Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Ignorance really IS bliss

Sunday brought a trip to Leiden and Den Haag. The Dutch rail service was its usual cheap and efficient self, and I had the unexpected pleasure of sharing a carriage with a group of young English men headed to the ferry at Hook of Holland after a cultural weekend in Amsterdam. Their conversation ranged across topics as diverse as the strength of the cannabis smoked, the excellence of the ’shrooms they consumed, the technical expertise of the women in the windows and the witty banter they engaged in with said women, the attractiveness (or otherwise) of the transvestite who ran their “hotel”, and the likelihood of their ferry capsizing in the North Sea (if there was a God . . .). Their forthright opinions were delivered in ringing tones and with the requisite amount of effin’ and blindin’, to the “delight” of the entire carriage. I’ve become accustomed to not understanding and therefore tuning out the conversations in Dutch around me; to be forced to listen to such strident and ignorant English was a real shock to the system.

I would have chastised them for not visiting the Rijksmuseum, but must shamefully admit that I haven’t made it there in the nearly five years I’ve lived here. Oh, the shame of it!

Time for a clear-out

Another office move is upon me – just between floors, but it involves packing up boxes of the detritus that’s accumulated during the two years since the last one. What do we have alongside the usual horde of post-its, note pads and pens?

One desk drawer contains: a pair of trainers, a pair of black trousers (in case I get wet on the way in), a t-shirt, an orange fire warden’s vest, 2 bottles of sunscreen, a roll of toilet paper, a pair of shoes, an engraved Tiffany writing case, some shoe polish (suitable for neither the trainers nor shoes therein), toothbrush and toothpaste, and a handbook of American idioms – carefully hidden from people who like to abuse them.

The other desk drawer contains: a sudoku book, 1 bottle of olive oil, 1 bottle of sesame salad dressing, 1 tube of mustard, 2 packs of microwave popcorn, 4 Caramacs, 3 types of green tea, a bag of Swedish crispbreads, a tub of sunflower seeds, a jar of pepper, dried onion sprinkles, a jar of sundried tomatoes, 2 packs of chewing gum, and box of blue and white muisjes (aniseed sweets), and a tin of cinnamon.

I am clearly a well-prepared, responsible person with underlying bulimic tendencies.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Broodje met kaas


No butter; no garnish; no comment. Posted by Picasa

Just call me Starbuck(s)

One raspberry banana muffin drizzle cake to go.

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This is not your parents' Battlestar Galactica

Our lack of more Battlestar Galactica episodes means that the evenings stretch ahead of us, bleak and empty. In a desperate attempt to fill them, PJ suggested we watch the pilot of the original BG and, in a moment of weakness, I agreed. It's very . . . different. I don't just mean the hairstyles (feathered bangs! on men!!), the use of the same special effects shots time after time, or the hysterically bad acting -- although it is highly entertaining watching Lorne Green play Adama as a paranoid nutjob and Jane Seymour representing the daftest mother in the world (seriously, Sirena loses her son Boxey THREE times in the pilot episode alone!). Times and budgets have changed and we can't use the same standards to judge these things.

However, viewing BG 1978 and BG 2004 side by side confirms one of the theses in Steven Johnson's book, "Everything Bad Is Good For You"; TV has become far more complex and demanding of the viewer. The 1978 2-hour pilot is a straightforward run through the Cylon attack, the end of the colonies, finding a new planet, and walking into another Cylon attack. The handful of key characters are introduced and we take them at face value: Adama (paranoid nutjob); Apollo (uptight, moralistic "hero"), Starbuck (comedy value and ladies' man); Baltar (traitor); Sirena (Worst. Mother. Ever!); and a handful of women who are variously criers, screamers, or girlfriends. There are no back stories, no complicated facets to their personalities, no conflicts above and beyond the ones set out as surface stories. There are good warriors (and the daft women who love them) and bad Cylons: That's it.

Compare this with the 3-hour miniseries that kicked off the new BG -- the three grimmest hours of television I've ever watched. A vast array of characters are introduced, some old, some new. We now have a female Secretary of Education who becomes President after the 47 people ahead of her are wiped out; Starbuck and Boomer are both women (although the casting director did a remarkable job of hiring Katee Sackhof, who looks very similar to Dirk Benedict); Gaius Baltar is a top Colonial scientist who's being manipulated by a very sexy Cylon into betraying mankind; and on it goes. Characters have become more complex, their motivations and drivers briefly glimpsed in throwaway lines or vignettes. Every hour is packed with detailed stories that layer action on motivation on conflict, forcing the viewer to concentrate -- everything is relevant. Most importantly, perhaps, there is no such thing as "good" and "bad". Colonel Tigh is an alcoholic hardass; President Roslin is a sympathetic mother figure who can also chuck Cylons out of airlocks without a thought or cut dodgy political deals; and the Cylons have feelings. (When watching BG 1978, I was rooting for the Cylons to take out Jane Seymour, but that probably doesn't count.) Politics, religion, the role of the media in wartime -- all the issues so relevant to us today are explored through sci-fi. Best of all, there are no children (although I'd love to see BG 2004 reintroduce Muffet 2.0, the animatronic "daggit" -- not enough shows have comedy animals).

And Battlestar Galactica isn't the only example of hugely involving television. Lost, Arrested Devlopment, and 24, even Life On Mars and Footballers Wives from the UK, require the viewer to pay attention; the gun shown in the first season may not go off until the third season, but you'd better remember it. If Hollywood execs want to understand why their box office receipts are heading south, they should watch TV: How can their 2-hour movies compete with the richness of these shows? It's obvious why Peter Jackson needed 10 hours to tell The Lord of the Rings and 3 for King Kong. It's also why sequels have become so prevalent; you need the first film just to set up the back story and characters but the result is that these films feel so slow as the "plot proper" is squeezed into the final 20 minutes. Rare is the movie that can establish its characters in the first few minutes and then actually tell a story thereafter. (Compare Batman Begins with War of the Worlds to see this difference and Spielberg's story-telling abilities in action.)

MPAA: It's not downloading that's killing movies; it's television.

Those three little words

They infuriate. They frustrate. They cause you to scream and throw things.

"To be continued" -- probably the three most irritating words in the world. We watched the final part of the first half of season 2 of Battlestar Galactica on Wednesday evening. It was tense, exciting stuff. [SPOILER ALERT!] Crazy Admiral Cain had just decided to execute two of Adama's officers, who'd killed a Cain-authorized Cylon interrogator who was about to anally rape Boomer, a Cylon carrying the human/Cylon hybrid baby of one of the officers threatened with execution (keep up at the back there; this is important stuff). In retaliation, Adama had launched a strike force against the Pegasus, so that he could "get his men back". And . . . fade to black, "to be continued". Argh! [/SPOILER ALERT]

This is why people download TV shows illegally. You're living in a country with a lousy TV broadcasting service -- 30 channels and nothing to watch, an inability to schedule programs properly or even show them in the right order -- you know the episodes you want are out there, and you're going to buy the box set when it's available but you want to see what happens on Galactica NOW so BitComet starts looking pretty damn attractive. The Internet has given us the ability to get what we want pretty much when we want it -- never mind when the network operators, distributors, and producers want you to have it. I'm still resistant to watching TV on download -- I've gotten used to seeing all our "stories" via the projector, so a laptop keyboard just doesn't cut the mustard -- but it's tempting. Very, very tempting.

To be continued . . .

Saturday, February 25, 2006

A stew from a land down under

I got home last night to discover that dinner had already been made. As befitted the extremely cold weather, it was a thick, warming, and hearty Australian bean and kale stew -- so hearty, in fact, that had it been a person, it would have slapped you on the back, bought you a pint, and then spent a couple of hours telling you all about the local huntin', shootin', and fishin'. After another large bowl for lunch, there are now 2 bags of it in the freezer, ready for any cold days in the future. Good stuff.

Things I actually like about living in the Netherlands, Part III

My first “proper” job (as opposed to my paper round and 2-year, illegal stint as a cinema usher) involved compiling a database of bridges for Norfolk County Council. This was back in 1989; Excel was unheard of and computer storage consisted of backing everything up on a tape streamer at the end of each day and sending it off to a bunker so that it was protected in the event of a nuclear attack. I spent my days looking through huge tomes and transferring the information contained therein into my database: bridge type, material, parish, number of spans, owner etc. At one point, I knew more about pipe drains and marsh culverts in Terrington St Clement than anyone else alive. And there was the excitement of my first business trip – off to Ipswich to inspect Suffolk County Council’s fancy new bridges database! Ah, the excitement . . .

Since then, I’ve been fascinated by bridges and have tried to include viewings of key structures on most of my vacations (I’m very excited about visiting San Francisco, obviously). And the Netherlands is full of them: 18th century “magere” (skinny) bridges over major rivers, hump-back canal bridges decorated with strings of lights, and modern, harp-like bridges that seem to float above the flat Dutch countryside. Best of all, though, is the road bridge near my office. It rises and falls several times each hour to allow the massive transport barges through on their way to the IJ. It carries tram tracks and wires that disconnect and reconnect smoothly and impressively. And it usually contains half a dozen pigeons that calmly perch on the underside of the bridge and enjoy the ride up and down. I don’t even mind waiting for it on my way to lunch, happy to watch such hypnotic poetry in motion. It’s a beautiful piece of urban engineering, one that I would be proud to catalogue in a database.

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Friday, February 24, 2006

It was the best of days . . .

How was today?

The sun is shining.
I had a delightful lunch with fellow blogger Beth.
I got some great pictures of the bridges near work.
I had lots of work to do, so the day passed quickly.
It’s nearly home time!
I don’t have to go to the gym this evening, as I went last night.

It's bloody cold, and the wind is strong and straight from Siberia.
The women at the table next to us smoked.
I saw a woman expectorate aggressively in the street. (Ew!)
I had lots of work to do, so had less time to read the Interweb.

The pro’s edge it: It's been a good day!

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Voodoo lady


I come home from work and think about the people who've pissed me off during the day while I'm removing and inserting the knives. One day, it might just work . . . Posted by Picasa

Beanz meanz Heinz

Another day, another lunch-time decision: Will it be a broodje met kaas from the sandwich shop, vegetarian Indonesian takeout, or a salad from the supermarket? What's this? The familiar blue-label of a can of baked beans, hiding in my desk drawer? Excellent -- beans on toast it is!

Whenever I head down to the kitchen to heat up my beans in the office microwave, I am aware that I'm confirming the national stereotype of the English: We have a lousy national cuisine. Anyone who visits on a high-school exchange programme gets egg, chips and beans or beans on toast for dinner -- and complains about it for the next 30 years. But beans on toast is the perfect lunch. High in fibre, low in fat, two sources of secondary protein (if you have it on wholemeal toast), and even a small amount of vitamin C in the tomato sauce. It's cheap, warming, easy to prepare when you're limited to just a microwave and toaster, and fills you up with slow-burning carbs. A bit of grated cheese on top makes the always-fabulous cheesey beans, and I've recently discovered that a thin layer of peanut butter on the toast adds a savoury depth to the dish. Lekker!

So, altogether now:
Beans beans are good for the heart
Beans beans make you fart
The more you fart, the better you feel
So let's have beans with every meal!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

At the library

"When light is green, place book in scanner."

Does this mean:
a) When light is red, place book in scanner and then observe, confusedly, while the book is rejected from the scanner?
b) As above, but with added huffing and puffing and jabbing of book back into scanner?
c) Place the book in the scanner when the light is green?

I had no idea there were so many functionally illiterate, red/green color-blind library-card holders in Amsterdam.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The 2006 Philosophical Debate

If a blog post doesn't get any comments, can it truly be said to exist?

My mobile phone phobia

Actually, I don’t think my inability to use a mobile phone is a phobia. And it’s not even an inability to use a mobile phone -- on occasion. I can make calls and send SMSes and play Snake -– and that’s about it. I can’t remember my number and don’t know how to retrieve voicemails, take photos, or change my ring tone. I rarely remember to carry my phone with me – or if I do, to turn it on. It’s simply not part of my mental, pre-exit checklist: Door keys, bike keys, gloves, hat, rain pants, purse, door keys (again), bike lights, and gum. No phone. I am constantly amazed by the fact that every Cloggie cycles past me each morning with their phone clamped to their ear with one, umbrella/child/dog/laptop case held firmly in the other, chatting away as if their life depended on it. Who are they talking to and what could they possibly have to talk about so animatedly at 8.30 in the morning?

This can cause problems. Saturday night, for example, we were due to meet another couple for dinner at a local Belgian restaurant. Off we trot at 8, dressed up in our finery (ok, clean clothes), and sat at the bar in the restaurant waiting for our friends to arrive. At 8.15, it suddenly occurred to me that they only had my mobile phone number and, as usual, I had not turned it on all day and had left it at home. At 8.20, a waitress approached us and announced, amused, that there was a phone call for us: Sure enough, Jo was sick, a message had been left on my voicemail, but we hadn’t responded so they’d phoned to check we knew. Doh! Embarrassment and groveling apologies all round.

Why am I incapable of remembering the damn thing? Perhaps it’s because of my initial delay in getting one. I refused to buy one in London, partly out of a reluctance to enter a mobile phone shop, and partly due to taking a perverse delight in making people turn up on time for appointments, rather than calling to say that they’d be late. I waited another 18 months in Amsterdam, figuring that there were very few people I wanted to call or be called by. I’ve never needed a phone for work – indeed, the ability to remain uncontactable by colleagues out of office hours was a huge incentive to be mobile-free. Waiting until after I was 30 clearly meant that it was too late for me to change my habits: I am not and never will be an instinctive mobile phone carrier, in the same way that it is now too late for me to develop natural grace (either physically or under fire) or a liking for olives and wine.

Amusingly -– nay, ironically -- I now have two mobiles: one for Amsterdam and one for London, as I found that I only made calls on my Dutch phone when I was in London, and Vodafone was charging me a fortune for this. If I’m only going to use my phone occasionally, I don’t want to overpay for the privilege. How “goedkoop” of me –- perhaps some Dutch attitudes are rubbing off on me, after all [shudder].

"Not Dudley Moore -- DEMI Moore!"*

How come I spend 10 minutes each morning blow-drying my exceptionally straight hair so that it curls under at the ends and yet within an hour, it has started to curl up -- making me look like an entrant in the Mary Tyler Moore Lookie-Likie Contest? But if I try to curl it up, it just hangs straight with sticky-out bits? WHY?

I must have offended the hair gods in an earlier life.

* Any guesses as to why this is an apt title?

Monday, February 20, 2006

Scratchy towels

I like old, thinning, rough towels more than super-soft new ones. They're more absorbent and with better drying power, but how do you turn fluffy new towels into sandpaper-like ones? Other than by waiting 20 years, I mean. And I don't have time for that; I want scratchy towels now!

I thought about this a lot when I was swimming this morning before work. That's swimming. At 8 a.m. On a Monday morning. I rock.

ETA: That was a really dull post. But nothing irritating happened today. Clearly, suffering is necessary for great art (or mildly entertaining blog entries).

Sunday, February 19, 2006



Tonight's dinner consisted of 12 different dishes (if you include the rice):
Braised salmon
Braised mushrooms
Miso cucumber
Soy carrots
Wakame stir-fry
Sweet potatoes
Broccoli and sugar snap stir-fry
Salted salmon
Miso cod
Soy sauce egg
Rice with sesame seeds
Fried green peppers

None of the dishes were difficult to make; the hardest part was timing it so that everything was ready at more or less the same time. Luckily, most of the dishes taste pretty good warm or even cold, as one would expect from recipes designed for bento boxes.

It certainly felt healthy, although I wonder about the amount of sugar and salt used.( Japanese women might not get fat or old, but I bet they get dental cavities.) But there was no dairy and relatively little in the way of carbs, so we promptly followed this up with a big tub of chocolate midnight cookies ice-cream. And that's why the Norfolk Dumpling will get fat! Posted by Picasa

Random musings on a Sunday morning

1. When it comes to genre fiction, the average murder/detective story is of a higher standard than the average chick-lit novel.

2. The earlier I wake up on a Sunday, the more baking I do -- hence the apple nut cake I'm just about to take out of the oven, and the cheese/sesame bread that's proving above said oven by 10.40 am.

3. I have apparently developed the ability to fall asleep to the sound of PJ playing TimeSplitters: Future Perfect on the Xbox in the bedroom -- and to remain asleep, despite him not using headphones or turning the sound down.

4. No. 3 represents the acme of perfection in terms of girlfriend behavior.

5. Multi-course restaurants are the way forward for someone who always wants to try a bit of everything on the menu. Cases in point: Restaurant Aura (Copenhagen) and Lieve (Amsterdam). Fine, fine food!

6. Trying to take funky photos of the outside of your building at 11.30 at night after a couple of vodkas (or, in PJ's case, 1 G&T, 1 large glass of wine, and 8 1/2 glasses of wine,courtesy of Lieve) WILL result in you getting dogshit on your shoes.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Things I actually like about the Netherlands, Part II

As I looked out of my window this morning, I noticed that one of the apartments across the canal has installed new blinds (bear with me, there is a point to this); the deep shade of teal contrasts nicely with the deep-brown bricks and cream window frames and gable decoration (no really, the point's coming up soon). It caught my eye not just because of the unusual color combo, but largely because window treatments of any variety are rarely seen in Amsterdam. Wherever you go, apartments luxuriate in the curious gaze of passers-by, those living opposite, and the tourist barges that ply their trade on our waterways. Apparently, this openess has two causes: 1) it's a way for the otherwise reserved (ha!) Dutch to demonstrate their wealth without actually flauting it in a terribly nouveau riche/American way; and 2) the Calvinist belief that enjoyment of soft furnishings condemns you to eternal damnation -- something, I think, we can all get behind.

This absence of curtaining is fantastic for someone who is both as nosy and as interested in "ordinary" design and interior decorating as me(there's my point!). In my student days, I enjoyed wandering round Summertown, a well-to-do Oxford neighbourhood, gazing in at the basement kitchens and book-stuffed living rooms as dusk fell and lights were turned on. But the English felt no compunction at closing their curtains to my stalker-esque stare, relishing, in fact, the privacy afforded by several metres of John Lewis' finest material. Amsterdam rewards my gaze, revels in it, nay encourages me to admire the many plants, unusual light fittings, and kitty cats that fill each abode.

Even better than the canal houses are the apartment blocks in areas like Oud West. If you enter one and head to the back, you are confronted with a huge expanse of gardens, enclosed on all sides by buildings. Each building has windows, balconies, roof terraces, all alive with light and human activity -- Rear Window come to life. (I've yet to see anyone being bumped off but I live in hope.) It's better than television, or at least Dutch TV -- but that's a complaint for another post.

And, I must confess, we've gone native. Although we have curtains, we rarely close them, preferring to see and be seen by our neighbours. You forget about them remarkably quickly; strolling scantily clad around the front room with nary a thought. "But surely the people across the canal can't see in? It's too far!" Well, perhaps -- although at one dinner party, one of our British guests exclaimed in scandalized tones "OMG! There's a woman in the apartment opposite taking her kit off" and all eyes swivelled in that direction. Oh well, modesty is clearly an over-rated virtue in these parts, and I don't care.

Solid as a rock

The Nintendo DS is a remarkable piece of engineering. Not only does it provide hours of dual-screen fun with its cute yet addictive games, but it is also built to withstand mistreatment at the hands of destructive children and clumsy adults alike. Last night, I knocked it off the edge of the bathroom sink onto the concrete floor below -- and nothing. Not a dent. Not a nick. Not a scratch. And the boys were a little frisky when I turned them on this morning, but I don't think that had anything to do with the fall.

PJ has generously road-tested the sturdiness of various game console controllers (and Wi-Fi routers, and DVDs) by throwing them at walls -- the walls usually came off worse, thanks to the cheap plasterboard the builders obviously used -- but has never got sufficiently stuck on a game to toss an Xbox or a PlayStation across the room. Yet. (Famous last words . . .) But somehow, I doubt they'd stand up as well as the DS did.

I heart Nintendo.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Jelly Belly Funtime

Consider the following:

1. I was born opposite the Rowntree’s chocolate factory in Norwich (now replaced by a [shudder] mall).
2. My favorite segment on Playschool was where we went through the round/square/arch window to see how milk bottle processing factories worked.
3. My favorite episode of Bagpuss involved the mice on the mice organ making digestive biscuits.
4. At age 12, I joined the British Association Of Young Scientists (geek!) just so that I could go on tours of the Lotus car plant in Norfolk and the afore-mentioned Rowntree’s chocolate factory.
5. I can’t remember most of what I learnt at university, but I can recall the type of containers Rowntree’s stored the hard centres in before coating them in chocolate.
6. I once ate my way through a pound of toasted marshmallow and buttered popcorn jelly bellies in an afternoon at work.
7. Good Eats is my favorite show on Food Network, and Alton Brown is a god (with thanks to Rory Schadler, with whom I watched episodes of Good Eats when last in the US).

Given all that, is it any wonder that this is top of my list of things to see in California next month? And that I now think I should have been a food scientist, rather than an editor? I blame my secondary school, whose timetables meant that I had to take physics – a subject that made me cry – instead of chemistry. I wonder if I could sue?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Fat-free food


OK, it would have been fat free if I hadn't fried the beejesus out of the tofu -- the only way I've found to make it really palatable. But the stock was excellent, courtesy of a recipe book called Vancouver Cooks that I found in a friend's apartment in Boston. And I was able to use some udon-esque noodles that I picked up at the new (and hugely overpriced) Asian foodstore that's opened up nearby. All in all, good vegan eating (and how often can you say that?). Posted by Picasa

Welcome to the jungle

On an extensive shopping expedition on Saturday, we made a brief yet expensive stop in Frozen Fountain, purveyors of design "objets" for those of us with more money than sense. The result? Two lovely blue Copenhagen mixing bowls for me and 60 pieces of vine-like red plastic. From these, PJ created two funky hanging room dividers:


However, this does now mean that children, cats, and dogs are banned from the apartment. I fear these sculptural masterpieces would prove too tempting for little hands and paws. Posted by Picasa

I owe New Order an apology

It turns out the atonal extended guitar blatherings that have been irritating me for the past few minutes were the work of The Cure and not, as I had guessed, New Order.

Sorry Barney.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Turns out I couldn't watch the men's figure skating. Nothing to do with the ridiculously spangly costumes, the frightening hair-do's, or the aggressively "disco" arm movements. No, I just felt awful whenever they stumbled or fell -- all those years spent training for those 3 minutes on the ice and they screwed up. How miserable. It was making me far too tense, so I watched Clueless on Veronica instead. Mmmm, Paul Rudd is so dreamy!

The scars of childhood linger long and deep

The past 24 hours have involved copious amounts of sleep, Anadin Extra, and water, but I appear to be on the mend. I even managed to stagger out of the house to get milk so that I could have a much-needed cup of tea. The one essential element of the English medicine cabinet that was missing? Heinz Cream of Tomato soup. Unox's marscapone and sundried tomato variety was posher, but lacked the sweet spiciness of Heinz.

Another thing lacking today? Valentine's cards. This is probably just as well. The memory of receiving my first card still haunts me. I was in the second-year juniors at Hillside Avenue (so, about 8 years old) and found a card in my desk on Valentine's Day. I was mortified! I took it home, burst into tears, and ripped it up. Nearly 20 years later, I discovered that there's a good reason for this, to whit:

"Although less emotionally guarded than our menfolk, [English females] are easily embarrassed and prefer to avoid precipitate declarations of amorous attraction."

Watching The English, Kate Fox

I think I must be an extreme example of this. Never mind precipitate declarations -- it's any and ALL declarations of amorous attraction. It's for this reason that I have never been able to stomach the thought of getting married: I've no problem with the lifelong commitment bit, but standing up in public and saying all those embarrassing things about love in front of friends and family? Never! I've had numerous wedding-related nightmares, resulting in my waking up with tears streaming down my face. The most important day of a woman's life? I don't think so.

Just thinking about it has made me come over all queasy again. Time to lie down and watch some ice skating.

Monday, February 13, 2006

No blogging today

I have flu. I feel terrible. I'm going back to bed for another 6 hours.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

I really want some chips

But I don't want to get fat. Not now; not ever.

There. That feels better. It's a confession of sorts, something I would rarely admit to other people. I'm an intelligent woman, generally unconcerned about my appearance -- little makeup, cheap haircuts, clothes shopping bores me, and I'd live in jeans and t-shirts if I could -- except for this one thing. Fat. And I'm not fat. Yet. But the fear of gaining weight after being slim all my life haunts me. But I don't discuss it with my friends (it's so shallow to care); I go to the gym to "stay fit and healthy", not to (shamefully) lose weight; and I try not to wonder why I'm the only person at yoga whose stomach and thighs seem to get in the way when doing forward bends.

I don't diet officially. On the contrary, I adore food. I love reading cookery books and restaurant reviews. Baking is probably my No. 1 hobby at the moment, and I feel out of sorts if I don't bake something at least three times a week. The one time I tried Atkins, I lasted a week before waking up in tears, desperate for a biscuit. However, I do the sort of dieting that most women do instinctively: barter dieting. "If I skip the starter, I can have the dessert." "I had miso soup and broccoli yesterday, so I can have ice-cream today." That kind of thing. And then I'll make some of my fabulous PB&J shortbread and try not to eat it all as soon as it comes out of the oven. Magazine articles trumpet "How to look fabulous at fifty/sixty/seventy" and I just want to know when I can stop caring about it all and finally relax with a box of violet creams.

It seems such a selfish thing to be worried about.* Most people in the world would love to have the luxury of gaining weight or having too much food. I sit in yoga classes and contemplate how I'd reintroduce rationing if I was in power. Get rid of all the processed crap and extoll the joys of lentils, tofu, and tempeh. Redistribute the gallons of cream and mountains of butter to those who really need it. (But I'd want to keep the cheese. And the muffins. And the ability to make cookies.) I'd also ban cars and make everyone cycle everywhere. If you positioned it as "Thinner Thighs Under The Dumpling," it would be a vote winner!

Food. Such a minefield for women. Men get judged by their wealth, women by their body mass index. Despite being the most powerful woman in the US, able to make and break authors and products, Oprah is still all about the diet and fitting in to the size 8 jeans. Donald Trump's combover is, by contrast, a mere personal quirk that does little to detract from his (overstated) wealth. Yep, fat -- or the lack of it -- is still a feminist issue.

* I do worry about other things: global warming, poverty, war, plane crashes. I just want to make that clear.

Things I actually like about the Netherlands, Part I

It has been suggested to me that my blog entries are, on occasion, just a little bitter. Thanks, bro. To counteract that, here is the first in a (very) occasional series: Things I actually like about the Netherlands.

Part I: Cheese shops

Kaas Kamer, Kaas Land, Wereld van Kaas -- the name may changes (slightly), but the Dutch still do damn fine cheese shops. Offering a wide array of Dutch and foreign cheeses, olives, pates, and biscuits for cheese, they beat any English supermarket for selection and freshness. Plus, they wrap your cheese in proper cheese paper, which stops it drying out in the fridge. My favourite? The shop on the Runstraat that we visited yesterday, spending an obscene amount on two different types of oud kaas (old cheese -- this is the great Dutch cheese that rarely makes it out of the country; aged for three years and with huge deposits of salt, it takes your head off), a brie, some St Point, and a French blue. It's usually packed with tourists, but the staff know what they're doing and work efficiently through the queues, handling the cheese with care. Their dried sausages, both Italian and Spanish, provide a haunting meaty top note to the rich cheesy aroma of the store -- with a thick white rind and garlicky perfume, they tempt me, despite not having eaten meat (knowingly) for exactly three years. God, they're good!

So, yes, when we leave Amsterdam, I'll miss the cheese.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Throwing one's toys out of one's pram

If only Blogger rewarded one for persuading other people to start ranting and raving. Not only has The Jackson One managed to write a third -- yes, a third! -- blog entry this year, but all-round top bloke and dog owner Clive has also started Meldrewing into cyberspace from the comfort of Clive's World Order.

As a taster of what's likely to come, here's a re-enactment of Clive trying to find something/coexist with technology/perform household duties, as reported by one close to him. Ahem:

"Grrrr, wrrech, GOD, grrrrrrrrrrr, wrrrrruummm, frrrrrr, mmmrrrrrr, arrrrhhh, OH BLOODY HELL SAVAGE, grrrrrrr, wrrrrrrr, FUCK! FUCK! FUCK! (sorry darling), agghhhh, wrrs, GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR, FUCK! Right [item found / electrical equipment functioning / dishes cleaned / duvet changed]. Fag."

It's just like he's still here in Amsterdam with us.


Muffins. I've recently become addicted to making muffins. Cornmeal and raspberry. Banana-mocha chocolate chip. And tonight, double chocolate chocolate chip. Muffins. They're just so good. So easy to make. And even easier to eat. Especially topped with either maple syrup or cream.

I was compelled to make the double chocolate variety after a smug-inducing trip to the gym. Not only did I spend the requisite 45 minutes doing cardio and pumping iron (as I believe the kidz are calling it these days), but I also caught sight of that most disturbing of gym frequenters -- the hardcore anorexic exerciser. With knees wider than their thighs, protuding spines, and twig-like arms, these women (and some men) terrify me. I don't understand how they have the energy to run for 40 minutes at a time; I need a Mars Bar to gain enough strength just to enter the gym. One glimpse of this ana, however, helped me count my blessings. I might feel porky from time to time, but I love my food and rarely feel guilty about eating it.

Anyway, the exercise plus the jolt of good sense brought about by someone else's body issues meant that I was looking forward to some chocolately muffininess. However, my fracking Cloggie oven let me down. I'd been grilling the tuna/tomato gnocchi bake and forgot to turn the dial back to oven rather than grill, and the grill wasn't sufficiently hot to demonstrate that I'd left it on. 20 minutes after putting my muffins in, I opened the oven door to be met by a pall of black smoke. Blast! Carbonized muffin tops -- not exactly what I'd had in mind. But I duly chopped the tops off, and I'm pleased to report that the dismembered muffins were excellent! And next time, I'll get the oven settings right.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Hello sailor!

Riddle me this: If the wind's blowing from left to right* and I turn right, surely the wind should be blowing me from behind? If so, why was it so difficult cycling up the Overtoom this evening?

Heh. I just reread this post. "Blowing me from behind." There are going to be some disappointed pornseekers coming here tonight from Google!

* I neither know nor care what the correct nautical terms are; I'm a web-footed landlubber and proud of it.

An American Beauty moment

I'm currently on the phone for a meeting and a plastic bag just wafted up past my window, danced around, and then disappeared. We're on the 7th floor, so that's pretty impressive -- and very cinematic.

It's a shame I disliked the film intensely.

Someday, a real rain will come

I "understand" why people can't be bothered to empty a dishwasher full of clean cups and crockery and would rather just dump their dirty plates in the sink, leaving it to some poor sucker with a mild case of cleaning-related OCD (that would be me, then) to empty and reload the dishwasher.

But, what I don't understand -- and never will -- is why someone would open the dishwasher, see that it's full of clean stuff, and then PUT THEIR MAYO-COVERED KNIFE INTO THE CUTLERY DRAWER, THUS SMEARING ALL THE CLEAN CUTLERY IN MAYO!!! WHY, LORD, WHY!?!?


Tuesday, February 07, 2006

8-bit GOB

After watching Season 2 of Arrested Development, I wanted -- no, needed -- to have The Final Countdown on my iPod mini (I know, so 2004). And what do you know: PJ just happens to have the coolest version ever, recorded using an NES sound chip for that synth-tastic 80s sound. Check it out!

With thanks to Something Awful for the blog title.

Monday, February 06, 2006

If I should die, think only this of me

My favorite TV show CSI has taught me about the chemical and genetic program that is my body; now Kate Fox has done the same for my soul (for want of a better word) through her entertaining book "Watching The English". The Oxford academic has produced a anthropological guide to the English –- our behavior, our language, our obsessions –- and done so in excellent, self-deprecating prose (she is English, after all). It is, however, incredibly disconcerting to realize that you are little more than an aggregation of national archetypes, to see your own foibles and conversational norms laid bare on the page. And even more upsetting to know that Johnny Foreigner has now been clued in to all our (dirty) little secrets.

Let’s see what she says is deeply ingrained in the English psyche:
The orderly queue of one? Guilty.
Passive-aggressive complaining? You have read my other entries, haven't you? And as further evidence, I am reluctant to give the address to my Dutch colleagues/friends in case they take offence.
Alcohol as a social disinhibitor? Oh, yes.
Love of animals? Yep. Replacement for “real”, warm relationships? Sure. Communication through them? But of course!
Negative politeness and the awkward start that this means for relationships? Been there, done that!
The need for privacy and yet compulsive curtain-twitching? I present my love of baking and celebrity gossip.

What else? Ah –- the embarrassment of money talk! Just over a week ago, we spent a lovely evening with a couple of fellow Brits in Boston, us complaining about the Dutch office; them responding with tales of woe about their real estate agent. At no point did they mention how much they were selling their property for, but on the plane home, PJ and I compared notes and had worked out the same price – based on one casual reference to how much their agent would make on the deal, and another, earlier complaint about the percentage that an agent takes.* And while we do talk about property values, whole dinner parties are built around describing the amount you might make or lose in percentage, not absolute, terms -– to state the actual amount would be, well, just not on.

While this book has made me very self-conscious –- I now find it impossible to talk about the weather with friend, fellow editor, and lender of the book Bill without hearing my inner voice chastise me (and without noticing a corresponding grin on his face) –- it has also made me understand why I respond to other people and nationalities as I do. It's not because I'm intolerant or impatient: It's cultural programming! The references to the importance of not being earnest were a real eye-opener; as I read, I realized that the people who infuriate me most at work are those that are overly serious about what they do and completely lacking in a sense of humor about themselves -- both of which are completely abhorrent to the English.

So, I'm a pun-loving, queue-obsessed, class-sensitive, gossip-adoring English woman -- and proud of it (but not in an overly extreme or earnest way).

* No, I’m not going to tell you the price! Mind your own business!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Saturday, February 04, 2006


In the past 24 hours, I have twice been mistaken for a Dutchie -- once by a waitress in Moeders and once by a fellow student at yoga. Why? Who knows. It's not like I've suddenly grown ten inches or acquired a deep tan.

I don't know whether to be flattered or insulted.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

It is a truth universally acknowledged . . .

... that a woman in possession of a bag of gram flour, must be in want of a decent recipe for a chickpea paratha.

Well, it's true for me. Last night's attempt at using the Cinnamon Club Cookbook recipe fell somewhat flat; despite following the recipe to the letter, the results were disappointing. They looked good and the flavor was fine, but the texture was akin to eating through plasterboard (I imagine). I was looking for the pillowy fluffiness of restaurant naan. I think I can identify what went wrong: the dough was incredibly sticky, even with an additional cup of flour, which meant it was near-impossible to roll out thinly, so it's possible they were simply too thick. But there was still no "rise," no "fluff." I've had the same problem with the standard naan recipe - I'd be delighted if readers could point me somewhere more successful.

Perhaps restaurant chefs shouldn't attempt cookbooks for the home, though -- or rather readers shouldn't expect to do more than read them and coo over the food porn. Food blogs are proving to be much more helpful in providing top recipes. An example: The other key component of the dinner was a great recipe for spiced tomatoes and prawns from food blog Well Fed. This was fantastic: simple, super-quick (10 minutes start to finish), and full of an unexpected sweetness (from the cherry tomatoes, I guess). A hit, a veritable hit!

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