Monday, August 30, 2010


Preuvenement this year coincided quite nicely with the start of the academic year, a yearly event denoted in Maastricht by the sudden appearance of student parties everywhere, and the population doubling, and possibly tripling in some neighborhoods. At least it seems that way: lines at the Albert Heijn are at least twice as long now, but they have the best bread, so I grit my teeth and bear it.

As such, you might expect back-to-school sales to be everywhere. Nope. There are sales here and there, but none of the back-to-school extravaganza that seems to sweep the US prior to Labor Day (another vacation that I'd forgotten). This is not to say that kids don't get new pencils and paper and notebooks, just not on the scale that they seem to "need" that stuff in the US. In fact, the only clear delineation of this time of year is the appearance of academic agendas in bookstores. These aren't any different from regular agendas for boring working people like me. They just start in September rather than January. A few of them might have places for grades, and possibly classes, but that's it.

School is a casual matter here, where the focus seems to be less about learning stuff (at least, until you're 10 or so and have to start worrying about the placement exams) and more about learning to tap into the Dutch hive mind and the art of cooperative living. Bookbags, therefore, are shockingly skimpy, as for the most part, they don't really have to carry much of anything.

I mention this because when I was in medical school, I bought one of those L.L. Bean "unconditionally guaranteed" backpacks. It was about $40, near as I can remember. But L.L. Bean's products, as you might know, kick ass because they are about as indestructable as Superman. My first L.L. Bean packpack was just starting to show a little wear-and-tear after 5 years of use--it then passed on to my sister, who used it throughout high school and possibly still uses it in college.

I brought it with me when I moved to the Netherlands, because traveling up and down the East Coast had taught me that there are several things that are indispensable when traveling. Amongst them, a good book, and a small pillow. And here it languished for a little while before it got pressed back into service for my daily commute to and from Leiden. It is not at all unusual to see "real adults" carrying their stuff in a backpack instead of a briefcase. As a matter of fact, I'd venture to guess that more adults use backpacks than students, and this, combined with the literally light class loads, means that there is no demand for heavy-duty-missile-stopping backpacks of the kind that were prevalent in my admittedly-very-geeky high school and college.

Which can be a problem if you're the enemy of all backpacks, as my boyfriend seems to be. He merely has to look at a backpack and the seams unravel and the zippers get stuck. To say that he has the touch of death for backpacks is like saying that molten lava is a bit warm. I don't think any of his previous backpacks have survived the six-month mark. So it was with serious misgivings and not a little concern that I finally passed on my L.L. Bean pack to him.

After one year, I can surmise one of two things: either the L.L. Bean pack is truly indestructable, or Adobe's clone-stamp tool works a bit too well. It's a bit eerie, actually, to know that the backpack is not only still around, but that none of the zippers have gotten stuck, the seams are still together, and that it looks pretty much the same as it did when I bought it.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

My First Preuvenement

I'll leave it to Amanda to explain what Preuvenement is. Suffice it to say that this, being my first year in Maastricht, was not to be missed. I wouldn't call myself a real foodie, but being able to sample things from all of the fancy-schmancy restaurants in Maastricht was irresistable.

At least, in my head: For whatever reason I was under the impression that it would be all finger foods, relatively cheap, so that you could nosh on it while walking around to see what else there was to sample. I'd pictured an elaborate setup of counters all over the Vrijthof, with all of the little eateries and restuarants of Maastricht vying for people to come try their stuff and generally getting their name out.

However, this being the Netherlands, I really should have known better: In the first place, I had not anticipated that the well-established restaurants of Maastricht (i.e., Beluga or that one oyster bar, where you spend more on food at one meal than I do in a month) would be there, and nor did I expect mini-restaurants, complete with seating, teenage waiters, and epic wait times (reduced, for this occasion, to merely "slow to an American").

Although I had been warned in advance that it wasn't cheap, I still got a bit of sticker shock when I saw how many tickets food and drinks cost. I'm not exactly a tightwad, but still--2 tickets, or €3.60, for a mini-puntzak of frites was a bit much to handle. We eventually came back to that establishment for dessert (which was more worthwhile) but in the meantime we elected to spend our tickets at the mini-Sofa restaurant, a place that specialized in Middle Eastern food.

The quantities that were served were less than impressive, even for Dutch standards. I didn't expect a full meal, of course, but the mini-wrap that I ended up with was pathetic. Said micro-wrap also did not advertise that it contained chicken, something I did not realize before I ate my first bite (i.e., half of the wrap). I suppose I should have known based on the appearance, but I just don't cook that much meat, and whatever I do cook usually ends up looking, well, not-like anything. Moreover, it's all for my boyfriend (at least, whatever the kitties don't blackmail him out of), so I really hadn't the slightest idea what was in it until I ate it. At which point, well, I'd paid for it, and half of it was gone.

But even that was all right: if you know your money goes towards charities it makes getting gauged a little easier to swallow, and there were also a substantial number of cheaper eats there as well, sans seating. The one thing I can't stand is loud music, and this Preuvenement had in abandon. I mean, you're immersed in a roaring crowd edging to get drinks and food to begin with--adding a bunch of typically Dutch (and not in a good, Ilse-de-Lange or Marco-Borsato* way) music pumped at earthquake-inducing volumes, makes me reconsider my PhD for a Master's in Explosives.

Most surprising was how stylin' the people were. We saw a lot of suits that night, and fancy dresses. I suppose if you're the kind of person who goes to an oyster bar--yes, there was one of those--you're also the kind of person who wears a suit and a cocktail dress. And if you're the kind of person who recognizes that Beluga is a Michelin-starred restaurant, then you'd probably think 5 lappen for the honor of having their bouillabaise is a fair deal, but only if you're wearing stilettoes and fighting to keep your coiff from getting soaked in the rain.

In spite of all this it was quite an enjoyable experience, and one that I will (gods willing) happily undertake again. It wasn't so much the food, but the company, that made it worthwhile.

*That I consider Marco Borsato one of the better singers just goes to show how bad "typcially Dutch" music is.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Prelude (to a real post)

To: the moron who wrote the Dutch Eurovision contestant's song.

Sha-la-lie this up your ass

I'm not even all that big a fan of classical music, either. But after spending a couple hours tonight in the Vrijthof listening to the likes of, well, Sha-la-lie, being blasted through enormous speakers strategically located so as to make escape from the three-chord-five-note-uber-cheerful montage impossible, Smetana sounds pretty damn good.

Real post coming soon, about either the dentist visit, or Preuvenement.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Lost in Translation


The main problem with European summers as a whole is that nobody believes in ice. You can't get it at McDonald's, gas stations don't sell it, refrigerators don't come with ice machines, and it has to be properly broiling before a cafe will think to put ice in the glass with your drink. Europe simply doesn't do cold drinks. The cold drinks in the Netherlands are typically "cool" rather than "cold", but at least the beer is served at less-than-room-temperature.

Having the above as a premise does not bode well for the smoothie, which is the subject of this little rant. The smoothie, to an American, is a thick, cold concoction of frozen yogurt (a.k.a. nonfat ice cream) and fruit, with perhaps some juice and perhaps some ice tossed into the blender and whirred together UPON ORDERING. Or else it's fruit, some juice, and some ice, whirred together UPON ORDERING in a blender. The point being that a smoothie is made on-demand and barely has time to warm above freezing before it's poured into a paper cup and into your sweating hands. Sweating, because nobody ever orders a smoothie in the dead of winter.

A smoothie, in other words, is not a pureed concoction of fruit, yogurt, and perhaps some ice, blended together that morning and then waiting patiently for someone to come along and order it. Not only is it sour by the time the order is placed, but God knows what's been growing in it. I actually returned the smoothie I'd ordered after having 2 sips--the first to see what it tasted like, the second because I couldn't believe it was that inedible--and asked for my money back. The bewildered clerk returned my money, but only after he took a sip of it himself and said, "It tastes fine to me." Call me a stubborn American, but getting food poisoning from something that tasted like soured milk was not worth the €4 the damn thing cost.

A few smoothie places are getting better at it. The Smoothie Shop, which is situated in train stations, is a place where smoothies are made fresh--on a daily basis. But at least they're kept cold throughout the day.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Monday morning randoms

I'm usually a bit lazy about linking to a lot of pages. I know I should do it more often but I doubt many readers would sympathize with why I love Nature Protocols and related sites, which is where I spend a substantial portion of my Internet time most days. But I do procrastinate plenty. I usually just can't procrastinate enough to make a blog post of it.

But since I am taking a long weekend, and since I am not checking my email *resists urge to check work email*, and since I'm in a share-y mood, I figured: here's a list of stuff I like. If you need help procrastinating, there's nothing better. It's random, completely unrelated to life as an expat, and interesting. Well, to me, anyway.

Slate, which is a pretty decent news magazine and links to several interesting blogs as well, has a rather creepy piece about mummified grandmas in Japan.

Marie Claire's bit about stay-at-home dads is interesting because the writer insists on calling good stay-at-home dads "trophy husbands" and refers to them as "status symbols". Although the egalitarian side of me rebels against this practice, I don't think many men would actually mind being considered trophies. Male vanity is peculiar and vastly different from females.

Ramit Sethi's site is crass and his humor tends to be vulgar. However, I am (going to be) signed up for his Earn1K course, because I know nothing about freelancing, which is what I want to do as a side gig. At the very least it will provide lots of interesting fodder for cross-cultural observations for this blog.

P. Jonas Bekker is a good friend of ours who stole my job writes stuff. He's a Dutch guy whose usual medium is (possibly I'm mistaken) poetry, but he also has a fair collection of interesting, wildly amusing and/or litearary noir stuff in English.

And lastly but hardly leastly is Birdpix. The site is in Dutch and so are the forums, but it hardly matters. OMG I want to shoot like that.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The not-so-good life


There are some things you expect when you move to the Netherlands: You expect to eat a lot of cheese, that the country is flat, that there are canals, and the houses are very narrow. If you have done your homework, you may even be prepared for the ritual of Hollandse Nieuwe, the celebration in May of the first pickled herring.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

But there are a lot of things that you don't realize until you've either lived here for a while, or have a boyfriend to show you around and buffer the culture shock a bit. Things like "Chinese food" not really being Chinese food, and that you can, in fact, order a large pepperoni pizza to be delivered to your door over the phone--gotta love Dominoes....After you've lived here a while you sort of get used to these things and their novelty fades a little bit. You still have fun explaining them to your friends and family, but they're not really interesting any more.

And then there are the things that never, ever, get better. As in, you encounter them the first time, and find it mildly annnoying, and every time thereafter the irritation factor goes up and you find yourself explaining to St. Peter that it really isn't your time, you were robbed of it second by second while living in Holland. Things like:

1) Kim Chee, and other spicy foods. I bought a jar of kim-chee the other day, intending to add it to my udon noodles. I opened it. It smelled divine. I tasted it. It didn't even make me gasp. Kim-chee that doesn't leave you crying on the floor from the agony? Isn't kim-chee. But this is a problem with everything that should have a bit of kick to it--it gets blunted down to "tolerable levels" for the Dutch, which translates into "no taste" for the rest of us. I get the whole adjusting-taste-to-the-palate thing, but just because the potato is the national vegetable doesn't mean that everything should taste like one.

2) Patat met curry. The standard list of condiments available for fries includes "saus" (which is plain mayo), knoflook saus, curry, ketchup, and something called "patats oorlog", which is a culinary tragedy best experienced only once. Now, the saus, knoflook saus, and ketchup are self-explanatory: Mayo, garlic-flavored mayo, and ketchup. However, the curry wants a bit of explaining. See, at a fried-potato stand, "curry" refers to BBQ sauce. However, if you go to a supermarket and buy curry, you'll end up with something very-not-BBQ sauce. None of which would really put this on my "things I'll never get used to" list, except that I really think fried potatoes would be really really good with a curry sauce. And every time I think to get fries, I always want to get them with curry. But not their curry.

3) Any song by Queen played on a pipe organ. The pipe organ is a Saturday ritual, where a couple guys stand around shaking tin cans full of change in time to the music coming from a pipe organ, trying to induce people to give them money. I still haven't decided whether the Dutch actually like these things, or if they just want a few seconds of peace. These songs are usually the simple carnival songs, you know, the one with three chords and five notes, played over and over again. However, every now and then someone will decide to get "creative" and bust out the Queen. No. Just. No.

4) Pea soup the way Mom made it. Now, I like pea soup, when I can find a vegetarian version of it. I like the taste of split peas and I like the warming, filling-ness of the whole thing. Pea soup the way Mom makes it, though? I need to preface this by explaining that it is not just my boyfriend's mother that makes pea soup like this. It is EVERYBODY's mother. And I don't actually have a recipe for it, because just reading the recipe shrivels your coronaries: there is ham, sausage (worst), pig fat, lard, bacon, and bacon. It is so thick that the spoon doesn't so much stir as it does till. It is eaten with a very thin slice of very damp, very dark, rye bread (sold in packages the size and consistency of a small brick), spread with mustard and--you guessed it--a slice of bacon.

5) Punk rock and Lady Gaga and terrible radio. I don't have anything against punk rock and Lady Gaga specifically. They're okay in small doses. But the radio stations here (or maybe it's just Maastricht) seem to think that we all need to hear nothing but that kind of music all the time. And if they do switch it up, it's usually with something Dutch, which is okay at best--Dutch singers tend to be trite, rehashing the same old things. I don't listen to very much radio, actually, but it's usually on when I'm in the lab. And I can be in lab for hours upon hours.

So that's my list of things that I'll never get used to, like the concept of geese on a hill--this is HOLLLAND, THERE ARE NO HILLS (Ganzenheuvel means "geese hill"). What're yours?

Monday, August 9, 2010



The subtitle of this blog, "Life in the Netherlands, With Cats," may seem a bit misleading, as so far I've written exactly two posts about our three fuzzbutts. Fear not, though--cats have not been forgotten. And today's post will be about cats, and their favorite toys prey items, mice. To be exact, my lab mice.

I moved Shadow and the Tweeb with me when I came to the Netherlands three years ago, and thankfully the biggest incident was the Tweeb peeing on her puppy pad about halfway through. For the most part, they adjusted to the change quite well, and for the most part, things are largely the same. When the Tweeb's renal failure progressed to the point that she needed a renal diet, we were able to get it from the vet, much as it is in the States. The pet stores here are smaller, but they still have the different supplies for cats and dogs and sometimes things for fish and small animals. For the most part the variety is the same, though I did have to import our Da Bird from the US.

There are, however, two major differences. First of all, cats are mostly indoor-outdoor here, which is encouraged by centuries of "just how it is" and some stupidly old-fashioned vets. Secondly, cats and dogs here are just cats and dogs, as opposed to stand-ins for children: when I lived in Philadelphia, there was one pet boutique across the street from where I lived that sold things like organic cat food and special dog cookies (seriously--these were shaped like flowers and had "icing"). The doggie clothes that were sold there outclassed my wardrobe. Granted, I was in grad school, so that's not saying much.

From this, an amateur anthropologist would assume that Americans are much better at anthromorophosizing animals than the Dutch. So then why is it that American standards of care for lab animals and livestock are so substandard in comparison to the Dutch animal welfare laws? Institutions in the US that do research on animals are required to adhere to IACUC guidelines, but they pale in severity in light of the restrictions that are placed upon lab minions here. You need to have taken and passed a national course in animal welfare and have a master's degree before you can even touch a mouse here.

It's not really a question of which side is better, or which side is more correct. It's more of a reflection of what each society values: personalization in the US, versus standardization in the Netherlands.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

How My Boyfriend Sucks At Being Dutch

My boyfriend is Dutch, at least insofar as he identifies with coming from the Netherlands. However, after having read through many other expat blogs, I have come to the conclusion that he is very, very, atypical for a Dutch guy. For instance, he hates soccer. Hence, the complete absence of Wereld Kop mention in June.

Odd ducks keep odd friends, so it was only very recently that I realized that our entire social circle is comprised of highly atypical Dutch people. While I have been offered bescuit met muisjes before, I have never met a "one cookie!" person. I have been told they exist, and countless stories abound, so they must be based upon something. I just haven't figured out what, yet. The "circle parties" that I've attended are actually kind of fun, although they are a pain in the ass to get to: living in Nijmegen is sort of like living in LA--it's a 2 hour train ride to get ANYWHERE. But at every circle party I've attended, there was always wine, at least, and usually a ton of little kids running around. And since I'm an honorary member of my boyfriend's family, that usually means I get a free pass out of any boring conversations: I get to say, "I should probably help with the dishes."

My boyfriend's birthday parties are a case in point: they start at a typical hour (2 pm) but go on until 10-11 at night. There is beer and wine. There is a ton of food, and most of it is pretty tasty (my boyfriend assures me that the gehaktballen are delicious; I counter that anything with "mystery meat" as the main ingredient can't be that good). The chairs are drawn up into a circle, but that's about as "circle party" as it gets. So for a long time I thought that this--beer, wine, good food, lots of kids, interesting conversations about New Zealand--was typical.

Unlike most expats (it seems), I don't really have much of an excuse for not having learned the language sooner. My boyfriend speaks Dutch, so you'd think that it would be easy to just ask him, "How do you say ________?" and "What's the word for ________?" all the time. The problem is, his English is too good. He doesn't stumble for words, or need to think about what to say, or get stuck on colloquialisms. He certainly doesn't mind me asking how to say stuff in Dutch, but he certainly doesn't make a point of encouraging it, either. And his social circle is comprised of highly-educated Dutch people, so their English is also near-native. It took me a long time to realize that not everybody here speaks English that well. (Fortunately, I happen to be a freak of nature who finds learning Dutch to be relatively easy, so picking up the language as I go isn't very much of an issue for me.)

Another way in which my cultural integration into the Netherlands has been severely hindered by associating with my boyfriend is the celebration of Christmas/Sinterklaas. I mean, I knew of Sinterklaas, but I always thought it was like Halloween in the US--a bit of fun for the kids--because in my boyfriend's family, they celebrate Christmas. This is mostly because of working schedules: doctors get Christmas off (he and his sister are both doctors), but not Sinterklaas. But suffice it to say that it was not until I saw Sint Nicolas upon his white horse, surrounded by capering Zwarte Piets, that I realized just how big a deal Sinterklaas is here. You can read more about it here.

And no discussion about expat trials and tribulations would be complete without some mention of troubles with the IND (Immigratie en Naturalisatiedienst--imaginative, right?). Except, well...I haven't really had any. Really. He had to cough up almost €900, but after that my papers were rubber-stamped and in 2014 I can apply for permanent-permanent residence (I now have a 5-year residence permit), if not citizenship. I meet up with some guy from the Nijmegen bureaucracy every now and then, just to make sure that I am, in fact, learning Dutch, but otherwise, I haven't had any serious issues with paperwork not going through or things like that. The most terrible thing that's happened is that the National Spoorwegen sent me a new card because I wrote my birthday backwards when I first applied for it (month-day-year, rather than day-month-year).

My boyfriend of almost 9 years is a great guy, he really is: he cooks, he cleans, he loves kitties, and he listens when I need to rant. He makes the perfect roasted potatoes for me, and when I'm home, he makes sure there's a vegetable on the table. For the most part, I'm actually pretty glad he's not a "typical Dutch guy". After all, he wouldn't be who he is, if he didn't suck at being Dutch.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Good Taste, or, Why I Will Never Fit In

Produce stand

Lately, I've been getting a lot of compliments on my things, which isn't exactly blog-worthy except that, according to my Dutch language class, just saying, "Thank you" isn't quite enough. The typical Dutch attitude is to apologize, almost, for having given the other person a cause for complimenting you. To explain:

Person A: Oh, what a lovely jacket!
Person B: This old thing? It's been sitting in my closet for years, and the zipper sometimes get stuck.
Person A: But it's got such a nice color.
Person B: I suppose, but it was out of season...

I think this is another genetically embedded behavioral meme. In the heyday of the Puritans, dressing gaudily was frowned upon, so if you were caught out, you had to explain: "Oh no, I didn't just buy this in Paris, see, I had this in my closet for ages and now it's 'in' again, and I wouldn't even be wearing it except that I have a meeting with some sleazy French guy." If anybody else has a better--or correct--explanation for this, I'd love to hear it. Seriously.

Now, if I were anywhere else in the Netherlands, I could also downplay my things, because really, aside from my purse, everything was either a) on sale, b) secondhand, c) a relic of my time in the US, or d) too cheap to justify any compliment. I have a pair of bright red ballet flats, for example. They were €9, from the Schoenen Reus, a store well-known for dirt-cheap shoes, but every time I wear them, eyes get bigger and someone always says, "I love your shoes!"

However, I live in Maastricht most days of the week. As the Dutch are fond of saying about Maastricht, and Maastrichites are fond of saying about themselves, "Maastricht is not Dutch." There are a host of cultural oddities that delineate Limburg from the rest of the Netherlands, and it is my belief that anybody who would buy Prada/Gucci/Armani/Miu Miu/Balenciaga would not be so gauche as to buy it on sale. And if you're spending more than my month's paycheck on a watch, I somehow don't think you'd truly mind the compliment.

But Maastricht is Dutch enough: there are stores selling overpriced and understyled furniture; the Dutch chain stores do brisk business promising low prices; you can always get appeltart at a cafè; the supermarkets still sell microwave stamppot; zoning laws still apply. The cultural confusion that bewilders any expat is manifestly doubled in light of the fact that I spent my first two years in the Netherlands in Holland, or "the part of the Netherlands that's not Friesland, Limburg, or Zeeland", and have gotten used to the Dutch way of, amongst other things, accepting compliments.

So what do I say? The only thing I can: "Why, thank you."