Sunday, February 26, 2012

Perfect Men

One of the many upsides to finally acquiring enough Dutch is learning how to swear appropriately, terribly, and awfully in the local tongue. Another is getting a chance to...appreciate the, ah...finer aspects of Dutch cinema.

To be sure, New Kids: Turbo can hardly count as art haus--or, for that matter, bath house. It just might make "out house"...and then only because of the scatological humor that is (mercifully) sometimes employed. Sure, there are actually good Dutch movies about important things (Komt een vrouw bij de doktor), but nobody does self-parody like the Dutch, and if you want to understand that certain segment of the population that's the equivalent of "hillbilly" in the US, look no farther than the New Kids.

Yes, it's a parody, and as such, it's highly exaggerated, full of non-sequiturs that have non-sequiturs of their own. But if you think of it as one long Jeff Foxworthy skit, it starts to make sense. Kind of. As much sense as randomly running over people can make, anyway.

Two things to note: first of all, as a parody, it is grounded in truth. How much of it is true, on the other hand...there are some gags that just aren't that funny because they are, quite sadly, completely true, such as the violence some people degenerate into when appealing (unwisely) to have their uitkering geld limits increased. Secondly, you don't realize how much you lipread until you watch a movie full of mustaches. Apparently my ability to understand the spoken word is more limited than I thought, though that might also be due to the funky accents.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Oud Schiedam

At some point in my stay in the Netherlands, someone pressed into my hand a small glass of jenever and told me to try it. It tasted vile. Like turpentine, mixed with paint thinner, steeped in the original Listerine. Karel saw my experession of horrified dismay, and told me, "And that's why I don't drink jenever."

Jenever is gin, but since the drink received EU recognition, it can only be called jenever if it comes from the Netherlands, and two provinces in Belgium and Germany. Conversely, I have no idea if the British have trademarked "gin" for their own, but in any event, they are one and the same: juniper-berry-flavored vodka, essentially. And no city in the Netherlands is more famous for this fruity concoction than...Schiedam.

History buffs know that London did not originate as London, but rather as a cluster of villages that grew into each other. The same is true of Schiedam, and, for that matter, the entirety of the Netherlands in and around Rotterdam. At some point in history, Schiedam and Rotterdam were seperate entities, but these days, they've fused to become one, and really the only thing distinguishing them is...well, I have no idea, really.

We'd gone to Schiedam to take in the picturesque promises from the little brochure that came with Karel's order of oil lamps, and to visit the little store which sells them. It was a cloudy day when we boarded the water taxi out of Dordrecht, but boats are always a lot of fun and for some reason, even though the view was dismal for most of the trip, it was still quite an enjoyable trip. The only accepted mode of payment, if you're interested in taking it, is the OV Chip card, so make sure yours is loaded.

Once in Scheidam, we quickly discovered that it was not quite as picturesque as the brochure made it out to be. They didn't lie, exactly, about the windmills or the beauty of the Lange Haver. They just...failed to mention it was all surrounded by...Rotterdam. Nevertheless, we were here, on a rare day off together, and we were going to have fun, damn it.

"Fun" for the day ended up being a trip to the Jenever Museum, a museum showcasing the production and history of Holland's most famous drink. It's a nice little museum--you are free to poke and prod and touch and look at stuff--and in the end, you can have a nice little tipple at the bar (cost: €3 per dram of Oud Schiedam). There are those infamous "And this is how it's made" videos from the 1980s, complete with bad hair and worse beards, that can be played at the push of a button. It was no Ketel No. 1 tour, but there could have been worse ways to spend our day in Schiedam.

As for the Oud Schiedam: it tasted like a very mild whiskey--indeed, the bartender told us that the "good stuff" (as I was already thinking of it) was aged for 3 years in old whiskey barrels, which accounted for the lovely, almost creamy taste. A far cry from the engine-degreaser that I'd tried earlier--which just goes to say that there is, in fact, jenever worth drinking. But by far the best part of the tasting was, in my opinion, the little "hat" the glass came with. The glass-with-hat can also be bought at the museum for €5--but considering that it would be a 2-hour train ride back to Nijmegen, we decided better of it.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Anybody who has had their wisdom teeth removed, or else knows someone who's had their wisdom teeth removed, has probably heard a horror story or two about broken roots and otherwise terribly nasty things that go wrong when wisdom teeth get extracted. Luckily, mine came out without a hitch. Thirty minutes was the total length of time it took for all three--I was back in our apartment within an hour--but even so, I was shaking so hard at the end that I had trouble with my bike lock.

Even though most of it was painless--honestly, the most painful part was the anesthesia--I was still on edge for the entire procedure. When I was little, I had terrible cavities in my baby teeth, which warranted their removal. Our dentist wouldn't believe me when, while he was yanking out my teeth, I started crying because it hurt so badly. He'd given me the anesthetic, and it wasn't supposed to hurt--so therefore, it had to be in my head. Fortunately, this time, they believed me when I said it still hurt, and they gave me an extra shot. Unfortunately, this time, it meant that the anesthesia took twice a long to wear off.

But I kept expecting it to hurt, and it wasn't until they took off the cloth covering my eyes (ostensibly to protect my eyes from sharp pointy objects, but also because dental patients are like birds--if you can't see it, it can't hurt you) that I was able to relax. Some things just don't get better, even twenty years later.

Monday, February 20, 2012

"Nobody move! I dropped me brain."

24 Oranges first picked up the story, which one of my FB friends linked to: Rick Santorum, now a "serious contender" for the presidency (and I swear, I wish I could say that that was a typo), says that the Dutch practice euthanasia on the elderly.

Which is ridiculous, and Reddit has already done a thorough refutation of everything that Santorum said about the Dutch. Starting with "wearing special bracelets". Dude--the Holocaust is still within living memory, and Karel's parents still remember the Dutch famine of '44-45. We are so not going there.

There are a whole host of other things about Santorum's quote that rubs me the wrong way. "Elderly people in the Netherlands don't go the hospital, they go to another country", for starters. I live closer to the Germany than I do to Amsterdam. If I do need urgent medical care, it is actually pretty reasonable for me to seek it in Germany. Happily, we live in a city serviced by a major medical center, so I don't need to learn another language.

Now, to be fair, it is easy to point to the Netherlands, with all of the hash and hookers, and say, "What a degenerate country!" But if you look beyond that, to see how people who actually live here actually live, it's quite the opposite. You can point to the ridiculously long wait times for elective procedures (one month to get a wisdom tooth extracted, for instance) as evidence that socialized medical systems suck, but honestly--it's an elective procedure. It's not like it's going to kill me if I wait another month. It's like tossing out a Maserati because a bird crapped on the hood.

Right now, the US is embroiled in another "controversy" over mandatory birth control coverage for women who want it. Detractors have framed it as a question of religious freedom, which sort of begs the question: if a Catholic woman wants birth control, are they then suggesting that she can no longer be Catholic? Or to put it another way: what better way to celebrate religious freedom, than to let people decide how they want to practice it?

All of which gets lost on morons like the ones that are (God knows why, I've long given up trying to understand the Republican psyche) running for the highest office of one of the most powerful nations on the earth. Perhaps I didn't actually drop me brain. Probably it fled rather than confront the idiocy.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

"Everything's gonna be all right"

There are moments when I wish I knew Latin, so that I could swear like Batiatus (my favorite whiny man, from Spartacus) and say things like, "Finally, the gods see fit to remove c**k from @$$," which is fantastic in plain English and is grandiose enough to vent with. But for true vexation and petulance, only Latin will do, although I understand that Japanese is a close contender.

Last week, we found out that Noodle, like the Tweeb, has chronic renal failure (or, in more PC parlance, "chronic kidney disease"). It's a bitter, albeit not unexpected, pill to have to swallow: Noodle's kidney values were elevated at last spring's dental, so we all decided that a six-month checkup would be a good time to confirm or refute the findings. Alas, the findings were confirmed: Noodle's kidney values moved from "high-normal" to "high", and since then we've been feeding him the same prescription diet as the Tweeb has been getting. Luckily, Noodle will snarf anything, and I don't think he's noticed the change in his food.

As a quasi-public-service announcement, though, I'd like to point out that neither Noodle nor the Tweeb displayed any symptoms of renal failure prior to their blood tests. They did not drink excessively, the number of pee-balls in the litter box hasn't changed, they were not reclusive or lethargic (although, being cats, I must admit it is hard to objectively qualify what counts as "reclusive or lethargic"). In most cats, by the time symptoms of CKD start to appear, they only have 25-30% renal function left, and by then they usually only have a few more months before crossing the rainbow bridge. We caught both Noodle and the Tweeb well before that point, and indeed, besides an occasional bald patch (where they shave the fur before drawing blood), there's no indication at all that they are sick.

The point is, if you have a cat that's getting up there in years (10, thereabouts), please consider getting them tested for chronic diseases (CKD and diabetes), even if they show no signs of disease. We intend to get Shadow a blood test at her next visit (she'll be 8 years old!) just to see how things are, and every few years after that. Catching something as insidious as CKD early on might make a world of difference between simply changing their food and having to administer subcutaneous saline and a battery of pills every day. The Tweeb has been with us for five years since she was diagnosed, and at the rate she's going, it won't be her kidneys that kill her. We're hoping that the same will be true of Noodle. Of course, every cat is different, but early detection and good management will maximize your kitty's chances.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Care Bears

In the US, when you're about to lose your job, you panic for a bit, and then, when you stop panicking, you arrange for unemployment, and find another job.

In the Netherlands, apparently, the correct response is to arrange for uitkering benefits.

Uitkering is welfare, plain and simple. It's a bit of money you get from the government so that you can still buy food, and, depending on the circumstances through which you are unemployed, pay your mortgage, provide child care, and gives you a vacation "bonus" (in quotes because, being American, bonuses are something you need to earn). The exact amount you get depends, I would imagine, upon the probability of your finding a job and whether you have any disabilities. There are, of course, rules that you must follow in order to receiver your benefits (such as not having a successful business), and frankly, I'm not even sure I'd qualify, seeing as I am healthy and sound of body and mind. But the gist here is that it seems that applying for benefits is the first thing I should have done upon receiving notice of contract expiration. No less than three people this week have asked me whether I will be applying for it. It's starting to make me wonder if I should...

But I won't, because, as I learned today, applying for uitkering could complicate starting a business considerably, and it would limit my ability to work as much as I want to, to say nothing of finding another job. Of course, I am sure there are some sneaky Dutch people who flip the bird at the rules and do whatever they want and collect uitkering money, but the government can't deport them.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Saga Begins

As wonderful as our dentist is, he's still a dentist, and charming though he may be, he's still the one poking at your mouth with a tiny ice pick and admonishing you to clean your teeth better. So it follows that we ignore, for the most part, his little cards that remind us that we should be getting checkups. Prior to my arrival in the Netherlands, my last visit to an oral hygienist (not even a "real" dentist) happened a good decade earlier, when I was 18. I don't even remember how old I was when we stopped seeing our family dentist in the US. I believe we stopped because our dental insurance ran out, or something like that. Suffice it to say that one of the first things we did when I finally got my health insurance (with dental coverage) here was to visit Karel's dentist. Romantic, right?

I have been unusually fortunate, in the sense that, until last month, I have not had any problems with my teeth at all--not with my wisdom teeth, nor have I had any cavities since childhood. Last month, one of my wisdom teeth, which hadn't yet broken the surface after two years of sitting just under the gum, decided to go for broke and try again, much to my dismay--and pain. The pain is only intermittent, but when it's there, it gives me referred headaches. And after two days of headaches and teething agony, I decided the damn thing needed to go.

And here's where the whole thing gets weird: I made an appointment with our dentist to rip the little f*cker out. Our dentist poked, he prodded, but because it wasn't out, he didn't have the ability to take it out. So he gave me a referral letter (no phone number, strangely--I had to look that one up myself) for the oral surgeon at the university hospital.

I made an apointment with the oral surgeon. ("Hello, my name is Jules, and I'd like to make an appointment." "All right, can I have your insurance information?" "[insurance information]" "So wait a minute--what's your first name again?") I was told that this was merely going to be for an x-ray, that they wouldn't be traumatizing me any further. Which was fine by me--like I said, the pain is only intermittent, and I wasn't in any rush to get another tooth extracted. I'd had the same procedure done as a child, and was in screaming agony for every minute of it.

The oral surgeon appointment went well enough. They poked, they prodded, and then they asked me to stand in this machine which whirred and went 'round and 'round, by which they obtained a panoramic view of my jaw. My little problematic wisdom tooth turned out to be stuck under a ridge of bone, and they also advocated that I take out my top wisdom teeth as well--"a simple procedure", they promised me, as they were not only all the way out, but nice and straight, as well. But because they are so difficult to keep clean, mine were in danger of developing cavities and other issues.

I made a third appointment for the surgery, so soon I will be blogging about lidocaine injections and squicky crunching noises.

You might be wondering what makes this whole thing so weird: not once was I asked to make a payment. Our dentist threw in a cleaning, but never presented me with a bill. The oral surgeon never asked me whether my insurance covered this procedure. Instead, I expect that I'll get an extra bill from my health insurance company next month for my deductible (which is what happened after I paid a visit to our huisarts). It almost felt wrong to not have to whip out my PIN and pay for something. I'm as much a fan of some kind of health care system for everybody, but it still feels weird.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Joie de vivre

Hot off the presses of controversy comes Bringing Up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman. Even worse than Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it makes the assertion that le snooty French are better parents than Americans. Quelle horreur!

Actually, it doesn't seem to be a manual for how to raise kids, as it is another American "OMG the Europeans have got this whole 'living' thing figured out" memoir (though, I haven't actually read the book, only the excerpt). Which should be a genre in itself--Americans realizing that they're not the center of the universe, that the way of constant strife and competition is not the only way, that "socialism" is not, in fact, synonymous with "evil"--and what it all means to their identity as Americans. It's always funny to read these things, because, unlike most Americans who write such books, I've always been relatively laid-back and willing to entertain the idea that people elsewhere might just do and think differently. And when in Rome, as they saying goes, do as Romans do.

One review that excoriates the book raises the point that Druckerman seems to consider "American mothers" until one huge, very-broad brush, one that spans the entirety of "hypervigilent helicopter moms" to "criminally negligent crackheads", and that the degree of involvement spent in parenting likewise spans a broad range of parenting styles. But I think the review misses an opportunity to adress a critical point that Druckerman brings up, which is, "Why do American moms always feel like they're doing something wrong, and why do European moms 'just know' how to parent?" Or to paint a broader picture, "Why are Americans never satisfied?"

To answer that: certainly there is a lot about the US that could be improved--gay rights, latent (or not-so-latent) racism and reverse-racism, better social and environmental policies, more humane maternity leave policies, public transit, etc. But these are not the kinds of things that can be changed by making yourself better--these are not the kinds of changes that can take place simply because you resolve to be a better person than you were yesterday. It is my amateur-anthropologist's belief that Americans, who've grown up surrounded by this myth that you can do anything you want if you just work hard enough, have also absorbed the hidden message that's never articulated: that good people don't rely on others. Which means, rather than fostering cooperativity towards making a better future, people focus on being more/better themselves, and to hell with the rest of the world (see aforementioned about "good people"). Hence, too, the popularity of religion--self-improvement in God!

But there's a lot about Europe that could be improved, too--the coming retirement crisis, for instance. Mass confusion about signage on the roads, an ungodly tax rate (though, in light of the benefits, I'll take an ungodly tax rate), and of course there's that pesky integration-of-new-immigrants issue. But Europeans are surrounded by the myth of destiny rather than self-determination, and the hidden message that's never articulated is: we depend on others to make us good. That does seem quite creepy, actually....

Believe it or not, I did not consider any of these when I moved here. I could only trust that everything would work out in the end--and it has, mostly. There are a few quibbles that I have with my current situation, but then again, I wouldn't be American if I were so easily satisfied, would I?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

We Will Survive

Weather in the Netherlands is never reliable, not even with weather reports. This is, in part, due to the fact that the country is miniscule, but also because the eastern part of the country, where we live, is right at the boundary between coastal and continental weather. You don't really notice the difference, until you get into a train under the auspices of golden rays of sunlight, and step out into a downpour. I've been drier getting out of the shower.

So planning vet visits is always dicey. First and foremost, of course, is finding a day when we're both free, which is hard enough. Then we have to find a day and time when the vet is available, which is even harder, since they charge an extra €20 on the weekends. But lastly, we'd like it to be not-too-hot, not-too-cold, and preferably not-raining. This latter is nearly impossible to plan for, as we usually schedule vet visits weeks in advance. And it's been COLD.

The temperature this past week has been below freezing all week. I've been wearing leggings and long johns to go running and get to work. It's been so cold that wet laundry freezes stiff in ten minutes--after fifteen, it can be used as a weapon (the upside, though, is that it smells INCREDIBLE after it dries). Not that I would know.

So walking to the vet with our Kitty Tower of Terror required a few extra considerations, on top of the usual concerns about bungee cords and figuring out to cram all three fuzzbutts into their respective carriers without having them hide in impossible places. The Tweeb, in particular , is all skin and bone and and thin fur, so she got a hot water bottle in hers(much to our regret, as she was plenty comfortable enough to belt out her own operetta of howls and yowls). The entire KiTT was wrapped in one of our fleece throw blankets, which we thought would convey the added benefit of screening the kitties from seeing the enormity of the whole wide world. Alas, all it did was keep us from smelling Noodle's stress-turd until we go to the vet's. By then, Karel was quite frazzled--and I wouldn't have put a stress-turd past him.

Like Shadow, I bear these trips to the vet with an equanimity that's not quite grace--they're part and parcel of having fuzzbutts, so it must be put up with. Still, even though I'd prepared for it and checked my balances ahead of time, getting socked with an €[ungodly number] vet bill is something that you never really get used to, no matter which side of the Atlantic you're on.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Light reading

We have one credit card between the two of us, and most of its use goes towards ordering books off Amazon (the UK site). And one of the things that we are now in possession of is Dick's Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes: or, How They Did It in the 1870s. Behind the formidable title lies a formidable book: in it are directions, "in plain language", for how to make cosmetics, soap, and patent medicines. How to preserve meat, purify metals, bleach anything, dissolve bones, preserve wood, polish Alabaster. In short, how to do everything and anything, without everything and anything that we have today.

It's a fascinating read, actually, particularly the section on patent medicines: the recipes range from hopelessly useless to if-this-doesn't-kill-you-then-you'll-probably-survive-the-disease. Recipes call for orange oil, rhubarb root, fennel, molasses...and things like nitric acid, belladonna, and laudenum. "Cures" for things like whooping cough consisted of pulverizing roasted onions and making a poultice wrap and setting it on your throat (alas, this arrived after my bout with Bordatella pertussis, so I did not get a chance to try it--purely in the interest of proving that such sh*t doesn't work). Preserving milk--keeping it "sweet"--meant boiling it with baking soda.

Supposedly, it is a very "practical" guide, assuming that you can get things like hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, saltpetre, etc. And that's to say nothing of some of the more fantastic concoctions, such as "essence of morphia" (morphine), opium, and cocaine (and people have issues with legalizing marijuana!). Try getting your hands on things like brimstone, cyanide, and benzene--the last, incidentally, was a cure for head lice (and the child who was thus afflicted, apparently)--these days. The scary thing, then, is not that all of these things were used. It's that they were apparently readily available enough that a "collection of popular and domestic receipts" thought nothing of including them.

There are two things I have concluded from perusing Dick's. The first is that the days of "all natural" things are an illusion we've made for ourselves. We tell ourselves that things were better off in the days before additives and preservatives with names I can't spell and can barely pronounce, but do you REALLY think using hydrochloric acid to preserve your meat is that much better? Anti-vaccine whackos (who really should be charged with manslaughter by negligence) have got all of us worried about autism, but going back to the days when a mashed onion was all that stood between you and death-by-diphtheria isn't exactly my idea of paradise. People in the 1870s would probably kill to have what we do, today: reasonably safe and effective cleaners (for all that I mislike using Purple Stuff, it is a good deal safer than cyanide), refrigeration for meat and dairy products, and medicines that actually work. "All natural" is overrated, and is the kind of thing that only people who've never actually had to live without can wish for.

The second is that people who wish for less government regulation really have no idea what they're wishing for. The free market in 1870 was probably a lot more capitalist than it is today, but if you wanted to sue your doctor for giving your kid a deadly dose of "chlorodyne" (laudenum and chloroform), you'd be hard up to try. When you read through the lists of recommended "receipts and processes", it's a miracle that anybody lived long enough to reproduce, and had enough functional internal organs to do so.

Friday, February 3, 2012


Karel, for all his wonderful qualities, remains a steadfast luddite in many ways.  It was only very recently, for instance, that I was able to persuade him to get an OV Chip card (one of the annonymous ones) and introduce him to the wonderful swipe-and-beep of the OV Chip reader.  Say what you will about the loss of personal connectivity between a bus driver and his passenger--when it's colder than balls out, any moment extra spent waiting outside is a moment too long.

Aside:  It came to my attention last week that some riders are saying that the OV system is too complicated.  That it should be easier--you should just be able to get on and get off the bus without remembering to uitchecken.  I get that the loss of €4 for forgetting to check out might be a hardship.  But you can only do that so many times before you start remembering.  Hell, if Karel can remember to check out, the rest of the world has no excuse.

Lately, though, it's come to his attention that social media might not be the pure evil that the likes of Dr. Phil make it out to be. I'm on Facebook (not under Jules, but under my real name), and I check it regularly to see what's going on in the world, to find out what my friends are reading, and in general just to keep up with people's lives.  It's a nice way to keep in touch with people who I don't see frequently.  It's certainly no substitute for one-on-one time, but it can keep the embers hot until everybody can get together for the marshmallow roast.

So one of these days, he might just start appearing on Facebook.  And then you can ask him whether everything I write here is true, or complete bullsh*t.