driving a golf cart carrying a trailer of packages behind him. He was probably one of the only black people there that day, like even the Zwartepietens who were on the boats with Sinterklass, being broadcast across all the Netherlands, were clearly people of Caucasian decent rocking the blackface. So I began to look around and think back back to other ventures I've made and suddenly it dawned on me that there aren't a whole lot of black people here in the Netherlands, at least not outside of the larger city centres like Amsterdam. So as I mulled this piece of information over in my head, I started to think to myself that this must have been the easiest interviews of this gentleman's young life;
"Well Mr. So-and-so... What special skills and qualities do you possess that would make you a good choice for a golf-cart driving Black Peter?"
"Well... In case you haven't noticed... I just so happen to be black."
I literally cannot imagine it going down any way other than that... it's just not conceivable considering how perfectly placed he was in this crowd of predominately white dutch people. His hair was also pretty curly and wild, which is yet another attribute of Black Peter's. So really he could not have been more perfect for the job... and since all he had to do was drive a cart, his personality must have only been an afterthought, there could not have possibly been a more perfect applicant to hire.
But finally Sinterklaas arrived, and from the opposite direction of our seating plan. Another thing we had not taken into consideration were the amount of children about to be hoisted onto their parents shoulders when the boats started arriving. But almost as if the universe was apologizing for placing us around all the smokers and childhood antics, the boat docked along the waterway directly in front of us instead of making it's way over to the docks which all the camera-men for various dutch TV stations had set up at. So we essentially had front row seats for 5 boats full of fully grown dutch people in blackface... and Sinterklaas (Oh, and there were also two people dressed as presents, and two of the Black Peters were on stilts). It was pretty awesome to say the least. And then, as if to say "remember when you thought Santa Claus was cool? Well consider those days gone" He got on a pure white horse and rode off into the crowd of people. We tried to make our way into the city centre to try and see Sint riding through with his band of Peter's marching along behind him creating his own personal soundtrack, only to find out that crowds bordering on 10,000 people is about the tipping point where I begin to get claustrophobic. So after two failed attempts at finding areas with few enough people to actually see more than just the top of the red pope-hat sitting atop his head, we ducked into a popular knick-knacks store called "Xenos" and watched a little bit of it through the window while looking at stuff we will never need (although we secretly kind of wanted... like a pair of computer speakers shaped like oversized iPod headphones, or a roll of Sudoku Toilet Paper).
Eventually it got to the point where I just had to sit down because trying to press through the crowds was just becoming a little too stressful for me to handle (it was probably the most stressed I've been since arriving in the Netherlands). So Taliah began suggesting things to do which were in the opposite direction of the massive crowd, which was a very welcome change from the words "It's your turn to lead." So after wandering by a few churches and a building that appeared to be dedicated to Sinterklaas and Zwartepieten (which I'm beginning to wonder whether or not it was the peppernut factory as that seems to be the snack of choice for this holiday season and apparently Hardewijk has a pretty big one) we decided that we've seen all there is to see and the little more that we might be able to see by pushing through the crowds wasn't worth the effort and stress it would take to actually push through those crowds. So we found our bikes, got out my iPhones and checked the non-existent map (because, as you'll recall from earlier, my map currently consists of a highlighted line on a grey sheet of graph paper). What I may have neglected to mention earlier was that because my map had essentially died, we just decided to follow a random family that we assumed were biking to the event through the city instead of consulting the map to make sure we were still on the purple line when we locked up our bikes. Luckily we made it out of the city OK (which seems to be a running theme for this trip... The whole "This could have been bad... But it wasn't!" thing), but that's were my brain apparently stopped functioning just long enough to get us lost again. Once we exited the city I saw a sign that said "Elspeet 14" pointing towards a paved bike path (and 14km is about the same distance as the path we had on the iPhone). So instead of following the map, we decided to follow the signs about 14m away from our destination (which worked so well for us the last time we tried it) so that we might have the luxury of a paved road back to Elspeet. As we began to bike into the forest I quickly realized that I'd gladly trade winding roads and the hilly geography for mud and dirt any day. And then, almost as if God was saying "You got it" the nice paved bike path turned into mud and dirt (although it also flattened out a bit). And to top it all off, the bike path then spit us out right in front of the portion of the mapped route that was essentially mud and dirt. Not only did I fail to avoid the mud and dirt like I had initially planned, but I actually added more of it to our journey home. On the plus side though, it was a very beautiful bike path (probably one of the prettier ones I've been on as of yet), so I guess it wasn't all bad.
Then, after what seemed like forever, we got home, watched a movie and went for supper. After supper I decided that because of my lack of sleep the night prior and all the stress from the day present that had been accumulating from all the crowd dodging that now might be as good a time as any to take a quick little nap to re-energize me for an evening of writing in my journal. This was at 7:00... at somewhere around 11:00 I finally woke up with two potential choices at hand. Choice #1: I could get up and write a bit at that moment only to be in the exact same situation as the night before, or I could go with choice #2 and continue sleeping through the night until morning rolled around. So given how tired the 2am sleep schedule clearly makes me, I decided to go with number 2 (and who knows, maybe that extended period of sleep is just what my body was needing to digest all the subtle racism permeating the days festivities)). So after my body makes a few attempts to wake me up from my slumber from having slept what some would call a reasonable amount of time, all the while resisting the urge to open my eyes so I might reclaim my normal sleep schedule, I finally rolled out of bed at around 7:00am... making this one of few, if not the first, time(s) that I have literally slept half of he day away (although, luckily, it was mostly the half that you're actually supposed to be sleeping during).