Sunday, January 24, 2010


We went to see Avatar a few weeks ago in the movie theater. It was great, even though we didn't get prime seats. The theater was crowded, but nobody was too obnoxious. The movie was great. And it didn't feel like 3 hours.

Part of this has to do with the fact that, about halfway through the movie (somewhere in Act II, when everybody's been introduced, the premise has been laid out, but before the plot is about to be kicked into high gear), there's an intermission. You can go to the bathroom, get more popcorn, toss out your trash from the first half the movie, etc.

It's kind of weird the first few times--you're watching and all of a sudden there's an intermission screen. But it does add something to the experience--you can sit there and digest what you've seen so far. It lets you take a breather from all of the excitement--and trust me, with some movies, you need it.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Back in the motherland

Nothing says "entitled consumerist snob" like the debate about free plastic bags at stores, something which people in the Netherlands have more or less relegated to a convenience but not a necessity. On Saturdays (the major shopping day), you'll see little old ladies trucking their roller-bags--sort of like rolling suitcases, but meant for carrying groceries and stuff like that--all over town, and most people lug around at least one large canvas bag. Even if they do have a plastic bag from a store, you can pretty much bet that it will have goods from several other stores inside.

I simply do not--can not--understand the mindset that people have that makes them think that they are entitled to free bags at stores. It was a rather big shock to me, seeing how many such bags my mother regularly received when I visited. I asked her why she didn't simply buy a tougher bag. I don't remember her answer.

It's not so much the plastic that bothers me as the extravagant wastage. Flimsy bags (which I actually try to get because I can put cat poop in them) rip after the first use, effectively nullifying any chance they have of reusal. The sturdier bags--the kinds you have to pay for in the supermarkets here--take up too much space, although we use them to schlep around shoes, and I use one to protect my purse against rain. Even so, we have an excess of bags--each one can be reused a plethora of times, and we usually do, unless one of us makes an impromptu trip to the supermarket, and forgets to bring a bag. But still--it's so much wasted plastic--you can't even pretend it's useful, because let's face it: canvas tote bags are so much better.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


One of my resolutions that I'd made for this year was to only buy a new thing if I was replacing something old. Saturday? One of the things I bought was a laundry drying rack.

To be completely fair, this does replace one of the lines we have strung across the office/guest room. And we've been thinking of getting one for about a month, so it wasn't as if it were an unplanned purchase. We do a lot of laundry, between the sheets and towels and clothes. Or rather, it's not that we do do a lot of laundry per se, it's that we tend to procrastinate with it all week and then have to run 3-4 loads on Sunday. That's a function of our living arrangements and work schedules.

But it does mean that our two lines (the third gets in the way of the computer and so is rarely used) and single drying rack often get overwhelmed by sodden duds, and then they don't dry as quickly as they should, and then I'm left carting a bag of semi-dry clothes back to Maastricht, where they sit at my desk until I bring them home and unfurl them to dry completely. Where, thanks to the cold that is my apartment, they take their jolly good old time doing so.

In this respect our lives are atypical compared to an average Low Country bumpkin. It's not that we're too cheap for a dryer, which would be the usual reason for someone who chooses not to indulge in such luxuries. My boyfriend has shelled out more for a new slipcover (that the cats promptly tore up), and has spent enough money on oil lamps to buy several dryers. Name brand dryers, too. I think it's largely that, after 15 years (for him) and 3 years (for me) without one, well, you just don't get to missing such things after a while. And more practically, there's no room in our apartment for one.

Supposedly the Dutch are good with money, which is a polite way of saying that people here are tightwads. That is and isn't true--most of the people I know personally are happy to splurge on things like good food and cool toys. On the other hand, I've seen people get into a proper tizzy over being charged and extra 35 cents for a box of sprouts. It is true that heavy marketing tends to drive people away from products, though: I think the thinking is that if something needs that much press it must be defective somehow. But overall people are no better and no worse with their money than elsewhere, given the constraints of the system. It is harder to get a credit card here, and damn near impossible to use one in a store, so I suppose that makes it easier to watch one's pennies.

The one area that seems to be especially lucrative might be called "live action infomercials". I'm sure there's a word for it--"it" being the people who set up a stall in the market on market day and demonstrate the wonders of a new product that solves a problem you never knew you had--in Dutch but the word escapes me just now. These slick talkers slice, dice, floozee, hoover, and do all kinds of fantastic demonstrations with their New Gadget. The pitch, of course, is always that this Gadget is available only through them at the Unbelievably Affordable price of however-much-euros that it costs. For whatever reason there is always a crowd in front of the person, oohing and aahing as they show off a handful of finely sliced onions or a pretty string of beads held together by magnets. Oddly enough, I've never actually seen anybody buy anything from these people, but they're always around.

Friday, January 1, 2010


It's said in The UnDutchables that Dutch society runs on coffee. This is only half true. The other half runs on tea, but that half has a strange way of treating it, as reusing teabags seems to be the standard and not just reserved for cheapskates. I'm convinced that most of the people here have no sense of taste, since most of hot brown liquid concoctions are farily insipid--but it's still better than the US, where the aforementioned drinks are more watery than Davy Jones's locker.

Be that as it may: this Christmas I received a coffee grinder, which is a handy thing to have as it means that I can finally buy beans rather than vacuum-sealed grinds that start to lose flavor within minutes of breaking the seal. Alas, coffee beans are only sold in snobby upscale coffee-chocolate-tea shops with names like Simon Levelt, or Van Hilst, and the varieties of coffee go far beyond Java and Kenya. You can have coffee from Ethiopia, Tanzania, Columbia, Guatemala, Mexico, light- or dark-roasted, infused or not. For someone who's only choices, until now, have been "red or not-red" (the national coffee preference, it seems, is coffee with red packaging--Douwe Egberts, the biggest coffee seller here, has a line called "Aroma Rood" that must make up something like 99% of the coffee purchased, and supermarkets take advantage of their distinctive red packaging to offer a generic coffee that's also packaged in red), the choices can be a rather mind-blowing lot.

Example, then: this morning I've had 3 cups of Tanzania Peaberry coffee, a "mild and aromatic" coffee from the special peaberry tree, which makes smaller beans and therefore more concentrated flavor...I think. As much as I ridicule wine writers for writing things like "there is a hint of strawberries in the initial bouquet", I must play the hypocrite here, for it is indeed a rather mild coffee, with less of that astringent tang, and there is a sweeteness to the brew that lets it sit gently on the tongue. It's remarkably easy to sound like a pompous snob when discoursing on the quality of one's drink. But this is Coffee, damn it, and coffee is serious business.

Such serious business, in fact, that I am trying to come to a decision as to whether or not to purchase Fair Trade beans. Fair Trade coffee (ground) is expensive, but for someone who only has a small pot in the mornings, buying small packages is good because then you can actually finish the package before the flavor is completely evaporated. But with beans, you don't have that problem--you do have to keep them in a cool dry place, but beans keep their flavor much longer and if you don't mind grinding them afresh every morning, you'll get a much yummier drink. I flatter myself to think that my palate can discern the difference between fresh-ground coffee and sludge--but really it's not very difficult. After having had fresh-ground coffee from the Cafe T, not even the best packaged grounds-coffee comes close to that little cup of heaven.

At issue with my dilemma over Fair Trade is the question of how much do the farmers get of my [ungodly price per kilo coffee]? It's hard to say, really. On the one hand Fair Trade is usually organic, which is worth a lot, given how many pesticides are used in farming coffee. On the other--well, giving farmers a living wage usually means only penny-increases in the cost per kilo of beans for the coffee companies, and certainly far less than the near-double price that FT coffee costs. Yes, I'm a bit of a tightwad in this respect--but on the other hand, I have rent and student loan payments to make, and nobody profits if I go broke.

So I guess the real question is: what is the worth of having the Perfect Coffee Experience every morning? Worth €12/kg (bare minimum) in beans? Never mind the "doing good" bit--if I'm paying that much for coffee it will be because I can have the PCE, but if it helps out a farmer somewhere, all the better. For now (that is, until we finish the bag of Van Hilst Tanzania Peaberry) I'm starting to think that it could very well be worth the cost to have such excellent coffee.