Friday, December 4, 2009

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

It's not uncommon for kermissen(?) to appear in cities whenever there are special days--or even if there are not. A quick glance at my el-cheapo international planner reveals that, of all the countries listed (and there are a fair number) the Netherlands has the fewest national holidays of the lot, although that's more than made up for by the generous--sometimes overly--vacation policies (I have no way to take all of my vacation days, even if I wanted to). So many of these carnivals--complete with merry-go-rounds, ferris wheels, fried-friedness stands, and rigged carnival games pop up along with unofficially-recognized (read: religious) days of celebration.

Sinterklaas (see last post) is one such Dutch quasi-holiday that is in decline, not the least because to celebrate it properly is actually something of a pain in the ass. It involves assembling a present of sorts that pokes fun at someone's bad habits/personal foibles, and then writing a rhyming poem about the gift. You begin to understand why the whole Christmas-open-presents-drink-champagne thing is so popular--all that requires is decorating a friggin' tree, and plenty of booze.

Also, there is more and more...discomfort, shall we say, about the Zwarten Pieten. In the US, for instance, it's a terrible crime, almost, to put on blackface and go cavorting about handing out cookies. That this tradition is an old one and that the Black Peters are one of the more popular holiday figures cuts no ice with the politically-sensitive. So what you see more and more these days is kids dressed up in the costumes but sans makeup. A reasonable compromise, I suppose--I'm just waiting until they turn Black Peters into Peter Blacks...

In spite of this, the holidays are a merry time, and that means carnivals. Most photographs of Maastricht show a bright sunny day, a string of old-fashioned cafes, and a veritable field of tables and chairs full of people sitting around drinking beer and smiling. What they don't show is that right next to the field is a road, and right next to the road is a huge open space, large enough to be a parking lot for all of the tourists if the Dutch were any more practical. As it is, they have other uses for the space, which includes assembling a giant ferris wheel and an outdoor skating rink.

And this being Maastricht, it wouldn't be complete without tents selling all kinds of pretty wares, from jewelry to samurai swords (alas, not the real things). Waffel vendors and sausage-sellers also abound, so the whole experience of wandering through the crowded plein is one of overwhelming happiness--happy colors, shining lights, the cold air on your nose*, smells of warm waffels filling your nose. It almost makes me think that winter is worth celebrating. Almost. After all, I still have a 20-minute ride to get to my apartment.

*Maastricht, despite being further south than, say, Nijmegen, is actually a little colder than Nijmegen and very much colder than a coastal city such as Leiden. This is in part because it is further inland than most of the Netherlands (having Belgium in the way and all that), and in part because it's at the foothills of the Ardennes, a rather small mountain chain but one that's enough, apparently, to drive down icy blasts of air into the regions surrounding them.

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