Why visit the Keukenhof, even if you don’t like flowers


Pirate theme at the Keukenhof

The obvious reason to visit the Keukenhof is to look at the beautiful flowers, but what if you don’t like flowers? There are plenty of other reasons:

  1.  People-watching is a pretty good reason. There are tourists from all over the world.
  2. Concentrated Dutchness in the form of clog-makers and other craftsmen, people in traditional dress, tulips, tulips and more tulips. Okay, I admit it, tulips are flowers. There’s even a windmill. But there’s more.
  3. How about art, fashion design and shoes (perhaps with a floral twist). Not interested in art?
  4. Cake then? I had the best carrot cake I’ve ever tasted there. It was amazing!
  5. Oh, and there are these absolutely incredible displays of orchids in such an overwhelming number that you won’t believe your eyes. Not to mention colour in such abundance that you might just forget they are flowers and just enjoy the utter decadence of the whole thing.

I’m allergic to flowers. I’m not going to have much fun, am I? Unless you’re allergic to daffodils, you shouldn’t have any problem at all at the Keukenhof. This may just be the only garden you ever visit where you don’t have any allergic reactions or hayfever. Early spring flowers don’t tend to have irritating pollen (as far as I know) and I didn’t notice any willow either, so you should be safe.

This is my photographic record of the non-floral charms of the Keukenhof. Plus some orchids that are so exotic they hardly count as flowers.

Traditional Dutch costumes

Clogs and windmills

People-watching: tourists to watch

If you enjoy people-watching, there are plenty to see at the Keukenhof, from all over the world. At one of the restaurants, I was watching some chiquely-dressed and elegantly-coiffured Italian women drinking coffee and talking whilst paying no attention whatsoever to one of their casually-dressed, good-looking husbands. He sat patiently feeding a toddler who was having a whale of a time banging bread on the table and waving a serviette around. In contrast to this, in another restaurant later in the day, two young Dutch guys came in for a beer, one with his baseball cap on back-to-front and the other covered in tattoos; rather unexpected visitors to the Keukenhof. In contrast, there were the Japanese ladies in voluminous pale green capes and broad-brimmed hats. Could they have been Japanese nuns? I’d love to know, but I can’t find any information.

Art, fashion and shoes – with orchids

Carrot cake! And miscellaneous objects


On the last leg of our visit to the Keukenhof my phone battery ran out, so I don’t have many photos of the section of the Keukenhof that was about the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century. There was a beautiful display incorporating blue and white Delftware wall plates and mosaic and a couple of displays made up to look like VOC ships, but alas… Now I have to wait for my husband to upload his photos. He takes a different style of photos. I like details, he prefers the big picture. My phone can’t cope with the big picture!

Have you ever been to the Keukenhof? It’s well worth a visit, even if you don’t particularly like flowers. I hope I’ve convinced you. And sorry for subjecting you to so many flowers. I just couldn’t help myself.


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Top 10 reasons to visit the Keukenhof spring gardens: review and photos of flowers

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Is it worth visiting the Keukenhof early in the season? Find out what you can see and do at the Keukenhof apart from looking at tulips. Top 10 reasons for visiting the Keukenhof and my photos of daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths and – of course – tulips. Continue reading

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A Dutch monkey miscellany: music, morality and urban legends

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.

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Monkey puzzles – of brass monkeys and monkey wrenches

Sometimes I’m reading a book and come across a phrase or piece of information that is just begging for further investigation and that leads to even more new questions and discoveries. This time I got dragged into the mysterious world of brass monkeys, monkey wrenches, monkey puzzle trees and a whole barrel-load of monkeys. Not to mention unearthing a Dutch disco hit called The Monkey Puzzle Tree. Join me in a voyage of discovery to find tales of dubious word origins and other nautical nonsense.

Brass monkey weather?

A barrel of monkeys

On this occasion, I was happily reading William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach when I was struck by the phrase brass monkeys, then one thing lead to another. Of course, I have heard the expression before, but the thing that jarred with me was that it doesn’t seem to be the full expression.


Freezing the balls off a brass monkey – what does it mean?

It wasn’t an expression I grew up with so when I first heard it, many years ago, I was mystified. “Brass monkey weather!” exclaimed my husband. That definitely needed some explanation. The full expression, “it’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”, according to my husband, it goes back to the time of warfare with cannons when the cannonballs were stored in piles on metal plates. If the weather was really cold, the metal contracted so much that the cannonballs could be catapulted off.  To be honest, this sounds a little far-fetched to me. Cannonballs were made of pretty heavy metal and I can’t imagine a pile of them could be catapulted anywhere by the force anything less than a direct hit by another cannonball. Has Mythbusters investigated this?

Boringly enough, this origin of the phrase can be consigned to the annals of urban legend, according to Wikipedia and the fascinating website World Wide Words (if you’re a fan of word origins, don’t visit it if you don’t want to lose days of your life reading deep into the night). According to its author, Michael Quinion, the monkeys concerned are supposedly small brass souvenirs of the Three Wise Monkeys, See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Speak No Evil, who cover their eyes, ears and mouth respectively with their paws. Early versions also had a monkey covering his genitals; not sure what his name would have been! If you ask me, this is also an entirely imaginary etymological theory. Why would anyone think of the Three Wise Monkeys (or in this case Four Wise Monkeys) in connection with the weather? Unless there was a famous shipment of souvenirs from China and Japan that was ruined by various parts of their anatomy falling off when the weather turned chilly, or they melted in the tropical heat, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t usually get hot enough to melt brass even in the tropics.

Brass monkeys

Freezing the balls off the three wise monkeys?

Where do the Three Wise Monkeys come from?

Everything might be made in China nowadays, but it’s pretty certain that the three monkeys (sanbikizaru) originally came from Japan because they depict a Japanese pun. As the word for ‘monkey’ (saru or zaru) sounds the same as the negative verb ending zaru *, the image of the three monkeys is a play on the words mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru (‘see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing’). To take the pun even further, the first word, mizaru (‘see nothing’) can also mean ‘three monkeys’. In an article in the Guardian, G.H. Healey of Sheffield University’s School of East Asian Studies suggests it is comparable to illustrating the English words ‘catastrophic, catagmatic, catalytic’ with three cats.

* N.B. Apparently the Japanese language has negative verb endings!

Brass monkeys and cannonballs

Just like the cannonballs, the nautical explanation doesn’t stack up, either. The Royal Navy, who should know what they’re talking about even if they don’t have very many ships left, say that cannonballs on ships were stored in something like one of those preformed fruit boxes they use for apples, with depressions for the cannonballs. The racks were called shot garlands; wooden planks with holes to stop the cannonballs from rolling around deck in rough weather. Not to mention the fact that keeping cannonballs on deck would have caused them to rust, so they were stored below decks until required. Were they stored stacked up in pyramids under cover, then? No, apparently not, though they might have been kept like that on land. Stacking cannonballs just doesn’t make sense at sea.

According to an article on www.phrases.org.uk,  there could be a nautical connection after all. Not the powder monkeys, the boys who helped load the cannons on board, but the cannons themselves. The first recorded mention is in an inventory published in 1650 where ‘Short Brasse Munkeys alias Dogs’ are listed in The articles of the rendition of Edenburgh-Castle to the Lord Generall Cromwel (they didn’t have online spelling checkers back then). More etymological detective work referred to in this article cross-references drakes/monkeys in a 1663 book and an earlier reference in 1627 to “Two drakes upon the half deck, being brass, of sacker bore” (whatever that may mean).

Monkey wrenches

It seems that there were lots of bits and bobs on a sailing ship that were called ‘monkey’ something or other. It suddenly occurred to me that my husband always talks about a monkey wrench. When I looked it up, I found that it is also supposed to have a nautical connection; the apocryphal CANOE (Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything)  would be proud!. The word monkey was used as a modifier “denoting a small light structure or piece of equipment contrived to suit an immediate purpose: a monkey foresail, a monkey bridge”.

Like brass monkeys, the origin of the monkey wrench name is shrouded in mystery and has its very own dubious tale of monkey business. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the story went that the inventor of the monkey wrench was Charles Moncky who sold his patent for $2,000, investing his money in  a house in Williamsburg, Kings County, NY. Even though it had already been debunked by historical and patent research in the late 19th century, the story stuck. Source: wikipedia.org/Monkey_wrench. One of the links in this article has the sort of discussion only a museum curator and a collector could have about the origins of monkey wrenches, but it does mention that the name monkey in this case could simply have come from the rounded shape of the head and open jaws of an early wrench, making it look rather like a monkey’s head, seen from the side. I rather like this idea. Not much help with brass monkeys, mind you.


Some of these may be monkey wrenches. Some of them look a bit like monkeys.

For a summary of the discussion about brass monkeys, I refer you to Wordwizard.

Cooper’s Stout advert for the literalists

If you like your explanations literal, try the story of Scott of the Antarctic and the Brass Monkey, a radio advertising campaign for Cooper’s Stout.

Also in the literalist camp is this image of a monkey sitting atop some cannonballs for Brass Monkey Bitter, but I think you’ll agree that this is definitely using the monkey idea of popular imagination as a springboard for an advertising campaign and not the origin of the phrase.  Seen on: teambenzina.nl.

Monkey puzzle trees

Even the monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) has a nautical connection, though not in its naming; its straight trunk was prized for making masts. There is a tale behind its common name, however. It was brought back from Chile in 1795 by Archibald Menzies, the naval surgeon aboard the Discovery (after Captain Cook had moved on). When he was served the seeds for dessert at a dinner hosted by the Governor of Chile, he smuggled some out and planted them in frames on deck on the voyage home. He took the saplings to Kew Gardens where one specimen grew for almost 100 years. They became popular trees in Victorian and Edwardian gardens after plant hunter William Lobb brought back more seeds in 1842, shooting the cones out of the trees to get hold of them. Now they are on the endangered list in the wild (not, I hasten to add, because they have all been shot but because of deforestation and other human skulduggery). The story goes that a visitor to a garden in Cornwall commented that the hard prickly leaves and the way the tree grew “would be a puzzle for a monkey”. And so it became known as the monkey puzzler and later the monkey puzzle tree. To be honest, the puzzling part is how it became to be associated monkeys as there are none in South America, not to mention how the monkey puzzle name became so popular. It’s even connected to monkeys in other languages: in French it is called désespoir des singes, monkey’s desperation and in Dutch one of its common names is similar, apeverdriet, monkey sadness – presumably because they can’t climb the tree’s prickly branches easily. It is also known as apenpuzzel (monkey puzzle, from the English) or apentreiter (monkey teaser). The most common name, however, is slangenden (snake pine) because the branches resemble snakeskin or else kandelaarden (candelabra pine) because of the shape of the young tree. Older trees lose their lower branches so they end their days looking more like palms than pines.
Sources: www.ft.com + www.kew.org

Recently I have been cycling around taking photos of artwork on the front of local houses (for a future blog post) and it struck me how many fully-grown monkey puzzle trees there are in this area. The trees are definitely not in the grounds of houses that were there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so there must have been a more recent fashion for them here, probably between the 1950s and the 1970s. It’s a little difficult to tell, however, as they can apparently live to the ripe old age of over 1,000 years old, if one newspaper article is to be believed; I’m pretty sure that is an exaggeration. Apparently they were originally sold for 100 guilders per metre, making them quite a status symbol, so it’s not surprising some of the largest examples are at stately homes.  However, the majority are in tiny front gardens, planted as solitary trees bang smack in the centre of a tiny lawn. They grow slowly, but as they grow to a considerable height, they definitely earn their title of living fossil. I can’t say they are one of my favourite trees and although the larger ones are rather impressive, I prefer a more graceful tree myself.

I don’t have my own photo of a monkey puzzle tree because I’d have to go outside to walk 10 metres up the road and it’s brass monkey weather, but I did discover a website by a Dutch artist called Marc Volger who is often involved in collaborative art. He seems to have a thing about collections and trees and on his blog he started a gallery of monkey puzzle trees, so I’ll share one of his Facebook photos. I love his Facebook page because he shares random photos of the sort of things I take photos of and then writes little background stories about them. He has a new follower; ironic, because his surname means follower!

Slangenboom, apenverdriet, apenpuzzel

Monkey puzzle tree in Wijchen

I tell a lie, I do have my own photo of a local monkey puzzle tree, discovered as I was adding the photos to this blog post. It pays to poke around the archives! I wonder if they realised it was going to grow so big.

Dutch disco – The Monkey Puzzle Tree

Just when I thought I had found the last scrap of information on monkey puzzle trees in the Netherlands, what should I come across but a 1982 song called The Monkey Puzzle Tree by a Dutch singer known as Erna Jones, or later May Jones (real name Erna Jansen) from Uden, a small town in Noord-Brabant. I had never heard it before, which is hardly surprising as it’s pretty dire, but in the interests of leaving no stone unturned, I feel compelled to include it. Enjoy!

Do join me for some more monkey business soon. If you have a heart-wrenching tale to tell, if you’ve had a close encounter with a monkey or, for that matter, a monkey puzzle tree, why not leave a comment below.



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How many eggs make an egg? Palmpasen and Palm Sunday

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Children in parts of the Netherlands and Germany decorate sticks on Palm Sunday. Sometimes these are taken in a parade or donated to homes. I investigate the symbolism. Continue reading

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Schrikkeldag in the Netherlands – Leap Day

Leap years only turn up once every four years, so there are all sorts of traditions attached. Does the Netherlands do anything special to mark the arrival of 29 February and what’s it called? I found out a surprising tradition linked to one in Italy and listened to leap day number 1 songs.

IMG_0377 ClockImagine being born on 29 February! It only comes round every four years, so theoretically you’d only be able to celebrate it once every four years on your actual birthdate and not at all at the turn of the century, unless it was a number divisible by 400. I’ve only just discovered that last fact. I knew leap years were divisible by four, but not that centuries had to be divisible by 400 to be a leap year. There’s no point in me trying to explain  leap years because you probably already know, but in case you don’t, here’s a good explanation by CBS.

29 February is schrikkeldag in Dutch

Every time there’s a leap year, I rediscover that 29 February is called schrikkeldag in the Netherlands. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone refer to it as leap day in English, but when I looked it up online, I discovered that that is what it’s called. Is this a new name to fit in with the ‘on this day in history’ obsession of blogs, I wonder, or was it always there?

I think I’ve only knowingly met one person whose birthday was on the 29th, but there are 10,717 Dutch residents (maybe not all citizens) who share that birthday (Source: CBS – the Dutch Statistics Bureau, not the American news channel – cited in De Gelderlander). They comment that fewer babies than normal are born on the 29th because parents tend to avoid the date if they are having a planned caesarean or are induced. Nevertheless, this time four years ago in 2012, 473 babies were born on the day itself.

Getting married on leap day

Heeft februari negenentwintig dagen, dan mogen de meisjes de jongens vragen.
If the month has 29 days, the girls can ask the boys.

In the past, Dutch couples would not have considered getting married on Schrikkeldag because it was considered a strange day, therefore unlucky. Likewise it was unlucky to accept presents or start something new. Most people are no longer so superstitious, but the date can still sometimes cause problems. For example, some websites don’t allow you to fill in 29 February as your birth date . There are legal implications, too. If someone born on 29 February celebrated their birthday on 28 February in a non-leap year, thinking they had passed the legal drinking age, they would be right in Taiwan or New Zealand but still considered underage in England until 1 March.

Since Dutch couples celebrate 12 1/2-year wedding anniversaries, anyone married on 29 August 12 1/2 x 4 years ago will also have a party to look forward to on the extra day in February. I’m sure they were horrified to realise they would have to wait so long because they were very unlikely to have thought of the issue when they were planning their August weddings, unlike those who deliberately chose 29 February. Surprisingly, more people choose to get married on leap day than you would expect as people like the unusual date. I cynically wonder if they pick that date to avoid having to remember their anniversary every year!

Born on leap day

Of course, those actually born on 29 February had no choice in the matter, but they (or their parents) do have the choice of which day to celebrate in non-leap years: should they celebrate on 28 February (early) or 1 March (too long to wait)? The website schrikkeljarig.nl points out that Facebook alerts your Facebook friends on the 28th so they are not late to congratulate you, but I would imagine most celebrate whichever day follows 28 February, so either 29 February or 1 March, depending on the year. If you had a friend whose birthday was on 27 February or 1 March, you could have a joint party most years!

Where does the word schrikkel come from?

As I said, the Dutch name for Leap Year is schrikkeljaar. It’s one of those names I can never remember because it doesn’t crop up that often in conversation. So I wondered where the name came from. The only word I can think of that is similar is verschrikkelijk, meaning terrible, horrible, no good, very bad. I admit it can be confusing to have an extra day on the calendar, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was that bad!

According to Wikipedia, the word schrikkel stems from the Middle Dutch scricken, with the original definition of ‘walking with large steps’ or ‘jumping’ (springen in modern Dutch). In the dialect of Hasselt, it is related to the word schrikschoen meaning a skate, so a sort of jumpy shoe.  Of course, this ties in pretty well with the English name for a leap year. Strangely enough, it’s on non-leap years that we jump over a day; a bit odd when you think about it. It occurs to me that the most accurate translation is to skip, a word that has the dual meaning of jumping and missing out something.

In an online etymological reference, I also noticed a reference to a schrikkeldans (leap dance), not a word I had ever come across before, so I had to investigate. Sadly it hasn’t got anything to do with leapfrog, it turns out to be nothing more than a dance where the woman asks the man to dance, just as 29 February is traditionally the day women are allowed to ask men out or even propose marriage. Not so bad! But schrikkel is after all related to that dreadful verschrikkelijk word, according to M. Philippa et al. (referenced in www.etymologiebank.nl), adding the prefix ver to schrikken, to be surprised or shocked.

Actually the leaping that’s going on has to do more with the other special days of the year being forced to jump or skip to a day later than they would otherwise be celebrated. Going back to the Julian calendar, the extra day wasn’t added at the end of the month, but squeezed in between 23 and 24 February. In fact, it didn’t even have a number to start with, so there was no 29 February, but a nameless day floating in the middle of nowhere. Most peculiar.

The cost of leap day

Given the stereotype that the Dutch are stingy – ahum, careful with their pennies –  I can’t help laughing that one of the main discussion points about the leap year phenomenon in Dutch newspapers is the financial effect. Nibud, the Dutch financial watchdog, works this out every leap year, comparing the extra costs of an extra day (for food, heating, petrol, wear and tear) versus the extra benefits of being able to enjoy an extra day of using internet, TV, insurance. If you are paid by the hour, you might even have a day’s extra income as well as the chance of an extra day’s exercise at your gym for nothing. They calculated that it works out as a loss of € 3 for individuals and € 13 for a family.

However, as an economist called Mathijs Bouman points out on the RTL Nieuws site,  it is ridiculous to calculate like this because it makes no difference in the long run. Salaries and allowances take into account the slight variations in the numbers of days worked each year due to public holidays falling on weekends or during the week and whether or not a year lasts 365 or 366 days. In fact, the number of actual workdays in 2016 is 255, exactly the same as 2014 and 2019 (neither leap years). Oh well, the media has to worry about something!

Fun facts about 29 February

The schrikkeljarig website is full of fun stuff. For example:

  • Radio 10 decided to play only songs by one-hit wonders (eendagsvliegen, lit. one-day flies or mayflies) on 29 February this year.
  • The city of Purmerend was 550 years old in 1960. Since it was a leap year, the town decided to call itself the Town of People Born on Leap Year (Stad der schrikkeljarigen), and gave a silver-plated teaspoon to every child born on 29 February between 1960 and 1972.
  • Another post on the website shows posters by more or less well-known Dutch organisations. The most famous is the Arnhem-based organisation Loesje, that produces amusing and insightful texts – often containing political comment – on posters, calendars and the like. Their contribution is:

“29 februari – Een dag om alles te doen… waar je de afgelopen 4 jaar geen tijd voor had.”
(29 February – A day to do everything… you didn’t have time for in the last 4 years)

Similarly, the Mwah group came up with:

“Schrikkeljaar. Nog een dag langer om je niet aan je voornemens te houden.”
(Leap Year. A day extra for you not to keep your resolutions.)

  • The blog author also tells us about the brilliant wordplay of Wim Meyle’s comment: “Wie op 29 februari geboren is blijft minder jarig.” On the face of it, it means that whoever is born on 29 February will continue to have fewer birthdays. This could then result in them being considered minderjarig, underage.

Unusual Dutch leap year traditions

Trying to find more particular traditions associated with leap years in the Netherlands, I was drawing a blank. Then I happened upon a blog in Dutch about Italy, where a leap year is considered particularly lucky, an anno fausto or lucky year. In Bologna, a giant figure of an old man (il Vecchione)  is burned on the Piazza Maggiore on New Year’s Eve, the giant bonfire symbolising the burning of the troubles of the old year, hoping for a better new year. In leap years, however, the figure burned is that of an old woman (il Vecchiona). The giant figures are made by Italian artists connected to Bologna and are quite spectacular. Take a look at last year’s incredible figure, designed by the performance artist Andreco. Sources: www.italymagazine.com + www.italie.nl

Leap year carnival Den Bosch – Knillis and Hermien

The figure burned in Bologna reminded me of the figures on the carnival floats in the Netherlands, especially as I know a figure is burned ceremonially at the end of the Carnival period on Shrove Tuesday in some places. When I was investigating the Italian tradition, I was surprised to stumble upon a new-to-me leap year carnival tradition in Oeteldonk (the carnival name of ‘s-Hertogenbosch) that is just like the one in Italy. Every year, the giant figure of a man called Knillis (representing local farmers and/or the founder of the city) is displayed at carnival time in the market square. In leap years, however, his wife Moeder Hendrien joins him on the podium.  Both are given a ‘funeral’ at the end of carnival, lifted from their plinth by the Prins Carnaval and his deputy who are hoisted up by a crane. Knillis (and Hendrien in leap years) are laid to rest on a Brabants boerenkar (a Brabant-style farm cart), amidst much sadness, pretend or otherwise. The theme for the following year’s carnival is announced and then it’s all over until the whole sequence starts up again on the 11th day of the 11th month. Photos here: www.denbosch-cultuurstad.com

In 2016, predictions of heavy weather cancelled a number of carnival processions, but this isn’t the first time a storm has caused trouble. In 1990, Knillis was blown off his plinth and taken to a secret hiding-place. Later it was revealed that he was sheltering at the Heineken brewery, but he reappeared in time for his funeral on the Tuesday. The processions that year were also cancelled because of the weather, only the third time ever (after 1926 when the River Maas flooded and the great storm of 1953 (Watersnood) that caused many deaths in both the Netherlands and England). In 1990, the storm blew over not only Knillis but also an English lorry on the bridge at Zaltbommel, causing an enormous traffic jam. Since this prevented many outsiders from visiting the city, Oeteldonk honoured the lorry driver, Anthony Briant, during the Kwèkfestijn later in the year, a carnival song festival.

Number one on twenty-nine two

It would never have occurred to me to look this up myself, but on the Dutch blog dedicated to anything related to 29 February, the most recent blog post covers exactly that question: what was number 1 in the Dutch pop charts on the ‘extra’ day? Surprisingly, I would say there is a higher-than-average representation of Dutch artists. I would have expected that to be the case in the early 1960s, but it surprises me that the trend has continued. Perhaps the Dutch record-buying public is inspired to buy more Dutch music around the Carnival period. Dutch artists held the top position in 1968, 1980, 1996, 2000, 2004 with English-language number ones in 1960, 1964, 1972, 1976, 1984, 1988, 1992 and 2008, with a Brazilian party hit in 2012 with Michel Teló’s Ai se eu te pego! Now I look at it, the Dutch singles are all interesting and not necessarily what I would expect around Carnaval. In 1968 the much-loved comedian and poet Toon Hermans had a true carnavalskraker (carnival hit) with Mien waar is mijn feestneus? (Mien, where is my party nose?) Unbelievably – or maybe not – it was recorded in a church, the Julianakerk in Soest.

Another thing that struck me about the list is the quality of the Dutch songs represented. The 1996 song 15 miljoen mensen (15 million people) is of the ilk that often brings a lump to my throat as the 15 million people referred to in the title are the citizens of the Netherlands and the song is an ode to the country in all its diversity. I didn’t hear the song in 1996 as I was doomed to only listen to children’s songs at the time (with 2 children under the age of 3), but discovered it on a compilation CD of Dutch music. I will blog more about it on another occasion.

Four years later and another one-hit wonder (more or less, as far as I know) was the curly-topped student singer Abel (the name of the group) with a melancholy song and video shot on a windy tram platform in Amstelveen, recalling his lost love, played by well-known Dutch actress Birgit Schuurman. 2004 saw another heartbreaking song at no. 1 with Dreamer by Dinand Woesthoff (the singer of Kane), recorded the day after his wife, actress Guusje Nederhorst, died of cancer in January. Guusje was a hugely popular soap actress, Kane was incredibly successful and the couple had seemed to have it all until she became ill, so not surprisingly, the song was a hit.

Dutch leap year number one hits

1960 – Neil Sedaka (USA) – Oh Carol
1964 – The Beatles (UK) – I Want to Hold Your Hand
1968 – Toon Hermans (NL) – Mien, waar is mijn feestneus?
1972 – Middle of the Road (UK – Scottish) – Sacramento
(the Scottish band that had a hit with Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep!)
1976 – Nazareth (UK – Scottish) – Love Hurts
1980 – BZN (NL)- Pearlydumm (BZN is an extremely famous Dutch band, often
singing in English). Not one of their most popular numbers, I would
hazard a guess, but it sounds like a take-off of ABBA’s Fernando or
1984 – Queen (UK) – Radio Ga Ga
1988 – Bill Medly & Jennifer Warnes (USA) – The Time of My Life
1992 – George Michael & Elton John (UK) – Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me
1996 – Fluitsma & Van Tijn (NL) – 15 miljoen mensen
2000 – Abel (NL) – Onderweg
2004 – Dinand Woesthoff – Dreamer
2008 – Leona Lewis – Bleeding Love
2012 – Michel Teló (Brazil) – Ai se eu te pego!
2016 – Mike Posner (USA) – I Took a Pill in Ibiza

I’m sure I could find out more about leap year in the Netherlands if I tried, but given we’ve already passed the Ides of March, I think it’s time I pressed ‘publish’ and leaped on to another topic.

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Carnival news 2016 and Wijchen parade photos

I know, I know. “Not another post about Dutch carnival”, you’re thinking. Believe me, there’s more where that came from, but I’ll keep it for next year. But I do want to post the photos I took at our local carnival parade in Wijchen and there were a few unusual stories during Carnaval in 2016 that I wanted to share.

Refugees and carnival

Many people were wondering what the refugees from the Middle East who are guests here at the moment would make of carnival. To make sure they weren’t completely surprised, the COA – Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers – distributed leaflets explaining the phenomenon and laying down a few rules. There was even another version for Dutch nationals who come from parts of the country where carnival is not celebrated!

In Maastricht, 55 refugees from several countries and 20 Dutch students formed their own impromptu carnival association, Common Carnaval, After the students from the Art Academy in Maastricht came up with the idea, they put it all together in just a few weeks, building a carnival float and making costumes. The costumes were mostly made by a tailor who had fled from Iraq, helped by local women. They combined dark cloth symbolising the refugees’ desperate journey, contrasting with light cloth symbolising the different cultures, all having fun together. The carnival prince, Prins Ali d’n Ierste (Prince Ali the First), is a Syrian refugee from the Aleppo area and, surprisingly, he says that he has taken part in carnival before because there are a few places in Syria where it is celebrated, but only as a one-day festival. The same article shows a photo of a group of refugees in the northern town of Ootmarsum (Overijssel) who took part in the carnival parade dressed as bakers, with a play on words. Instead of Heel Holland Bakt, the Dutch version of the hit show the Great British Bake-off, their banner said Heel Holland Bedankt (thank you to the whole of Holland). Great examples of integration!

Anything goes at carnival? Rules about what to wear

All parades have conduct rules about noise levels, whether or not beer is allowed during the procession, smoke machines, etc. Pretty much anything goes as far as costumes go. Political correctness is not one of the aims of carnival. There is no debate about dressing up as Asians or American Indians or gays (just see my photos). However, racist slogans are not acceptable, and there was a storm in a teacup this year when the carnival committee in Nijmegen banned dressing up as terrorists or cowboys, i.e. no weapons. Of course this raised the hackles of those who like to imply that the locals are being hard-done-by and are losing their liberty to keep Muslim refugees happy. None of which was true, of course. The carnival committee had to explain that people could wear whatever they wanted, but not if they were taking part in the parade and cowboys would be fine, just not if they were gun-slinging.

Steampunk carnival

IMG_2389 Carnaval Wijchen steampunk specsApparently one of the upcoming trends in costumes this year was steampunk. Sadly I didn’t see anyone dressed like the photos in De Gelderlander, although I did see one young man with some steampunky glasses. I would love a steampunk outfit. Teenagers and students tend to pick ‘sexy’ and inexpensive outfits and accessories. Young adults with a bit more money to spend prefer to invest in something they can wear for several years, hence the investment in steampunk gear that costs much more.

Accidents and cancellations

A carnival float ran amok in Tubbergen, a village near Almelo in the north-east of the Netherlands. The beautifully-lit moving carnival float suddenly speeded up, stopped suddenly and one of the giant figures fell off the front of the float, injuring 3 people. Just goes to show that it’s probably not a good idea to transplant the idea so far north; it’s a ‘below the rivers’ tradition.

 Carnaval Wijchen 2016 – my photos

The Prins Carnaval this year was John Holl, the man who dressed up as Frau Antje and was seen on television during the Football World Cup in Brazil, so there were lots of jokes about that. Some slogans, costumes and themes referred to Frau Antje. There were also plays on words on the name Holl. For example, the word hol means cave or den, so there were  Hollbewoners (cave-dwellers), and something about Holl-ant instead of Holland.

The theme for the carnival parade in 2016 in Wijchen was Fout jaar (fout joar in dialect), meaning something like tasteless year or wrong year. Fout also means mistake, so it gave everyone plenty of room for interpretation. It also linked in with international news of mistakes and wrong-doing such as the VW emissions scandal, the FIFA bribery scandal and the wrong winner being announced at the Miss Universe contest. There was also reference to the ‘wrong result’ with the Dutch football team failing to qualify for next year’s Europa Cup.

On the tasteless side of things, there were plenty of bad taste costumes, including the exceptionally non-PC ‘gay’ costumes. The questionable joke is supposed to be the word play on 4G(ay) network and the Samsung Gay-laxy. (N.B. I didn’t intend those two photos to be the most prominent, but I haven’t worked out yet how to choose which photos are emphasised in the grid yet in WordPress, if indeed it is possible.) And if you believe it’s unacceptable to dress up as someone from another racial group or a stereotype of a country’s costume, then you won’t like the Chinese ‘You’ll never wok alone’ group or the Japanese origami group with the huge origami stork. They were handing out sheets of paper and asking the crowd to fold a stork (or at the very least a paper aeroplane) before they moved on. I wasn’t sure why this was connected to the theme until I realised that fout sounds very like vouwt (folds).

Another group deliberately misconstrued the word as foud (as oud means old), dressing up as old people with rollators (a sort of walking frame or zimmer frame with wheels). One float challenged us to find the mistakes in their muddled-up fairy tales; I only caught the wolf on the giant’s shoulders. I am assuming that some of the groups interpreted fout as vals. Were those orchestras playing off-key (vals) and is that fierce dog also vicious (vals)? And can you spot my ‘deliberate’ mistake in the photo mosaics below? I may have to go back and edit at some point, but now is not the time.

Finally, I’m going to add some photos that show off the fun and camaraderie of Carnaval, the hard work and creativity that goes into the costumes and floats. Some of these floats are spectacular, some are clever and some are just downright mystifying. Like the one with the Moulin Rouge (spectacular, or at least, large) with the legs which occasionally did the can can (but not when I took the photo). And the little blue caravan that says something about Cinderella (Assepoester) taking the wrong carriage out of the coach-house. I was wondering if was referring to the famous dress meme (is it blue and black or is it white and gold?), but as I say, I’m not at all sure. I rather liked the manure-spreading tank that had been converted into a vehicle with the sign ‘Is deze wagen niet om te gieren?‘. Gieren means both to spread liquid manure and to laugh uncontrollably, so the question is either/or ‘Can this car be used for spreading muck?’ or ‘Isn’t this car hilarious?’ I do like a good pun.

That’s all, folks! I hope you enjoyed the glimpse of carnival parades in the Netherlands. If you want to know more, I’ve written several other posts about Carnival:


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