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Sinterklaas has come to town


This last week has been an interesting one for us here on Prinsengracht.  The long fall is turning slowly into winter, with the nights becoming longer and colder and leaves drifting slowly on the breeze.  For once I did not go to Het Amsterdamse Bos this weekend, but strolled up to Westergasthuisfabriek Park.  It has a lovely nature park, with wild reeds and willows growing amidst a marsh, which we would refer to in South Africa as a vlei.

I have been watching the canals for their ever present bird life, which includes ducks, swans, geese, seagulls and various other birds.  One night last week as I strolled along a canal as the shadows lengthened and the autumn leaves glowed in the light of the street lamps, a heron squawked noisily as it flapped along over the water.

The nature park at Westergasthuisfabriek provides these birds with some semblance of a natural environment.  People walking along the canals might always be willing to feed birds, but a natural environment is far better for nesting and raising young.  I felt drawn into the park by bright red leaves on a tree amidst the reeds, summoned like a bright beacon light heralding the end of summer.

Rabbits also abound in the park, and were in ample evidence when I visited it with a friend this afternoon.  Some of them have relatively unusual black colouring, possibly the result of domesticated rabbits escaping into the wild.  It must be of great help on these dark winter nights, when birds of prey are out seeking prey.  This water garden must be of great help to such birds of prey, who, judging by evidence I have seen along its edges, have had great success in hunting water voles and other rodents.

My enjoyment of bird life must be an inherited trait from my maternal grandfather, who was an avid amateur ornithologist.  My earliest memories of him are of sitting together on his veranda, eating oranges while he watched the large flocks of birds in his garden.  These were attracted no doubt by the numerous birdbaths and feeders in his garden, which brought large numbers of them every day.  He always kept a pair of binoculars and Roberts Book of Birds handy, in the event a new species might appear.

My grandfather even kept a pet hadeda ibis, when he lived in the Transkei.  He adopted the bird after finding it injured.  Most of you will not have seen or heard of one of these birds, but the noise they make will try ones patience, and my grandfather was indeed a bird lover to keep the bird.  He named it Harry, and was no doubt surprised when Harry turned out to be female and hatched a nest of chicks.  She remained firmly in his affections for years afterwards, and he even kept one of her feathers along with photographs of her, which he showed to his curious grandson.

Aside from being a dedicated ornithologist, my grandfather had the makings of a great folklorist, and collected numerous stories during his time in the Wild Coast, none of which was written down for posterity, unfortunately.  He had the advantage of being fluent in Xhosa, the native language in that part of South Africa.  The rugged terrain of the area no doubt was somewhere the descendant of immigrants from the Highlands of Scotland would feel at home.  I can well imagine my grandfather being part of a Celtic bardic tradition which stretched back into antiquity, adapted of course to an African environment.   I did not get an opportunity to visit the area as a child, but visiting as an adult was a wonderful experience.  My grandfathers memory seemed to reach out to me from the very ground, bringing my childhood memories back to life.

Today was a good day to rediscover one’s inner child however, as Sinterklaas arrived in town.  His arrival is an eagerly awaited event in Amsterdam, and a huge parade is held for the occasion.  Some of my room mates got up extra early to see him arrive by boat, before he headed into town, but I overslept.  I headed down to Dam Square, where a large reception committee was waiting for him.  In case anyone is wondering why many of those dressed up in the parade have blacked faces, it is part of a Dutch tradition which holds he had a helper called Zwarte Piet, who was a Moor from Spain.

The weather was very helpful today, with bright sunshine throughout the afternoon.  I found the group traditionally dressed up as a civic guard to be especially entertaining.  The Dutch certainly do take their civic duties seriously 🙂  A couple of Zwarte Pieten were also abseiling down the side of a building alongside the route, adding to the excitement.  Parades definitely seem part of the Dutch tradition, with the Gay Pride Parade and the Halloween Parade being very memorable events.  It should come as no surprise that Rembrandt’s Night Watch depicted a civic guard who were just about to go out marching…. On that note, here is a good song called The Saints Go Marching In


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