Saturday, November 27, 2010

Stuff of Life

There are food snobs and then there are Food Snobs, the former being people who know that there is better food than McDonald's but love the occasional large-fries-with-ketchup (real ketchup) anyway, and the latter being people who think that "take out" means going to Saveurs.

Most of the grad students I run into fall into the first category. When I meet other European (by which I mean Continental--sorry, Brits don't really count) expats who come from countries like Spain, Italy, Greece, etc--countries where food is more than merely "stuff you eat", but "stuff you enjoy"--I can usually count on at least one rant about how terrible Dutch food is. This isn't entirely fair to the Netherlands--Dutch food isn't haute cuisine, this is true, and meat-potatoes-something-once-green can get rather dull. On the other hand, I would argue that it's a damn sight more palatable than deep-fried tarantulas.

One thing that even Germans rant about (and you know it's gotta be bad when the Germans go off on it) is Dutch bread. And here I have to confess that yes, the complaints are perfectly justified. Wonderbread and its ilk is fine if you want sandwiches, but it's less-fine if you want it as a complement to your meal. For that, you need Real Bread: crusty, tasty, full of nutritive goodness. Real Bread, in the Netherlands, is not a staple like milk and eggs. It's a luxe item, purchased at select bakeries, and then only at those bakeries that actually bake their own bread. (Most bakeries receive half-baked loaves made in a factory on a daily basis, so they just pop those into the oven every morning for "handmade bread")

The reason for this, according to my boyfriend, is that after the Second World War--seriously, Dutch history ends and begins within these four years--the combination of bombings, hungry armies, pestilence, and whatever-else had pretty much wiped out the farms. For the first few years after World War II, the Dutch relied on airdrops for things like canned stews (my boyfriend's dad still remembers eating that stuff) and fluffy white bread. Once things started picking up, food-wise, the fluffy white stuff stuck around.

In Nijmegen, we are fortunate enough to have The Windmill. The Windmill is no longer wind-operated, but it still mills stuff. It now houses a pet store in the front, and a baker's paradise in the back: flours of all types and grinds can be gotten here. You can even find spelt flour, although if you want oatmeal you still have to find a Turkish store. It's where I buy the flour to make the bread in the picture, in all its splendid and aromatic glory. I'm not exaggerating: the rosemary, salt, and olive oil flavors combine to make it nothing short of heavenly.

Sometimes I do find myself wondering whether this is worth the cost of the flour and the effort to get it: a 1-kg bag costs something like 8X as much as your average bag of white flour at the supermarket, and it's a good 40-minute walk each way, now that I no longer have a bike in Nijmegen. It's not something that a zuinige huisvrouw would do. But then again, it's not something that a pennypincher would appreciate, anyway.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Comedy of Manners


I never went to finishing school, but manners--wait your turn to speak, when you must interrupt say, "Excuse me," that sort of thing--were as much a part of my upbringing as Chinese school. In other words: largely useless at the time; immensely useful, if largely, forgotten now.

Tonight's Dutch lesson asked the question, "How is your country of origin different from the Netherlands?" (Wat zijn de verschillen tussen jouw land en Nederland?) The Big Answer didn't occur to me until after class, but it's this: people are more polite in the US than they are here. As long as you're not talking controversy (race, religion, politics) by and large if you start saying something, people will let you finish before starting on their own tirade, unless you take too long and they get bored. But even then, there's no guarantee that they won't interrupt.

Here, though, it's hard to get a word in edgewise. I've also found it shocking--and not in a good way--how easily people interrupt others, and how quickly you can quite literally be dropped from a conversation. It's not that they're intentionally rude. It's just the way things are--and it's something I've realized that I may never get used to. Interrupting someone without at least apologizing goes against the most basic fibers of my admittedly-not-very-moral being. I've learned to just walk into my boss's office, because otherwise I'll never get to see her, but for the most part it still makes me a little uneasy to just jump into a conversation.

I've never been a Miss-Manners type of person--manners, to me, are just common sense and respect. But every now and then, I do kind of want to give people a good scolding.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Zwarte Piet

Few things shock American (in a continental sense--yes, that includes Canuks) expats more than the appearance of Zwarte Pieten in the Netherlands in November. I've been living here for three years and I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it.

For those of you who don't know the legend: Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands on November 5 every year with Zwarte Pieten to help him out. Together, the dynamic duo (technically dynamic multitude, as Sinterklaas has many Zwarte Pieten) compile a list of good kids and bad kids, and on December 5, the good kids are rewarded with a present in their shoe, while the bad ones are dragged off to Spain.

What makes the whole thing so surreal is that, in the Netherlands, the Zwarte Pieten are played entirely by white people putting on blackface, something that would get any Caucasian person anywhere else in the world hung, drawn, and quartered. In the US, where race is a hypersensitive issue--all you have to do to get kicked out of any prominent position is to make a remark that could be construed as racist--such a practice would border on suicidal lunacy. It still makes me a little afraid when I see a Zwarte Piet in full regalia, although for some reason I don't feel the same way when little kids (minus makeup) get dressed up in the funny hat and costume.

This is doubly odd, because I've only had a few encounters with racism in the Netherlands, and all by stupid young kids who don't know their asses from their elbows. Most people are merely surprised when I tell them I'm from the US, which is understandable. I've caught more flak for being Asian by taking a one-way trip in the subway in Philly than I have in three years of living here. And all of the incidents, in Philly and the Netherlands, have been from non-white people.

So call it karmic vengeance, or balancing the cosmic scales of small inequities, when I fail to get riled up over the Zwarte Pieten. It's a silly practice, I agree, and if Sinterklaas is as awesome as he is he can damn well do his job without helpers. But frankly, in terms of being offensive, few things are worse than failing to walk the talk.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

True Power


I don't often post about our cats, which is strange if you think about how much control they exert over our lives: twice a year I have to take a day off from work to take the Tweeb to the vet, to get her renal panel checked. The Tweeb is our broken kitty--there's no other way to describe her: deviated septum, clipped ear, broken voice, mangled ribs, BB pellet in her front leg, kidney failure, broken hip, crooked tail. She weighs all of 2.8 kg, which is slightly more than half of what FatBoy weighs, and only 60% of Shadow's weight. This cat looks like a living version of a Picasso-cat.

The other cats of the house, Shadow and FatBoy, are your typical, well-cared-for moggies: Shadow is sleek and beautiful in every way, and FatBoy is a cuddle-whore. Both of them are sweet in their own way, and lovable after their own fashions.

However, not one of them has a paw on the Tweeb when it comes to exerting true power over the food-monkeys. The Tweeb tells us when to get up, when to feed her, when to sit down, when to pet her, when to go to bed, when to scoop the poop, and, to some extent, determines what we eat for dinner (tilapia--she disapproves of salmon and pangasius). In other words, my poor boyfriend is not only henpecked to death by me, but squawked at by the Tweeb.

I'm not entirely sure how many Dutch people feel the same way as we do about our cats. God knows there are a ton of outdoor cats in our neighborhood. It does seem to be atypical to let your cats sleep with you in the same bed--we get stares of disbelief when we reveal that seemingly innocuos fact, far more so than if we were to say that I'm into Japanese rope bondage (which I'm not). We don't exactly spoil the cats (minus the occasional croissant, banana chip, and tilapia)--I buy them a few €0.90 toy mice every few months, and they get canned food once a week. We do, however, take very good care of them, following the vet's directions to a "t" when it comes to feeding the Tweeb, and monitoring FatBoy's food intake.

And as a result, the Tweeb has been living with the diagnosis of renal failure for the past three years, and the FatBoy has lost nearly 150 g (that's 5 ounces) in six months. His arthritis has improved markedly and he's becoming ever-so-slightly less allergenic. The Tweeb still has no idea that there is anything wrong with her, continues to rule over the house and the other cats with an iron paw.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

To Be a Woman

Thrift Treasures

This article is one of those "aren't the Dutch wonderful" bits that glorify the benefits of a socialist system. It says nothing that I didn't say in Man of the House: most women take part-time work because it suits what they want out of life better (never mind what happens in my own circle).

As an anecdotal piece--and one by a newbie to the Netherlands (seriously, three months?! By that standard I should be an expert, which I am not)--it is necessarily lacking a few points: what about the men? And how do single women support themselves? And even more telling is what the commentors think about life in the Netherlands: one of them went so far as to call all Dutch women "freeloaders". There are snide remarks about how unsustainable a 35-hour week is (wrong country), comments about the terrible weather (true), how this isn't fair to men (plausible, but they'd probably object more if it were true), and more whining on why this is impossible in the US.

This is where I would normally put in a string of four-letter words, because frankly, I hate whiners. Oh, I whine, too, and plenty, but eventually I sh*t or get off the pot--shut up, or do something about it. Such luxuries are impossible to imagine in the US, yes, but only because there is an irrational fear of socialized-anything ("Town Hall face") that make such things like extending welfare benefits, making child care and health care affordable. Why people don't vote all of the bastards out of office and put in a whole new government is beyond me, if they want change so badly.

And, yes, there are downsides to being a woman in the Netherlands: you're expected to keep a perfectly clean house, being the one that still plagues me (my boyfriend is a far better woman than I will ever be, in this respect). Life is far from perfect in the Netherlands--believe it or not, a vague sort of racism exists against allochtonen (anybody not-white) and Geert Wilder's party has built a surprisingly solid platform based entirely on the question of Islam in the Netherlands. Immigration and integration remain touchy issues. And if you can't speak Dutch, good luck once you leave the Randstad (and in a stroke of brilliance, the government has cut funding for integration classes, which include Dutch language courses).

Still, I'm happy here, in a good way. The Dutch don't expect you to be anything more or less than who you are. And for someone who's spent the first 25 years of her life trying to figure that out, it's quite a relief to know that I'm enough.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"There's Bread and Cheese Upon the Shelf"


During the winter, I need to avoid eating certain foods due to the interaction with another drug that I take to ward off the winter blues. As you might have guessed, one of these foods is cheese. And perversely enough, the Dutch aren't called "cheese eaters" for nothing: there is a lot of cheese. The inescapability of cheese was driven home earlier this week: I'm a vegetarian as well, which the catering staff usually accommodates with...cheese sandwiches.

Living with a dietary restriction (vegetarian) is difficult enough. I make exceptions for fish dishes at restaurants, because Dutch restaurants in general suck puppies at making decent vegetarian food (minus poffertjes, but even their savory pannenkoeken typically involve something meaty). Many restaurants don't even have a non-meat option, or else they consider their fish dish to be it. But even when I go to friends' houses, it's always a bit of a struggle for them to figure out just what do I eat. "You don't eat...any meat?" The relief when I tell them I will eat fish is palpable.

Overall, my experience as a vegetarian here has been a neutral-to-negative one: it's hard to find good vegetarian food unless I'm the one who makes it, and my boyfriend is most emphatically a more carnivorous personality, so if I cook something it needs to accommodate his tastebuds as well. The lone exception is ratatouille, which we both love, fortunately, but unfortunately it's not in season any more.

Durig the winter, though, the addition of cheese to the list of things I must not eat (chocolate is on that list, too, but I've decided that a tiny bit of chocolate every now and then is okay--cheese is the biggie) makes things incredibly difficult. I sometimes find myself with half a cheese sandwich, not realizing I'd started. I'd venture that it's harder to escape cheese than it is to be a vegetarian.

Ironically, the Dutch have one of the louder animal rights' groups in Europe. They gather outside the animal facility where I work, for regularly-scheduled protests, and they hand out pamphlets in the city decrying research on cute little puppies and kittens (though apparently doing bad stuff to rats and mice are perfectly okay). There's even a political party for animal rights--at least, that's the name of the party, so I assume they are fighting for Shadow's right to pee in a box. The Dutch animal welfare laws regarding animal research are some of the strictest in the world. In other words, politically, you wouldn't think that I'd have such a hard time of being a vegetarian here.

Escaping cheese...I'll keep dreaming. Maybe the Matrix will yield one day.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Good Eats


Like most women, I fret about my appearance. It's a good thing I work at a job where showing up in jeans and a t-shirt is normal and showing up in a button-down shirt counts as getting "dressed up". Otherwise I'd never leave the house.

Oddly, though, since moving here, I've become a helluva lot less neurotic about my appearance. I attribute this to two things: a) Vogue costs too damn much to be anything more than a yearly eye-candy treat (the September issue, of course), and b) the Dutch are a lot less neurotic about being skinny. Some people might say, "Of course they're not as neurotic, because they're all skinny!" but, in fact, they're not. They are probably more healthy than their American counterparts, but they're not all waifs, either.

Which is not to say that women's mags don't abound with diet tips and pictures of pretty ladies. They do. But the pretty women aren't airbrushed pixie sticks, the way they are in the US. I mean, gods above, they have wrinkles, and the Dutch sense of style is many things, but above all not French. Even models on the show "Benelux Top Model" (Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxemburg--cool abbreviation) have more to recommend them than their skinniness. Not much, admittedly, but they're not the wax-faced puppets you see in the States, either.

The book Wasted, besides giving a horrifying account of anorexia and bulimia, also posits a few interesting reasons why food and women are such antithetical ideas in the US, the most damning of them being that women need to be in such total control over themselves that they can't be human--i.e., can't eat. I wouldn't go quite so far, but it is interesting to note that the phenomenom of diets and "you are what you eat" is distinctly American, in the sense that dietary fads in the past two centuries have had an unusually strong presence in the United States. For instance, breakfast cereals--the ultimate anti-masturbatory food, according to Dr. Kellog. The writer Tocqueville attributed the need to improve oneself through food as the only outlet for improvement in an otherwise functionally egalitarian society. Maybe he was onto something--keep in mind he wrote this in the 1800s, and this is certainly the case today. Food in the US is intrinsically linked to moral standards, rather than being merely something to enjoy. If I were feeling more intellectual I might try to make the case that the Dutch, as a whole, are less neurotic in general than Americans, as a whole, but Geert Wilders getting elected last month kind of throws that thesis for a loop.

So you'll just have to take my word for it, that Dutch society as a whole is a lot less neurotic than the American people, as a whole. Part of it is that the Dutch have learned that when you cram 16 million people into a country the size of Maine, the only way to avoid all-out war is to talk reasonably with each other--you can't just pack your bags and ship out to the other side of the country. This has important ramifications for one's sanity. I think, if I were still living in the US, I'd still be obssessively counting calories and thinking about fiber. I've let most of that go. Part of it is that it's so difficult to count calories, Most of it is that I've stopped caring, because nobody else seems to.

BTW: No, that is not our baby. Much as though some people *ahem Mom ahem* would love to know that I am incubating another little humanoid, I'm afraid that that will have to wait.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Saturday was my birthday. My boyfriend had planned on taking me to the Efteling, a theme park along the lines of Six Flags or (my personal favorite) Dorney Park. However, our plans were thwarted by the terrible weather. Cold, wet, and perhaps worst of all, intermittent, rains throughout the entire day do not make for a good roller coaster experience. And I hate getting wet.

Now, my boyfriend has introduced me to many aspects of Dutch culture, from the "one cookie!" people to the circle party to the Hollandse Nieuwe to good kibbeling. But, in all the times that I've visited and all the time that I've lived here, we have never, ever, not once, had poffertjes.

Yesterday we finally remedied this travesty to my integration efforts. There was a little panenkoeken restaurant by the Valkhof which had been recommended to him by a coworker for poffertjes. So there we went, in the middle of the afternoon, bouncy with anticipation.

Now, I know what poffertjes are. The concept of little mini-pancakes smothered in powdered sugar and melted butter isn't very hard to get. But even so, the cuteness of the poffertjes and their deliciousness--they resemble the fluffy American pancakes--far surpassed my expectations. Most of the time I'm a little underwhelmed by Dutch food, but poffertjes are definitely worthy of a SQUEE and are by far my favorite Dutch food item to date.

Overall it was a great birthday. I got this t-shirt and another pair of earrings. I picked up The Chronicles of Pyrdain by Lloyd Alexander, one of my favorite authors as a kid--I'd heart about Chronicles but all I'd ever read was Vesper Holly. I'm on the third chapter so far and our hero is searching for an oracular pig. Yep. It's a blast.

And in the meantime, NaNoWriMo is going reasonably well. I haven't gotten stuck on anything too badly. For the most part it's just taking its time to develop. So overall, a good birthday, and a great weekend.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Fanta Ranta

In the US there is orange soda (Sunkist) that tastes like ZOMG SUGAR and a tiny bit of orange. It is colored like the Dutch National Football team's jerseys--which is to say, a neon and ungodly shade of tangerine orange--and it doesn't look like anything so much as glow toxically.

Fanta is also available in the US, as well--flavored like Sunkist and equally disgusting to behold. So for a long time, in the Netherlands, I steered well clear of the orange concoction, terrified of the fate that would await my tastebuds if I tried it. Turns out I needn't have worried: the Fanta here is tart, orangish-flavored, and, while still too sweet to be enjoyed frequently, is miles above and beyond the sugar-loaded syrupy excuse for a soft drink served up in the US.

The recipes for Fanta differ all over the world, so it's not like Coca Cola, which supposedly tastes the same everywhere you go (connoisseurs tell me that the Coke you get in Mexico is a gazillion times sweeter than the drink in the States, because it's made with cane sugar). But even so, the difference between the European and American versions of Fanta are astounding. If it weren't for the Fanta on the bottle, you'd never think that they were the same product. Not even close.

But aside from putting me into a hyperglycemic fit, I have to wonder what the US version of Fanta says about Americans in general. It's not very flattering.