Sunday, December 7, 2008

Flying Visits

This month I have been lucky enough to have a veritable volley of visitors - and very nice it has been, too!

My mum and dad eventually arrived after a rather delayed start due to high winds across the channel grounding their flight and then the age-old European problem of snow on the line. Despite the weather, we had a lovely weekend although it involved much diving between cafes and museums in order to avoid the rain, sleet, hail and snow. We went to the Scheepsvaart Museum (no, not the Sheep's Fart Museum but the Northern Maritime Museum) which also houses the Niemeijer Tobacco Museum. Probably the best museum in Groningen, however, is the Groninger Museum, with its various permanent and temporary art collections in a rather eccentric modernist building. If you come and visit me between now and the end of April, you may well be 'forced' to go to this museum and see their current Pre-Raphaelite exhibition - this is purely because I have done the voiceover work for this exhibition's English audio tour. I have to say I enjoyed my time in the recording studio but you'll probably be highly relieved to know that at no point do I actually burst into song!

My second influx of visitors came in the form of friends, Charlotte and Phil. Charlotte took great delight in decorating my apartment with all things Christmassy. Phil and I were the engineers and were 'artistically directed' in putting up the fairy lights and glittery objects d'Christmas. Charlotte herself took charge of the tree and after re-decorating it FOUR times was eventually satisfied with her efforts. I should add that the tree is about 30cm tall and is now covered with lights, giant fluffy white snowballs...oh, and one glass angel!

As well as the festive festooning, we also had a nice time exploring Groningen's bruine cafés. Bruine ("brown") cafés are Dutch cafe bars. They tend to serve a wide-range of local or regional beers on tap (often with a high alcohol percentage!); Dutch jenever, a spirit similar to gin (but not as nice!) and Dutch hapjes, which are light snacks such as cheese, olives, nuts and bitterballen.

The term "brown" comes from the dark wood and stained walls that supposedly owe their hue to years of smoking patrons. Most of the brown cafés epitomize the Dutch term 'gezelligheid', a word that roughly translates as coziness or a feeling of friendly warmth. A few typical brown cafés in Groningen are Huis de Beurs, Cafe de Keyzer, De Pintelier, the Wolthoorn and, my local, the Stadtlander

Following the implementation of the EU-wide smoking ban, it's not known whether these brown cafés will stay brown for much longer. Having said that, I've seen a few which are flaunting the ruling and have reinstated their ash trays. This resistance was recently demonstrated with a large protest against the ban when smokers marched on Groningen Town Hall. However, it seems that, as far as the Dutch government is concerned, marijuana is in but tobacco is definitely out!

Actually, there seems to be quite a lot of activity outside the Town Hall at the moment as an ice rink and Christmas tree decorated with Chinese lanterns have now been erected. I was somewhat perplexed the other day when I saw Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten doing the conga round the square just before a hundred motorbike riders clad in leather and reindeer antlers rode into town.

I had a very enjoyable evening of Sinterklaas celebrations last week. I was invited to a traditional 'pakjesavond' (present-giving evening) by some of the girls from work. This involved enjoying a pot-luck dinner and some booze followed by a rather hilarious dice game. Each of us were asked to bring two or three small 'low-value' wrapped gifts. We then played a round of the game where those who rolled a six could take a present from the pile (but were not allowed to unwrap it). During the second round, players were able to swap or steal presents and undertake 'tasks' depending on what they rolled. The final round was the unwrapping round whereby the delight at receiving your present was often short-lived as players were again allowed to steal your presents with one roll of the dice. Despite numerous disappointments and a few coups I was very happy with the booty I went home with. I might have been tempted to cycle home in the g-string made of sweets in one of the pakjes so it was perhaps a good job that it was (rather cruelly) 'stolen' from me!

Now that Sinterklaas is officially over, the Christmas decorations are being dusted off and starting to appear across the town. However, I decided I was in need of a full-on Christmas fix so, along with a fellow shopaholic, headed across the border to Germany and the town of Oldenburg. We had a lovely day soaking in the atmosphere of the traditional Christmas Market and soaking up the gluhwein. There were quite a few interesting sights including an advent castle, some punk ponies, lots of drunk Germans and half metre long bratwurst sausages, the latter of which had to be sampled to be believed!

Merry Christmas one and all!