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. )