Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Whine and Chocolate or The Great Ghent Christmas Disaster

My kids love history… sometimes.

It’s hard to predict when they will embrace something, or when they will start marking the minutes until we return to the car and start the journey home.

Yesterday was a freak show.

Ghent is this lovely little Flemish city. It is filled with charming 16th century architecture, three rivers, medieval bridges, gothic churches, and art masterpieces. It was even rated one of Lonely Planet's Top 10 Cities to see in 2011.

I tried to sell this little Belgian daytrip to my kids by offering a trip to a castle, a climb of a historic tower, Belgian chocolate, and later, as my arguments fell on disinterested ears, french fries.

I knew we were in trouble when we had not even left the parking garage before Jack started asking how long it would be until we could go back home.

In their defense, it was cold: damp and cold.  But surely we should be able to see a few things?

The castle Gravensteen is everything you’d want in a medieval structure. It was rough and ragged around the edges, “a Keep” Jack called it. It was built for defense, but later used as a prison.

Unlike the Tower of London, there were was no glossing over of the Gravensteen’s gory history here. They made it very clear that this place was used for torture and execution. They had a very informative display of torture devices, how long the torture could be endured, and which room was used for which application. When they started using life sized manikins to make their point, I had to get Audrey out of the room. They did have a cool guillotine complete with a burlap sack to catch the head. You don’t get an education like this every day. Any questions, kids?

The whole place made me glad that we live here and now when places like Gravensteen are museums and any form of capital punishment is debated, considered and reconsidered.

My kids, on the other hand, were wishing themselves dead.

The whining had been a background noise throughout the castle, but now we were back out on the street. The thought that we would just wander around the old city until we saw a few things was too much for Jack. He started to plan a mutiny. When Audrey started crying because her hands were cold, I thought it was time to pack it up and go home.

Thank God for Belgian chocolate. We ducked into a little shop called Van Hoorebeke on Sint Baafsplein. This Victorian chocolate shop had curved glass counters and shelves filled with fresh chocolates. The aroma from the kitchen below was absolutely divine. While Audrey warmed up, Jack and Jordan made selections from the counter. For five euros in chocolate, I had bought myself some time.

We ventured in to the Gothic church of St. Bavo, where I had heard the Flemish masterpiece “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” had recently been restored. Access to the side chapel with the “Adoration” was four euros per person. I approached Walt and made my pitch. “Walt, there is a very famous early Flemish masterpiece here. It’s four euros to see it.” I watched Walt’s eyes glass over as I spoke.

There is an advantage to 15 years of marriage. You tend to be able to read your partner. I changed my tact and offered, “We could pay that four euros, or I could show you pictures of it on-line when we get home.” Walt broke into a large grin and we moved on.

If you’ve seen the “Adoration” by the van Eyck brothers, let me know if it was worth the money. I’m dying to know.

So that was our afternoon. The kids outright refused a trip up the belfry of the Cloth Hall, a world heritage site. We spent a few minutes at the merry-go-round. Then it was time to pack the kids up and head home. Jack smiled for the first time that afternoon.

Later, I had an interesting conversation with the kids about what kind of travel they like to do. They agreed that all trips should involve an amusement park with roller coasters, oh, and lots of kitty cats.

I think Flemish and Dutch Medieval cities are done for while. Too bad considering that there are about 50 amazing cities just like that around here. Sigh…

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Snowed In

Northern Europe has been paralyzed with snow.  Here are some pictures of our village this morning.  We've gotten about 8 in. (20 cm) of snow since Friday.  I'm so grateful that Walt was able to fly in from Africa Friday before the snow and we are all happily snowed in together.

A Dutchman told me this morning that in his 60+ years in Holland, he's never seen snow like this.

Because this is what they do...

Since no one here plows or shovels, the roads are fit only for pull sleds.  I'm asking Santa for two ponies and a sleigh for Christmas.

Merry Christmas, Everyone!

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Sint

The Netherlands has some pretty unusual holidays.

We have Queens Day, where everyone celebrates the Queen’s birthday by wearing orange and selling items in a flea market. We have Second Christmas, where everyone shops for furniture at Ikea.

And then there is Sinterklaas.

Much has been written about St. Nicholas.  Many cultures celebrate him calling him by names such as “Santa” or “Father Christmas”. But no one, no one, comes close to the imagination and creativity of the Dutch.

In Holland, Sinterklaas arrives well before his feast day, usually in mid November. Does he arrive by sleigh with elves from the North Pole? Don’t be ridiculous. He comes by boat, from sunny Spain, with his white horse, and his troop of Swarte Piets (read here, white Dutch men in black face).

Swarte Piet
 So starting in mid-November, Sinterklaas and his troop of “Black Peters” travel from house to house at night. The Piets jump to the rooftops and climb down the chimneys checking on the behavior of children in the house. They may leave a small treat in a child’s shoes left by the fire. Or, if a child is bad, they may leave a small bundle of sticks, a reminder of the beating that Piet may give that child if the offending behavior continues.

If a child should meet with the Sint at school or at a party, he will read from the “Big Book of all the Children in the World”. In that book, the Sint has a list of all behavior good and bad. The Sint will lean into the kids a little about what needs to be done differently and praise the child for what has been done well.

On the eve of December 6th, Swarte Piet comes to the door, rings the bell, and throws in a burlap bag of gifts and poems, along with a shower of ginger cookies.

If a child has been bad, so the legend goes, Swarte Piet will grab that child, throw him in the sack, beat him with a switch, and carry him off to sunny Spain. Personally, I wouldn’t mind the sunny Spain part, I haven’t seen the sun since August.

Gifts wrapped to identify the recipient
 I love this holiday for many reasons. First, in Dutch style, it is family oriented not gift oriented. A Sinterklaas celebration is a time to gather the family. Even families with older children have fun writing poems that tease the recipient. Gifts may be disguised as almost anything. If a person loves the guitar, the gift may come hidden as a giant paper-mache instrument. Or a gift may be hidden in the house with only clues given for the location. A meal is shared. Traditional songs are sung. Families with children of all ages look forward to this night all year.

The Piet Band
Second, it is NOT a politically correct holiday. In the United States, traditions are frequently so politically correct that they have all of the texture and diversity of oatmeal. The Dutch know that Swarte Piet is shocking to many people. But they value the tradition over political correctness.  This mischievous character is the Ying to St. Nicholas’ Yang. He is foolish and playful. At our church service on Sunday, a Piet amused himself while the priest spoke by walking along the altar rail like a tight rope. The children love him; and the children within the grown-ups love him as well.

Third, as David Sedaris wrote in his essay “Six to Eight Black Men”, the Dutch have the very best bedtime story.  I have personally had the privilege of telling my 10 year old son, “Well, The Sint is coming tonight. He might bring you presents, or he might throw you in a sack, beat you with a stick, and drag you off to Spain. You might want to pack a few things, just in case.”

A gift tagged with a poem for Jack
 So now we've moved on to decorating for Christmas. My three year old Audrey is thoroughly confused as to whom Santa might be versus Sinterklaas and if any Swarte Piets might be coming down the chimney to fill her stocking with candy. 

All is well, though. My children have learned a little about a completely different kind of holiday, cultural diversity, and bonding as a family over a few small gifts tagged with a poem from St. Nick.