Tag Archives: Amsterdam

St Nicholaas 2020

St Nicholaas, Public Domain, Pixabay

St Nicholaas arrives in the Netherlands by boat, each year at a different port. He then rides through the town on his white horse. It’s on the mid-November Saturday. In the three weeks’ run-up to St Nicholaas Eve (5 December) he will appear in other towns, always with at least one Zwarte Piet who carries a large bag with goodies and, traditionally, a birch bundle to clean a chimney. But, as children we were told that, if you were naughty, you’d get spanked – even worse, you might be put inside that bag and taken away to Spain …

Since 2010, there has been growing concern about Zwarte Piet and racism. There have been demonstrations for and against the tradition. Motorways have been blocked. Arrests made.

St Nicholaas and Zwarte Piet, olliebrands0 via Pixabay


The arrival of St Nicholaas attracts large crowds: not good in a pandemic. This year the Dutch, pragmatic as ever, have killed two birds with one stone. The holy man arrived in a non-existent village, called Zwalk. The verb Zwalken means to drift, wander about. His arrival was shown live on Dutch television on 14 November. There were no crowds, no protesters.

Here is the white horse, a display in the famous Bijenkorf store in Amsterdam.

The traditional sweets connected with St Nicholaas were already in the shops late September when I was due to travel back to Manchester. Alphabet letters, capitals in dark or milk chocolate, along with marzipan figures, gingerbread cookies (pepernoten), speculaas filled with almond paste…

St Nicholaas sweets and cookies, nietjuh via Pixabay

Once children know the truth about St Nicholaas – that he is based on a Greek bishop who lived 270 – 343 in Myra, in what is now Turkey – and they have pocket money, they can buy presents for other members of their family. Traditionally, these are hidden in a surprise – a humourous, unusual or personalised packaging, made of papier maché and painted. These may come with a “poem” that is supposed to come from the good old man himself. Poor St Nicholaas can only compose doggerel!

St Nicolaas writes to my dear brother.
He wants to know: Why is it so much bother

for you to take a turn at doing the dishes?
The knives and forks are not dangerous fishes!

Coffee cups, soup bowls, the dirty plate:
Why do you always leave it so late?

The plastic bowl with soapy water isn’t deep.
Honestly, you won’t drown, you could do it in your sleep!

Promise St Nicholaas that you’ll improve
and he’ll send you some presents and his love.

Living below sea level

Living below sea level is the title of Kathleen Kummer’s debut poetry collection (Oversteps Books Ltd, 2012), as well as the title of a short sequence in the book. Kathleen and I met at the beginning of the century on a week’s writing workshop with the poet Lawrence Sail. She had been married to a Dutchman and lived and worked for 14 years in the Netherlands, teaching French and German.

We kept in touch as poets and then became friends. When Kathleen moved to Devon to be nearer her two daughters, I suggested she submit her work to Devon publishers. Kathleen only started writing poetry seriously in her late sixties and had immediate success in competitions and acceptances in quality UK magazines.

I’m featuring Kathleen as this month’s poet, with three poems from the collection. That day is the second poem in the sequence. The cover picture is by Shirley Smith, Society of Wood Engravers.

News item

Let it be hard to write this poem.
Let it be hard to listen to.
Its words should lie flat and grey on the page,
ugly, as befits the vocabulary of war.

He had no alternative, said the surgeon,
but to amputate the festering hand
of the baby, nine months old.
Did you, like me, hear the news over dinner

in a comfortable chair, in a comfortable room,
and wonder how you could go on eating,
go on living? But did, having no
alternative. Let that child, I asked –

without knowing whom I asked it of –
still have a mother and family to rock
and cradle it. For how many lullabies will it need
to sleep, how many bedtime stories?

 

ii That day

A kind of delousing: hours later,
I’m still finding rice and confetti in your hair,
but no trace of the cobalt-blue, vermillion
and burnt umber which dappled your face
and your dark hired suit, as the sun streamed on us
through the stained-glass windows. And that cascade of notes
‘Handel’, you whispered. I was proud of you
for knowing and didn’t let on I knew.

Image (6)

Boat on my windowsill

Forgive me for not using the pine cones you gave me
to light the fire. They look good on the hearth
in a wooden bowl. Among them, I found
a piece of bark, two-sided, V-shaped.
On my windowsill, upside down, it becomes
whatever boat I want it to be:
The Oseberg ship, chattels, carved wagon
on board, moored in its burial ground;
a Viking longboat, cutting through
the Baltic and Skagerrak as though they were butter;
a rowing boat, sturdy enough to take me
out to the ships which stand so still
on the firm line of the horizon; in the coracle,
I’d be snug and safe as a walnut in its shell
for the short crossing to the other side.