Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Cookbook Flip Flop

We received several cookbooks this year as presents, lavishly illustrated and, in case the titles weren't obvious enough, written in Dutch. The only one that's written in English is Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and I have to say that, despite its weird-as-hell format, it does have several excellent illustrations. Amongst them, how to dice an onion.

In my opinion, one of the hardest things to get used to as an expat from the US is the fact that the rest of the world is logical and uses the metric system. For me, the change is somewhat easier because I work in the sciences, but I still, to this day, think of liquids in terms of cups/pints/quarts/gallons (though sodas are in liters). For baking, then, I'm still used to cups of flour and sticks of butter--and while it's easy for me to convert an American recipe to metric measurements, going the other way is something I still haven't figured out.

Metric measurements mean, amongst other things, that flour is weighed, and while weight is a more precise measure than volume, for some reason the idea of "grams" of flour just rankles me the wrong way. This is one of my few American habits that I just can't seem to shake, no matter what. I've figured out that one ounce is 28 grams, one cup is 248 mL, and 200° C equals a "really hot oven" (I've decided that oven temperatures are best expressed as "low, medium, hot" rather than exact tempertaures, but nobody but nobody's oven is ever exactly right). But I have never bothered to check how much a cup of flour weighs, and something tells me that, short of my scientific curiosity getting the better of me, I never will.

Part of this is because our primary baking book, Dorie Greenspan's Baking, is an American book. But a huge part of it is that, until now, volumes have worked fine for me--"Don't fix what ain't broke" and all that jazz. Measuring flour is a bit of an art when you use volumes, and it's one that I've developed a reasonable mastery over. It's something I'm reluctant to give up, I think, because on a microcosmic level it becomes a herald of my own obsolescence. It detracts from the mystique that surrounds baking--anybody can weigh out 200 g of flour, but not everybody can measure out 1 cup properly--and the reliance on a scale, rather than your own sense of how the recipe is falling, reduces the art to a science.

But maybe this year things will change. Maybe I'll finally get over my aversion to weights and learn to love the metric system as it totally takes over my life.

On the other hand, maybe not: I've always preferred doing a little extra math if it means I don't have to change my ways.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!


Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to upload our Christmas tree photos before we left for my future mother-in-law's. So a picture of Nijmegen's winter beauty--the pretty part, not the streets, which are still snowed under--will have to suffice.

Merry Christmas, one and all!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

"Most Precarious"


As a follow-up to the last post, I thought it'd be a good idea to share some tips on how to ride your bike in spite of the snow. In general, I'm probably not the best person in the world to take advice from--you want to ask the person who hasn't been hit by a car to elaborate on the rules of the road--but when there's as much snow, slush, ice, and crap on the roads as there is now (at least 5 cm in places, and counting) all bets are off.

Proper footwear: In this case, I mean boots. Yes, it makes peddling a bit awkward, but it beats stepping into an ankle-deep puddle of slush and getting that one trickle of icy water down your shoe and into your socks.

The path not taken: Don't be a pioneer. Follow the treads left by cars (best) and other cyclists. A thin layer of powder is the easiest to pedal through but you don't want to be the one churning through inches-deep fluff only to find that you are completely unable to gain any traction. Stick with the routes that others have carved before you, but be careful when the slush is deeper than 3-4 cm. At that level, and at temperatures right around freezing, you'll find that the ruts left by others will have hardened into ridges that redirect your wheels. There are two ways to deal with this:

  1. Go really really really slowly. Advantage is that you'll have time to correct yourself in case you get into a rut you don't want. Disadvantage is that you might as well walk.
  2. Go really relaly really fast. With enough momentum, you can power yourself through the slush-ridges. Disadvantage is that you might die of terror, if not from a fall.
Bars, not banks: If the roads are in the least bit icy, don't turn by leaning into the turns. Turn your handlebars and try to remain upright inasmuch as you can. I've slipped and fallen on far less ice than there is now, and while it wasn't painful, I can say that, had I been on a busier road, or one with cars, I could have easily ended badly.

Stick a leg out: Right now, the biggest obstacle to making turns is the slush-piles at the corners, more resembling a Jackson Pollack painting than anything cohesive. In these cases, if you don't want to get off your bike, putting a foot down so that you don't go slip-sliding away as you make the turn could be prudent. Get off the seat, if you need to.

Leg up: Don't be bashful about getting off your bike and walking it. Trust your own instincts as to how well you can handle the road conditions. Just because some Dutch dude is texting with one hand, holding three vlaaien stacked on top of each other with the other, and whistling as he cruises down a slush-and-ice-filled street doesn't mean that it's a good idea to ride.

Hopefully your winter cycling will be less precarious than mine!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Frozen, Not Stirred


The Dutch are without a doubt the masters of water management. After Hurricane Katrina, they offered to help the US build a containment system and help build dikes to hold back the Gulf of Mexico. There is no doubt in my mind that, if global warming persists, one very small country is going to get very, very rich from building things like Neeltje Jans. However, when it comes to FROZEN water management...let's just say the Dutch are, in general, a few cookies short of an Oreo. They just don't do it. Not on a national, local, or personal level.

The Nationale Spoorwegen is the unfortunate recipient of snow-induced rage across the country. Under normal circumstances, the NS is a competent enough train service--hardly Swiss, but not nearly as terrible as SEPTA, Philadelphia's contribution to the argument against public transit. However, put a little snow on the tracks, and everything grinds to a halt. It's irritating to be stuck at your station (especially one like Cuijk) for God-only-knows how long, or have to take roundabout way that extends your travel time by a gazillion (minutes? hours? days? I remain mercifully mum). But it's even more irritating to think that, in a country that moves up to 1 million riders a day by rail, that the NS hasn't come up with a way of removing snow in a timely fashion. After all, it's not like they've never seen snow before.

However, you can't bitch about crappy train service if you can't get to the station, and snow removal on a local level is similarly terrible. Worse, even--at the very least the trains were running a day after the most recent snow, even if they were so delayed you might as well have not tried. I didn't, because in Nijmegen, the buses weren't running until so late in the morning that, assuming that the trains were running on time, there was no point in going to work. Most of the major roads--i.e., the ones with more than two lanes--were cleared, but if you live in a residential neighborhood, you were wading through snowdrifts to get to the bus stop. At best the gemeente will salt the streets, but as everyone who's lived in a snowy area in the US knows, you actually have to move the snow off the road, first. In Maastricht the snow is allowed to lie for so long that the pressure of a thousand feet (and lots of cars) has melted and refrozen it such in parts of the city--in front of the train station, by my student house--it's easier to get around wearing ice skates. I wish I were just being snarky, but it's true.

Europeans (and most Americans) like to mock the American lawsuit-happy way of life, but there is one upside to the tendency to sue the bejeesus out of your neighbor, which is that within 24 hours of the snow stopping, EVERYBODY has shoveled off their driveway and sidewalks, and the more conscientious folks have salted their walkways. That just doesn't happen here: Maybe one house in four will shovel a path to the sidewalk, but not the sidewalk, and even fewer will shovel a path on the sidewalk itself. In my corner of Maastricht, the sidewalks are also skating-rinks-in-waiting, and it honestly surprises me that I haven't come upon any frozen bodies of little old ladies who've slipped and fallen and couldn't get up.

So the moral of the story is: chemistry matters, and polar bonds are more important than you might think. Give a little energy, and all is hunky dory. Take a little away, and you have effectively paralyzed 16 million people...

Monday, December 20, 2010

First Tongues

just born

After almost a year of Dutch classes, I can: hold a telephone conversation in Dutch (not very well, but the other person usually understands what I want to say), read the KNMI website, and socialize with my Dutch teacher. Last week there was a sort of borrel for international staff members at my work place (not a real borrel, because it ended way too late and had seating—not a lot, but there were chairs there), and one of the little “mixing games” they had was where they gave you a lanyard with a picture, and you had to find the other 4 people with the same picture. Turned out my Dutch teacher and I were two of a kind.

So we had a brief conversation—we both knew other people there, so it really was just small talk as we parted ways to join our friends—but what surprised me was how surprised I was that she spoke English when she greeted her other students. I mean, I know she speaks English—most Dutch people do—but up until that night 99% of my interactions with her have been in Dutch. She conducted her class almost entirely in Dutch, and when we answered and socialized with each other in the class, it was also in Dutch. As a matter of fact, when I bump into another fellow student, I also speak to him in Dutch (mostly). So to hear her speak English was something like a paradigm shift—it rewrote my world in a very small way. I'd never really considered how much our first impressions of a person can stick with you; I'd never realized before how much the first language can determine the sort of impression that gets made.

I had a little taste of the weirdness last weekend, when we joined our friends for a small celebratory dinner. By now, my main difficulty in speaking Dutch is figuring out the vocabulary to express super-complicated ideas (followed closely by “is ______ a regular or irregular verb?”), but they were good sports about my botched pronunciations and didn't interrupt. I imagine it was a little weirder for them, that I could join in, than it was for me.

I'm now writing a tour of Maastricht for Rama and most of the pages that I'm gleaning my information from are in Dutch. And it's quite an interesting sensation, not to care whether a page is written in Dutch or English.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Borrels, or why high heels are hard to find


I'm not sure if the situation is different in cities like, say, Amsterdam, but in Nijmegen it's hard to find a pair of what I call "ankle-breakers", heels of at least 3 inches (or, in fashionista parlance, 75-80 mm) or even higher. I don't actually wear heels, normally, but every now and then it's nice to at least pretend I'm a smidge taller than 5'3".

At first I thought this was simply because the Dutch are too practical for high heels. But that practicality fails to explain things like why coffeeshops don't actually sell coffee. Then I reasoned that mayhaps it was because Dutch women are already so tall that any extra height would put them at a disadvantage, because then they would be taller than the men. I revoked that theorem after running into a few belly buttons.

But now that I've been to a few borrels, I can comfortably state that the reason high heels are hard to find is because you can't stand in them for more than an hour, tops. And borrels can last a while.

Borrels, or borreltjes if you want to be cute, are informal get-togethers, complete with nibbles and drinks. They are usually held by your colleagues and co-workers, rather than your friends (though it helps to be friends with the people you work with), and the distinction is made from a circle party by the fact that everybody is standing. The special tables made for eating from a standing position are usually scattered around, although some of most informal ones don't even have those. You stand, and talk, and eat, but always standing. In fact, you'd better be dead before you're not vertical.

Which wouldn't be so bad if it were just a little while--twenty, thirty minutes. But the prevailing philosophy seems to be that as long as someone else paid for the beer, you might as well finish it, and thus borrels last as long as it takes the most sober man to get buzzed. The Dutch, being Europeans, drink their beer like all the other Europeans, not Americans, which is another way of saying that they sip, rather than glug. Slow drinking and tall guys...you do the math.

Because these get-togethers are relatively impromptu in nature, then--meaning "arranged less than a month in advance"--it behooves women not to wear heels on the off chance that they might be invited to, or drawn into, one and end up standing for hours on end. And that would just be painful.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Better late than never?

I've been doing a lot of night photography lately. This is mostly because I'm in the lab all day and the days are short. But also because night photography is fun--challenging as hell, but fun.


It doesn't have to be quite so challenging if you have a tripod, but my tax return has yet to come in, and besides, tripods are a pain the @$$ to lug around. So I just try to stand very, very still--and of course, the harder you try, the more you shake. But still, Maastricht is decked out for the holidays, and a lovely city in its own right acquires a touch of magic when the lights come on:

Photobucket Photobucket

In Nijmegen, the holidays are marked by the arrival of the olliebollen carts, which also sell waffles. They are the only time of year you can reliably purchase waffles at the market, but they are a poor substitute for the heavenly fluffy denseness that is a Pinky's Waffle. On the other hand, Nijmegen does have a regular stroopwaffel maker, which my friend assures me does not exist in Maastricht.


This one-or-the-other, the give-and-take, the back-and-forth (in my case, literally), has really started to erode the boundaries that have thus far defined who I am. As I start to get more comfortable here, really learning the language and getting along, and traversing the distance between Protestant Holland and Catholic Limburg every week (there really is a difference), it sometimes feels like my pieces of my identity are being scattered in the wake. On the one hand, it's silly: I know who and what I am. On the other hand, it's kind of weird--because none of the words that I used to use (American, Asian, Democrat) apply any more.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


We don't have a whole lot of money. Between my student loans and his insurance policies, we're basically living paycheck-to-paycheck, though we each have a healthy savings account and both of us contribute to our joint account. Needless to say, we don't eat out very often—you can count the number of times we get take-out in a year on one hand.

But we do love good food. So every week, we empty our wallets of whatever notes (Christmas money) and spare change (eating out) is left. At the end of the year, or whenever the jar gets too heavy, whichever comes first, we haul the coins to the bank, and get them counted. It adds up: in this case, to a trip to Kaatje aan de Sluijs, a little restaurant in Blokzijl, which is a little village in the middle of nowhere. Friends of ours had invited us along to help them celebrate their tenth anniversary, and good food and a luxe hotel for not-too-extravagant prices are not to be passed up. Blokzijl's claim to fame is that it used to be a seaside town, until the Dutch filled in their corner of the North Sea in the 1930s. Now, it sits behind a dike that was undoubtedly more impressive in the days when it actually held back the sea, but still squarely in the middle of nowhere, with endless polderlands stretching beyond it in all directions.

Nevertheless the village itself is a lovely little place, though hardly exciting by any definition of the word. There's an antique clock shop on the main street, and some nice little pubs, and of course a church (Baptist, interestingly). The little village still has the narrow streets of pre-car days, and there are no curtains in the windows, in keeping with the (now disappearing) Dutch tradition of making sure your neighbors are as virtuous as you are. You can sail on the river that runs through the village, though at this moment you might want to get ice insurance before you do.

At Kaatje aan de Sluis, you have the option of a four-course dinner menu; I assume that the restaurant also has an a la carte menu, but for whatever reason it wasn't available on the day that we went. We were greeted at the door by a grinning, almost bouncy, maitre'd, seated, and almost before we had a chance to get our bearings, a member of the wait staff came along and asked us what we'd like to have for a drink. A few minutes later, the first amuses arrived.

The dishes were served relatively quickly: at the Chateau Neercanne, for instance, it averaged out to one dish an hour (and yes, we were actually there for almost six hours). It was still 23.00 by the time we left, but it ended up being an almost-seven-course meal, including coffee, a pre-dessert, and lots of wine-snobbery, where the sommelier presents you with a bottle of wine, cradled in a towel (for whites), and gives you the genetic lineage of the grapes that went into it, and pours out a small measure of wine for the wine-master. In our case, that was the wife of our friend, and the wines that the staff had chosen really were very good, with a sweet nose but a complex taste. And that's about the extent of my wine knowledge.

As for the food itself: well, pictures are worth a thousand words, right? Suffice it to say that the words, “Oh my God,” came out of my mouth more than once—and that was just about the olive oil to dip the bread in.

From top to bottom, the dishes are: foie gras , served with carmelized shallots and an orange-flavored cookie; the snoek (with cauliflower puree and potato square); wild duck served with sarsaparilla root, leek, red beet, and lentils); and dessert, a parfait of oranges, sweet-corn custard, almonds, and dragon-flavored ice cream, served alongside candied popcorn.

After such a gastronomic undertaking, we decided that a little coffee wouldn't be a bad idea. But that was with the assumption that coffee was just coffee. We're relatively new to fine dining, but we're learning: coffee is never “just coffee”.

I'm a vegetarian, which makes things a little awkward when foie gras and wild duck are the only items on the menu. Fortunately, our friends and my boyfriend were ravenous—they'd skipped their meals that day, too—so they were more than happy to relieve me of both of the items. I found myself trying some of them (both the foie gras and the duck) out of propriety, but after not having any meat for several years, the taste of them both were a bit much for me. However, I am assured by the three others at the table that, if you eat meat, you will love it.

The hotel we stayed in was “attached” to the restaurant, in the sense that if you ask for “dinner and a room” the Kaatje Hotel is where you will stay. It was just a short walk from the restaurant, the better, perhaps, to avoid drunken customers running amok on the streets of Blokzijl the night before church. The hotel room was nice enough—the bathrooms are stocked with thick fluffy towels and thicker, fluffier bathrobes. We had a stunning view of the river from our room. The only really annoying part was figuring out which light switches turned on what lights, and how the shower worked. The breakfast the next morning was very Dutch: a collection of breads, cheeses, sausage/ham slices. In a nod to healthy eating, yogurt and fruit were also available, but suffice it to say that there are more compelling reasons than breakfast to visit Blokzijl.

Overall it was a great night: good food, great company, excellent hotel. My boyfriend handled the money, so I'll have to take his word for the costs: €200 for our two dinners, and €190 for the night (the tab included breakfast and pre-dinner drinks). It's definitely one of those places that makes doing your own dishes 364 days of the year worthwhile. Kaatje aan de Sluijs is a member of the Gastronomique Alliance, a sort of restaurant guild for finer diners, so if you're not up to traveling to the middle of the nowhere for food, there's probably another Alliance member closer by.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Glory Days


I might look young, but I'm almost thirty (oh horror!), which gives me the privilege of looking back on my college days and thinking, "Man, those were some good times!" Of course, back then, I was probably wigging out on a constant basis, if my sister--who is now attending my alma mater--can be considered an accurate copy of me. I'm told we look alike, though she wears contacts and is decidedly allergic to cats.

College in the US is usually represented by The Dorm Room, a space just slightly too small where you have a bed that's slightly too long, and underwear that has gone slightly too many days without washing. Memorabilia of all sorts, be it the school sports team, newspaper clippings of important events, or just a pretty leaf, are Scotch-taped to the walls next to posters that seem "deep". If you're a geek like me, you'll be snowed under mounds of papers for lab reports and problem sets.

In the Netherlands, college is typically represented by the Student House, which is a house whereby the individual rooms are rented out to students on the cheap. The kitchen--usually stripped down to a minifridge and a stove--and bathrooms are typically shared, and cleaning (if it's done at all) is shared between the housemates. Supposedly there are such things as "house parties", where everybody and their grandmother cram themselves into a student house, play loud music, drink beer, and have sloppy make-out sessions in a stranger's bedroom. I know of this only from heresay. That's right. Uh-huh.

Fortunately for me, the student house where I rent a room in Maastricht is occupied by several other girls who are not prone to throwing such parties (attending them is a different matter). It's a pretty quiet house, in a pretty quiet neighborhood. Students get a small stipend from the government, and most of their bills are paid for by their parents, since you're only allowed to have one address in the Netherlands, and since you can't get a job (like waiting tables or the like) without being registered by the gemeente in most cities, which incurs fees and is therefore best avoided.

Living in a student house is not for everyone: you don't really have a say in your housemates, unless you get together with your friends and decide to rent a house together. Sometimes the landlords have funny rules--our landlady forbids us to use a deep-fryer, for instance (no patat frites!). And you need to figure out how to split things like trash bags and cleaning and the Internet bill.

Be that as it may, I kind of like it here. It's my own space, my own furniture--not much, and it's secondhand, but it's mine--my own sheets. I love my boyfriend and I miss our cats during the week, but every now and then, it's nice to have place to call your own. Even if you have to pick hair balls out of the shower every morning.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Side of Onions

In newer apartment buildings they probably have better, more efficient heating systems than ye-olde hot-water radiators, but our apartment building was built in the 70s or thereabouts, so ye-olde hot-water radiators it is, to combat the winter cold.

Fortunately, most Dutch winters are relatively mild. While the days are cold and sunless, the temperature tends to hover in to 5-7° C range, which to my mind is "annoying but not devestating".

Unfortunately, ever year since I've been here, the winter weather has been atypically Dutch: we had a surprisingly hard cold snap in 2007-8, in which the frost literally grew out of the trees:


This is NOT snow. It's frost. All of it.

2008-9 was a snowy year as well, but nowhere close to the winter of 2009-10, where it snowed so much that even the trains couldn't run and the buses in our neck of the Netherland shut down completely.

And now, this year, we've had almost 2 weeks of sub-freezing temperatures, and it's snowed almost every day for a week. Luckily, not a lot of snow comes down at once, so we can get around, but it makes a dangerous ice/slush layer when people and cars have been stomping on it.

What can I say...like the Finn brothers say, "Always bring the weather with you", and I seem to have done just that. Maybe customs should be more stringent...wouldn't want a Saharan drought here, now would we?

This is why my boyfriend purchased a little oil-burning stove. It's sort of like a portable fireplace. The Tweeb has discovered that it's very nice and warm in front of it, and when we placed the cushion in her favorite spot she promptly started roasting herself in front of it. It's not quite as cozy as the real thing, but far better than staring at an open hearth on your TV.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Updates on things in the works

Just thought I'd send y'all an update on what's going on with this blog, planned spots, and other stuff that I'm doing/would like to do next year:

  • First of all, I'm planning a photoshoot with Erin Corbett of Finding Friesland. Actually the shoot has nothing to do with Friesland, and everything to do with miniature horses. If you've got a hobby that's cool (or even one that's not-so-cool--I'm one of those talentless folks that thinks even knitting rocks) and would like a spot on this blog, complete with super-duper photos (er, well, we can try) and an interview that's not about the Usual Expat Stuff, contact me.
  • For those of you in Europe, I'm going to have a holiday-cookie giveaway. Comment below before December 10 if you want to receive a package cookies in the mail! (Mention any food allergies I should be aware of)
  • Posts will continue as always. If anybody is interested in writing a guest spot, again, please contact me. Do NOT send the complete text of the post, but rather a brief summary of your idea.
  • Moving the blog. Or rather, expanding into a paid version of Blogger. More features, more space, more layout options. Still up in the air at the moment.