How to do Pakjesavond: A guide for the uninitiated

If you were pounded with weird round little cookies while walking around in Wageningen last weekend, you were lucky enough to witness the long awaited arrival of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands.

Sinterklaas looks very similar to his American counterpart Santa Clause, but with a Bishop’s hat and cloak instead of a Santa suit and a troupe of helpers called Zwarte Piete instead of elves.  It’s these mischievous little characters who throw cookies and sweets while generally mucking about causing chaos. That’s when they’re not running for their lives to escape the hoards of screaming children in hot pursuit.

Sinterklaas’ arrival kicked off a flurry of excitement and indulgence that culminates on Saint Nicholas’ eve on the 5th of December. The evening is called sinterklaasavond or pakjesavond (“presents evening”) and it’s when most people hand out their Christmas gifts. Sometimes they put a shoe in front of the fireplace on the evening of 5th (including a carrot snack for Sinterklaas’ horse), and when they wake up the next morning, the shoe is surrounded by goodies. That is if you’ve been good of course. And Sinterklaas knows, because he always has his big book with him that lists all your sins.

But you don’t need to be a kid, or even Dutch for that matter, to celebrate pakjesavond.Here’s how it works:

  1. Invite a group of people you want to spend pakjesavond with. Swop names, and tell everyone to buy each other a small gift (often silly).
  2. Pakjesavond for adults doesn’t revolve around the gift. Instead, it’s all about the wrapping. The gift is wrapped or hidden in a creative fashion that often has something to do with the person who receives it. The more ridiculous and extreme the wrapping, the funnier.
  3. Each gift is accompanied by a poem. The poem is usually (but not necessarily) written by Sint or Piet, and often pokes fun at a characteristic of the recipient, while giving clues to the gift inside.
  4. Each person reads the poem he received out loud (much to the merriment of everyone gathered). The present is then unwrapped and the gift revealed.
  5. After everyone had the chance to read their poems and unwrap their gifts, the evening is concluded with typical Sinterklaas snacks and board games.

Pakjesavond or sinterklaasavond snacks include those round little cookies, chocolate letters, hot chocolate, pastries filled with almond paste, huge cookie dolls and chocolate Sinterklaas figures wrapped in foil.

So happy Sinterklaasavond! Have fun and get silly! All that chocolate is the best antidote for the crappy winter weather.

Lizelle Smit

Magical mushrooms

In Autumn, a walk through any part of the forests around Wageningen will reveal some unbelievable mushrooms.

On Saturday mornings, the edible varieties of wild and cultivated mushrooms are sold fresh on the market in town square. The stand is definitely worth a visit – even if only to ogle the truffles under the glass dome. You can even buy a sack of spores to grow your own schrooms.

But take a walk on the wild side and you’ll find mushrooms infinitely more spectacular and colourful than anything you’ll find in a basket.

mush1But this time round I found myself taking dozens of pictures instead of the little artworks outside: ceramic-looking red domes with textured white spots – something from a fairytale. Delicate sprouts of growth that dissolve into pitch-black ink puddles. Cluster of mushrooms growing on stumps. Gnarly old ones popping out of manicured lawns. Bursts of orange, yellow, pink and red everywhere. Even a shy set of purple mushrooms freeing themselves from the forest floor. Two weeks ago we wandered around in the sculpture garden in the Kröller-Müller Museum (http://www.kmm.nl/). The museum and grounds are amazing, and usually the extensive collection of Van Gogh paintings is a worthy star attraction.

Because they remain mostly undisturbed they grow to impressive sizes. And you’ll find them everywhere once you start looking: Secret seasonal gifts to herald the change to Autumn.

What’s up: Things to do in Wageningen this summer.

Holland goes on holiday over July and August. People pack their caravans, book their last minute flights and head for sun and sea.  Leaving the rest of us wondering where the party is and why we weren’t invited. 

But staying in Wageningen over summer isn’t half bad. The roads are quiet, the service at restaurants is better and the sun shines until ten at night. Here’s a list of some lekker things to do with your hot summer days:

  1. Grab a frisbee or soccer ball and meet your friends for a BBQ in the park. There’s a great park adjacent to Nijenoord Allee, between Rijnsteeg and Mondriaanlaan. It’s large, green and features a soccer field, baseball court, skateboard half pipe and plenty of space to laze about and soak up the sun.
  2. Reflect at the Grebbeberg Military War Cemetery. To get there, cycle down Lawickse Allee towards Rhenen and up the Grebbeweg hill (yes a real hill in Holland). On the top of the hill (4.5 kilometres from the city centre) you’ll see rows and rows of white gravestones, commemorating the Dutch troops who died in WWII. A small museum (free entry) gives info on the importance of the Grebbeline during the war. You’ll find a pancake restaurant and a wok place just down the road.   
  3. Go to the animal park in Rhenen. The Ouwehands Dierenpark is celebrating its newest member; a baby orang-utan, born 13 July. Opening times and prices are available on the website http://www.ouwehand.nl/ in English and in German. It’s also on Grebbeweg, a few metres away from the Military War Cemetery.  
  4. Cycle the Grebbedijk to Rhenen. If the Grebbeweg hill looks too daunting, take a sharp left at its foot and cycle the shady path to Rhenen. Awesome views of the river and easy cycling.
  5. Chill in the Arboretum. The university’s two botanical gardens are found on Generaal Foulkesweg (the Botanische Tuin Belmonte and De Dreijen). Entry to the botanical gardens is free and opening hours are between 08:00 and 20:00. Take a blanket, dump the iPod and chill in the shade to the tune of bird song.
  6. Get high at Hotel de Wageningse Berg. Head towards Renkum on Generaal Foulkesweg. Go past the botanical gardens until you see Hotel de Wageningse Berg signposted on your right. Toast the beautiful views from this highest vantage point in Wageningen.  
  7. Head for the “beach”.  Pack your towel, cozzie and (liquid) lunch and head for the harbour. Pass the harbour on your right and head straight towards the river. You’ll know you’re on the right track when the brick road becomes really bumpy and a few students shoot past with six packs precariously balanced on the back of their bikes. 
  8. Cool down at De Bongerd. For a more civilised swim, make a splash at the swimming pool De Bongerd; open weekdays from 12:00 to 17:00 and Monday to Thursday from 19:00 to 21:30. On Saturdays and Sundays, they are open between 9:00 and 16:00. De Bongerd is situated on the corner of Bornsesteeg and Nijenoord Allee.

Get out, get wet, relax and celebrate summer in Wageningen.  The best place to be.

Just do it – Becoming a volunteer

Landing in a new town is a daunting experience. And feeling alienated and out of place can taint your whole stay. Or you can worm yourself into a group of unsuspecting people and become part of something fun. Something bigger than you.  Have a laugh and make some real friends.

Volunteering is something the Dutch do really well. Many people help out somewhere in their spare time, performing a wide range of functions. So why not us ex-pats? Whatever you’re good at, chances are there’s an organisation that needs you. The functions range from financial management to offering companionship and everything in between. It doesn’t matter if you only have an hour a week, or a day a month to spare.  You’ll find something you enjoy and the benefits are enormous.

I wanted something local and creative where I could use my hands. So I ended up with the Wageningen LEEFfestival .  The LEEFfestival is an institution in Wageningen, where it has been around for more than 20 years. On the 18th and 19th of June 2010, the town centre will once again be taken over by street performers, artists, actors, singers and musicians. A burst of colourful chaos, a troupe of wonderful weirdo’s.

LEEFfestival gives me the opportunity to create freely. I get to build street decorations, or paint and create costumes and games.  It’s also my weekly chance to practice my Dutch and to grapple with the very unique Dutch sense of humour.  And to hear about local stuff to do and see which I won’t find in any guidebooks. 

So why not try it? To find a volunteer job, it’s best to chat to the people at the Meldpunt offices (Stationstraat 84, Wageningen). They will help you find something suitable, and have no problem doing so in English. Or if you’re down with Dutch, register to become a volunteer online at http://www.vrijwilligwageningen.nl.

Step back in time: A walk through Wageningen

Ever wondered where the station in Stationstraat is? Or what the “waag” in Waagstraat means? I did. And I found most of my answers on a stroll through Wageningen city centre with someone who knows things. Like why people in the 16th century drank beer instead of water, what happened to the church tower and why Wageningen is a city and not a town.   

The guided walk kicked off at the remains of the original castle walls, which were built in the early 16th century. But people were already living in Wageningen long before then, from as early as the 1100’s in fact. So Wageningen is really old. And much has changed over the centuries – even the flow of the Rijn. Originally the city was right next to the river, but over time the river changed its course. Which is also the reason why Maneswaard, cosily nestled on the other side of the Rijn, is still part of the gemeente Wageningen.

Along the walk our guide pointed out some cool sights. He showed us the old hospital, the boys’ school, the cloister and the original entrance to the city. He told stories of kings and wars, mills and superstitions. He showed us old black and white pics of what the city looked like before The War and we realised how much had changed in 70 years. But even before then Wageningen knew no peace. It was attacked and plundered in 1422, 1468, 1625, 1662 and 1673.

But some stunning buildings still remain today. For example the post office next to the city council building, built in 1898 by architect C. Peters in a style that was to become known as “post-office gothic”. And although the church on the square looks old, it was actually reconstructed, stone by stone, after it was levelled in 1940. Like in the centuries before, the people of Wageningen picked up the pieces and rebuilt their city.   

The city walk or stadswandeling is organised through De Casteelse poort Museum (www.casteelsepoort.nl) and dates and times are advertised in the local papers. The guided tour is also available in English if a booking for an English guide is made in advance. For more information, check out www.rondleidingenwageningen.nl. The guided walk costs € 3.00 per person. Architectural pointers, history lesson and anecdotes included.

Art and Culture while having a pint

The Dutch word gezellig is difficult to grasp. It means sociable or enjoyable, but its essence is much warmer than that. More like a feeling of likeness or camaraderie…Of open smiles and shoulder pats.

The past weekend I caught a glimpse of the true meaning of gezellig at the new-look Eetcafé Carré in Wageningen. Situated behind the market and opposite the town hall, Eetcafé Carré is a well-established bar and restaurant, recently revamped.

Not only is it fantastically gezellig, but it’s unashamedly aimed at promoting music, art and culture in Wageningen. On special evenings, you’ll find poets waxing lyrical between music sets. On an average night, original paintings colour your dining experience while people share a laugh and a drink after work.

What’s also impressive is the invitation on their website (http://www.cafecarre.nl/) that all interesting art ideas will be considered for showcasing. Definitely an opportunity not to be missed if you’re artistically inclined.

Try Eetcafé Carré the next time you feel like a bite or a pint. Or make a night of it with solid live performances and good old-fashioned gezelligheid.

Junushoff and all that Jazz

Last weekend I met Fay Lovsky.  Not in person, but on stage.  

Being a foreigner I had not been introduced before to the phenomenon that is Fay Lovsky. A child from the 80’s, she was doing weird things with even weirder instruments while I was still in primary school. And looks like things haven’t changed since then.

Part of the Jazz Impuls concerts (www.jazzimpuls.nl), Fay was joined on stage by jazz heavy-weights Eric Vloeimans on trumpet, and Jeroen van der Vliet on piano. The first half of the show featured the three of them, and the second part of the show featured a live performance by the band (or ensemble?) Gatecrash.

Now I’ve never done Jazz. I find it too disorganized. I like structure, metronome beats. And Jazz has always been too…all over the place. But today I am a converted man.

The sheer energy and musical genius of the band blew me away. I felt challenged, enlightened and delirious all at once. They’re really good.

Junushoff was the venue, and it’s worth checking out for a spot of culture, theatre or performance art (http://www.junushoff.nl/, click on “Voorstellingen”). Magic, comedy, dance; you don’t have to speak Dutch to enjoy many of the shows. Go and take a look – Junushof is centrally located in Wageningen at Plantsoen 3, right across the road from Postbank / ING. You can pick up their 2010 calendar or just have a drink or a coffee at their really friendly bar.