Wednesday, December 30, 2009


One annoying aspect of living in the Netherlands is that there seems to be a thousand ways to say everything. This is also true in English, but the Dutch seem to have assigned a specific meaning for each way of saying something that is absolutely specific to a situation, and to address something out of context is to render one's intentions useless. I'm exaggerating, of course. But consider the start of the new year/end of the old, for instance: this year oudejaar seems to be in vogue, whereas last year the term oudenieuw was bandied about with great relish. Literally, they mean "old year" and "old-and-new" (year), respectively. Oudejaarslot therefore means the closing of the old year--literally. Slot is some tense (possibly perfect?) of the verb sluiten, which means "to close".

But this time of year, like those elsewhere in the world, is reserved for eating lots of olliebollen, drinking lots of champagne, hanging around with lots of friends, and lighting lots of fireworks. Rotterdam has a major fireworks display, but for the most part mom-and-pop stores supply most of the whizz-bang for the transition between the years.

My boyfriend dedicates a good chunk of his savings to this. This year, he bought maybe 20 kg of explosives. If it seems excessive, consider that many people buy much more. He considers it as his one night of debauchery, as fireworks are illegal for the other 364 days of the year. This doesn't preclude the neighborhood kids from buying the small whizzer-bangers in the month before.

The turning of the year is a time to reflect, for me--what went wrong, what went right--and to make resolutions for next year. Thanks to the recession and the terrible state of economics, it's easy to get caught up in everything that's wrong with the world these days. But we should also make some time to be grateful for the little things and loves in our life that get us through the day, or that smile that awaits us when we get home.

Monday, December 14, 2009


The Dutch love gardens. But given that this is December and plants are hard to keep alive, they'll settle for Christmas trees instead: Christmas tree farmers are everywhere these days, selling their conifers at rock-bottom prices. Literally--we bought ours for €15, and it's at least twice as big as the one we got last year.

Gardening stores such as Intratuin are quick to take advantage of this to bulk up wilting sales in the winter months--the store near our apartment has cleared out all of the deck furniture that clogged the area between the pet section and indoor plants, filling the shelves with fragile glass balls and mountains of tinsel and holly and lights and ornaments and ribbons and angels and stars and....

Suffice it to say that "overkill" is an understatement. Even though it's just one section of the store, the sheer pandemonium of color and lights and glitter are enough to make you never want to see Christmas again. But we braved the ravaging hordes to find the ornaments that we wanted: our tree has traditionally--as of last year--been decorated according to a red-and-gold theme, so this year we continued to enlarge upon it, since our tree was bigger. In addition to the balls, we bought some branches, and a string of pearls.

It adds up. Decorating a tree to look like a store model is an expensive endeavor, and don't let anybody tell you otherwise--so many balls, so much tinsel, and all of it has to be might think it strange, then, that so many people are so fond of decorating their trees.

But I think the price of a new set of glass balls is but a small price to pay for starting our own little tradition. And at this time of year, that's something special.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cat expenses

We are the owner (or minions, I'm not sure which) of three very cute cats. My boyfriend and I love them dearly, and all of them love us back--we think. Well, we can hope they do. They know their names, and they cuddle in our laps or on the keyboard when we're at the computer, and the bed at night is simply not complete without the Tweeb huddling on top of one of us. Most nights, that would be my boyfriend, as they now live with him and him alone, for 4 days a week. Often, we get Shadow, too--she likes the radiator, and rarely, Leto joins us.

Cat expenses here are like cat expenses in any other pet-owning society: we take the Tweeb to the vet a few times a year to monitor her renal function. Shadow and Leto have been as healthy as horses in their time with us--Leto is a tad bit overweight but we're working on correcting that. He is definitely lighter than he used to be--not by much, but enough to note the different. So for those two, we've delayed vet visits, although Shadow will need booster shots, soon. We plan on getting all three of them vetted April of next year, to the tune of what will most likely be €300.

Needless to say, this will definitely require some advanced planning on our part. We both have healthy savings accounts, and while we don't have any problem with the concept of paying mega moola for cat care, the practical aspect can sometimes be a little tricky to attain. We've got a rather nifty system for saving for planned expenses: jars, into which we empty our loose change or small notes. This year I'd set up 2. One for a fancy-shmancy dinner, and one to help out with Christmas presents. In both jars we've exceeded our expectations. The only downside, as far as we can tell, is that there's no interest being earned on any of it.

It's a rather good way to save up for big things, actually. Being able to watch coins accumulate towards a bigger goal is quite gratifying--and when you take your coins to the bank and dump them all in the coin-counting hopper, it's almost exciting to wait for the total to come back. I'm fairly good at estimating how much we have, but even I've been surprised--and always in a good way.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Don't Mess With Grandma

Last night I was stopped at a red light, idly twiddling my thumbs waiting for the light to change, when we (me and the two other moped/scooter riders) see a little old lady jaywalking against the light. Not entirely notable, since jaywalking is one of those little crimes that everybody commits, but then she walked up to one of the scooters next to me and proceeded to say something along the lines of, "My bike was stolen and the thief went that way!" She then climbed on the back of the scooter and the guy took off in the direction she was pointing in.

I sincerely hope she gave the bike thief a good purse-whomping.

One of the little-known, less-bragged about facts of life in the Netherlands is that bike thievery is rampant. You wouldn't think so, given how orderly life is otherwise, but the fact is most bike locks are crap and even the best won't deter a thief hell-bent on mischief.

One of the still-lesser known facts of life in the Netherlands is just how much a good bike can cost. You can have utter pieces of crap for €50--I've bought one, and rode it into the ground. A good new bike can easily set one back €500, and usually costs even more. Even a used bike runs up to several hundred euros, so it's understandable why people get so upset when their bikes get stolen.

An apparent contributor to this problem is, apparently, that very few people in the Netherlands actually know how to lock a bike. It is astounding how many people lock their bikes with a simple cable-padlock combination. Cables are by far the WORST thing you can use to restrain your bike--the thinnest ones can be snicked with a pocket knife, and the thicker ones require only a small chainsaw. Most people have a little c-lock, one that's attached to the bike at the back and is locked and unlocked with a key. Such locks are pretty good--you can't easily bust those without busting the bike--but not foolproof to anybody who can pick a lock. I've had my bike lock picked--my bike was moved, but not stolen. Chains and u-locks can also be broken with relative ease, but these require time--on the order of 20 minutes.

There really is no way to prevent a thief from making off with your bike if he really wants to. Which is why the best way to prevent bike thievery is to prevent him from wanting to. Breaking locks is not a quiet endeavor, and it can take a long time, so parking your bike where someone is likely to hear the sound of a snapping lock. And putting on multiple locks, which might seem like overkill, is also useful--it means that a would-be thief needs more time to break them all, time which he won't have if he's just pretending to be a guy who's got a stuck lock. I have 2 locks on my bike, but I'm never under any illusion that either will be useful against a determined thief. Really, all you can do is increase the odds of having a thief get caught in the act.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Language Barrier

Yesterday my boyfriend and I went shopping in Maastricht--we bought silver candlesticks for ourselves (to replace the thrift-store thingums that had broken) and wandered into and out of some pretty nifty shops. Then we tried to find a Chinese restaurant for lunch. It took us almost 40 minutes, but eventually we were able to find one. And it was good--evidenced by the fact that my boyfriend, normally of a dainty and ladylike disposition when it comes to his food, shoveled nearly 5 servings of food down his gullet. PLUS an appetizer, and soup--we'd ordered one of those XX/person menus, where you get a soup, starter, and main course. It was good, although not quite as delicious as food in, say, Chinatown, New York.

In most of the Netherlands, "Chinese food" actually means "Chinese-Indonesian food", which is pretty good by itself but terrible if you were expecting, well, anything like the Chinese food you'd find in the States, or anywhere else in the world where "Chinese food" actually means "Chinese food". And again, this is largely historical: up until the 1950s, the Dutch ruled Indonesia, and when they granted Indonesia its independence, they also gave anybody who feared to stay there a get-into-Holland-free pass. To this day, when you go to the supermarket, you will often find one aisle, or part of one aisle, covered in red-and-yellow packets of stuff for bami, nasi goreng, or prawn crackers.

But suffice it to say that most of the so-called Chinese restaurants in the Netherlands actually serve Indonesian food, so a Chinese restaurant that actually serves Chinese food is hard to find. Even so, I suppose it says a lot about Dutch food when I ask you to believe me when I say that even being tricked into eating something swimming in sauce is a delightful alternative to eating your standard Dutch pea soup.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

It's not uncommon for kermissen(?) to appear in cities whenever there are special days--or even if there are not. A quick glance at my el-cheapo international planner reveals that, of all the countries listed (and there are a fair number) the Netherlands has the fewest national holidays of the lot, although that's more than made up for by the generous--sometimes overly--vacation policies (I have no way to take all of my vacation days, even if I wanted to). So many of these carnivals--complete with merry-go-rounds, ferris wheels, fried-friedness stands, and rigged carnival games pop up along with unofficially-recognized (read: religious) days of celebration.

Sinterklaas (see last post) is one such Dutch quasi-holiday that is in decline, not the least because to celebrate it properly is actually something of a pain in the ass. It involves assembling a present of sorts that pokes fun at someone's bad habits/personal foibles, and then writing a rhyming poem about the gift. You begin to understand why the whole Christmas-open-presents-drink-champagne thing is so popular--all that requires is decorating a friggin' tree, and plenty of booze.

Also, there is more and more...discomfort, shall we say, about the Zwarten Pieten. In the US, for instance, it's a terrible crime, almost, to put on blackface and go cavorting about handing out cookies. That this tradition is an old one and that the Black Peters are one of the more popular holiday figures cuts no ice with the politically-sensitive. So what you see more and more these days is kids dressed up in the costumes but sans makeup. A reasonable compromise, I suppose--I'm just waiting until they turn Black Peters into Peter Blacks...

In spite of this, the holidays are a merry time, and that means carnivals. Most photographs of Maastricht show a bright sunny day, a string of old-fashioned cafes, and a veritable field of tables and chairs full of people sitting around drinking beer and smiling. What they don't show is that right next to the field is a road, and right next to the road is a huge open space, large enough to be a parking lot for all of the tourists if the Dutch were any more practical. As it is, they have other uses for the space, which includes assembling a giant ferris wheel and an outdoor skating rink.

And this being Maastricht, it wouldn't be complete without tents selling all kinds of pretty wares, from jewelry to samurai swords (alas, not the real things). Waffel vendors and sausage-sellers also abound, so the whole experience of wandering through the crowded plein is one of overwhelming happiness--happy colors, shining lights, the cold air on your nose*, smells of warm waffels filling your nose. It almost makes me think that winter is worth celebrating. Almost. After all, I still have a 20-minute ride to get to my apartment.

*Maastricht, despite being further south than, say, Nijmegen, is actually a little colder than Nijmegen and very much colder than a coastal city such as Leiden. This is in part because it is further inland than most of the Netherlands (having Belgium in the way and all that), and in part because it's at the foothills of the Ardennes, a rather small mountain chain but one that's enough, apparently, to drive down icy blasts of air into the regions surrounding them.