Saturday, December 31, 2011

Destination Unknown

It's that time of year when everybody resolves to eat better and exercise more. To be a better housekeeper, or keep a better lab journal (well, that's me, and that's a weekly resolution of mine). To go skydiving once, fly a glider, ski a black diamond, try a totally new food, go to church regularly. To lose those final 10 lbs (or start with losing 10 lbs), to become eco-conscious, to just be better people than we all were in 2011.

Behavioral experts, however, say that change only happens when you have a measurable metric with which to measure progress. If you resolve to spend less money, for instance, you'd be better off with a concrete goal along the lines of "not spending more than €20/week on lunch". Eating better would be rephrased to "having one vegetable with every meal" (broccoli for breakfast, anyone?). So in keeping with the science, my resolutions for this year don't include eating better and exercising more, though that is implicit in the first one, which is to run the 10k Marikenloop in May of this year. It's a 5k race with a 10k option, in case you're interested. It's also a women's only race (sorry, guys). It's no Zevenheuvelenloop, certainly not in terms of scale or grandeur, but it's a nice way to ease back into running, I think.

Another resolution of mine is to finish a rough draft of a book. I'd started writing a few bits and pieces of it while I was unemployed, but I couldn't get very far. I didn't have any plans as to how I wanted to structure it, which was problem number one. Problem number two was that, between my job hunt and my other little writing pets, it became more of a drag to work on, probably because of problem number one. My NaNoWriMo novel this year ran into the same problem. I am not a seat-of-my-pants writer--I really don't know why I keep acting like I am.

My final resolution this year is to improve my Dutch language skills. This will be awkward, but I think I should be able to get my lab mates on board, as far as the speaking bits go. Fear not, international readers: Outside Looking In will continue to be written in English, though perhaps I will introduce a "word of the week" column. That, however, is not a resolution. I've never been very good about weekly things, whether it's photos or posts or things like that.

But really, the goal is to make it through 2012. Beyond that--where we'll end up, what we'll be doing, who we'll be--the destination is beautifully vague. Enjoying the way there--that's the real treat.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

...Number Fifty-One

First of all: thanks for all the good wishes for my back. For the first few days it felt so terrible that I was almost certain it was a herniated disc, but after a while it became clear that it was a very bad episode of sciatica. Which is also not-fun, but also a lot less serious.

Secondly: a while ago I posted a list called, approximately, "You know you've been living in the Netherlands for too long when..." My boyfriend, upon reading that post, had a few laughs, and then began suggesting other ways to know that you've gone native: random cravings for kroketten; loving patat oorlog; and getting annoyed when people confuse Sinterklaas with Christmas.

I realize that I'm a little late to this fight--the article was posted about a day after I realized that I could no longer sit down. But any expat should have been thoroughly schooled in the difference between Sinterklaas (presents for being good) with Christmas (supposed birth of Jesus Christ--he was, I've heard, actually born in March; the bit about angels singing, though, is absolutely true), especially if you've been living in the Netherlands for as long as Ms. Olien has. Come to think on it, Americans longing to de-commercialize Christmas might take a page from the Dutch (or Spanish and/or Catholic countries) and separate the gift-giving extravaganza from the religious aspect of the holidays. Sinterklaas is shamelessly commercialized; Christmas is a night for fancy foods and family. While gifts are exchanged on Christmas, retailers don't make a big fuss about impending Christmas doom (the Dutch do that to themselves--a weird sort of conformist guilt).

But what I really wanted to write about was the irritating business of calling Holland's Zwarte Piet a racist construction. Which it is, but in the grand scheme of things, it ranks (in my mind) as a relatively mild offense, somwhere along the lines of Prince Willem-Alexander unwittingly swearing to his Mexican audience. Why is this? Because NOBODY (except maybe small children) believes that Sint en Piet are real. They are no longer caricatures--they are characters in a nice little story line that gets told to kids every year. Zwarte Piet, it is true, began as a bumbling servant to Saint Nicholas--if you go back to the original-original story, he was a Moorish convert to Christianity who elected to serve the saint out of gratitude for having a shot at obtaining Grace. But Saint Nicholas has also gone through his own rebranding: Sint, in days of old, ran what was essentially a labor camp for bad children in Spain, and would literally beat the bad ones (try getting that one into a PC-classroom these days). These days, Piet is the one with all the awesome magical powers, and Sint just leaves a lump of coal in your shoe.

"Yes, the story changes, but that doesn't make it any less bad," some people might say. "It's still wrong to put on blackface. Intents don't matter."

I would argue, however, that intention matters every bit as much as the act itself. If not, then movies such as Ghandi, Memoirs of a Geisha, The House of Sand and Fog, and The Good Earth would be deemed terribly offensive (and maybe they were, by some, but I think it's safe to say that, since these are all mainstream movies, they're probably well-acclaimed in most circles). In two of them, the venerable Ben Kingsley gets a tan and magically becomes India's greatest 20th-century hero, or an Arab-American trying to scrape by. Memoirs of a Geisha was noticeably devoid of any lead character who was actually Japanese, while The Good Earth cast Paul Muni (Eastern European, and Jewish to boot) as a Chinese farmer. The outrage at Zwarte Piet and lack of outrage over these characters is, I would argue, also a form of racism: what is it that makes black people exempt from being portrayed by people of other races, but perfectly okay for people of other races to portray people of other races?

Suffice it to say, I stand by my original assertion that as far as racist imagery is concerned, the US has a lot more to answer for than just a bunch of silly white people putting on makeup and handing out kruidnoten to the kids. And that, as far as discrimination and race go, it's not all black-and-white. Literally.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Disc break

I'm going to ask your pardon again, for putting up with a break in the admittedly-not-very-regular programming. Somehow or other, I've managed to hurt my back, to the point where I can't sit in a chair for more than 10 minutes at a time.

Hopefully posts will resume soon, as my back gets better, but for now, I've got to get up and get moving again before it twangs any harder than it is now.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Last week, when drawing up the weekly dinner menu, I decided to make a pumpkin soup. Okay--I decided Karel should make a pumpkin soup. In the course of grocery shopping, then, I diligently bought a pumpkin, and put it in an obvious location, the basket where I keep the currently-in-use bread and stuff-that-should-be-at-room-temperature, like bananas and slowly-ripening kiwi.

At least, I thought it was obvious there. Somehow, when Tuesday night came around, Karel looked everywhere but the basket and decided that I'd forgotten to get the pumpkin and went out and procured two more. He used one for the soup, so on Saturday we still had two pumpkins floating around, twiddling their thumbs, waiting to be put to good use.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Dutch pumpkins aren't like American pumpkins. Pompoenen are a lot smaller, for starters, and I believe they are of a different breed than their American counterparts. Besides being smaller and more deeply orange, they are also a bit sweeter. And nobody carves them up into jack-o-lanterns. Differences aside, though, you can pretty much treat them like any other gourd, which is to say "roast until tender, scoop out flesh, and enjoy". Dutch recipes, strangely enough (yet typically Dutch), call for the thing to be hacked apart and/or peeled, and then boiled. Newbies to the Netherlands and pompoenen in general should disregard any recipe advice that tells you to peel a gourd, and just hack it in half and pop it in a hot oven for about 30 minutes. Trust me when I say it's safer that way.

So on Saturday morning, as Karel was about to leave for work, I wondered aloud what to do with the pumpkins. "Maybe I'll try a pumpkin pie," I mused.

"I never had one. What is it?"

I may not be the most perfectly-integrated expat, but I certainly don't go about wishing for things like Thanksgiving and whining about missing fireworks on the Fourth of July. I don't bake apple pies (too much work, peeling all those apples) and I don't go about comparing Nijmegen to New York City. But somehow, Karel's confession that he'd NEVER HAD PUMPKIN PIE brought out a wave of Americana in me and I decided right then and there that he was going to get some. Well, as close to pumpkin pie as you can get with a Dutch pompoen, anyway. Never mind that I'd never made pumpkin pie before and never mind that I had no idea where to start, or even an idea of which recipe I wanted to use. Karel's gastronomic innocence with respect to one of America's finest traditions needed to be remedied, and damned if I would stand by and let him flounder in culinary darkness.

I didn't use a recipe, but trust me when I say making a pumpkin pie from scratch is so easy you almost don't need one. Roast the pumkin for 30-40 minutes, until the flesh is tender, and then scoop out the "guts" (seeds, stringy bits that hold the seeds in place). Separate your pound of flesh from the skin and set it aside. I did all this the night before, but there's no reason you can't do the next step as soon as the thing cools down enough not to cook the egg.

I used condensed milk, but you can also use cream--put the pumpkin and a bit of milk/cream (1/4 cup, thereabouts) into a food processor, and add an egg. Liquify everything--the consistency should be like that of a milkshake. If you need to, add more liquid. Add cinnamon, powdered ginger, nutmeg, allspice, cardamom, etc etc to taste. If you were an idiot like me and didn't make sure to get sweetened condensed milk, you can add a bit of sugar. I used dark brown sugar (~ 2 Tbsp) a bit of normal sugar (~ 1/4 cup)/

I go through the trouble to make pie crust, in part because the stuff sold in supermarkets is a bit too fluffy for my taste. Usually it goes off without a hitch, but as you can see from the overbaked bits, somehow I managed to flub it this time. Nevertheless, as the crust plays second fiddle to the divine filling, I decided to proceeed.

The end result was a velvety smooth hunk of delicious sitting in a decadently flaky crust, and every bit as delicious as I remember pumpkin pie to be--better, even, since it wasn't over-sweetened and you could actually taste the other stuff in it. I'm actually kind of hoping Karel will think it's not quite for him, because it'll leave more for me.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Mad Thrift

It's no secret that I love thrift stores. Even in the US, my preferred supplier of things like coats and hats were secondhand, though that was mostly because I like men's hat--at least, unusually-styled hats--and thrift stores were the only places I could find such things at prices that I liked. In Maastricht, Tuesday nights would find me more often than not at Mattie's Kringloopwinkel, where I procured my furniture. Nijmegen, though, hid her thrift stores well, and it took me a while before I learned enough about the city to find all of them:

By far my favorite is the Ideƫle Kringloopwinkel. It's well-hidden, but it has by far the most interesting--and most buyable--stuff. I've bought something almost every time I've gone there, which says a lot considering how far out of the way it is from everything, and how small the shop is. Despite its small size, it boasts a good selection of stuff, and I've managed to find such diverse objects as laundry baskets (matching style and color with the one we already had, even!), a wine rack, a trenchcoat--and all at reasonable secondhand prices, too. You cannot pay with a PIN pass, alas, so make sure you have cash before you walk in.

Het Goed is a chain of thrift stores, and as such it has by far the most stuff and the biggest selection, arranged across four floors. It is actually pretty spacious, unlike most thrift stores, and you can look around and poke into stuff without incurring the wrath of a grumbly clerk. I like to buy books there--they have an ever-changing selection of English-language books, and most of them are gently-used. I usually pick up small household items in Het Goed, things like baskets or spray bottles. They have an impressive selection of electronics, which is how we came by our speakers. However, Het Goed almost never has anything truly wonderful, which is why, as useful as it is, it's not my favorite.

Amaretto is a little tiny shop that bills itself as an antique store, though in reality it's another thrift shop. It's where I purchased our Galileo thermometer, and I'm still considering buying a ye-olde otoscope kit that's been sitting in a display case for ages, as a gift for Karel. However, the shop is impossibly tiny, and incredibly cramped--it's a bit evocative of Olivander's Wand Shop, wehere every last nook and cranny is occupied by something or other, to the point where the proprietor has taken to sitting in a chair by the window rather than at the cash register so he can read his newspaper. The prices are a bit higher than you'd expect, but on the other hand, many of the goods are one-of-a-kind, or at least very difficult to come by anywhere else in the city.

The Habbekrats is better known as "the place you get your fireworks from", as every December half the store is cleared of all its stuff to make room for a massive display of explosive projectiles. They have a bit of everything--I bought my binoculars there, a massive set of 8 x 50 lenses with coated glass, and of a surprisingly high quality glass, too. Most of the time, the stuff there is crap, but every now and then you find something good. We bought our coffee table there--their delivery policy is similar to that of Het Goed, in that you arrange with the store owner when you can be there, and he shows up within those times with a truck and your furniture. Unlike most kringloopwinkels, the Habbekrats does not carry clothing, although just across the street is a consignment shop in case you really need a clothing fix.

It's important to remember this cardinal rule if you're thrifting: if you don't absolutely love it, don't buy it. You don't save money if you spend it on something you'll never use/never wear. Happy hunting!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sugar and Spice

Despite my reputation in certain circles for calorically-dense baked goods, in my everyday cooking (what I do of it), I don't really pack fats or sugars into my food. Most days, I make it a point to avoid sugar, though I do enjoy a Milk Break during morning coffee breaks, and some cookies with my nightly dose of St. John's Wort (it's seriously vile stuff, otherwise). But Dutch cookies are, for the most part, not very sweet--two Milk Break biscuits have only two-thirds the sugar of three Oreos--and, perhaps more relevant to healthy eating, don't contain high-fructose corn syrup.

I see this as a confirmation of Robert Lustig's theory that fat (consumed in modest amounts) doesn't make you fat, fructose makes you fat. Most Americans who are reasonably educated about nutrition and good eating are appalled at the quantity of carbohydrates the Dutch consume: bread in the mornings, sandwiches for lunch, ontbijtkoek with coffee, and a stamppot loaded with bacon bits for dinner. The terrible nutritive state of your average cloggie is only emphasized by little news bits such as this one, saying that your average child manages to eat only one piece of fruit every week, while your average Jap eats one-and-a-half--while the recommended serving is two. That's two pieces of fruit per week. I don't know which is more appropriate, being shocked that it's so low, or amazed that scurvy isn't an issue any more.

Edit: Frank has now pointed out that the DutchNews site I referenced is a terrible source for facts and that the actual recommendations were for 2 pieces of fruit per day. So really, the Dutch don't do that badly. But it says a lot that I was willing to believe "per week", don't it?

But while most Dutch food is stacked to the ears with starches (simple or otherwise), there isn't any high-fructose corn syrup hidden away in most of it. I've tried to find a food that has high-fructose corn syrup in it, and despite my best efforts, I've failed. I'm certain that sodas, such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, are fairly loaded with it, but the fact that I don't know for certain just goes to show how frequently it occurs to me to buy it (which is never). Even the fluffiest of fluffy white breads contains flour, water, yeast, and maybe a preservative and maybe a vitamin supplement--but no fructosestroop, as it's called in Dutch. The powdered soups that I have regularly for lunch, the sauces that you can buy for your patat frites, the cookies stuffed with marzipan and glazed with sugar--they might all have sugar, it is true, but they probably don't contain HFCS.

Of course diets and lifestyles and national trends and nutrition are more complicated than simply not having HFCS in anything. And who knows, maybe the Dutch would keep their elongated physiques even if HFCS were added to their diets (hell, I caught whooping cough here, and I've been vaccinated against it in the US). Genetics, environment--who knows? Our weekly pot of spaghetti, at any rate, hasn't seemed to do us any harm yet.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Allerhande Everywhere

Every two months or thereabouts, the Albert Heijn publishes another edition of its in store magazine, the Allerhande. Like most free publications, it has more ads than content, and, as expected, is geared to "help" you make budget-conscious and nutritious meal choices for your family--by shamelessly plugging Albert Heijn products whenever and wherever they can. Nevertheless, it is one of the few things that suits my Dutch reading level--hindered more by my lack of patience than my lack of understanding--as the articles in it are short and brief and there are lots of excellent pictures of food. Though stamppot never did manage to look sexy.

The Allerhande is stuffed with recipes: 10 ways to make soup! 15 ways to make stamppot! A week's worth of dinner ideas! Special (but easy) recipes for the holidays! These recipes are not especially complicated, and they actually produce quite a decent meal--what I like to think of as "in-law" level food; as in, something you'd serve your in-laws to show that you can cook, but not something so delicious that they'll want to invite themselves over every day. Much though I love my almost-in-laws, our apartment is small, and stressing about food is something I hate doing.

I am a rather lazy cook, to tell the truth. I'll cheat whenever I can, and there have been days (mostly when Karel's working) that I've taken a can of something from our pantry, and a fork, and called it a meal. It's not that I don't enjoy the process of cooking. It's more that it takes me a while to get into my little groove, and most days I just don't have the time to settle into a rhythm. Karel, on the other hand, loves cooking, but his work schedule is so erratic that we might manage to have dinner together once a month.

But next week, Karel is at home. And that means lots of good eats...based entirely on stuff out of the Allerhande. Even the stamppot that we'd decided to make came out of the Allerhande, and with the sole exception of our weekly spaghetti, there isn't a single recipe on it that we've thought of ourselves. It'll be a strange week, full of food that we wouldn't normally eat--zuurkool and pompoen and spitskool and paddenstoelen fond (actually, the recipe called for a bouillon, but I couldn't find it). That I am actually looking forward to eating these very Dutch things is a bit scary. But not nearly as scary as the thought that, if we like the things, and if they aren't too terribly complicated to make, we might actually start depending on the Allerhande for future meal suggestions.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Southpaw hee-haw

I'm going to take a moment to squee about my latest acquisition: a left-handed fountain pen.

I wrote about my travails with the writing materials in this country before. Well, it just so happens that in September, I was in the V&D, picking up a few little office things, when I came upon their fountain pen display. Now, it must be said: as a fountain pen supplier, the V&D is hardly ideal. For true lovers of nib and ink, nothing less than a dedicated pen shop will do. For someone who's only ever dreamed of having that delicate, spidery handwriting that seems to come naturally to those who use fountain pens, though, it's a good place to start.

So with my birthday present (€20 in cash--I've never received cash in a card before, and spent a few weeks savoring the sensation), I bought a left-handed fountain pen. I also bought a few refill cartridges, and used one to test the normal fountain pen (behind) that we'd had lying around. And I have to say--writing with a fountain pen is a treat. I never understood why writers refer to the "flow" of ideas, but after discovering that it is possible to write something without mashing the point in the paper, it was amazing how smoothly and quickly I could write. Modern fountain pens, see, don't end in a real point (at least, the cheap ones at the V&D don't). The nib tip is rounded, in most cases, in the back, well-hidden from view. And this enables the pen to write smoothly, and a slight change in the placement of the slit means that I can push the pen along. Surprisingly enough the same was true of the normal fountain pen as well, once I found the correct angle. Writing with a fountain pen is, I would imagine, akin to driving a Ferrari: your own physical skills (handling the car, holding the pen) must be up to the task, but once it is, it's pure love.

As a bonus: the ink dries REALLY quickly--it didn't smear at all for the test page in my journal, which has ballpoint and gel-ink smears all over the place. I think this was the first time in my life when the ink dried in time, all the time.

I think I'm in love.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Hack Hack Wheeze

This post contains mentions of bodily fluids and functions that some people might prefer not to think about. Consider yourself warned:

It's always so clear to see in retrospect.

The sniffling, sneezing, and cough that I had been suffering for the past six weeks were not, in fact, the onset of allergies gone wrong (more on that later), but, as last night plainly and clearly showed, a case of Bordatella pertussis, better known by its common name, whooping cough.

"But only kids get that!" Of course, that's what I thought, too, when the diagnosis was offhandedly suggested by Karel. But the vomiting at the end of a bout of coughing a few nights ago negated any doubts I might have had about whooping cough. Of course, by then, it had been two weeks since I'd last slept through the night, and it was too late to do anything about it (antibiotics have to be given when you're in the sniffly-sneezy stage). And honestly, who thinks "whooping cough" when a grown woman has a drippy nose?

The doctor I went to see last week also missed it. He gave me codeine for the cough. Now--codeine is an interesting substance. Take one, and it's like having had a beer--slightly buzzed, very mellow. Take two (which was recommended), and it's like being on the edge of "buzzed" and "drunk". Both quantities proved powerless to stop the forces at play in my upper respiratory tract, though--it would suppress the cough for about an hour, only to let me be yanked out of the start of blissful sleep by the cough returning for its vengeance.

Seeing the doctor in the Netherlands is, depending on the doctor and the expat, either a wonderful experience, or hell in a white coat. In my case, it was the former: the doctor spoke excellent English (while I could have described what I'd wanted in Dutch, it would have opened the door for a terrible misunderstanding), listened patiently while I described what I had, and gave me exactly what I wanted: a steroid cream for my eczema, a packet of codeine for my cough, and a blood test for finding whether or not I was allergic to peanuts. The only downside was that I had to wait 15 minutes beyond my scheduled time, but honestly, what doctor's office doesn't have that? As a bonus, the guy was cute enough to have been a TV doctor, but I already have one of those ;-)

As he filled out the form for the blood test, he told me that the results wouldn't be in for a week, and to call back to discuss them. It sounded reasonable, so I called back a week later...

Only to be told that my test results were "too complicated" to explain over the telephone. I'm not entirely sure what that means...either I tested weakly positive for just about everything they test for, or maybe they discovered that I've got three blood type alleles and not the regular two. Or maybe they found out that I'm descended from Superman, or that my blood ate through the ELISA plate.

Either way, it was a most unsatisfactory end to a week's worth of waiting. And I have to make another appointment to see doctor. The truth is? Apparently I can't handle the truth....

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Language of Science

My daily exposure to geek-speak is pretty high: if geek-speak were the Black Death, I'd be near one of the major epicenters. I.e., Milan, rather than Venice--pretty extensive damage, but survival is possible, and on a good day, likely. Monday and Tuesday of this week, though, the Radboud University of Nijmegen held a symposium, which I was more or less required to attend--I didn't even know about it until the last moment, when my boss asked me, "So, are you excited for the meeting on Monday?" Fortunately there's only one right way to answer that. I spent two whole days listening to talks given by the giants of the field, covering topics such as neonatal diabetes, mechanosensory receptors, the latest in crystal structure developments, etc. In short, I entered Venice, and the bodies were piled high.

The truly frightening thing, now that I think about it, is that for the most part, I wasn't dreadfully lost, despite my ignorance in the field. In the sea of graphs and fluorescent images, I somehow managed to find an intellectual footing for all of the talks. There were some truly fantastic speakers amongst the bunch, not the least of whom was the Nobel-Prize-winner Erwin Neher.

My Dutch courses take place on Tuesday night, so immediately after the very last talk on the second day, I hightailed it out of the symposium to the other side of the campus, where my inburgeringscursus takes place. Where I was confronted with my class--and the class clown, who spends the evenings asking the strangest questions and pretending not to understand the most basic concepts (at least, I hope he's pretending). Maybe I was especially peevish, since I normally walk something like 8 miles a day (so says the [Company that sponsored the symposium] pedometer that I picked up), and I'd just spent two days stuck in a chair. Or maybe my sense of humor was taking a vacation to Hawaii.

Aside: those of you who thought high school was over when you turn 18? Haven't been to an inburgeringscursus. High school is never over.

It wasn't until I got home later that night when I finally fathomed the reason for my irritation: I'd been stuck in "Science", when ordinarily, by the time I make it to my class in the evening, I'm so tired that I'm in "English". I've only been stuck in "Dutch" a few times, but it does happen, sometimes. Apparently, for me, Science is a language. It certainly requires a LOT of abstract thinking to make any sense of anything you read in a scientific journal these days, just as it requires a lot of...well, it's not concrete thinking, exactly. For me, putting things into Dutch (and indeed, even Spanish) has less to do with fixating on the grammar than it does with structuring the sentence correctly.

Science and Dutch--they're really just a state of mind.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Fancy-Pants Dinner: Cheat

This week has been kind of unusual for me: I stopped by the Albert Heijn on my way home on Thursday to get food.

But not just any food, oh no: a friend of ours had been invited to dinner on Friday, which meant that after a long day of doing lab stuff, I would have to come home and make a dinner. Karel, having just come off a night shift, would hardly be in any condition to handle getting food to his mouth, much less the sharp pointy objects that tend to be involved in making food.

So...I cheated.

Here are two things I've come to realize about making nice dinners: 1) Risotto is always impressive, and doubly so if you pony up for the fancy mushrooms, and 2) any sins of the meal can be repented for with a chocolate fondant cake.

Risotto is relatively easy to throw together: chop an onion, and fry in olive oil until translucent. Add the raw rice, and stir constantly for a few minutes, until the grains become translucent. The only real secret to risotto is the next step, which is to add hot broth to the rice until it's covered. If you use cold broth, then the temperature difference "shocks" the gelatinous outer coating of the rice that had been cooked, and it falls apart and you get more of a congee mix than a real risotto. Check on it every 5-10 minutes or so, and add more liquid as needed, but stir it as little as possible. Cook until the rice is tender (~30 minutes). For this reason alone, it's the perfect fancy-pants cheat if there ever was one.

I make risotto with mushrooms, and you're supposed to fry the mushrooms with the onions, take them out, and add them back to the risotto at the end. So far, nobody has complained when I add the mushrooms at the 15-minute mark. Don't slice the mushrooms too thin, and you'll end up with a creamy risotto with chunks of decadently tender mushrooms.

As for the chocolate fondant cake: supposedly a notoriously fickle dessert, one that chefs always screw up on shows like MasterChef and TopChef, the truth of the matter is that once you've gotten used to your oven, it's REALLY simple to make. Recipes abound all over the place, but it doesn't matter which one you use as long as you remember to set the timer when you slide the cakes into the oven. It is simply a matter of knowing your oven: 11 minutes at 200° C in our oven works great, and produces a cake with a thin layer of cake and as much gooey middle as feasible. Dorie Greenspan's recipe says 13 minutes at 400° F. And no, I don't use ramekins: we have silicon muffin cups, which are so much easier to handle.

I always set aside the ingredients mis-en-place before I sit down for dinner (when we have guests--the recipe I use serves 6). Then it's merely a matter of taking fifteen minutes to melt the chocolate, beat up the eggs, stir it together with the flour and cocoa powder, and bake. For truly fancy-pants dinners, Karel likes to make his own ice cream to accompany it, but most people are so agog by the fact that you can make a chocolate fondant cake at home that the ice cream, as tasty as it is, tends to be an afterthought. A bit of fruit syrup (from a jamming episode gone dreadfully wrong) elevates the fancy-factor by ten.

I even cheated on the main course, which was a roasted chicken: I used one of those pre-seasonedbradzakken chickens, which is a plastic bag which the chicken is baked in. The plastic bag traps the steam, and the end result is a juicy, tender bird with as much effort as it takes to turn on the oven.

There are, of course, times when anything less than real cooking will simply not do. But there are also times when spending time with a dear friend is more important, and the veneer of good food is good enough.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

I Need Some More Photos of Amsterdam

Today's escapade in the Netherlands is a guest post by P. Jonas Bekker:

Hash, Whores and Raw Herring

When Jules asked me for a guest post on her blog (about two years ago - sorry Jules), I thought for a while and decided to used the offered space to set some things straight:

For example, those of you who still think the Netherlands are a nice, relatively problemless, liberal and tolerant little country where pretty much everything goes, should take a look at the current government, which is made up of conservative Christians, people who call themselves liberals (but who, confusingly enough, have recently changed their course to something comparable to American neocons) and the scream-a-lot-do-very-little anti-Islamic ‘Freedom Party’.

And you probably heard about legal marijuana and prostitution, the pride of Amsterdam? Not true either.

As for the drugs: technically, marijuana is still illegal. Buying it, using it and selling it in small amounts (in places called ‘Coffeeshops’ for some reason) are tolerated. Be aware that smoking dope in a public street is still a ticketable offense. In central Amsterdam, it may be highly unlikely, but in smaller towns you will still be ticketed for this!
The growing and wholesale of the stuff, however, is still illegal. It is also controlled by international criminal gangs that have no problem going at each other with machine guns. Needless to say, this creates huge existential problems for Dutch law makers and crime fighters.

The prostitution situation is even worse. The ‘legalization’ of prostitution in 2000 wasn’t actually a legalization, since prostitution per se has never been illegal here. What actually happened was that the law that forbids the facilitation of prostitution (known as the ‘pimp law’) was scrapped. The idea was that if it’s legal, the people in the business will start paying taxes and abiding personnel safety laws.

Ten years along, there is a pile of research showing no such thing happened. Since it is now nearly impossible to arrest a pimp, possibilities for exploiting women have increased exponentially. Along with startling figures (depending on which report you believe, 50-90% percent of prostitutes work in prostitution against their will) come horror stories of incarceration, torture and murder.

Yes, five to nine out of ten girls you see sitting behind those purple-lit windows is probably a sex slave, imprisoned by criminals and forced to sell her body. Now if that won’t put you off paying for one of those fun Red Light District Tours, I don’t know what will.

But that is not what I wanted to write about at all. No, there is one widespread myth about my country that I want to dispel once and for all.

It’s the fish thing.

You see, at the end of a guided tour anywhere near a body of water anywhere in the Netherlands, the guide will often take his or her group to one of those oh-so-Dutch herring carts and encourage them - making a nice commission, no doubt - to get a haring met uitjes. This is a skinned and deboned herring served whole, with the tail fin left on for the purpose of holding it, on a cardboard dish with some finely chopped onions.

Then, when all the tourists have their fish, the guide will grin and say something like: “And oh yes, I forgot to tell you: it’s raw.” Such fun, watching the dismay on those faces as they disgustedly turn away from their typically Dutch snack.

But it’s not true.

When herring is caught, it is subjected to a process called kaken. This is done on the fishing boat, immediately after the catch. All internal organs are removed from the fish, except for the pancreas. The fish are then salted and put in barrels. The salt and the enzymes from the pancreas work together in a unique curing process, so when the herring reaches the consumer, it has actually been slowly cooked (or, more accurately, cured) to the delicious soft texture that is its main attraction. You want raw fish, visit Japan.

So, next time you take a guided tour around here someplace, you just stare that guide in the face hard, pick up that fish and bite.

So that’s it. Some myths about the Netherlands dispelled. As for the clogs, windmills, tulips, bicycles and cheese… Well, that’s all true of course.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

On the Old Sand Dunes o' Mook

I wonder if there's a song of the same title, because it seems like there ought to be one....

Anyway, in the Netherlands, the landscape is dotted with patches of forest that people ride and run and walk their dogs in. Sort of a cross between a wildlife preserve and a public park, these spaces are further puncutated by sandy clearings, where heather grows. This is a sign that, in days of old, sheep had overgrazed the land, and the sand dunes had taken over. To give you an idea of how bad the problem got, Jasper (our ecologist friend) recounted sandstorms blowing off of these dunes. Heather is about the only plant that will grow in sands like this, and indeed, the fact that sandstorms are so rare these days in the Netherlands is because the sand spots are covered with it. That, and grazing policies have been changed to reflect the growing collection of ecological wisdom.

The area between Mook and Molenhoek, then, has what's called de Mookerheide, a vast collection of sand dunes with nothing but heather and sand grass growing in it. I call it "vast" because it certain looks that way when you get there, after putzing about through the typically-artificial bos. Indeed, getting there is a bit of an epic, a nice little adventurous jaunt on a sunny day: for me, on my bike, it starts with following the Veolia tracks south, until we reach 't Zwaantje (a little charming restaurant) and turning right. At first there are some pasturelands, but then the woods start to close in and at some point the road becomes a dirt road. Pressing on, despite the risk of a flat, eventually puts you in front of a massive fence, at the foot of a hill. Walk up the hill, and the picture today is what greets you.

But in fact it's not really all that big. You can scramble around the whole thing in about an hour, two if you stop and take photos of everything. And "scramble" here is definitely the right word, because some of the inclines are steep--even worse than the Manayunk Wall, and because the whole place is just a collection of sand dunes, it can be rather treacherous. Supposedly there are also special cows grazing on the land--the kinds of cows that the Dutch use as wildlife management--but I've yet to see one there (they're all over Millingerward and the Bisonbaai).

The Mookerheide is, for obvious reasons, a favorite spot for the people who live nearby. On clear days you can see Cuijk, which has a cathedral with two towers. The whole place is really quite lovely and I'd encourage anybody who thinks that the Dutch are all about polders to come and take a wander. It's surprising how hilly some spots can be.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Best Medicine

When I started taking Saint John's Wort for depression, I accepted the fact that, since I was more or less taking an MAOI, I'd have to give up eating cheese, chocolate, and red wine. The only hard one to stop was chocolate: I've never been overly fond of cheese, and as my good friends know, drinking, in general, has never been my strong suit. Cheap chocolate--the kind that's more sugar than cacao--seems to be all right, so I make do with that.

A comparison of our medical histories is reminiscent of the tortoise-hare fable: Karel's is pocked with episodes of fantastic fevers and epic sessions of homage to the porcelain god. The viruses that render him incapable of more than flailing weakly about in bed, barely able to drag himself the two steps to the toilet, leave me feeling flu-ish for a day or two--if they affect me at all. On the other hand, my medical history is layered with years of dealing with eczema, allergies, nearsightedness, and depression. None of which actually bothered me too much (except for the depression). Life could be uncomfortable, sure (working in a mouse lab and then coming down with an allergy to the little buggers can be inconvenient), but it wasn't like I was ever in mortal danger or anything.

At least, that used to be the case. About two months ago, I was eating some peanuts, and I began to break out in hives. A T1 immune response (the same kind that gives people poison ivy) to cashews a few weeks later, resulting in a huge blister on my lips, confirmed that I could no longer eat nuts. But it didn't just stop at the whole nut, oh no: in the two months since the blister episode, the problem has worsened to the point that anything containing nut oils--which is just about every single packaged food out there--sets off another bout of the itchies.

So far, happily, I've only ever been itchy, and not anaphylactic. It means that mistakes--where I thoughtlessly pop a peanut M&M, for instance--aren't going to be the end of me, and "traces" of peanuts in foods amount to a tolerable amount of itchiness. It's a good thing, too, because getting used to such a huge dietary restriction...kinda sucks, actually.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Stranger Than Life

It goes without saying that Outside Looking In is largely factual. At least, fact-based, with a heavy dose of conjecture and perhaps an occasional outright lie. The last is with respect to my personal life and people around me--I don't assume that everybody wants to be naked and famous.

Anyway, as you might have seen on the sidebar, I've (idiotically) decided to take part in NaNoWriMo this year again, having won 2010 with relative ease. That is, I didn't go stir-crazy, I didn't lose too much sleep, and I even made a few new acquaintances and got to talk shop with a few other crazy writers. Of course, in 2010, I also had my entire novel plotted out by this point in October, and I was less-than-happy with my day job, and I also didn't have three kitties and a boyfriend to take care of every day. This year, I have a very basic sketch without any details, I like my job, and I'm at home at the end of every day, petting kitties and maybe even talking to the boyfriend (he's been working a lot of night shifts recently), and my Dutch classes take up 3.5 hours a week.

I'm just glad I don't have kids yet.

But if there's one thing blogging has taught me, it's that there's always a story somewhere. I've written about purses, AH Bonus cards, kitty vet visits, beauty products, 50 ways to tell you've been living in the Netherlands for too long. I've got a few more interesting ideas in the works--it's merely a matter of finding time to get them out of my head and onto the screen--but in the meantime, I thought I'd ask: what would you like to read about?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lady Bags

Nijmegen and the surrounding villages have a collective population of about 250,000 people, and on Saturdays, it seems like every one of them is pouring into the markt. They buy shoes, clothes, knick-knacks, outdoor gear, books, etc. And sometimes--just sometimes--you might even see a woman buy a purse.

There are a plethora of cheap and not-so-cheap purse sellers, and a decent number of high-end purse-and-luggage stores (sorry, Wenneke's doesn't count). Given the sheer number of €5-purses to be found, one could reasonably be expected to wonder how the high-end stores stay in business. The answer: they're actually in cahoots with each other.

Most women will naturally gravitate towards the less expensive items, because they're Dutch and they're women (we're like that). With purses, though, you definitely get what you pay for, up to a certain price (€200, by my reckoning), and the trick is to get a bag that will last long enough to justify the price, while still spending as little as possible. But at some point, you just get sick and tired of the handles breaking, zippers getting stuck, clasps no longer clasping, and, in some of the really cheap bags, you can even wear a hole right through the bottom.

It is at this point that the woman decides that she IS GOING TO GET A NICE BAG, no matter how much it costs, one that doesn't fall apart and one that will last the ages. And so she visits a high-end shop, looks around nervously, and then, after several weeks of agonizing choosing, makes a decision. She will have put more thought into this one bag than she has for all of her previous bags put together. It may even frighten her when she makes the purchase. But she makes it anyway, because it will be the last purse she has to buy for a long time.

At least, that's how I envision it, because there really is no other explanation for how the posh stores stay in business. And that's certainly what I was thinking when I bought mine.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Young and Dumb

For those of you wondering: yes, that's a kid inside a giant airtight ball running around on a pool of water. Yes, parents actually pay money to let their kids do this. No, I don't know any, personally, but obviously they exist. And no, I don't know why this hasn't struck anybody else as a terrible idea.

I will be turning thirty at an unmentioned time later this year, and much to my surprise, I really don't feel much older than I did when I was twenty. To be sure, I don't stay up all night anymore (not that I did that much when I was in college), but there are nights when I go to bed at around midnight and get up at around five. Besides my perpetually-knotted shoulder, I don't have any aches and pains, and while I have some stray white hairs, I still pass for someone in her mid-twenties, an image that is only reinforced by the fact that I Rollerblade to work whenever the weather and roads cooperate.

I mention this because my mother, in perhaps what could be called a midlife crisis, has recently started asking me in every conversation whether I feel old, because she certainly does, etc etc, [litany of aging problems here]. I always tell her no, because, well...I don't. And it's hard to feel old in the Netherlands, because no matter how tired you are, how achy you feel, it's terrible form to be passed by a little sweet oma with her basket of leeks and potatoes on the back of her bike. When you have that as your standard for what you should be capable of when you're eighty, a sore shoulder from hoisting kitty litter doesn't seem nearly so terrible.

While there are nursing homes for the elderly, they tend to be inhabited by those who, for whatever reason, have lost the ability to live on their own. If you've got two legs and can make yourself a pot of tea, apparently, you're good to go. Karel's dad, who is nearing eighty, still lives on his own--he walks his dog twice a day, shoots a shotgun longer than I am tall and stocks his freezer with his own game, and is a regular at many dinner tables. Granted, he does have a housekeeper, but there's a long/complicated/personal story that I won't get into. The gyms, likewise, are full of retirees that are "sporting", as the Dutch say. On beautiful days like on Sunday, the woods are practically crawling with people--young and old alike--taking advantage of the beautiful weather to get some exercise and catch a few rays.

Maybe it's naive of me to think that I'll feel this way forever. After all, I haven't been fifty yet. On the other hand, I must wonder how much of my parents' experiences of getting older has been shaped by their relative isolation and life in suburbia, living in a neighborhood surrounded by yuppies with kids. Me? I say, no little old oma is going to pass me for a long time, yet.

Monday, October 17, 2011

All Hung Up

Our washer gave us a bit of a scare earlier this year, when it spontaneously decided it wasn't going to drain the wash water any more. After it got tweaked by the mechanic, it drained the washer--but then it started forgetting to go to the spin cycle unless we reminded it. In spite of these quirks, it's a good little washer, and Karel and I haven't seriously considered replacing it.

Nor have we seriously considered getting a dryer. First of all, there simply isn't any room in our apartment for one. But secondly, it is amazing how much laundry can be accommodated on two drying racks, two indoor clotheslines, and the balony rail. Since we "only" do up to five loads a week (like I said, a "good little washer")--what with sheets, towels, and all the rags that get used in cleaning the place--everything fits and everything gets dry within a day or two.

The downside, of course, is that we're almost constantly doing laundry. This is especially an issue when I HATE DOING LAUNDRY. It's not the washing or the hanging or even the taking down--it's the specific task of sorting and making sure my socks don't end up in his bin. Yes, we steal each other's socks anyway, but it's the principle of the matter that counts. Not even craptastic TV like Hart tegen Hard can ease the pain.

And the weirdest thing is, it doesn't even take all that long to do. Fifteen minutes, twenty if I'm having a hard time scrounging up stray hangers--tops. It's over so quickly that I swear I spend more time resisting the laundry than doing it. Kinda like I am now.

So, Internet, what are the jobs you have to do all the time, that shouldn't bother you as much as it does?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Invisible Forces

Here's a little shout-out to the people of Occupy Wall Street. Yes, the math is a little wrong (but "We are 67%" doesn't sound quite as nice) and all you right wingers can despair at the disappearance of good ol' self-reliance (while collecting Social Security). I don't know what they stand for--neither does anybody else--but whatever it is, it's not the current system. Unlike the London "street revolutions", which began with a legitimate reason and then descended into chaos and mayhem, the OWS had to earn its legitimacy in the eyes of the public, and as such, it will not fade so easily.

Ayn Rand--and yes, I've read both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged--might have thought that venture capitalists could remake the world if it weren't for nosy bureaucrats and that nebulous feeling of compassion. In her simplistic view, businessmen/-women were honest and fair. As anybody who's ever had to so much as return a faulty item should know, in reality, they are anything but. But incorrect conjectures aside, venture capitalists can't remake the world without the little people a)buying their products or b) working to make them. So really, making sure that you're not screwing over the middle class is a good thing.

In the forest, the mycelia that grow in the forest are largely ignored because they just blend in so well with everything else. But they are actually one of the most critical components to the health of the forest, and they are more pervasive than most people realize. For every single mushroom that you see on the forest floor, there is a network of root-like tendrils (hyphae) that can be anywhere from a few square meters to a few square kilometers in width and depth. These powerhouses of the ecosystem basically decompose anything that sits in the soil long enough--thus playing a critical role in keeping the forest alive...or killing it entirely.

In Western democracies, we like to believe that people have the power--after all, they vote for candidates to represent them in the government, and they trust that the government will serve their needs (I guess this makes JFK a Republican, then). It's kind of awe-inspiring to be able to watch them as they take it.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


Every now and again I get into a discussion with my sister or mother about the relative benefits of socialism (the Netherlands) versus the insane clown posse that is the US at this moment. It is a peculiarity of the Dutch that, while a lot of things are regulated (i.e., setting out your trash), because everybody does them at the same time, it doesn't feel like it's regulated. The flippant part of me says, "It's the hive mind at work," but on the other hand it's probably the main reason why the Dutch stand for as many regulations as they do.

Something that is common in Europe and the rest of the world, then, is to regulate the advertisements directed at kids, most especially for unhealthy foods. It seems like a common-sensical health measure: the less kids want sugary/fatty/salty foods, the less they'll eat, and the healthier they are. This is not the case in the US, as the film makes clear: and consequently kids grow up with an emotional attachment to a particular brand, basically guaranteeing a customer for life.

In the Netherlands, then, most food ads are geared at adults, and feature relatively healthy food: stamppot met worst, soups, or pasta. TV spots for foods like sweet breakfast cereal are nonexistent--the sole exception is the Nutella spot, but I don't think I've ever encountered a Dutch breakfast spread that included Nutella. It seems to be eaten at every other time of day except breakfast....And of course, you have McDonald's and Burger King ads. But I don't think you could escape those, unless you moved to Patagonia.

The ubiquity of tall skinny Dutch people would seem to indicate that these measures work. But on the other hand, Dutch food culture is extremely zuinig: breakfast is a slice or two of bread-and-something, with coffee, or a small cup of milk or juice. Lunch is a sandwich, and maybe a cup of soup if you're feeling very decadent. More typically, it's a sandwich with an apple or an orange. Dinner will include a starch and a protein and a vegetable--there may be a glass of wine or a beer, but dessert isn't typical.

So, which is the deciding factor in the battle against the bulge in the Netherlands? Culture, or law? It's hard to say, really. But it's easy--a little too easy, so easy I don't really believe it myself--to point at the US and say that that's what happens to people when they have neither.

Friday, October 7, 2011


Confessions of a blogger:

I rarely know what I'm going to write about before I sit down at the computer and bang out a post. This makes looking for photos (I have about 2000 of them on our hard drive) quite interesting. It also means that, now that my Dutch classes have started, my previous blogging semi-schedule is totally f*cked. It's not that the classes take up so much more time, as it is that my life at home is...let's call it "erratic" and leave it at that.

Ergo, there will probably be another week of putzing about while I try to figure out a writing schedule around my job and my Dutch classes, while I put together my NaNoWriMo 2011 plot plan, and do all of the brainwork involved in managing our household on a shoestring budget. All that, and not having to wake up at 5:00 am. Or going to bed at midnight.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Cone cabbage

Right around this time of year, the first of the winter vegetables comes trawling in. The Brussels sprout, the beets, the winterpeen (carrots you can build houses out of), the first pompoen (don't be fooled--pompoen are not pumpkins). It's always a bit sad, to taste the last of the tomatoes--they never taste quite as lovely as they do at the height of summer, and are fit only for sauce. And nothing reminds you of how dreary the winter can be like boiled cabbage.

The spitskool is an early cabbage, and despite its phenomenally pointy shape, it tastes much the same as any other cabbage, although the pointy end does allow you to get more tender leaf per plant than you'd typically get out of their normal, round counterpart. Needless to say, this is a favorite of the Dutch for precisely that reason.

Whatever possessed me to put a spitskool on the shopping list this week, though, is a mystery. The C1000 flyer has 10 produce items on sale for €1 per unit every week, so there was no reason to fixate on getting cabbage. Given what horrors my mother used to visit upon me in the form of cooked cabbage, it's a wonder that I ventured to tackle it at all. At any rate, it went on my list and Karel, who did the shopping this week, dutifully bought it and put it away in the fridge, where it proceeded to loom at me and laugh at my naivete for two days: who did I think I was, to try to make a cabbage taste--well, like anything?

Unlike my mackerel fiasco, I had looked up a few recipes for spitskool before this weekend, and even picked out a recipe to follow. Still, as the hour drew near for cooking it, I began to entertain grave doubts about the palatability of the recipe. It was, at its essence, fried cabbage, flavored with curry. And as much as I love simple foods, it just seemed a bit too simple for Karel.

So I set about complicating the recipe: I made a roux flavored with a few spices, chopped some onions, and cooked them in the roux until they were translucent. Added the chopped cabbage, and poured in some vegetable broth (I cheat, and use bouillon cubes). Returned it to a boil, let the cabbage cook until just-tender, and then took out my portion. To Karel's, I added ham cubes. It was a very homey dish, in the end--the liquid ended up being almost like a gravy, which was just as well since I'd also made mashed potatoes. Not particularly daring in any way, but neither did it bring back the terrible cabbage-memories of my youth.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Pen 15 Club

This probably dates me in a way that ought to be embarrassing, but when I was a little kid, the height of scandal and humor was to ask someone if they wanted to be a member of the "Pen 15 Club". It didn't take much imagination, even at six years old, to realize that if you write "Pen 15" really close together, it's quite a dirty word (to a six-year-old, anyway) and therefore it was hilarious to write it on your hand in permament marker. Of course, merely being six years old and having a permanent marker was enough to make you cool.

I have a weakness for good pens, especially rollerball pens with a point of 0.5 mm or less. Although I do a lot of my writing on a keyboard, my (paying) job requires me to keep a lab notebook. And because I remain too poor for an iPad, pen and ink and dead trees will have to do for me. There aren't that many rules for keeping a lab journal, but just about everybody everywhere insists on writing in ink.

In any event, one of the things that has plagued me to distraction ever since I moved here is that it's hard to find a decent gel ink pen anywhere. Why a gel ink pen? Because the ink stays put, come hell or high water--and high water is a very real possibility in a lab.

Although corporations have access to the likes of Staples, the little people are reliant on the office supply sections of department stores like the V&D or the HEMA. For the most part, their selections are pretty good, although the Dutch preference for a two- or 23-ring binder continues to flummox me. Cheap ballpoints are sold by the box, while sligtly-nicer-but-still-cheap gel pens are sold individually.

My main issue with the pens available in this country, though, is not that they are expensive, or even their relative unavailability. As a non-hooking lefty, any pen I use will stuck when I push the point along, but the problem seems worse here than it did in the States. I hate writing with a ballpoint--the ink never flows nicely out of those, even for righties. Furthermore, the ink that comes from a fat point (0.7 mm) never dries before my hand comes along and smears it. And wouldn't you know--gel ink pens are only sold with 0.7 mm points.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Weekend Silliness

While checking out Breigh's blog at Canadutch, I came upon an entry from a few days ago that was something along the lines of "You know you've been living in the Netherlands for too long when..." It was mildly amusing, but as it was plainly posted by a bunch of semi-drunk 19-year-olds on their first study-abroad trip, only a few of the 100 points listed actually applied to people who really have been here for too long. Mark Twain's snide remark about experts being people who've lived somewhere for two days or twenty years clearly applies here.

In any case, you (really) know you've been living in the Netherlands for too long when/if...

1. You covet (or own) a bike made by Gazelle
2. You swear with "Godverdomme" instead of "f*ck"
3. Lunch without a sandwich feels incomplete
4. You no longer need to improvise with dinner on Sundays
5. Frites zonder feels empty and sad
6. You have a favorite stroopwafel vendor
7. "Parking" refers to bike rack space
8. You feel vaguely guilty for skipping a day of housekeeping
9. Tipping is no longer second-nature
10. You know to avoid kroketten and go for the frikandel
11. You know how to eat a tompouce
12. You know what a tompouce is
13. You've gone out wearing leggings-and-boots, or t-shirt-and-blazer
14. You know more about Willem and Maxima than you do Sasha and Malia
15. There are more than one pair of huis sokken in your sock drawer
16. You write time in a 24-hour system, and dates day-month-year (Americans only, this)
17. A "good" lunch means Cup-a-soup...Special
18. You have a favorite apple--bonus if it's Elstar
19. You have a recipe for pea soup (conditional, upon inclusion of vetspek)
20. You have ever bought something off
21. You have ever sold something on marktplaats
22. You start getting prepositions confused
23. Your weekly dinner menu includes "meat/veggie/potatoes" more than once. Bonus points if it gets mashed together into stamppot.
24. You have a scarf for every season (men, too!)
25. Nordic walking is a sport
26. Life without an electric kettle is unimaginable
27. "Watching sports" includes speed skating, darts, and dressage
28. The year 1953 explains everything
29. You still pull the door even though the sign says "Duwen"
30. You shop at a store that's been going out of business for years
31. You've ever used "the NS was late" as an excuse
32. You despise Geert Wilders
33. Keeping an orchid is a tour de triomphe
34. The need for consensus begins to outweigh any sense of urgency
35. A sales rep sold you a better deal than what you'd originally wanted
36. An empty day in your agenda throws you into despair
37. You have a photobook printed by the Albert Heijn
38. You are over fifty and still dying your hair
39. You never go into town on Queen's Day
40. You have an orange vuvuzela
41. You make visiting friends try Hollandse Nieuwe even if you don't like it yourself
42. When you see someone buying magere melk, you think they're American
43. You know where the hotel bought their furniture from
44. You can tell the difference between Dutch, Limburgse, and Fresian
45. You know where to find baking soda
46. You have a shopper
47. The thrift store owner knows you on sight
48. You get a free sample of 0.0% beer because it's free, even if you hate the stuff
49. You have a bag hanging by the door for shopping with
50. You never leave home without an umbrella

Day of Cats

The Netherlands has the fewest national holidays of most of the countries in the EU, so while Americans may grumble and roll their eyes at the luxurious holiday benefits most workplaces offer, you need to remember that there is no Martin Luther King Junior Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, or Thanksgiving. And not to mention the host of other lesser holidays--Presidents Day, Valentine's, Halloween, St, Patrick's, etc. None of these get so much as a token observance here, except via the seasonal decorative kitsch that appears in the Blokker.

 But there is one international holiday that is routinely noted, if not observed: Dierendag, or World Animal Day, as it's officially called. It falls on 4 October every year, the day of Saint Francis of Assisi (yes, the guy with all those cats). It's supposed to be a day to appreciate what animals do for us, and consequently it's no surprise that it's virtually unknown in the US.

 In the sixty-odd years that it's been celebrated in the Netherlands, Dierendag has lost its religious connection to St. Francis and gained a host of animal rights activism that tags along with any sort of "thinking about animals". On academic campus centers with animal facilities, picketers will demonstrate their opposition to animal research, and you might even get a few crazy souls preaching the virtues of a vegetarian diet. For clarification: the Dutch don't eat much meat compared to the quantities that are common in US restaurants (nobody would order a triple-burger, for instance), but they would never think about eliminating it from their diets entirely.

 It's also evolved into a day where you spoil your pet, and to make that task easier, the pet stores all have their sale-of-the-year during this time. The flyers for Dierendag appeared in our weekly junk mail assortment this week (and yes, we do go through our junk mail, because you never know when kitty litter and cat food will go on sale). Yesterday, having learned that it's a bad idea to try to haul 2/3 of your own weight in kitty litter on a bike, I took our little trusty shopper and walked to the Intratuin, with the intent of getting 40 kg (that's 88 lbs) of cat litter.

 Imagine my shock, then, to see the store getting outfitted for Christmas. Now, the kruidnoten and pepernoten (seasonal, spicy cookies) are always out early, so it didn't surprise me to see them at the grocery stores. But the Intratuin--where we get our Christmas tree ornaments--was setting up a full-sized carousel, taking down the deck chairs, and putting up Christmas ornaments. In September. Dutch culture purists can't blame the US for this one--Christmas doesn't start until Halloween.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Coffee and Tea

Tiffany Jansen at Clogs and Tulips posted this funny little anecdote about coffee time in the Netherlands. Everybody knows that coffee time is between 10:00 and 10:30. Afternoon tea in the Netherlands is a less well-studied pheonomena, and is likewise a little less rigid in its timing--it can begin between 3:00-3:15. And contrary to the names "koffie en thee", you can have tea during coffee and coffee during tea.

In academia, coffee and tea are practically mandatory, and bosses have been known to make attendance required if too many people skip too many breaks in a row. Experiments are planned around these time slots. They are typically situated like circle parties, where everybody sits around a table, if there is one--if there isn't, then all of the chairs end up in a circle anyway. Some places have a fancy coffee machine where you can push a button and your desired mix of coffee, sugar, hot chocolate, milk, and hot water come out. Others have a rotating roster of names of people who make up a large pot of coffee and tea and have it set up ahead of time. Most people bring something to nibble on--that isn't as mandatory as showing up and having a drink, but coffee alone can be unsettling to your stomach. Favorites of the Dutch are cookie/biscuit pack or a slice of ontbijtkoek. Personally, I prefer to make a Cup-a-Soup--it's still drinking, at least....

At first (and I mean way back when I was working in Leiden) I thought all of these breaks were silly and irritating, though that was because I was also commuting four hours a day. When you commute four hours a day, you learn to cut everything extraneous out of your life so that you can make the train home. (I did attend more-than-half of them, but that was only after I got good at scheduling my experiments) In Maastricht, I took breaks, but they were random--a combination of when I felt like it and when I had time, since I was the only member of the group for a while. And they could always be interrupted by a random emergency.

So it's only now that I've begun to appreciate the nice division of the day that coffee and tea allow: early morning to get organized, late morning for prep work. Lunch--another quasi-mandatory thing. Early afternoon for the hard work. Late afternoon for the number-crunching. least, that's what people say labs should run like...

And to be quite honest, I like that there's a set break in the day. Sometimes it comes too soon, sometimes it feels like it's an eternity away. But having it forces you to take a step back from what you've been doing, clears your head, lets you enquire after someone else's opinion.

Now, if all our world leaders would do that, then maybe the world would be a better place. Or else the conspiracy theorists are right, and Beatrix does, in fact, rule the world.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

My Country, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong...?

It used to be that I could tell the international people I worked with that while the politicians and government of the US government were the spawns of Satan, the people--your Average Janes and Joes--were really very decent and nice. And at the very least, they'd have the manners to quietly escort you to the door and send you on your way without an ass-whomping. Not that there weren't any jerks, but they were mostly relegated to late-night Fox News where nobody cared how many times they used the N-word.

Karel likes to say that the facade of humanity lasts only three square meals. I prefer to give humanity a little more credit than that (I say 5), but lately the news hasn't been inspiring. I can chalk up a lot of what people like Rick Perry have been saying about the state of the US government to pandering to a rich and elitist mob that's sick of being "raked over the coals" with taxes (ah ha ha). The short version is that the Tea Baggers (right-of-Republican whackos who have no idea just what the government actually does for them and therefore think nothing of dismantling the entire institution altogether) want to dismantle the entire US social safety net--what the US has of one--and let people pull themselves up by the bootstraps, or die in the gutters. And yes, this includes women, who would be completely screwed over if institutions like Planned Parenthood were to get the ax, and children.

History comes and goes in circles: a look back at the history of the US and the industrialized west shows that, in the days before unions and social welfare, there was poverty of the level we'd associate with Third World countries, child labor, and horrific working conditions for the masses while the elitist few reaped the rewards. The only middle class were the farmers, and that's pretty much a lost cause in this day since only 2% of the American workforce work in agriculture. The issues were rampant--justice by lynch mob in the South, typhoid and cholera in the large industrial cities, and food companies selling chemical impersonations of edible food.

That is, apparently, the state to which the happy mobs want the US to return to, because every time someone like Ron Paul gets up and spouts his rant against "Obamacare", everybody applauds. I bonk my head to the desk: What are the other options, then? Either everybody must buy health insurance or suffer a fine, or the responsible ones that do buy health insurance pay to subsidize care for the ones that don't. Or else you let the sucker die in the street. When the last option was mentioned, the crowd applauded.

If I were the president, I'd be sorely tempted to just cut off all government aid and access to people who participate in Tea Party rallies: can't drive on the Interstate, no more screening in airports, no help for you if your box of frozen pizza makes you sick, no treatment for you anywhere if you don't have health insurance, no unemployment checks, no disability checks, etc. You know, the whole "never knowing what you've got 'til it's gone". Then again, there's a reason why Obama is president and not me. I just hope that people recover their sense of compassion in 2012--I really do want to miss home, but that's getting harder and harder to do.

EDIT: Believe it or not, it gets worse. The crowd booed a gay soldier during another inane debate (and if you want a real puzzle to keep your logic center busy, riddle me this: if Rick Santorum says sexual orientation doesn't matter, then why is he so worked up--into a frothy mix--over the end of Don't Ask Don't Tell?). I sometimes feel like I'm in a dysfunctional relationship: I want to love my country, but she just makes it so damn hard.

Friday, September 16, 2011


I'm back to being a working stiff again, much to my relief--for a while I was afraid I was going to have to convince the Albert Heijn that I'm a barely-literate teenager (which I could probably pull off, given my terrible Dutch and deceptively young appearance) so that I could pay off my student loans. As it is, I found a job after much time and have been quite busy these past few days, between rediscovering Leonard Mlodinow's The Drunkard's Walk and working out a new rhythm to my days.

The greatest luxury for me these days is being able to step out the door and walk to work. It's a pleasant walk there and back again, and oddly enough, instead of tiring me out, I come home refreshed and ready for more--which is just as well, since Karel has been on the night shift this week and has been too zombified to make dinner when I get home. Luxury isn't bathing in a gold bathtub surrounded by butlers and French lovers, luxury is being able to wake up at a not-ungodly hour (6:30), coddle the cats as much as they need it, get a bit of Internet time, tidy up the kitchen, and still get to work on time. Luxury is working at a job that suits both your skill set and your personality.

Or I could have been working at Leiden and Maastricht for too long.

Yeah. That's probably it. But having the energy left at the end of the day to tackle a few pages of my novel still beats the pants off having a butler.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

" ain't juicy!"

The title comes from a Jeff Foxworthy skit in the series "You know you're a redneck when...." What, my international readers may ask, is a redneck? Hard to say, actually--it's more of a mentality. Sort of the way being Dutch is, except without the culture, the history, the engineering know-how, penchant for cleanliness, and prudence of almost 500 years of Reformed Church-ness. Offhand, I'd say anybody who likes barbecued opossum is a redneck, but that would be insulting the indignous tribes in weird countries that actually eat those funny animals.

I've never been much of a juice drinker--I like coffee in the mornings, tea in the afternoons, and a cold white with dinner (assuming, that is, we're eating something that should be accompanied by white wine). Occasionally I have a jones for Diet Coke, but basically I'm just not a fan of sugary drinks. I do buy lots of fruit drinks, though, because Karel likes them. But even most juices contain more sugar than I like, which is why it took me so long to realize that there is a difference, between fruit juices and fruit drinks:

In short, fruit juices are found in the produce section of supermarkets, while fruit drinks are found in the aisles next to or around the soda/wine. Even though both are nominally chock full of vitamins (nuts? only smoothies), a juice typically denotes something fresh-squeezed and threatening to go south if not consumed immediately. Next to the juices, you'll also find what Europeans call "smoothies". I'll grant you that they're better than that soured-yogurt concoction the barista at the Selexyz tried to serve me, but I also believe that the whole point of imbibing a liquid is to get more of the liquid inside you than is stuck to the sides of the flask.

A fruit drink, on the other hand, can be bought in large quantities with impunity, and stored away in your pantry for weeks--months, even. They sit in their TetraPak cartons and wait until Karel puts one in the fridge--two if we're having guests. I buy them whenever they go on sale, but they are a pain in the @$$ to lug home.

Fruit drinks, in turn, are a derivative of syrup mixes that used to be popular back in the day, when Karel was a little kid--thick fruit syrups (or thin jellies) that came in huge jars, and you'd add a spoonful to a glass and then add water to it. These are easier to carry, which explaines their popularity in families of Karel's generation. This, in essence, was the equivalent of Kool-Aid to kids--it remains debateable whether Roos Vicee is really as healthy as it says it is, but at least they didn't have a creepy pitcher mascot. These syrups are still sold, but given the popularity of the boxed drinks, it seems as though the trouble of adding water is a bit much.

Something that I do like, though, is mixing the syrup with carbonated water, which is also sold in supermarkets. These delightful bubbly mixes make the most amazing sodas, and even better is that you can adjust the water:syrup ratio to your own sweet tooth.

I actually like the distinction--you don't get any confusion as to which one is healthy and which one is not. Of course, we also don't have that many choices--orange juice is either pulpy or not, there's no added-calcium-vitamin-D-fortified confusion to add to your choice of juice. Or drink.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


The Bike Shop in Philadelphia knew me as a regular. Not because I went and bought so many bikes, but because I often stopped by to pump up my tires to the recommended 80 lbs psi, and it was nice to ask them about stupid little clicks and squeals that my bike, bouncing over the potholes, would inevitably acquire. Plus they were always really nice and if the squeak only involved tightening a bolt or putting a smidge of grease on it, they didn't charge me for it. If it ever did need more extensive repairs, they'd always tell me how much it'd cost beforehand. I eventually ended up buying a book on how to "wrench" bikes, as bike maintenance is so presumptuously called by the author, and doing the basic maintenance myself (I don't remember the name of the book, alas, only that it was yellow and the guy on the cover was not Langley).

In the Netherlands, though, if you set foot in a bike shop, you're going to be out at least €10--that's the minimum that places charge for a repair, no matter how small. Dutch name-brand bikes (Gazelle in particular, though Batavus is also popular) are built like tanks, and in combination with the generally-well-maintained roads, they can be ridden until the paint falls off and the tread is completely worn away--and they'll still work. If for some reason you have to drop by a repair shop, it'll be the last time they'll ever see you for a few years. I've had more flats in six months in Philadelphia than I've had in my entire time in the Netherlands--and none at all with my current bike, which is now entering the second year of my ownership. I'll grant you that at first I didn't know how to change a flat properly, but even when I did, Philly streets apparently eat tires for breakfast. Flat tires are the one repair that, for my sanity, I'll always get done by a pro.

Bike shops are everywhere in the Netherlands, and most of them are reasonably priced for their repairs, although most of them also make you wait a few days or maybe a week or two to get your bike back. If it's a fast repair you need, then take it to the bike shops that are associated with major train stations--they'll get you sorted out in a jiffy. Unlike regular shops, those bike shops are required to be open as long as the trains are running, and they've never made me wait longer than the next day to pick up my bike. Of course, they also charge a premium for speedy service, but being without a bike in the Netherlands is like being without a hand, and in my mind, well worth the €20 fee.

The other major blow to my cycling self-sufficiency in the Netherlands is the fact that all of the bikes I've ever owned (I'm on my fourth, which I have yet to ride to the point of breakage--which is why you never spend less than €200 on a bike) have a gear cover. Most bikes have their gears encased in a plastic shell--a necessity to keep the chains from rotting out from under you in a rainy climate, when most people store their bikes outdoors. The shells are not one seamless lump of plastic, formed over the gears. They just look that way--and for that reason, their dissection is best left to the experts. I love being able to ride a bike without grease stains too much to randomly tinker with that.

Still, the Metro reported a while ago that the number of bike mechanics was steadily dropping, saying that the old-timers were dying or retiring and the young blood just wasn't there--not enough interest. I find that hard to believe, especially given the demand in the Netherlands. Sure, it may not be difficult to do, but there's nothing like three-day-old grease stains embedded in your skin to make you reconsider reaching for your wrench. Unless you're like me, and like that sort of stuff.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Just Blend

In many ways, you can view this blog and all of its entries as "things NOT to do when you're in the Netherlands". Recipes for scrumptious asparagus aside, the things I should have done but didn't and should not have but did are worthy of a Loreena McKennit dirge. It's not that I'm lax about following rules--to the contrary, I plan our weekly meals out well in advance and recently acquired a white board, which I marked up with permanent marker, in order to plot out a schedule of things to do when and where and with whom. However, I am also terribly lazy about researching things in advance--I blame my career choice, which is technically as a scientist. Research, to my mind, is something you do before you write papers, and not before meeting someone for drinks, even if it is your first borreltje.

The hive mind of the Dutch is something that I've alluded to several times--that inborn ability to know when it's coffee time (10-11), to set out your trash next to the one pole but not the other, and to get a twinge of nostalgia when you see games like "Ganzenbord", even if you've never played it before. Anthropologists call it "culture", but the level of indoctrination runs so deep that if the queen of the hive mind (not necessarily Beatrix) were to croak tomorrow, the chaos (inasmuch as the Dutch are able to withstand it) would be catastrophic. Trains would be delayed, and buses would be dirty--oh noes!

All joking aside, I am a terrible conformist. Oh, I'm more than happy to play along and be a good little Dutchie for a little while, until I get bored. That's when trouble--or rather, inspiration--begins:

Most people assume that I would be biking to my new job, which is a fair assumption, seeing as how it's 2 km away by Google Earth(that's a little over a mile for my American readers). The idea that I would have the audacity to walk that distance, on the other hand, was apparently novel enough that I found myself repeating that intention over and over yesterday, when I met my new colleagues for the first time. It's a twenty-minute walk--not a bad distance, and the neighborhood isn't dangerous, although it is true that I'd say that about any neighborhood that's not North Philly--working in and riding through a notoriously bad neighborhood dramatically skews your perception of what's dangerous. My mother would probably have a fit if she knew I was walking anywhere in the dark.

I suppose it was just as well that I didn't mention my real intention to the inquisitive multitudes, which involves in-line skates and taking advantage of the satin-esque, well-groomed and substantial bike paths between my new workplace and our apartment. It really would be very nice--the paths get enough traffic that they're mostly clear of debris, and the one path stops almost at the door of the very building I'd be working in. I did finally get myself a pair of in-line skates, fulfilling a four-year itch for Rollerblading action, and though it took me a little while to work out how tight everything needed to be and get my skating legs back, I'm at that point where I could realistically go to work on eight wheels instead of two.

But there's a difference between intent and action, and odds are I'd probably do all three--ride on the days when I need to pick up more Tweeb food (hooray for panniers), skate on the days when I have Dutch lessons in the evening, walk on the days when I don't. After all, a life of not-conforming can be boring as well--although given that NaNoWriMo is fast approaching, the extra bit of inspiration might not be a bad thing....