A Secret Friend in Leiden

Ava tries some Kroketten

”We should talk. There’s some preparation required” warned my friend Koen. I had arranged to stay with him for ‘Sinterklaas’, a Dutch present-giving tradition that takes Secret Santa to the next level. 

I’m fortunate to have friends and family scattered around the world, and taking every opportunity to visit them has been the perfect way to increase my confidence as a solo parent traveller. We had stayed with Koen last summer, in his beautiful hometown of Leiden, which is just a short hop from Amsterdam and every bit as beautiful. Laced with canals and dotted with windmills, the city retains a manageable, suburban feel, while offering enough cafes, boutiques and entertainment to rival any capital city for the perfect weekend getaway. Keen to see my old friend and get more experience of travelling alone with Ava ahead of our trip, I decided to visit at Christmas to enjoy the city in a different, festive light, and experience Holland’s unique tradition, celebrated each year on 5th December. 

Forewarned and forearmed, we took the short flight from Gatwick to Amsterdam – so short in fact that the walk from the plane through Schipol’s enormous terminal to collect our buggy at the luggage carousel took longer than the journey from London. Trying to carry 2 suitcases and 2 bags whilst simultaneously keeping a grip on a toddler whose favourite game is ‘chase’ proved challenging. When I was finally able to put our luggage down in the queue for passport control, I was quickly compelled to abandon it when Ava Ussain Bolt-ed under the barrier and ran straight through border control. I finally caught up to her, manhandled her back to the queue and, already mortified, dipped back under the barrier only to discover that my rucksack was open when the contents cascaded over my head and onto the floor. Other travellers looked on in awkward silence while I tried to gather up my possessions and my dignity and give the impression of having everything under control, including my tantruming daughter.

Processed with VSCO with fp4 preset

When we were finally in possession of the sacred buggy-cum-luggage-trolley, we were greeted by Koen’s daughter who helped us navigate the 15-minute train journey to Leiden, which conveniently runs direct from Schipol airport.

Perhaps it was my own anticipation, but I felt a distinct buzz in the air as families travelled home for Sinterklaas that evening. The date supposedly corresponds with the birth date of Saint Nicholas (affectionately known as “the Sint”, or Saint), who, legend has it, sails to Holland from Madrid each year, laden with gifts. The fact that Madrid does not have a port is apparently overlooked, as Dutch children leave a shoe by the chimney to receive their presents from Sinterklaas and sing traditional songs before bedtime – an obvious forerunner to the anglo-American tradition of Christmas Eve. Dutch adults and non-believers, however, have developed a tongue-in-cheek alternative tradition, in which they exchange a ‘surprise’ from a ‘secret friend’, supposedly one of the Sint’s helpers – like Santa and his elves, the Sint needs some assistance to visit everyone in a single night! There is much controversy in Holland around one of his companions – Zwarte Piet (or Black Pete) –  as politically-sensitive citizens question the origins of his colouring. Many argue that he is simply black due to gathering soot as he shimmies down the nation’s chimneys, while history suggests he is based on a Moorish slave, brought from Madrid by Sinterklaas.

Ethics aside, The Secret Friend is where the preparation is necessary and the fun begins, but unfortunately we had arrived too late to enjoy it that night. We opted to break tradition and save the excitement for the following evening. However, on the short walk from the station to Koen’s beautiful 3 storey red-brick house, we were treated to a precursor when we rounded a corner to see Saint Nick himself, disappearing down an alley ahead of us. Ava was thrilled.

Friday was grey and miserable, the rain whipped into a frenzy by the wind, soaking us from all directions like sea-spray. Defeated umbrellas languished in dustbins on the pavement. The perfect day, therefore, to shelter in Leiden’s newly renovated Naturalis Centre of Biodiversity. With 42 million specimens, the research institute hosts one of the largest natural history collections in the world, a small portion of which are available to view in the museum. The 9 exhibitions feel organised and selective – not nearly as sprawling as London’s Natural History Museum – so you can easily tour the whole place in an afternoon.

The entry hall alone took my breath away. The building’s exterior features a latticework of oak and interlacing oval windows, which give the impression of honeycomb. The entrance leads to a vast central atrium, 4 storeys high and flooded with natural light, even on a dull December day. To the right, the galleried floors are piled one on top of the other, the walls clad with rough red stone as if the building were hewn out of the Grand Canyon. They host the traditional displays of dinosaur fossils and taxidermy wildlife, but also more unusual galleries such as the alarmingly named “Death” and “Seduction” exhibits. I had thought to skip that top floor as I wasn’t sure it would be suitable for a 2 year old, but, intrigued, we ventured in to the ‘Seduction’ hall and I am so pleased we did. Only the Dutch could make an exhibition on sex so playful and child friendly – complete with slides, chirping birds to feed with small plastic balls, and a sperm race in which you bounce up and down on a space hopper to make a sperm on a video screen swim towards an egg. The faster you bounce, the faster he swims! Other highlights include a stunning array of complete dinosaur skeletons, and a kabuki-style Japanese theatre-cum-earthquake-simulator. These interactive elements ensure the museum is suitable for all ages – even the food hall houses a play area – and there are cafes and restaurants on each floor to cater for all tastes. 

That evening after dinner, it was time to exchange our gifts. The ‘secret friend’ tradition is organised like Secret Santa – names are drawn from a hat so that each person is secretly supplying a gift for one other person. Alongside the gift is the ‘surprise’ – a handmade item or sculpture, usually inspired by the receiver’s interests or recent experience, in which the gift is hidden. If this wasn’t daunting enough, the giver must also write a poem (A POEM?!) about the receiver. Usually there is a playful element, teasing the receiver about some part of their life. Presents are given out one at a time, with the receiver reading their poem aloud before unveiling the ‘surprise’ and opening the present. As terrified as I was of getting it wrong, these additional personal touches made the present giving and receiving so much more meaningful. The effort that each giver had gone to was incredibly touching, and meant everyone’s gift was also an event. I loved it. 

Presents from our secret friends!

Saturday was market day, so we ventured into town to explore. On the way we passed one of Leiden’s iconic windmills, the Molen de Valk (The Falcon). Built in 1743, the stone flour mill stands sentry on the canal, welcoming visitors to the city centre, and houses a museum that explains the function and operation of windmills, as well as allowing visitors a peek into the family quarters to imagine life as a miller. Koen explained that the windmills themselves, have a national function beyond simply grinding flour and draining waterlogged land. The iconic buildings are also used as communication towers, with millers setting the sails in certain positions and draping the towers in different colours to convey messages such as joy or grief. Even today, Dutch windmills are set to a grieving position during times of national mourning. 

Molen de Valk

To set us up for the day we stopped for a coffee at one of Holland’s best loved chains ‘Bagels and Beans’ – if you like your espresso strong you won’t be disappointed – before wandering down to the market to pick up some fish for dinner. The market stalls line the canals which dissect the city, and offer an impressive array of treats, from freshly baked bread to gourmet cheese (try the Boer’n Trots or Farmer’s Pride), pick’n’mix nuts to fruit and veg, as well as a haberdashery, tulip bulbs and clothing. “We have to go to OUR fish place” Koen insisted, as we walked straight past several others, “loyalty is everything at the market!”. I got the sense he was only half joking. As well as purchasing the salmon for dinner, Koen treated us to some ‘Kibbeling’ – deep fried, bite size pieces of fish, served with a dip that is not unlike tartar sauce. A sort of mini fish’n’chips (minus the chips!). Delicious. 

The next stop was lunch in Better Bagels – this time an independent bagel joint serving a wide variety of bagels with your choice of filling. I opted for the delicious, vegan lentil spread on a seeded bagel. 

After lunch I was desperate to check out Leiden’s infamous floating ice-rink, which is layered on top of the canal in time for Sinterklaas each year, and remains in place until Christmas. Ice skating is something of a National sport, with canals freezing over each winter such that you can skate on them. Places are hotly sought after for De Elfstedentocht (or Eleven Cities Tour), a 200+km marathon skate along the canals, taking in 11 historical cities in the northern pronvince of Freisland. Although once a regular event, the tour can only take place when conditions are right – which means at least 6 inches of ice. The last time that happened was 1997, a worrying sign of the times. In any case, Ava and I were more than happy to make do with the floating rink, which, as well as appealing to tourists like us, is a popular festive haunt of local families and teenagers. Children are offered double-bladed skates that clip onto the bottom of their shoes, and a reindeer shaped support to hang on to. Ava got the hang of it surprisingly quickly and was soon confident enough to push herself along the ice without my help! 

As if the canals and windmills weren’t picturesque enough for this small city, Leiden’s exterior walls are adorned with 110 poems, printed on the side of buildings in multiple languages. Round any corner and you will be met by the words of Yeats, Shakespeare or Lorca, to ruminate on as you go about your day. On our way home I was struck by an E.E. Cummings poem:

On Earth a candle is
Extinguished                 the city
With a song upon her
Mouth having death in her eyes

Two days is barely time to scrape the surface of Leiden, but was certainly enough to carry a song in my mouth about it and distract me from my ever-present grief. There is no doubt Omid would have loved a city so aesthetically pleasing and intellectually stimulating. As we wandered home, I spotted so many other gems to explore – Leiden has no fewer than 13 museums – but what makes it really special are the people. The Dutch are friendly, open, liberal and generous, and I found this even more apparent during Sinterklaas. Koen had been my Secret Friend, and my ‘Surprise’, was a beautiful, handcrafted sculpture of Ava and me in our van, cruising along the road on a warm sunny day. And you can be sure that when we are finally doing the real thing, we will be dropping in on this surprising city once again.

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