On Amsterdam at Christmas and the smuggling of cheese.

When I took my new job at Nike, it was mentioned in passing that there might be some travel.  This is not a bad thing.  So while the last few months have mostly been a cycle of running from one meeting to another, putting out fires and trying to wrap my head around sixty different projects all in flight at the same time, the moment finally came: I was to fly out to Amsterdam, London and New York.

Say one thing for Nike: they do business in good towns.

I have already been in Amsterdam and London this year.  However, this trip would have quite a few differences:

  1. Traveling for work means business class flights and comfy hotels.  No shared bunks and heavy backpacks for me this time.
  2. This also means I would have traveling companions.  Hmm, do I play well with others?
  3. On my previous visit, warmth and summer were the order of the day.  This is December. I expected things would play out a slightly different.

My traveling companions were two guys from my team at Nike: SpoonMan and TheCalm.  Do they sound like a super hero team with rather unthreatening abilities?  This is not far from the truth.  We met up at Portland International to hop a quick flight up to Seattle where we would embark directly to Amsterdam.  Having never traveled with these guys I regaled them with tales of my recent adventures.  This means I found myself mostly relating the accidents and things that went wrong, since they are the most entertaining parts (tragedy + time = humor).

In Seattle we enjoyed the spoils of business travel.  Specifically this translates as the Executive Lounge.  Having bypassed breakfast in favor of getting to the airport on time, we found ourselves indulging in the offerings at the lounge: olives, small ginger crisps, two varieties of cheese (pepper jack slices and some packages in spreadable form), and last but certainly not least: Nutella.  However it was over cheese that SpoonMan and I connected.  We discussed a shared love of cultured dairy products while TheCalm bounced off and on various conference calls.  This was a pattern that would assert itself over the course of our trip.

Soon it was time to board, and we hauled our various and sundry luggage items to the gate.  I have become an efficient and minimalist traveler, so even though I carried a work laptop, kindle, clothes, down jacket, toiletries, a book, some paperwork, and various electronics chargers, my ten day luggage resulted in a single backpack of carry-on size.  My traveling companions were a little less conservative, so the hauling was mostly on their end.  But here is the first of things to go wrong on the trip: the flight to Amsterdam was delayed, with a projected departure time an hour hence.

Back upstairs we jubilantly went.  More cheese.  Some drinks.  More discussion about cheese over said drinks.  Time spent in the Executive Lounge is far nicer than time spent grumbling on hard airport seats with “commoners”.  Our departure time came ’round again, and we again shouldered our bags, only to hear that the flight was delayed further.

And an hour later, it would be again delayed.  It was at this point that my traveling companions began to suspect that I, perhaps, was Bad Travel Karma.  They had traveled together previously this year, to more foreign places like Japan and China, all without incident.  Our expedition had barely begun and already we were beset by issues.  We were supposed to land in Amsterdam and go directly to the office to have a full day of meetings.  This was now reduced to a strained afternoon of meetings, and threatened to be worse.  My companions began to eye me warily.

Inevitably the airline was forced to produce an airplane on which the grumbling masses could board.  I won’t regale you too much with the niceties of business class service, other than to mention a few things that just kind of set the tone:

  1. lay-flat seating
  2. complimentary travel case with tooth care, lotions, and an extra pair of socks
  3. the sundae cart.  thirds, please.

We arrived in Amsterdam after 946 hours of flight during a storm which some were saying was “the worst in 60 years”.  We were told the last thirty minutes flying in would be a little rough.  Honestly it seemed on par with any other landing.  However, once we deplaned and attempted to catch a train into town our troubles resumed.

Our first attempt at trainage was met with high hopes only to be dashed as an announcement came on and explained in thirty-six languages how absolutely cancelled that train was, and advised us to wait for the next one, some forty minutes on.  We wandered the massive mall that is the Schipol train area to pass the time.

Now, I will assert that when one wanders a mall, looking for potentially some trinket to purchase and return home with, perhaps as a Christmas present, one does not expect to see too many sights that will cause you to do an abrupt double-take.  Malls are pretty tame and unoffensive (unless you are protesting rampant consumerism, in which case: have at it, you have found your perfect venue).

In the Netherlands at Christmas time, however, it turns out you should brace yourself.  While wandering around we encountered a few chaps dressed in what could be charitably referred to as “medieval jester” type attire playing music and singing.  This was not the shocking part.  No, the shocking part was that they were both in full blackface.

Black pete 1
Not a picture of those chaps. Stolen from the Internet. I couldn’t even look straight at them in person.

Yep.  Right there.  Blackface painted on, right out in the open, carrying on like this is just a thing you do. After we put our eyes back in our sockets, and verified with each other that we had actually just seen this (also verifying that the year was not, indeed, early 1900’s), we chalked it up to something horrific happening at the train station.

But no, we would eventually see these folks everywhere.

Truly a community bonding moment.

Why, they even go so far as to make baked goods in this manner.

I’d like my cake with extra racism, please.

So a little bit of asking around reveals this is not intended as racism. This is part of their christmas tradition. You see, in the Netherlands, father Christmas (Sinterklass) comes to town, and along with him he has his helper: Black Pete (Zwarte Piet).  So Zwarte here assists ol’ Sinterklass with his duties, and has even been known to steal a naughty child or two and ship them back to Spain (guess North Pole is a Western thing?).

Further discussion with our business partners revealed that this is becoming a cultural hot button, complete with rabid screaming from both sides of the issue.  As one can expect.  I wish the Netherlands good luck in dealing with the joys of Political Correctness while trying to preserve their own culture and history.  It’s a fun path to walk.

So we tried to shake it off and just appreciate Amsterdam, shaking our collective heads at the Zwarte’s we saw from time to time.  Now, one might think that Amsterdam in summer (when it is relatively warm) has an abundance of bicyclists, yet Amsterdam in December (cold, rainy, snowy) would see all these bicyclists taking a reasonable tack and hopping in enclosed vehicles for the inclement weather.

One would be wrong.

We took a taxi from the Nike headquarters in Hilversum to our hotel in Amsterdam because we were advised that the storm would deposit rain, hail and potentially locusts and the End Of Times on the train tracks and thus leave us stranded (I guess trains are cancelled often during weather events).  From our cab we saw people biking along in the driving sleet and hail.  And just as during summer: no helmets.  Just trundling along with a nice winter coat, drenched and miserable, still biking.

In the West Coast, if you see someone on a bike in December, they will be outfitted in the latest technical attire, moisture wicking and water proof gear, fully protected by the best science can offer.  Amsterdam: a bit of a jacket, perhaps.  Maybe some gloves.

In addition to bikers made of sterner stuff than any American biker, you’ll find a fully Christmas’d town.  Lights everywhere.  Outdoor stands selling roasted meats, fresh street donuts, waffles, cotton candy, candied nuts, and ohmygodohmygod: Stroopwaffels.

If you have not had these and you value your health and ability to appreciate other deserts, just forget I said anything.  If you have had these, you know what I mean.  20100609GoodBatchOriginal

So, we indulged and sampled and gorged.  In addition to all this, Amsterdam still offers a great selection of cheeses, and since it wasn’t summer heat, this sounded like the absolute perfect comfort food to bring home.  Thus SpoonMan and I found ourselves crawling through a well-stocked cheese shop off of some canal somewhere, loading ourselves down with many pounds of fermented dairy product.

Only after our binge spending did we stop to consider: what if they don’t allow this through customs?

To be fair, the folks at the cheese shop had cunningly detected that we “weren’t from ’round here”, and offered to shrink-wrap our many selections to allow for easier importing.  However, knowing how restrictive and alarmist US security and customs is, we began to sweat.  After all, I couldn’t bring toothpaste through if it’s more than 2 ounces.  What’s the chance of waltzing through with seven pounds of cheese?

So we lined up our options:

1.) starve ourselves prior to boarding.  If they demand to take our cheese, we’ll damn well just ingest it all there.  You can have my cheese when you pry it from my cold, dead, gullet.

2.) Combine our cheese hoards into a bag and pay to have it as checked baggage.  Neither of us really wanted to be parted from our cheese though.  What if they lost it?  More to the point: what if they “lost” it, and we never recovered it?  The image of a throng of TSA agents having a little cheese party on our dime was not acceptable.

3.) Blithely walk through and hope for the best.

Admittedly, option 1 and 3 were pretty similar, in that the later could potentially lead to the former.  However, we didn’t give that much thought.  We had other concerns to deal with: namely many business meetings, travel, time zone adjustments, etc.

So we took the train to London to continue our business.  Trains aren’t nearly so scary with customs, so that’s fine.  I had relegated this entire concern to a part of my brain that deals with problems by ignoring them.  SpoonMan, being an engineer, has no such part of the brain.  So it was that during one planning meeting with our business partners, while they gave some presentation on something, an email popped up on my laptop:

“I think we’re gonna be okay”

in this, SpoonMan showed how he had found the relevant section of the US customs rules for “travelers bringing food for personal use”, which had a paragraph that seemed favorable towards our cheese selection.  SpoonMan declared that he would cite chapter and verse were he asked to surrender his delectable cheeses.  I imagined the scene at customs and wasn’t sure if I hoped for this to occur or for it to not be necessary.

The page also ominously stated: “You must declare all food products.  Failure to declare food products can result in up to $10,000 in fines and penalties”

We departed London with a plan, but not without trepidation.  Surely the loose rules outlined would see us through?  Also, SpoonMan seemed to have memorized the chapter on importing cheese, so he could recite this if needed.

Our next (and final) stop would be New York, and walking out JFK customs had me wondering if the famous brusqueness of the standard New Yorker would play into whatever argument or altercation we would inevitably have.  As fate would have it, I was first up, and a large, bored looking guard took my form.

“Sez here you got agriculture.”

“yeah, um.  Cheese.  From Amsterdam.”

“Got any gouda?”

“Uh, no?”

“that’s my favorite.  Gouda.”

“No, I’ve got-”

“See ya later.  Next.”

I walked through, a little perplexed and looking for the “real” customs crossing.  Behind me I heard the guard continue on with SpoonMan.

“You got cheese to?”

“Yeah.  Same”

“No gouda?”

“Uh, no, sorry”

“Have a good day”.

And that was the entry.  So now we know: toothpaste or face cream: dangerous.  Cheese: no worries.

To complete the story, the cheese made it all the way up to my sister’s house for Solstice where my entire extended family made short work of it.  We all seem to enjoy a slice or eight, along with some wine and crackers.  And pie.  And cake.  And…

2 thoughts on “On Amsterdam at Christmas and the smuggling of cheese.

  1. Yeah, there’s totally nothing racist about the story of a black African Muslim who plays the bad guy to Santa’s white Christian good guy and steals the naughty children so he could take them back to Moorish Spain. Totally not racist at all. 😉

  2. Haha, I was born in the Netherlands we have a bunch of books and such from the time my family lived there. Zwarte Piet is definitely an older story from that region – He’s basically the Dutch version of Krampusz (which is black demon with a goat type face and horns) and while he used to be part of a way to scare kids into good behavior, he now mostly throws around candy to kids as Saint Nick strolls through town. I don’t have a horse in the race at all, it’s certainly an interesting evolution of their mythos…

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