Monday, May 30, 2011

Not a funeral

I've been on a bit of a mental holiday, as you might have gathered. I tend to get wrapped up in projects (one of which will be done in collaboration with Dan Potter at Walking the Lethe) and lose track of the days. I've discovered that I really like drawing blueprints and perhaps should have gone into architecture, after all. Writing has been going well, for once, and I think I may be slowly swinging into another bout of OCD because I'm sorely tempted to try macrame.

But yesterday I was thankfully forced from my mental hidey-hole, in the form of a family gathering. There's a morbid joke in Karel's family that they only ever get to see each other when there's a funeral, and it's true enough that this year, for the first time since I've been here, a couple of people decided to have a gathering without a burial.

It was a little weird, because everybody remembered me, but I didn't remember anybody. I attribute this to the fact that every blood-relative of Karel's father looks the same, and that when there are a thousand people talking all at once, it's hard to catch names. By the time you've finished shaking hands and start saying, "I'm sorry, I didn't get that," they've already started a conversation with the person next to you.

The family has video clips from the thirties through the fifties, which were digitized and then played in a continuous loop through the day. It's one thing to know, intellectually, that the dignified old man that Karel calls "Pap" was a child at one time in his life. It's another thing to see the video of a blonde little boy building a sandcastle, and getting sand everywhere except where it was supposed to go. Photo albums of the family had also been assembled--it was fun to pick out who was in which photo and, if they were around, compare that picture to the person at the party.

I've got a few more job applications to send out, but after that, it should be back to blogging as usual. Subjects to be covered in upcoming posts are cheese, art supplies, and Noodle's dental.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Zen Moments


My boyfriend is asleep, and I am trying to figure out how LinkedIn works. I'm alternately startled, appalled, and thrilled that I "know" so many people, even if it's just one email, and the whole thing has me rethinking what networking and staying connected means, when everybody is just once Facebook link away from everybody else.

Otherwise it's been a quiet day so far. In a moment the busy-ness will recommence: groceries need to be gotten, litterboxes scooped, job applications sent out, those two stories in the back of my mind written down. But for now, it's just me, alone at the computer, enjoying the calm before the storm.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Eighth grade all over again


Every year or so I take a picture of our apartment, as a way to document what happens to it as we remodel, redecorate, and upgrade the furnishings. It's kind of fascinating to watch the place change over the years, as we've settled in and put our own signatures on this place.

Part of the reason why it's taken so long is because we're exceedingly fussy about what we want, and part of the reason for being so fussy is because we don't have much space (or money) to keep trying. The other reason is because our local Gamma (scaled down Home Depot) is irritatingly far away and expeditions to it need to be planned well in advance.

These past couple weeks have taken me back to my middle school years, as we learned how to sew, use a jigsaw, pour molten aluminum, and make pizza, while trying not to looke like we cared (because it wouldn't be cool). Drafting a design, doing the math, cutting the pieces, figuring out how to put it all together, praying the math works out...and when it does, and when you see the final product, life is beautiful. Still.

I'm not delusional enough to think that I could ever be a master craftswoman--our curtains stay up and my skirts stay on and the shelves are standing, but I don't have any Fingerspitzengef├╝hl for these things. But it does make me wonder whether we'll ever go back to those days when people who worked with their hands were respected for the skills they had, rather than disparaged for the knowledge they didn't.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Unknotted

About two years ago the muscles in my left shoulder, neck, and back went into one hell of a spasm, completely incapacitating me for the pain. Not even paracetamol and ibuprofen worked, and Karel, after several hours, gave me Tramadol. I can't remember whether it worked--I was that woozy from having a quarter dose, and then I had a rebound-anxiety attack later that night--but I haven't been in a biking accident yet, so I assume that I could turn my head to check for traffic the next day.

The aftermath of that unpleasant spasm was a sort of semi-permanent state of constant tightness on my left side. It's not always painful, but it is unpleasant and more often than not a source of grumpiness.

Enter Evert: last year, he got certified as a masseuse but had not yet built up a clientele. To stay in practice, he and Karel made an arrangement, which was that whenever he wanted to stay the night, he'd get a human guinea pig to practice with--namely me. Karel gets a chance to show off his cooking skills (and a night in which I'm not pestering him to rub my shoulder), and Evert makes a small fee. Win-win-win all around. All I can say is, there are worse ways to spend the night than tripping on your own endorphins, and few things better than having your neck-back-shoulders be completely relaxed, even if it's only for a few hours.

Evert lives in the Hague and can be reached at info at wellnessmassages dot nl. He comes with his own massage table and all the relevant accessories, including trippy new-age music (not my personal favorite, but surprisingly suited for a massage), massage oils, and clean towels. He charges €50 for an hour's worth of full-body massage, though there is also the bits-and-pieces option. If you can get over his physical appearance--this guy looks like he can eat linebackers as an after-school snack--you'll find that he's very professional and very, very, good at unknotting all those weird muscles you didn't even know you had.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Elevation


When people come to the Netherlands, they're under no illusions about the size of the country: it's a small country, and often they leave thinking that Amsterdam is all there is to the Netherlands (as far as pot, hookers, and tourist tripe, they're mostly correct). The same is not true of Scotland: Sure, you could drive from one end to the other in about a day...if you wanted to end up with your brains spattered on the side of a cliff. Scotland is one of those countries that looks small on a map, until you get there and literally have a mountain in your backyard. Then you rethink the whole "size is relative" thing and take a sip of whiskey.

Stephen (marine biologist) and Vicki (inorganic chemist) have been moving around the world ever since I first heard of them--Karel had gone to visit them once or twice in Canada, on his way to or from visiting me--and earlier this year their careers took them to Scotland. Since they move so frequently, it was agreed by all parties that arranging a visit while they were still within non-International-Date-Line-crossing-distance would probably be prudent.

The weather was rainy and cold the whole time we were there, but we did manage to get in one relatively short hill walk on Saturday, walking from somewhere around Dunollie Castle to the castle at Dunstaffinage. The terrain was sufficiently hilly to get impressive views, but not so challenging that you needed walking shoes to get by on it (though it would have helped with the "wet feet" part of the day).

We also took a tour of the Oban distillery--it was interesting to see where the famous Oban 14-year whiskey is brewed, and learn all about how the cask affects the aging process. It was fun getting to smell (and, for those with liver enzymes, taste) cask-strength whiskey. According to the guide, 98% of the bottles made at Oban are destined to become the standard Oban 14-year, 2% get re-aged to make the "distillery edition", and 6000 bottles' worth get bottled at cask-strength. (Whiskeys are not typically bottled at cask-strength, as they are at 50-60% ABV in the cask) You can guess which one Karel bought.

It was an excellent weekend away--the cat-sitter came when she said she would and there wasn't too much sulking when we got back (although I suspect Noodle got fatter again). The trains screwed us only slightly on the way back, and not at all on the way there. Stephen and Vicki were wonderful hosts and introduced us to the phenomena of Georgian Cheese Pie and Killer Bunnies. And it has convinced Karel that he must travel abroad more often, if only to prevent his ATM cards from being blocked once he crosses the Dutch border.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Seeing Glass


My userpic is a lie. I wear glasses. I'd tried wearing contact lenses before, but putting them in and taking them out every single day turned out to be a bigger pain than expected. It's a little vanity of mine, being photographed without my glasses--people change, but a photograph is forever, so you might as well send forth your best image.

Amanda has detailed the experience of buying glasses on Maastricht Minutiae. My own 2009 experience was similar, except that I opted for the Eyes + More rather than Het Huis Opticiens--they had oval-esque frames. And yes, it really is that simple. Some small glasses stores in the US (Designer Eyes, in Philly, where I bought my silver pair that I wore for 5 years, even though I needed a new prescription about 2 years in) operate in a similar way, but price-wise the Dutch stores are much better, as "extras" like non-reflective coatings and thin lenses don't cost extra. I have a pretty strong prescription, so it was a pleasant surprise to see that yes, €85 glasses do, in fact, cost €85.

The other major benefit of buying from a store such as Eyes + More is that, when you do, all of your data ends up in the system--your prescription, the set of your eyes, distance between your pupils, etc--so that, if after a year or two, you want prescription sunglasses, you can just walk in, point to a frame, pick out a lens color, and two weeks later pick them up. Obviously this only works if your prescription hasn't changed noticeably, and mine hasn't. Most glasses can be made in one or two days if the store has the lens in stock, but sunglasses usually require special lenses that need to be ordered, hence the long wait time. You can also ask for sunglass lenses in any frame, including the daintier wire frames--I chose the sturdier plastic ones because I'd be carrying them in my purse.

It was a major revelation to ride home without squinting into the road glare. Being able to read a book in the sun without going blind was also nice, and having an extra pair of normal glasses lying around is nice for the days when the cats hide my normal pair I forget where I put my red ones. But mostly, it's a relief to know that I can afford glasses if I need them.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Country Road


Yesterday was the Nederlandse Vereniging van Jachthoornblazers bugling contest. The Dutch don't have a strong gun culture, but shooting, hunting, and the skills that surround shooting and hunting are kept alive by nature-lovers. And also by crazy old coots who long for the good old days :-) Yes, Karel has a funny costume and an even funnier hat. He's expressly forbidden me to post pictures, though, so you'll have to get your kicks from the photo gallery on the website.

Aside: Not that I could have gotten many decent photos, anyway. Yesterday was a beautiful day in Neederweert, which was great for getting a nice tan, but the sun absolutely murdered any chances of getting the lighting right. Not without screens, at any rate.

But I'm digressing. The Dutch countryside, it turns out, is apparently peppered with small musea staffed by volunteers demonstrating daily life in the days of old. It's sort of like a Renaissance faire, except without pretty dresses and far more quaint. Ladies spin wool, and men demonstrate how to operate the bandsaw from hell. There were lots of hands-on exhibits for the kids, such as "how people did the wash back then", which invited you to wash some modern clothes in a zinc tub, with your choice of a washboard or a hand-agitator, pass it through a hand wringer (ye-olde version, but same idea) and hang it up on a line. The one the bugling contest was at yesterday was based primarily around the late-nineteenth century, but others, like the one around Arnhem are themed earlier.

In the US, there's the cult of the working man, which explains the popularity of shows such as "Deadliest Catch" and "American Chopper". People like watching underdogs come out on top. In the Netherlands, you have the cult of the farmer instead, which is kind of weird in a country where there isn't much land...but subconsciously, every Dutch person wants to be a farmer, wear wooden shoes, and milk cows.

I'm exaggerating less than you might think. Dutch culture--the food, especially, but also the frantic cleaning and brick roads and high degree of cooperativity--is essentially a farming one, and more specifically a dairy farming one (Dutch butter was renowned back in the day). During the Golden Age, Dutch society was comprised of many small farmer, each with his own cows, so in order to generate butter and/or cheese in the quantities required for sale, they pooled the milk. This meant that everybody had to adhere to the same strict qualities of cleanliness, and timing, or else nobody would get paid. A lot of Dutch culture can be traced back to the days of milk and honey. Well, mostly milk.

But I like these kinds of museums, too. I do admire the skills and ingenuity involved to craft a bucket out of wood, for example, or how to tell the temperature of your steel by the color. Don't get me wrong: I couldn't imagine my life without the Internet or the computer. But I could imagine life with some chickens.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

When Life Hands You Basil


It's hard to find a perfect lemonade on either side of the Atlantic. Here in the Netherlands, the Dutch (and Europeans in general) don't believe in ice. In the US, you'll get lemon-flavored sugar water instead of lemonade that puts you into a hyperglycemic coma before you've finished a glass. The obvious solution--to make your own--is hampered by our willingness to believe that we could possibly use that much sugar in our lemonade.

Fortunately, I've been baking for a long enough time to get used to the idea of "cups" when it comes to measuring out sugar. And fortunately, you don't actually need whole entire cups to make a liter of lemonade. Unfortunately, ever since I introduced Karel to the concept of basil-flavored lemonade, he's had an unsatiable hankering for more, and every summer, he follows me around the house whining for more--er, no wait, that's Noodle. But he does make a point of keeping me well-stocked with lemons.

It's not that difficult to make [herb-of-choice]-flavored lemonade, so I'm not sure why he insists that my lemonade is somehow "different". If you were to ask me, I think it comes down to the fact that I don't use a citrus-juicer, or a fork, to juice the lemons. No matter how careful you are with those instruments, it seems that you always scrape a bit of the pith into the juice, and that gives the lemonade a bitter edge. I use a tea spoon to extract the juice.

Basil, dragon, and mint all go great with lemon, but the trick is to cut it up very finely and work the juices into the sugar, first. Then you dissolve the sugar into the lemon juice, plants and all (the plants will not dissolve), and keep on brusing the leaves and stirring. I've never had the patience to wait for the sugar to dissolve entirely, and usually end up washing the whole thing into the pitcher, and finishing up the stir-job there. Straining the leaves is optional--if you leave them in, obviously the flavors will continue to infuse--and I leave them in on the principle of working in more fiber ;-)

It really is a lovely drink, but be forewarned: you may never drink lemon-lemonade again, and if you have a significant other, you may never hear the end of this.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Universal Man


Karel is only half-joking when he says he bought his apartment for the dishwasher. Our apartment had very little else to recommend it when we first moved in (more or less simultaneously), what with bare pipes running througout the walls and death-by-boring beige paint. But it did have a dishwasher, and the Tweeb spent many a cold night huddling on top of the thin metal counter, conducting the warmth of the running dishwasher into her tiny little body. (Those of you who have been to our apartment have only seen the remodeled result and not the el-cheapo predecessors.) The dishwasher itself isn't even all that impressive, either, being a relic of the '80s and guzzling energy and water at a rate that would make a BP executive blush.

But if you've never had a dishwasher before--and Karel didn't, not growing up, not in any of his previous apartments--anything that flings hot water in a circle can be a godsend. Apparently a dishwasher-less kitchen is still fairly common, as until recently most houses were built with a super-cheap kitchen that did not include extraneous applieances. The housing industry stopped the practice of building kitchens entirely in recent years (says the Biotech Guy who just bought a new house) because most people would just remodel the kitchen anyway, so if you do buy a new house, be sure to get recommendations for kitchen stores. Dishwashers these days are more efficient than hand-washing, provided you use them right--and that leads me to the point of this post: that there are certain universal male characteristics, and amongst them is apparently the utter inability to properly use a dishwasher (there's a reason it's narrated by a woman).

I'm not sure what it is about dishwashers that seems to flummox the male brain. Not covering the water jets so that the top rack can get clean just seems like common sense, but then again, people did vote for George W. Bush twice...It could be that I, growing up spoiled rotten (we did have a dishwasher, but my mother was terrified of it until I was about 8 years old) have, over the years, osmosed the logarithmic calculations juggling the size, dirtiness, and space available required to yield the maximum number of clean dishes were dishwasher run. No other appliance--granted, we don't have that many--has been the object of so much discussion about the whys and wherefores of its use.

Now, this is not to say that Karel is a Typical Guy. He's so very not-typical, in fact, that if he ever did learn how to use the dishwasher correctly, he might lose his last stake in the world of men. Then again, if you can be bossed around by a six-pound cat, you probably never belonged there, anyway.