Sunday, October 6, 2013

Leiden's Relief: a city-wide party

The celebration of having food to eat is something I can get behind.

This week marks the anniversary of Leiden's Relief in October 1574.  Short version: after Leiden's city council decided to swear loyalty to Prince William of Orange, rather than Sovereign Lord King Philip II of Spain, Spanish armies sieged the city for several months, and the inhabitants ran out of food long before help came.  But eventually, a fleet of Dutch rebels broke dike after dike to flood the land around Leiden, and the Spanish forces fled the rising waters.  The fleet brought white bread and herring to feed the starving citizens, who had also scavenged the abandoned Spanish camp for some "Hutspot" (mashed potatoes, carrots, and onions).  These dishes are traditionally eaten every October 3rd since.

I had originally thought that this was something the rest of the country quietly noted, but apparently it's all and only Leiden that closes shop to celebrate.  (Thanks, Michiel, for the correction!)  I got both Thursday and Friday off work, but the city had been gearing up all week—on my Monday morning commute, I noticed the sudden appearance of a roller coaster in the town square:

Meanwhile, Clara tried to post a letter and discovered that the postbox had been temporarily sealed so that (in the words of a helpful passerby) "drunk people don't try to pour beer into it."  Two notes: 1. This was three days before any celebrating was due to start.  2. Yes, we now have stamps and can reply to letters!  If you've written to us already, we are on it!

By October 2nd, on whose evening the party started, I was having difficulty getting home on my bike through the crowd, so when Clara and I decided to see what the celebration was like on October 3rd, we went on foot.  Here are five things we noticed:

1. Crowds.  Not just near the open areas by the train station, like we'd thought at first, but thronging the streets and canals.  It was clear from the massively multiplied quantity of parked bikes and cars that this was an event people travel from far and wide to witness.  We had left our valuables at home and took only a little cash, but even then we didn't feel comfortable stopping to take pictures except from some quieter vantage points (so you don't get the full effect from these photos).

2. Temporary platforms had been raised over the canals to facilitate the festivities.  We think there might have been some temporary bridges too, but we're not sure yet.

3. There was so much garbage.  Empty plastic cups and cans, paper plates, even a mostly full but abandoned wine bottle in the street.  Here's a shot of a (usually pristine) grassy area so you can see some of the detritus.

4. The city was just generally decked out.  Even to the rigging on some of the ships, everyone seemed really happy to be celebrating:

5. Live music.  Mostly people singing English pop sings with Dutch accents, but Clara and I love to hear people singing.  Tiny venues like this one sprang up all over town, so that you could always hear someone playing as you walked. 

By midday on Friday, everything was back to normal: streets swept clean and people going about their business.  Next time this happens will be Queen's Day King's Day, when not just the city but the whole country celebrates.

Thanks for reading!  You've asked for shots of funny Dutch signs (we're on the lookout), more candid photos of inflatable kayaks (may be a while, folks), and more pictures of us happy.  Here's an installation on the last request:

Does your hometown, or anywhere else you've lived, have any unique holidays?  Tell us in the comments!


  1. Replies
    1. We didn't—eating out safely is really difficult for me, especially when I'm not sure what's in a new food. (For example, commercial chicken broth often contains sugar or egg.) But I looked up a few recipes, and it seems basically like mashed up potatoes, carrots, and onions, with a little milk/butter and salt and pepper. This is something we make all the time (in the form of shepherd's pie topping), so in that sense, we've tried it and love it!

  2. I just did a lap around the Hilton Apple Fest this afternoon. It's on Saturday & Sunday and includes the usual crafts, plus a 5K run (the apple derby), an apple pie cooking contest, music, and a huge apple crisp. There are also a lot of local farms and organizations with food. It had rained so the place was a sea of mud and there were still plenty of folks there, slogging around checking everything out. I think they've been doing this festival for over 25 years. (Not quite as long as your Leiden event!)

    1. Very cool! That reminds me of the annual New York Sheep and Wool festival in Rhinebeck, NY, which is next weekend. Clara and I went last year and had a great time; this year, we're celebrating sheep and wool from afar by trying to finish a sweatervest for Clara that we're jointly knitting.


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