Friday, April 29, 2011

Unholy Moly

Spring in the Netherlands is heralded by many things: the appearances of "Do You Believe" [in Jesus, not UFOs] posters in preparation for Easter, pollen coating every flat surface it can find, coin-sized strawberries in the market, and white asparagus.

The asparagus in this country, like leeks and carrots, are enormous. So huge, in fact, that it took me until now to work up the courage to buy them, never mind clean and cook them. I'm not afraid of most vegetables, but up until I moved to the Netherlands, asparagus were green (and occasionally purplish), no thicker than a dime, and had a funny taste (that I now know comes from undercooking them). They were not these monstrous, white abominations. And what did you do with them? My mom (to whom I owe a lot, but not what cooking skills I have) had always snapped off the rough stem end, gave them a wash in water, and saut├Ęd them. But these looked like they would break my arms if I tried that.

Here's another way my boyfriend sucks at being Dutch: he had no inkling how to slaughter and gut (let's not pretend these wouldn't eat you alive if they had a chance) one of these creatures, either. His first attempt a few years ago ended with white worms swimming in a pot of boiling water. They were deemed unedible, even for him, and we consequently resigned ourselves to a spring without white asparagus and Hollandaise sauce. Since then, I've looked upon these things with a mix of suspicion and curiosity--how does a simple vegetable flummox Karel's cooking, and what does it taste like?

I'm happy to report that they taste delicious, thanks to a certain degree of hubris on my part, Masterchef for demonstrating the proper use of an asparagus peeler, and Julia Child for pointing out just how deep the asparagus peel really goes. You need to get rid of all of the tough, fibrous layer on the outside, or else the inside will cook but the outside will stay tough, so shave away until the plant becomes "juicy" to the touch.

The hubris comes from my electing to steam the asparagus, instead of following the countless generations of Dutch omas before Karel and boiling them. Actually, it wasn't so much hubris as the fact that these suckers wouldn't fit into the biggest pot we had, leaving me little choice but to steam them. With steaming, it doesn't matter if the food sticks out a little--a foil seal around the food will trap the steam and everything cooks evenly. After 10 minutes in the sauna, they were juicy, and so sweet I could have served them as a dessert.

Now, to attempt the Hollandaise sauce...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Whatcha Say

There was a question on today's Dear Prudie column that asked, essentially, "All my coworkers socialize in Spanish and leave me feeling left out. What can I say to get them to speak in English?"

Which brings me back to my days in Leiden, when coffee breaks were scheduled and quasi-mandatory, and chit-chat between everybody happened in a mix of languages (English, Dutch, Hindi, and Chinese). It was the unspoken rule that you only conversed in the language you were introduced in, and after a year of Dutch classes I finally realized just how weird it is to do otherwise.

That being said, I can't deny that it was sometimes very isolating to be in a room full of Dutch conversations and not being able to understand a word. I could still piece together the basic gist of the conversation from the words that I knew and the tone of voice and body language, but at that time it wasn't enough to actively participate in the conversations. Still, though, it felt wrong to ask that people switch languages, even though I knew they could. Well, perhaps not "wrong", per se, but it would have contradicted my stated goal of learning Dutch. Besides, it would have felt rude--I don't think I'll ever get over the whole "manners" thing.

But that does beg the question of how to include people who don't speak the language into a conversation with people who do. It's slow going to translate everything--I used to play translator for my mother, and it wasn't easy, particularly where doctor's visits were concerned. Not to mention, the burden of making sure the one side's intention is understood by the other can be a heavy one to juggle. I don't have any answers here. Etiquette is difficult enough when only one language and one culture is involved.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Stranger than Fiction

I'm in the middle of Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle. It's a rip-roaring adventure story of life in the late-1600s, as the Enlightenment was coming about, the scientific method was developed, calculus was invented, and finance took shape. The main critique of the books (3) is that they tend to be a bit logorrheic, but they are amusing in their own way, and, because it's so steeped in history, has me constantly typing search terms into Google to see just what was true and what Stephenson made up.

A fair amount of the story takes place in the Netherlands, which is worth mentioning because there are several instances in which a modern reader, modestly acquainted with Dutch culture, thinks, "Tja, ik hou van Holland."

Instance the first: Jack Shaftoe gets conscripted into the task of digging more land out of the North Sea, for reinforcing the dike. I'm not sure if the Dutch actually did this--my superficial research into the matter suggests that the democratically-elected waterschappen (water boards) were responsible for collecting the fees and the labor for maintaining the dikes, but has been inconclusive as to whether or not any random, healthy-looking stranger would be grabbed off the steets and handed a shovel. You don't run the risk of being forced to do a hard day's labor any more, but people still pay taxes towards maintaining the dikes.

The second instance is in the description of the VOC. At one point the VOC had more ships than the entire continent of Europe. But that's not what makes the VOC so recognizably Dutch. In The Confusion, Jack Shaftoe explains, "'It seems that in the days of Vroom's apprenticeship, shipwrights were held in high esteem by the VOC and Admiralty, and given a free hand. Each ship was built a little differently, according to the wisdom--or, as some would say, whim--of the shipwright. But recently the VOC have become prideful, thinking that they know everything about how to build ships, and they have begun specifying sizes and measurements down to a quarter of an inch--they want every ship the same.'" The modern-day manifestation of this desire for uniformity lies in the everyday miracle of being able to tell which black omafiets is mine in a rack of 50 similar bikes.

The last example is when the Bob Shaftoe (Jack's brother and sergeant in the English army) realizes that the main reason that the Dutch aren't dropping dead from dysentery is because they keep their camp so clean. I haven't had any luck verifying the cleanliness of the Dutch military (historians, feel free to chime in), but the cleanliness of the Dutch had been alternatively admired and ridiculed for some 200 years by the time the story takes place, and would continue to be admired and ridiculed for another 150 years or thereabouts after the 1700s. My own experience in the Netherlands has left me with mixed opinions about the fanatic cleaning--I like being able to coexist with Noodle without antihistamines, but I don't think I'll ever learn to keep the kitchen as clean as Karel would like it.

It's fascinating, to be immersed in another culture, and then read about what an outsider sees fit to comment about. It's also a bit funny that what outsiders have been commenting on hasn't changed all that much in 300 years...and gives me pause to wonder what on earth I will be writing next.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Plastic creep

On the list of "You know you're going Dutch when" includes such things as: waiting for a parking space--for your bike, cruising for furniture, and wearing leggings-and-boots (ladies) or blazer-and-t-shirt (gents). Women, in particular, will carry purses that can outfit an entire army platoon, and sometimes does--Karel tells me that, on more than one occasion, when he was little, his mother would pull out a sweater from her purse for him.

But perhaps one of the definitive "You know you're going Dutch" signs is having an Albert Heijn card. As one of the most ubiquitous supermarkets, what makes the AH (pronounced "ah-ha") unique in a land of penny-pinchers is that it's actually not the cheapest, and the generic supermarket brand of stuff is a cut more expensive than the truly generic stuff. Actually, the last is not unique to the AH, and I've noticed the same at the C1000. The difference is that you don't mind it at the AH, but you do mind at the C1000, and I think it's because the packaging of C1000 stuff looks so tacky cheap, and if you check the price, you expect it to be lower than it is.

One of the first things integrated expats will have learned is that getting a Bonus Card will save you lots on your groceries. This little piece of plastic lets you take full advantage of sales, and get the lowest prices on items marked with a "BONUS" sign. Whether or not it's actually the lowest price you can find is debatable, and framed by the greater question of whether it's worth the twenty-minute bike ride in the other direction to find out.

About three years into my stay here, the Bonus Card was joined by my Ringfoto card, where I'd bought my DSLR. 1% cash back made sense at the time: I'd spent about €1500 over one month for all the stuff associated with a DLSR, and that netted me a set of free prints. Since then, it's not seen much action at all.

Then my boyfriend went on a survivalist kick and procured a Bever Zwerfsport card: Bever is kind of like REI in the States, selling fashionably styled Gore-tex--because we all know that, when you're in the middle of nowhere, pink is "in". But they also carry a lot of really handy things, like water bottles and (good) flashlights, carabiners, heavy-duty walking shoes, climbing gear, and Sporks (handy for lunch). Why do I have it, if he's the survivalist? Because he never remembers his :-D

We didn't mind: Outdoor gear and photo prints aren't things we get regularly, and the time between purchases is long enough to allow us to forget that we'd signed away our annonymity for 25% off retail price. We don't buy from those stores often enough to be considered "valued customers". If it'd just stopped there, we would have been golden.

But I draw the line at Kruidvat. Kruidvat is sort of like a cross between a dollar store and a CVS--it's always fun to browse the crap racks in the back of the store, because every now and then something nice will pop up. It's where I buy things like shampoo, so I go there pretty frequently, the better to stock up on name brands at generic prices. Imagine my surprise, then, when the cashier did not ring up the price on the sign, but something in between the advertised price and the full price. When I pointed out this discrepancy, she merely handed me the flyer for a Kruidvat card. "Use this to get the full discount."

I'm not sure why this annoys me so much. It's not like you have to give out your bank information with anything--unlike a credit card, these are basically just bar codes that get scanned at the time of purchase. Maybe it has to do with my ego asserting itself, saying, "I'm ME, not Every Other Dutch Dude." Maybe it's because my wallet is that much heavier. Maybe it's that the Kruidvat card is so virulently red--and that's just the one side; the other side is silvered, so that it can reflect "your smile when you see how much you've saved". Because really? Who smiles at a bottle of shampoo?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Describing the Tweeb

On Friday, we met the cat-sitter, an interesting experience, as neither of us had ever used one before. We've got a trip to Scotland coming up next month, and after buying the tickets, we started working out the kitty logistics. The last time I traveled extensively, Karel had stayed at home (well, he was working, but the fuzzbutts still got their usual care). They're accustomed, to some extent, to having us disappear overnight, but we've never left them alone for more than 36 hours.

Most of that is because Noodle is a snarfer. He'll eat himself into an explosion if we'd let him. We've slimmed him down since his adoption, but that was only by sheer force of will, feeding him twice a day and strictly regulating his diet. Needless to say, leaving food out for the whole weekend would not be good for him.

The second, not-insubstantial obstacle was the litter box issue. The boxes are scooped every- to every-other-day, the better to encourage the cats to use them, and not, say, our sofas. We've had a few piddle-and-poop incidents, typically involving cat carriers and trips to the vet, but when one has renal failure and the other is a boy (male cats are more susceptible to urinary issues), you really want to make sure they can pee freely whenever they want.

Our vet has a few flyers in the waiting room from people offering pet services, so I took one and followed the directions to arrange the initial meeting with the cat-sitter. It was late in the afternoon, when they were more-or-less awake and somewhat more active, so some actual introductions were possible. The first thing she did was ask us to describe the cats, because then she would know what was normal for them. Now, Shadow and Noodle are pretty typical cats--i.e., their lives revolve around finding the perfect sunbeam, swatting at each other, and food. They are perfectly healthy, perfectly pretty, and, couch notwithstanding, very well-behaved.

But how do you begin to describe a cat that looks like a very large rat that was cut up and glued back together with Elmer's? A cat around whom we've built a separate vocabulary....whose physical, psychological, and medical needs could fill a was at that point that we realized what crazy cat people we'd become. I mean, we've always loved cats, but when you care for the Tweeb, you get sucked into her world. There's no getting out of it--you're in it, 'til death do you part. Makes getting married look like a breeze.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Bridge Too Far

If you've heard of Nijmegen prior to reading this blog, it's probably because you've seen the movie A Bridge Too Far. When the Allies cross the Waal, a substantial portion of the film takes place on the Ooijpolder, right next to Nijmegen's Waalbrug. Yes, that bridge was there in World War II (okay, maybe not the exact same bridge--as I recall Nijmegen was bombed pretty extensively towards the end of the war, so parts of it, if not the whole thing, have been rebuilt since then). And yes, it looked as out-of-place then as it does now.

It's always strange to watch places you know pop up on screen. When I saw Ocean's Twelve (yes, I'm a bit tardy when it comes to watching movies) and watched Amsterdam roll by, it felt a bit like playing punch-buggy on a long car trip. If Cold Case is on, I'm always watching for the bits of "real" Philly that get inserted into the scenes. Lately, Karel has been taken like a virginal bride by the show Masterchef, which takes place in London. Admittedly, I don't know London nearly half as well as I know Philly, but we walked around quite a lot and it's always fun to point out places we've been to. Seeing places you've been to opens up a slice of your life to the rest of the world, even if the others watching it don't realize it. It feels like a connection in some cases--and a betrayal in others, in the sense that some places feel like they belong to you, in some way.

Ultimately, it boils down to the people you know--they are the ones who make a place feel like home. It's why, I think, I feel more at home in Maastricht than I do in Nijmegen. Hopefully that will change soon. I can't be wandering around forever.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


These past few days have finally been warm enough for me to get out of the house and go on some pretty epic bike rides. Contrary to the true polderlands, the area around Nijmegen is actually pretty hilly, which makes for an interesting ride when you're also weighted down with a DSLR and assorted birding gear, and on an omafiets, to boot.

I am not alone in getting out and about, though most cyclists on nice weekends are the overweight-dentists-in-spandex sort. There are several serious cycling teams, denoted by their corporate-sponsored uniforms, and in the ultimate nod to irony, mountain bikers also hit the paths in not-insubstantial numbers. To be fair, thee last group probably do most of their biking on the woods in between the paths. Even so, as hilly as Nijmegen can get, it's hardly Swiss, and I can't help but think of the I'm-so-tuff-I-got-springs-on-my-bike wannabe gangsta bikes in Philly when I see them.

You have bikes, and then you have Bikes--i.e., motorcycling club-types who, given a free reign, would have ended up rightfully spoofed on South Park. As it is, Harleys are not quite as popular as their speedier, zippier counterparts, and while those are still loud, they're not quite obnoxious.

But in about another week or so, when the weather is REALLY nice, the owners of vintage cars--cars that look like they were built in the 30s, with corresponding leather-and-brass luggage--will start coming out, forming strings of nostalgia leisurely motoring their way towards some little out-of-the-way brasserie.

Exploring new paths is something uniquely suited to spring, and the turning of the year: things seem more inviting in the light, and paths seem more like possibilities than hazards. It's a good time to wander.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

No muffin for you!

We were invited to Karel's sister's birthday party this weekend. She'd requested, for some strange reason, that I bake her a batch of muffins. I do understand why she asked for muffins: in the Netherlands, for some reason, everything pertaining to a baked good in that particular shape is called "muffin", as if it never occurred to anybody to put cake batter in it. I know it has, because I've seen demo cupcakes, but cupcakes in general, like your good ol' PB&J, seems to have evaded the Dutch hive mind. And, in her case, I'd made them for her before, when she'd stayed with us for a night.

Not that there's much of a difference between cupcakes and muffins, anyway: both overly sweet (I'd never call a muffin breakfast food, unless I cut out 1/2 the sugar) and loaded with butter. The only real difference is that icing a muffin is kind of weird, but nobody eats a cupcake without a great glopping heap of icing on it.

Fast forward to Saturday afternoon, and Karel and I are standing outside Heeze. The cupcakes are sitting in their boxes--I'm feeling thankful that I'd chosen a sturdier icing--and we're wondering where the hell Someren is. Probably, thinks us, at the end of the road Somerensweg. We can't be sure, because it's not on the map.

A brief moment of panic: Karel had planned this trip as far as Heeze, but from there, he was counting on being able to catch a cab to Someren--a hope that, as soon as we got off the train at Heeze, vanished. Heeze is one of those cute little Dutch villages where people have huge houses and nice gardens and everybody is prosperous and things like what happened at Alphen aan de Rijn simply cannot happen, because there are no malls. But nobody gets off at Heeze and decides to go anywhere; six taxi companies called, and nobody wanted to work this particular trip.

We were about to resign ourselves to walking the entire way--that would have been tragic, given how far Someren turned out to be--but Karel was able to call someone for a ride. Lots of Dutch was spoken, lots of vlaai was eaten, and a good time was had by all.

Monday, April 4, 2011

On Moons, Mariken, and Nijmegen

This is a picture of one of the presents that I sent to my family in the US for Christmas. It's three different teas: Moenenthee, Marikenthee, and Nijmegenthee. The thought process at that time was something along the lines of, "If I'm going to send them Nijmegen tea, then I need to send Moenen and Mariken as well."

The legend of Moenen en Mariken has several versions, and if your Dutch is good enough you can just read the Wiki page. The gist of the story is that a girl (Mariken) was led into a life of sin--which at the time the legend was conceived, meant being educated and well-read and worldly--by the Devil, who was also known as One-eyed Moenen. After seven years, she sees the error of her ways and tries to repent, and is successful because her name, Mariken, is derived from Mary, and that somehow allows her enough leeway to escape her pact with the Devil.

At least, this is the version I was told. On the Wikipedia page, we learn that Mariken had an argument with her aunt, and prayed that God or the Devil send aid her way. That the Devil made her change her name. That he tried to kill her by throwing her off of the roof when she saw the error of her ways. That she was allowed to atone for her sins with three iron bands around her neck and arms, and after a long time spent in a convent (in Maastricht, incidentally, where the stadstheater is now), was finally received into the Lord's Grace again, just before she died.

On the whole, I can't say I like either version much. The first is a bit too pat, the second reeks of that brand of holiness that makes the Book of Job tedious reading. Both of them are consistent in perpetuating the idea that women shouldn't learn things like philosophy and Latin, which makes a little sense if you think about the times: The legend was started at the beginning of the Reformation, when Martin Luther had just nailed his heresies against Catholic dogma to the door of the Wittenburg Church. That a common man should be able to understand the Bible--might as well propose that women should learn to read! Nijmegen would have been especially divided at the time, being a city on the rivers that divide the Protestant north from the Catholic south, so if you read the legend as a piece of Catholic propaganda, with her eventual return to grace, it makes perfectly good sense.

Even today, the legend lives on in things like the Grand Cafe Moenen on the Grote Markt, with it's locally-brewed Moenenbier (highly recommended, by the way, very tasty and rich, and available only in multiples of 500 mL. It is not recommended that you drink more than 1). It's strange, how long this rather banal--let's not exaggerate the merits of the story--morality tale has persisted. But it's also interesting that, as little as it's mentioned, it's so well-known.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

So close

Two days ago I started making croissants, in anticipation of having a human guinea pig (Karel's friend) staying the night and wanting breakfast the next morning. It actually doesn't take a full three days to make them--it's just easier to do the timing that way: make the dough and mix the butter on day one, rolling and turning on day two, and bake on day three. It amounts to maybe 90 minutes of work, total, but in between is a lot of letting the dough chill in the fridge.

Except that I'd utterly and completely failed to read that the dough needs to rise for three hours before baking. This was my fault, of course--but I feel compelled to add that the recipe was 3 pages of single-spaced typing, full of typos (someone had just literally transcribed Julia Child's directions), and did not include directions on how to slice and dice the triangles. On top of all that, I don't have a rolling pin, so while I should have been reading ahead, I was busy flattening some fairly substantial dough packets with a glass jar. .

In spite of all that, I nevertheless managed to churn out some fairly decent-looking croissants, and just when I was fit to burst with pride, I read, "Let them rise for 3 hours at room temperature." It was 9 am. Breakfast was at 10.

We ended up having the croissants that come out of the carton instead, but I've still got half a recipe of dough. Picture posting soon, I hope :-)