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.