Best Present Ever

Today is my birthday, which means I usually: 1) get a massage, 2) go to Starbucks, and 3) write a blog post.  Today is no exception.

So far, today has been fabulous.  My little girl started sleeping through the night about 3 days ago, which has been a godsend because everyone in the family (including her, poor thing) is sick.  Today, my babies let me sleep in til 9am.  NINE. In the MORNING.  Best birthday present ever.

We snuggled and breastfed and ate breakfast and danced and sang.  I tried on my pre-pregnancy jeans (always a gamble) AND THEY (just barely) FIT.  Let’s just take a moment to glow in that last sentence.  Aah.  As if that weren’t enough, I saw a rainbow on the drive here.  Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw a leprechaun today.  Or maybe Bigfoot.

So.  Since last year I blogged about my own birth, and since then I’ve given birth, so let’s talk about that one.

The two times I’ve given birth were extremely different.  For my first, I was induced, labor took 32 hours (including 2.5 hours of pushing), and ended in a vaginal birth aided by an epidural.

The short version of my second L&D is as follows: labor was so fast that it only took 3 hours and ended with me giving birth on my bathroom floor while my baby was delivered by firefighters.  It was the most physically painful and intense experience of my entire life.

Allow me to back up.  Because I was induced last time at 41 weeks, I was determined to do everything in my power to try and go into labor naturally.  I asked my OB to sweep my membranes on Tuesday, December 20 when I was 39 weeks +1.  Initially I had some cramping, but nothing major.  At 2am Thursday morning, I woke up with contractions.  They were mild, but strong enough to wake me up, and I found that they were coming at regular intervals once I started tracking them.

I woke my husband and we called L&D.  The nurse asked me a bunch of questions but she wasn’t convinced I was in labor because the intensity of my contractions just wasn’t there.  She advised to call my childcare person to come over but to wait another 30 minutes and see if the contractions ramped up at all.  Her guess was that this was false labor and they’d go away and she was right.  I felt horrible for getting my friend (who was also pregnant) out of bed for a false alarm, but we all went back to sleep.

That day I took it easy and had a few wimpy contractions here and there, but nothing out of the ordinary.  We went to bed.  I woke up at 3am Friday morning with contractions again.  This time, as I tracked them, their intensity increased but their frequency was all over the place.  Around 5am Brian woke up and I told him what was going on and we talked about what to do between contractions.  At 5:20 we decided to call L&D, so I said I’d get up to pee and then we’d call.

I stood up and quickly discovered that I couldn’t walk as the intensity of my contractions rapidly increased.  I turned around, grabbed the side of the bed and instinctively swayed and moaned to get through the waves of pain.  Brian was still quite groggy and wasn’t grasping onto what was happening so I finally barked at him to get up and help me walk to the toilet.  As we moved I started to panic because my body no longer felt like it belonged to me; some force had just taken over.

As soon as I sat down on the toilet, my water broke.  I turned to my husband and told him (screamed at him) to call L&D.  Immediately, my body was rocked to the core by a contraction that started pushing my baby out of me.  I couldn’t believe what was happening.  My instinct was to try to suppress the urge to push because there was no way my baby was coming so early.  In hindsight, this probably made things all the more painful.

My husband couldn’t hear what the nurse was saying over my screams, but she could most definitely hear me scream that I needed to push, I need to push!  She told him to hang up and call 911.  By this time it was 5:40am…and my baby was born at 5:57am.  It took the firefighters 9 minutes to get to our house, and Audrey was born 8 minutes after that.

The dispatcher told my husband to get me flat on my back and to get some towels.  It was only then that it dawned on me that they were getting me ready to have the baby right there on the bathroom floor.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so terrified in my entire life.

My husband started grabbing our good towels we got as wedding presents and, in true form, I was still able to scream, NO!  NOT THE GOOD TOWELS!  GET THE OLD ONES! because I’m a freak.  And bless him, he got the old towels for me.  The dispatcher continued to ask questions, one of which was, Do you see the head?  He looked once, no.  He looked again, and yes, yes he could.  YOU CAN SEE THE HEAD?!  I screamed in reply.  I was still in shock and denial about what was happening.  Contractions were back to back at this point and  I was screaming pretty much the whole time.  In case you’re wondering, my two-year-old was down the hall and slept through the whole thing.  Like I said, my kids (angels) are sleepers.

We could hear the firetruck arrive and B ran downstairs (still in only his boxers) to let them in.  They had trouble finding me at first but I think they just followed the screams.  I immediately asked them for pain meds – ANYTHING! – and they sadly shook their heads and said they couldn’t.  I was devastated.

Pretty soon her head was born (worst pain of my entire life) and they told me to keep pushing to get the rest of her body out, and I remember thinking that I just couldn’t.  I needed that 15 second rest between contractions.  I pushed again and she was out.  She wasn’t crying right away and I held out my arms for her, but it felt like an eternity while he rubbed her back, suctioned her mouth and got her properly breathing.  Once it was apparent that we were both just fine, the 6 firefighters who were crammed into my bathroom were overjoyed.  They proudly announced the time of birth and her Apgar score.

They had B cut the cord and gave us the shears to keep, joking that they make great cigar cutters.  One firefighter asked for our phones and started snapping pictures.  She was here.  My little girl was in the world.  I couldn’t believe it.

img_2907

We were carried downstairs and into the ambulance and taken to the hospital.  A few firefighters even stayed behind at the house to wait for my childcare person to get there.  Later that day, she brought my son to the hospital so he could meet Audrey.  We came back home the next day – Christmas Eve – to start our lives as a family of four.

Best Christmas present ever.

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Baby, all I want for Christmas is you

Hey, guys.

I don’t mean to brag (yes I do), but I got the best Christmas present this year:

img_2947

Her name is Audrey and she’s perfect.

I’m so lucky and grateful and full of hope and excitement…and I’m also a completely sleep deprived hot mess.  Wee!

Happy New Year, everyone!

 

Ready for the Unknown

Today was the first day I felt actually ready and excited to have this baby.

You know, because you never really feel ready-ready, and nothing can ever actually prepare you.

I’m due on the 26th and today I am 38 weeks + 2.  I started feeling crampy and achey last night while I was bending and lifting and standing to wrap Christmas presents.  It felt like the familiar daily race to get things done before my body gave out, except with more urgency this time.

I took a hot shower and the steady stream of water felt really great on my lower back.  I went to bed feeling oddly calm paired with the crampy anticipation and excitement that maybe this baby would be coming soon.

As the night wore on, with each successive trip to go pee, I felt more contractions and more anticipatory excitement that eventually kept me up from about 4-5:30am.  I started bargaining as I frequently do: please, just wait until morning so we don’t have to wake the kid and rush out of here to the hospital.  Also, please don’t wait too long and kick in just as the forecasted snow starts falling in the afternoon, making it hard for us to get to the hospital.

Arg, being unable to plan for something so important is making me go batty.  As much as I complained about being induced with my first baby, I am now realizing how it took away a lot of this uncertainty.

B got up for work and I told him I thought I was in the early stages of labor.  He asked if there was anything he could do, and there really wasn’t, so he got ready and left for work and we both assumed I’d be calling him in a few hours to get to the hospital.

This is perfect, I thought.  We’ll make the window between sleep and snow, and all my support people are still in town today.  And I’ll get to hold my baby!

As I lay there, I started thinking about the date and what her birthday might be, how labor would go, what I still needed to pack.  My mind was whirring.

It took some effort, but I was able to sleep for a few more hours.  I woke with continued mild contractions and started packing more stuff into my hospital bag.  Then I started my day with the kid and we had breakfast and…..then nothing really happened.

Contractions stayed the same.  We played, had lunch.  The snow began to fall.  Shit, I got nervous.  The window was gone, and now I just knew I’d go into labor just in time for the snarl of traffic that was sure to happen.  And it’s a 20-30 minute drive to the hospital with no traffic at all.  I texted B at work and we agreed that we’d call 911 to request a police escort if it came to it.

I worried that I was waiting too long.  What if these contractions were the real thing and my tolerance for pain is freakishly amazing?  The whole day felt like one long contraction anyway, as my uterus tightens up anytime I stand up to move.  I worried I’d end up having the baby at home, in the car.  I was questioning my judgement.

Once I finally got the kid down for his nap and I was able to relax and try to chart my contractions, I could tell there was no rhythm, no intensity, no buildup.  At the same time, I can feel that my body has turned a corner.  It’s definitely getting ready.  Just how ready and how quickly?

Leading up to today I’ve been doing a different kind of bargaining.  It’s the thing where I’m sick and tired of being pregnant but still had shit I needed to get done before she got here.  Christmas shopping needed to be finished.  There was wrapping to be done.  Decorating needed to happen.  We even did our Christmas brunch early.  And not to mention all the normal baby stuff that needed to be ready.  Washing clothes, folding, putting away.  We moved the kid into his new room along with all his stuff to make room for baby stuff.  Car seats, carriers, bouncy seats, etc.

But as of last night…all that was largely done.  We did it.  We got ready.  We’re ready.  Holy crap!

As I just typed that, I realized we never got to that point when I was pregnant the first time, because at 38 weeks we moved into this house.  In the three weeks before I was induced we were scrambling to get boxes unpacked just so we’d know where the pots and pans and underwear were – forget any kind of nesting or decorating.  So that makes sense now that I actually feel ready.  I’m thankful for the feeling…even though it can’t ever be ready-ready.

So now, we wait.  Come on out, little miss.  There’s a layer of snow on the ground and it’s beautiful, just for you.

 

Glowsticks and Pacifiers

So, for Christmas, Brian and I were given a fabulous sound system for our living room TV setup.  We’re very excited about it.

Picture us with our toddler having our nightly pants-off dance-off in the living room, this time with better quality music.

Begin scene.

Brian: (breathless) Man, it’s so great to have some bass in here!

Me: (equally breathless) …My butt has always been this big.  And you’re welcome.

B: …

M:  (seriously) Yes, I know!  The sound quality is great!  We should share this with the world!

B: You want me to turn it up?

M: No…we should do one better.  We should throw a rave!!!!!!

B: (doing the running man) We totally should!  We have those glowsticks left over from Halloween!

M: (doing the mashed potato) …AND WE HAVE PACIFIERS!!

My kid: (flailing wildly)  YAAAAAA-YAAAAAAAA!!!!!

M:  See?!  Dylan thinks this is a rad idea and will have no trouble sharing his pacis.

B:  But what can we offer our guests in terms of herbal refreshment?

M:  Ummm…I still have a bottle of max-strength ibuprofen left over from delivering Dylan!  Sure to give a medium-sized person some moderate anti-inflammatory action!

B:  (doing the sprinkler) Cat tranquilizers!

M:  (doing the roger rabbit) From our move up here!  YEEEESSSS!  Damn cat wouldn’t eat them, so it’s her loss!!  And speaking of loss, everyone will have to surrender their pants at the door, in keeping with tradition.

B:  We can throw in some Children’s Tylenol for good measure.  I think we have the makings for a great party.

M:  Not great.  THE GREATEST.

Dylan:  (still flailing) YAAAAAAAAAAA!!!

M:  I’ll have my assistant draw up some plans in the morning.


Who wants to come to our rave, y’all?!?!

What My Christmas List Says About Me

This year, I had trouble coming up with things to put on my Christmas list.  This is because I have a one-year-old and I live in a new house that is largely empty, which means I either want crap for my kid that I am too cheap to buy myself, or I want big-ticket items like sofas and wall-to-wall trampolines.

So what did I end up asking for?  I can’t believe I am about to tell you.

  1. Money for a mattress

Yup, I have become that person.  The one who asks for money.  It’s just that we’re trying to save up to furnish our home and saving is hard.  And our current mattress is decidedly not.  I’m tired of waking up with a hurtee back.

What this says about me:  I’m old and cranky.

2. A dustbuster

Oh dear.  I actually cringed when I saw my fingers typing the letters that make up that word.  But…I need something smaller than my hugeass vacuum to suck up the 763728294 messes that my kid and cat and husband make everyday.  I can’t drag out my vacuum because my back hurts from our damn old mattress and I’m lazy.

What this says about me:  I have become my mother.

3. Infinity scarf with pocket

So, I saw these on The View (maybe I should stop typing right there) and I thought they looked cute and practical!

What this says about me:  I am the caricature of a SAHM.

4. An electric toothbrush

I have been meaning to get one of these for myself, because I do the Type A thing where I brush super hard and I need to not do that.  But then I looked, and these things are fucking expensive.  And Christmas is right around the corner!  On the list it goes.

(Fun fact: My family exchanged lists, and I saw that my dad had the exact same item on his list.  And then I swear I could hear my brother roll his eyes all the way in California.)

What this says about me:  I am cheap.  I have also become my father, apparently.


 

And this, my Psychos, is why alcohol flows freely during the most wonderful time of the year, to cover up the shame.

What embarrassing things do you have on your list?!

Baby It’s Cold Outside

I hope everyone’s holiday season is shaping up to be better than mine, which shouldn’t be too hard since I spent mine battling food poisoning and watching the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy.  They really should have just taken those damn eagles all the way to Mount Doom, btw.

Speaking of Mount Doom, I like me some Christmas tunage around this time of year, and I’ve always liked Baby It’s Cold Outside, but I never really paid attention to the lyrics before now.  Previously, I assumed it was all cutesy how a man and a woman were singing about how cold it was outside and how happy they were to be all warm and snuggly by a fire.  But now – whoa man, this song is downright creepy and bordering on abusive!

Now that I’ve been forever robbed of the pleasure that comes from listening to this song, I figured the only last resort was to rewrite the lyrics in a respectful and gentlemanly manner.

Feel free to sing it out loud (and if you’ve never heard this before, I urge you to listen to the original first):

(bold is the male part, regular is the female part)

I really can’t stay

Baby it’s cold outside

I gotta go away

Maybe you didn’t hear me – I said it’s pretty cold outside

My mother will start to worry

Crap, I don’t want that bitch angry with me

My father will be pacing the floor

I don’t want to hear his drunken roar

So really I better scurry

I don’t mean for you to hurry…but if you need to I totally understand

Well maybe just half a drink more

Seriously, you’re allowed to go when you want to as an independent adult woman

The neighbors might think

Oh, I care what you think since I’m also attracted to your strong intellect

Say…what’s in this drink?

Shit, let me pour that one out.  It had roofies in it and I would never do that to you.

I ought to say no, no, no sir

Well, you can at any moment and I will respect your wishes

I really can’t stay

Then let me call you a cab because you did have a sip of that roofied tonic

I simply must go

Baby it’s cold outside…so take another jacket and this pepper spray

Well maybe just a cigarette more

Oh, please don’t because those will kill you one day

I’ve got to get home

Absolutely, we can take a raincheck for this drunken sex we were about to have

You’ve really been grand

I’ll call you tomorrow because I am not afraid of commitment

I really can’t stay

I love you and now I’ll get pissed and watch porn by myself

(both sing) Because baby it’s cold outside!!

Reblog: Tiny snickerdoodles, burlap sacks, and blackface

I originally wrote this post last year, when I had 7.2 dear and loyal readers.  I’m phoning it in today and spreading some Sinterklaas cheer because everyone needs to celebrate Christmas like the Dutch do – early, and with lots of racism.  Enjoy!

——–

In other words, Happy Sinterklaas!!!!

For those of you who may not know, I spent a glorious and exciting semester abroad in the Netherlands in the fall of 2005, which means that I got to celebrate Sinterklaas for the very first time.  For purposes of context, I am also almost finished reading Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris (I recommend) and he devoted a chapter to Sinterklaas and how awesomely funny it is to Americans.  In the same spirit, I am going to share my love for this wonderfully racist and quirky holiday with all y’all.

Sinterklaas is the celebration of Saint Nicholas Day, and it falls on December 5th.  The Dutchie version of Saint Nick is the former bishop of Turkey and lives in Spain.  He’s still a white dude wearing red, just add a pope’s hat and maybe a little bit of a tan from the Spanish sun.  What I don’t get is that many Dutchies don’t like Turkish immigrants and think they should go back home, yet they welcome this man every year.  Maybe it’s just because Sinterklaas goes home before wearing out his welcome?  Or maybe Turkish immigrants just need to bring presents with them when they come.  Take note, Turks.

Utrecht Sinterklaas parade Nov 2011

Sinterklaas is much more practical than our American Santa Claus.  Flying reindeer?  Yeah right.  Around the world in just one night?  Please.  Of course, Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat from Spain in mid November and spends those few weeks riding his white horse in parades and handing out goodies before he heads back home on December 6th.  The main boat arrival into Rotterdam (I think it’s Rotterdam) is televised with great excitement, and then numerous other smaller boat arrivals take place for smaller villages with their own harbors.  For those villages without a harbor, Sinterklaas usually arrives by horse, as he did in Utrecht where I was living.

Now, Saint Nick doesn’t come alone.  He has “six to eight” helpers, each named Swarte Piet (translation: Black Pete), who are usually young men in startling blackface with bright red lips wearing bright colored tunics with puffy sleeves and feathers in their equally bright, fluffy hats.  Why blackface?  The original explanation is that Swarte Pieten are slaves Sinterklaas saved from Ethiopia (what was he doing in Ethiopia??) and are now sooo grateful to be saved that they stick around and help him deliver gifts and torment kids (more on the tormenting later).  The newer, more PC explanation is that Piet has black soot all over his gosh-darn face from going down all those chimneys to deliver gifts every year.  Hmmm, maybe Piet should ask for some moist towelettes from Sinterklaas this year.

Swarte Pieten!!

really??! The Dutch teach em young….

The most horrifying part for me was going to the parade to see Sinterklaas and his horse gallantly trot into Utrecht to the delight of little boys and girls…who were also dressed in blackface.  What the what?!  It is one thing for legal adults to smear their faces and portray former slaves, but apparently Dutch parents do this to their kids to get them into the holiday spirit.  Worse still, is that the Dutch see nothing wrong with this and my Dutch friends insisted that I calm down (this is one thing that I was told consistently during my stay in the Netherlands, that as an American I needed to calm the fuck down.  Good thing they have lots of coffeeshops for that.)

So, where were we?  Sinterklaas comes from Spain on his boat with Swarte Pieten, switches to his white horse and then proceeds to parade through the city, waving and handing out goodies.  This is where Swarte Piet pegs the onlookers with tiny snickerdoodles, or pepernoten.  Seriously, they run around and throw handfuls of these things at people (not to them).  Maybe there is a point system, more points for kids and the elderly.  Pepernoten are quarter sized, hard, not-very-tasty gingerbread-like-things, and it seems that Swarte Piet has the right idea that they are better suited as weapons than as sweets.

Now we get to the excitement of the night of December 5th.  Traditionally, cute little blonde Dutch kids would put their painfully uncomfortable wooden shoes out by the fireplace and leave some goodies for Sinterklaas, Swarte Piet, but most often carrots and hay for the white horse (looking back, now I get why the white horse gets all the love…).  In return, the shoes would be filled with candies and a small present.  Nowadays, Dutchies leave their shoes by a heater or, as I was taught, right outside either the bedroom door or on the front or back porch and hope that the white horse doesn’t leave some other kind of stinky gift in there.  One awesome Sinterklaas goodie kids can expect is a big-ass piece of chocolate in the shape of the first letter of their first name.

mmmm chocolate letter….

What happens if you’re bad, you ask?  In America you just get coal, and you should consider yourselves freaking lucky, my friends.  Sinterklaas apparently doesn’t take any shit from anyone, and if you’re bad he sends his Swarte Pieten after you, and you know that these former slaves know a thing or two about corporal punishment.  Swarte Pieten carry burlap sacks with them, and if they encounter a bad child, they put that poor, helpless soul in the bag, drag him outside, beat him with a switch, and then if the situation warrants it, they kidnap him and take him back to Spain.  What they do with this kid once he gets to Spain, I have no idea.  Maybe he’s broken down and retrained Jason Bourne-style to  become part of the next generation of cutthroat Swarte Pieten.  I heard that in the old days, family friends would take turns coming to each other’s houses dressed as Sinterklaas and Swarte Piet to perform some of these fear-inducing rituals on their kids, but nowadays parents just tell these stories to their kids to hopefully still scare them into submission.

During their stay in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas and Swarte Piet visit many public places like town squares and shopping malls and schools.  He made sure not to miss coming to University College Utrecht during one of our lunch periods.  There we were, eating some sort of mystery pastry (the Dutch seem to get a kick out of making yummy looking pastry and then filling it with something heinous, like meat and peas), when all of a sudden six to eight black men came sprinting into the dining hall, chucking handfuls of pepernoten at us.  Now, this university is an international university, run in English and with an American grading system, so many of the students (about 1/3 of the student body) were not Dutch, and we had a good American representation.  Well, us Americans thought, “What the fuck?  These crazy-ass black men run all up in here and throw disgusting, tooth-cracking cookies at us and we’re just gonna take it?  No, sir!”  And we did what came naturally.  We threw the pepernoten right back, along with some food for good measure.  Like hell we were gonna get beaten with switches….although, come to think of it, Spain probably would have been really nice that time of year.

Then in came Sinterklaas, and we straightened up a bit.  I remember he said something to us in Dutch, and then the moment I had been dreading – our Dutch language professor made us non-Dutchies learn a Sinterklaas song and we had to get up and sing it to Sinterklaas himself in front of the whole dining hall.

See how uncomfortable I am?

I did my best to mouth the words (what little of them I knew) and hide my voice in with the rest.  At that point, I would have preferred a small beating instead.  After Sinterklaas left, the food fight resumed.  Boo-yah.

the aftermath

Aside from Sinterklaas giving the kids gifts, I learned about how Dutch families exchange gifts for the holiday.  Usually families choose names so that each person only buys one gift (I like this so far).  It is customary to creatively wrap the gift in order to disguise what is inside, and also to make the wrapping somehow significant to the recipient.  For instance, my group of friends chose names and I chose my Dutch friend Floris.  He likes maps and travel, and so I wrapped his gift in a map.  I remember my friend Shady wrapped her gift and placed it on the plate of a place setting from our dining hall, using a plastic tray and all the stolen silverware and dishes.  I forget the significance…..but I think it was for Jozef who liked to eat a lot.  What also must accompany the gift is a poem about the recipient.  This poem usually makes reference to what their gift may be and/or pokes fun at the person’s character traits/defects.  Yet another small look into the darker, meaner underbelly of Dutch culture.

our Sinterklaas celebration! pepernoten, speculaas, and see’s!

So there you have it.  Sinterklaas 101.  So tonight, remember to leave your shoes out…and hope that you don’t wake up bruised on the Spanish shoreline.  Or do, you know, if you like that kind of thing.

Sinterklaas, goedheiligman!
Trek uwe beste tabberd an,
Reis daar mee naar Amsterdam,
Van Amsterdam naar Spanje,
Daar Appelen van Oranje,
Daar Appelen van granaten,
Die rollen door de straten.

Tiny snickerdoodles, burlap sacks, and blackface

In other words, Happy Sinterklaas!!!!

For those of you who may not know, I spent a glorious and exciting semester abroad in the Netherlands in the fall of 2005, which means that I got to celebrate Sinterklaas for the very first time.  For purposes of context, I am also almost finished reading Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris (I recommend) and he devoted a chapter to Sinterklaas and how awesomely funny it is to Americans.  In the same spirit, I am going to share my love for this wonderfully racist and quirky holiday with all y’all.

Sinterklaas is the celebration of Saint Nicholas Day, and it falls on December 5th.  The Dutchie version of Saint Nick is the former bishop of Turkey and lives in Spain.  He’s still a white dude wearing red, just add a pope’s hat and maybe a little bit of a tan from the Spanish sun.  What I don’t get is that many Dutchies don’t like Turkish immigrants and think they should go back home, yet they welcome this man every year.  Maybe it’s just because Sinterklaas goes home before wearing out his welcome?  Or maybe Turkish immigrants just need to bring presents with them when they come.  Take note, Turks.

Utrecht Sinterklaas parade Nov 2011

Sinterklaas is much more practical than our American Santa Claus.  Flying reindeer?  Yeah right.  Around the world in just one night?  Please.  Of course, Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat from Spain in mid November and spends those few weeks riding his white horse in parades and handing out goodies before he heads back home on December 6th.  The main boat arrival into Rotterdam (I think it’s Rotterdam) is televised with great excitement, and then numerous other smaller boat arrivals take place for smaller villages with their own harbors.  For those villages without a harbor, Sinterklaas usually arrives by horse, as he did in Utrecht where I was living.

Now, Saint Nick doesn’t come alone.  He has “six to eight” helpers, each named Swarte Piet (translation: Black Pete), who are usually young men in startling blackface with bright red lips wearing bright colored tunics with puffy sleeves and feathers in their equally bright, fluffy hats.  Why blackface?  The original explanation is that Swarte Pieten are slaves Sinterklaas saved from Ethiopia (what was he doing in Ethiopia??) and are now sooo grateful to be saved that they stick around and help him deliver gifts and torment kids (more on the tormenting later).  The newer, more PC explanation is that Piet has black soot all over his gosh-darn face from going down all those chimneys to deliver gifts every year.  Hmmm, maybe Piet should ask for some moist towelettes from Sinterklaas this year.

Swarte Pieten!!

really??! The Dutch teach em young….

The most horrifying part for me was going to the parade to see Sinterklaas and his horse gallantly trot into Utrecht to the delight of little boys and girls…who were also dressed in blackface.  What the what?!  It is one thing for legal adults to smear their faces and portray former slaves, but apparently Dutch parents do this to their kids to get them into the holiday spirit.  Worse still, is that the Dutch see nothing wrong with this and my Dutch friends insisted that I calm down (this is one thing that I was told consistently during my stay in the Netherlands, that as an American I needed to calm the fuck down.  Good thing they have lots of coffeeshops for that.)

So, where were we?  Sinterklaas comes from Spain on his boat with Swarte Pieten, switches to his white horse and then proceeds to parade through the city, waving and handing out goodies.  This is where Swarte Piet pegs the onlookers with tiny snickerdoodles, or pepernoten.  Seriously, they run around and throw handfuls of these things at people (not to them).  Maybe there is a point system, more points for kids and the elderly.  Pepernoten are quarter sized, hard, not-very-tasty gingerbread-like-things, and it seems that Swarte Piet has the right idea that they are better suited as weapons than as sweets.

Now we get to the excitement of the night of December 5th.  Traditionally, cute little blonde Dutch kids would put their painfully uncomfortable wooden shoes out by the fireplace and leave some goodies for Sinterklaas, Swarte Piet, but most often carrots and hay for the white horse (looking back, now I get why the white horse gets all the love…).  In return, the shoes would be filled with candies and a small present.  Nowadays, Dutchies leave their shoes by a heater or, as I was taught, right outside either the bedroom door or on the front or back porch and hope that the white horse doesn’t leave some other kind of stinky gift in there.  One awesome Sinterklaas goodie kids can expect is a big-ass piece of chocolate in the shape of the first letter of their first name.

mmmm chocolate letter….

What happens if you’re bad, you ask?  In America you just get coal, and you should consider yourselves freaking lucky, my friends.  Sinterklaas apparently doesn’t take any shit from anyone, and if you’re bad he sends his Swarte Pieten after you, and you know that these former slaves know a thing or two about corporal punishment.  Swarte Pieten carry burlap sacks with them, and if they encounter a bad child, they put that poor, helpless soul in the bag, drag him outside, beat him with a switch, and then if the situation warrants it, they kidnap him and take him back to Spain.  What they do with this kid once he gets to Spain, I have no idea.  Maybe he’s broken down and retrained Jason Bourne-style to  become part of the next generation of cutthroat Swarte Pieten.  I heard that in the old days, family friends would take turns coming to each other’s houses dressed as Sinterklaas and Swarte Piet to perform some of these fear-inducing rituals on their kids, but nowadays parents just tell these stories to their kids to hopefully still scare them into submission.

During their stay in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas and Swarte Piet visit many public places like town squares and shopping malls and schools.  He made sure not to miss coming to University College Utrecht during one of our lunch periods.  There we were, eating some sort of mystery pastry (the Dutch seem to get a kick out of making yummy looking pastry and then filling it with something heinous, like meat and peas), when all of a sudden six to eight black men came sprinting into the dining hall, chucking handfuls of pepernoten at us.  Now, this university is an international university, run in English and with an American grading system, so many of the students (about 1/3 of the student body) were not Dutch, and we had a good American representation.  Well, us Americans thought, “What the fuck?  These crazy-ass black men run all up in here and throw disgusting, tooth-cracking cookies at us and we’re just gonna take it?  No, sir!”  And we did what came naturally.  We threw the pepernoten right back, along with some food for good measure.  Like hell we were gonna get beaten with switches….although, come to think of it, Spain probably would have been really nice that time of year.

Then in came Sinterklaas, and we straightened up a bit.  I remember he said something to us in Dutch, and then the moment I had been dreading – our Dutch language professor made us non-Dutchies learn a Sinterklaas song and we had to get up and sing it to Sinterklaas himself in front of the whole dining hall.

See how uncomfortable I am?

I did my best to mouth the words (what little of them I knew) and hide my voice in with the rest.  At that point, I would have preferred a small beating instead.  After Sinterklaas left, the food fight resumed.  Boo-yah.

the aftermath

Aside from Sinterklaas giving the kids gifts, I learned about how Dutch families exchange gifts for the holiday.  Usually families choose names so that each person only buys one gift (I like this so far).  It is customary to creatively wrap the gift in order to disguise what is inside, and also to make the wrapping somehow significant to the recipient.  For instance, my group of friends chose names and I chose my Dutch friend Floris.  He likes maps and travel, and so I wrapped his gift in a map.  I remember my friend Shady wrapped her gift and placed it on the plate of a place setting from our dining hall, using a plastic tray and all the stolen silverware and dishes.  I forget the significance…..but I think it was for Jozef who liked to eat a lot.  What also must accompany the gift is a poem about the recipient.  This poem usually makes reference to what their gift may be and/or pokes fun at the person’s character traits/defects.  Yet another small look into the darker, meaner underbelly of Dutch culture.

our Sinterklaas celebration! pepernoten, speculaas, and see’s!

So there you have it.  Sinterklaas 101.  So tonight, remember to leave your shoes out…and hope that you don’t wake up bruised on the Spanish shoreline.  Or do, you know, if you like that kind of thing.

Sinterklaas, goedheiligman!
Trek uwe beste tabberd an,
Reis daar mee naar Amsterdam,
Van Amsterdam naar Spanje,
Daar Appelen van Oranje,
Daar Appelen van granaten,
Die rollen door de straten.