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              December 2003

National Geographic publishes around the world, so who better to point you to the most unusual, unique, and sometimes irreverent cultural traditions in their countries than the editors of our international editions? Each month a real insider reveals five favorites in this series.
Aart AarsbergenWho runs the show:  Aart Aarsbergen, Chief Editor

Name of the game:  National Geographic Netherlands-Belgium

When it all started:  October 2000

Where it all happens:  Amsterdam-Diemen, Netherlands

Who makes it happen:  Eight editorial staff members

What goes out:  About 129,000 magazines a month

Best stress reliever:  "After we've put in a few hours of hard editing, we play darts in a little room in our office. There is fierce competition between the editors. And I have to confess, I'm the worst one. But it's relaxing, and I count it as exercise."

Best office perk:  "Just working for National Geographic and being part of the Society is the best part of our job. We love putting together a serious magazine with such beautiful photography each month."

What's great about the Dutch:  "The Dutch love to travel and are very interested in what's happening in other parts of the world. Maybe that's why we have such a high subscription rate."

What's great about the Netherlands:  "Our coastal areas are beautiful, and they offer great sailing and nice beaches. Amsterdam is also a pretty city. It's small with a lot of history."

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FlagFive Cultural Bests
Cultural Bests
A love of sports is also evident in Aarsbergen's favorite national traditions:

1. Sinterklaasavond (St. Nicholas Eve)
"According to Dutch tradition, in the middle of November St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, comes from Spain on a boat with presents. Each year a different city hosts his official entry, which is covered on national television. And after he's greeted by the mayor, Sinterklaas gets on his white horse and parades through the streets. He brings sweets for the good children. And for the bad ones, he carries a cane (but never uses it). This kicks off the holiday season and builds up to the excitement of St. Nicholas Eve on December 5. Children leave their shoes by the fireplace, along with carrots and hay for Sinterklaas's horse. The next morning they find presents in their shoes. Adults also join the festivities by giving each other small gifts and sometimes humorous poems, called Sinterklaasgedichten."

2. Koninginnedag (Queens' Day)
"Queens' Day was not always on April 30. It used to change with the birthday of each new queen. But when Beatrix succeeded to the throne in 1980, she turned her mother Julianna's birthday into a permanent national holiday. And to celebrate it, the country erupts into one big, all-day street festival. Amsterdam and Utrecht tend to draw the biggest crowds and parties, but across the country you'll find concerts, games, fireworks, and flea markets, where mostly children go to sell and trade their second-hand goods. You'll also see a lot of orange because it's the color of our royal house. Some people wear orange clothing, display orange flags, and decorate their cakes with orange frosting."

3. Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour)
"When the temperature drops enough for the waterways and canals to freeze in the Friesland, the Netherlands' most northwestern province, everyone stops what they're doing. The Dutch are glued to their televisions to watch a one-day ice-skating marathon through 11 cities. The course is 130 miles (200 kilometers) of solid ice. While some compete for the fastest time and eternal fame, others only aim to finish the grueling race before midnight, so they can receive the coveted Eleven Cities Cross, or Elfstedenkruisje. There are no cash prizes in this event, and since it's completely dependent on weather conditions, the Elfstedentocht has only happened 15 times. The first one was held in 1909 and the last in 1997."

4. Kwakoe Zomerfestival (Kwakoe Summer Festival)
"In 1975 Kwakoe started as a soccer tournament for Surinamese youngsters in Bijlmermeer, one of Amsterdam's southern suburbs. Today it has evolved into one of the biggest multicultural festivals in Europe, organized by and for many of the ethnic groups in the city. Almost 25 percent of Amsterdam's population comes from Turkey, Morocco, Suriname, Guyana, the Caribbean, China, and Indonesia. Bijlmermeer is sometimes even referred to as the second biggest city in Suriname because of its 35,000 Surinamese residents. The festival, which runs from July 5 to August 10, offers live music, beer, traditional and modern dance, stand-up comedians, and exotic food. You can also still catch a soccer game."

5. The Relief of Den Brielle
"The people of Den Brielle, a small city in the southwestern province of Zeeland, celebrate their 1572 liberation from Spain by going back in time on April 1. The city streets are converted to their 16th-century state, complete with hay, pigs, and cows. The locals also sell crafts and dress in traditional clothing. One of the main highlights is a reenactment of the fighting between the Sea Beggars—pirates who supported the Dutch resistance and rescued the city—and the Spaniards. This ends with the Spanish leaders paraded through the streets in wooden cages. Along with the cannon and musket fire, there's lots of dancing, drinking, and eating. It's real historical drama."

Photographs by Mike King, CORBIS (left), Owen Franken, CORBIS (center), and Bernard Annebicque, CORBIS (right)

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