Thursday, October 24, 2013

Piet Moor

I wrote recently about how the debate here about Zwarte Piet, the blacked-up helper of Father Christmas’ granddaddy, and how it seemed more intense than earlier years. And I wasn’t kidding. It’s gotten so heated here the UN has gotten involved. As often happens when the UN gets involved, misunderstandings and miscommunications means that their presence has simply made things worse.

It’s very interested how heated it’s got. Based, as ever, on the fact that people rarely listen properly to people they don’t fully agree with. A lack of empathy and going on the defensive too quickly are the main causes of this. It’s like american politics where everybody shouts so loud they can’t even hear when the person they are shouting at is agreeing with them.

People are quite naturally defensive when something they had never considered anything other than a harmless children’s festival is being attacked and by association them with it.

As I said before, I think the days of blacking up to represent Piet are numbered, but obviously not going without a fight from those who don’t want to change any aspect of tradition.

If it doesn’t go, I have an alternative strategy. Introduce Witte Willem. Witte Willem is represented by non white actors, who white-wash their faces, put on blond floppy wigs, wear very tall clogs and pull long serious faces. They then say in slow, deep voices, things like “nou, zeg,” “he-hee,” and “dat is niet mogelijk.” They stare people blankly in their faces and coldly point out their faults. If someone says anything bodily function related they laugh very hard at it.

Sure, this isn’t most Dutch people, it’s a grotesque exaggeration of some of the stereotypical aspects of Dutch people presented in an offensive manner, but that’s the point.

Happy UN day.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Polish Rock Update

You know those moments when you you're at the laundrette, you've put most of your clothes in the various sized machines and suddenly you have to give a concert. And what's worse is that you've been so busy getting ready to go to the laundrette, you've not bothered to learn how to play your instruments yet. The guitarist is definitely having one of those days.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Slave to the Tradition

I’ve noticed that every year there’s more and more debate about one single aspect of Dutch culture. One figure of Dutch folklore who starts appearing at this time of the year in readiness for his big day. On December 5th, Sinterklaas, the grandfather of Santa Claus, leaves presents in kids shoes in a very similar fashion to his more internationally known offspring, who tends to go for stockings. Instead of the North Pole, he lives in Spain. Instead of a reindeer-drawn sleigh, he has a steamboat. Instead of elves he has a faithful black servant.

The debate about is always about Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) who historically was almost certainly a slave, but is portrayed more as a comedy sidekick. Is it racist, is what the debate is all about. With most people from outside the country saying yes, and many of those who grew up with it saying no.

It took me a few years to get used to it, and now, I must say, I barely flinch when I see a real live Zwarte Piet or a doll-like representation of him which looks exactly like a gollywog, which were dolls we got rid of in the UK quite a few years ago. At least I barely flinch visibly.

My point of view is this. Obviously history is history and the real Saint Nicholas quite possibly had a slave/servant/comedy sidekick who quite probably was black. I don’t have a problem that such a figure still exists in the folklore and has not been replaced by mythical elves or magical reindeer. I don’t have too much of a problem that he is portrayed as being somewhat wayward and a little crazy, slavery isn’t something to help keep up perfect mental health, and as such you should take what liberties you can. The only real problem I have is this, which is at the core of why it’s considered racist: Zwarte Piet can only be portrayed by a white man or woman in black face paint, curly wig and thick, red lips in the style of a minstrel show, something else we got rid of a long time ago.

For me it’s only this offensively stereotypical representation that is what makes my flesh cringe whenever I see it. I think everything else can be kept. Make him blue or say he can only be portrayed by black actors or I don’t know.

But the kids, of course, don’t see it. Piet is a very popular character, mostly because he gives out sweets and so forth. And those adults who grew up with it only to be told later on it’s racist often are quite offended by the suggestion. They make up alternative histories to explain why he’s black - from coming down the chimney. Presumably he scratched his lips all the way down as well and the soot made his hair go curly. It’s only natural to be so defensive of something you grew up with and never saw any offense in. It’s very similar to those Christians who when asked about dinosaurs and their omission from their holy book state that they are a test from God.

I’m pretty sure the debate will continue for a few years yet, but the fact is seems to get bigger implies it will come to a head. As someone who lived through similar issues in the UK some 20+ years ago, I can assure the people of the Netherlands, these sort of changes, although they cause a lot of grumbling and even resentment at the time, are generally looked back upon with an air of, “I’m glad we did that” and without the very fabric of society being any more than ruffled in one corner.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013


The title of this piece is not some sort of swear word, although it does sound like it. It’s roughly pronounced as “bow-facker” (with bow pronounced as in bending forward or the front of a ship rather than as a fancy sort of knot (English, huh!)). It means “builders” as in anyone who does anything related to the physical creation or maintenance of the structure of a building. Americans tend to call them contractors, which is highly ambiguous.

Builders are remarkably similar the world over and have similar patterns of work. For some reason, builders start work insanely early in the morning. Bakers, we all get why they’re up so early: some of us want our bread when we wake up. But I’ve never been able to work out why builders get up so early. Even having spent months working amongst them, I could never work it out.

The pattern is that they start very early, before most of us would even consider getting out of bed, and then at about the time we would normally get up and/or leave the house they stop and take a long, well-deserved tea break. Why they couldn’t stay in bed a little longer and have less of a tea break, I’ve never fathomed. I do wonder if it’s simply to annoy the rest of us.

Can he fix it? Yes he can, but at 7 am and with the noisiest digger you ever heard.
Builders are in the best position to annoy the rest of us. Most jobs, if they started early, we wouldn’t notice or even care. If an accountant started on the books at 7:30, I’m quite sure the people next door would sleep on, oblivious. If a dentist opened his practice at 7 am, nobody would bat an eyelid. And the dentist would sit there in an otherwise empty room, waiting for the first person to appear in the waiting room - probably it would be a builder wanting a check-up on the way to work. The problem is, none of these jobs have anything that makes any more noise than a flatulent bee in a jar.

But builders have a dizzying array of devices to help them in their job. And every single one of them makes a noise like ten million bees smashing their way out of a million jars and letting forth a thunderous wall of wind.

We currently have painters doing up our building. Painters are very much builders. They start at 7:30 sharp. Before then, there is nothing but the silence of the ageing night. Then suddenly, without warning they let rip with whatever noise-making equipment they can get their hands on. In the first few days, they were scraping, which is surprisingly loud when you are on the other side of the woodwork. Now they seem to have managed to get hold of sanding machines that go all the way up to 11. They do all this until everyone has gone to off work and then they have a nice long tea break.

I feel once they get onto the painting, they should be quieter, surely. However, if I know bouwvakkers, and I do pretty well, I’m certain, right now, they are taking delivery of some sort of industrial, mechanical paint application device that goes all the way up to 12.