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.