Posts Tagged ‘Leiden’

Happy Sinterklaas, wherever you are

December 5, 2009

Sinterklaas visits a store during his busy three-week stay in the Netherlands

Wessel and I spent Thanksgiving week in the Netherlands, but of course there was no celebration of the Pilgrims in America (though they did depart from Leiden, in Holland). Instead, we were bombarded with images of Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten.

Many say that Sinterklaas is the inspiration for our Santa Claus. Sint looks a bit like Santa, though his belly is smaller. He comes by boat from Spain (I still don’t get that part) mid-November, and his arrival is televised throughout the country. For a few weeks, he visits towns throughout the country. Like Santa, Sint has the uncanny ability to be omnipresent.

Images of Zwarte Piet are everywhere

Instead of elves, Sint has the assistance of a bevy of black men and women. It’s true. They’re the Zwarte Pieten, or Black Petes (though many are women). These are white people with their faces painted black. Yep, it sounds scarily like our minstrel shows of yore. At one point they were said to be Sint’s slaves then a few decades ago they suddenly became “friends.” Regardless, as an American, I was pretty chagrined to see Piet images everywhere, including toy Pieten, banners, and window decorations. I tried to engage a few Dutch relatives in talks about Piet, but that didn’t go over well.

Zwarte Pieten in a TV show that runs daily while Sinterklaas is in the country

The best overview of the Piet issue I found is here  in the German magazine Spiegel. The funniest take on Zwarte Pieten was written by my former classmate David Sedaris in his essay “Six to Eight Black Men.” (It’s in his 2004 book “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.”)

Zwarte Pieten play music in one of the shopping streets of Alphen aan den Rijn

Finally, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten get down to business on the night of Dec. 5 (Sinterklaasavond), when they leave gifts for the children outside to be opened on Pakjesavond — the evening of the packages. The Dutch also celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, with a tree and a big meal, but no gifts.

Diane meets the real Sinterklaas!

A week ago, on the day we flew back home, we made a stop in Alphen aan den Rijn to visit a friend’s shop. In the distance, Wessel heard the sounds of a marching band and tore off, shouting for me to follow. We turned a corner and there they were! Sinterklaas with his Zwarte Pieten, playing horns and marching through town! Though I’d rather the Petes were elves, I did enjoy the spectacle. And I got a hug from Sinterklaas!

As if there aren’t enough cultural problems with Sinterklaas, now another issue is brewing. Because of the country’s growing Muslim population, some folks object to the cross on Sint’s headdress, and many Sints now wear a solid red hat. I apparently met a “real” Sinterklaas, bearing a cross and leading his six to eight black men.

Advertisements

Untours is unparalleled in the travel industry

February 24, 2009
Sampling Dutch street food is among the Untours travel experiences

You, too, can sample street food in Leiden (in this case, herring) on an Untours trip

Even before I knew much about Untours, the Pennsylvania-based (un)tour company, I loved their travel offerings and attitude. Untours supports longer-term travel with a home base, so visitors have a chance to dig deeper than the usual surface tourist activities.

They provide accommodations for one or two weeks, mostly in Europe (they just added a couple North American locations). For a reasonable fee, you get lodging (with a kitchen), air travel (rare) and an English-speaking local host (unheard of). It’s similar to independent travel, but with someone to hold your hand if needed.

Rome is among the travel destions in Italy

Rome is among the destinations in Italy

Also terrific are Untours’ off-the-beaten path destinations. In Holland, untourists stay in the charming university town of Leiden instead of the big city of Amsterdam, in Greece it’s Nafplio instead of Athens, and in Switzerland Untours offers up Ticino, Oberland and villages between Interlaken and Lucerne. It doesn’t ignore big cities completely, especially in Italy and France, the top destinations. Italy choices include Rome, Florence, and Venice, but also Sicily and Amalfi. It’s similar for France. You can choose among Paris, Normandy, Alsace, and more.

I was surprised when Untours, now in its 34th year, recently added New York City and Quebec City to its offerings. Makes me wonder what’s next. Exciting!

Paris at night with its monuments bathed in illumination

"The Eiffel Tower at night is magical," reported one Untours traveler

While I haven’t traveled with Untours, I’ve interviewed several people who have, and they’ve all loved the experience of feeling like they were living in a community instead of merely passing through. For those of you who just have to be on the move, there are ways to combine destinations with Untours “Samplers.” Untours aren’t cheap, but from what travelers tell me, they’re a bargain when you factor in meals, airfare, etc. Check out the prices for yourself and let me know what you think.

Hal Taussig on his daily ride to work

Hal Taussig on his regular ride to work

Like I said, I’ve already loved Untours for years because I had a great feeling about them and their business practices. So I wasn’t surprised but I sure was impressed when last year I learned about Untours founder and president Hal Taussig, 84. Despite his very successful business, he and his wife live in a modest home. Since 1992 they’ve given $5 million in profits from the business to the Untours Foundation, which they founded to help enterprises around the world that create jobs that improve the lives of the poor. Untours has been engaging in “travel philanthropy” way before it became de rigueur. Hal has gotten some great press lately, but you can tell that he’s not in it for the publicity. Thank you, Hal, for inspiring us as travelers and as human beings!