Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Dipes and Wipes

I am convinced that, were aggravating messes actually physically painful, Karel would be nominated for sainthood for living with me.  I'm not very messy...ok, maybe I am, but these days I'm a lot better about keeping things clean. Mostly for his sake, but also for my own--ever since I discovered I'm allergic to Noodle, daily vaccuuming of the apartment is a must, and is much easier if things are put away regularly.  The pregnancy has dampened my allergies, but on the other hand one doesn't get into regular habits for two years to lose them overnight.

That being said, there are some things that don't lend themselves to being put away regularly, and one such thing is a long, ongoing sewing project:  I'm making cloth diapers for our Little It--we also have a goodly stash of the traditional sheet kinds of diapers, that you can fold, and I plan on buying a few commercially available cloth ones off Amazon this month in a shopping spree of Little It things.  Babies don't need that much, but what they need are things we don't have.

Why cloth?  Well, for starters, they're cheap--okay, they seem expensive at first, costing (in US terms) around $20 each if you buy them.  It's a lot cheaper to make them (around €6 in materials, in my estimation), but of course you'd have to have the time to cut and sew.  On the other hand, you "only" need around 20 of them, and it sure beats the pants off of buying two or three packages of disposables a month for two years (to say nothing of the extra trash bill--and the stench of poo if you only have trash removal once a week, like we do).  Even with the extra cost of extra laundry, the difference between cloth and disposables is vast enough to make even the most profligate Republican consider doing a few extra loads of laundry.  And if you have more than one child, the savings are even better.  And while I'm not a member of the tree-hugging elite, I don't think anybody can honestly say that they don't feel a little guilty about tossing all those diapers, especially if it's only been 5 minutes since the last changing.    

These are a somewhat-modified version of the pattern gotten here.  Modified, in the sense that rather than 9 layers of flannel or God-knows-how-many layers of other absorbent stuff, I cut up a microfiber towel and used that for the soaker pad.  Modified, too, in the sense that the pattern is for a serged edge rather than the traditional take-two-pieces-sew-together-and flip--neither of my machines does a serge stitch, so it was just going to have to be a "normal" sewing project.  It takes a surprisingly long time to make these, not because the sewing is difficult (it's not--promise!), but because cutting them in a way that makes the most efficient use of your fabric is actually quite difficult.  If you don't care about keeping your fabric costs down, then it becomes a lot easier, but with flannel running at €11/meter (it's 240 cm wide), you'll understand why I've been a bit stingy (comparison:  none of the curtains in our window cost more than €2 per meter).  Then, too, you have the cute prints for the diaper shells--technically this is optional, and I could have shelled out a lot less than €5/meter, but it's for a baby, and if there was ever an excuse to splurge on the cute stuff, this would have been it.  That being said, I estimate a total cost for 20+ diapers to be around €125, including the elastic and the thread but not including the sewing machine, which was a gift.  I don't know if they will last the full 6-18 months that they're supposed to, but I am quite pleased with how they turned out--the flannel lining the inside is soft, and while I was afraid that three layers of microfiber wouldn't be enough, I'm now convinced that it's overkill.  Plus sewing elastic isn't as hard as I was afraid it was going to be.

You'll notice that I don't have any way of fastening the diapers.  This is not because I'm a flake and forgot.  It's because I don't trust Velcro (what the pattern recommends) to hold up to lots of washes in hot water, and I'm too lazy to painstakingly put in snaps.  One of the things we're going to order off Amazon this month are Snappis, which you can use on all kinds of cloth diapers to hold them securely in place.  We also have some of the traditional ginormous safety pins as a backup, but of course I'd rather not risk stabbing the Little It.

It is a lot of work to make dipes and wipes--less work to make the wipes, of course, but they ain't gonna hem themselves--and I'm not sure if I'd be doing it if I had a regular job.  But it is a lot of fun to turn out things that are so damn cute, and it does make the coming baby seem a lot more present.    

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Cheap Fun

The best €2.50 I ever spent in the Netherlands was on a book of bike routes around Nijmegen, Fietsen vanuit Nijmegen (I got it on sale, otherwise the price would have been €9.50). There's a whole series of Fietsen vanuit... books, although if you live in Utrecht or Rotterdam, you're out of luck.  The smaller cities, including Den Bosch and Zwolle and Deventer, are well-represented in the series.  The books are printed by ReCreatief Fietsen, and these days, if books are too retro for you (they are, admittedly, a pain in the butt to carry while riding), you can buy map programs for your GPS from their website. 

Each route begins with a map, depicting the route in red, population centers in brown, and most importantly, forests in dark green--this last is important if you're anything like Karel, and burn after 30 minutes in the full sun.  Many of the routes in and around the Ooijpolder, for instance, are completely devoid of tree cover, so not doing one of those on a day of bright sunshine is probably a wise idea.  That being said, even the routes that do offer ample tree coverage have long patches of farmland biking in between, so it's still a good idea to be liberal with the sunblock.  Cafes, windmills, and castles you might see are all marked on the map as well.  

There are also detailed directions on how to get from point A to...er, well, since these are closed loops, point A again.  They also provide you with a distance-traveled-until-you-get-to-the-next-direction indicator, which is helpful but not exactly easy to use, since the numbers are cumulative--i.e., if something says 25.2 and the next one says 27.4, then you'd have stayed on the path for 2.2 km.  I wouldn't call it difficult math, but it does take an extra step, and when you're thinking "We should be close to the turnoff point by now" and are looking for the telltale cafe, it's not exactly comforting to realize that you forgot to subtract one from the tens' place 20 minutes too late.

But the routes are well-thought-out, and are indeed well-suited for recreational riders.  You don't have to be in anything resembling an athlete to complete a circuit, and the routes follow either well-marked bike lanes or less-travelled country roads which would meet even the most paranoid of Asian mothers' expectations for safety.  Last Wednesday, on my last long bike ride until next year (it's getting risky now that the Little It is screwing with my center of gravity), we took one of the hilliest routes, but there was only one point where we had to get off and push our bikes up the hill, and that was a hill that I probably would have had to walk up even had I not been pregnant--it was that steep, although it was also a short one.  

I've greatly enjoyed the rides this book has taken me on.  They're not quite as easy to follow as the knooppunten, but they are lovely and very scenic and you don't run the risk of being faced with a downhill slalom or a cliff, nor do you chance being completely lost, or getting stuck on a road for three hours without a cafe in sight. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Cabbage is a terribly misunderstood vegetable.  Most people know it as cole slaw, with its gobbets of mayonnaise, which is yet another polarizing food.  Saurkraut is its other common incarnation, and while I like saurkraut, it's easy to understand why most people don't (this is not the pregnancy speaking--I really do like saurkraut).  But cabbage salad that's not cole slaw?

Salting is a technique similar to brining, in the sense that both involve steeping something (meat or vegetable) in massive quantities of salt.  With meat, you use a salt-and-water (or whiskey) solution.  With vegetables, you just toss lots of chopped vegetables with a tablespoonful or two of salt and wait.  In both cases, osmosis draws water out from the food, and you end up with a very tender and, depending on how thoroughly you rinse off the salt, slightly salty food.  For vegetables, you get a tender-yet-still-crunchy effect.

It is this tender-yet-still-crunchy texture that makes this too-simple-to-screw-up salad so good that it beats the pants out of any cole slaw out there (sorry, Jeroen Meus).  You take a bit of cabbage, and chop it up fine--you could shred it, but I find that chopping is the best way to preserve the texture of the more delicate leaves.  Assemble it, layer by layer, in a bowl, with a sprinkling of salt in between layers.  Let it sit in the fridge for about an hour.  Rinse off the salt (this may take 2-3 rinsings), and let the cabbage drain.  Dress it with a bit of olive oil, a dash of vinegar if you want.  Done.  Light, crunchy, mild, and not "cabbage-y" (that sickeningly-sweet taste of a too-thick rib--the salt probably does something with that compound that makes that flavor).  Perfect.

Of course there are a thousand other things you could put into this salad if you so choose:  radishes, carrots, sweet onions, fennel, and daikon (if you can get it) all pickle nicely, and if a bowl of plain cabbage sounds a bit too, well, plain to you, by all means play around.  I hear raisins go quite nicely with a cabbage salad, and Karel is inexplicably partial shallots.  For myself, though, I like it simple.  Cabbage has enough diversity in its layers and parts that I don't see much need to fix what ain't broke.  

Monday, July 23, 2012


There's a saying (attributed to the Irish, from my brief stint on Google) that goes, "He doesn't have a pot to piss in, nor a window to throw it out of."

We're not nearly that poor--after all, we have windows and pots, and the business is doing well enough to offset some of the monthly day-to-day expenses.  But a wedding is not one of these expenses.  A wedding, in fact, is one of those expenses, even in the Netherlands. "Those expenses" meaning "huge, confusing, and aggravating to arrange".  And there's nothing like researching wedding costs to make your up-until-now-comfortable-lifestyle feel like a pauper's.

No, we are not married, although people have been sending cards to "Karel and Jules Hyphenated-Last-Names" for a while now, and some of our friends even refer to Karel as my husband and me as his wife.  We've been talking about formally getting hitched for a while--and indeed what is now called our "emergency fund" was at one time a wedding fund (it's still the same amount of money, still stashed in the same account--a rose by any other name, etc).  But that was when we still had the luxury of fantasizing about what a perfect ceremony would be, a mile-long guest list, and no 9-month limit to our time to save up for such an extravagance.

In the Netherlands, it's not a lot of extra paperwork for a man to say "I'm the daddy" if he's not married, but it does make it easier, and it would make my mother feel better, as well as satisfy Karel's (and my own) old-fashioned need to be a "proper" couple before the Little It arrives.  That being said, when your priorities shift from getting married to getting married now ("soon", at the very least), expenses get cut really fast:  the guest list shrinks to the people most likely to come, and when your waist is expanding like a balloon, finding the perfect dress is less of a priority than finding a dress--any dress--that will fit.

Still, getting married isn't a small thing, even if you try to make it one:  the civil ceremony, in the Stadhuis, costs up to €1000 if you want to reserve the building all day (we are not).  Certain rituals are expected afterwards--food and drink and a few hours of socializing and congratulating--at a separate locale, with a certain degree of posh-ness, later that day.  And that's just the basics--I've forgotten the photographer, flipped off the flowers, and dropped the cake.  We're still undecided as to whether we'll even have rings--as a doctor, he couldn't wear one whenever he's working (if people knew what got stuck between a ring and the finger it sits on...ew), and I just find them annoying as bugger-all, and anyway when you've been a couple for 11 years and together for 5, any extra symbolism engendered by shiny bits of expensive metal is rather artificial at this point (not to mention my hands are noticeably swollen and I'd probably have to get it resized).

To be quite honest, though, it is a bit of a relief to not do a "perfect" wedding.  I suspect that most "bridezillas" are that way because they've been starving themselves for six months in order to fit into a size 0 dress, which trust me, I am not doing.  Nobody likes the way wedding cakes taste, which sort of defeats the point of having cake (the point of food, after all, is to be eaten).  Not being able to have the perfect dress also means that there's no baggage attached to renting one rather than buying one; and who remembers the flower arrangements, anyway?  And not having a mile-long guest list means not forgetting who this person is and how she's related to the second cousin of Karel's fourth niece, five times removed.  And I hate the way I look in most pictures, and I can't imagine why that would be any different when I'm wearing white, and am the size of a small planet, to boot.

Maybe it's the pregnancy sapping what energy I have to deal with things like this, or maybe it's the fact that my blood sugar is high enough to remain rational about the relative importance of a wedding day after more than a decade as a couple.  Because at the end of the day, that's really all that matters--being together.  

Friday, July 20, 2012

Being Prepared

These past two days, I've been busy taking the NT2, the Dutch language test that determines, amongst other things, whether I can stay in the Netherlands. Copies of the test from 2001-2 and several other years can be found here, for people who are interested in just exactly what it comprises (programma II).

The NT2 has four sections:  reading, writing, listening, and speaking.  Most of it is computerized, except for the writing bit (and thank God, because when I type in Dutch I make even more typos than I do in English), where you get a packet for your answers and a sheet of scrap paper for planning--especially helpful for the essays.  For the reading section, you get a packet with 6-7 passages, most of which are pretty intense--something along the lines of a Vanity Fair article by Christopher Hitchens.  For the speaking bit, you also get a packet with pictures and questions, and you're prompted by the computer to start and stop speaking.  There are the uber-short 20-second answers, the less-short 30-second answers, and the 2-minute monologues.  Listening is done entirely on the computer.  You do two sections one day, and two sections the next.

It reminded me of taking the SAT and MCAT, in the sense that the proctors had to read the directions on every packet. They checked your dictionary (-ies, if you had 2) to make sure there were no grammar cheat-sheets, and forbade the usage of any other pen except theirs.  The one saving grace was that you were allowed to eat and drink while taking the test, which was good news for me on the second day, since the Little It apparently decided to grow something important, and consequently I was starving about halfway through the reading section.

In terms of difficulty, it was pretty much exactly what the final for my B2 course was, and indeed, the Radboud's B2-level Dutch course could have been called "NT2 Prep Course".  We even had the headsets and the same monotone computer voice prompting us in the speaking section, and I'd say that the listening section of the B2 course was even harder than the NT2's, because 10 of the questions involved a guy with a funny accent and a stutter who constantly stopped in the middle of one sentence and restarted again anew.  I wasn't nervous going into it--I'd taken all of the practice exams and done reasonably well in them--but of course, we'll have to wait 6 weeks to see what the results are.   

Monday, July 16, 2012

One from the Other

Kids are language machines.  I don't have any real difficulty getting the basics of a language, but my abilities with Dutch is childish compared with, well, a child's.  Apparently there was a time when I didn't speak English, and I damn near flunked grammar in grade school (the difference between a subject and an object confused the bejesus out of me until college).  Now, I copyedit stuff.

Given that kids are language machines, then, we're not going to worry overly much about teaching the Little It English and Dutch, other than to teach It that Mommy speaks one language and Papa speaks another. My mother was raised this way--and up until their very last, she spoke one dialect to one and one dialect to the other.  Language is part of someone's identity, almost more so than their personalities--people can change, but if you've always spoken Dutch to one person and English to another, then it's really really hard to switch it around.

My own experience in being raised quasi-bilingual (I infinitely prefer English over Chinese) is that formal lessons suck, especially if they take place on Saturdays.  If I had to do Chinese school over again, I'd have arranged it to happen after school a few times a week, rather than on (*groan groan groan*) Saturday mornings --I don't know if they've changed it since I stopped going, but it sort of makes more sense, from a psychological point of view:  i.e., your week is ruined by school anyway, so a couple extra hours of school isn't going to ruin the week any more.  And in any event, nothing sucks worse than writing lines (Chinese writing is typically taught by filling in columns of 12-14 squares with characters) on Friday night.  None of which enhanced my proclivity towards learning Chinese. I speak it with my mother, but only because she doesn't always understand English.  

Dutch schools typically begin teaching English at a very early age--the typical "Hi, how are you" and counting from one to ten and all that stuff.  But it's a kind of forced bilingualism--the kind of Spanish you might learn to speak for a trip to Mexico--rather than a true ability in both languages, and it shows if you try to speak English in the smaller towns and cities outside of the Randstad.  I'd rather have a child go to school having never heard a word of Dutch in his life, than to go to school learning appalling habits from me.

Still, I've had one or two conversations with other people, who are surprised and not a little worried that I'm relatively blasè about teaching the Little It Dutch.  It doesn't matter, to them, that the science and my personal experiences back me up.  It's strange, if you think about it--all the care and attention that goes into prepping children for school, all the reading and "enhancing" activities that you're implored to do, and yet, when it comes to actually letting a child work out that Mommy speaks English and Papa speaks Dutch, they're all terrified that he won't be able to.  

Friday, July 13, 2012

Big Plate

Just wanted to let you know:

1)  I'm still alive
2)  I'm just very busy at the moment.  Things should ease off after next week, but right now I've got a mega-assignment and the NT2 coming up.
3)  I'm also woefully out of ideas to blog about.  If anybody has a topic they'd like to see addressed, please let me know.