Neat Trick for Cyclists

Every so often my bike lock seizes up, very frustrating and a bit dodgy if I’m out and need to unlock it before coming home. In the past I’ve got the guys at the bike shop to fix it for me but there’s an easier way, a total home fix.

All you need is a bit of graphite – pencil lead – and ten minutes. The lock in the pictures was completely frozen and had been for weeks.

Step 1

Break the pencil lead into the lock. I slid the refill leads for a mechanical pencil into the lock, and broke them off at the level of the top of the lock.

frozen lock

Step 2

Insert the key and wiggle it back and forth as if to open it. This may take some time. The key will crush the graphite to a powder that will “lubricate” the lock and unfreeze. Add more pencil lead if it’s really not moving. frozen lock

Step 3

When lock starts to turn, pull it open! I fixed two bike locks so far with this method, for less than a euro.



A makeover for Zwarte Piet?

Today is Sinterklaas, tonight children who have been good will get gifts left by Sinterklaas in a tradition mirrored in the Christmas tradition of Santa Claus. In fact there are similar traditions across Europe from France’s Père Noël, to Italy’s La Befana. The traditions have become more benign over the years and now all children get gifts and candy. However the Dutch version is problematic due to Sint’s helpers. It’s become a really controversial issue in the Netherlands, and it’s so sensitive for many of my Dutch friends that I’ve avoided writing about it. I want to present here what the debates are on both sides.

Here goes.

There’s a tradition in the Netherlands and Belgium that Sinterklaas arrives in December for St Nicholas’ Day (6 December), accompanied by his assistants who are all known as “Zwarte Piet“, in English “Black Peter”.

This is what Zwarte Piet looks like.

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 09.50.05If it’s your first time seeing images of Zwarte Piet it’s a shock, because in most western countries we have stopped using blackface in entertainment.

Zwarte Piet accompanies Sinterklaas, and gives out sweets. It’s a much loved tradition in the Netherlands but it has come under fire in recent years for being racist, culminating in a question a few years ago from a UN official asking the Dutch government to investigate complaints that the tradition is racist. The complaints are relatively few but have, apparently, been growing in recent years, as have protests at Sinterklaas events.

To many foreigners the appearance of Zwarte Piet comes as a shock, the link seems very clear, and it’s incomprehensible that such a tradition in a country famed for its tolerance. So how do the Dutch see it?

In a 2013 survey by de Telegraaf 92% of Dutch people did not see this as racist and don’t connect him to slavery, and 91% were opposed to altering his appearance. The tradition of Zwarte Piet is defended in a couple of ways.

The Chimney Sweep Theory

Zwarte Piet is black because he’s a chimney sweep; this is a common defense. But it raises more questions than it answers; if Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep why does he have curly hair and exaggerated lips? What’s with the feather in his hat? Why is his skin evenly blackened, not randomly as would be the case with soot? Why does he wear gold earrings? Where’s his brush?

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 10.21.50The costume and appearance of Zwarte Piet are much closer to the Moors depicted in 17th Century paintings than to chimney sweeps. No, this theory makes no sense.

This defence is the one most commonly presented – I suspect it’s a rationalisation developed at some point to cover a level of discomfort when the underlying stereotype was recognised.

A Suriname journalist summed it up during the heat of the debate; “the problem is that Dutch people do not know their own history”. There’s some truth in that, slavery barely gets a mentioned in the nation’s museums – look at the exhibits in the Rijksmuseum of the so called “golden era”, slaves are all but invisible. The text below is from a current exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, note the passive voice abdicating responsibility for  slavery.

text rijksmuseumI commented once, some years ago, that the Golden Era of the Dutch was built on slavery and was just about thrown out of the room; the defence given was that it was Dutch companies rather than the Dutch state acting in slavery. Which might be technically true, but both companies were acting as proxies for the state and certainly with the endorsement of the state.

The Tradition Theory

It certainly is a tradition, and because it’s something embedded in childhood memories it’s perhaps more loved than other traditions.

But it’s not as old as a lot of people think, and the form has changed.

The first time Zwarte Piet appears as a black person is in a book from 1850 by Peter Schenkman. Legend has it that he will give you sweets if you’re good and whip you with a rod or put coal in your shoes if you’re bad. Well the rod has long gone, I don’t think coal gets a mention any more. If you were really bad Zwarte Piet would put you in his sack and take you back to Spain with him (yeah, you thought Santa lived at the North Pole, but Sinterklaas lives in Spain). The sack abduction rarely happens any more, just kidding, it’s only mentioned as a joke. So apparently the tradition can change.

In any case “it’s tradition” doesn’t seem a particularly sound argument. Traditions are subject to change as humans learn and cultures evolve; traditionally we didn’t fly across the world in aeroplanes, traditionally men followed their father’s occupation, traditionally women didn’t vote, wear trousers or smoke in public. Traditionally Zwarte Piet was only played by men.

Is Zwarte Piet a Slave?

Most Dutch people would answer “no” without hesitation. There’s nothing I can find in the history of Zwarte Piet that indicates he was ever a slave. In fact his arrival in the Sinterklaas comes after the African slave trade had ended (although it would be another thirteen years before slavery was made illegal in Suriname). Initial references to him call him a “knecht”, which means “servant”, think high level servant perhaps for royalty. I have heard from more than one Dutch or Belgian person that the original Zwarte Piet was a slave, but was rescued and freed from slavery by Sinterklaas. I don’t think this is in the original story, it’s probably a later rationalisation.

the dutch reaction

Many many Dutch people love Zwarte Piet and cannot see any racism attached to the traditional performance. I don’t think any Dutch person woke up this morning thinking excitedly of how much they could annoy Dutch of Suriname/African decent. I don’t think the intent behind the celebration comes out of deliberate or explicit racism.

I think that because children become aware of Zwarte Piet as children long before rational discussions of racism begin (at least in white families), the associations with the tradition are genuinely not racist. When others (foreigners, the press, the UN, other Dutch people) describe Zwarte Piet as racist it is shocking to Dutch people, killing childhood innocence and trampling on tradition. People with good liberal middle-class white values are confronted with the idea that they might be racist.

No wonder the reaction is defensive; I can see how calling the practice racist feels painful to Dutch who were brought up with Zwarte Piet.

One Dutch woman who now believes that the tradition needs to change said the moment she got it was out on a bike ride with her three-year-old son. He saw a black person, and pointing at him, shouted out “Zwarte Piet”. She suddenly realised, the association children were making. I asked her what she was doing differently now; no more Zwarte Piets in her house and clear discussions about tradition and change.

The Political

The debate became further politicised in 2013, when the right wing party VVD showed their support for Zwarte Piet and claimed that attacks on Zwarte Piet was an expression of hatred against Western Ideas. Which makes about as much sense as worrying about the plain red Christmas cups from Starbucks. But that meant that many Dutch were in a conflicted state; on the one hand they didn’t want Zwarte Piet to change but on the other hand did not want to align themselves with the VVD.

The annual protests have escalated, and the protestors have been arrested – with the arrests later judged by the ombudsman to have used excessive force. The Children’s ombudsman (Dutch only) has concluded that the current form of Zwarte Piet “violates the UN Convention because the figure can contribute to bullying, exclusion or discrimination”. In 2014 one court ruled that the Zwarte Piet character should stop, only to be overturned by another court – right before Sinterklaas should take place.

Here’s a video that goes through the practices and the history.

In 2016

It’s changing.

In the research by the Children’s Ombudsman the children (aged 10 – 16) were united “All the young people who spoke believe that the appearance of Zwarte Piet should be adjusted if there are children and young people who feel discriminated against by its present appearance.”

This year in Amsterdam the Black Piets became Chimney Piets. It’s a change that takes something of the racial sting out of the Piet’s appearance, although the wig is still there. This might turn out to be an interim change.

Chimney PietBijenkorf, one of the main department stores in Amsterdam, gave their Zwarte Piets a makeover last year, they still wear the colourful costumes but the faces are now stylised and gold.

I’ve seen fewer depictions of Zwarte Piet on products and in advertising this year. Last year the famous And where he is shown he less of the “golliwog” caricature. Here are some samples of Sint-themed images this year.

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It’s changing in a typical Dutch way, not by a rule being laid down by some court or government, but by people learning and changing their habits gradually. It feels too slow for those who want the change and too fast for those who love the existing tradition, it will be controversial for a while yet. Even so within a few years I believe Sint’s helpers will all be Piets.

This was hard to write, well done for making it to the end! Happy to hear your comments, questions and feedback. Play nice.


The Amsterdam lights festival starts tomorrow and some of the exhibits are already set up, I spotted two on my cycle ride along Herengracht today.

Amsterdam Lights festival When I saw this in the distance I thought it was swim lanes which changed colour, even though it’s a little chilly for swimming. The colours change every few seconds and go through the colours of the rainbow. When I got closer I could see that it was rows of floating water lilies.

lights-1In fact it’s called Flower Strip, and on a calm night the reflections will be fabulous.


This is Bridge of the Rainbow, I guess there’ll be a full rainbow by tomorrow night, but once again the reflections on this are great.

The location of all the artworks is listed on the Amsterdam Light Festival website, they’re all outside so you can wander (or cycle) the route for free. Alternatively there are boat cruises which are worth doing, as a lot of the artworks are oriented for viewing from a boat. There’s also a free walking route in the Hortus Botanicus area and guided tours. It’s one of the cool things in the city – I like finding the sculptures “accidentally”. It’s the perfect way to take advantage of the long winter nights.

Saturday Market; Pumpkin Soup

Summer stretched to the end of September this year, but I’ve gone from sandals to boots in about a fortnight. It’s suddenly autumn. Today was chilly and a little rainy. Time for soup.

Pumpkin soup. This is a hearty version perfect for this time of year, it uses just four ingredients; butternut pumpkin, red onions, olive oil and sage. Butternut pumpkin works best for a rich creamy soup. I found the pumpkin in the market for a euro each.

butternut pumpkin
I have sage growing on my terrace, the wonderfully pungent purple sage.

purple sageI chopped and de-seeded the pumpkin, peeled and halved two red onions, put them in a roasting dish, and then roughly chopped a handful of sage and sprinkled it over the vegetables. Drizzled the olive oil over.

vegetables ready for roasting to make pumpkin soup
Roast the whole lot at about 150C (in a fan oven) for about 45 minutes or until the pumpkin is soft. Remove from the oven.

Roast vegetables for pumpkin soupAllow to cool, then peel the skin off the pumpkin and put all vegetables into a pot, add about two cups of hot stock and blend. Adjust seasoning.

Warm through and serve – you can add sour cream, croutons, grated cheese – whatever pleases you. A big bowl with thick slabs of toasted bread is a warming, soothing lunch.

Pumpkin soupIt will keep in the fridge for around five days, and freezes well.

Amsterdam’s Airport; 100 Years of Schiphol

This year Schiphol Airport celebrates 100 years. Here’s a bird’s eye view of how it developed over that time created by the Stadsarchief (City Archive). It starts back in 1852 when the area was still a polder.

Fig it!

At Saturday’s market figs were on offer, 10 figs for 3 euro. Best price all year. I love the dusky rich colour of figs, their distinctive flavour that can go either sweet or savoury. One of my favourite holiday memories is of standing under an ancient, spreading fig tree in Molise (south Italy) and eating fresh ripe figs warmed by the sun. Every summer I want to recreate that flavour memory so I couldn’t resist. 2016-09-17-15-14-34One of my favourite ways to eat figs is fresh in a salad with a creamy goat’s cheese. The rich sweetness of the figs is a perfect foil for the sharpness of the cheese. But this time I wanted to go sweet, so I poached them in a sweet wine with some spices and honey. I’ve also used a solution of honey, water and a few drops of orange water for a non-alcoholic version.

My mix this time was 200 ml of “half sweet” wine, about two teaspoons of honey, half a teaspoon of nutmeg, half a teaspoon of cinnamon and one or two star anise thrown in. I heated the poaching mix and dropped in the semi-quartered the figs. I cooked them until soft – be careful, they disintegrate easily so don’t stir and do watch them. Spoon the poaching mix over the figs as they cook.

2016-09-23-21-40-53I served them still warm with good thick Greek yoghurt.


Banksy is in Town

There are currently two exhibitions of Banksy’s work in Amsterdam. I went to the one at Beurs van Berlage, which has just been extended to the 7 January. It was great to see some of his most famous works collected together. His works always contain a juxtaposition that is thought provoking; there were one or two I could live with.

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The second exhibition is on at the Moco Museum on Museumplein and is on until the end of the year.