Welcome to monkey music, learning to read Dutch with monkeys, monkey lessons in morality, urban legends and monkey exploitation. And to finish up, an amazing recipe for monkey bread that I would love to try. If you want more monkey-related trivia, swing on over to my last post where I got rather carried away looking into the etymology of the phrase ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey‘ and the stories behind the naming of monkey wrenches and monkey puzzle trees.

Dutch musical monkeys for sale

To most people’s horror, V&D (Vroom & Dreesmann), one of the Netherlands’ iconic chains of department stores has gone bankrupt and been shut down, leaving gaping holes in the centre of many a town. Of course, one man’s loss is another man’s gain, so bargain-hunting Dutch folk have been having a field day as the discounts crept up to the unprecedented level of 90 % off. Absolutely everything had to go, including furniture and fittings to be sold at auction. In Dordrecht there was a campaign to save the singing and dancing box of monkeys for posterity, the so-called bimbobox that used to stand near the department store’s public toilets. Eventually it was sold for a total of € 33,000 all told to Restaurant ‘t Bevertje. I’m sure if our local V&D had had such an entertaining spectacle, I would have felt compelled to visit it frequently.

How to talk to monkeys in Dutch

So now to relate all this monkey business to the Netherlands. What do the Dutch call monkeys and apes? Well, if you’re a language learner, you’ll be glad to hear you don’t have to worry too much about the difference between them; in Dutch, they’re all called apen (singular aap) in everyday terms and mensapen are the great apes: gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans (plus humans). I thought it meant primates, but I was wrong! One of the best places to talk to monkeys, apes and other primates in Dutch is the Apenheul Primate Park near Apeldoorn where you can even walk through areas where the monkeys are loose. That means they’re free to rummage through your bag or grab your lunch, so you can borrow special monkey-proof bags, selfie sticks are banned and just eat outside the restricted areas!

Aap, noot, mies – learning to read Dutch

aap, noot, mies leesplankje (reading board) for learning to read Dutch using phonics Image by Neozoon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The word aap has a special place in the Dutch language because it’s traditionally one of the first simple words Dutch children learn to read at school. This goes back to the old-fashioned leesplankjes (reading boards) that were part of Dutch classrooms from 1894 onwards when a system of phonics was introduced. They consisted of a wooden board with pictures of simple words that could be spelled out with letters on small cards. These first 17 words contained all the sounds in the Dutch language so were the first steps in learning to read and write.

If you’re learning Dutch yourself, you could even use them to help remember Dutch pronunciation, once you know how they are pronounced, that is!

The first three words on the most well-known version of the board (published in 1910) were aap, noot, mies (monkey, nut, mies, the latter being the name of a cat). Used together with a search-and-find wall poster of a scene illustrating all the words, teachers used the leesplankje to help children to take their first steps in literacy. Note that no capital letters were used to start with, hence no capitals for the names of the characters Mies, Wim, Jet, Teun, Gijs and Kees. Even today, when new reading curricula and methods are used, most Dutch adults know what ‘aap, noot, mies’ refers to and the traditional images are now used on decorative objects such as tins, trays and mugs. For far more photos of different versions of the leesplankje, take a look at the collections on verkade.webnode.nl/aap-noot-mies and www.het-leesplankje.nl.

Broodje aap – Monkey for lunch or urban legend?

Another monkey phrase in Dutch is broodje aap, literally a monkey roll or sandwich. A broodje kaas is a cheese roll, a broodje gezond is a ‘healthy’ roll usually containing slices of ham, cheese, boiled egg, cucumber and tomato. So what could a broodje aap be? Surely not a bread roll with monkey meat? Never fear, animal-lovers, a broodje aap verhaal is a Dutch phrase meaning an urban legend, presumably coined after a story of a snackbar serving monkey meat did the rounds. Of course, there was a big scandal a couple of years ago about horsemeat being sold as beef…

On the other hand, the mysterious urban legend of a mummified monkey found in the rafters during the demolition of the Boston Garden Stadium in 1998 turns out to be true after all. So no broodjes aap there, then.

De Brabantse aap – ancient urban legend or trendy pub name?

When I was in Amsterdam the other day, we happened to walk past a café called De Brabantse Aap (The Brabant Monkey). I was intrigued; was the name a good historical name or was it just a marketing ploy to amuse tourists? According to the café’s website, the story goes that at the beginning of the 17th century, an organ grinder from the province of Noord-Brabant (North Brabant) would stand near ‘t Spui square in Amsterdam with a little monkey that danced and collected money. At the end of the week, the organ grinder, nicknamed Brabantse Jos, would visit a local woman of ill-repute, Soete Neel (Sweet Nel), who would reward the monkey with a banana. One day, the lady in question repented and joined a convent. In despair, the organ grinder threw himself to his death from the top of the Market House (De Waag). From that moment on, the monkey had to rely on handouts from locals and visitors, so he became a tourist attraction in his own right. Sadly, local drunkards and skallywags thought it was funny to tease the monkey, so he started to retaliate by throwing things at passers-by, including the ever-present horse droppings. After two years, enough was enough, but nobody could catch him. Eventually, Soete Nel, now rechristened Suster Dolce Helena (Sister Sweet Helena), took pity on the town and visited ‘t Spui. Uncovering her hair so that the monkey would recognise her, she waved some bananas to entice the him to come with her. According to the local chronicler Cornelis Calcoen in 1679, the monkey came down from the roof, screeching and juggling, threw his arms around the nun’s neck and was taken off to spend the rest of his days with her and De Bekeerde Susters (The Convered Sisters). Now if this is true or a broodje aap verhaal, I leave it up to you to decide. I have to say, I am dubious about the ready availability of bananas back then, especially to a nun sworn to poverty…

Burgers’ Zoo, Arnhem – groundbreaking Dutch research

In an effort to uncover the truth behind ape behaviour, did you know that some of the most extensive research on primates has been carried out at a zoo in the Netherlands? The chimpanzee group at Burgers’ Zoo in Arnhem (highly recommended!) has been studied continuously since the early 1970s when the first chimpanzee colony of its kind in the world was opened there. The chimps live on an extensive island in a large troupe including several males, just as they would in the wild, and are allowed the freedom to behave as they wish. Given it’s somewhat chillier in the Netherlands than it would be in their native country, they also have the run of a large indoor area where they can be observed by the paying public and researchers alike from a glass-fronted gallery overlooking the main area. I seem to remember seeing a contraption that was used to research the chimpanzee’s ability for delayed gratification. There is also a separate enclosure for a beautiful group of gorillas; wonderful to watch. It also surprised me to discover that the naturalist Frans de Waal (yes, he of the much-shared beautiful photographs on Facebook) was one of the researchers who did his early work in Arnhem, discovering that chimpanzees make an effort to apologise after a conflict. If you have time, do watch his fascinating and hilarious TED talk about animal collaboration and reciprocal behaviour.

Monkeys in the news

Monkeys trained to pick coconuts

Of course, the human ape is not always so good at collaboration and altruistic behaviour, so towards the end of 2015, when reports emerged of monkeys being trained to pick coconuts, it raised moral questions about whether it is ethical to use monkeys like this and whether they should be paid or allowed to otherwise take part in society. Strangely enough, I started writing about monkeys last October (2015) when this was hot off the press and was working on updating the post last on Saturday afternoon (April 2016). Imagine my surprise when this story was mentioned on a recorded episode of QI that we watched that evening. I am keeping track of strange coincidences; this will definitely be added to my files!

Monkeys on their way to Mars

Russia has also had some monkey news recently. In November 2015 they announced that they plan to send trained Rhesus monkeys to Mars in 2017. More ethical dilemmas because I’m pretty sure those monkeys aren’t volunteering. A crew of monkeys is in training at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, being taught how to operate the controls and solve simple mathematical problems. The advantage of Rhesus monkeys is that they are very intelligent and can live for as long as 25 years. Their trainer is also hoping the monkeys themselves can start training other monkeys to do the same.

Product recall for Space Monkeys

In a strange twist of fate in the same week, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission posted a product recall for 36,500 Space Monkey fireworks due to the danger of them toppling over, posing a danger to spectators. Space Monkey fireworks! Nobody would believe you if you made this up!

Monkey balls again

Back on the subject of monkeys and balls, meanwhile, research at Cambridge University has revealed that those howler monkeys with the loudest voices tend to be less endowed in the – um, how to put this delicately? – ‘ball’ department and quieter calls seem to correlate with greater sperm production. Or should that be monkey nuts? In any case, I do sometimes wonder how they come up with their research topics and why the world needed to know this.

And just to prove the theory of the frequency illusion, the Baader-Meinhof effect or whatever it’s called, whilst looking up the abbreviation SMB (small and middle-sized businesses), I discovered that there is a video game called SMB, in this case Super Monkey Ball, as opposed to Super Mario Brothers.

Monkey bread

So while I’m monkeying about, how about monkey bread? This looks absolutely delicious, a sort of cross between bread pudding and cinnamon rolls and sticky toffee pudding. It’s an American recipe almost unknown in the UK, so most of the recipes online not only use cups instead of weight measurements, use store-bought frozen doughs we can’t get here (in the Netherlands, at least) and cater to the extra-sweet American palate. So I was glad to find this reduced-sugar version by David Lebovitz who is based in Paris and so gives weights instead of cups. Nobody really knows why it’s called monkey bread.

You might recognise the ‘nobody knows why’ theme from the previous post. Why are there so many things named after monkeys that have nothing to do with monkeys? It’s a mystery!

As for the bread, most people guess it has something to do with the way you monkey about with the dough, say it looks like a barrel of monkeys when it’s cooked, or the fact that you pull off pieces and eat it with your fingers makes it monkey food. Take your pick! You can read about the history and try out a different recipe here.

If anybody has tried cooking monkey bread with ready-made dough in Europe (particularly the Netherlands or the UK), I’d love to know what works. Croissant dough perhaps? Enough monkey business for now. Hope you enjoyed my monkeying around. More random thoughts from my curious brain coming soon, I hope.