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.