Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Thoughts on language and editing

I do a lot of editing for my boss, which is currently my primary running rant for several reasons, none of which have to do with what I'm musing upon now: language and editing (I know, my post title is inspired).

Unlike my boyfriend, who is truly bilingual and probably could count as being trilingual, given his near-fluency in German, I remain stuck in English-mode for about 90% of my life. This is partly because of my job--in academia, the langue de rigeur is English, and conversations are either mind-numbingly simple ("Hi, how are you?") or extremely complex ("But the CYP450 system does not phosphorylate residues next to proline") and there's not a whole lot in between where a person at my current level of understanding can really get in on. However, when I do "flip the switch", my understanding of the language is now at the point where the switch is total. That is, I no longer try to translate the words as I hear them, but I (try to) understand the meaning as it comes along. I even kinda like watching the news, now (if only because pictures make everything much easier to follow).

A friend of mine who now lives in Japan and speaks, reads, and writes Japanese at a native level, described it this way: you cannot learn to a language rule by rule; you have to learn how the language "feels". I think it's true: when most adults want to learn a language, they start going at it the way a computer programmer would: x input = y output. If you think about it that way you'll get nowhere fast. It's more like getting to know a lover: you start with the small things--dinner and a movie--and then you move on to the more complicated things--life, the Universe, and Everything--and as you do, you grow to understand that person. Or, in this case, a language. Some ways to say things "feel" right. Others, not so much. Dat is het verschil tussen "weten" en "kennen".

What's all this got to do with editing? I gotta confess something right away: the sort of editing that I do (mostly) is for scientific papers, in a field which has its own lexicon and diction, so it's not as if I'm critiquing the latest thriller or anything like that. Maybe the following would be different if I were going over potential best-sellers, or something targeted at people who don't have PhDs.

That being said: Editing has almost NOTHING to do with finding grammar/spelling mistakes. I mean, sure, you have flubbed verbs and spelling mistakes left and right, but that's no different from 98% of the writing done by native speakers (who tend to use pseudo-words like "alot" and mix up their/there/they're). These sorts of things pop up no matter where you go, what language you speak, and who's writing it--here's a game for you: find all my grammar/spelling mistakes in this blog. There are more than I'd like to admit.

Rather, it has to do with a) understanding what the author wants to say, and b) helping the author to say it. In other words, meaning matters more than grammar. Your grammar can suck like a Hoover*, but if your meaning is clear, then the editing is easy. On the other hand, if you don't know what it is you want to say, it becomes much, much harder to edit--even if your English is perfectly correct. You have to have an understanding of the meaning of the text you're editing, and then figure out why the meaning isn't clear, and then think of how to fix it so that the meaning is clear--and, if you can, preserve the voice of the original author.

Editing is a lot like learning a lanugage. It's about being able to keep an eye on how the big picture evolves when you tweak the little things.

*Original thought was a lot more explicit--I do try not to use cliches.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Lament to peanut butter

This post begins with a disclosure: I stopped eating the likes of Skippy and Jif at around the time my mom discovered Whole Foods, then known as Fresh Fields, and we realized how peanut-ty real peanut butter--you know, the stuff made with actual crushed peanuts--tastes. However, I have never lost my affection for peanut butter, which lives on in the peanut butter and jelly sandwich I bring for lunch every day.

Although I really should write that in the past tense: "brought for lunch every day". Becauuse, you see, it's only been two weeks since I stopped bringing the ol' PB&J for lunch. The reason is far less interesting than the sudden development of anaphylactic shock at the mere mention of groundnut. No, it's because I did a calorie count and realized that the peanut butter had to go if I ever wanted to lose the *ahem* pounds that I'd actively been trying to get rid of for the past 6 months.

Admittedly, I wasn't trying very hard. I mean, I don't really do diets. I eat right 95% of the time and exercise almost every day, running at least 4 miles a day most days of the week and let the biking and grocery-hauling take care of all the other muscles. But after about six months of this and not losing an ounce, I realized that something was wrong. And I counted calories.

Calorie counts here are usually give per 100g of the food item, which is NOT the typical serving size for most things. For liquids, it's given per 100 mL, which is again NOT the typical serving size. It's annoying as hell because you'll look at the package, thinking, "ZOMG THIS HAS HOW MANY CALORIES?!" and then suddenly remember that it's for 100g of food. You'll think that 100g is about 1/3 of the package, and then decide that it's a reasonable calorie count after all, except that when you eat the chips (or whatever it is) you never eat just 1/3 of the package, and then you realize that you've overeaten, but then think, "Oh, it's not that bad." Rinse and repeat a few times and it's no wonder that I'd been eating more than I thought I had been for quite a while.

So I stopped making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every day. I continue to make two sanwiches, but with either the vegetarian deli-meat (don't ask--actually I hate the stuff but every now and then I just get so tired of cheese) or a huge hulking slice of cheese divided between two sandwiches. Ever since I've been doing that I've lost *cough* pounds.

Even so, I miss the PB&J. It wasn't just a delicious lunch, or a nostalgic turn back to my childhood (which did not actually feature PB&J to any major extent). It was also a singular American oddity in a sea of very Dutch sandwiches.

See, the Dutch think they've got the whole sandwich thing down. They'll put anything between two slices of anything else and call it a sandwich--and people will eat it and love it. In Maastricht, thanks to the influence of those decadent Belgains, this makes for a recognizable sandwich: meat or cheese or tuna fish salad, some lettuce, maybe a tomato slice, but definitely something dressy, and the bread is usually a whole roll. In Leiden, host to the Puritans escaping the Church of England, you´ll get two slices of bread, meat or cheese, and maybe some lettuce and maybe something nice--but only if you pay extra for it. In Amsterdam, they will smear butter inside a soft squidgy raisin roll and call that a sandwich. I've seen people eating what appeared to be two slices of bread with mayonaise in between on the train. In other words, anything goes, sandwich-wise, in the Netherlands.

But not a single Dutch person (that I've met, anyway) seems capable of comprehending the classicPB&J. The looks I get when I've tried to introduce the concept range from amazement ("What is this flavor combination of which you speak?") to skepticism ("Are you sure that's not deadly?") to downright disgusted (*excuses and runs to the bathroom, from which vomiting noises ensue*). I don't understand why: there is peanut butter and there is jelly, but for some reason, as ingenious as the Dutch can be, building things like Neeltje Jans and persuading the world that tulips are the future, they seem to have completely missed out on what was once a staple of my existence.

Monday, July 19, 2010



Every year the city of Nijmegen plays host to the Four Day March, an event which, according to Wikipedia, celebrates the national commitment to physical fitness and the "ability to march". It basically means that, for four days, the city of Nijmegen devolves into a madhouse of pandemonium as buses and trains around Nijmegen are disrupted, spectators clog the streets to cheer, massive quantities of beer end up on the streets, and up to 1 million people descend upon the city to...well, march, or watch people march.

At first I thought it was a bit odd that the walk didn't benefit any particular charity. Indeed, the Four Day March website is entirely bereft of any mention of good deeds, which is a bit odd if you consider that, otherwise, the Netherlands are one of the most generous (percentage-wise) at giving to charity.

But that was before I learned that the Vierdaagse began in 1906 as a way to promote fitness and sport, if you'll pardon the British-ism. The Wikipedia page has a long list of the original founders of the walk--the English is a bit funny, but I think it's because the person who put up the Wiki page did the translation literally. Anyway: it began way back when in 1906 because apparently the Dutch army didn't have any other way to prove its mettle to the world, and continues to this day for much the same reason, black-ops and covert operations aside. And indeed, about 10% of the participants are military--denoted by their 10 kg of dead weight they're required to carry, in case you missed the camo. It's billed as an "International" march, and a surprsing number of participants from different nations turn up, but in a tide of almost 40,000 Dutch people, they can be hard to find.

Frankly, I'm not sure which is more creepy--that you can get 40-50,000 people marching just to march, or the throwback to the day marches in 1984. I mean, I can completely understand torturing yourself for the hell of it (why else does anybody run a marathon?), although four days seems a tad bit excessive and borders, in my mind, on some kind of masochistic fetish. But the history of the Four Day March, from its conception as a test for soldiers to "building solidarity" in the 50s (a common theme back in the day) is disturbingly Orwellian in nature.

Nevertheless, I wish the walkers luck this year. I actually would like to participate in the Vierdaagse. Maybe next year--it should help me squeeze into a wedding dress ;-)

Thursday, July 15, 2010


I'm a pretty girl. No knockout, and certainly not a supermodel, but I get my fair share of catcalls and flirtatious men trying to (pathetically) hit on me from time to time. Thankfully Dutch men are better-contained than their American counterparts and do not, as a general rule, go tweeting on the streets.

However, they do wink.

But I've finally figured out that it's part of the Dutch DNA (or something like that), an inherited social behavior meme probably connived back in the 1600s when the Calvinists took over and made the potato the national vegetable: now that catcalls weren't allowed, men had to come up with a more subtle way to let women know what they really thought of them, although one must wonder how anybody within line of sight could miss such a huge, exaggerated stage wink. The Dutch don't exactly do subtle.

It took me a while to figure this out because my boyfriend swore that he never winked at women, which I believed because he's my boyfriend and because he has some pretty attractive female friends, and his eyes always close simultaneously. But earlier this week, I met up with Amanda and Dan and she corrected me--my boyfriend did, in fact, wink at her! As if that weren't proof enough, we had also recently attended a funeral, where winking was rampant, and even the crudest Low-Countryman knows one simply does not hit up chicks in black.

Verdict on the wink: mostly harmless, probably unconscious. If you want to have a little fun, mention it to a winker and watch him go crazy :-)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

That kind of place

There are restaurants were you sit down and the prices are not printed next to the items, under the pretext that if you have to ask, you can't afford it.

The Chateau Neercanne, fortunately, was not that kind of place. It was, rather, the kind of place where you look at your €217 bill and think, "Wow, that was it?" We were expecting something a little higher, since I'd done my five-course meal a la carte and the sommelier cracked open two bottles of wine for us.

Apparently mousse is "in" these days. Our first amuse-bouche, had on the terrace during our pre-dinner drinks, was a gazpacho topped with a mousse and a cucumber sorbet. Then, when we were seated at our table, a little row of three amuses appeared--a tiny scoop of tuna and mango, a tiny little tomato topped with a tiny dot of mint mousse and a tiny speck of basil with two tiny croutons, and a tiny sliver of beet topped with a dollop of goat cheese mousse and a drop of aged balsamic vinegaar. Throughout the meal little blobs of the most spectacular and impossible mousses (onion mousse, orange mousse) kept appearing.

But I'm getting ahead of myself: We both enjoy good food, but alas, a resident's salary, a lab tech's salary, and a mortgage plus three cats' worth of vet bills aren't quite conducive to living it up that way. So last year, on 1 January, we started a "Fine Dinner in a Nice Restaurant" jar, into which we could collect all the loose change we had at the end of the week, or whenever our wallets felt a bit too fat for comfort. By the end of the year we'd amassed nearly €500 worth of spare change, but it took us a while to figure out which restaurant to spend it on. And oh, the agony of the decision! This one was too expensive, we'd have to reserve a hotel room to eat at that one, etc etc. Eventually I stumbled upon the Chateau Neercanne while on a run, and decided that nothing would be cooler than eating in a castle. That it happened to have one Michelin star didn't enter the equation until later.

We'd gotten there early, but they seated us on the terrace and gave us a menu to look over. We were quite charmed by the view, by the fact that the The maître'd (or the sommelier, I'm not sure what his exact function was) kept calling me "the lady" and the fact that their wine list is longer than some books I've read. My boyfriend, for all that he can discern fine and subtle notes in wine, is not a wine connoisseur, in the sense that he knows nothing about vintages and regions and all that. He was only too happy to take the maître'd's suggestion--"Let me pour for you."

The main issue that I had with their five-course menu is that everything had a dead animal in it. Plus anything having to do with liver is an automatic "no" for me--bad childhood memories; I could care less about the geese that went into the foie gras. So I ordered a la carte, ordering a fish-based voorgerecht and hoofdgerecht, and it was assumed that I would want a dessert as well (and I did). The maître'd supplemented my meal with a soup during my boyfriend's fish dish.

By far, though, the most spectacular part of the evening was the cheese board. You see "cheese board" on a menu and you think "OK, just a few cheeses served up on a wooden board with some grapes and bread." Hah. No:

First the cheese-man (apparently all of the men running around in their shirtsleeves were an expert in something) pushed an enormous cart into the dining room, covered with what seemed like a casket for a dead baby. He then whipped off the casket-like lid, exposing ten chunks of carefully rotted milk resting on a marble slab, explained which one was what, and asked us which one we would like. We got to pick four cheeses, and the plate was dressed up with some honey-fig jam and a few slivers of dates and some paper-thin wafers. It was delicious, mostly. I'm not a big fan of blue cheeses, but it was made with raw milk, so I was curious to see whether the taste was really as dramatic as all the raw-milk foodies swear it is (and it was). And as much as I like hard cheeses, the bright-orange cheese just didn't seem to fit anywhere, flavor-wise. I mean, it was good, but it just didn't go with anything on the plate and the cores that were drilled were too thick for me to really enjoy. But I am apparently very much a goat-cheese person, just as my boyfriend is a soft-cheese person. He LOVED the blue cheese and also the semi-liquid oozing thing from Britain. I wish I could remember the names of all the cheeses, but by that time we'd been eating for three hours, and I was stuffed to the gills with food and it was all I could do to stay awake through dessert.

Anyway. For dessert there was pannacotta for me, and raspberries and another improbable mousse for him. They came with sorbets--a gin and tonic sorbet, and one flavored with elderflowers. They mixed up the flavors--I was supposed to get the GNT, and he was supposed to get the elderflowers--but it was so delicious all the same that we didn't really care. The pannacotta was flavored strongly with what I want to believe is lavender, but the candied flowers on it were yellow, while the little globes of jelly were mint and the hard mousse sticks were basil, so I'm not really sure what it was flavored with...

The Ultimate Question: Was it worth the time (because the whole affair took us 4 hours) and money? HELL YES. It was even worth having missed the last bus back to Maastricht and having to walk back to my hot-and-cramped room to spend the night.

If you go: Expect to spend around €90/person if you're ordering a three-course meal a la carte (which makes spending the same amount for a five-course meal all the more enticing), assuming that you've ordered wine by the glass. Also remember that, when the server brings you your food, to wait for a minute or two in case there's a sauce that should be artistically dribbled on the food and platter while the person explains what you've received. And definitely don't be shy about asking for advice on the wine. Definitely don't skimp on the wine, either (unless you're enzymatically retarded lik me).

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A special type of insantiy

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If you ever visit Neeltje-Jans or the Rotterdam port, you'll see two of the biggest man-made structures ever conceived to keep water out of the Netherlands. Which is kind of important, considering that 2/3 of the country (not the entire coutnry) is at least 1/2 meter below sea level--and sinking.

I forget how many billions of guilders it cost to build those structures, exactly--I think it was something like 80 billion. Special boats were designed specifically to lay the concrete pylons in Neeltje-Jans, and the ball bearings on Rotterdam's Measlantkering had to be forged in the Czech Republic, because presumably only the Soviets would need to make something that big out of metal.

The most incredible thing about all of these projects, including the sealing off of the IJsselmeer, is that everybody agreed (for the most part) that they were worth the money. But more interestingly is the human response: people who were born post-1953 get a look in their eyes when they talk about the water works--a look that says, "Yes, I'm proud of our little country". It's about as much nationalism as is permitted these days, the Dutch soccer team notwithstanding.

But the ability to get the entire nation involved in one colossal building project--without resorting to torture/propaganda of the sort used in China or the former USSR--also speaks for a special kind of insanity. It's like there's this collective hive mind that every otherwise-perfectly-sane Dutch person can tap into. You see this at Jan Smit concerts, on Queen's Day, and whenever a group of people decide it's time to clean up after a meal (all of a sudden everybody just gets up and starts putting things away). It's the sort of thing an American would find a bit unnerving at first. It's also the reason why there will never be a bicycling infrastructure in the US that even begins to approach the sort of setup that the Netherlands has.

Never mind that Americans can't even get past the question of "Should", as in "Should there be bike lanes?" The type of collective thinking--that, no matter where you go in Holland, you will see the same symbols used, the same types of traffic lights, the same laws apply--required to get together the infrastructure to begin conceiving of how bike lanes should work, never mind building them, is something that simply could not be managed in the US. It works in the Netherlands because a) it's a small country and b) everybody rides bikes. In the US, though, the pipe dream is still one house, white picket fence, two cars. Even assisted housing and food stamp programs won't ask people to give up their cars. It's not implausible that the oil companies are willing to subsidize food costs if it keeps up their revenue.