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!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

For What Ails Ye

kitty wuv

I'm usually not thrilled about living in the Netherlands. I mean, I have a job which is okay, and I have things to blog about, which is fun, but it's not like I go skydiving every weekend or fight pirates or discover a new element every weekend. In terms of excitement, on a scale of 1 to 10, life here averages out at a modest 6, and it's only that high because the NS somehow manages to screw up even the most simplest schedules from time to time (and somehow only ever when you're in a rush) and royally f*cks you over.

But every now and then I am reminded of why I love this country: the fact that you literally cross a street and go from an urban to a rural environment, the tree-hugging ethos of the country as a whole, and health insurance. Especially health insurance:

I was reminded of this in a recent discussion with online friends from the US. The conversation was ostensibly about money, but largely had to do with health care expenditures. All I can say is: OH MY GOD am I glad I don't have to deal with any of that. From my experience, the health insurance policies in the Netherlands are a) affordable, b) comprehensive, c) easily understood, and d) rarely (if ever--I don't think it's even legal) rescinded. It's a far cry from health insurance in the US, which is insanely priced, cover everything except what you actually need, and immersed in medical-ese the likes of which my boyfriend, who is a doctor, hasn't got the slightest clue of.

But most of all, it's simple: I just filled in an easy-to-understand form, and received my insurance card in the mail a few weeks later. When I went to the dentist, I just presented my card, and the receptionist presented me with a bill when I was finished (I have a low premium, but a middling deductible--for dentist visits it's €120, and my bill was about half that). When I need to get my allergy medication refilled, I present my prescription and insurance card at any apotheek, and get pills--with my first insurance company I didn't have to pay at all, but with my current company I get charged all of €10 for my allergy meds (it lasts me about 6 months). I actually haven't had much experience with Dutch doctors--I usually just tell my boyfriend what I need, and he writes me a script.

Compared to some crazy-ass insane policies in the US--where health insurance for a family of 4 can run to $7000/month, and prescription drugs--well, suffice it to say that they're not cheap. Despite the popular image of the spendy-trendy American, the real reason why most Americans who declare bankruptcy are forced to do so guessed it, medical bills. And then you have things like Health Savings Accounts--where you put, say, $80 in an account, so that when you visit a doctor and your co-pay is $60, then that $60 comes out of the account, and you can use the remaining $20 for your medication. ON TOP OF your health insurance. Which of course never covers dental, or vision (though here, glasses are pretty cheap--mine were €85, complete with thin, non-reflective lenses, frame, and exam). And then there's always the question about what does your insurer cover, and what doesn't it, and can you afford this test, etc...not a one of which comes up here.

This is not to suggest that all is well in the state of the Netherlands: rising health care costs are a major headache for everybody, and while doctors in the Netherlands do tend to be more prudent about over-testing and big pharma is forbidden to make TV commercials advertising the latest drugs, the cost of care is increasing dramatically. I don't quite know how the Dutch are going to solve this issue, but rest assured--the people who came up with the Dutch auction undoubtedly have some other accounting tricks up their sleeve.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Real Deal

I love meeting the people I know online in real life. Knowing the person behind the text and/or icon just adds another layer to the virtual friendship. So I'd like to get to know some or, God willing, all of you:

At some point this coming October I will be celebrating my birthday a little early, with a wine and cheese tasting. Rather than a present, I'd ask that you all bring a bottle of wine and a hunk of cheese. It doesn't have to be anything expensive--it just has to be interesting.

If you'd like to come, please email me at julynn93 at gmail dot com and I will get back to you with all of the details. Please mention your blog if you have one.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bad coke no more

Thursday night is Maastricht's koopavond, the one night of the week that stores are open later so that you can get stuff like shampoo and shower gel if you've run out that week but have been working late. I sometimes like to get myself a waffle from the Pinky's by the HEMA while I get my stuff--there may be many Pinky's but that one makes by far the best ones, with a thick crispy-chewy coating of melted sugar and a fluffy yet dense middle. For the BESTEST WAFFLES EVER you have to go when the grumpy middle-aged guy with glasses is there, because he makes the penultimate waffle, perfectly burning the sugar coating and always asking if you want powdered sugar on top.

The first time I had a waffle from Pinky's, I agreed to the powdered sugar. This was before I knew anything about powdered sugar: I took a bite and ended up looking like I'd just snorted a bad line. It got worse with every subsequent bite I took, and what was worse, I was wearing a dark coat. I'm fairly certain that Maastrichtites have conceived the powdered sugar as some kind of litmus test to weed out the Maastrichtites from the rest of the Dutch people--if you can eat a waffle coated with powdered sugar without looking like Frosty the Snowman, you're not a tourist.

Ever since then I've always refused the powdered sugar, because the strange looks you get when you wander into a high-end store looking like a coke junkie just aren't worth the extra bit of sweet. Until yesterday, that is:

See, they make these waffles fresh--you can watch them come out of the griddle, and while they always have a small pile of them sitting in front, the waffle-maker will give you one hot off the griddle if your timing is right. If your order comes next to orders from another group's, then they might just take all of them at once--and if your order comes without powdered sugar they might not hear it.

Either way, I was left with a waffle covered with powdered sugar. And I was still wearing a dark jacket. Never one to be defeated by baking ingredients, I became determined to eat my waffle without spraying myself with a white aerosol of powder.

And now, I bequeath to you, dear reader, the Technique: so that you might walk down the streets not looking like a powder-sugared tourista clod.

1) Angle of incidence: This is critical. You must hold your waffle at such an angle so that the powdered sugar which isn't stuck to it is trapped in one of the corners of the square, and keep it at that angle, even as you bring it to your mouth.

2) Angle of consumption: You need to be very careful about eating only one square at a time, and make sure that your teeth pass through the middle of the "wall" around reach square. This ensures that the powdered sugar in the surrounding squares does not escape.

Good luck!

ETA: I've just been informed that Outside Looking In is being featured as one of Go Overseas top blogs, which is pretty cool, considering that it's only been a few months since I made this public. Fame and fortune, here I come! (well...maybe just fame....15 seconds?)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Not Bad

When I first moved here, I didn't speak a word of Dutch. My Great Integration really only began once I got a job, as there I was exposed to many Dutch people, and had to buy my monthly train ticket from the machine and was stuck on a train for four hours a day, sometimes next to people who FOR THE LOVE OF GOD WOULD NOT SHUT THE F*CK UP.

At first, I would only ask for things in English, as I literally did not know what many of the things were called. Then I would try speaking in Dutch--and then people would still reply in English, because apparently my attempts at the local language were that pathetic. But eventually I got better at making the funny noises involved in speaking Dutch, and people began replying to me in Dutch as well.

Yesterday I went to the Saturday market to get some chantarelle mushrooms and goats-milk cheese to try out a new (and expensive!) recipe. The nice mushroom lady gave me the cantarellen en roze oosterzwammen that I asked for, and then I went to the herb stand for some salie en vers knoflook. So far so good. Then to the cheese stand.

The problem with such stands is that their selection is limited, but I did see one cheese that I might have liked. So I asked to try a slice, to be sure of its taste, and the cheese man obligingly cut me a slice. It was vaguely reminiscent of the cheese I'd had at the Chateux Neercanne, not quite as sharp, but as close as I was likely to get for a price I could afford. By far the most exciting part of the whole thing is, when you've decided which cheese you want, the cheese man takes this huge curved blade with a handle on either end and cuts you off a hunk (what can I say, I like sharp objects).

I was on the verge of asking the cheese man, "Mag ik een stukje hebben?" when he told me, in English, "It's sheep milk cheese. It comes from a sheep."

Now, I fully realize that I will probably never speak Dutch like a native--I will probably always have some kind of weird accent; Amsterdammers will probably think I come from Limburg, Limburgians will probably think I come from Friesland, etc. I don't care about that. But I'd like to think that, after 3 years, my Dutch isn't all that bad.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

How to torture a vegetable


The above photograph is how I torture a vegetable: slice it up, grill it until it's slightly charred. Or boiled, like the tomato sauce. But that's a fruit.

And the end result of this torture is usually something good and tasty to eat: calzone, in this case. Curry, in others, and perhaps some kind of spicy and yummy stir-fry. Or maybe even some soup. Point is, there are many different ways to torment a vegetable and extract all of their scrumptious flavors until they scream for mercy--and then you season them and it makes you, your tongue, and your tummy quite happy.

Unless you're Dutch, of course.

I'll save the phenomenom of stamppot for a later post. Stamppot is sort of like mac 'n cheese from a box--it's doesn't taste like anything remarkable, it is slightly more nutritious than what comes out of a blue box, but it is quite filling and, dare I say, wholesome, in a comfort-food kind of way.

No, the Dutch know of only one method to bestow pain upon their vegetables: boil the living crap out of them. Literally--all of the vitamins escape into the water used, along with all of the flavor, and what you are left with is a soupy, sodden, mass of cellulose that might still be green if you haven't overdone it. If you visit a house where vegetables are prepared in the traditional way, that is what you will get, which probably explains the popularity of brussel sprouts: they're the one vegetable that can hold their shape against such torture, although their flavor is still wanting.

My boyfriend is a bit of a gourmand, but even so he still gets a hankering for veggies done the old-fashioned way. Fortunately his brother-in-law (a chef) has cured him of the heresy that all veggies must be boiled to death, purgatory, hell, and redemption, and merely needs to be boiled to death. But upon finishing the cooking, he will still toss the vegetables in a smidge of butter...and serve them with the nutmeg nut and grater.

It's an odd combination, but for some vegetables (beans) it is okay. As in, it's not an inedible combination. I don't know if this method of preparing vegetables is as popular as it used to be; certainly the amount of exotic produce available these days is much more extensive and the Albert Heijn makes a killing recommending interesting things to do with courgettes in their magazine (which is free) and pushing their line of products (which are not). But apparently enough people still eat brussel sprouts to make them worth selling.

Interestingly: my favorite way of preparing brussel sprouts is to cut them in half and lay them, cut side down, in a pan, over medium meat (I think, certainly higher than low heat but less than "mini-flamethrower"), for about 15-20 minutes, or however long it takes for the bottoms to singe--there should be a brown spot in the center of each sprout. A little salt, a little pepper, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar--brussel sprouts never tasted so good. And for some reason, my boyfriend can't stand it.

Friday, September 3, 2010

A rose is a rose


I have an identity issue. And I don't mean this in an existential, "who am I" kind of way. I mean this quite literally.

See, when I lived in the US, I always went by "Jules" (not really, but close enough). I went to school as Jules, I opened (and closed) several bank accounts as Jules, and I voted as Jules. Technically, I suppose you could consider me an identity thief, as in the official world of bureaucratic whatsits, there is no Jules. There is only *two Chinese characters of my given name*, as I was born in Taiwan. I didn't get to be Jules until I was 3-4 years old, when my parents moved to the US. There, they appended an English name to my Chinese one, but apparently failed to officially register it at any office that matters, as I would find out 23 years later.

When I applied for residence in the Netherlands, therefore, it was under my Chinese name again. I didn't think too much of it--after all, according to the US government I am also *my Chinese name*, and I could still be Jules to everybody else. However, this was not to be: when I found my first job, the people in Human Resources literally could not wrap their heads around the fact that I prefer to go by my very-easy-to-pronounce English name, rather than the easily-botched-pronunciation-attempts of my Chinese name. So I am employed under my Chinese name, which again, wouldn't be such a big deal, except that my work emails are also given by my Chinese name.

This creates issues, to put it mildly, when I need to give my email out. My work emails are usually some permutation of "last name and first letter of first name". Needless to say, the first letter of the English transliteration of my Chinese name is not "J", which causes some hard-core bafflement if I've introduced myself as Jules, as I am still wont to do, because it's easier to say and nobody can screw it up. It is even more confusing over the phone, as in Dutch, the pronunciation of the letter "J" can sound surprisingly similar to the way an English speaker would pronounce the letter "Y" (my Chinese name). On top of everything else, in Dutch, the letter "J" is often pronounced as a "Y" would be in English. Several people have given up trying to figure out which name I go by altogether (in spite of me always signing my emails with the same name) and have just started randomly mashing together bits and pieces of my Chinese name and Jules. It makes for an interesting collection of greetings.

However, all of this could be chalked up to stiff-necked bureaucrats from hell if it weren't for one thing: I sign everything as "Jules". There is no way you could possibly mistake my signature as anything even remotely close to my Chinese name, and if anybody bothered to glance at my signature they'd see that it does not match the name printed on the form. Clearly, then, nobody gives a rat's ass what my name actually is--so then why can't I be Jules?