Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Cookbook Flip Flop

We received several cookbooks this year as presents, lavishly illustrated and, in case the titles weren't obvious enough, written in Dutch. The only one that's written in English is Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and I have to say that, despite its weird-as-hell format, it does have several excellent illustrations. Amongst them, how to dice an onion.

In my opinion, one of the hardest things to get used to as an expat from the US is the fact that the rest of the world is logical and uses the metric system. For me, the change is somewhat easier because I work in the sciences, but I still, to this day, think of liquids in terms of cups/pints/quarts/gallons (though sodas are in liters). For baking, then, I'm still used to cups of flour and sticks of butter--and while it's easy for me to convert an American recipe to metric measurements, going the other way is something I still haven't figured out.

Metric measurements mean, amongst other things, that flour is weighed, and while weight is a more precise measure than volume, for some reason the idea of "grams" of flour just rankles me the wrong way. This is one of my few American habits that I just can't seem to shake, no matter what. I've figured out that one ounce is 28 grams, one cup is 248 mL, and 200° C equals a "really hot oven" (I've decided that oven temperatures are best expressed as "low, medium, hot" rather than exact tempertaures, but nobody but nobody's oven is ever exactly right). But I have never bothered to check how much a cup of flour weighs, and something tells me that, short of my scientific curiosity getting the better of me, I never will.

Part of this is because our primary baking book, Dorie Greenspan's Baking, is an American book. But a huge part of it is that, until now, volumes have worked fine for me--"Don't fix what ain't broke" and all that jazz. Measuring flour is a bit of an art when you use volumes, and it's one that I've developed a reasonable mastery over. It's something I'm reluctant to give up, I think, because on a microcosmic level it becomes a herald of my own obsolescence. It detracts from the mystique that surrounds baking--anybody can weigh out 200 g of flour, but not everybody can measure out 1 cup properly--and the reliance on a scale, rather than your own sense of how the recipe is falling, reduces the art to a science.

But maybe this year things will change. Maybe I'll finally get over my aversion to weights and learn to love the metric system as it totally takes over my life.

On the other hand, maybe not: I've always preferred doing a little extra math if it means I don't have to change my ways.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!


Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to upload our Christmas tree photos before we left for my future mother-in-law's. So a picture of Nijmegen's winter beauty--the pretty part, not the streets, which are still snowed under--will have to suffice.

Merry Christmas, one and all!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

"Most Precarious"


As a follow-up to the last post, I thought it'd be a good idea to share some tips on how to ride your bike in spite of the snow. In general, I'm probably not the best person in the world to take advice from--you want to ask the person who hasn't been hit by a car to elaborate on the rules of the road--but when there's as much snow, slush, ice, and crap on the roads as there is now (at least 5 cm in places, and counting) all bets are off.

Proper footwear: In this case, I mean boots. Yes, it makes peddling a bit awkward, but it beats stepping into an ankle-deep puddle of slush and getting that one trickle of icy water down your shoe and into your socks.

The path not taken: Don't be a pioneer. Follow the treads left by cars (best) and other cyclists. A thin layer of powder is the easiest to pedal through but you don't want to be the one churning through inches-deep fluff only to find that you are completely unable to gain any traction. Stick with the routes that others have carved before you, but be careful when the slush is deeper than 3-4 cm. At that level, and at temperatures right around freezing, you'll find that the ruts left by others will have hardened into ridges that redirect your wheels. There are two ways to deal with this:

  1. Go really really really slowly. Advantage is that you'll have time to correct yourself in case you get into a rut you don't want. Disadvantage is that you might as well walk.
  2. Go really relaly really fast. With enough momentum, you can power yourself through the slush-ridges. Disadvantage is that you might die of terror, if not from a fall.
Bars, not banks: If the roads are in the least bit icy, don't turn by leaning into the turns. Turn your handlebars and try to remain upright inasmuch as you can. I've slipped and fallen on far less ice than there is now, and while it wasn't painful, I can say that, had I been on a busier road, or one with cars, I could have easily ended badly.

Stick a leg out: Right now, the biggest obstacle to making turns is the slush-piles at the corners, more resembling a Jackson Pollack painting than anything cohesive. In these cases, if you don't want to get off your bike, putting a foot down so that you don't go slip-sliding away as you make the turn could be prudent. Get off the seat, if you need to.

Leg up: Don't be bashful about getting off your bike and walking it. Trust your own instincts as to how well you can handle the road conditions. Just because some Dutch dude is texting with one hand, holding three vlaaien stacked on top of each other with the other, and whistling as he cruises down a slush-and-ice-filled street doesn't mean that it's a good idea to ride.

Hopefully your winter cycling will be less precarious than mine!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Frozen, Not Stirred


The Dutch are without a doubt the masters of water management. After Hurricane Katrina, they offered to help the US build a containment system and help build dikes to hold back the Gulf of Mexico. There is no doubt in my mind that, if global warming persists, one very small country is going to get very, very rich from building things like Neeltje Jans. However, when it comes to FROZEN water management...let's just say the Dutch are, in general, a few cookies short of an Oreo. They just don't do it. Not on a national, local, or personal level.

The Nationale Spoorwegen is the unfortunate recipient of snow-induced rage across the country. Under normal circumstances, the NS is a competent enough train service--hardly Swiss, but not nearly as terrible as SEPTA, Philadelphia's contribution to the argument against public transit. However, put a little snow on the tracks, and everything grinds to a halt. It's irritating to be stuck at your station (especially one like Cuijk) for God-only-knows how long, or have to take roundabout way that extends your travel time by a gazillion (minutes? hours? days? I remain mercifully mum). But it's even more irritating to think that, in a country that moves up to 1 million riders a day by rail, that the NS hasn't come up with a way of removing snow in a timely fashion. After all, it's not like they've never seen snow before.

However, you can't bitch about crappy train service if you can't get to the station, and snow removal on a local level is similarly terrible. Worse, even--at the very least the trains were running a day after the most recent snow, even if they were so delayed you might as well have not tried. I didn't, because in Nijmegen, the buses weren't running until so late in the morning that, assuming that the trains were running on time, there was no point in going to work. Most of the major roads--i.e., the ones with more than two lanes--were cleared, but if you live in a residential neighborhood, you were wading through snowdrifts to get to the bus stop. At best the gemeente will salt the streets, but as everyone who's lived in a snowy area in the US knows, you actually have to move the snow off the road, first. In Maastricht the snow is allowed to lie for so long that the pressure of a thousand feet (and lots of cars) has melted and refrozen it such in parts of the city--in front of the train station, by my student house--it's easier to get around wearing ice skates. I wish I were just being snarky, but it's true.

Europeans (and most Americans) like to mock the American lawsuit-happy way of life, but there is one upside to the tendency to sue the bejeesus out of your neighbor, which is that within 24 hours of the snow stopping, EVERYBODY has shoveled off their driveway and sidewalks, and the more conscientious folks have salted their walkways. That just doesn't happen here: Maybe one house in four will shovel a path to the sidewalk, but not the sidewalk, and even fewer will shovel a path on the sidewalk itself. In my corner of Maastricht, the sidewalks are also skating-rinks-in-waiting, and it honestly surprises me that I haven't come upon any frozen bodies of little old ladies who've slipped and fallen and couldn't get up.

So the moral of the story is: chemistry matters, and polar bonds are more important than you might think. Give a little energy, and all is hunky dory. Take a little away, and you have effectively paralyzed 16 million people...

Monday, December 20, 2010

First Tongues

just born

After almost a year of Dutch classes, I can: hold a telephone conversation in Dutch (not very well, but the other person usually understands what I want to say), read the KNMI website, and socialize with my Dutch teacher. Last week there was a sort of borrel for international staff members at my work place (not a real borrel, because it ended way too late and had seating—not a lot, but there were chairs there), and one of the little “mixing games” they had was where they gave you a lanyard with a picture, and you had to find the other 4 people with the same picture. Turned out my Dutch teacher and I were two of a kind.

So we had a brief conversation—we both knew other people there, so it really was just small talk as we parted ways to join our friends—but what surprised me was how surprised I was that she spoke English when she greeted her other students. I mean, I know she speaks English—most Dutch people do—but up until that night 99% of my interactions with her have been in Dutch. She conducted her class almost entirely in Dutch, and when we answered and socialized with each other in the class, it was also in Dutch. As a matter of fact, when I bump into another fellow student, I also speak to him in Dutch (mostly). So to hear her speak English was something like a paradigm shift—it rewrote my world in a very small way. I'd never really considered how much our first impressions of a person can stick with you; I'd never realized before how much the first language can determine the sort of impression that gets made.

I had a little taste of the weirdness last weekend, when we joined our friends for a small celebratory dinner. By now, my main difficulty in speaking Dutch is figuring out the vocabulary to express super-complicated ideas (followed closely by “is ______ a regular or irregular verb?”), but they were good sports about my botched pronunciations and didn't interrupt. I imagine it was a little weirder for them, that I could join in, than it was for me.

I'm now writing a tour of Maastricht for Rama and most of the pages that I'm gleaning my information from are in Dutch. And it's quite an interesting sensation, not to care whether a page is written in Dutch or English.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Borrels, or why high heels are hard to find


I'm not sure if the situation is different in cities like, say, Amsterdam, but in Nijmegen it's hard to find a pair of what I call "ankle-breakers", heels of at least 3 inches (or, in fashionista parlance, 75-80 mm) or even higher. I don't actually wear heels, normally, but every now and then it's nice to at least pretend I'm a smidge taller than 5'3".

At first I thought this was simply because the Dutch are too practical for high heels. But that practicality fails to explain things like why coffeeshops don't actually sell coffee. Then I reasoned that mayhaps it was because Dutch women are already so tall that any extra height would put them at a disadvantage, because then they would be taller than the men. I revoked that theorem after running into a few belly buttons.

But now that I've been to a few borrels, I can comfortably state that the reason high heels are hard to find is because you can't stand in them for more than an hour, tops. And borrels can last a while.

Borrels, or borreltjes if you want to be cute, are informal get-togethers, complete with nibbles and drinks. They are usually held by your colleagues and co-workers, rather than your friends (though it helps to be friends with the people you work with), and the distinction is made from a circle party by the fact that everybody is standing. The special tables made for eating from a standing position are usually scattered around, although some of most informal ones don't even have those. You stand, and talk, and eat, but always standing. In fact, you'd better be dead before you're not vertical.

Which wouldn't be so bad if it were just a little while--twenty, thirty minutes. But the prevailing philosophy seems to be that as long as someone else paid for the beer, you might as well finish it, and thus borrels last as long as it takes the most sober man to get buzzed. The Dutch, being Europeans, drink their beer like all the other Europeans, not Americans, which is another way of saying that they sip, rather than glug. Slow drinking and tall guys...you do the math.

Because these get-togethers are relatively impromptu in nature, then--meaning "arranged less than a month in advance"--it behooves women not to wear heels on the off chance that they might be invited to, or drawn into, one and end up standing for hours on end. And that would just be painful.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Better late than never?

I've been doing a lot of night photography lately. This is mostly because I'm in the lab all day and the days are short. But also because night photography is fun--challenging as hell, but fun.


It doesn't have to be quite so challenging if you have a tripod, but my tax return has yet to come in, and besides, tripods are a pain the @$$ to lug around. So I just try to stand very, very still--and of course, the harder you try, the more you shake. But still, Maastricht is decked out for the holidays, and a lovely city in its own right acquires a touch of magic when the lights come on:

Photobucket Photobucket

In Nijmegen, the holidays are marked by the arrival of the olliebollen carts, which also sell waffles. They are the only time of year you can reliably purchase waffles at the market, but they are a poor substitute for the heavenly fluffy denseness that is a Pinky's Waffle. On the other hand, Nijmegen does have a regular stroopwaffel maker, which my friend assures me does not exist in Maastricht.


This one-or-the-other, the give-and-take, the back-and-forth (in my case, literally), has really started to erode the boundaries that have thus far defined who I am. As I start to get more comfortable here, really learning the language and getting along, and traversing the distance between Protestant Holland and Catholic Limburg every week (there really is a difference), it sometimes feels like my pieces of my identity are being scattered in the wake. On the one hand, it's silly: I know who and what I am. On the other hand, it's kind of weird--because none of the words that I used to use (American, Asian, Democrat) apply any more.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


We don't have a whole lot of money. Between my student loans and his insurance policies, we're basically living paycheck-to-paycheck, though we each have a healthy savings account and both of us contribute to our joint account. Needless to say, we don't eat out very often—you can count the number of times we get take-out in a year on one hand.

But we do love good food. So every week, we empty our wallets of whatever notes (Christmas money) and spare change (eating out) is left. At the end of the year, or whenever the jar gets too heavy, whichever comes first, we haul the coins to the bank, and get them counted. It adds up: in this case, to a trip to Kaatje aan de Sluijs, a little restaurant in Blokzijl, which is a little village in the middle of nowhere. Friends of ours had invited us along to help them celebrate their tenth anniversary, and good food and a luxe hotel for not-too-extravagant prices are not to be passed up. Blokzijl's claim to fame is that it used to be a seaside town, until the Dutch filled in their corner of the North Sea in the 1930s. Now, it sits behind a dike that was undoubtedly more impressive in the days when it actually held back the sea, but still squarely in the middle of nowhere, with endless polderlands stretching beyond it in all directions.

Nevertheless the village itself is a lovely little place, though hardly exciting by any definition of the word. There's an antique clock shop on the main street, and some nice little pubs, and of course a church (Baptist, interestingly). The little village still has the narrow streets of pre-car days, and there are no curtains in the windows, in keeping with the (now disappearing) Dutch tradition of making sure your neighbors are as virtuous as you are. You can sail on the river that runs through the village, though at this moment you might want to get ice insurance before you do.

At Kaatje aan de Sluis, you have the option of a four-course dinner menu; I assume that the restaurant also has an a la carte menu, but for whatever reason it wasn't available on the day that we went. We were greeted at the door by a grinning, almost bouncy, maitre'd, seated, and almost before we had a chance to get our bearings, a member of the wait staff came along and asked us what we'd like to have for a drink. A few minutes later, the first amuses arrived.

The dishes were served relatively quickly: at the Chateau Neercanne, for instance, it averaged out to one dish an hour (and yes, we were actually there for almost six hours). It was still 23.00 by the time we left, but it ended up being an almost-seven-course meal, including coffee, a pre-dessert, and lots of wine-snobbery, where the sommelier presents you with a bottle of wine, cradled in a towel (for whites), and gives you the genetic lineage of the grapes that went into it, and pours out a small measure of wine for the wine-master. In our case, that was the wife of our friend, and the wines that the staff had chosen really were very good, with a sweet nose but a complex taste. And that's about the extent of my wine knowledge.

As for the food itself: well, pictures are worth a thousand words, right? Suffice it to say that the words, “Oh my God,” came out of my mouth more than once—and that was just about the olive oil to dip the bread in.

From top to bottom, the dishes are: foie gras , served with carmelized shallots and an orange-flavored cookie; the snoek (with cauliflower puree and potato square); wild duck served with sarsaparilla root, leek, red beet, and lentils); and dessert, a parfait of oranges, sweet-corn custard, almonds, and dragon-flavored ice cream, served alongside candied popcorn.

After such a gastronomic undertaking, we decided that a little coffee wouldn't be a bad idea. But that was with the assumption that coffee was just coffee. We're relatively new to fine dining, but we're learning: coffee is never “just coffee”.

I'm a vegetarian, which makes things a little awkward when foie gras and wild duck are the only items on the menu. Fortunately, our friends and my boyfriend were ravenous—they'd skipped their meals that day, too—so they were more than happy to relieve me of both of the items. I found myself trying some of them (both the foie gras and the duck) out of propriety, but after not having any meat for several years, the taste of them both were a bit much for me. However, I am assured by the three others at the table that, if you eat meat, you will love it.

The hotel we stayed in was “attached” to the restaurant, in the sense that if you ask for “dinner and a room” the Kaatje Hotel is where you will stay. It was just a short walk from the restaurant, the better, perhaps, to avoid drunken customers running amok on the streets of Blokzijl the night before church. The hotel room was nice enough—the bathrooms are stocked with thick fluffy towels and thicker, fluffier bathrobes. We had a stunning view of the river from our room. The only really annoying part was figuring out which light switches turned on what lights, and how the shower worked. The breakfast the next morning was very Dutch: a collection of breads, cheeses, sausage/ham slices. In a nod to healthy eating, yogurt and fruit were also available, but suffice it to say that there are more compelling reasons than breakfast to visit Blokzijl.

Overall it was a great night: good food, great company, excellent hotel. My boyfriend handled the money, so I'll have to take his word for the costs: €200 for our two dinners, and €190 for the night (the tab included breakfast and pre-dinner drinks). It's definitely one of those places that makes doing your own dishes 364 days of the year worthwhile. Kaatje aan de Sluijs is a member of the Gastronomique Alliance, a sort of restaurant guild for finer diners, so if you're not up to traveling to the middle of the nowhere for food, there's probably another Alliance member closer by.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Glory Days


I might look young, but I'm almost thirty (oh horror!), which gives me the privilege of looking back on my college days and thinking, "Man, those were some good times!" Of course, back then, I was probably wigging out on a constant basis, if my sister--who is now attending my alma mater--can be considered an accurate copy of me. I'm told we look alike, though she wears contacts and is decidedly allergic to cats.

College in the US is usually represented by The Dorm Room, a space just slightly too small where you have a bed that's slightly too long, and underwear that has gone slightly too many days without washing. Memorabilia of all sorts, be it the school sports team, newspaper clippings of important events, or just a pretty leaf, are Scotch-taped to the walls next to posters that seem "deep". If you're a geek like me, you'll be snowed under mounds of papers for lab reports and problem sets.

In the Netherlands, college is typically represented by the Student House, which is a house whereby the individual rooms are rented out to students on the cheap. The kitchen--usually stripped down to a minifridge and a stove--and bathrooms are typically shared, and cleaning (if it's done at all) is shared between the housemates. Supposedly there are such things as "house parties", where everybody and their grandmother cram themselves into a student house, play loud music, drink beer, and have sloppy make-out sessions in a stranger's bedroom. I know of this only from heresay. That's right. Uh-huh.

Fortunately for me, the student house where I rent a room in Maastricht is occupied by several other girls who are not prone to throwing such parties (attending them is a different matter). It's a pretty quiet house, in a pretty quiet neighborhood. Students get a small stipend from the government, and most of their bills are paid for by their parents, since you're only allowed to have one address in the Netherlands, and since you can't get a job (like waiting tables or the like) without being registered by the gemeente in most cities, which incurs fees and is therefore best avoided.

Living in a student house is not for everyone: you don't really have a say in your housemates, unless you get together with your friends and decide to rent a house together. Sometimes the landlords have funny rules--our landlady forbids us to use a deep-fryer, for instance (no patat frites!). And you need to figure out how to split things like trash bags and cleaning and the Internet bill.

Be that as it may, I kind of like it here. It's my own space, my own furniture--not much, and it's secondhand, but it's mine--my own sheets. I love my boyfriend and I miss our cats during the week, but every now and then, it's nice to have place to call your own. Even if you have to pick hair balls out of the shower every morning.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Side of Onions

In newer apartment buildings they probably have better, more efficient heating systems than ye-olde hot-water radiators, but our apartment building was built in the 70s or thereabouts, so ye-olde hot-water radiators it is, to combat the winter cold.

Fortunately, most Dutch winters are relatively mild. While the days are cold and sunless, the temperature tends to hover in to 5-7° C range, which to my mind is "annoying but not devestating".

Unfortunately, ever year since I've been here, the winter weather has been atypically Dutch: we had a surprisingly hard cold snap in 2007-8, in which the frost literally grew out of the trees:


This is NOT snow. It's frost. All of it.

2008-9 was a snowy year as well, but nowhere close to the winter of 2009-10, where it snowed so much that even the trains couldn't run and the buses in our neck of the Netherland shut down completely.

And now, this year, we've had almost 2 weeks of sub-freezing temperatures, and it's snowed almost every day for a week. Luckily, not a lot of snow comes down at once, so we can get around, but it makes a dangerous ice/slush layer when people and cars have been stomping on it.

What can I say...like the Finn brothers say, "Always bring the weather with you", and I seem to have done just that. Maybe customs should be more stringent...wouldn't want a Saharan drought here, now would we?

This is why my boyfriend purchased a little oil-burning stove. It's sort of like a portable fireplace. The Tweeb has discovered that it's very nice and warm in front of it, and when we placed the cushion in her favorite spot she promptly started roasting herself in front of it. It's not quite as cozy as the real thing, but far better than staring at an open hearth on your TV.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Updates on things in the works

Just thought I'd send y'all an update on what's going on with this blog, planned spots, and other stuff that I'm doing/would like to do next year:

  • First of all, I'm planning a photoshoot with Erin Corbett of Finding Friesland. Actually the shoot has nothing to do with Friesland, and everything to do with miniature horses. If you've got a hobby that's cool (or even one that's not-so-cool--I'm one of those talentless folks that thinks even knitting rocks) and would like a spot on this blog, complete with super-duper photos (er, well, we can try) and an interview that's not about the Usual Expat Stuff, contact me.
  • For those of you in Europe, I'm going to have a holiday-cookie giveaway. Comment below before December 10 if you want to receive a package cookies in the mail! (Mention any food allergies I should be aware of)
  • Posts will continue as always. If anybody is interested in writing a guest spot, again, please contact me. Do NOT send the complete text of the post, but rather a brief summary of your idea.
  • Moving the blog. Or rather, expanding into a paid version of Blogger. More features, more space, more layout options. Still up in the air at the moment.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Stuff of Life

There are food snobs and then there are Food Snobs, the former being people who know that there is better food than McDonald's but love the occasional large-fries-with-ketchup (real ketchup) anyway, and the latter being people who think that "take out" means going to Saveurs.

Most of the grad students I run into fall into the first category. When I meet other European (by which I mean Continental--sorry, Brits don't really count) expats who come from countries like Spain, Italy, Greece, etc--countries where food is more than merely "stuff you eat", but "stuff you enjoy"--I can usually count on at least one rant about how terrible Dutch food is. This isn't entirely fair to the Netherlands--Dutch food isn't haute cuisine, this is true, and meat-potatoes-something-once-green can get rather dull. On the other hand, I would argue that it's a damn sight more palatable than deep-fried tarantulas.

One thing that even Germans rant about (and you know it's gotta be bad when the Germans go off on it) is Dutch bread. And here I have to confess that yes, the complaints are perfectly justified. Wonderbread and its ilk is fine if you want sandwiches, but it's less-fine if you want it as a complement to your meal. For that, you need Real Bread: crusty, tasty, full of nutritive goodness. Real Bread, in the Netherlands, is not a staple like milk and eggs. It's a luxe item, purchased at select bakeries, and then only at those bakeries that actually bake their own bread. (Most bakeries receive half-baked loaves made in a factory on a daily basis, so they just pop those into the oven every morning for "handmade bread")

The reason for this, according to my boyfriend, is that after the Second World War--seriously, Dutch history ends and begins within these four years--the combination of bombings, hungry armies, pestilence, and whatever-else had pretty much wiped out the farms. For the first few years after World War II, the Dutch relied on airdrops for things like canned stews (my boyfriend's dad still remembers eating that stuff) and fluffy white bread. Once things started picking up, food-wise, the fluffy white stuff stuck around.

In Nijmegen, we are fortunate enough to have The Windmill. The Windmill is no longer wind-operated, but it still mills stuff. It now houses a pet store in the front, and a baker's paradise in the back: flours of all types and grinds can be gotten here. You can even find spelt flour, although if you want oatmeal you still have to find a Turkish store. It's where I buy the flour to make the bread in the picture, in all its splendid and aromatic glory. I'm not exaggerating: the rosemary, salt, and olive oil flavors combine to make it nothing short of heavenly.

Sometimes I do find myself wondering whether this is worth the cost of the flour and the effort to get it: a 1-kg bag costs something like 8X as much as your average bag of white flour at the supermarket, and it's a good 40-minute walk each way, now that I no longer have a bike in Nijmegen. It's not something that a zuinige huisvrouw would do. But then again, it's not something that a pennypincher would appreciate, anyway.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Comedy of Manners


I never went to finishing school, but manners--wait your turn to speak, when you must interrupt say, "Excuse me," that sort of thing--were as much a part of my upbringing as Chinese school. In other words: largely useless at the time; immensely useful, if largely, forgotten now.

Tonight's Dutch lesson asked the question, "How is your country of origin different from the Netherlands?" (Wat zijn de verschillen tussen jouw land en Nederland?) The Big Answer didn't occur to me until after class, but it's this: people are more polite in the US than they are here. As long as you're not talking controversy (race, religion, politics) by and large if you start saying something, people will let you finish before starting on their own tirade, unless you take too long and they get bored. But even then, there's no guarantee that they won't interrupt.

Here, though, it's hard to get a word in edgewise. I've also found it shocking--and not in a good way--how easily people interrupt others, and how quickly you can quite literally be dropped from a conversation. It's not that they're intentionally rude. It's just the way things are--and it's something I've realized that I may never get used to. Interrupting someone without at least apologizing goes against the most basic fibers of my admittedly-not-very-moral being. I've learned to just walk into my boss's office, because otherwise I'll never get to see her, but for the most part it still makes me a little uneasy to just jump into a conversation.

I've never been a Miss-Manners type of person--manners, to me, are just common sense and respect. But every now and then, I do kind of want to give people a good scolding.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Zwarte Piet

Few things shock American (in a continental sense--yes, that includes Canuks) expats more than the appearance of Zwarte Pieten in the Netherlands in November. I've been living here for three years and I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it.

For those of you who don't know the legend: Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands on November 5 every year with Zwarte Pieten to help him out. Together, the dynamic duo (technically dynamic multitude, as Sinterklaas has many Zwarte Pieten) compile a list of good kids and bad kids, and on December 5, the good kids are rewarded with a present in their shoe, while the bad ones are dragged off to Spain.

What makes the whole thing so surreal is that, in the Netherlands, the Zwarte Pieten are played entirely by white people putting on blackface, something that would get any Caucasian person anywhere else in the world hung, drawn, and quartered. In the US, where race is a hypersensitive issue--all you have to do to get kicked out of any prominent position is to make a remark that could be construed as racist--such a practice would border on suicidal lunacy. It still makes me a little afraid when I see a Zwarte Piet in full regalia, although for some reason I don't feel the same way when little kids (minus makeup) get dressed up in the funny hat and costume.

This is doubly odd, because I've only had a few encounters with racism in the Netherlands, and all by stupid young kids who don't know their asses from their elbows. Most people are merely surprised when I tell them I'm from the US, which is understandable. I've caught more flak for being Asian by taking a one-way trip in the subway in Philly than I have in three years of living here. And all of the incidents, in Philly and the Netherlands, have been from non-white people.

So call it karmic vengeance, or balancing the cosmic scales of small inequities, when I fail to get riled up over the Zwarte Pieten. It's a silly practice, I agree, and if Sinterklaas is as awesome as he is he can damn well do his job without helpers. But frankly, in terms of being offensive, few things are worse than failing to walk the talk.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

True Power


I don't often post about our cats, which is strange if you think about how much control they exert over our lives: twice a year I have to take a day off from work to take the Tweeb to the vet, to get her renal panel checked. The Tweeb is our broken kitty--there's no other way to describe her: deviated septum, clipped ear, broken voice, mangled ribs, BB pellet in her front leg, kidney failure, broken hip, crooked tail. She weighs all of 2.8 kg, which is slightly more than half of what FatBoy weighs, and only 60% of Shadow's weight. This cat looks like a living version of a Picasso-cat.

The other cats of the house, Shadow and FatBoy, are your typical, well-cared-for moggies: Shadow is sleek and beautiful in every way, and FatBoy is a cuddle-whore. Both of them are sweet in their own way, and lovable after their own fashions.

However, not one of them has a paw on the Tweeb when it comes to exerting true power over the food-monkeys. The Tweeb tells us when to get up, when to feed her, when to sit down, when to pet her, when to go to bed, when to scoop the poop, and, to some extent, determines what we eat for dinner (tilapia--she disapproves of salmon and pangasius). In other words, my poor boyfriend is not only henpecked to death by me, but squawked at by the Tweeb.

I'm not entirely sure how many Dutch people feel the same way as we do about our cats. God knows there are a ton of outdoor cats in our neighborhood. It does seem to be atypical to let your cats sleep with you in the same bed--we get stares of disbelief when we reveal that seemingly innocuos fact, far more so than if we were to say that I'm into Japanese rope bondage (which I'm not). We don't exactly spoil the cats (minus the occasional croissant, banana chip, and tilapia)--I buy them a few €0.90 toy mice every few months, and they get canned food once a week. We do, however, take very good care of them, following the vet's directions to a "t" when it comes to feeding the Tweeb, and monitoring FatBoy's food intake.

And as a result, the Tweeb has been living with the diagnosis of renal failure for the past three years, and the FatBoy has lost nearly 150 g (that's 5 ounces) in six months. His arthritis has improved markedly and he's becoming ever-so-slightly less allergenic. The Tweeb still has no idea that there is anything wrong with her, continues to rule over the house and the other cats with an iron paw.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

To Be a Woman

Thrift Treasures

This article is one of those "aren't the Dutch wonderful" bits that glorify the benefits of a socialist system. It says nothing that I didn't say in Man of the House: most women take part-time work because it suits what they want out of life better (never mind what happens in my own circle).

As an anecdotal piece--and one by a newbie to the Netherlands (seriously, three months?! By that standard I should be an expert, which I am not)--it is necessarily lacking a few points: what about the men? And how do single women support themselves? And even more telling is what the commentors think about life in the Netherlands: one of them went so far as to call all Dutch women "freeloaders". There are snide remarks about how unsustainable a 35-hour week is (wrong country), comments about the terrible weather (true), how this isn't fair to men (plausible, but they'd probably object more if it were true), and more whining on why this is impossible in the US.

This is where I would normally put in a string of four-letter words, because frankly, I hate whiners. Oh, I whine, too, and plenty, but eventually I sh*t or get off the pot--shut up, or do something about it. Such luxuries are impossible to imagine in the US, yes, but only because there is an irrational fear of socialized-anything ("Town Hall face") that make such things like extending welfare benefits, making child care and health care affordable. Why people don't vote all of the bastards out of office and put in a whole new government is beyond me, if they want change so badly.

And, yes, there are downsides to being a woman in the Netherlands: you're expected to keep a perfectly clean house, being the one that still plagues me (my boyfriend is a far better woman than I will ever be, in this respect). Life is far from perfect in the Netherlands--believe it or not, a vague sort of racism exists against allochtonen (anybody not-white) and Geert Wilder's party has built a surprisingly solid platform based entirely on the question of Islam in the Netherlands. Immigration and integration remain touchy issues. And if you can't speak Dutch, good luck once you leave the Randstad (and in a stroke of brilliance, the government has cut funding for integration classes, which include Dutch language courses).

Still, I'm happy here, in a good way. The Dutch don't expect you to be anything more or less than who you are. And for someone who's spent the first 25 years of her life trying to figure that out, it's quite a relief to know that I'm enough.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"There's Bread and Cheese Upon the Shelf"


During the winter, I need to avoid eating certain foods due to the interaction with another drug that I take to ward off the winter blues. As you might have guessed, one of these foods is cheese. And perversely enough, the Dutch aren't called "cheese eaters" for nothing: there is a lot of cheese. The inescapability of cheese was driven home earlier this week: I'm a vegetarian as well, which the catering staff usually accommodates with...cheese sandwiches.

Living with a dietary restriction (vegetarian) is difficult enough. I make exceptions for fish dishes at restaurants, because Dutch restaurants in general suck puppies at making decent vegetarian food (minus poffertjes, but even their savory pannenkoeken typically involve something meaty). Many restaurants don't even have a non-meat option, or else they consider their fish dish to be it. But even when I go to friends' houses, it's always a bit of a struggle for them to figure out just what do I eat. "You don't eat...any meat?" The relief when I tell them I will eat fish is palpable.

Overall, my experience as a vegetarian here has been a neutral-to-negative one: it's hard to find good vegetarian food unless I'm the one who makes it, and my boyfriend is most emphatically a more carnivorous personality, so if I cook something it needs to accommodate his tastebuds as well. The lone exception is ratatouille, which we both love, fortunately, but unfortunately it's not in season any more.

Durig the winter, though, the addition of cheese to the list of things I must not eat (chocolate is on that list, too, but I've decided that a tiny bit of chocolate every now and then is okay--cheese is the biggie) makes things incredibly difficult. I sometimes find myself with half a cheese sandwich, not realizing I'd started. I'd venture that it's harder to escape cheese than it is to be a vegetarian.

Ironically, the Dutch have one of the louder animal rights' groups in Europe. They gather outside the animal facility where I work, for regularly-scheduled protests, and they hand out pamphlets in the city decrying research on cute little puppies and kittens (though apparently doing bad stuff to rats and mice are perfectly okay). There's even a political party for animal rights--at least, that's the name of the party, so I assume they are fighting for Shadow's right to pee in a box. The Dutch animal welfare laws regarding animal research are some of the strictest in the world. In other words, politically, you wouldn't think that I'd have such a hard time of being a vegetarian here.

Escaping cheese...I'll keep dreaming. Maybe the Matrix will yield one day.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Good Eats


Like most women, I fret about my appearance. It's a good thing I work at a job where showing up in jeans and a t-shirt is normal and showing up in a button-down shirt counts as getting "dressed up". Otherwise I'd never leave the house.

Oddly, though, since moving here, I've become a helluva lot less neurotic about my appearance. I attribute this to two things: a) Vogue costs too damn much to be anything more than a yearly eye-candy treat (the September issue, of course), and b) the Dutch are a lot less neurotic about being skinny. Some people might say, "Of course they're not as neurotic, because they're all skinny!" but, in fact, they're not. They are probably more healthy than their American counterparts, but they're not all waifs, either.

Which is not to say that women's mags don't abound with diet tips and pictures of pretty ladies. They do. But the pretty women aren't airbrushed pixie sticks, the way they are in the US. I mean, gods above, they have wrinkles, and the Dutch sense of style is many things, but above all not French. Even models on the show "Benelux Top Model" (Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxemburg--cool abbreviation) have more to recommend them than their skinniness. Not much, admittedly, but they're not the wax-faced puppets you see in the States, either.

The book Wasted, besides giving a horrifying account of anorexia and bulimia, also posits a few interesting reasons why food and women are such antithetical ideas in the US, the most damning of them being that women need to be in such total control over themselves that they can't be human--i.e., can't eat. I wouldn't go quite so far, but it is interesting to note that the phenomenom of diets and "you are what you eat" is distinctly American, in the sense that dietary fads in the past two centuries have had an unusually strong presence in the United States. For instance, breakfast cereals--the ultimate anti-masturbatory food, according to Dr. Kellog. The writer Tocqueville attributed the need to improve oneself through food as the only outlet for improvement in an otherwise functionally egalitarian society. Maybe he was onto something--keep in mind he wrote this in the 1800s, and this is certainly the case today. Food in the US is intrinsically linked to moral standards, rather than being merely something to enjoy. If I were feeling more intellectual I might try to make the case that the Dutch, as a whole, are less neurotic in general than Americans, as a whole, but Geert Wilders getting elected last month kind of throws that thesis for a loop.

So you'll just have to take my word for it, that Dutch society as a whole is a lot less neurotic than the American people, as a whole. Part of it is that the Dutch have learned that when you cram 16 million people into a country the size of Maine, the only way to avoid all-out war is to talk reasonably with each other--you can't just pack your bags and ship out to the other side of the country. This has important ramifications for one's sanity. I think, if I were still living in the US, I'd still be obssessively counting calories and thinking about fiber. I've let most of that go. Part of it is that it's so difficult to count calories, Most of it is that I've stopped caring, because nobody else seems to.

BTW: No, that is not our baby. Much as though some people *ahem Mom ahem* would love to know that I am incubating another little humanoid, I'm afraid that that will have to wait.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Saturday was my birthday. My boyfriend had planned on taking me to the Efteling, a theme park along the lines of Six Flags or (my personal favorite) Dorney Park. However, our plans were thwarted by the terrible weather. Cold, wet, and perhaps worst of all, intermittent, rains throughout the entire day do not make for a good roller coaster experience. And I hate getting wet.

Now, my boyfriend has introduced me to many aspects of Dutch culture, from the "one cookie!" people to the circle party to the Hollandse Nieuwe to good kibbeling. But, in all the times that I've visited and all the time that I've lived here, we have never, ever, not once, had poffertjes.

Yesterday we finally remedied this travesty to my integration efforts. There was a little panenkoeken restaurant by the Valkhof which had been recommended to him by a coworker for poffertjes. So there we went, in the middle of the afternoon, bouncy with anticipation.

Now, I know what poffertjes are. The concept of little mini-pancakes smothered in powdered sugar and melted butter isn't very hard to get. But even so, the cuteness of the poffertjes and their deliciousness--they resemble the fluffy American pancakes--far surpassed my expectations. Most of the time I'm a little underwhelmed by Dutch food, but poffertjes are definitely worthy of a SQUEE and are by far my favorite Dutch food item to date.

Overall it was a great birthday. I got this t-shirt and another pair of earrings. I picked up The Chronicles of Pyrdain by Lloyd Alexander, one of my favorite authors as a kid--I'd heart about Chronicles but all I'd ever read was Vesper Holly. I'm on the third chapter so far and our hero is searching for an oracular pig. Yep. It's a blast.

And in the meantime, NaNoWriMo is going reasonably well. I haven't gotten stuck on anything too badly. For the most part it's just taking its time to develop. So overall, a good birthday, and a great weekend.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Fanta Ranta

In the US there is orange soda (Sunkist) that tastes like ZOMG SUGAR and a tiny bit of orange. It is colored like the Dutch National Football team's jerseys--which is to say, a neon and ungodly shade of tangerine orange--and it doesn't look like anything so much as glow toxically.

Fanta is also available in the US, as well--flavored like Sunkist and equally disgusting to behold. So for a long time, in the Netherlands, I steered well clear of the orange concoction, terrified of the fate that would await my tastebuds if I tried it. Turns out I needn't have worried: the Fanta here is tart, orangish-flavored, and, while still too sweet to be enjoyed frequently, is miles above and beyond the sugar-loaded syrupy excuse for a soft drink served up in the US.

The recipes for Fanta differ all over the world, so it's not like Coca Cola, which supposedly tastes the same everywhere you go (connoisseurs tell me that the Coke you get in Mexico is a gazillion times sweeter than the drink in the States, because it's made with cane sugar). But even so, the difference between the European and American versions of Fanta are astounding. If it weren't for the Fanta on the bottle, you'd never think that they were the same product. Not even close.

But aside from putting me into a hyperglycemic fit, I have to wonder what the US version of Fanta says about Americans in general. It's not very flattering.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


NaNoWriMo begins the day after tomorrow. In other words, every day for the month of November I shall have to churn out at least 1667 words, and probably more than that if I want to finish my novel. It's a short one, at only 20 chapters (plotted--I can see it growing to maybe 25 if some extra scenes get thrown in), but the quantity of stuff I need to cover in each chapter is huge. My head is spinning just thinking about that, because I also plan to maintain this blog as well, and possibly start a new one, about writing. In addition to all that, I will also have baking endeavors to placate the nurses at my boyfriend's workplace, and my own work will probably drive me nuts.

Why, you might ask, have I not backed down from tackling NaNo? Part of it is that I have, in fact, always wanted to write a novel, but it's only now that I've finally plotted and planned one out, from beginning to end. Secondly, it's a surprsingly effective way to meet new people:

It can be tough to be an expat, especially if you're at the beginning stages of learning the language, and doubly so if your new city is like Nijmegen, where people look at you funny for a few minutes when you speak English before they recognize the funny noises that have just come out of your mouth. Meeting new people is especially challenging if you've got a full-time job, because you just don't have the time to find clubs and/or groups with your interest, and if you do, they always meet at the one time when you can't.

Because writing can be a lonely endeavor, and because NaNo is meant to be fun--challenging, but fun--the originators of this devilishly insane literary insanity have Write-Ins, where official participants in a particular locale agree to meet and write. You can't get on the list unless you're officially participating, though, so you at least have to intend on writing a novel.

There are no promises: You may enter Nano with the best intentions but you are not guaranteed to finish. You may decide that your local Write-in sucks. You may decide, halfway through, that your novel needs to be canned--yesterday. In some ways, it's a lot like being an expat, all over again. You move to a new country with the intention of starting over, but who can say whether that will happen in the way that you thought it would? And perhaps the one saving grace for your sanity is that there are others, just like you, doing the exact same thing.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Man of the House


The Dutch pride themselves on being egalitarian in a way that would make the majority of Americans cringe, or at least those Americans who are against gay marriage, building a "mosque on Ground Zero", immigration, extension of welfare benefits, and health care reform. Or at the very least, health care that makes sense. Which is to say, health care by any other system except the one that was in place as of the beginning of this year. You could say that the Dutch are more American than Americans are, in that respect...

This page (pdf) offers some insight into how Dutch families operate, on a grand scale. On the whole things are very family-friendly here: paternity leave is offered at most places of employ, and part-time jobs are common and abundant (they also mean that companies don't have to pay full-time wages), making it relatively easy to balance work-family-life matters.

Alas, the page is terribly skimpy on the details that matter most to cohabitational calm: who scoops the poop--who does the dishes--who stuffs the stof? I.e.: what's the actual division of labor when it comes to scooping litter boxes and cleaning up (kitty and kiddy) puke?

The pamphlet cited above--and, judging by the numbers of moms with kids at the Albert Heijn on my (rare) days off--suggests that most of the housework is still done by women, since women are the ones taking these part-time jobs and balancing work and kids and all that. At least, on average: if you were to ask me, I'd have to say that most of the housework is being done by the men.

This is mostly because my boyfriend does all of the housekeeping at his apartment; I do help out but as I'm only there on the weekends, that mostly means I just do the laundry and pick up the cups that he leaves all over the apartment. Prior to my moving out, the cleaning was split more evenly, but he did and still does most of the cooking (he is the better cook and has more demanding tastebuds). But this is also true of his other married friends--most of the men I know work at home (or are transitioning to this) and take care of the kids and make dinner.

If this is an issue, though, it's a private one, not indicative of societal disaster or the moral collapse of the Netherlands. There doesn't seem to be any protests on the men who are being theoretically emasculated, nor do the women seem to very much care who does the housekeeping. And that's true equality.

Monday, October 25, 2010


Morning on the Ooijpolder

I'm cheating a bit with the photo, which was taken a couple years ago on the Ooijpolder. It's an oldie but a goodie, snapped through my old Fujifilm in the bitterest cold of the middle of December, on my way to freezing my ass off while counting geese.

BTW: if anybody wants to do a bird tour of the Ooijpolder, do let me know. I'm not an expert on "little brown birds that go 'twit'", as my boyfriend puts it, but in the winter the pintails, widgeons, teals, and gadwalls all descend upon the uitwater and it's an incredible sight.

Anyway: the point is that the photo isn't truly reflective of where I was this weekend, which was Friesland. More specifically, somewhere outside Groningen, where the signs are bilingual. We were visitng Jasper and Corrine, an ecologist (who is an expert on little brown birds that go "twit") and a literary event organizer, which is my way of saying "I have no idea what her title actually is but what she does is REALLY COOL". We had fun, stayed up half the night discussing the value of human life--Jasper exemplifies the infamous "Dutch Directness", you'd never have a conversation this heated or this philosophical after dinner at the Cleavers-- in a mixture of English and terrible Dutch, from my part. The next morning Jasper and I drove out to the Puddles, two little lakes and ponds, in hopes of seeing something special. Like a smew. I have seen this bird before, only once....

Anyway-anyway: The point of all that was to say that after living in Nijmegen and Maastricht for a year or three, I'd kind of forgotten how flat the rest of the country is. Which is not to suggest that the hills in the south of Nijmegen are actually all that hilly, but it's only in the complete absence of topography that you realize just how well-endowed the east and the south are. Even though I poke fun at the Dutch people who are so excited about climbing St. Pietersberg (300m, the highest point in the ENTIRE COUNTRY is literally in my backyard), I have to confess that I do understand: the monotony of the rest of the country could bore you to death, if it weren't so pretty.

Because that's the other thing most tourists will never really understand: there is a whole different world outside Amsterdam and the Randstad. And it's a nice world, a beautiful one, one full of animals and fungi and trees and, if you're lucky, hills. It may not have many windmills and the only tulips you'll see are sold in cut bunches at the florists--you'll never see a wooden shoe and people will offer you beer instead of weak tea and a whole plate of cookies. The drivers are polite and people might actually pick up after their dogs. There's a Netherlands that's not really the Netherlands, as most non-Dutch think of it, and they might never know....

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"Turn, turn, turn"


The seasons they are a-changing. I'm a bit late to this party, actually--autumn started back in August this year, but for me, fall really begins when my boyfriend makes stamppot.

Stamppot is a bit too gross to photograph, even with the prettifying effects of shooting through good glass and a sexy camera. It's a dish of potatoes with stuff mashed into it. And "stuff" is about as specific as it gets. Favorites of the Dutch include kale (boerenkool0; Romaine lettuce boiled to death, purgatory, hell, and back again(andiven); a mix of carrots and onions for hutspot; saurkraut (zuurkool) and bacon bits (spek). It is traditionally served alongside an enormous worst, with lots of gravy, mustard, and pickles and zilveruitjes (little pearl onions) in case that wasn't enough salt already. I like mine with mustard and pickles.

Some expats think stamppot is gross, tasteless, or both, but I like the stuff and until now I have not been able to articulate why: because when my boyfriend makes it, it's always when I'm home, and he always goes out of his way to get extra pickles and mustard and zilveruitjes and dumps in far more veggies than he would normally do. He always gives me a huge bowl of it (far too much) and we sit on the couch, under a blanket, and watch bad movies on RTL7 and point out everything the directors do wrong, while our cats vie for space on our laps. It's not fancy, and it's not especially good, but it's home.

Food isn't just about taste, but about the experiences surrounding it. I like to think of myself as being sophisticated enough to appreciate a dinner in that kind of place, and that my palate is sensitive enough to discern minute variations in chocolate, but in the end, when I miss home and the world is going to pieces and my boss is pissed off and my writer's block has morphed into the Berlin Wall, I want a bowl of stamppot.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Low Country, High Society

Two weeks ago, I decided to go to Paris. Sir Edmund Hillary should really be referenced in a more noble context, but in this case, our reasoning was the same: because it's there. I've been living, in some sense of the word, in Maastricht for almost a year, and to not have been to Paris when it's literally a hop, skip, and jump away would have been criminal.

So with great excitement, I booked my Thalys tickets--for the wrong date, it turned out, which had great ramifications for my time in Paris--and my hotel (for the correct date) and showed up, expecting to see something like a bigger, more elegant version of Maastricht. What I got, though, was something dramatically different--something very, very beige:

I couldn't help but be disappointed a little: yes, there were the sidewalk cafès, and tiny little back-alley gems, tiny boulangeries selling all kinds of marvelous delicacies--but the preponderence of beige gave the city the air of a long, enormous yawn. Had everything been Parthenon-white, it might have given the city a sense of Neo-Classical timelessness, and I'm tempted to put the blame on the multitude of scooters and the massive smog. However, the city has almost no graffiti, which means that they do clean the buildings--and therefore, that it was meant to be...well, beige.

Because I ended up having to buy an entirely new set of tickets, I was broke-ass poor when I got to Paris, a fact that I didn't really appreciate until I went to the Jardins des Tuileries and took a look at the prices for eating at one of those little cafès there. I mean, I knew I wouldn't be able to go to Versailles as I'd planned, and while I'm not a penny-pincher in a way that would be approved of in my adopted country, it was quite a surprise to see just how much a bottle of water costs. Parisians like to say that the French paradox is responsible for their fantastic health statistics--I vote for "not being able to afford more than three meals a week" as a more likely cause.

Fortunately, there are several things in Paris that were free, and the art scattered through the Jardin meant that I could still experience some of the culture:

Also free to enter was the Notre Dame cathedral (if anybody knows the alt-code for that little symbol above the "e", please let me know). I've read The Hunchback of Notre Dame, so it was quite an experience to be able to see the incredible church that inspired it.

Paris is an easy city to navigate, even for the directionally handicapped. There are enough monuments and famous buildings scattered throughout the city that walking in any particular direction will amost guarantee a direct hit to something recognizable. On the other hand, walking in Paris requires nerves of steel and balls of titanium--cars don't always yield to pedestrians, and furthermore the ambiguity of traffic lights coupled with the oddly-angled intersections, complete lack of lane markings, and the speed demons that fly down the narrowest of streets gives you that adrenaline rush that the city itself fails to provide. The UnDutchables waxes eloquent on the many shortcomings of Dutch drivers, but compared to Parisian ones, Dutch drivers are the model of propriety. Dutch cyclists, on the other hand, are every bit the jerk that French drivers are, but a bike is far less lethal than a car.

Parisians are supposed to be chic and sophisticated, but they also have a sense of fun that's often missing in the nette Low Countries. For instance, the random carousel, of which there were two on my long, slow meander throughout the city. There are probably more.

And in the spirit of self-expression and contained vandalism, there is the "Bridge of Locks", actually called the Ponts des Arts, where you can attach a lock to the bridge as a sort of Kilroy-was-here signature of your trip to Paris. Many of these locks have writing on it: "so-and-so loves so-and-so", presumably meaning that their love will last as long as the lock does...I wonder what happens when the lock-cutters come at night...

If you want to see more Parisian photos, follow the link to my Photobucket.

And thus concludes this grand round of procrastination from doing my outlining for NaNoWriMo...

Administrative warning

I've been terribly lazy about organizing my photos on Photobucket, which is my online photo organizer. This is purely my fault, but as in all other things in life, you, dear reader, are about to suffer from it. If you like my pictures, that is:

I'm going to go about organizing my Photobucket photos. This means that, for about half of the pictures here (those that are not uploaded directly from my computer) the link will be broken and that picture will no longer be available.

If you are really dying to know what other photos I've got, you can check out my Photobucket account. And if you're in the Netherlands and want a photographer, shoot me an email ;-)

Sunday, October 10, 2010



Now that the reality of NaNoWriMo is settling in, my existential crisis is finally getting the attention it has been tantruming for for the past year: where do I belong?

It's a question that has nagged me more than once in my life: I don't have very strong ties to the US, mostly because my parents moved there, half a world away from all of their extended family and friends. While I miss being able to hop on a bus and go to New York, it's not like I've ever been homesick--the US and all the lousy, racist assholes I've encountered, have only themselves to blame for that. But at the same time, it's not like I'll ever really be Dutch--I've learned to live here and I love the country, but if tomorrow you told me I need to pack my kitties and move to Zimbabwe, it wouldn't break my heart.

I don't think I'll be answering that question any time soon, but in the meantime, I do need to ponder which Write-In I want to be part of: NaNoWriMo participants around the world can sign up on the website, which features a word-tracker and forums so that you can meet up with others undertaking the same insane venture. Groups hold Write-Ins, where people get together for an evening and sit down with their laptops, play word games, and bang away at their keyboard, trying to fulfill the day's word quota.

I go to Maastricht on Monday mornings, and come back to Nijmegen on Friday afternoon. Needless to say this makes life just a tad bit tricky when figuring out which write-in to join. I think I'll be doing the one in Maastricht, mostly because the people there have been more responsive. But as much as I love Maastricht, I don't feel at home there. I can't take part in the social life in Maastricht because I'm not there on the weekends, but not living in Nijmegen during the week freezes me out of the ongoing events here. It's a weird limbo.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Maybe This Time

Learning the Dutch language isn't really required for my daily life. I mean, I have to demonstrate to the Nijmegen gemeente (and therefore the IND) that I'm serious about learning the language and integrating into a model member of the Dutch hive mind, but in my daily life I'm fairly certain I could get by without knowing a single word of Dutch. In other words, my internal motivation for learning the language is fairly low. It might be higher if I had any functional brain cells left at the end of my workday....

But there is one reason why I really actually do want to learn the language: the Tweeb is in renal failure--not that you'd know, judging by how she begs for food and keeps herself clean and all that. Just last night, when I came home, she went to the closet, sat down in front of it, and started squawking (there's no way that you could possibly call the sound of her voice a "meow"). Turns out my boyfriend had moved the kitty treats there--and she wanted one. She's been in renal failure for three years already, and a large part of why she's in such good health is because we've been diligent about feeding her the super-expensive prescription diet, and getting her to the vet twice a year for a blood test.

The way our vet visits usually go is that the Tweeb pees on me when I put her in the carrier, I change pants, we walk her to the vet, and then the vet talks with my boyfriend while doing the examination. I hold her for the blood draw and then the vet calls back about 3 or 4 days later to tell us about the state of the Tweeb. I know enough Dutch to follow what the vet says to my boyfriend, and enough to tell my boyfriend what to tell the vet, but it doesn't make for a satisfying professional relationship with the vet.

And that's really my only reason, currently, for wanting to get really good at Dutch. I'm about 1/3 of the way through my B1 course--so maybe this time I'll be able to talk with our vet...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

New icon

The new picture next to my blog intro says it all: I'm doing NaNoWriMo this year.

Obviously I love to write--I couldn't possibly keep this blog going if I didn't--and I don't know a single person who hasn't thought, at least once in his life, "I wish I could quit my job and write novels for a living." God knows I've thought that often enough.

Alas, I've also been writing long enough to know that the transition of an idea to the paper (or, in this day and age, the screen) doesn't always go smoothly, and some days it just doesn't go at all. I've also realized that I have little to no imagination when it comes to story ideas and story lines--I have maybe one or two really good ideas a year, and they keep me happily, or not-so-happily, occupied for the rest of the year.

All of which goes to say, that for me to undertake NaNoWriMo--when the longest thing I've written in the past year (not for work) was 3,000 words--is an incredible leap of faith in my ability to pull something out of my @$$ and that it will stick. It's more than a little like my decision to move to the Netherlands, undertaken without a lot of thought, and more than a little faith that my sanity would still be intact at the end of the day. Or, in this case, 3 years. So far, things have worked out.

Here's hoping the same will be true of my book...

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Secondary thoughts


I think Americans must have some kind of sadistic streak, constantly comparing their dismal high school grades to the stellar marks of their international peers. Because the numbers assume something that is patently not true: that all students have the same access to education.

Europeans have realized that a) secondary education is expensive, and b) not everybody needs it--what's the point of having a plumber that can calculate second derivatives? Although if you have a plumber who can calculate second derivatives you've gotta wonder what he's doing as a plumber...

In the Netherlands, the equivalent of a public high school does not exist. At the tender age of 12, students all over the country are given a test that presumably measures their aptitude for certain careers, whereupon they are then shuttled into one of three tracks: the vocational track (VMBO), where they are trained to be electricians/plumbers/etc; the middling track (HABO), which you can think of as "training for secretaries"; and the university track (VWO), which is preparation for university learning and/or a professional career. This last is what Americans think of as "high school", and, needless to say, when the bottom third have already been weeded out, it's easy to see why grades in the rest of the industrialized world are so much higher than they are in the US.

(None of which excuses the appalling state of inner-city education--but it does mean that the middling public schools of the sort I attended were actually pretty damn good)

Whichever track you test into will determine, effectively, the outcome of your life. As much as I like the idea of random events determining the rest of your life (how else to explain why I'm here?), the reality is a little more...unsettling. In the US, there is a persistent-but-not-entirely-unfounded belief that you can do anything you want if you've got the brains and the will to do it. Personally, that's what I was taught--it's what I grew up with, and it's one of those beliefs that I live by. It's a far cry from the fatalistic determination with which my boyfriend, for instance, views the world: he's locked into his career, and things are never going to change.

It's a prospect that's giving me second thoughts about raising my (purely hypothetical) children here. Everybody has their place in society--I agree with that. I'm just not sure I can bring myself to agree with the necessity of that place being a permanent one. To me, anything is possible, and change is good, and that's an Americanism I'm just can't let go.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Tour of the Forest Floor

In the rest of the world they have Great Walls and huge redwoods and enormous elephants. In the rest of the world there are pet cats that can eat small dogs and small dogs that fight with giant rats.

Here in the Netherlands, though, there are fungi. (Birds, too, but that's a later post--as in, "after I've saved up two months' salary and have taught myself how to shoot with a zoom lens longer than I am tall") In good years--i.e., years with cool damp summers that rot blackberries on the vine--you can get an impressive array of fungal growths on the forest, not the least of which include the kleverig koralzwammetje ("sticky coral fungus", or calocera viscosa).

These little lovelies sprout up mostly in the autumn, but even the big ones--as in, bigger than your head--can be surprisingly difficult to see if you're not looking for them. It might surprise you that something as vividly colored as the paarse pronkridder ("purple gaudy knight"--don't ask--Calocybe ionides) is actually extremely difficult to spot in a sea of brown decaying leaves.

Nevertheless, they are very common, and if you take the time to look, you will find them, and just about any fungus I've posted here. Including the infamous puntig kaalkopje, better known by its English name "Magic Mushrooms". These little suckers are only about one inch tall, so you've really got to look for them, but according to our friends who are well-versed in this matter, they are quite literally as common as weeds. And no, we did not smoke the one I've photographed. First of all, it was only one, and secondly, well, it was only one.

My boyfriend claims to be able to smell fungi in the air, so whenever we decide to go on a photo-jaunt through the Heumenbos nearby, I take him and my camera. He'll tell me, "I smell fungi," and I'll ready my camera. Actually they're not that hard to smell--I can whiff them, too. But only if there's a substantial lot of rot nearby. Rotting trees and humus is always a safe bet for interesting specimens, such as these parelstuifzwammen ("pearl-studded fungus", Lycoperdon perlatum).

But sometimes all you really have to do is look. We almost stepped on these vroege bekerzwam ("early cup-fungus", Peziza vesiculosa)just before my boyfriend grabbed me and pointed.

And of course, we have the infamous Amanitas muscaria, the real "Magic mushroom", in my opinion--people used to steep them in milk and set it out for the flies, as a fly-killer (the pretty red ones are always the deadly ones). I suppose they stopped using this when lawsuits came into existence and people could get sued for poisoning cats and small children as well. It's said that the Vikings used to take them (probably not neat) before combat because it induced some kind of psychedelic rage and made them impermeable to pain. Mostly they're known for killing people who don't know any better. These days you can buy the likeness of Amanitas in the Blokker, as a mushroom-bank, or as a tchotchka. I suppose it's a good thing people aren't more aware of nature--it's kind of like having a Jeffry Dahmer action figure on display in a kindergarten.

So that's what I've been up to these past couple weekends. See if you can see these for yourself!