Saturday, November 28, 2009

Gebakken Kibbeling en Zwarte Piet

It's that time of year again. I'm not talking about the post-Thanksgiving mega-sales bash shopping shindig that all the poor sods in the US have to endure, because that's also here, although to a much lesser extent (this is Holland, and the people are Dutch). I'm talking about the other things that make this season endurable--nay, enjoyable, even, if you're like me and hate cold wind and rain.

Allow me to preface by saying that the days here are short come the winter--during the winter solstice, the sun doesn't rise until after 8 am and goes down a little after 4 pm. And that's if you're lucky enough to see the sun at all, which is rare enough in general in the Netherlands and a freak meteorological event during the winter. So if you're prone to depression like I am, well, shit.

The other thing about Dutch winters is that they're not really cold, compared to an East Coast winter. Snow is a rarity; the Elfstedentocht was last held in 1997. You don't get that crisp, bracing cold, but rather a damp, soul-sucking kind of cold that makes you think that spring is some kind of a cruel joke. Especially if you're caught out in the middle of nowhere and it starts pouring suddenly, as it is wont to do.

However, there are a few good things about this season, and they make everything better. Well, less miserable:

Fried fish: Gebakken kibbeling is sort of like fish sticks: chunks of fish, floured, and deep-fried, served hot with a little cup of mayonnaise-like sauce. Strictly speaking, not purely a cold-weather treat, although it's the author's opinion that cold noses and warm fish complement each other perfectly. They're better than fish sticks because you can tell that the fish chunks are actual pieces of formerly-swimming beings.

Fried bread: Oliebollen and their various permutations are also immensely popular. These are seasonal--you can't find Olibollen for 10 months of the year, and they only start selling them in November. By "they" I mean the people who make their living selling these things. They're basically beer-bread dough, with raisins, deep-fried. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, and eat. Various permutations include appelbollen, which is what it sounds like, and a few others that I'm forgetting at the moment. Personally, I'm not really a fan of these, but a few on New Year's Eve brings in the New Year like nothing else.

Waffels: For whatever reason, these are far far far more prevalent in Maastricht than in the rest of the Netherlands. Fresh-made, sprinkled again with powdered sugar--they're a treat, although how the hell one eats them without lookingl like you've just snorted some bad blow is beyond me.

And thank God for Sinterklaas: December 5 is the traditional gift-exchange day, although more and more people do as the Americans do and exchange gifts on December 25, probably because it makes more sense to have a lavish party when you've been granted a vacation rather than just a mere afternoon so that you can pick up your kids--as is the case almost everywhere. Still, Sinterklaas gets its fair share of presents and advertisements--it's treated as a prelude to Christmas by the merchants, and with a mixture of zealous adherence and indifference by the Dutch: zealous adherence if you're new to the country and they want to teach you how to do a proper Dutch holiday season, and relative indifference by everybody else. But it is relatively safe to say that most people don't start going overboard for Christmas until after Sinterklaas. That is, while the advertisements for Sinterklaas are prevalent, they're not the ONLY thing floating around, whereas after Sinterklaas, Christmas becomes the ONLY thing that one sees.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

It's kind of weird to be reading the BBC's News site and then finding out that one of their columnists has remembered that today is Thanksgiving. Because, what I did today:

- Got up
- Showered
- Ate breakfast
- Biked to work
- Worked
- Read Mark Mardell's column
- Realized today was Thanksgiving

I've always felt kind of guilty about Thanksgiving--I'm rather disconnected emotionally, and I'm always under the impression that I should be more thankful than I am. That is, I am plenty thankful that I have a family, a loving boyfriend who is taking care of our 3 kitties, the 3 kitties, a job, a nice roof over my head (now that it's no longer leaking), and money to do the things I want. Mostly. That is, I'm always pretty grateful for these things, and a lot more (that it usually rains during the day or during the night but not during my commute, for instance), like how lucky I am that most of the people I've happened to run into are friendly, or at least not intolerable, etc etc.

So I just don't feel like I need to feel extra-thankful on Thanksgiving. I guess that's why, in terms of holidays, oddly, it's the one that I really don't miss much. Christmas and New Year's is also done in the Netherlands, and there's a Dutch version of Veteran's Day and the summer vacation season resembles a long, protracted Labor Day. But there's no European equivalent of Thanksgiving, and, frankly, I couldn't care less. I never did like turkey.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I must confess that I jaywalk with a frequency that would be alarming if it weren't for the fact that I am also ridiculously, perhaps needlessly, careful when I do it. Sometimes it's because there really aren't any cars. Sometimes it's because there's not a crosswalk in sight. Sometimes it's because the sidewalk has run out.

It is hard to be a pedestrian, no matter where you go. Even in the Netherlands, life is far easier for you if you have a set of wheels, even if they are powered by your own two feet. Pedestrians here not only have to look out for cars, but bicyclists, who are far less careful of walkers than drivers are. My theory is that, if you're driving, you're already looking out for cyclists, so a pedestrian isn't entirely a surprise. On the other hand, if you're a cyclist, you don't need to look out for pedestrians (even though you should), largely because it's harder to kill someone on a bike.

Another constant, no matter what city you're in, is that you're only as safe as how well you know the place. That is, which intersections to avoid at what hours (or completely)--the "tricks of the trade" for sliiiiding into a bike lane that's been interrupted by 4 lanes of traffic. The first time I rode up to Kelly Drive I was startled to find that there were no traffic lights--and indeed, not even a "YIELD" sign--between Kelly Drive and the Franklin Boulevard. Just a painted bike lane cutting across the aforementioned 4 lanes of traffic.

I've heard (from a friend in the US, incidently) that in the Netherlands they're in the process of taking down traffic lights to make things safer. You read that right--safer. The theory goes that, when drivers are called upon to stop or yield or go depending on their own judgment, they're usually much better about it than a traffic light is. And, perhaps more relevant, traffic moves faster. I don't know if any of it is true, but I do know that there are some intersections that would benefit from lights. Mostly because my heart is trying to crawl out of my throat when I go through them.

Really, the biggest problem with making streets safer (traffic-wise, not crime-wise) is cars. Yes, you can blame crazy cyclists for doing crazy shit like riding the wrong way down a one-way street, and stupid pedestrians for jaywalking, but when push comes to shove, cars do the worst damage, and as such, should be more tightly controlled. I don't care how you cut it--a man on a bike is not going to kill a pedestrian, barring a truly freaky accident--but a man in a car will probably kill the person he hits. Drivers complain about their "rights" being impinged upon, but they forget that they don't have to drive.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


In Dutch cities you have a city center, where you go shopping. There may be small stores scattered throughout the rest of the town, where you can get stuff that you might not want to run all the way to town for, but by and large most of the economy is made in the center of the cities. This is where the life and the character of the city is most apparent--if you want to get a feel for city, that's where you go, sit down with a cup of coffee, and watch the people go by.

Nijmegen is, in many ways, more Dutch than most cities. The open market, where vendors try to outdo each other and the stores in their rock-bottom (sometimes with good reason!) prices, is bigger than it is in many cities, and that's not counting the secondhand book sellers, who set up their shops elsewhere. In the permanent stores, SALE signs abound: they're not trying to entice the young and the broke, who gravitate towards stores like Prijs Meppers (outlet stores) by default, but the older, more established citizenry, who begrudge every penny spent. These are not middling stores like H&M, which have sales every single day, but fairly high-end places--places that will tailor a suit for you, and where a sales clerk waits upon your every whim. But in the end, it's all about the price, and while the citizens of Nijmegen are more than happy to shell out for quality items, there comes a point where the quality is worth less to them than the money spent.

This is, in a large part, why you will never find stores carrying labels like Karl Lagerfeld, Miu Miu, Prada, or any of the fashionista's wet dreams, in Nijmegen. But in Maastricht, where living beautifully is part and parcel of living, there is an entire quadrant of town devoted to these kinds of stores, and on the outskirts of the town center, a loose ring of outlet stores so that even the young and broke can partake of the consumerism.

But I would venture that the citizens of Maastricht are not any happier than their more Protestant counterparts in the rest of the country. In the rest of the Netherlands, your misery or your happiness are largely of your own making--there are always exigent circumstances, of course, but at the very least you are not presented with an unattainable (for most incomes) standard of living every time you venture into town to do your Saturday shopping.

But that's for most people: I must confess that I really like going through this part of town. Not because I imagine that I'll actually own any of it--I'm far too pragmatic to even think of buying a €60 scarf, being the klutz that I am--but simply because it makes me happy to see beautiful things. Beauty is hard to come by these days--in art, you have to MAKE A STATEMENT; in film, it's ALL ABOUT THE STORY; in food, it's as much about TASTE as it is about PRESENTATION. Very few things are as impractical as €500 jackets and €300 shoes--one does not buy such things for their practical value. For me, things create an obligation, one that I'd much rather not have--if you're spending three digits on something, you'll want it to last, and in order to make it last, you'll have to invest in maintaining it.

I think that's what makes most people unhappy: they see something, and decide that if they get it, they'll be happy. But they might not realize how much care they'll have to put into taking care of it, whatever it is, and soon it's not the pretty shiny thing they saw in the window any more, but something that's collected dust and tarnished in the back of their closet. So they whip out their plastic and get another pretty thing, and so on.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Home is where I lay my cat

I came home early this weekend--I was finished everything, and realized I could pack my bags and arrive in Nijmegen at a not-unseemly hour. This is, in fact, a rather big deal, because it's a 2+ hour trip between Nijmegen, where my boyfriend is, and Maastricht, where I now work and where I will permanently settle over this coming month.

I'd made the decision to move to Maastricht because, after 17 months of commuting between Leiden and Nijmegen, I'd had enough of the NS--to be completely fair, it's a pretty decent train service, but when it's bad, it's BAD (you know it). For now, I'm residing in "company housing" until my lease kicks in and I can start moving stuff, which I anticipate taking a few weeks, as I don't have a car and so will have to move just about everything by bike. The whole situation makes for a nauseatingly-head-spinning state of limbo, as I work to settle the question of where my home is.

Home, for me, is my boyfriend's apartment, where he is keeping our three cats until I've settled down: Shadow, my loveable and gentle git (below, left); the Tweeb, a little old lady (below, right); and Leto, our newest addition (above). It would not be a lie to say that the cats make up our home--they lend an air of contentment, reminding us to be grateful for simple things like each other, good food, and a clean toilet--and their antics provide plenty of amusement. But home is also in the (comparative) opulence of the place, with it's many antiquated (or at least old) pieces of furnture, complemented by the state of stark cleanliness which we both work very hard at to keep it in (how's that for prepositions?). I think a large part of what makes a home is how well you know where the dust bunnies hide...

I don't know if I could ever make Maastricht a home in the same way that Philadelphia used to be mine: I still get an adrenaline rush every time I remember living in that smoggy dump of a city, the only thing left after I stopped counting how many ways I could've been run over (I rode a bike in Philly, too). You lose a part of yourself to the places you almost die in, I think--or maybe it's just that you gain a whole new appreciation for the life you have when you come within a hair of losing it. Either way, the fact that the Dutch are far better at accommodating bikers means that there will have to be another way to define "home" in the Netherlands.