Wednesday 1 December 2010

When would Zwarte Piet arrive?

When I arrived in the Netherlands, I was already aware of two of the most striking aspects of living here: the monthly air raid siren test and the Zwarte Pieten; but it tends to be the minor things that make you wonder what exactly you're supposed to do, or how you should react in a certain situation.

But first the striking things. The monthly air raid siren is pretty much what it sounds like. It's sounded at 11 o'clock on the first Monday of every month, and is strangely musical, unlike the building wail of the sirens during the London Blitz that you might imagine. Zwarte Piet ("Black Pete") is a bit harder to explain. He's the mischievous helper of the Dutch version of Father Christmas or Santa Claus, "Sinterklaas", and though I knew about Zwarte Piet, it's still strange to see Zwarte Piet on TV or in the flesh - because people playing Zwarte Piet have to paint their faces black and wear Renaissance style clothes. There's naturally been soul-searching over the representation of Zwarte Piet, but apart from an experiment on Dutch TV of having different coloured Pieten, the traditional blackface appearence has remained.

As Sinterklaas lives in a castle in Madrid (he travels to the Netherlands every year in the middle of November by steamboat), two questions have been idlely floating around my mind.* First, why does Spain still have such a hold on the Dutch imagination when the country has been independent from them for centuries, and they don't neighbour each other, and secondly, I have been wondering whether Dutch families ever visit Sinterklaas in Spain, like the Santa's Grotto in Lapland? So far I've just been told that Sinterklaas kidnaps bad children and takes them back to his Spanish castle, so I suppose it's not necessarily somewhere you would want to visit. Although there is a YouTube video claiming to have spotted him in Madrid:

So far things have been pretty straight-forward, however. Though it becomes more complicated when you're dealing with an international group when it comes to arranging a night out in a pub. It's hard to know exactly what people's conception of time is. On Monday arrangements were made to go out at 8:30pm. At home, the starting time seems to be purely theoretical, and the word "about" is usually included as recognition of this. "We'll be out at about 9". Nobody would arrive at 9, and only a few would turn up within half an hour of that time; nearly everyone will have arrived after an hour and a half. So sometimes the best way is to find out when other people are themselves planning to go out (the reply inevitably features another "about" which signifies a 30 minute margin), and then arrive at the time when most of the "abouts" overlap.

So on Monday evening it struck me that I didn't know just how late to arrive: an important question when you don't want to spend 30 minutes sitting on your own in a pub.

The "problem" was easily solved by meeting up with someone before going to the pub, and most people arrived within an hour. I was told that the Bulgarian rule is: after the meeting time, you wait 5 minutes out of obligation, and another 5 minutes out of courtesy. And though I didn't quite overthink the situation as I might have written it in this post, I'm wondering now: what are the different cultural rules for meeting up across Europe?

*The steamboat might be the more obvious thing to wonder about; I think the reason is that most Sinterklaas traditions originated in the 19th Century. My idle thoughts don't seem to be very consistent in what they wonder about.

1 comment:

  1. It's surprising that the Dutch would still embrace Zwarte Piet , given that he is a dark skinned North African (?), or is Zwarte Piet actually a dual passport holder from Morocco?

    It's rather nice to hear that modern Dutch racism and bigotry have not touched Christmas.