Saturday, January 29, 2011

Jar Hoarders


If you were to come to our apartment, you'd notice that we have a ton of glass jars in all shapes and sizes, from the miniscule ones that capers come in, to the valu-sized peanut-butter jars. Especially prized are jars with the push-button lids, because when Karel makes jelly, he needs to have lids that can withstand boiling and baking. A few years ago, he decided to try brewing mead, and bought a ton of el-cheapo supermarket-brand honey. The mead was good, if young, and the jars now make up our incredibly-f*cking-awesome spice/herb rack.

There are two rather disturbing things about this: one is that we did actually consume that much peanut butter. Granted, it was over the course of two years, but it's still a TON of peanut butter. The second is that we do actually use the jars over and over and over again. We use them to store food, mostly--nuts, raisins, yeast, leftovers, pesto, stocks, etc. When Karel decides to make jam, he picks through our collection of glassware. When there's a spider that needs to be disposed of, it goes in a jar. Pens and pencils and matches--in a jar. Hardly a week goes by when we don't have a jar getting its label soaked off in the Perpetual Bucket.

In spite of the obviously frugal nature of the exercise, hoarding jars is not a particularly Dutch thing to do. It really just comes down to the fact that we find them so incredibly handy--as long as you don't fill it up all the way, leftovers can be frozen and instantly reheated in the microwave--and since they're practically free, why not?

I think this year we'll be starting up some summer plants again--I want to try planting courgettes and tomatoes again. A couple years ago I started getting lazy with the fertilizer, which wasn't good, and I've learned a few tricks or three about pH. Take a guess as to what I'll be starting the plants in... :-)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Organizing time


Every year at around this time, agendas go on sale at a deep discount, at least 50% or more. This is, of course, when my parsimonious self goes shopping for such things. I've realized that I like the idea of being organized more than actually being organized, but so far that hasn't stopped me from buying a cheap agenda every year.

I've experimented with different ways to stay organized in the past. I've tried marking up wall calenders, but always run out of space with those little squares. I've tried using appointment-book type agendas, but inevitably run out of room. Google Agenda is nice--I don't run out of room, but I can't see my to-do list at the same time, unless I've got my iGoogle page up, but even that's only a partial list. While I'm a fan of the ability to schedule things repeatedly in electronic agendas, I'm not a fan of the fact that I can't scribble on them.

Scribbles and to-do lists are the nexus of my life, the things around which order is established, so it's already hard to find agendas that leave adequate room to scribble and ponder and list. Add to this the fact that I organize things by project rather than by type of activity--i.e., I've got three freelance writing projects going on now, with three different goals for each this week, so rather than "writing" I'll put down "work on XXXXX" and "draft YYYY".

Fortunately, the Dutch seem to be equally compulsive about organizing things, and one of the godsends that I've discovered are the familie agendas. These agendas have space for each person in the family under one date. The one I bought yesterday has one week spread across two pages, so I can see the entire week when it's opened. It also has a space at the end of the week, for notes.

You're supposed to put down "Mam" and "Pop" and "Saskia" and "Jeroen" (or whatever you've named your kids) at the front of the week, and "voetbal" or "ballet" underneath the days of the week when that activity is supposed to take place. However, it works really well if you have separate projects, and it helps you break down your goals of the week into manageable pieces.

It's weird that there aren't more agendas like this. I know I can't be the only one who organizes her life by project.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Bit of a bind

Wood, Metal, Rope

I mentioned something at the start of this year about how 2010 sucked, on a personal and a professional level. I'm now at a point where things could go either way, in both my personal and professional life, and I need to make a major decision.

Everybody around me says that I should do what makes me happy. But a huge part of what makes me happy is...making those around me happy. And when some people want me to do one thing, and other people want me to do the other, well...and that's not even approaching the real source of my angst: my parents.

A huge part of--if not the entirety of--who I am is invested in what my parents have decided I should be. An equally huge part of who I am is invested in rebelling against their strictures--a typical response, I would argue, to any rules maniacally applied. My quandary, then, is whether I am basing the decision not on what I want to do, but on how much it'll piss them off.

It doesn't get easier to dissect myself of my past, even if I am 3000 miles away and immersed in a different culture. If anything, it only gets harder, because when you're so far away from where you came from, who you are--that odd composition of your experiences and feelings a lifetime ago--is the only determinant of where you're going.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Where "hamster" is a verb

Sometimes I have to wonder how obesity isn't that much of an issue in the Netherlands. I mean, yes, expanding waistlines are a problem--supposedly 1 in 3 Dutch people weigh more than they should, but obesity, by an American standard, is rare.

I just got back from grocery shopping, and the Albert Heijn is in the middle of a "Hamster Weken" campaign, an annual sales event where things are ridiculously discounted in order to convince people to buy more and spend more money overall. In Dutch, the word hamster is also a verb, meaning "to hoard". Presumably this used to be a prudent measure back in the day when, at any moment, a maurading horde might come running through your fields and destroy everything.

It really is remarkable, though, how inexpensive food is in the Netherlands. I mean, out-of-season fresh produce always costs an arm and a leg, but in-season produce can be so ridiculously inexpensive that sometimes I wonder why they even bother charging any money at all. I got two liters of fruit-flavored milk for €1, or fifty cents each. You can't even get normal milk for that little. And yes, I caved to my eternal Brussels sprouts near-fetish and bought (yet another, Karel is groaning) a bag--but at fifty cents, I don't think even he could have resisted.

The limiting factor, I think, for a lot of people (I'd guess about half) is that they need to carry their groceries home. I typically walk to the Albert Heijn--when I had my bike, I'd bike there, but biking with a ton of groceries is quite precarious, so it wasn't smart to load up for the week. On Saturday mornings, the streets of our neighborhood come alive with people carrying wadded-up shopping bags, strolling to the C1000 across the street (where I usually do most of my shopping). Most people have cars, but when it's not that much of a walk, and when parking is hard to find, it's simply not worth the trouble.

I have to wonder: how long can these sorts of prices last? And what will happen when they stop?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

French cooking Dutch vegetables: the perfect sprout

Produce stand II

My boyfriend has snitched the copy of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking that was given to us this Christmas for his train-reading. I find it funny, almost, because we can't afford half of the meats that are listed, and even if we could, I don't eat any of it. Plus, in spite of all my insisting to the contrary, he maintains that vegetables are more difficult to cook, and so will never use a good third of the book.

Personally, I never believed that. But then again, I also find baking easy, but apparently that flummoxes most people, too.

Vegetables are all about timing, just like baking is all about measuring. Julia Child's book likes blanching, where you boil the vegetable until just-cooked and then dump it into a bunch of cold water. It works really well, and the vegetables keep their amazing shade of just-done-to-perfection green for days on end. I did this to a whole package of Brussels sprouts on a Monday a few weeks ago and they were still green on Thursday.

I'm a bit of a Brussles sprout fiend--I've been known to eat a whole package in a single sitting (I think I was craving fiber). I love them so much that I have to consciously not buy them on the weekends, lest I bore my boyfriend to death. I like them fried in a pan, but if your significant other is like my boyfriend and deathly allergic to anything so heretical, here is the recipe for the perfect Brussels sprout, cooked the Dutch way, to a French standard:

  • Brussels sprouts, trimmed: hack off the bottom, and score a cross into the bottom of the sprout. This is so that the hot water can get into the center. Personally, I've never known this to make the least bit of difference, but we're going for authentic-fusion-icity, here, so the little X it is.
  • 1 pot of boiling water, a bit over 2 liters for 500 grams of sprouts. Americans: that's a little over a half gallon per pound. You can use a lot more water, but not a lot less, because what you want is a rapid return to boiling, because that's when the sprouts are cooking.
  • Dump sprouts in the water, and return to boiling, for 8-9 minutes.
  • Drain and immerse in cold water. When they've cooled, let them drain and dry. Julia Child says that you should spread them out on a sheet to dry. I think that's a little excessive.
Now, at this point, you have a bunch of cold, sprouts. Heat up some butter in a pan, and toss the sprouts in and warm them up, and if you're going for all-out Dutch-ness, a sprinkle of nutmeg. Otherwise, salt-and-pepper to taste.

But the point is, do not try to keep the cooked sprouts warm. Reheat them--even in a microwave, if it comes to that--just before serving. This is why blanching works so well when you're only cooking for one and have vegetables for five.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Writing what you love

And now back to your regularly scheduled blogging:


I love Maastricht. I love the cosmopolitan density: it's a very small city, yet it feels like something much bigger. I love the smells of good food that float out of the shops, I love ogling the dresses in the shops, and I love watching the people--I don't mean that in a creepy, "I'm stalking you" way. The people of Maastricht are just more at ease with themselves, and it's infectious to the point where, if you spend any amount of time here (long enough to get to know the place, but before the bureaucracy annoys the living f*ck out of you), you'll just be happy.

By the same token, I hate Amsterdam. It began as an indifference, but now I actively dislike the city, mostly because of the tackiness of the red light district, and the tourist-y areas that are so over-the-top tourist-y that you can't help but feel like you're walking through a rather sinister version of Disneyworld. All that's needed, really, is for a couple of people dressed up as giant rats to pop out with swords and rob you. Actually, they already do....

But my feelings about these cities really make themselves loud and clear in terms of the quality of the tours that I've written for them. My Maastricht tour is carefully crafted, striking that delicate balance between informative and informal, with a bit of snarky humor. My Amsterdam tour is also informal, but I couldn't bring myself to research to the level that I managed for Maastricht. I feel rushed when I read back over the Amsterdam tour, a feeling that I get when I think about Amsterdam. I certainly feel that the quality of the writing is different--not in terms of the quality of the information, but the feeling that a reader should get--and I marvel that my feelings for the two cities should be so transparent in writing that should have no room for such things.

Writers, I think, engage in a most intimate exchange, more so than any other form of expression, save music. Stephen King calls writing a form of "telepathy"--and in writing one literally dictates the emotions the reader has. Done well, and the reader will bawl when you weep and laugh when you smile. Done poorly, and you get dismissed as a hack. Your readers will know your thoughts and feelings--and it doesn't matter how you try to hide them. When you're putting it all out there, there's no way to hold anything back.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Calling all expats!

I've been cheating--on my day job. I've been moonlighting as a tour writer for a small publishing startup called Rama. They are in the business of producing walking tours that can be downloaded onto your iPhone (for now, later they will probably expand). These aren't just your average, ho-hum "and this building here once housed seventy-five cats" sort of tours, though: they take you on a historical reminiscence about the place, with photographs of what once was.

If you're interested in writing a tour, please please PLEASE get back to me. Compensation is financial--50% of the price, after Apple takes their cut, and you get to say how much it will cost.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Meet the Boyfriend


I figured it was high time to introduce the man of my life to the rest of you, since he's a regular feature in my blog posts, as well as in my photos. No, I don't mean the FatBoy.

Karel and I met oh-dear-God-has-it-been ten years ago, in the United States. He'd come over for six months to finish a research project, and I had a summer job in the same lab. We bonded over Star Wars and our mutual desire to see Jar Jar Binks dissolve into a million green globs of intestinal goop.

He's a doctor, working as a perma-resident in the intensive care unit. As such, he's made it practically useless for me to get acquainted with the Dutch health care system--if I have an ache or a sniffle I just ask him (rather, whine to him--I know what I should be doing, but whining is fun when you're miserable) what to do.

He's not, as I've mentioned before,a typically Dutch guy. For starters, I come up to his chin, rather than to his belly button. For another, he cooks--and better than I do. And thirdly, he's about the biggest sucker for the Tweeb that I've ever met. She squawks at him, and he does her bidding. Oh, he'll try to stand her down, but we all know he's not the one wearing the pants in the relationship.

So that's the mysterious guy who haunts my photographs and makes cameos in my texts in a nutshell. He's what makes all the little rant-worthy crap that happens in my life worthwhile.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Fierce puma

Discussion of Amy Chua's book >Battle Hymn of Mother Tiger is flying fast and furious all over the web. The excerpt on the Wall Street Journal (here) is eliciting gasps of horror from just about everybody in the West, and, I can imagine, nods of approval from just about everybody in the East. I should probably toss in a disclaimer of sorts about the excerpt for my European readers, then--something about reading at your own risk, Jules will not be responsible for any deaths due to the shear weight of one's disbelief at the tactics a "Mother Tiger" uses on her kids, etc.

I've been refraining from commenting on this, because a) it's not really relevant to the blog, and b) it touches a rather raw nerve for me. My parents were the "lite" version of Amy Chua's over-the-top pursuit of perfection--our saving grace, as kids, was that they were woefully ignorant of how things actually worked and didn't have the wherewithal to look things up themselves. But the irresistable questions are: did it f*ck me up at all, and would I do the same for my kids?

As for the first question: I feel perfectly normal--your perception of me might be otherwise. I'm not sure if I would have been famous by now if I'd done a creative writing major--I'm not sure if I would have been any less miserable if I'd pursued my medical career (probably not). Would it have taken me until the age of 26 to figure out that I was fundamentally unhappy in medicine if it weren't for my parents? Probably not. But it doesn't mean that I wouldn't have done it anyway, becuase I really had no idea what else I would have done. That's the thing that people don't understand: if you embrace the identity that your parents have foisted upon you, then it is you, and there is no conflict. If you don't, then, you have issues. I didn't--but I also didn't have any idea of who I was. I'm a little slow when it comes to self-discovery.

Would I do the same for my kids? I don't have kids just yet, and plus they'd be going to Dutch schools, where the norm is to blend in and just be one of the sheep in the flock. I'm not sure about this--I mean, I want everything for them--that they be super-high achievers and popular (not impossible)--and I don't think any self-respecting parent would want any less. I'm pretty sure that I'd have to go about it a different way, though. But I'm pretty sure that my kids, if or when we have them, will have, if not a Mother Tiger, at least a Fierce Puma to contend with.

Monday, January 10, 2011

'I don't need a bed"

My brain's creative centers are currently recovering from their meltdown this weekend, so I'll leave you with a video detailing what I almost got this weekend instead:

Luckily, the Blokker had a few fleece throws left, but I cringe to think on how the electric blue would have disturbed our balanced decor...

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Risk Inflation


My mother would probably die of terror if she knew half of the stuff I get up to on this side of the Atlantic. Running off--alone (oh horrors)--to Paris was the least of it (at least I didn't book a hostel, mom): transgressions against her litany of safety include storing food questionably (yogurt isn't sealed, cooked food is kept in the refrigerator for days), working with dangerous chemicals, and perhaps worst of all, riding my bike WITHOUT a helmet.

Funny thing is, I would never-in-a-gazillion-years consider riding my bike sans helmet in Philadelphia (or Paris). The streets of Philadelphia are a place to lose yourself in more ways than one, especially if "yourself" denotes a bodily exterior free of internal viscera. Riding without a helmet in the US is, in general, suicidal. It's also illegal, but there are enough #$%^(*+!@&*=/ drivers that for once, the law is actually a good thing to follow.

But sledding? Apparently the safety officials in the US have decided that sledding is sufficiently dangerous enough to warrant pushing for laws that require kids to wear helmets in the US. I get the feeling that such a proposal would be laughed out of the Tweede Kamer. Are Americans really that paranoid or that lacking in common sense that a law needs to be passed? Are the Dutch really that much more pragmatic? Americans flaunt their personal freedoms, but the Dutch seem to be more in tune with the idea of personal responsibility.

Thoughts? It just seems so...drastic!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Screw Michael Pollan


As much as I love food, I don't like cooking. It's a messy business, for starters, and even when it succeeds in being clean, the imprecision with respect to amounts ("correct seasonings") and the need to use your own judgment about what constitutes "gently wilted" leaves me feeling curiously impotent in the face of uncertainty. I'm better at it, these days--I think even my boyfriend will agree to that--but there's a reason why my shelf in my student house is lined with Cup-a-Soups.

I used to feel vaguely guilty about them, and the fact that ramen is a more-often-than-I-care-to-admit staple of my diet. After all, say all the foodies, instant food isn't really food. You should go to the market (never mind that it's a Wednesday market in Maastricht) and buy fresh, whole vegetables from the eco-stall (actually no such thing--I'm pretty sure Dutch vegetables grow on plant 'roids) and relish its transformation (read: sweat bullets figuring out how to cut the damn thing) into something exquisite (anything is exquisite with enough truffle oil).

The Dutch supermarket is full of culinary shortcuts: packages of pre-chopped vegetables in different combinations for things like stir-fries or macaroni, whole chickens in "steaming sacks"--plastic bags that somehow don't melt in the oven, trapping in the steam as your chicken cooks. Potatoes come peeled and chopped and serving-sized. You don't even have to select your own spinach--it comes in a bag, pre-washed. Meat comes pre-marinated, and there are even such things as soup-packets, where you get a bone and a few different kinds of meat for making soup stocks.

And here's the kicker: I think these things are great. I can't help but think that the US might be eating a lot healthier if people stopped making healthy food sound so damn inaccessible and instead focused on making healthy foods easier to prepare. In my corner of the US, food deserts aren't really an issue, at least, as defined by the availability of healthy eats within a certain distance. But just being there isn't the point--eating right involves getting the food inside you, too, and when your Average Joe doesn't know a blender from a bouillabaise, let's just say that making food simple is a good thing.

Click here for an interesting essay on why fast food isn't necessarily evil--and why I no longer feel bad about all those Cup-a-Soups.

Saturday, January 1, 2011



Gelukkig Nieuw Jaar allemaal!

I'm thinking back on the last year, what I've learned, things that I've done, what we've got. It was not a good year, not personally, not professionally. There's been a lot of doubt, a lot of sacrifice, and a lot of change. In the US, the uprising of the Tea Party and the dumbing down of the general public have dropped my opinion of humanity even further. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders's ascent vaguely threatens my immigration status.

But it's hard to keep a good optimist down: the shadowy fears and doubts about the future retreat in light of the opportunity to take stock of where we are and where we're going. It can only go up from here.