Posts filed under ‘Amsterdam’

Amsterdam – Zwarte Piet

On the way to the closed Energetica museum, Ryan Somma and I passed a large crowd congregated around the canals.

“What’s going on?” I asked an equally stumped Ryan Somma.

Noting a number of children in the crowd, I came to a conclusion, “IT’S SANTA CLAUS! SANTA CLAUS MUST BE COMING!”

But then a band started across the canal started to play a song with a familiar type of cadence and even though I couldn’t understand the words, they didn’t sound too deep. The crowd, including the children, started to sing along.

“Oh.” My voice flattened, “This must be their version of the Wiggles.”

I used my zoom lens to catch a picture and when I looked at the photograph afterwards on my camera I noticed something odd.

“They’re in…blackface?”

What the—

Shortly after that, boats and boats full of people dressed similarly came down the canal.

The beginning of the parade

One of the boats

Ryan and I left Amsterdam still unsure of what exactly we had seen. In our next destination, Bergen op Zoom, we kept encountering the same character. He seemed to be making an appearance in most store fronts.

It took a couple of days before us confused U.S. visitors solved the mystery (Hat Tip, Google Search!). And so, I introduce you to Zwarte Piet. He’s Sinterklaas’s helper! Which means, my first guess at the parade was not that far off.

Zwarte Piet first showed up in a book by Jan Schenkman in 1845.

Although unnamed at the time, Zwarte Piet’s first appearance

In the Dutch culture, both Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet spend their off-time in Spain (because it is warm!). Our Santa Claus with his North Pole is pretty much the biggest sucker ever.

After WWII, it was obvious that one Sinterklaas and one Zwarte Piet could not handle all of the holiday workload. They needed more resources. There really could only be one Sinterklaas, so Zwarte Piet multipled. Now there are tons of “Zwarte Pieten” and they remind me a bit of Smurfs. I wonder if that means Zwarte Pieten could also explain the Tragedy of the Commons?

Although I could not tell from the excitement of the parade or by his prominence in advertisements, Zwarte Piet is controversial. I think some of the strategies to make him politically correct are…amusing. Some explain his skin color by pointing out that he has to go up and down chimneys. He is merely covered in soot.

In 2006, “Coloured Petes” were introduced. Instead of black face paint, they donned other colours such as green and purple.

A Green Piet in 2006 (Photo by celesteh)

How did they explain this drastic complexion change? Sinterklaas passed through a rainbow with his boat. 🙂 And yet, even with that impenetrable premise, the Coloured Petes did not catch on. The very next year, they were back to normal.

Welp, as controversial as Zwarte Piet is, I suppose it could be worse. He could still be into the same antics he was up to in 1885:

Two grown men (one involved in the church, no less!) preparing to smuggle children out of the country.

More pictures of Zwarte Piet can be found on my Flickr site.

November 23, 2008 at 8:33 pm 5 comments

Amsterdam – The Adventure Overview

Whew. I’m back from a week in the Netherlands. I got to spend three days sight-seeing in Amsterdam before heading south for business. With travel companion, Ryan Somma, we ended up packing in a lot of stuff into a three day visit to the city. It is going to take me a while to parse through the photos and already I tally up at least eight different blog posts I could do. But I figure it would be best to start off with a overview/summary.


Thursday afternoon, I dropped the dogs off the boarder and we made our way to the airport. In DC, we boarded a large Boeing 777 and we were off.

Ryan Somma and I on the plane to Amsterdam


Seven hours later, between 6-7 AM local time, we landed in Amsterdam, got our luggage and boarded a train. As the early morning views whizzed by, Ryan observed, “There is a surprising lack of logos.”

I believe I replied with something about as enthusiastic as “Mmpf.”

We got off at the Centraal Station. I was well aware that Amsterdam was a bike-centric city. I had been there briefly in 1995 and seen some impressive pictures from Tony Airaghi. Even with that preparation, when one gets off the Centraal Station and sees the mass of bicycles parked outside, the view is breathtaking.

A triple decker parking deck— FULL of bicycles

More bikes outside of the train station

We dropped the luggage off at the hotel, snagged some maps from the concierge and headed out to Anne Frank’s house. Along the way, we got to see plenty of the canals and house boats.

Houseboats on one of the canals. I love how they make use of the roofs and decks to grow plants.

Houses line a canal

The Anne Frank Huis was a good museum with moving testimonials and quotes. I had been there once before in 1995, but this time I had a new interest– The horse chestnut tree! While Anne and her family hid for more than two years, one of her few glimpses of nature was a horse chestnut tree outside her window. That tree is quite ill right now, but efforts are in play to keep it alive. Of course, there are no photographs permitted inside the house, but I thought I would outsmart the system.

“Let’s just walk around the block and take a picture from the street!” I told Ryan.

Little did we know, this tree is in a sequestered courtyard surrounded by buildings, so there was no view from the street.

Vicky’s Stealth Fail– there was no way to see the tree in the red area from any street.

Luckily, the Anne Frank House has a web cam, so I have the ability to see the tree whenever I want from the comfort of my own home.

Me looking at Anne Frank’s tree via the web

After Anne Frank’s house, weary Somma and I visited the Dam, the historical center of the city. At the Dam, some street vendors were dressed up as Grim Reapers and Batman.

Grim Reapers at the Dam

After that, we hit a local cafe for some lunch, stopped by a Hologram store and finally returned to our hotel for a well needed nap.

In the evening, we woke up and explored the city at night.

Amsterdam at Night

We had supper at an absolutely delicious India restaurant and got our first exposure to the famous Red Light District (Sorry, it is illegal to take pictures of the renowned Window Ladies)


Saturday was NEMO Science Center day! We woke up late, had an English Breakfast and then headed straight to the boat-shaped center. Although the museum is targeted for children, I found myself thoroughly engrossed with the displays. I was most impressed with the frank and uncensored information about sex that was available in a museum…for children (more on that later). I also enjoyed the Chain Reaction presentations they did throughout the day.

One of the many hands on displays at the NEMO Science Center– when the child holds the plasma ball and the fluorescent light bulb at the same time, the bulb lights up.

Two children start off a large chain reaction

Kids making giant bubbles at the NEMO Science Center

After a full day at NEMO, we saw a little more of the city, visited another Hologram store, we shared another great supper at an Argentinian Steak house and once again got to stroll through Red Light District on the way back to the hotel.

Another canal in Amsterdam

View of the city from the top of the NEMO building

We closed the evening with getting introduced to the BBC show, Outnumbered. We saw the wedding episode. Be on the lookout for it. It’s rather hilarious.


Sunday was full of unexpectancies. We set out to see Energetica, an energy museum we read about in the Fall 2008 issue of an Amsterdam tourist guide. Our hotel concierge gave us directions to the museum. Yet, when we finally arrived, we were greeted by a sign announcing the museum was closing in November of 2007… over a year ago!

Ryan by the Closed Sign

But never fear– we still saw a lot on this particular Sunday. We got our first introduction to a curious Dutch Christmas custom. We got to see the lovely Weinheim Park and a thoughtful Auschwitz Memorial. And probably my absolute favorite part of the entire trip– the Botanical Gardens. They are INCREDIBLE. More on each of those activities later. And of course, along the way, we got to see more of the city.

Flurry of activity near the Centraal Station

Modern buildings and a church from 1614

Sunflower growing in an apartment window

After that day was done, we took a train back to the airport and picked up a rental car. We were off to our next destination– Bergen op Zoom.

Only… with a complication. I…uh…. I sort of, kind of, left the driving directions at home. After some amount of stress, further aggravated by me not knowing how to turn the car on (you have to put the brake on before you turn the key), it was Somma’s web-enabled Cingular phone to the rescue. He pulled up Google maps and we managed to find our way.

More pictures of my Amsterdam trip are available on my Flickr site.

And never fear– there are many, many more Amsterdam posts to come. 🙂

November 23, 2008 at 7:57 pm 15 comments

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