Postcard from Abroad – Universiteit Utrecht the Netherlands

Ellen is a friendly, semi-professional procrastinator who talks a little too much and thinks about what she’s saying a little too little. Born and bred in Cardiff, she was educated through the medium of Welsh which she uses with friends in both general conversation and as an excellent code language. She’s studying in Utrecht – the city where a canal bridge is your road and a bicycle is your car. As a BA Geography student, it could be assumed that her navigation skills are highly developed. However, arrange to meet somewhere and you’re likely to find her in the general area but heading off, with purpose, in the wrong direction. Luckily, being lost in a city as pretty as Utrecht is not half bad.

Utrecht a long way to get here

Hi, I’m Ellen. I’m 20 and enjoying a year abroad in Utrecht, the perfect way to delay graduating and becoming a proper grown-up. After months of asking “what if they don’t get my humour?” I have managed to find a great group of people who laugh at my dreadful jokes (even if they are just being polite). Many of my friends who ask about Utrecht are most interested in the fact that it is a 20-minute train ride from Amsterdam. Understandable, of course. Utrecht doesn’t have an Anne Frank house, there aren’t many large, lively clubs and it doesn’t cater for tourists – but I think the latter is what makes it so special. It is a quaint, unique, aesthetically stunning city and is unlike anywhere else in the world. On my return from a night out in Amsterdam after having my purse stolen, Utrecht greeted me with a warm (metaphorically – it was actually around three degrees) hug. I haven’t yet heard of any purse thefts in Utrecht, touch wood.

Over the past couple of weeks I have done some travelling. Southern Spain was the first destination, where my friends and I visited Seville, Granada and Madrid. Surprisingly freezing cold but it turns out that, apart from making you look like Colin Firth in Love Actually – precisely why I bought it –, a turtleneck jumper provides an ideal windshield for the face.

Colin Firth

Slightly less cold was Amsterdam, where I took my friend who was visiting from Leeds for a day out. A bizarre combination of the Sex Museum, numerous accidental turns down the Red Light District and the Anne Frank house left us a bit bewildered and mentally scarred in a variety of ways. It’s hard to know where to look when either side of you are half-naked women straddling a window ledge. Seeing mechanical naked people jumping out at you in the Sex Museum was like being on a bizarre sexual ghost train. The transition from this to the Anne Frank house leaves you with a confusing mélange of emotions. But Amsterdam wasn’t finished yet. Just as we thought the excitement was over, I did my best celebrity spotting since Dannii Minogue at the Harrods Christmas light switch-on of 2k9.

On the way to a bar we saw a small group of people gathered behind a fence and, on the other side of the fence, not just anyone but King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands. Perhaps not as widely recognised as Dannii Minogue and I couldn’t find anything resembling “I begin to wonder” in the King and Queen’s discography on Wikipedia, but after studying them for two months, this to me was like Dutch gold dust. The sighting was brief but I never fail to inform everyone I meet of how we casually stumbled across Dutch Royals. This is often answered with “I know, you already told me”…Oh. But what a strange day!

spain blog

At the time of writing this, I am just returning from a day out in the nearby town of Gouda. Home to Gouda cheese, the Stroopwafel and today: the arrival point of Sinterklaas and his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes). In case you don’t know, I’ll rapidly brief you about this tradition. Based on the story of St Nicholas, Sinterklaas travels by boat from Spain to the Netherlands, where he arrives on the first Saturday after the 11th of November each year alongside six to eight helpers. After being greeted by crowds of families and children, he parades the streets on horseback surrounded by the Zwarte Pieten who carry bags of gingerbread-like biscuits that they throw at adoring children in the audience.

I had been well aware of this tradition since the beginning of my studies here and I am also aware that it is rather a touchy subject to say the least. Zwarte Piet is portrayed by a man or woman painted with a blackface, red lips, a black curly wig and 17th Century page attire. Being an outsider, this knowledge made me feel uneasy. All I could see in the images of Zwarte Piet was a Golliwog-type character, a representation of the African slave trade, which in my mind didn’t look great considering The Netherlands’ history of colonisation. However it’s not necessarily something you should bring up with a Dutch person in general conversation. It is a very touchy subject and clearly something that Dutch people are criticised for year after year. Many are insistent that it does not have racial undertones and that Zwarte Piet simply has a black face due to travelling down chimneys to deliver presents.


Today I decided to go out and witness this tradition for myself. The atmosphere was undeniably contagious and I even found myself excited for the arrival of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. After some initial eye widening, eyebrow raising, and awkward hand twiddling at the sight of young children painted with blackface, I soon became immune to this sight and quickly forgot about my squeamishness towards it. How could you deny your child the excitement of this event where brass bands play and everyone sings traditional Dutch songs together? I’m sure growing up with this tradition brings it close to your heart and I understand the need to be defensive of something so important to Dutch culture. But then up-close, everything about the Zwarte Pieten resembled caricatures – the jet black face paint, bright red lip paint, curly wigs and over-the-top expressions. Luckily, the five-year old girl in front of me who repeatedly took my eye out with her umbrella impaired my vision enough to not be too scared of them.

And on the other side of the square, a group of protesters – many of them black – were contained by a circle of police officers on horses, security and police presence resembling that in Brisbane at the moment for the G20 summit and Obama’s visit. Two very different VIP guests who require similar protection it seems. Sinterklaas must be jealous of Father Christmas who has a fairly peaceful trip around the world while children are fast asleep and protesters and police are at bay. Who knows, if I’m lucky I might even get a high security visit from Sinterklaas before I head home for Christmas.

Ellen Leach-Hutchings

Images courtesy of Ellen Leach-Hutchings, Daniella Weduwer (slider)

Link to BBC news story about protesters in Gouda

Link to Loren Snel’s latest feature on the racism of Black Pete

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