Sunday, December 30, 2012

It's been an adventure

It certainly has been one hell of a year.  I've started my own (very small) business.  Had a child.  Made new friends.  Passed the NT2.  Rijntje celebrated his first Christmas; in the meantime, I celebrated running my first mile since I got pregnant.

Last year, as Karel was scaling a ladder and dangling precariously from our balcony (I thought he had the key, he though I had the key, and neither of us did, so we borrowed a ladder from our neighbor and he got to play burglar), we assumed that that little episode of breaking-and-entering was the adventure we'd both wished for as the clock struck 12 and the fireworks exploded.  Needless to say, we did not foresee...well, any of it.  The one thing I did foresee was that 21 December, 2012, would be abysmally non-apocalyptic, although I must confess that had it been sunny that day, rather than the usual Dutch winter dreariness, I'd have considered that show-stopping, if not end-of-the-world worthy.

And it's strange:  until I wrote this post I didn't think all that much had happened this year, not even with having a child.  I mean, I know that having a child is a life-changer.  It just doesn't feel that way--it feels like he's always been here, and that I've always been "mommy". All of the big things just seemed part and parcel of life at the time, while the little things seemed like monumental events.  When I was trying to figure out how not to pay a €4000 fine for filing my sales taxes late, for instance, that seemed like the most important thing thing in the world.  But it didn't change me, in any way--not nearly as much as meeting new people using Meetup.  We humans seem to have a hard time differentiating between what's important and what's big.  I guess that's what we need hindsight for.  

So who knows what 2013 will bring?  One thing is for sure--it's going to be an adventure.  

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Me and My Moby

Kids are a bit of a learning curve, to say the least, and at 3:00, all good intentions go out the window when your primary goal (only goal) is to get the little whiner to shut up and sleep already.  Cloth diapers ended up being a no-go for Rijntje--they were too bulky and he couldn't bend his legs at the hips properly, bringing on a screaming fit for the ages.

The Moby Wrap  was one of those things that I honestly never really thought I'd use.  It's basically a long sheet of fabric that you tie around yourself and somehow stick a baby into.  Somehow the baby doesn't fall out.  Advantages of baby-wearing?  Well, supposedly it's what's "in" these days--what with the whole attachment parenting thing and what-all.  The Moby Wrap website provides a bunch of other reasons why wearing your baby is a good thing--note the prominent placement of the "43% less crying" graphic.

If I must be completely honest, the whole thing stank of an au-naturel-hippie-love vibe that I really don't have the patience to indulge.  Still, when Karel saw the Moby Wrap videos and websites, he was instantly smitten with the idea of wearing Rijntje and getting groceries and cooking (the one thing they say not to do when wearing your baby) and just generally bonding with the little guy.  And so, in our Amazon-binge, we purchased one. just sat in our baby-supplies closet for a while.  I'd occasionally take it out to try to get Rijntje used to being cradled in it, but he hated it--most probably because I hadn't quite mastered the art of getting a squirmy baby into a confined space--and for the first few weeks it seemed like the biggest waste of €50 we'd ever run up.  Karel, who had been so enthusiastic about wearing Rijntje, could hardly figure out how to tie the thing (and, needless to say, never did quite get the hang of putting the baby into it).  

Until one day, it clicked: One especially fussy afternoon, the kind where I was dreading spending the entire 5 hours coddling a little screaming beast and not getting anything done, I put him into it and started doing the stuff that I needed to get done--and he passed right out, barely bothering to open an eye when a pot clanged to the floor (I was unloading the dishwasher, not cooking).  Not only did he sleep, but it was a quiet sleep, uninterrupted by the occasional yelps that for some reason he's prone to make.

I don't use it all the time, but in the afternoons, when he tends to be especially difficult, the Moby has been a godsend:  I can do laundry!  Run a short errand across the street! Make myself a sandwich!  Type up a post using both hands!  Which I'm doing right now!  I can get stuff done and make sure he sleeps!

Despite the 1000% increase in my ability to get stuff done in the afternoons, though, I have to confess that I'm still not entirely comfortable with the idea of babywearing:  my mother's voice in the back of my head keeps insisting that babies should sleep in their bassinet (in our case), and that carrying him around with me all the time is going to somehow irreparably spoil him.  I still haven't found a device or method that shuts that voice up.

Monday, December 10, 2012


In some ways, the ownership of a car is more monumental than the arrival of Rijntje (sorry, little guy). In order to understand why, you have to realize that while Rijntje was merely biology at work, Karel obtaining his driver's license was an act in defiance of the natural order of things.  It may sound melodramatic, but one does not nearly reach 40 withou a driver's license without questioning whether such things were meant to be obtained.

Karel, after almost 9 months' worth of lessons (an appropriate number) and God-only-knows how many thousands of euros, finally passed his driver's exam.  The driver's exam in the Netherlands is notoriously difficult, not necessarily because driving in the Netherlands is all that difficult, but because the proctors get paid to be anal-retentive.  It must be said, though, that driving in the traffic circle of the Keizer Karelplein in Nijmegen (5 imaginary "lanes" wide) probably warrants a lesson or six.  First-time pass rates are a shade below 50%--and many people need more than 3 tries.  Most of Karel's friends who drive had to take their exam 5 times, and ironically enough, they are some of the better drivers out there.   Karel, happily, passed on his third try, and two weeks later bought a car.

The NS is a great system (at least, compared to SEPTA), but it has its limits:  as long as you're trying to get from one "major" city (in quotes because what counts as a large city here is kinda piddly compared to large cities in the US) to another, it's fine, but the moment you start factoring in stopovers and bus rides and transfers, it becomes infinitely more complicated and there is invariably at least one f*ck-up that causes you to arrive 30 minutes late.  And the schedules at the hours that Karel is most likely to commute (midnight, 6:00 am) suck.  Plus if you're travelling with a baby, you either find yourself obligated to grow another arm, or learn to juggle really fast.  There's just no easy way to manhandle a stroller onto any form of public transit.   And if you're on a long trip, you also have the to-survive-a-nuclear-holocaust-diaper-bag that also needs wrangling.  And that doesn't include a fussing baby.

So a car is a vast improvement in our situation.  Whereas before, it was possible to make trips to Kleve or further abroad by train, now it's easy.  OK, there's still the fussy-baby-issue to deal with, but at least nobody's going to glower at you for (not) doing (any-) something about it.  

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Kweeperen and kaki in the markt

Have you ever read about something interesting, and then decided to see it for yourself, only to find your expectations totally obliterated?  A dinosaur that was smaller than it seemed in the book, for instance, or meeting a Maine Coon cat that looks as big as a small lion--things that were much more or less impressive than your research had led to believe?  Meet quince fruit:

Kweeperen, or quinces, are great for jamming.  So I've heard, anyway.  I have never had a quince before, much less tasted quince jam.  Supposedly it's a marvellous accompaniment to game, but it also works great as, well, just a jam.  But since I'd never seen them around before, kweeperen had always occupied the same mythical food space that foie gras does:  conceptual, theoretical food.  Certainly, not something that was this big. For some reason, I was always under the impression that quince fruits were the size of a large-ish apple.  These suckers, though, are the size of a small watermelon.  And, given how heavy the shopper was to haul up to our apartment, they must have weighed just as much.

It was through pure luck that I ran into them at the markt one Saturday.  Karel had mentioned raiding some old estate he knew about and filching their kweeperen off the trees to make quince jellies, but I don't think he'd actually do such a thing, and he never thought he'd actually get a chance to make it.  These are not things that are regularly sold, not even at the greengrocer's.  Still, even though most people probably wouldn't know what to do with a kweepeer if grandma beat them over the head with a jamming jar, they don't count as "exotic".   They may be delicacies, like gooseberries (kruisbessen) and red currants, but they're not truly strange and the Dutch don't do a "WTF" when they see them, unlike, say, with kaki fruit.

Kaki (persimmons) have been around for a few years--one Allerhande recipe goes back to 2006--but they just started making their appearance in the Nijmegen markt this year.  One of the reasons for such a long intro period is that I--and, if Karel is indeed typically Dutch in this respect, most Dutchies--find their ripened state to be unpalatable.  They are soft, and indeed almost gooey.  The fruit tastes a bit like a very sweet papaya, which is not my favorite fruit to begin with, and coupled with that slimey texture, it renders itself inedible.  So why did I get 5 of these?

Because if you get them before they are ripened, they are crunchy, almost like a good apple or a crisp pear, and the papaya flavor is quite mild.  Karel likes them pre-ripened, so I keep them in the fridge to prevent unwanted changes in the fruit.  Still, I wonder:  Karel can remember the introduction of kiwi fruit to the Dutch supermarkets, and now they are inescapable (kiwi being the one fruit that is always on sale at one supermarket or another).  Will kaki suffer the same fate?

Friday, November 30, 2012

Old Dutch Traditions

While the rest of the expat blogs are going on about whether or not Zwarte Piet is racist, I'd like to take a moment to explain another, far less controversial Dutch tradition:  the geboortekaart, which Karel is so industriously addressing in this picture.

These are birth announcements, and tradition dictates that they be sent immediately after the baby is born--the time elapsed between the birth anouncement arriving in the mail and the date-stamp of the infant (most of them also include the time of birth, as well) has led me to conclude that the prospective fathers (because no woman is going to be fiddling with geboortekaarten right after she's given birth) must be fiddling with websites such as Poobies and seeing entirely too much pink or light blue (and, for the lucky few, both) in the first few hours after their baby is born.  Which is just as well--it gives the man something to do while Mom and Child are both recovering from the process of being born.

There are several websites available; we used Poobies because it was the only one I could remember of a number of websites advertised in one of those maternity magazines you pick up while you're waiting for the next midwife's appointment.  But Hallmark also has a Dutch site (.nl rather than .com), and there must be a few others as well.  You can customize the text, to a certain extent--names are important, as is the date and time (so that he can be added to the appropriate birthday calenders, of course)--and there is usually a bit of text somewhere floating around about when visitors are welcome.

But because Karel sucks at being Dutch, we've only gotten around to sending them out today, a full week after the Little It became Rijntje.  And, as you might be able to tell, he also failed to conform to the pink/blue scheme--well, actually, that was more my doing, as I loved the idea of the broken egg.  We also did not give him a last name, owing to an international snafu with the gemeente Nijmegen that involves Belgium and the US Consulate (again!).  Suffice it to say that we'll be expecting more than a few telephone calls concerning this horrible breach of tradition and etiquette.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Nothing more to say

Nope.  I guess there really isn't much more to say.

Welcome to the world, Rijntje!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Getting close

Please bear with me for the next few weeks.  Right now, about the only thing on my mind is "OMG I'M HAVING A BABY" and while I'm glad you dear readers find my internal monologues interesting, I'm going to guess that seven days' worth of posts about OMG I'M HAVING A BABY is probably going to get old really fast.  Yes, I'm now in the "any day now" zone.  It's a bit...well, boring, frankly, since I can't quite do as much as I'd like, but I'm not in throes of agony.  Mostly, it's just waiting. And making cookies.  And waiting.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Shoot 'em up!

I have a lot of plans and ideas for how to raise a Little It.  Piano lessons (par for the course when at least one parent is Asian).  Homemade baby food.  Mushroom hunting.  Bilingual.  

I'm quite aware that in a few weeks, after our Little It becomes a real person, that all of my plans and ideas might very well go out the window.  We might never afford a keyboard.  I might never cook another meal for three years, much less puree it into baby food.  But there is one thing that I know for sure that I will do:  get him stuck according to the Dutch schedule for childhood vaccines.  Every single one of them, and all of their alphabet soup-y glory.

Now, I realize that vaccination does not confer 100% protection against nasties like measles and whooping cough.  But some protection against the bugs is better than none, and it's infinitely more preferable than having a child end up handicapped (physically, mentally, or both) because of some perfectly preventable disease.  And, if you do come down with the illness, having some protection usually means a milder course of illness.  You'd have to be one hell of a cold-hearted bastard to confer on your own kid a full-blown case of measles and all its wonderful complications, when a mild one would suffice.  

Vaccinations are good things*.  Innoculations against smallpox have been performed for almost 500 years, and the fact that people risked dying in order not to die of smallpox just goes to show how terrifying the disease could be.  Measles may be a simple rash--until it becomes an encephalitis and you stand a 15% chance of death.  And, having suffered from my own case of whooping cough last year, I can assure you that what made me "merely" miserable for the better part of a month and put me on an inhaler for the better part of five months afterwards would kill an infant, whose breathing apparatus isn't nearly as strong as an adult's. 

I guess I'm just annoyed at all of the au naturel parents out there who still swear that vaccines are dangerous and that enough vitamin C will cure everything.  I totally understand the impulse to eliminate food coloring, preservatives, and sugar from your kids' diets.  I totally understand "purifying" your environment so that they're as healthy as possible.  I totally understand that you want to be the best parents ever.  What I do not understand at all is why any parent would be willing to risk their own child's death in pursuit of a "healthy and pure" life.  It's pathologically, narcisstically, selfish.  It's dumb.  It puts other kids in danger. 

As for the autism question:  more and more evidence is emerging to suggest that it's a hereditary condition, perhaps one that could be exaggerated by certain environmental factors. The fact that some kids are being diagnosed who would've otherwise been dismissed as "weird" surely accounts for some of the increase.  Suffice it to say that, while 1% of the population may be autistic, 1% of the population is also schizophrenic, but nobody worries about the poor homeless shamblers.  

*Yes, I know there are immunocompromised children who cannot receive some kinds of vaccines, as well as some people who have adverse reactions to everything. They are the ones for whom herd immunity is really important, because their lives depend on it, but sadly, they're also outnumbered by crazy-crunchy types.  To which I say, get your own damn case of whooping cough.  

Friday, October 26, 2012

Number Crunching: Sewing edition

One of the nice things about living in such a zuinig country is that there are sewing machine shops in just about every city.  I've seen them in Leiden and Maastricht, and here in Nijmegen there are two that I know of.  It always surprises me, a bit, when I see that they are not going out of business, and that they are actually doing well enough selling €600-machines that they stay open.  Actually, I suspect that most of them fill their bottom lines doing maintenance work on older machines--I've used the services of our local store twice now.  €54 to have someone take apart, clean out, and oil my little dinky Singer is probably not quite frugal, but I would be devestated if I accidentally broke something in it.

That being said--sewing isn't quite the money-saver some people make it out to be.  The only reason it's worthwhile for us is that I have the time and patience to stalk the fabric vendors on Mondays, and that most of our fabric needs aren't especially fussy about the type of fabric I need to use.  Anything woven that will hold a stitch, basically, will suffice for curtains and bags, and almost anything that's not shiny and vaguely cotton-ish will do for aprons.  

But when you start getting into things like diapers, blankets, and clothes, fabric quality matters a lot more.  For clothing, it needs to be comfortable and breathable.  For diapers, you need absorbency, which pretty much eliminates 99% of the fabrics sold in the markt.  You might want something to drape a certain way.  You might want something that has certain thermal properties.  And all of these qualifications are costly.  Flannel is an arm and a leg, at €11/m.  Cotton fabrics start at €5/m, and €7-8 is more normal.  Wool is a heartstopping €15/m.  In other words, by the time you start factoring in the extra cost of thread and fasteners, it's quite clear that you'd be better off rumaging through the C&A, unless you're that good that custom clothes always look smashing.

And then there is the cost of the paraphrenalia surrounding sewing:  things like a cutting board  are nice to have if you're going to do a lot of sewing.  A dummy to dress up is handy if you're looking into making your own clothes.  A good set of fabric shears is a must if you don't want crippling carpal tunnel syndrome or blisters on your thumbs.  If you're doing a lot of fancy work, a variety of presser feet might be necessary.  A stitch-remover is handy, though I've found that the smaller blade on my Victorinox does the trick quite well, tooAnd if you need a serger...But perhaps the most expensive of all things is experience--either in the form of lessons, or trial-and-error, or a bit of both.

I guess that's why I keep my sewing machines around: I've learned too much to just let it all go simply due to inconvenience.  That, and even curtains from the HEMA can be quite expensive. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

€12 Entertainment Center

You read that right:  a €12 entertainment center, with surround-sound and HD quality, 42" screen, and live streaming.  Reception is a bit flaky, but otherwise it keeps the cats amused for hours.

We have two window-feeders which are suctioned to the outside of the Little It's room, and ever since the birds discovered their existence, they've been going after the suet balls like there's no tomorrow.  It's not hard to understand why they like them--at 2 stories above the ground, there's no chance of getting attacked by cats, and the feeders aren't sturdy enough to allow the bigger magpies and pigeons to steal all the food.  It's a short distance from the nearest tree, too, so they can get back under cover if they feel threatened.  And although Shadow and Noodle can't reach them, it's easy to understand why they might feel a bit uneasy, with a pane of glass the sole thing separating them from the cats as they eat.

Still, the suet balls have seen quite a bit of damage.  And the cats--Shadow, especially--love to sit in the windowsill and watch them.  They're surprisingly good about being still and quiet and not scaring their little visitors away, even though I'm pretty sure that, given half a chance, they'd massacre every last bird that dared show its face.

We get mostly great tits at the feeders; they're the most common in this area and are easily recognizeable by their little yellow breasts (one of the most unavoidably pornographic sentences I've ever written).  Birds which may or may not visit our feeders include goldfinches (which are more red than yellow), green finches (which are actually brown), dunnocks, and blue and long-tailed tits.   Our little couch potatoes don't seem to care about who visits, as long as they eat plenty of seeds.  

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Border Crossing

The other day, a friend of ours came to visit us and cook with Karel.  Said friend has a car, and recommended that we go to Germany to get the ingredients for dinner--a scant 20 km from where we live--because things were cheaper there.  Karel, having had the experience of living in Belgium, had spoken ardently of the Carrefour there, and informed me that Kaufland was a similar place.  In any event, as soon as we worked out the logistics, he was practically bouncing with excitement.  I now know why.

Kaufland is the closest thing I've seen to an American supermarket since I've been here--or hell, even a British one.  It's a sad testimony to the constraints of the Dutch palate when you can go to Germany and be amazed at the variety and freshness of the produce there--and I'm not just talking about 65 different kinds of apples (although they had those, too).  But it wasn't just the produce.  The gazillion types of bread, pastas, and grains like millet that I haven't seen in ages, all sold at amazingly low prices.  I found a 1 kg loaf of bread for €0.71--and it was "good bread", too, not full of things like dextrose and milk powders and what-nots that you find in cheap bread here.  Just flour (two different kinds), water, salt, and yeast.

I ended up being unable to resist the low prices and cleared out the entire stock of organic, whole-wheat spaghetti--there were only 4 packages left, and at €0.85 each, a steal compared to even regular, generic spaghetti in the Netherlands. Oatmeal was half the price, although that is probably due to the fact that you can't get generic oatmeal in the Netherlands, only Quaker stuff.   Bird feeder suet balls (there may be a future post on Cat TV) were 6 for €0.75.  Up until now, I hadn't thought that Dutch prices were that bad--I mean, sure, I knew it was a bit expensive to live on this side of the border, but at least it wasn't, say, France.

Karel had a field day with the booze--most of his massive haul for the day came from sparkling wine (in preparation for New Year's and Little Its) and other assorted alcoholic beverages.  He also went a bit overboard with some smoked meats, and miracle of miracles, we even found maple syrup there--I was convinced it was fake, but a quick look at the ingredient label confirmed that it was, indeed, maple syrup.  We spent a bit extra on things like chocolate and Karel bought a ton of juices (even though I pointed out that they were actually more expensive than their Dutch counterparts, as they were sold in 1 L packages and not 1.5 L).

Still, I don't think the Albert Heijn needs to worry too much about losing a steady customer.  It's impossible to get to Kaufland without a car, and while gas is much cheaper in Germany and the parking is free, it's still quite a trek.  (You can take the bus to Kleve, but Kaufland is a good several kilometers from the city center.)  Buying things like fresh dairy and meat would require bringing a cooler along--it's a 40-minute drive.  A lovely 40-minute drive, through lush German/Dutch countryside, complete with cows and sheep and quaint little farmhouses.  But still--you can forget getting ice cream.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Appeltaart vs. Apple Pie: Part 2 of 2

I do not make apple pie.  In fact, I rarely make pie at all.  It's not my favorite dessert, and Karel treats it with the same suspicion that I treat appeltaart.  Still, there are some occasions which call for a good old-fashioned American apple pie, and introducing a bunch of Dutch people to this take on their beloved appeltaart is one of them:  I attended a potluck a few days ago, and while I'd thought about making a quiche, I decided that spinach-and-blue-cheese would be a bit too controversial--people either love or hate blue cheese.  Apple pie, on the other hand, is an all-around crowd-pleaser--and even Karel agrees that it's tasty.

The key difference is the crust:  while appeltaart is made of some weird doughy mix that's neither a pastry nor a cake, apple pie is is a real pastry crust, made with way more butter than is good for you--and a touch of shortening (found in a rare toko) for extra flakiness.  It's easy to handle, which is fortuitous because you don't want to let it warm up, because otherwise the fat starts oozing out and you loose the flakiness.  And it's fast--just a quick whizz in the food processor and it's done.  The difficulty in pastry crust is that you need some Fingerspitzengefuhl for when it starts to come together, and know to stop the food processor before it does.  Pastry dough comes together during its rest in the fridge--it's the fact that it's not together before the rest that makes it so soft and easy to handle.

But the main reason I don't make apple-baked-goods in general is the enormous amount of peeling, coring, and chopping involved.  Truth be told, it doesn't actually take that much time to do it--about 40 minutes for the huge-ass quantity of apples that a pie requires--but it's still a lot of work to be done in a short time.  Yes, I sprinkle lemon juice over the apples to keep them from browning, but even that wears off at some point.

Still, there is something to be said about pulling a beautifully-crisped, golden-brown, steaming and bubbling apple pie--or appeltaart--from the oven.  Baking in general requires a certain faith in your ingredients--that the dough is developed enough, that the ingredients will behave the way you expect them too.  Part of the excitement can be contained with enough practice.  But the whole endeavor is unpredictable enough to warrant a prayer or two, and always brings a sigh of relief when it goes well.  

Monday, October 15, 2012

Appeltaart vs. Apple Pie: Part 1 of 2

Despite the versimilitude between "pie", "tart", and "taart", the Dutch appeltaart is not an apple pie--nor is it a tart, if we're going by the traditional meaning of the word (sweet stuff in a single shortbread pastry crust).  Appeltaart is...weird.  Delicious, but strange, in the sense that it occupies a nebulous region between cakes and pies.  The crust is a sturdy, dense cake, not refined enough to be a pastry dough and not spongy enough to be a true cake.  The apples sit in this shell, covered with a golden-brown lattice of the same dough--just enough apples to overqualify for a cake, not quite enough to count as a pie.   If it's spiced well and baked properly, it's lovely, and even the factory-made stuff you get at cafes to go with your coffee are pretty tasty, but for some reason I've never developed a liking for appeltaart.  I love apple-themed vlaai, and apples in my pannenkoeken, but for some reason the schizoid nature of appeltaart never caught my fancy.

The other reason appeltaart never caught my fancy is that the directions make no sense.  The Dutch, for some reason, completely ignore the rules that govern 99% of the creation of baked goods and I've gotta say, after having tried my hand at appeltaart, the process I went through did not, in fact, breed appreciation.

The recipe I used can be found here.  It's not terribly difficult to follow:  you make the dough, rest it overnight. Peel the apples, and mix them in with a powdered custard mix, raisins, cinnamon, and some apricot jam.  Make a paste of amandelspijs (sort of like a crude marzipan), egg yolk, and butter.  Assemble the appeltaart--smear the almond paste on the bottom so that the juices don't leak through--and bake for almost an hour.

But what makes it so frustrating is the fact that the dough isn't a true pastry crust, which means that it's hard to handle, sticky as bugger-all, and it cracks, so if you're doing your rolling on a floured surface to prevent the aforementioned stickage, you end up with a split that's almost impossible to seal again.  You need to let it warm up to room temperature before it even begins to approach malleability, but of course, the caveat is that the warmer it is, the stickier it gets.  Eventually I gave up rolling it out altogether and just started pressing pieces into the pan.  I was really surprised that I could do the lattice work as well as I did.

I suppose we--expats from elsewhere living in the Netherlands--should be grateful that the IND merely requires that you learn Dutch to stay.  I'm pretty sure that, had the residency requirement included making this diabolical Dutch dessert, there'd be a lot fewer foreigners here.  

Saturday, October 13, 2012


In the three years that this blog has been kicking, it's pretty impressive that I haven't managed to touch upon pannenkoeken yet.  And it's not because I find them boring or bland, though truth be told, they are a bit of both--if you don't have anything to fill them with.  Once you start playing with fillings, you can have anything--sweet, savory, both sweet and savory, if that's your cup of tea.  But we don't really have pannenkoeken that often, and up until this year, Karel was the one who made pannenkoeken, while I made the thick 'n fluffy American-style pancakes (trade secret--karnemelk).  However, the problem with fluffly American-style pancakes is that you need a huge pan to cook them on if you don't want to do them one at a time, and until recently our electric griddle was buried under a sandwich grill, behind three glass bottles, above our cabinets.  Getting it down would have required reorganizing the entire kitchen--which we recently did.  But in the meantime, it meant that I would have to learn to make pannenkoeken.

If you've ever gone to one of those restaurants, you'll be familiar with the bit of delectable food artfully arranged on an enormous honkin' plate, with little spots of sauce casually but carefully dripped or streaked across the plate.  A proper Dutch pannenkoek will completely over that plate, and maybe even ooze a bit over the side.  It is, in other words, a meal unto itself, and if it's got bacon and apples (Karel's latest love) cooked into it, it even ventures into the "nutritionally adequate" territory.  

I don't claim to be an expert on making pannenkoeken--there are many recipes, and all of them claim to yield a tender, thin-but-not-delicate (a key aspect of this Dutch delight) pancake which you can fill with whatever you like.  The thin-but-not-delicate is the key to this--you do not want a crepe, which is thin and delicate.  The batter matrix of a pannenkoek should be sturdy enough to hold stuff as it cooks--Dutch tradtion calls for bacon bits, or raisins, but you can use whatever you like.  I've made pannenkoeken filled with mushrooms and cheese, raisins, apples, chocolate, bacon, and I've enjoyed one that was filled with spinach--and that doesn't even begin to cover the stuff you can put on top of the thing*.  Personally, I don't even use a recipe.  As long as it's a 2:1 liquid-to-flour ratio, it usually ends up all right (for normal pancakes I use 1:1).  And if you smother it in enough stroop, nobody's going to care that it's a bit too this or not enough that.

"Not-delicate" does not, however, mean "not tender":  don't overmix the batter.  Karel used to make his with our hand mixer, in the mistaken belief that lumps in the batter were bad.  You don't want pebbles of flour, obviously, but its better to have a slightly-grainy batter than it is to develop the gluten, which is how you end up with a pannenkoek that's a bit too chewy.  The little lumps in the batter will be dissolved as the batter cooks and air bubbles disperse the flour.  Promise.

The last key to making pannenkoeken, at least I've found, is variable heat.  You want to start it on a low heat--the idea here is to let the bottom coagulate while the top is still runny, and this is the stage at which you put your apple slices on, or whatever it is you're filling your pannenkoek with.  Once the top is set--but not cooked--turn up the heat so that the bottom will turn a pretty golden-brown.  This will still take a while--about 5 minutes or so.  Flipping the damn thing is also a bit of an art.  If you've done a good enough job cooking it, it will stay intact as you slide a spatula underneath and give it a quick turn.  If you're feeling really confident (or, if you've been making crepes your entire life) you can flip it by shimmying the pan.  In any event, once the thing is flipped, keep it on high, and the new bottom will brown nicely in a few minutes. Then you turn it out onto a plate, and hope that the apple slices stay put while you turn it over (nope).

*One of the more memorable things we've done was take a trip on the Pannenkoekenboot, which is exactly what it sounds like:  a boat where you can stuff yourself with as many pannenkoeken as you can eat while the boat takes a 3-hour trip up and down a river.  Despite the cost (€24/person), the boat was full, and while they only served 3 different types of pannenkoeken (apples, bacon, and plain), the bar of toppings was enormously varied--meatballs, tuna salad, pickled vegetables, potatoes, fruit salad, etc.  Stamppot was never this indiscriminate.  

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"Resistance is futile"

Another FVAP post:

There's a lot of bad news these days:  I'll let you pick your favorite rage-inducing topic of the week, since I'm not supposed to, but the fact is, if you were to base your opinion of American people entirely on what comes out of the news, you'd probably think that Americans are stupid, backwards, bigoted, crass, greedy, and just generally horrible people.

And it's true that these are the kinds of people who make the news, and they will always be around to make life miserable for everybody.   But most people are kind, open-minded, generous, and willing to have their eyes opened if you just take the time to talk with them.  And these people have effected real changes in the culture of the country, and eventually that will be reflected in the laws.   And, like it or not, the stupid, backwards, bigoted, crass, greedy, and just generally horrible people will eventually fall to the wayside.  Like the Borgs, they will be assimilated, or perish.

Which is not to say that these changes happen overnight.  Far from it--these are ongoing changes that take years to make their impact felt, and decades to be written into law.  But they all begin with a vote.  

Saturday, October 6, 2012

...And the Grand Finale

So some of you might remember that way back in May, I wrote a post detailing how An Moens tried to screw me over by publishing an article that I wrote without listing me as an author.  A few weeks later came a post about how she was sending around a libelous claim that I hadn't done any work on it by showing people the first draft that she had, and apparently spreading terrible stories about my competence (Is it sad that I knew she'd do this, and therefore told the PIs who interviewed me not to expect good comments from her?).  And then, it's been silent, but only because it took until now to get the verdict from Maastricht:

In a way, it doesn't really matter:  she was fired in June over several matters, amongst them a second plagiarism issue that was handled, shall we say, improperly.  The second plagiarism issue actually ties into my own case--one of the co-authors (Carlo G. Tochetti) got caught lifting huge chunks of text from one of the biggest names in the field, and An sided with him instead of the student who caught the plagiarism.  Unfortunately for me, Carlo Tochetti is also a co-author on the paper that I wrote.  If I were to have a decision in my favor, then his plagiarism would be a reflection on me.  So while I was initially willing to accept second author, I decided that I couldn't deal with being accused of plagiarism myself, and decided to go for everything (first-author), take my chances, and have it retracted instead.

But since the committee did not decide in my favor--and I'll get to that in a moment--it's a moot point.  As I noted back in May:  either I get to say that I wrote a review, or I don't.  And since I couldn't before, I still can't now, so it's not like I actually lost anything.  Still, I must confess, it stings a bit.  Not the least because it's based on a whole buncha lies.  In the official statement:
  • Zo trok zij conclusies die niet juist waren, was haar schrijfstijl niet passend en bevatte het werk fouten.  "Her conclusions were incorrect, her writing style didn't fit, and the work was full of mistakes." Which is hilarious, because what was published is, quite literally, 85% my draft--so I guess that means that what was published wasn't something I'd want my name on, anyway...?
  • Daarom is het artikel na het vertrek van mw. Lin volledig doorgelopen op onjuistheden, herzien en aangevuld door dr. Moens, co-auteur prof. Tocchietti en de uiteindelijke eerste auteur dr. Octavia.  "That's why, after Ms. Lin left, the article was completely reworked for mistakes, and completed by Dr. Moens, Prof. Tocchetti, and Dr. Octavia."  If it were"completely reworked", would I have recognized it as my own?  Would I be able to do a literal side-by-side reading of the two and conclude that they are the same?
  • And the best line of all:  Ik betwijfel of het invoegen van delen van relevante literatuur of verwijzingen daarnaar als een wezenlijk wetenschappelijke bijdrage beschouwd kan worden. "I doubt that the insertion of relevant literaure or changes to a paper can be construed as a scientific endeavor."  Once again, I fucking do this as a job.  It's kind of insulting to think that I don't know the difference between inserting a bit of relevant literatue and writing stuff de novo.  
  • ETA:  And, in what universe does adding 15 pages of text to an article count as "merely editing" and not warranting authorship (and I've done enough editing to know the difference), while merely deleting extraneous stuff from a draft is enough work to warrant first-author?  
But, you know, to be quite honest, I'm not really all that upset about it.  I knew she'd smear my name in the mud, and I'd kinda figured that she'd get away with it--she's done it so often to all of her other colleagues, she's an old hand when it comes to spreading lies and deceit.  She had one of the students falsifying the mouse records, after all (so I've heard), and she also got reamed for not obtaining informed consent before taking human biopsy samples from patients' hearts (so I've heard).  I could go on--how she took her lab notebook with her when she left Johns Hopkins--and how she couldn't be arsed to go through the proper channels when trying to arrange for a -80° C freezer (you need a special outlet that can draw 16 A) and how, in spite of a legal order not to, she maintained contact with her students (so I've heard)...and then there are the "rumors about the child" (don't ask me what they are--I just know that they're around) don't work with someone like that for a year and not walk away with a few war stories of your own.  But do I really want to waste my life dwelling on it?  

What I know for sure:  she will never be able to hold a position for more than a few years at a time, and she'll always be blaming someone else for the messes she's made, and she'll never be happy unless everybody else around her is miserable.  And I know that I'm glad that this is finally over, and I can write off my year in Maastricht as the worst mistake I've made so far. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Form Q

I suspect that most of the Netherlands would be perfectly all right being conquered by, say, Xerxes--but Xerxes would probably throw a fit at the paperwork involved to assert his rule over the country. It's been a while since I've had to meet with my liason from the gemeente, but then again, we've also been waiting for two months to hear back from the city for permission to get married.   It's no secret that the Dutch love their regels, but I'm a mostly-by-the-books person, too, so I probably appreciate the orderliness of life here more than most immigrants.  But even I have my "OMG are you shitting me" moments.  And arranging for the kraamzorg has been one of them.

In the Netherlands, after the child is born, your insurance will typically cover most of the costs for a home-care-nurse-helper-type person for about a week.  Between my own wavering confidence about the whole mom-thing, the possibility that Karel might still be working (he's arranged for vacation time, but babies aren't exactly known for their consideration of others' scheduling issues) and knowing that we'll be hosting the in-laws, at the very least, for the first few days, we decided this wouldn't be a bad thing to have.  Someone to help out with the "light housekeeping" (keep reading to see why this is in quotes), change the baby when he needs it, run a load of laundry from time to time, and just generally help you ease into "you're a mom" isn't a bad idea, especially if it's your first time.  

So Karel picked out the kraamzorg service--after a while they all sounded the same to me, so I delegated the task of picking out a service to him--and I contacted them, and we made an appointment, and a few weeks ago a lovely woman showed up at our door, smiling--and armed with a packet of papers thicker than my arm. 

Granted, a lot of the paper was a basic-baby-care manual, covering stuff like breastfeeding and sterilizing bottles and how to lay your baby in a crib--that sort of stuff.  But there was a good long list of checklists for the kraamhulp to fill in:  the housework that was done; when did the baby cry, eat, sleep, pee, and poop; what my condition was; and a good amount of lined page for "miscellaneous notes".  On top of that, there was a 3-page checklist for things that we needed to have--hot-water bottles, absorbent sheets, not-so-abosrbent sheets, a non-slip mat (though I suspect that that's for a bathtub, which we don't have), and bed raisers.  There needs to be at least 50 cm of space around our bed on all sides (hah!), and the doorways need to be free and clear of stuff...and that's before they get to the list of "light housekeeping" things that the kraamhulp does, which basically amounts to "everything that we already do regularly, except everyday" (and this, might I add, apparently includes changing the sheets and doing laundry).  Which sort of begs the question of what "real housekeeping" entails to the Dutch.  Which is a bit frightening to contemplate, but I suspect it involves cleaning the stopcontacten with wasbenzine.  

Monday, October 1, 2012

New Directions

I've been contacted by the Department of Defense to help with the effort to get out the expat vote.  Now, fear not--the DoD is not going to come after you with a drone.  The particular branch handling this aspect of extramuros living is FVAP (Federal Voting Assistance Program) and they're responsible for, amongst other things, the new widget on the right, which will take you to the FVAP page that will let you get your absentee ballot.  You'll be taken to a page where you can register for your absentee ballot, or request it.

One thing you will need is a printer--if you're registering for your absentee ballot, you'll be required to send in a physical sheet of paper with physical envelope.  Oddities, I know, in a rapidly-electronic world.  But otherwise you can receive your ballots via email, or snail mail, if that floats your boat.

Voting isn't exactly Gangnam--you don't get high-fives if you video yourself walking into a curtained booth (yeah, I voted old skool) and punching a button. The statistics for voting are quite dismal:  you're not going to be the one vote that changes everything.  And afterwards, you're still the one paying $4/gal for gas (well, if you drive, that is, which I never did) and trying to cobble together dinner for 4 for $2.  So why bother?

I used to wonder the same thing, myself.  And then I came upon a wonderful rant (which, unfortunately, I can't link to, because it discusses partisan policies) which still gives me my reason to bother sending in my paperwork and casting a ballot: A government "by the people, for the people" means that we are the government--that's sort of the definition of a democracy--and we don't like something, then we can change it, through a vote.  If you call up your cable company because you're not happy with the service, you might get a refund, or you might get an apology, or you might get a repair guy tying up your lines for two days.  But when it comes to changing the company, you're pretty much stuck in the mud.  On the other hand, if your elected leaders do something you hate, you can vote a new crop into office, and in the House, this happens every two years.  This is about as close to being the master of the world as an ordinary citizen will ever get.  Sure, you could also win the lottery.  But voting gives you better odds.  

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Meetups and Whatnots

Now that we're in the last stages of baby preparations, and my work has slowed down a bit, I've been trying to find an expat group in Nijmegen--to meet new people, and to have a social life of some kind post-It.  Although I'm not a naturally sociable person, the amount of isolation I'd been experiencing as of late has been alarming, even for me.  At first, I still had my Dutch classes, and there were trips to Leiden and Maastricht, and then the NT2, and of course I'm still seeing the midwife and meeting up with sellers from Marktplaats.  But now that the diapers have been made and everything we need to buy has been bought, there's been a definite drop-off in the amount of person-to-person contact I've been having.  It's not quite as terribly isolating as it was before I started working, but it's been a bit distressing.

I found the Arnhem expats group on MeetUp, and the first, ah, meetup was quite fun.  It's a nice break to be social without struggling to put things into Dutch, or being expected to put things into Dutch and then making your listener impatient and then you both start speaking in English anyway.  But I will say that placing orders with the wait staff is always a bit confusing, because I'm in the habit of placing requests in Dutch, but when everybody else is placing orders in English, it leaves me in the lurch--do as others do, or as Romans?  And, besides, the "hot chocolate" drink isn't really hot chocolate as it is warme chocomel, which is strictly a Dutch thing.

Along those lines, I received a curious phone call from a government survey center, which rated the effectiveness of the inburgeringscursus that I didn't take--when I explained that I took a language course as opposed to a how-to-be-Dutch course, the woman on the other end said something along the lines of, "Oh that's fine, I'll just use the other survey."  The B1-B2 course at the Radboud was, in my opinion, great--hell, I passed the NT2 with my first shot, so it couldn't have been too bad.  But one of the questions was, "How often do you use Dutch in your everyday life?"  Snarky me wanted to say "never", but I would never have been able to negotiate stuff on Marktplaats or get my taxes* cleared up if that were really the case, since the Belastingdienst isn't allowed to provide answers in English.

And lastly but not leastly, we've finally found a piece of Dutch TV that we both...I'm not sure if "like" is the right word.  But it's definitely one of those don't-wanna-stare-but-can't-look-away type of shows.  Achter Gesloten Deuren takes people who have been living with a secret, sometimes for a very long time, and shows what happens when they finally tell the truth.  As far as voyeuristic kicks, it ticks all the boxes.  But something I've never understood about Dutch homes in general was confirmed in the show:  how do they keep their kitchens so pristine?  I mean, a lot of them don't even have a coffee machine on the counter (and you can't tell me that none of the featured families drink coffee).  There's no saltshaker by the stove, no herbs growing in a pot on the counter.  If you've ever caught an episode of Jeroen Meus's Dagelijks Kost (15-minute cooking show showcasing a quick, easy, everyday meal you can make--it's Belgian, so the accent is a bit funny), his tidy kitchen looks like a positive train wreck next to some of the Dutch kitchens I've seen.  I can only surmise that the Dutch don't cook, which is a bit sad, but also quite puzzling:  Why buy something so expensive if you never get a chance to play with it?  

*A small snafu in paying sales taxes in July led to a €4000 fine, which I was, after 5 phone calls and a total payment of €100, able to get removed.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

I Love New York

New York City recently passed a soda size ban, much to the annoyance of fast food establishments and movie theaters and anybody else who makes a living selling drinks larger than 16 oz to people (that's about 500 mL--your average soda bottle in the US is 20 oz).  It's part of the mayor's idea of getting people to live better.  Whether it'll work...well, let me put it this way:  you can still buy 2 L bottles of your favorite fizzy sin in the grocery store, and you can still buy six-packs.  What you can't do is ask McDonald's to supersize your soda when you order a Big Mac, but you can go to a 7-11 and get a massive 64 oz Big Gulp.  That's about 2 L of soda, FYI--bigger than most family-bottles (1.5 L) here.

Yeah, I'm not seeing how it makes sense, either.

But regardless of the actual effects of the soda size ban, I found it highly amusing that it would be so hotly contested.  Because, you see, in the Netherlands, if you sit down at a restaurant and order a soda, you get the dinkiest serving of soda--one 8 oz bottle, and that costs €2--and most of the time, you don't even get any ice.  I'm pretty sure that you can get larger servings at McDonald's, but as we haven't been to McDonald's for forever, and I can't remember how big the sodas were there (if anybody wants to fill me in, please do).  I seem to recall that 500 mL (or maybe it was 375) was either the only size available, or the largest.  Either way, since they don't do free refills, you're still not drinking as much soda as you'd be drinking in the US (at least, in the New York that I visited a few years ago).

The strange thing, though, is that in the Netherlands, while you can't get a Big Gulp to save your life, you can buy an enormous puntzak of frites and nobody will think any less of you for doing so.  Even small puntzakken contain about as much as a large order of fries, and if you go to some of the smaller, "pricier" establishments (in quotes because it's rarely more than €3), they use lard to fry up their frites.  And on top of all that, the Dutch smother them with mayonnaise (except it's saus, so if you want ketchup or anything else, you have to specify which sauce).   Happily, you can usually order a smaller bakje, which contains about 1/2 as much as a  puntzak, but the whole thing does make you wonder who orders the large ones.

We, personally, are not big junk food eaters--soda is mostly absent from our pantry or fridge (there is a not-unrealistic probability that the Little It will not know what soda is until he starts school) and frites are a rare event, bordering on geological time scales.  It's not out of health concerns, oddly. It's because there's so much other tasty goodness to be had, why settle for something as boring as a giant soda and bucket of fries?  And that's what else puzzles me about the ire against the soda size ban: You literally cannot escape delicious food when you're in New York.  Why would anybody want a giant bucket of sugar water instead?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Real Crusty Bread

Although I'm a decent home baker, I've always had one particular problem in making bread:  the crust.  To me, that's the essence of fantastic bread--that crispy, chewy, heavenly crust hiding a tender, soft, hole-y interior.  I'd gotten the interior down, more or less, and mastered the art of salting bread properly.  But I could never manage to get the crust right. I've tried high temps, low temps, starting high and going low, starting low and going high, misting the bread at the last 10 minutes, misting the bread in the beginning--no dice.

I'm not ashamed to say that I picked up the trick of making a crusty bread from watching MasterChef:  ice cubes in the bottom of a very hot oven (well, on a baking sheet--don't want to break the oven, after all).  But baking is a fickle science--oven temperatures are rarely exact, and the conditions in your little home oven, unless you happen to have a professional oven, can hardly hope to duplicate those in a professional oven.  White flour in the US is different from that in Europe--in the US, it's mostly hard wheat, while European flours are a mix of soft and hard.  This affects the gluten development, and you have to pay attention to the texture of the dough to make sure it's not overkneaded.

Kneading is another thing that I've re-learned:  it's not a constant working of the dough for 5-10 minutes at the beginning, it's stretching the dough five or six times, and then letting it rest for about 20 minutes before punching it down and stretching it again.  Done 3 or 4 times over the course of an hour, and it yields a soft, malleable dough.  The second proofing involves no punching down, but instead a gentle shaping of the loaf and then setting it down on the baking sheet.  .

One thing I haven't procured yet is a baking stone--a pizza stone will do, although I've aso learned that a terra cotta saucer, something you put under a terra cotta flower pot, will do the trick just as well (in the second volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child recommends a red tile).  This needs to sit in a hot oven (250° C, 450° F) for at least an hour to heat thoroughly.  The proofed bread goes onto the hot tile, giving you that lovely bottom crust (which I haven't quite achieved yet).

You can find the basic directions that I used in the recipe here.  I made this loaf with white flour--it was an accompaniment to a soup, so I didn't want too many flavors duking it out.  And yes, it was every bit as glorious as it looks.  

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


I haven't been blackberry hunting in a few years--time or less-than-optimal summer weather has been against me in my endeavors to get tasty fruit for free.  Furthermore, the plants themselves only produce a decent harvest a few years at a time, so the places that would have yielded a good picking have probably changed by now.

But it is elderberry season, and these are somewhat less-dependent on the weather, and in fact a cool wet summer is ideal for fat, juicy elderberries.  Vlierbessen grow almost everywhere in the nearby Heumen Bos, and the one year we went after them, we picked so many we had to (much to my regret) toss about half of them, simply because they couldn't be used--and this was even with leaving what I called a "bird tithe", as we'd only pick about half of the berries on a bunch.  Karel made a delicious syrup that year--whether it actually cured colds is a matter of debate, but a hot drink made with that syrup and a bit of ginger tastes like spring on a cold day in winter and I'd imagine that the syrup would taste great as a summer drink with a bit of soda water (and rum).  Unfortunately, we only had one bottle that could be used to store it, and after another year in the fridge, we couldn't trust it to be good anymore.

However, this year, I've been saving up the smaller koffiemelk bottles; Karel had wanted to make ketchup, but the gods had decreed that the tomatoes would only go on sale when he didn't have the time to make it.  But it's okay, because this year we've gone out and gotten ourselves yet another harvest of elderberries for yet another syrup.

In Dutch cooking, vlierbessen are often mixed with fruits like apples to make something similar to apple butter, added to jenever or vodka, or made into jellies.  I haven't come upon any recipes for elderberry wine in Dutch--most of the recipes and how-to's I've seen come from England.  Elderberry wine is pretty simple in terms of processing, but it does take a bit of time and being around on certain days.  While you could probably make a decent "trail wine" (a mash of berries and water, fermented with natural yeasts for an afternoon in your water bottle) with them, the good stuff, as several sites have assured me, will have aged for at least 1 year, and preferably from 3-5.

I'm not going to include step-by-step directions for Karel's syrup, since there is no perfect way to preserve (other than "sterile").  Karel likes to infuse his preserves with little special somethings--cinammon, brandy, kirsch, herbs, you get the point.  There are a lot of good directions on the Internet for making preserves, but by and large the most critical factor is to keep everything hot.  I should add that I'm not a fan of dishwasher sterilization, personally; unless your dishwasher has an "sterilize" function (ours does not) and bakes your glass at a temperature well above boiling (250° F, 121° C), merely running your glassware through a dishwasher won't be enough, as Clostridium botulinum spores can easily survive a boiling.  Karel covers his glassware with aluminum foil and then bakes it for about an hour--covering stuff with foil is a tried-and-true method of keeping glassware sterile, as labs everywhere use it to keep their tissue culture stuff sterile. Caveat emptor, and to each his own.

A word of warning to those who may be tempted to go a-foraging:  the elder plant and unripened berries are poisonous--and this includes the stems, so be careful when you're gathering your fruit.  The ripe berries themselves are perfectly edible, though they taste a lot better after they've been cooked.  And happily, it's easy enough to tell when the berries are ripe:  they'll be a monochromatic black, with no traces of green or red.  

Sunday, September 9, 2012

More Baby Stuff

One part of the grab-bag of toys purchased off Marktplaats
I don't mean to go on a bender about baby things, but that's a lot of what's preoccupying me these days.  The baby is due in November, so while I've still got a lot of time to get stuff, I don't have a lot of money to get the stuff with.  This is especially problematic if you live in a country with no big box stores for uber-cheap diapers (and even with uber-cheap diapers, they'd probably still cost more than cloth), no coupons (well, rare coupons) for anything, relatively expensive stuff, and one reliable income.

Despite that, we've managed to keep our spending on baby things to less than €1000 so far, which is no small thing when a stroller can easily run to €800 (and that, believe it or not, isn't even a "top of the line" model) and a single baby jacket costs more than what I spend on my own clothes in a year. I don't think parents shop at those stores--I think those stores mostly cater to people whose friends/family are having children and they want to get something nice for the new arrival.  I've gone there myself, to buy "new arrival" presents for friends--it's always nice to get nice things for friends, but when you realize you're going to need several different outfits a day in case the poop is not contained, you start looking for cheap things, fast.  My main tactic for getting stuff on the cheap involves hitting the thrift stores and scouring Marktplaats.

Marktplaats has been especially interesting.  It's less sketchy than the Amsterdam craiglist, and while some bids and some emails go ignored, most of the time you get what you want, at a good price. You can do searches by price range, condition of the stuff you want to buy, distance from where you live, and other categories as well.  Ad views give you some idea of how popular some items are, and how quickly you should move to snap up a good deal.  Most sellers include pictures of their stuff.  You can place bids for things if the item is open for bidding; I usually offer a bit more than the requested price anyway, because we don't have a car, to compensate for shipping or driving the item to our place.  I've had a few emails go ignored, but by and large most sellers are eager to move stuff out and can't wait to get rid of it.

Why am I willing to buy so much stuff secondhand?  See, the way I figure it, most of us don't remember half of the stuff we had as kids.  There might be a special toy we remember, or a particularly cute (or hideous) outfit, but by and large we don't remember the stuff.  We remember what we did, the games we played, the time spent at the zoo, "helping" to make dinner, getting a new kitten, stuff like that.  I very much doubt that the Little It is going to know or care that his clothes are secondhand.  No, he's going to be too disoriented about being evicted, and it'll be much later before he'll know the difference.

There's a lot of advertising, even in the Netherlands, for baby stuff--most of which I'm thankfully immune to, since I just don't process Dutch the way I do English.  We've been getting a flyer for the Babypark for a while--and I gotta admit, I am curious to see the store (but then again, I've always been a fan of IKEA and similar stores).  We're inundated with all these messages that if we don't have the right stuff or do everything the right way, our kids are going to turn out scarred for life, permanently-damaged tragic figures that go on to become drunks or serial killers. I just don't buy it.  The iPhone only seems like it's been around forever.  

Friday, September 7, 2012


My future-mother-in-law took us on a little shopping spree for Little It things (she insisted), and we ended up raiding the Prenatal store, one of the premier baby-stuff stores in the city.  We ended up getting lots of socks, a mobiel, Rupsje nooitgenoeg, and a few other little things that, strictly speaking, we didn't need, but could be useful in a pinch (pacifiers, holy cow do we have pacifiers).  All in all, it was a fun day, mostly because our first concern could be how cute something was and not how much it would cost. (The total, in case you're thinking that we're total mooches, was still way less than the cost of a modern carseat.)  One thing we did not get, much to my relief, was a towel-y toy:

We've received 5 of them already.  It'd be cute if they weren't so...baffling.  I mean, they're not exactly stuffed animals--just a dislocated head on a towel.  Presumably they're easier to clean than stuffed animals?  But the state of some of the towel-y toys I've seen suggests that they've been fused to the child through years of loving and hugging (and some drool as mortar), which sort of defeats the purpose to their being washable.  I'll grant you that they are rather cute, even if you don't know what to do with them, but still:  when you have 5 and the kid's not even born yet you have to start wondering which Dutch cultural meme you missed.

Karel's nieces have one (or had one--I haven't seen it the last few times I went visiting, so maybe it got grungy enough to warrant a trip over the rainbow bridge for towel-y toys), so while the concept isn't new, I hadn't quite realized that this is, apparently, the Toy in the Netherlands.  We even got one from a couple who live in Scotland--they'd gone to a store in London, presumably a very chic and very white store, to find one.  Sophie the Giraffe may be de rigeur in the US, but in the Netherlands, the towel-y toy remains king, apparently.  

Monday, August 27, 2012


I passed the NT2!  Granted, I just barely made the cutoff for the listening section, which was tricky because for a lot of the questions, it wasn't so much "What's the right answer?" as it was "What's the most right answer?" But surprisingly I didn't do too badly on any of the other sections.  Whoop di doo.

But it's one less thing to worry about as the summer draws to a close and the Little It's birth day starts looming on the horizon.  It means that the gemeente won't be taking almost €1000 from my bank account to pay for the Dutch classes (one of the conditions for free lessons is that you must pass the NT2).  It means that I can get a permanent-permanent residence in 2014, when my 5-year permit runs out.  And it means that I don't have to worry about the damn thing while I'm taking care of the Little It--because my deadline for taking the NT2 was 2013.

This being said, I would still hesitate to consider myself bilingual.  Even though I can get by pretty well these days, I still prefer English, and while I'm reading kids' books in Dutch (tweener-level lit--more imaginative and less mundane than "real" literature) I get the feeling that there's a lot of context that I'm missing that makes it more of a slog than it has to be.  But considering where I began when I arrived five years ago, it's a pretty vast difference.  

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Central Air

I posted a joke on Facebook, saying that air condition in the Netherlands is achieved by closing all of the curtains to prevent any stray photon from getting into your place and heating the place up.  (It should be noted that I'm referring to private residences, here, not stores and the like--though they may have their temperature setting a bit higher than stores in the US, customers dying of heat stroke tend to be bad for business everywhere.) This is actually a lot more true than I'd like to admit, given that air conditioning isn't as prevalent as it is in the US, and that in a lot of places, such as our apartment building, installing your average window-unit is impossible because the windows in this country are retarded.

Actually, the windows are pretty cleverly designed--turn the handle 90° and you can open them like a door, turn 90° further and they open like an oven, but only up to a maximum of six or seven inches.  Still, as you might imagine, trying to put a heavy air conditioning unit in one of these set-ups isn't exactly easy.

Fortunately, summers here are pretty mild, with temperatures usually peaking around 28° C (82° F) and only occasionally venturing above 30° C (86°).  Hot spells don't even last that long, either, a week at most.  So it might seem as if there's nothing to complain about, especially for a Philly girl who's survived Philadelphian summers without air conditioning.  But the fact is, because the rest of the days are so mild, it makes hot days that much more misearable.  And when even the Little It is whining from the heat (by not bumping around as much as he does when it's cooler) it kinda goes without saying that there are days when we wish we had air conditioning.

Central air is out of the question for buildings like ours, which were built in the 70s or thereabouts.  Small units are available for individual rooms (known as "split-" and "multi-split" units), but they are prohibitively expensive to buy and installing them is a bit confusing, to say the least, as I honestly cannot fathom how they work.  Plus they're costly to run, and as I mentioned above, summers are pretty mild here, usually, with only a few weeks of hot weather and even then it's not truly intolerable.

So drawing the curtains shut it is.  Our picture windows have got these dark red curtains, with a white reflective layer facing the outside.  Unfortunately, glass traps infrared energy, which is why despite the windows being open as far as they will go to let the heat out, the space between the curtains and the window is hot enough to cook kitties.  Candles left in their holders will be deformed.  If you start early enough, you might be able to cook something sous vide there.  It doesn't actually cool the place down, just makes it tolerable when the weather gets hot.  But even so, for a couple sheets of fabric, it's pretty impressive.  

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Books books books and a pool

Like most cities, Nijmegen has a Very Excellent Library.  Besides having all the books you can possibly read, there is a CD collection that would put most of the record stores here to shame, free Internet access for card holders, music books and a few soundproof rooms so that you can try out the piece on a piano, DVDs, and a little cafe.   Alas, the coffee isn't free, but the fact that you're allowed to eat and drink in a library while reading books is a new one for me--most libraries in the States are "No food or drinks allowed" zones.

Much to my chagrin, though, I'd never applied for a library card there.  The reasons were several--for the first three years I lived here, I didn't work in Nijmegen, and consequently spent more time out of the city than in it.  The next year I was unemployed, so it's only now that I've reached some kind of routine with the Little It preparations and the business that I've been able to find the wherewithal to ask for a library card.

Unlike libraries in the States, though, the libraries here aren't free.  It costs €55 per year to get a library card that will allow you to borrow anything you want; the alternative is to get a free library card but pay €3.50 for every item you borrow.  I can understand why they do this--the Philadelphia Free Library has to go through a funding fight every year--but I'm still a bit peeved that it costs as much as a train pass.

The other thing we discovered this weekend was the Gofferpark Zwembad, which, as you might have surmised from the title of the post, is a pool, or rather a system of outdoor pools.  They're open in the summers, and while it's a bit pricey--€4.40 for an adult--it's easy to spend an entire day there, and judging from the sunburns we saw yesterday, a lot of people do.  They have three pools, of varying depths:  a kiddie pool, which is about 1 foot deep and for toddlers and the like; a pool 1.1 m deep or thereabouts, for people to just relax in; and a 2 m pool for swimming laps.   There is also an enormous waterslide, but the line for that was pretty long.  Most of the time it's pretty empty, but on hot days (defined in the Netherlands as anything above 25° C) everybody goes there.  There's a lot of grassy areas to sunbathe on and a snackbar selling ice cream and sodas, though this being the Netherlands, there is no prohibition against bringing your own snacks.

The most incredible thing about the pool?  The complete and total anarchy--and the relative orderliness of the place in spite of it.  There weren't any visible lifeguards anywhere, though I'm pretty sure someone somewhere was watching, as I heard a whistle go off once or twice.  But as for a guy in a high chair and sunglasses watching kids play?  Nope.  Also, too--the fact that all over the place were unattended bags, towels, lawnchairs, etc.  They do have tiny lockers available to store cell phones and wallets, so I guess everybody knew that there wouldn't be anything worth stealing, but even so, given that you only have to leave your bicycle unattended for 30 seconds before it disappears, it was quite a revelation to see so much stuff left around, and nobody giving a damn.  The last thing--and I mention this because some people might not realize this--is that there are no showers (beyond the outdoor ones for a quick rinse), and the changing area and toilets are co-ed.  There are booths you can use to change in, so nobody's running around stark naked or anything.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

One Thing at a Time

The vet assistants know me and the Tweeb (though they know her as Tibbles) by name by now: I'm the one who stops by every two weeks for two boxes of Royal Canin Renal wet food and every few months for a bag of Royal Canin Renal kibbles.  I'm the one who makes the appointments twice a year for the Tweeb--and now Noodle--to get their kidney panel checked.  And when the Tweeb gets the squits, as she does with a strange regularity, I get the dubious honor of hauling her stinky little butt to the vet for rehydration--Karel comes when he can, but his schedules doesn't always permit him to be there.  And last year, on the eve of our trip to Scotland, she got her tail clipped in the kitchen door (fortunately it wasn't too bad, but for a while it was definitely crimped in two places).  So when I call the vet's and give them my name, I can almost hear them thinking, "Oh boy, what's up with Tibbles this time?"

A few nights ago the Tweeb got herself a mildly prolapsed rectum, thanks to a ginormous crap that she laid in the hallway.  After a frantic 15 minutes, Karel finally managed to reach the emergency vet, and we were reassured that 5 mm wasn't that bad of an emergency and that she would live if we brought her in the next day.  So the next morning, despite her butt having returned to normal, I made the appointment with the vet, and after a journey spent yowling her displeasure at being shoved into a carrier,  the Tweeb was poked and prodded, and given (as we suspected she would be) laxatives.

That older animals need more care than their younger counterparts isn't surprising, but for some reason it always comes as a shock to me to find out that some part of them isn't working as well as it ought to be--the Tweeb's kidneys, Noodle's kidneys (here's hoping that Shadow somehow avoids this fate), and now the Tweeb's gut. It's the same with people, I know:  old animals need care, too, and nothing is sadder than to read about people who have to surrender their pets because they can't afford the care they need.  Happily we're not in that financial boat, and giving laxatives to the Tweeb isn't that much of a hardship on either of us (it'll probably be harder for me, since I've got to figure out how to convince the damn cat to eat it) that we're having to contemplate that path.  

But this event is another reminder that the Tweeb is mortal, and one day in the all-too-soon future, she will eventually reach the point when she has to cross the rainbow bridge. By then, we might have worked out a daily treatment plan that involves a dose of subQ fluids and some medications in a pill in addition to laxatives in her prescription diet.  It's easy to tell yourself, now, that you won't be the kind of owner who will put their pet through hell just to have them around, but it's a bit harder to know you've reached that point when it's one little thing, followed by another.

Friday, August 10, 2012


The Dutch are not hagglers.  You go to a store, and the price you see is the price you pay.  Maybe, maybe, if you know the owner and have been best buds with him since you were knee-high to a grasshopper, you might get a freebie thrown in, but you'll never end up paying less than the advertised price. About the only place haggling might work is at flea markets, and even then you have to have a reason to start knocking the price down.

That being said, every now and then you get lucky, and lucky, in this case, was almost 2 kg of squishy, over-ripe apricots.  I'd given up on finding apricots--bike riding is out now, much less a ride with a load of easily-bruised fruit precariously balanced on the rack--this summer, but in one small shop in the middle of the city, a shop that I usually avoid because everything is expensive, I saw the sorry collection of squishy apricots in a crate.  The owner said that they were too ripe, but if I wanted them, I could have the lot for €2.50. "Perfect for jam," he said, when I told him what I wanted to do with them.

Well, ok, not me, per se.  Karel is the jammer, and in the summers there is nothing he'd rather be doing than standing over a hot pot of boiling sugar-and-fruit, with the oven going full force, stirring occasionally, and cackling evilly.  And this is the same man who whines and turns into a wilting flower if the weather so much as dares go above 20°C.  It's my job to find questionable fruit at rock-bottom prices, and time my purchases to fit his schedule. Jamming isn't that hard, but's still at least a few hours to put together a few pots.

The picture above is not of the apricot jam, but instead of the strawberry jam-attempt that Karel made with el-cheapo bargain-basket strawberries that I'd found later that week in the market.  "Attempt", because it turned out to be a divine syrup, but alas it didn't set.  Oh well, you win a few, you lose a few...and in any case, syrups make a divine dressing for chocolate fondant cakes.

There's probably a lesson in this post, dealing with patience and being thrifty and how tasty homemade stuff can be.  But I'll leave that up to you to divine.  Me, I'm going to look up a recipe for scones.   

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

How the Dutch got their cycle paths

Shared from Breigh at Canadutch (linked on the right).  

See, this is what a democracy is supposed to be like:  governments working to do what's best for the people.  

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Chicken Cheaters

I buy organic meats for Karel and the Little It.  Not so much because I actually believe it's healthier, but because in Europe, at least, the labelling laws say that for a product to be called "organic" (or bio, or EKO, as the label is known in the Netherlands), the animal must have free range and be fed organic food.  Such animal products get 3 stars under the "Beter Leven" label.  I prefer products that have 2 stars--I don't see the point of feeding organic feed, but I do think animals should be free range.  1-star products indicate that the animal is caged, but otherwise treated humanely--meaning better than one of the poor box-pigs that you can see in the commercial below.  As our local supermarkets go, it's either 1 or 3 stars.  Some of it does come out of concern for animal welfare--but mostly because I think it's squicky to eat something that's likely been eating its own shit.  

But even if you don't subscribe to my views, I have discovered another reason to purchase organic animal products:  you actually get what you pay for.  Yesterday, after swallowing my disappointment that our Albert Heijn was out of organic whole chickens, I flinched and bought a seemingly-huge scharrelkip--a 3-4 lbs beast (normally it's 2-3 lbs) of a bird.  Roast chicken was on the menu last night, and I didn't feel like going back home and rejiggering the menu so that we could have an organic bird.  I'm principled, but not a saint.  And also--it's chicken.  How different could it be?

Turns out:  vastly.  The chickens that I have bought up to now, being organic chickens, released just a bit of liquid when they were finished cooking--certainly, one layer of onions and carrots was plenty to keep the chicken out of the its juices.  So I was completely unprepared for the soup that the bird was swimming in when it was finished--almost 1/3 of the roasting dish was flooded with extruded liquid.  Then I remembered that chickens are injected with saline to make them juicier, less prone to being tough when faced with errors of cooking time.  In the end, then, there was about as much meat on it as the organic bird, and the organic bird also tasted better--more noticeably, the dark meat was actually kind of dark.  Plus organic chickens have tougher skin--I somehow put 3 holes in the skin of the chicken in the process of turning it, which I never managed to do with an organic one, and I know I manhande the organic birds just as badly (not a dainty home cook).

Given the price difference between the 1-star bird and the 3-star birds (negligible), it comes down to this:  if you're going to buy a starred animal product, go with the 3-star products.  With a 1-star product, you're already paying a premium for the privilege of eating a humanely-treated animal.  You may as well go all the way and get something that tastes good, is easy to handle, and isn't 1/3 saline.

(You may be asking yourself why I spend up to twice as much money on an organic chicken, when I'm always trying to minimize costs and cut out this and that.  One bird will last 10 meals--one as a roasted chicken, one as a ragout, and then the bones and juices get boiled for up to 1 L of stock, which is good for 8 meals, and maybe-sometimes there might be enough for wraps the next day.  It might not be as efficient as 22 meals for $49 (she did have a bigger chicken than I did, and apparently Karel is a bigger carnivore than Karl), but stretched the way it is, €10 isn't too bad a price. )