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.