AIDS was… an illness in stages, a very long flight of steps that led assuredly to death, but whose every step represented a unique apprenticeship. It was a disease that gave death time to live and its victims time to die, time to discover time, and in the end to discover life.~ Hervé Guibert
Introduced to traditions
Continued from… Meeting friends and seeing places
Early Saturday morning there was commotion all over, as preparations started to celebrate the birthdays of both Mindy and Priscilla, Jacques daughter from a previous marriage. Isaac had met Priscilla the weekend before.
Jacques was off to the shops very early. He went to the supermarket, the bakery, the liquor store and the butcher. In the meantime, Annie vacuum cleaned and dusted the lounge, as she liked the house to be extra clean whenever they expected visitors. Jacques parents, as well as his sister and brother-in-law. would arrive towards noon, and Annie’s mom would come over during the afternoon.
They expected a full house and a busy day, but they normally looked back on these days with a smile.
By noon, everyone was gathered in front of the television. Priscilla, Kevin and Steven, the four-year-old son of Annie’s sister-in-law, wanted to watch the arrival of Sinterklaas on television. Of all the adults, only Isaac had his attention directed at the television. He was mesmerized by this tradition.
The Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas had some similarities with the Santa Claus tradition, but it had nothing to do with Christmas. Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas was known to be a saint and archbishop who lived in the fourth century. According to the Dutch tradition, this saint came from Spain, maybe because he was the patron of the seamen. The helpers of Sinterklaas were called Zwarte Pieten and the most common explanation for this was they were so dark because the Zwarte Pieten had to climb through chimneys to bring the children their presents. The children also believed only the nice kids received gifts from Sinterklaas, and the naughty kids would have to go back to Spain with Sinterklaas.
Everyone’s attention was directed to the steamboat approaching the harbor. The television cameras alternated the images between the faces of the smaller kids and the boat. Even though he was watching this on television, Isaac could almost feel the nervousness and excitement of the kids waiting in the harbor for the arrival of Sinterklaas.
An old man with a long white beard and dressed in a red robe stood in a prominent place on the ship. On his white hair, he wore a miter. In his hand, he held a long gold-colored staff. This man was Sinterklaas.
As the old man disembarked the ship, he paid attention to children close to him, shaking their hands or patting the smaller ones on their heads. Some children started crying, not appreciating the attention of the old man. This made their parents laugh, although Isaac thought even the parents seemed to be nervous.
Sinterklaas would be in the country for about three weeks, until the morning of the sixth day of December, when he would silently disappear back to Spain. Nevertheless, before he left again, he would visit every child in the Netherlands on the evening of the fifth day of December, to bring them their presents. And of course, to round up the naughty children to go back to Spain with him.
Kevin and Priscilla stood up in front of the television about half an hour after the arrival of Sinterklaas. The program on television was still on, but since Sinterklaas had already left, the children were bored. Jacques turned off the television, and Isaac was too shy to say he wanted to see more.
“Dad, may Kevin and I put our shoes downstairs before we go to bed tonight?” Priscilla asked Jacques.
“That’s okay,” Jacques agreed.
Annie saw Isaac’s puzzled face, and when he caught her eye, he smiled.
“Why are they going to set their shoes?” he asked in a whisper.
“In the few weeks before the fifth of December,” Annie laughed, “children are allowed to put a shoe downstairs and then maybe the Zwarte Pieten will bring them a small gift. Sometimes Sinterklaas does this himself and that’s why they put a bowl of water and an apple or a carrot next to their shoes, for the horse of Sinterklaas.”
“Maybe I should leave out my shoe too,” Isaac laughed. He liked this tradition. Annie laughed too.
“Why don’t you? If you’ve been a good boy all year long, then you might just get a present in your shoe!”
“Oh believe you me; I have been a good boy!”
Annie laughed and the others, who were listening to their conversation now, laughed too. At that moment, only Annie understood the real meaning of Isaac’s words.
The doorbell rang and Jacques jumped up, rubbing his forehead. Annie’s mom had arrived. After greeting everyone, she grabbed a chair and put it down next to Isaac. Soon the two of them were engaged in a deep conversation. Jacques’s parents wanted to go to the shops, and soon everyone except Annie, her mom and Isaac left. Annie breathed a sigh of relief. Peace. She would much rather have spent time only with Isaac and her mom, as her in-laws barely made an effort to talk to her friend. She hoped that would change when they returned.
Dinner followed the routine it always did when Jacques’s family visited. With his brother in law, Jacques went to the Chinese restaurant to get takeaway food. The Chinese food was followed by big bowls of ice cream. Normally, everyone except for Annie’s mother would go home, but tonight was an exception.
At half past eight that evening, everyone was in front of the television again. The show in which Isaac had arrived to surprise Annie was about to be broadcasted. Both Annie and Isaac groaned when they saw and heard themselves on television. Isaac thought he had looked awful in the clothes they had given him to wear. Annie shivered when she heard her bad Dutch, and realized she was still speaking more Afrikaans than Dutch.
Still, everyone agreed it was a nice experience, and special for their story to have been chosen to for the show. Isaac admitted no one had ever done something like this for him and he hugged Annie to thank her for making it possible.
Somewhere during the evening, Annie had noticed Isaac was very quiet. When she asked him if something was wrong, thinking he might be homesick, he told her his stomach ached. She looked at him with a worried face, but he assured her it happened frequently and would be over in the morning.
To be continued… Visiting Madurodam
Note: This series is a rework of a self-published book (2009), rewritten for this blog, and in loving memory of a dear friend who suffered from and passed because of AIDS. Keep in mind this story happens in the late eighties and throughout the nineties. Names of characters have been changed to protect their privacy.
© Rebel’s Notes
Image from Pixabay