Our annual Christmas market weekend getaway – this year to Antwerp

Its been a while since I’ve published one of those photo posts. You know, the “I’m too lazy to write but look at the cool pictures” kind of post? Well, here’s one. Last weekend me and the missus dropped our daughter at her sister’s and drove off to Antwerp for our annual Christmas market weekend getaway. We both have been there before, but a long-long time ago, so even though Antwerp is only a 100 km drive from Rotterdam, it was quite new to us. There are overwhelming similarities between the two cities – both are a major European harbour, of roughly the same size and with a long common history, having for a long time been part of the same country, and even the language is the same. But despite the many parallels between Rotterdam, our hometown, and Antwerp, we’ve really enjoyed exploring those subtle differences in culture and experience, that make cross-border travel in Europe so much fun. So without further due, here’s Antwerp:

We got SO lucky with the weather!

We got SO lucky with the weather!

A fanfare band playing on the Christmas market

A fanfare band playing on the Christmas market

There was also the regular Sunday market, under the roof of the Stadsschouwburg theatre

There was also the regular Sunday market, under the roof of the Stadsschouwburg theatre

Its not the Netherlands, but they do have an impressive array of bikes

Its not the Netherlands, but they do have an impressive array of bikes

Supreme view from our hotel window

Supreme view from our hotel window

Our stay in Antwerp, Hotel Banks was rather modern and neat in design

Our stay in Antwerp, Hotel Banks was rather modern and neat in design

Yes, leave it to the Jews to sell air (an exhibit from the ‘Sacred Places, Sacred Books’  at the MAS museum)

Yes, leave it to the Jews to sell air (an exhibit from the ‘Sacred Places, Sacred Books’ at the MAS museum)

The centre of Antwerp from the MAS rooftop

The centre of Antwerp from the MAS rooftop

A view of the harbour from the MAS rooftop

A view of the harbour from the MAS rooftop

Belgium is the absurdity capital of Europe, no one is even surprised by having a 9 1/2 th floor here

Belgium is the absurdity capital of Europe, no one is even surprised by having a 9 1/2 th floor here

Liquors are THE Christmas market drink in Antwerp

Liquors are THE Christmas market drink in Antwerp

I can warmly recommend Antwerp and in particular the following places:

  • Hotel Banks – not the cheapest one around, but with excellent facilities and services, including a free bar at the evenings!
  • Daily Roast – excellent coffee.
  • The MAS – Museum Aan de Stroom – a spectacular building with a fascinating variety of exhibitions.

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Israel goes to vote (yes, again…)

 

David Ben-Gurion, an outlier in the Israeli political statistics (among other things) (source: Wikipedia)

On the 17th of March 2015 Israel is going to vote for the 6th time in the 21st century. Even if we discount the 2001 prime ministerial election, that is still a very impressive rate of voting. Parliamentary elections were held in 2003, 2006, 2009, 2013 and, as mentioned, will be held in 2015. Not only are elections held frequently in Israel, the coalitions are forged and re-forged during the parliament’s term, so that more than one cabinet during a parliament’s term is not rare in Israel – record holder is the 2th Knesset (the official name of the Israeli parliament) that has seen no less than 4 cabinets. In the 66 years of Israel’s existence the country has had 33 governments!

Terms of the Israeli governments in years since 1949

Duration of the terms of the Israeli governments in years since 1949

All this chair-dancing means that every time Israel goes to vote (which is rather frequently) the by now familiar cry over the instability of the Israeli democracy is heard. The rapid occurrence of elections is supposedly a sign of the breakdown of society and the dysfunction of the political system. Are frequent elections really that bad? It is true that no Knesset has seen the end of its formal term, so all elections in Israel have been early elections. But that is a sign of stability in itself – it is by now a rule, and a rather strict one, since it knows no exceptions yet. Besides, what sort of stability is desirable? Iraq under Saddam Hussein was rock-stable. In Russia and North Korea elections are held and parliaments serve their terms to the minute, but are these examples of functioning democracies? And in the USA, a president can only be removed from power before the end of his term by death (Nixon is an exception that underlines the rule). Does this mean the political system in USA works well? Stability of government is not a goal in itself in a democracy. On the contrary, a government that can be removed by peaceful means if it has lost the trust of the public, despite formal terms or other barriers, may be what makes a democracy.

Terms of the Israeli parliaments since 1949 (without the last one, the trend line would be flat)

Duration of the terms of the Israeli parliaments since 1949 (without the last one, the trend line would be flat)

Besides the semantics we have the statistics. And an unbiased view of the history of government in Israel tells a rather surprising tale. The long-term trends are clear. Despite all the crises (and there have been A LOT), elections in Israel are not much more frequent. The last parliament’s term was a short one, but otherwise the trend line would be a flat one. Also, the average term a coalition government survives is growing, albeit slowly. The only indicator showing a clear downward trend is the length of the term of a PM. But even this one has a catch. The first (and third) PM of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, has been an exceptional figure in many ways, including his political role. If we exclude him from our statistics, as an obvious outlier, the trend of a PM term becomes flat – meaning that on average, the length of the term in office of a Prime Minister in Israel has been stable for decades.

Length of term in office of Israeli PM's since 1949 (black dotted trend line excludes David Ben-Gurion)

Length of term in office of Israeli PM’s since 1949 (black dotted trend line excludes David Ben-Gurion)

Does this mean Israel has a healthy, functioning political system? Probably not, but then again, who does? To me, this means only that there are many ways to look at the political situation, and the conclusions you draw will probably depend mostly, if not solely on your assumptions. But the way I see it, is that things are by far not as bad as some would have you believe.

*All data is from the website of the Knesset:

https://www.knesset.gov.il/description/eng/eng_mimshal_res.htm

https://www.knesset.gov.il/govt/eng/GovtByMinistry_eng.asp

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Are the Dutch racist?

Believe it or not, this is an image from a pro-Zwarte Piet web page.

The small European country has released a collective sigh of relief this morning. Sinterklaas has left the country, and more importantly, has taken Zwarte Piet with him. For those of you not familiar with what the Dutch call their most important tradition, Sinterklaas is like Santa Claus, but with a little black helper called Zwarte Piet. And if you’re not Dutch and have not been grown up accustomed to this tradition, the image of a Grand White Man on a horse, surrounded by an army of clearly submissive black helpers, is quite disturbing. The fact that the helpers are black-faced white people with accentuated red lips, wearing wigs of curly hair and huge golden ear-rings, is not making it any better, either.

The origins of Zwarte Piet (and Sinterklaas) are probably not racist at all. Researchers of culture and history point to similar winter-time festivities in most European cultures, where a “good cop-bad cop” duo is handing out sticks and carrots according to your behaviour in the previous year. An extreme example is the monstrous Krampus, that is reigning real terror across the Alps. But the caricaturization of a Negro that Zwarte Piet has become has been creating friction for decades, and in the past couple of years tensions have risen to boiling point. This year things started got really ugly, with violent demonstrations and death threats on both pro- and anti-Zwarte Piet activists.

Zwarte Piet endorsing Hema “kruidnoten”

In my experience, this nasty episode could have easily been avoided if the Dutch (white) majority has been a bit more self-aware. To me as an outsider, the figure of Zwarte Piet as it now is, is clearly past its due. I find it offensive and outdated, and I’m not even black. The usual argument as to why Zwarte Piet is not a racist figure has been the claim that his job is to run down chimneys to bring the presents. The soot is supposed to be what’s making him black. But so far, no one has been able to link soot to the acquisition of curly hair, swollen red lips and golden ear-rings. The fact that visitors from abroad are annually appalled at the sight of Zwarte Piet on packages of various products should have rang some bells.

But the Dutch have been lulled by the absence of serious anti-Zwarte Piet protests. It took (as it usually does) more dramatic measures to break the wall of ignorance around the damage the current looks of Zwarte Piet do to the Dutch image as a progressive, tolerant nation. Sadly, in response to these dramatic measures (vocal protests, a United Nations enquiry committee), the white majority has dug itself in, seeing the protests as yet another offensive on their traditional values.

Fortunately, a number of concessions have been made with respect to the Zwarte Piet looks this year. The hair has been straightened, the golden ear-rings got lost and even the lips are not as thick and red anymore. Colored Piets have been introduced. Also, the traditional Sinterklaas News has shown the process of “blackening” the Zwarte Piets as they roll out of chimneys. The impression has been a bit spoiled by a parliament member for the notorious PVV, who has objected to the public display of the “blackening” process as it would somehow “damage the magic” surrounding the festivities. I’d say that dragging a festival into politics and celebrating a KKK-like caricature does more damage to the magic, but that’s just my opinion. The demands of anti-Zwarte Piet groups to abolish the figure all together, and the call by Verene Shepherd to ditch Sinterklaas (“why celebrate Christmas twice?”) have not improved the discussion climate either.

Left: Zwarte Piet “old-style” Right: Zwarte Piet “re-branded”

Sinterklaas has now, as I’ve said, left the country, and I hope that the controversy has left with him. We have another year to sort out a way to celebrate a tradition without being offensive while retaining its character. As my daughter clearly shows, it is easier than it seems. On seeing every person with a long beard she calls out – “Sinterklaas!” And the person accompanying the perceived Sinterklaas is immediately labelled “Zwarte Piet!” She’s not even two years old, but obviously sees the essence of things much better than most of us. Its the old common wisdom “tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are”. And whether you’re black or white, with straight or curly hair, in or out of costume – if its December and you’re walking next to a bearded person, you’re Zwarte Piet. Period.

 

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