Sunday, November 16, 2008

Drs Who? and an Alien Nation

I have a new name! I find it quite strange but here in the Netherlands I now find all my 'official' letters come addressed to me as Drs Becky Smith. No, I haven't acquired a string of PhDs all of a sudden but it's the norm here that those with a Masters degree also acquire a title - that of doctoranders. So, in the Bond spirit, you can now officially call me Smith, Drs Smith! However, please don't!! I'm finding it hard enough coming to terms with my students referring to me as Ms Smith in class - another Dutch formality and one I find rather odd at university level.

In fact, I've found a few aspects of Dutch culture rather puzzling this month. It didn't start out too well as I got the shock of my life when air raid sirens suddenly started blaring out across the city...I had no idea what was going on! Were foreign invaders massing on the border (very nearby)? Had the dykes broken? Had FC Groningen scored a goal? was simply the civil defence siren test that takes place every first Monday of the month at midday...quite what happens if World War 3 breaks out at that precise moment, I don't know!

It sounds like this (only MUCH louder!):

Also, this month I've noticed a few more oddities in terms of Dutch food. Groninger Mustard Soup, a local speciality, appears high on the list. As strange as it may sound I have to say it's rather yummy and warming on a chilly and damp day. Autumn has now arrived in full force and so the poffertje

man has packed in making his 'summery' poffertjes, pancake balls covered in butter and icing sugar, only to be replaced by the
olibollen man who serves his 'wintery' oily doughnuts with custard, cream and icing sugar! You can, if you so wish, go for the fruit-filled olibollen but, honestly, why would you? In addition to sampling these oily balls of dough, I've also had the honour of trying kroketten and bitterballen ...these are sausages or balls of a meaty sauce-type filling encased in breadcrumbs usually eaten when drunk...and I was! They are often served from automatic vending machines at FEBO fast-food outlets for a euro. Yep...they are as disgusting as they sound and not something I shall be rushing back for!

Probably the most bizarre thing this month, however, was the arrival and parade around town of "Sinterklaas" (St.Nicholas). Sinterklaas is a Dutch holiday, which is celebrated between the 4th and 6th of December and is more of an event here than Christmas. A few weeks before "Sinterklaasavond", on the 5th of December, Sinterklaas himself arrives in the Netherlands on his steamer from Spain. He is accompanied by his 'helper', "Zwarte Piet" (Black Peter), and the presents which they have been busy preparing. From his arrival in the country until the 5th December children put their shoes in front of the fireplace. At night, Sinterklaas visits all the houses by riding over the rooves on his white/grey horse called Schimmel along with Zwarte Piet who carries the presents down the chimnies and puts them in the children's shoes. There appears to be much debate over the role of Zwarte Piet and I found it rather odd, to say the least, to see white children blackening their faces. I leave it up to you to decide if this is appropriate or not.

It's perhaps interesting to view the traditions associated with the Sinterklaas festival alongside the historic event which took place in the US this past month. Barack Obama's election was loudly celebrated here in the Netherlands by a majority of the Dutch, in a similar way to many other countries around the world. I was invited by some American friends I've met here, who are members of Democrats Abroad, to attend a huge election night event in the Stadsschouwburg, a lovely old theatre here in Groningen. The all-night event included debates, music, comedy and (lots of) drinking. I made it until 2am before heading home and waking up to the good news (and work!) the next day.

My social life is gradually picking up. One thing that's helped is that I've started a group to promote social activities for both international and Dutch residents of Groningen. It's called the Groningen International Meet Up Group. So far, we've had four events. These include meeting for coffee and Halloween drinks, and viewing the World Press Photo exhibition. Membership is growing and it seems like a good way for me (and others) to expand my (our) social network. There, everyone knows me as Becky, just plain Becky!