For me, the holidays represent a tradition of espionage. Each year at the family Christmas Eve party, my cousins and I climb through doggy doors and scale fences in an effort to discover the identity of “Santa” before he arrives at our doorstep with presents.
Last year’s shenanigans
This year was quite different. No running, no secret plans, and no disapproving looks from the adults (I still refuse to join the ranks of “Santa” conspirators – not that I’ve been invited yet, *ahem*). In fact, I felt rather mature drinking wine and eating the good cheese at the holiday parties I attended with my host family.
The Dutch first celebrate Sinterklaas (also called Sint Nicolaas, one of the influences for our modern Santa Claus), on the fifth of December. He arrives in November by boat from Spain, with his Zwarte Piet helpers that throw candy and pepernoten (small, delicious cookies reminiscent of gingerbread) into the crowd.
*Side note: look up ‘Zwarte Piet,’ and the current debate surrounding it. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about this Dutch tradition.
In addition to Sinterklaas, they also typically celebrate Christmas (Eerste Kerstdag) and the day after Christmas (Tweede Kerstdag).
In between all of these celebrations, my friend Jillian and I decided to embark on a Netherlands stay-cation. We first visited Valkenburg, which boasts ownership of the “largest and oldest underground Christmas Markets,” as if there’s much competition for that title.
The caves were fascinating, but the Christmas market component of the experience was more than lacking. The vendors sold a weird amalgamation of useless, imported goods. There were so many people inhabiting such a small space that we were forced to partake in the claustrophobic shuffle, much like standing in line for Splash Mountain at Disneyland.
Apparently the caves agreed with my Disneyland analogy.
Before the start of the second cave tour we each bought a steaming bowl of mushrooms and onions, topped with a savory garlic sauce. This greasy bowl of goodness served as our pacifier, suddenly making the caves much more exciting.
Our spirits were so high (I promise, they were regular mushrooms) that we willingly and enthusiastically posed with a couple of polar bears.
The next day we visited Maastricht, the theme of the day being “Misadventures in Maastricht.” After meeting up with a couple au pairs I met through facebook, Jillian started to feel really sick and left to find a hotel in which to recuperate. Meanwhile, Lisa, Roberta, and I continued in our quest to find the Maastricht cave tour. The people at the tourist office warned us we’d have to walk really, really fast to get there on time. It was a recipe for failure in a town we had never visited.
We finally arrived at the location, about twenty minutes too late for the cave tour. Visitors aren’t allowed inside the caves without a guide, but we continued to wander around, in search for something to redeem our long trek from the city centre.
And boy, did we find it. In a country routinely described as “pancake-flat,” I think we won the Dutch lottery with this scenic find.
And as you can see, hopping that electrical fence was clearly the best decision of the day.
In keeping with the theme of the day, I almost missed my train home while purchasing some last-minute falafel. With my passion for food, I’d say it was well worth the risk.
Oh, and because no post is complete without an adorable baby picture, here is Fay on Christmas day. Cue the “awwwwws.”