Hey guys! As some as you maybe know already, I'm from the Netherlands. I always try to make stories understandable for everyone around the world, so I take out all the culture based and biased descriptions. On the other hand though, when I read stories, these presumptions are still in there. I have to google what a freshman is, for example. That's no problem, but I wanted to show you some Dutch culture for once. So here it is! I'll explain the topic a little bit, so you know what it's about.
This story is about the Sinterklaas celebration. It's the Dutch version of Santa Clause. Actually, the name "Santa Claus" is derived from the word Sinterklaas (if an American or British person were to pronounce Sinterklaas it would sound like Santa Clause). The word Sinterklaas comes from Saint Nicholas, or Sint Nicolaas in Dutch.
We celebrate this the 5th of December, that's why I uploaded this story today. To give you some more context (if you're interested in that) I'll list some links at the end of the story.
Please let me know what you think!
Why? Why did my mother manage to talk me into this? I look silly! She was right, I do like dancing around, jumping around, doing cartwheels and so on. But that's at home. I don't want to do that at all in public. That's embarrassing. And yet here I am, having my face painted black. I'm wearing stupid clothes. Very baggy, colourful clothes. And don't even get me started on the… I don't even know how to call it. A hat? A cap with a large red feather on it.
Okay, I have to admit, I love this holiday. Who doesn't like getting presents? And even now I'm older, I still love the ambience of the day. It's not even just one day, it's a few weeks. A few weeks a year Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas as we call him, visits the Netherlands to give all kinds of presents to kids. And this whole period we eat cinnamon biscuits, called 'speculaas', marzipan (marsepein) and something I guess best described as little biscuits, kind of like gingerbread, but really small (pepernoten). Mixed with all kinds of sweets, Sinterklaas and his helpers - the black Petes (zwarte piet)- throw around. You read that right, he throws them around (in Dutch we even call it strooigoed, which pretty much translates to throw stuff)! If he's inside, that is. If you're outside during one of the many parades, they'll just give you a handful. And boy oh boy, does Sinterklaas have many Petes. And they all have their own burlap sack with them, filled with sweets.
These couple of days are just… well, there is no English word that fits it. I'm sorry. You're just going to have to believe me when I say it was gezellig!
When I was young enough to be considered as part of Sinterklaas' audience, his target group, my brother and I used to go to the parade with a big wagon (bolderkar - literally "roaring car", because it makes a lot of noise if you pull it over the uneven streets). See, we discovered the black Petes would look at whether you were already carrying sweets, or not. If you weren't, they'd walk over to you and give you some. All the kids would eat some and keep the rest in their hands or pockets. Way too obvious, we thought. So we brought the wagon. We'd stuff all the sweets we got underneath some jackets. And then we'd go to the parade again, look sad, and get more. Repeat for profit!
This year is going to be different though. I'm on the other side of the parade this time. I'm going to be a black Pete. and that wasn't really my idea.
I'll try to explain how it all started. Apparently, Sinterklaas sometimes needs a little help. He has a lot of black Petes, but not enough. The good old man has to visit all the cities in the Netherlands and Belgium. That's a lot. So, when you accidentally discovered Sinterklaas was actually your uncle Tom, dressed up as Sinterklaas, he'd tell you the man was too busy to come all the way here and he asked uncle Tom if he could help him out. He'd be helping the real Sinterklaas. Following the same logic, I was asked to help out the Petes.
It wasn't Sinterklaas who asked me though. It was mom. Though admittedly, sometimes she does act as if she thinks she's a saint. Apparently, a good friend of hers helped organising this years Sinterklaas' arrival (sinterklaasintocht). And she needed more Petes. So mom promised the friend I'd help out. She volunteered me without asking first. What the hell, mom.
And of course, joining in a parade like this isn't the end of the world. But, did you know that black Petes are supposed to do all kinds of acrobatic tricks? They have to act really enthusiastic and be very energetic. I may fit the description, but I'm not outgoing at all. Perhaps that's why they paint the Petes black, not to be racist or anything, but to protect the dignity of the people who are making fools of themselves in front of those kids.
On the other hand though, I guess it's great to finally give something back to this holiday. As I said, I really liked it. Not just for the presents, but for the overall feeling. The excitement. I tried to explain this to an American friend of mine. I told her about Sinterklaas to which she replied, it had a lot of similarities with Santa Claus. Which is right. Where do you think the name Santa Claus comes from. It has an awfully lot in common with the name Sinterklaas, right? One of the biggest differences, however, is that Sinterklaas doesn't hide the presents under a Christmas tree. No, at Sinterklaas eve, you gather with your family. You'll be singing Sinterklaas songs, to show him you're home and waiting for him. Then, at some point, after the fourth song you sing, suddenly you'll hear loud knocks on the door or the window. Loud followed by soft knocks, if the songs are correct. It'll always take you by surprise, even though you know it's coming. That is, for me, the magic of Sinterklaas. It's like getting your eyes tested and they're about to blow some air to check out your reflexes. You know it's coming, and still you're nervous, anticipating the inevitable. It will still catch you off guard.
That sensation, especially for a kid, is amazing. You're singing, constantly waiting for the knock. And when it finally comes, your heart is racing, practically trying to escape from your chest. You rush towards the front door, but you'll never spot Sinterklaas in the act. Instead, there'll be a basket or a burlap sack in front of you. Filled with presents!
"You're done," the nice lady tells me.
She smiles. "You should join the others. When everyone is done, they'll explain what you have to do."
"Okay. Thank you."
I walk towards the other boys and girls. Nearly everyone is around my age, fourteen or fifteen. Some of the kids are probably older, sixteen or seventeen, maybe. There are adults as well. Not everyone here is painted completely black, like I am. No, in the last few years, black Petes have been covered with some greyish sweeps across the face as well; the so-called chimney Pete. When talking about Dutch culture, you should include the well-known black Pete discussion (zwartepietendiscussie). Ughh, I shouldn't even start about this. It's complete bullshit. From both sides, by the way.
I'll give a quick crash course on this topic, but believe me, it's not worth investing too much time in. So, Sinterklaas is a saint, originally from Turkey, but according the myth of the holiday, he lives in Spain. If you think that's weird, keep in mind Santa Claus is originally the same man. Ending up on the North Pole when you're from Turkey, well, that's even worse! Where Santa has the elves, Sint has the black Petes. As I said, they're painted black, they wear wigs with frizzy hair, wear golden earrings and necklaces and have bright red lipstick on. I have to admit, knowing that originally slaves were being promised bright jewelry, and lured into captivity that way, makes it really weird to believe there isn't a connection. And they're Sinterklaas' helpers. They're black. They have frizzy hair. It all adds up; there is probably a connection between this tradition and the slavery history of the Netherlands. This all resulted in a group of people in the Netherlands who want to get rid of the stereotype and the connection to those black pages of the Dutch and even the human history.
But, we're talking about a tradition. About culture. If you touch someone's culture, expect some resistance. The question is whether this stereotype really influences anything. Whether kids see it, for example (yes, that's an argument in the discussion). Another question is how important you think culture and history is. Do you always have to look ahead, try to adapt, try to change, or can you look back. Can you accept what was, and turn it completely to a tradition. This is what the black Pete discussion is about.
And my view on the matter? Well, I hate fights and discussions. I really do. Even if two people I don't know are fighting with each other, it can get me really upset. I don't know why. I just never see the point of it, I guess? So I don't care how, but please, stop this discussion already.
I join the group.
"Hey," the boy next to me says. He is painted to be a Pete as well. So, pretty much the only thing I can see that is really him, is the shape of his head. Which is normal. But… I can also see his eyes. Holy shit. He has the brownest eyes you can imagine. Like, really deep brown. Dark brown, as if you're directly looking into a cup of coffee. Can one fall in love with eyes? Of course, I don't know what he's like, or what he looks like apart from his posture, the shape of his face and the colour of his eyes.
I smile. "Hey man!"
"I haven't seen you around here before," he says.
I frown, but I'm not sure you can even see it will all this paint on. "What do you mean? Do you guys do this every year?"
"Pretty much. Well, you can't be that young when you start doing this, of course, but I know most here, yeah."
"You're right. I'm new here." I reach out my hand. He does as well. "I'm Maarten."
"Vincent," he says. "Can I ask why you decided to join us?"
I laugh. "I didn't, really."
He looks at me questioningly.
"The organisator, Inge, is a good friend of my mother. Apparently they needed more Petes."
Vincent laughs as well. "So you got dragged into this?"
"Believe it or not, it's actually a lot of fun to do. You get to make loads of kids happy by acting silly. And afterwards we all get together and have lunch followed by cake and soda somewhere. And you're getting some days off school, of course!"
I frown. "What do you mean."
"We have to visit primary schools over the next week. That means you don't have to go to school, man!"
I smile. "Wow. That's amazing."
"Three hoera's (hoorays) for Sinterklaas!" he says and instead of leaving it at that, he literally hoorays. "Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!" he shouts.
The other Petes look at him at first, but they quickly turn their attention elsewhere. I look at Vincent. He's grinning.
"You're weird," I say.
He laughs. "I know. Thanks!"
I roll my eyes. Some lady starts speaking. "Hey everyone! Thank you all for helping us out. We're going to be making this Sinterklaas period amazing! All these kids will be thankful. Today, we're going to do the arrival of Sinterklaas. That means that within twenty minutes, people will come get us. We'll be going to the pakjesboot ('presents boat') fourteen. Then we'll be entering the city by the river. Now, I know there are some new Petes with us, but don't worry, being a Pete is extremely easy. Once we arrive with the boat, you will have to follow Sint to the mayor. He will give a short talk. Just remember to act happy. That's pretty much all there is to being a black Pete.There will be loads of kids near the marina, all cheering and smiling. They'll probably hate the mayor's speech, they want to see Sint!"
Some people chuckle.
"They want to talk to him, they want to show them their dances and plays. More importantly though, they want sweets. That's your job, boys. Dance around, jump and laugh. Walk over to the kids and hand them sweets. Give them a lot! They earned it. Make sure no one is left behind. You just have to follow Sint to all the presentations. You'll be walking all across the city, and believe me, even though it's only two hours, you… will… be… exhausted. But it's all worth it. It really is."
I smile. Maybe mom was right, maybe I will like this. Vincent catches my smile. "That's what I like to see! This will be fun."
"Yeah, I guess it will be."
"Afterwards we'll all go together to the old paper factory. There we will get rid of all the paint and stuff and we'll have some cake. But, that's not going to be all of course. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we'll be visiting primary schools in the area. You're expected to be here at 8 AM. Next Friday afternoon we're going to visit the hospital and later that day some community centres in the area. For those of you who normally have to go to school, everything is taken care of. You only need to attend on Monday and Friday morning. Are there any questions?"
Nobody says anything.
"Well, let's put on some music to get in the mood!" Sint music starts playing.
"Zie ginds komt de stoomboot uit Spanje weer aan…" (Look there is the steamboat from far-away Spain.) Everyone starts going nuts. They dance, they laugh, and they make cartwheels. I feel kind of uncomfortable watching them. I smile awkwardly and try to slowly move back and disappear against the wall. What the heck am I doing here? I can't do this.
Vincent sees me. He walks over with a huge grin on his face, which dissolves when he reaches me. "What's wrong?"
I shrug. "I don’t think I can do this?"
"This. Acting out. Going bonkers."
He smiles, the friendliest smile I have ever seen. "Nonsense. Everyone can."
I laugh uncomfortably. "Not me."
Vincent grabs my palms with his hands and starts swinging them around. I let him lead me, but the moment he lets go, my hands drop again. He frowns. "We got ourselves a hard case here. Come on, copy me." He crouches down and does a head roll.
I slowly imitate him.
"Yes, very good! Now do this." He jumps in the air with his arms outstretched.
It's an easy task, not sure why he'd let me do this after that head roll. I grin and mirror him.
"See? It's not that hard?"
I laugh. "Still not feeling it."
He suddenly starts dancing. Not really following the rhythm of the music, that's not even possible with these simple children songs. No, he really goes crazy on some non-existent beat. What the hell is wrong with this guy. He's making pirouettes now. Everytime he faces me, he makes another face. Sad. Happy. Angry. I chuckle. I notice the friend of my mother is watching us with a smile.
Vincent stops. He's out of breath. "Now… you…" he pants.
"I'm not going to do THAT!"
"Of course you are. We can't have those kids thinking black Petes suddenly got boring now, can we?"
I roll my eyes.
"It's easy. It really is. See, just do this." He puts his hands in the air and starts swinging them around. I hesitantly mimic his movement. "Good. Now, turn around." He shows me his pirouette while still swinging his arms. I do the same. He grins. I even imitate that, though it wasn't intentional.
"Now, the head roll again." He starts doing one, but halfway through he hits another Pete. They both tumble on the floor. I can't help but crack up. I guess the tension from the awkwardness I felt all comes out at once.
He gets up and helps the guy he knocked over to stand. Then he turns his attention at me and smiles. "You see? We're having fun!"
I laugh even harder. "You're silly."
He grins. "The good silly, I hope?"
"Yeah, the good silly."
"I hoped so. You know, when was the last time you laughed that hard?"
I think about that for a second. "I uh… I'm not sure?"
"Then this week is going to open up your eyes! And I'm personally going to guide you through it all."
I laugh. "Did I ever give you permission for that?"
He laughs. "You did when you let those people put black paint on you! You're all mine now!" He tries to laugh like an evil Disney character, but he fails. His laugh turns into a childish giggle instead. And apparently his giggle is really, really contagious. Soon not only him and me, but also some other black Petes are laughing and giggling.
"And what are all my Petes laughing about?" someone with a heavy voice suddenly asks. It's Sint!
"We actually don't know."
"Well, if you can manage to get the kids this happy, I'm happy as well."
Someone laughs. "Of course."
"Well then, I guess it's time to head for the pakjesboot? The kids are probably waiting for us."
We all follow the Sint towards the presents boat. We climb aboard and don't even have to wait too long for the ship to start moving. We are handed sacks filled with sweets. The friend of my mother explains what we have to do one last time.
All these kids are depending on me. If I do something stupid, they'll think a real black Pete did that. Sinterklaas and his Petes are depending on me. I'm here in their name. If I fuck up, it'll be them who fucked up. It's actually a big responsibility. Now I come to think of it, it may be the biggest responsibility I ever had.
Vincent puts a hand on my shoulder. "Everything will be okay man."
I smile. "I know, I know."
"Well then, we're almost there. Let the boring speech begin!"
I chuckle. I remember from when I was a kid I always hated it when the mayor was talking. It was a different mayor then, but for some reason they all seem to be extremely boring. Imagine if the mayor was your teacher. I guess they are the ONLY people on the world who would actually be able to make school more boring than it already is.
Our boat stops. We're in the marina, I guess. Vincent and I look out over the city, the spires of the cathedral sparkle in the late evening sunlight. We can see the river with the boat moored at the old quay. The clouds are moving faster across the sky, threatening rain, perhaps even snow. Imagine that! Snow. I hear some cheering in the background. People are still singing songs. Everyone knows Sinterklaas is drawn towards the songs. You have to sing very loud for him to hear you. And he ALWAYS gets lost somewhere. As well as that, something always goes wrong. Sometimes he gets lost at sea travelling from Spain to the Netherlands. Sometimes they lose all the presents. Another year the pepernoten (gingerbread nuts) factory stops working. Every single year it's a fearful question, whether or not he will even reach the Netherlands. But this time he did.
We get off the boat and head towards the mayor. Spread out across the whole marina and even further than that, are hundreds of kids. All dressed up as little Petes or Sints and all singing at the top of their voices, trying to get our or Sint's attention. We climb onto the stage and the mayor starts talking. There are cameras following every movement. I feel exposed here, on this podium, but I take some comfort from knowing that you'd have to know I was up there in order to recognise me.
I don't pay too much attention to the speech, I stare at all the kids who seem not to be watching the saint, but looking at me. Then I notice how Vincent is waving and smiling, so I try to copy him. I feel awkward, like I don't fit in.
When the speech has finished, we clamber off the stage. Some people bring a horse to Sint. He has his own, a white horse called Amerigo. The old man climbs on the horse and off we go.
Slowly I get used to the enthusiasm. I simply imitate Vincent like I did earlier. Luckily, we don't have to do any head rolls here, we're pretty much just waving and handing out sweets. Many kids have made paintings and drawings. We collect them all and put them in the burlap sacks. I wonder what will be done with the drawings? I expect, even though it sounds weird, they will be thrown away. At least, I can't imagine anyone would want to keep those paintings.
I wave and I smile. I even see some kids I know from my neighbourhood. I hope they don't recognise me.
I turn around and see a little girl.
"Pete, over here, I made you a drawing."
I walk over her. "Hey there."
"I've been good this year, Pete. I didn't do anything I wasn't allowed to… except… I took a biscuit from the jar once. But I apologised about that to mom!"
I smile. "I believe you. I don't have the big book of Sint with me anyway, so I can't look up your name. But you look like you're very nice."
She beams. "I am!"
"Did you earn some sweeties as well?"
"Here you go!" I rummage through the sack with my white gloved hands and I grab a large handful of sweets. I pass them to the girl, but as her hands are much smaller than mine, some of the candy falls from her hands. I'm sure she'll be able to grab the rest once she’s eaten what she’s got a hold of. I turn around and notice the group has already moved on a few meters.
"Oops, I gotta go. I don't want to lose sight of Sint!"
"Thank you Pete!"
I smile and take another hand of candy. I put the sweets in the pocket of her jacket. Her smile grows even bigger. Then I jump up and run away. I wave another time when I'm a few meters away and turn away for good. I run towards the parade again, pretty much ignoring some of those kids begging faces.
"Welcome back." Vincent smiles. "Made some kids happy?."
"You bet I did."
"Nice. Now, we're starting the first act. I think the primary school kids are going to dance, but I'm not too sure, I guess at some point some Petes are going to rush onto the stage to join them. You can come too, or you can stay here, your choice."
I frown. "I won't be the only one to stay here, will I?"
"No of course not. Just a few Petes will dance with them. Did you think all the Petes would fit on that platform?"
I grin. "I guess you're right. You are going, I bet?"
"Thank you Sint for visiting our small city," a guy on the stage says. I think it's a teacher. "We know you are very busy, but we want to ask you to stay here for a little while. The children from "The Stone Bridge" elementary school (yes, many Dutch elementary schools have these arbitrary names) prepared a show for you."
"I have to ask hoofdpiet ('principal Pete'; boss of the Petes). I'm not sure how much time we have." Sint looks at the black Pete next to him who is turning the pages of a big red book really quickly.
"Uh… this is the city Ede, right?" he asks.
Sint laughs. "Yes, Pete. This is Ede."
"And it's Sunday today?"
"All day long, Pete."
"Ah no, we don't have any time, Sint. We really have to move on now, we have to go to "The Stone Bridge" elementary school! We're running late, Sint."
The nervous kids on the stage giggle.
"Pete, we ARE here already."
Hoofdpiet looks up from the book. "Oh we are. Hello!" He waves enthusiastically. "Wait, is that Mr. Misk, teacher of the fifth grade? Oh, you grew big already! Last year you were like… this." He holds his hand one meter above the ground. "And now you're adult."
The teacher who was talking before laughs out loud. "Pete, that was thirty years ago! I've been grown-up for years now."
"Oh, my bad then. And what about all the children over there? Are they growing up too?"
"Pete!" Sint says. "What about we let those children do their act?"
"O yeah, of course. Go… go on kids."
The teacher leaves the stage and the music is starting. The children start out a little clumsy, but soon they find the beat and I have to admit, for a bunch of eight year olds, they are moving pretty synchronised. Two minutes into the show, some Petes do indeed run up to the stage. Vincent is one of them, as expected. I'm not sure if they're even trying to do the same as those kids. Some of the Petes are copying the pupils, but way too delayed. Some others just run around and throw their arms in the air.
Vincent conjures three medium-sized balls out his colorful jacket and starts juggling while circling around the group of kids. He tries to sing along with the music, but he fails. I'm pretty sure he does that intentionally. Some of the kids get distracted by his silliness and stop dancing for a moment and then try to get back into the song awkwardly. Everyone in the street who is watching the act, is laughing. I notice some kids pointing at Vincent and I see a boy who tries to juggle with three pepernoten, but it results in all three pepernoten dropping on the ground. He just takes three new ones and tries again. And again.
I think, I have rarely seen so many happy faces together, even parents who are laughing openly. Everyone is grinning, eating candy and some kids are even dancing as well. Oddly enough, I feel kind of proud of Vincent. Just by doing crazy things, he is making several people's day. That must feel amazing.
When they're done, the Petes run off the stage, grab their sacks and run back on. They give every kid an enormous heap of candy and run away again. Sint is asked to climb onto the stage. The teacher continues by explaining how all kids have been nice the whole year and that they definitely earned a visit on Sint's eve. He also tells the old man that he doesn't know anyone who has been naughty, and hence no one deserved to be kidnapped. Yes, that's true. Sinterklaas will put you in a burlap sack and bring you back with him to Spain if you were naughty last year. As I said, this holiday is a little old-fashioned. Especially if you consider the fact that, according to some Sinterklaas' songs, Pete carries a roe (a bunch of twigs tied together used to hit kids when they did something they weren't supposed to) with him. Nowadays he doesn't. At least, I don't have one, but he still carries it in the songs.
Vincent walks over to me again. He's out of breath. "That was fun."
I grin. "You were amazing dude. I didn't know you could juggle?"
He laughs. "You only met me today, silly. You found out I can juggle the first day you know me! Most people don't know it for years or so."
"It was cool, man. You even inspired some kids."
"What do you mean?"
I nod over to the boy that is still trying to juggle with the pepernoten. Vincent smiles. It really is the most genuine and friendly smile I've ever observed.
"Cool!" he says. "I'm heading over there."
I frown as I watch him walking away. He approaches the boy, who didn't notice him until he was really close. You should have seen the face of the boy, it was as if he just met his biggest hero. And maybe he did? Vincent says something, which causes the kid to laugh. I see how the parents of the kid, or well, the couple I assume are his parents, look at Vincent and smile.
This is the first time I realise it must be a nice holiday for the parents as well. Being able to see their kids this happy, the whole period long, it's cool.
Then I notice Vincent giving his juggling balls to the kid. If I didn't know better, I'd think the eyes of the kid could pop out any moment. The amount of energy that's rushing through his body now, seems not to find its way out through facial expressions, so the kids start jumping wildly. Vincent says something to the kid, and the kid starts trying to juggle again, but of course that doesn't work out. Pete takes two balls from him and shows how to juggle with two balls instead of three. He then gives them back. The kid tries it again, and I guess this time it goes somewhat better. At least, he doesn't drop the balls immediately.
Vincent tousles the boy's hair and walks away.
"That was the sweetest thing ever."
He grins. "In ten years or so, I hope that kid will be a Pete."
"I'm sure he will."
"Thank you Sint! We hope to see you in our school this week."
"I'm sure you will." With some difficulty the old man descends from the stage and gets on his horse again. The fanfare starts making music again and the parade continues. And we, we start laughing and waving again, handing out sweets in the process.
Seeing all those kids smiling, makes me happy, truly happy. When I'm back home, I'm going to hug my mom.
We continue our path through the city, creating a wave of joy all around us. Suddenly, a kid catches my attention. I'm not sure why, it's a boy with big round glasses, all alone, with no parents or friends close. I pat Vincent on the shoulder to tell him I'm running off again. We're pretty much doing this the whole day already, we meet up in the middle of the parade, look around for kids to share candy with, pat each other on the back and we run off. I like the routine we built up.
So I run to the kid. He looks surprised and even shies away a little. "Hey!" I smile at him.
"So, have you been nice this year?"
He shrugs. "I guess."
"Good! Where are your parents?"
He shrugs again. "Dunno."
I think about it for a second. "Hey, have you ever shaked Sint's hand?" He shakes his head. "You're not scared of him, are you?"
Where the kid was looking sad and down before, now he stands up straight and it even looks like he primitively pulls his shoulders back to show his chest for a second. "Of course not!"
"Good! Come on, we're going to Sinterklaas."
The boy hesitates and looks at the barrier tape.
I pull the tape up a little, which he knows is an invitation to crawl underneath it. I grab his hand and together we run to the parade, which has progressed in the meantime. "Sint! Sint."
He turns around on his horse. "Oh, hey Pete. What's wrong?"
"Nothing. It's just that…" I look at the boy. "What is your name?"
"Karel," he says shyly.
"Of course it's Karel, Pete. We knew that, it's in the big red book."
I grin. "I know. My bad, sorry Sint. But, Karel would really like to shake your hand personally, don't you Karel?"
He nods, but doesn't dare to look the old man in the eyes.
"Is that right? Hmm." Sint orders his horse to stop walking. "Petes, help me off the horse please." The whole parade slowly realises Sint wasn't moving anymore, so it completely stops. Sint is being helped off his horse. He kneels in front of the kid.
"Hi Sint," Karel says. "I'm sorry I haven't been nice the whole year. I just… I…" He starts tearing up. Oh shit, I didn't expect this. I brought him here. "It's mom… and Steven. They…"
"Karel, look at me. You don't have to apologise, okay? You're a good kid, I know that."
The boy smiles, but his eyes are still tearing. I just hope he doesn't start crying. Secretly, I look around and I notice everyone is watching us closely. "Thank you, Sint."
"Now, did you want to shake hands? Or, you know what? We can hug as well? So we both know everything is okay."
He nods. Sint hugs the little boy. Then he says goodbye and gets on his horse again. Karel just stands there, watching Sint as the parade slowly starts moving again. I notice Vincent is watching me. I smile at him and turn my attention to the boy again. "Let's go back now, okay?"
"Yes! Thank you, Pete."
"No problem, Karel." I grab his hand again and we walk back towards the spot where I think he was standing before. I don't know if it's exactly the right spot, but considering he wasn't with his parents or friends, I think it doesn't really matter to him where I'll bring him. The parade left this part of the city behind now, so I bet he'll return home. Wherever that is.
I wave goodbye and run back towards the parade. I don't see the stone sticking out. I'm too focused on reaching the procession before they leave my view. So, when my left foot hits the sett and my gaze, previously focused straight ahead, slowly tumbles down as my whole body falls towards the street, I can consider myself lucky enough that my hands react in time. I catch myself, so the only real damage are some scratches on my hands. But, everyone saw it. The whole audience, they were pretty much all watching me because I was the only Pete left. And they all saw me tumbling down.
Vincent, apparently, saw it too. He rushes towards me. "Pete! Are you okay?"
I slowly get up and look at my hands. They hurt a little. "I guess." Then I notice my wig on the ground. The wig with the frizzy hair. I dropped it. My bloody hands reach for my head, as if to determine whether that wig is mine. Vincent sees it too.
Completely startled I look around. I see all the kids looking at me with big eyes. I swallow. Vincent grabs the wig and puts it on my head again. "Fuck," I whisper. "What did I do."
"It's no problem, Maarten, this happens all the time."
"No, no, no." I swallow again while looking around. All those kids. Oh my god!. I feel myself turning red. My vision gets blurry.
"Hey, Maarten. It's okay. It really is. You're a helping Pete (hulppiet; the non-official Pete, actors helping out the real Petes). The kids know that."
I turn around to where I left Karel. He isn't there anymore. Did I scare him away?
Vincent grabs hold of my hands and hugs me. "It's okay, he whispers."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes man. I am sure. Now, how about we return to the rest? There are many more kids waiting for you." Even though we didn't stop hugging, he puts a little more force into the hug to amplify his sentence.
"Mommy, those Petes are cuddling!" a girl says.
I quickly push Vincent off me. I don't want him to think I disliked the hug - because to be honest, I loved it - so I smile.
"Yes honey. Even Petes hug sometimes."
"By the way," Vincent says, "I loved how you helped out that kid. That was really cute."
I smile. "Thanks."
"Do your hands hurt?"
I shake my head. "Let's go." We walk back to the parade together. The rest of the morning goes better. We just walk through the city, handing out candy. We wave. We laugh. Most importantly, we're having fun. A lot of fun! As noon is approaching, many people leave the city to go for lunch. We continue walking with the parade until we reach the old factory. There is, as promised, food and cake waiting for us.
"Let's get rid of the paint first," someone says.
"Sounds like a plan."
The friend of my mother starts talking to us collectively. "Thank you for making this day amazing again, guys. I gathered a few people to help you guys remove the paint and the Pete clothes, but we're not so many. We'll just be getting you guys one by one. In the meantime, you can grab any food you like. You earned it!"
People start rushing towards the table with the food on it. Vincent and I wait, we're both exhausted and not really in the mood to queue up. We're just talking.
"Let me see your hands," Vincent says.
I frown and show them. He grabs my hand and traces the scratches with his finger. "You should get it cleaned. Don't want it to get infected."
I smile. "It's not that bad."
"I hope so." He smiles at me. For the first time since we started this morning, I can look in his eyes without risking getting disturbed by kids at any moment. And oomph, what the hell. They are beautiful. Oogverblindend mooi ('so beautiful it turns you blind'). I glance at the table with the food on it and realise I'm suddenly not hungry anymore. And no, I'm not stupid. I'm fifteen already, I know what this means. It's just… weird, don't you think? Of course, Vincent is a cool guy, and a sweet guy moreover. And yes, his eyes are stunning. But that's too little to go on, right? You can't fall in love when that's all you know.
Then what the hell are my hormones doing?
Slowly, the Petes are transformed back to real people again. I've been around these guys the whole morning, and this is the first time I really see them. A lady approaches us. "Vincent, do you want me to get you cleaned up now?"
The woman smiles at me. "Someone will come and get you soon."
I nod and look at Vincent as he walks away. He must know I'm watching him, because he randomly jumps in the air, makes a pirouette and then runs towards the lady again. Such a crazy boy.
Five minutes later another lady comes for me. I follow her to the bathroom, which they converted to something I always imagined a beauty salon would look like. "Take a seat," she says.
I sigh. "Finally getting rid of the paint and make-up."
She laughs. "Yeah, always when you remove it, you realise how annoying it had been all that time. You can take off your hat and your wig now, by the way. And close your eyes."
She uses some really smelly liquid to remove the black paint from my face. It itches a little, but I'm happy to finally feel the air on my face again. Is this what real make-up feels like, I wonder. If so, then why do women use it so much? Nothing fun about it. After she removed all the paint, I go to a stall to get rid of the Pete clothes. I don't really have to change clothes or anything, the Pete clothes are very baggy, so you just wear it over your own clothes. And, it's cold outside, so only wearing the thin fabric would be way too cold. Although, considering all Petes are always running and dancing, I wonder if it would be really that cold.
I thank the kind lady and head back to the big room. I'm actually really hungry now, so I immediately make my way towards the big table with sandwiches.
Startled, I turn around. Gulp. "Vin… vincent?"
"Yeah silly. Who else do you think would try to creep up on you." He smiles.
No more black paint. No wig. If I thought his eyes were oogverblindend mooi, then I surely hadn't seen the rest of him. Holy shit. It's hard to describe him, any word I choose to use will fall short, but I'll try, bear with me. I told you about the brown eyes, like a cup of coffee, right? Or chocolate brown, that would fit too. His hair is long, blond with brown strands in it. Beautiful enough to make you wonder if it is real at all. It's the kind of hair you expect cute guys to have on those magazine covers that gets you to believe they could turn any straight guy gay immediately. His hair is long enough to appear from behind his ears again, cutely curving upwards. Of course, I had seen his nose before, be it was covered in black paint, suddenly it seems even more adorable than it had been before. It's a small nose, kind of pointing upwards, but not in a pointy way. It's hard to explain, but I can tell you it fits his face extremely well. Did I say 'holy shit' already? Yes? Well, here it goes again, he earned it. Holy shit! Vincent looks tanned, which is weird; it's almost winter. And his lips are almost pink, as if they forgot to take off the lipstick completely. They are small, not like my big puffy lips. No, they are tight and perfect. And hell, they make his smile a thousand times cuter than it had been before. I swallow.
He smiles. "Maarten?"
"You're… you're kinda staring."
I turn bright red. "I'm sorry. I guess I expected you to look different."
"Yeah, I know right, it's weird to have a fun time with someone without knowing what he looks like. I know what that's like."
How do I talk to him? He's like, way too cute for me to even look at him. For real, if I had known this is what he looked like, that first conversation would never have happened. He would've asked if it was my first time, to which I probably would've replied "yeah", followed by walking away.
He grins. "Well, this is me." He spreads his arms graciously. "I hope you being silent all of a sudden isn't a bad thing?"
Okay. I'm being awkward. Get your shit together, Maarten. "Uhh, yeah. I'm sorry, my mind sometimes needs time to understand changes like these. I think I had an image of you in my mind which doesn't check out."
He laughs. "You look exactly like I expected you to look. Well, that isn't fair, I saw you walking in this morning, so I knew what you looked like."
And still he decided to talk to me? What happened to the social rule of only befriending people within your own league?
"Did you eat already?"
I shake my head. "No, I was about to grab a sandwich when you decided to scare me."
He grins again. I'm not sure what I like better, his smile or his grin. His smile is really sweet, but his grin shows his perfectly white teeth and is mischievous, which fits his crazy personality. "Scaring you by saying "boo" or by showing my true self?"
I laugh. "That's for you to decide." My heart is slowing down a little bit. It's the same guy, I shouldn't forget that. Just the guy who is funny and crazy and had been entertaining loads of kids all day long. Nothing changed.
Holy shit. It's the guy that hugged me today. If I knew then what I know now, I think I would've fainted! Can I still faint now? Fainting retroactively.
We both take some food and walk to a sofa in the corner of the old factory. "You made that little boy's day," Vincent says with his mouth full.
"I think so. He earned it."
"You actually looked really determined when you said you were going to him. Why was that?"
I shrug. "I dunno. He was just so lonely. He looked scared."
"It was really a sweet thing to do. To take him to the Sint. As far as I know no one ever did that."
I smile. "I just wanted to help him. When he finally dared to look Sinterklaas in the eye, he almost started crying. He kept saying he was sorry. And something about his parents." I start to tear up. It's weird how such a short encounter with someone can sometimes have such an impact on you. I just feel it, deep down, I want to help him. He needs it. And surely he earned it.
"Hey, don't you start crying now," Vincent warns.
I smile. "I won't. It's just sad how much pain there is in the world, don't you think."
"Oh, we're moving to the serious topics fast now. What happened to smalltalk?"
"Don't be. I'm just joking. You're right though, it's sad. But that's why these days are so important. Show the world love."
"Why can't it always be Sinterklaas (Sinterklaas is both the name of the person as the holiday, so when you say "it is almost Sinterklaas", it's like saying "it is almost Easter")," I think out loud.
"Then it wouldn't be special anymore."
I nod. "But it would be better nonetheless. Always focusing on happiness rather than on sadness."
"Hey, now is not the time to ponder! It's Sinterklaas, we should have fun."
"I know, I know."
He jumps up. "Where is the music?" he shouts.
"Ugh, Vince. We're tired. Do you never run out of power?" someone complains.
He feigns contempt. "Tired? We should be having fun." He starts dancing without any music. Some people chuckle, some others cheer him on, but soon everyone starts minding their own business again. Vincent sits down next to me with a huge grin. "Fun! You see?"
He laughs. "Crazy? Do you want to see real crazy. Come, follow me." He jumps up again. I sigh. "Come on, get off your lazy ass. We ought to have fun!"
"Yeah, you said that." I can't help but smile. It's kind of cute. A crazy beautiful guy full of energy.
He grabs my hand and pulls me up. "Follow me." He doesn't leave me much choice, as he doesn't let go of my wrist as he drags me behind him. We leave the main room in the factory and walk towards the stairs. We start climbing the stairs. Well, he's practically running, so I have to run as well if I want my wrist to stay connected to my arm. We're both out of breath when we reach the top floor, which is the eleventh floor!
"Is… is this… you think is… fun?" I pant.
He grins. "Wait until you look out that window."
I look up. Damn, the view. It's amazing. You can literally see the whole city from here. I look at all the buildings, all the houses. I try to spot my own house, but it's fairly hard to navigate when looking from this angle.
"Amazing, isn't it? It's all so small."
I'm still out of breath. "Yeah, it's cool."
"I told you I would show you crazy."
I look at him. "This isn't crazy, it's beautiful."
He grins again. "I didn't mean the view." He moves closer to me, looks me right in the eyes with those coffee eyes and leans in, pressing his smile against mine.
As promised, some links to give you guys some insight into this tradition.
A website showing some differences and similarities between Santa and Sint.: https://www.iamsterdam.com/en/see-and-do/whats-on/major-events-and-celebrations/holiday-season-in-amsterdam/sinterklaas/sinterklaas-v-father-christmas
A local video from a Sinterklaas arrival. this isn't the official national arrival, but it shows what a local arrival looks like (it's in Dutch though): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJlo-nQBYRg
Then there is this. A vlog from a Dutch family at Sinterklaas Eve. Everyone celebrates it their own way, but the general process is like this: singing to get Sint's attention, hearing a loud knock on the door or windows, running towards the front door to discover presents: https://youtu.be/b_mMfZvBUgk?t=27
Also, there is a Vox video about the black Pete discussion. Very interesting to see, in my opinion. Also consider looking at the comments to see how controversial this topic really is in the Netherlands. Every year, since as long as I can remember, there is a discussion about it. And we (or rather: they) still didn't find a solution! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jBqoH-qx-os
And lastly, there is a Dutch late night show comedian that talked about this black Pete discussion (there are subtitles!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KjosGL5YwPw
I hope you guys enjoyed this story!
Please let me know what you think at email@example.com