My First Sinterklaas

Today is Sinterklaas. Happy Sinterklaas everyone!

What is Sinterklaas, you ask? Well, it is one of the most beloved Dutch holidays, and it’s full of tradition. Most people outside of the Netherlands have never heard of the phenomenon, and assume it’s like the Santa Claus we know and love in North America. …Not quite.

April Winchell, the author of the hilarious blog Regretsy (making fun of crafting rejects from the website Etsy since 2009), visited Amsterdam last month and wrote a little tongue-in-cheek explanation of the confusing/controversial Sinterklaas traditions from an outsider’s perspective, some of which I’ll quote here:

“Sinterklaas is the Bishop of Spain. Or he may be the Bishop of Turkey, and just summers in Spain, but we’re not clear on the details. The main thing is, he dresses like Santa Claus dressed as the Pope. Sinterklass has a helper named Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). When I say helper, I mean slave, but no one says that. But come on.
Black Peter is portrayed by actors in black face. Even black actors wear black face. He has really exaggerated red lips and big eyes, and no one seems too worked up about it. Of course in recent years, some efforts have been made to make it seems less racist, mostly by pretending that Peter’s face is black because he’s a chimneysweep. No one is buying it, but everyone is so stoned it’s hardly worth arguing about.
Sinterklaas arrives by boat into the Netherlands around the end of November. They have a big parade and everyone laughs and sings as the Bishop of Turkey/Spain is escorted from his yacht by his black slaves/helpers. After this happens, people say “he is in the country.”
In the week that follows, Sinterklaas visits all boys and girls and leaves a piece of chocolate in your shoe every day, provided you’ve been good. If you’ve been bad, he beats you with a stick and throws you in a sack, and forcibly takes you back to Spain. So it’s really in your best interest to do your chores.”

Anyways, so those are the basics of Sinterklaas. (Still want more? An awesome blog called “Stuff Dutch People Like” has a fun little Q&A post about it here!) To a typical Canadian some of this Sinterklaas stuff might sound a bit unusual, but the Dutch are very proud of this holiday and all of the traditions and magic that comes along with it.

All the presents around the fireplace!

To celebrate Sinterklaas, Michiel and I went to his parents’ place for the weekend and his sister Inge came from Brussels too. As tradition goes, everyone sits around and opens presents one by one, accompanied by a Sinterklaas poem that is read aloud. (I’ve heard that these poems are typically a nice venue for family members to lightly ridicule one another for their shortcomings!) This year’s poems were sweet and heartwarming though :)

Inge was my “Secret Santa” (as it’s known in Canada) and she gave me a wonderful cookbook called The Bread Bible, as well as a t-shirt from Berlin! Michiel’s mom also gave me some adoooorable giant doggy slippers that I’ve been wearing ever since. Here are some pictures of everyone unwrapping their presents!

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Sushi aftermath & a board-game weekend

Since Michiel and I took that sushi making course in Amsterdam, we have been able to make sushi on our own a couple times! What seems to happen is that we make way too much, and then end up not being able to move for several hours afterwards. Here’s a hilarious photo that Michiel made of a recent sushi adventure with our friend Kirsten:

So. Much. Sushi. (click to enlarge photo)

Anyway, I’ve been a little neglectful of posting here lately, haven’t I? I have some pictures that I’ll post later this week of the recent visitors we had from Australia – Michiel’s brother Thomas & his wife Chie! We also went to Utrecht a few weeks ago (my new favourite place in the Netherlands) — you’ll see why when I post photos :)

Not much else is new here besides the fact that we’ve had a relaxing weekend playing boardgames and fiddling around with our computers. Both Michiel and I installed the latest Mac software called Lion (love it!) and I updated my iPhone to iOS 5 and am now floating within the iCloud (whatever that means).

Here are a couple pics from our board game night!

Lucas, pondering which weapons to use, in the game Munchkin.

Me, excited that I won. (ahem - TWICE!)

Michiel, the card ninja :D

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Taste of Sushi workshop @ Okura Hotel

A couple of weeks ago, Michiel and I went to Okura Hotel in Amsterdam for a sushi making workshop! The cooking course was his birthday gift from me, since I know how much he loves Japanese cuisine. All in all, we had a fantastic time, and are glad to have the chance to learn how to make sushi from the experts!

Okura is a 5-star hotel situated in Amsterdam, and is famous for its restaurants: two Japanese and one French. The hotel also offers cooking workshops, and the one we tried was called “Taste of Sushi.”

Sushi workshop kitchen

When we arrived at the hotel, we went down below the restaurants to a special workshop kitchen. We arrived a little early and saw several chefs preparing the workspaces with special sushi knives and all the ingredients. As more people arrived (there was 12 of us in total for the workshop) we were guided into a special wine tasting room where we were given samples of plum wine and also some appetizers (grilled salmon and eggplant) by a woman in a traditional kimono.

Chef Oshima with me & Michiel!

During an introduction from chef Akira Oshima-san (who, by the way, has been awarded the prestigious Michelin Star, and was also knighted by the Dutch Queen!) we learned some of the Japanese sushi making methods and traditions, and learned a little about his career. Under Oshima’s leadership at Hotel Okura’s Yamazato Restaurant, the establishment earned its own Michelin Star, the first — and so far the only — traditional Japanese restaurant to achieve this in Europe. The man himself is very friendly and funny, and really went out of his way to interact with each person in the class.

After being shown by chef Oshima how to prepare sticky rice, how to properly cut the fish, how to make sushi balls and roll Maki, (and even how to properly eat sushi) we put on our aprons and got to work! (We totally got to keep the aprons after the class, which was very exciting for us.) There were several worktable stations set up, with one sushi chef for each group of 4. First, we tried for ourselves to make the perfect sushi ball (chefs train for years to get it right). They have to be a specific size and weight to support the fish on top. Then you swipe it with a glob of wasabi (Michiel was delighted at the amount of wasabi he was given to play with) and top it with a slab of raw salmon, tuna, shrimp, yellow-tail or sea bass. We got to try them all! I really enjoyed learning how to cut the salmon, with one swift swipe of the blade, finishing with an angled style to create that perfect edge. When Michiel and I eat this type of sushi at a restaurant, we usually just plop it in the soy sauce and eat it, but we learned that this is not the proper way. According to chef Oshima, soy sauce should never touch the rice, it is only meant to touch the fish. You should roll the sushi on its side, pick it up with chopsticks, and turn to dip only the fish into the soy sauce.

Next we learned how to make a rolled-type sushi (called Maki). We used Nori (seaweed) and learned how to apply a precise amount of sticky rice, give another swipe of wasabi, and place a long strip of fish and some sesame seeds. We were taught how to properly roll it and cut it. After all of our sushi pieces were made (which turned out to be A LOT!), we were given a plate so we could eat our creations. All 12 of us were led to a long table where we sat and enjoyed the fruits of our labour, with some miso soup and samples of Sake (rice wine). During our meal, Mr. Oshima gave us a demonstration of how to make a traditional hand roll. While we ate, the other chefs packed up the rest of our sushi into take-out packs for us to bring home! Needless to say, despite already having a sushi lunch during our workshop, all of our leftovers were consumed as soon as Michiel and I arrived home. We were also given a copy of the recipes, and someday in the future we’ll try our hand at making sushi ourselves!

Here's Michiel with his plate - very artsy presentation!

And here's me with my plate! I was going for a "rocket ship" style of presentation :P

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Hiking in Germany

A few weeks ago, when there was a beautiful sunny break in the bad summer weather we’ve had, Michiel and I went hiking in Germany with his parents. After a summer full of rain and clouds it was wonderful to feel the sunshine again and take a peek into several old little German towns that were scattered along a nice hiking trail. From ruins on a hill, to a horse and buggy, to vineyards as far as the eye can see, it was an excellent hike!
Take a look:

Ooo, nature!

Crazy little church, perched in the middle of nowhere.

Quaint scenery

More pics! Click here!

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The curious case of Baarle-Hertog

Several weeks ago, Michiel stumbled on a great new map website, called OpenStreetMap. It’s a free, editable map of the whole world. Though it doesn’t have a ‘satellite view’ like Google Maps, the quality is far superior in my opinion. You can zoom in and see excellent detail, including hiking tracks, cycle paths, and even distinguish between forests, parks, retail areas and industrial parks. Pretty cool!

Mysterious purple scribble

So anyway, when he showed me the website, I thought I’d look closer at Eindhoven and see what kind of hiking paths the map had outlined. As I started zooming in closer and closer…that’s when I saw it. A purple blip. Just north of the Belgian border. What was it? There wasn’t anything else on the map that looked like it. Next to a perfectly detailed purple border line, separating Belgium from the Netherlands, it looked like someone had taken a purple crayon and made a scribble.

I turned to Michiel and said “What the heck is this?” Upon closer inspection he waved his hand and said “Oh, that. Well there’s some pieces of Belgium that are within the Netherlands.”

A cafe that sits on the border line

What?!

How does something like that even happen? Being a person who doesn’t like mysteries to go unsolved, I dug a little deeper. The blip, which is actually a town called Baarle-Hertog, turned out to be a fantastically fascinating anomaly. (Or at least I think so).

Baarle-Hertog is a municipality of Belgium’s province of Antwerp, but the biggest part of that municipality is located within the Netherlands. Cool! A person can actually live in Belgium, while being totally surrounded by Holland.

Now, hold on to your hats, folks, because this is where the ride gets a little crazy…

To continue reading, click here!

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Gourmet Party!

In the Netherlands, doing “gourmet” means firing up a mini-grill, putting it in the middle of the table, and everyone gets to cook their own food! It’s really awesome because you can shove a bunch of stuff onto a skewer, and while that’s cooking, you can also eat things one by one off the grill. Chopping up all the meat and veggies ahead of time is a lot of work, but it’s definitely worth it. We had a lot of fun at our place recently when some friends came over for a Monopoly and gourmet party. Here’s some pics :)

Table is set and dinner's ready!

Michiel, Lucas and Ling

Marielle, Don and Me!

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Italian adventures with a friend from home – Part 2

Here is the second half of my photos from Italy. These are mostly taken in Cinque Terre. After staying the night in the town called Corniglia, we decided to take the train to one of the other towns — called Vernazza — to check out the scene there. If anyone reading this thinks to themselves “Gee, I’d like to go to Cinque Terre too!” I would really recommend staying in Vernazza.

Not that Corniglia wasn’t beautiful, it definitely was, it is just very difficult to access. When you get off the train, which is just above water level, what looms in front of you is a gigantic hillside with an open staircase weaving its way up 33 stories (nearly 400 steps). That’s it, folks. That’s how you’re getting up there. With your luggage in tow. There is a shuttle bus, however it only fits about 15 people, and that’s very hard to get to when several hundred people get off the train with you. The other thing about Corniglia is that it doesn’t have a beach, per se. There is a cute little swimming area where you’d have to jump off some rocks but, of course, how do you get there? You guessed it. You’ve gotta walk down the several hundred steps on the other side of the hill… and back up again afterwards.

Lori and I were very happy to walk off the train into Vernazza — the town is at train-track-level and is flat all the way through. It has very cute stores and ice cream places, and it also has a beach! Not to mention a medieval-watchtower-turned-restaurant, which is where we had lunch. Here’s the pictures:

Here's me in Corniglia, walking down the bazillion steps to the swimmin' hole.

I can't complain about the views on the way down though.

We loved how the sky/water was a perfect gradient... you can hardly tell where one ends and the other begins!

More pics! Click here!

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