Monday, July 31, 2006

BBQ photos . . . finally

Like I said, our Mac is dying. Unfortunately, it's also our network router, so it's inhibiting both my celebrity gossip forum access and my ability to upload photos to the site, or, indeed, blog when I haven't got my work laptop at home. Anyhow, here we go.

Grillmaster Alan, lighting the Weber BBQ for the first time. Note PJ's weary expression in the background: he'd had just 3 hours sleep in the previous 36 hours and no alcohol. He was considerably perkier 6 hours later after several beers, glasses of wine, and vodka-based cocktails.

Fish kebabs. Yum! The slightly waxy fish held together much better than expected.

Giant prawns. Don't they have beady little eyes? I'm glad they were dead when we put them on -- I just don't understand how people can throw lobsters into boiling water.

In other news, it's considerably cooler here now -- and wetter. In fact, I actually slept under the duvet on Sunday night for the first time in weeks. Bliss! Long may this continue. Although, if the rain could just stop for a few hours, that would be great.

Sunday, July 30, 2006


After yet more rain today, the temperature has dipped to 22.5 -- the lowest it's been for several weeks. I, however, am steaming mad. Why? Because at the end of my favourite TV show on BBC2, Jeremy Clarkson announced that this was the last in the current series of Top Gear. What? They did about 4 shows, disappeared while the World Cup was on, did 2 more shows, and that's it? The end of the series? Where am I going to get my fix of mad challenges involving loading white vans with illegal immigrants? When will I be able to sigh (discreetly, of course) over the utterly cute n' adorable Richard Hammond?* How will I be able to talk vaguely knowledgeably about obscure European supercar manufacturers? Why do I even bother paying my licence fee?!

Oh wait, I don't. OK then, BBC: you're off the hook this time. Just make sure you bring it back early in the autumn or there'll be trouble!

*Er, I'll just watch Brainiac on Veronica, actually.

Getting up in your grill

One of Amsterdam's more charming features is the relish with which the inhabitants seize every opportunity to eat outside. As soon as there's a hint of good weather, they pull small tables and chairs out onto their stoop or the pavement, light the candles, and open a chilled bottle of rose. You'll see -- and hear -- them out there until late at night, enjoying what counts for outdoor space here; few apartments have a roof terrace or garden. The frat boys along the street go one step further, pulling an old sofa out to the edge of the canal and occasionally setting up any awning across the street so that they can make beer runs to the kegs in their cellar without getting wet when it (inevitably) rains. We have rarely indulged in this particular Amsterdam activity; we have no stoop, and the patch of pavement outside our building is a favorite toilet area for dogs and junkies, making it less than appealing. While the parking spaces across the road tend to attract desperate tourists with their sandwiches, I'm always a little concerned that a car driver, delighted at spotting a rare space, will pull in at high speed and without looking. Low-level paranoia about imminent injury does not make for a good outdoor dining experience in my book.

However, last night we were invited to a pavement BBQ in the Jordaan -- and very pleasant it was, too. Sitting out on Palmstraat, we ate excellent fish kebabs and marinated giant prawns while watching cyclists, dog walkers, and the drunks from the local bar head (or stagger) by as the evening drew on. Nobody complained about our smoky dinner or the fact that we were taking up the pavement; in fact, our hosts Alan and Jo remarked that they had exchanged more pleasantries with their neighbours in that one evening than they had in the previous three years. Clearly, an outdoor dinner had marked them out as echte Jordaanse mensen. As night fell, the candles came out -- as did Alan's wickedly strong vodka-based caiparinas. We finally headed inside at around midnight as it turned blissfully and briefly cooler than it had been; when we finally sauntered home at around 1.30, the streets and bars were still filled with people having a late drink outside. All in all, a rather jolly Amsterdam evening.

Photos to follow. Apple is currently killing our network performance, so can't upload them. God, I HATE Apple.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Mission: Unaccomplished

It's a quiet day at work, so I thought I'd take advantage of the fine, dry weather we've been having -- I'm trying very hard to look at it positively, for once -- and headed out to the shops. My mission? Fizzy vitamin tablets and a hang-upable multi-pocketed shoe storage system/cosmetics bag. No, not for my Immelda Marcos-style shoe collection or even my vast array of unused make-up, but for cable storage. You see, we have multiple chargers, power blocks, power adapters, connectivity leads etc for our many, many mobile phones, iPods, DSes, PSPs etc; they currently coexist in a tangled mess on the floor of the living room and it can take up to 10 minutes to find the right one. My new fave site Lifehacker recommended the shoe bag as a great solution. So, off I headed to Blokker, crap purveyor of cleaning products, kitchen equipment, plastic boxes, glass tat, and ... storage items.

What did I come back with? Let me see!

1 red plastic chopping board.
1 yellow scrubbing brush.
1 plastic measuring jug with lid, perfect for my sourdough starter solution.
1 box ziploc bags.

From Kruidvat, I got my fizzy vitamins -- 2 tubes of "50+ multi". Now, I thought that this meant they contained more than 50 different vitamins, minerals, herbal extracts etc. But no. They're for those aged 50+. Although, given how I'm feeling at the moment, they're probably highly appropriate. Unless, of course, they're the Dutch answer to an aging population and contain something to kill those over 50 quickly. I mean, euthanasia is legal here.

But I did manage to spill diet coke on my -- wait for it! -- white t-shirt. Perfect!

Film criticism 101

Oestrogen TV continued last night -- after Wednesday's rather more violent, less-chick-friendly Internal Affairs (despite the presence of lovely Andy Garcia and smug Richard Gere) -- with Possession, the adaptation of A.S. Byatt's novel. I'd attempted to read this a few months ago, but had given up after finding that the poetry was tedious (as is all poetry if it doesn't rhyme and isn't funny) and that I didn't care about any of the characters. However, the film starred Jeremy Northam -- mmm, Jeremy Northam! -- and I had nothing better to do with my time, so I tuned in.

OK. On reflection, there were three major problems with this film:

1. The usual English cliches. Look! He's on a red London bus! Look! He's been dropped off right next to a red telephone box! Look! An impoverished academic is living in a gorgeous Kensington basement flat belonging to a lovable, wealthy solicitor (although not played by Hugh Grant)!

2. They got academia wrong. All the academics spent their time actually doing research in libraries, rather than filling in government assessment forms and grant applications and trying to teach the rudiments of English to ill-educated, uncaring undergraduates. Professor Blackadder was a lovably eccentric Irishman, instead of a bitter old sod; research assistant Paola was stunningly attractive, instead of mousy. And Gwyneth Paltrow's house and greige clothing were simply unimaginable on an academic salary.

In addition, their research was sloppy. "This is a picture of Christabel's niece." Niece? Surely the film-makers wouldn't introduce a McGuffin in a film like this. Perhaps this "niece" is more important than would first appear. "Christabel disappeared for a year in 1860" -- a year? Hmm, sounds suspiciously like NINE MONTHS! "Nobody knows where she went. There are no clues!" Except for a journal, conveniently written in English by a French companion (uncovered by the pantomime villain of the piece, a rival academic) that detailed all of the events of Christabel's sojourn in France in 1860. Including -- ta-dah! -- the baby! Which was indeed the "niece"! And thus GP's great-great-grandmother! Because it's ALL ABOUT GWYNETH!!! Which leads me nicely to my next point.

3. Gwyneth Paltrow. A long time ago, on our first date, PJ and I bonded over our mutual belief that the only good GP film is one in which she dies. Seven: great film, could have been better if they'd shown her head in the box at the end -- and no, I'm not going to "spoiler" that! Shakespeare in Love: I like to switch it off at the point at which she's drowning in the water, so that I can pretend she stays there, rather than emerging to stride damply across Holkham Beach. Sliding Doors: half-good; gets it right in one story, badly wrong in the other. Possession would have been much better if Aaron Eckhardt had started channeling the spirit of Jack the Ripper and had offed Gwyneth the first time she started with the faux English accent and neck-elongating poses.

On the plus side, Jeremy Northam -- mmmm! -- and Jennifer Ehle were top-class as usual, the English scenery was pretty, and I no longer feel marginally guilty for not finishing the book. Plus, it was so predictable that I had time to make flapjack without missing out on any important plot points.

Phew, glad I got that off my chest!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Edward Scissorhands wasn't bad either, I suppose

PJ's in Chicago and Minneapolis this week, buying me cookbooks from upmarket restaurants and the Mall of America and picking up mammoth shipments from I, on the other hand, continue to bake in this city on the IJ, praying desperately for some more rain to break this interminable heat. While doing so, I'm also indulging in vast amounts of oestrogen TV: Strong Medicine, Gilmore Girls, and, best of all, How To Make An American Quilt -- the 1995 Winona Ryder "classic". Perhaps it's a sign of my age, but I found Winona's "struggle" to decide on whether she should marry Dermot Mulroney -- mmm, Dermot Mulroney -- profoundly irritating. While the scriptwriter, director, and actress presumably saw this as the attempt by a mildly "kooky" free spirit to figure out what love means, while drawing on the wisdom of her quilt-making elders (and betters), it just came across as the self-indulgent whining of a spoilt adolescent. I just wanted to slap her -- and the equally annoying Gilmore Girls -- hard, tell her to grow up, and spend a little more time thinking about people with real problems. Guess I'd better not watch Reality Bites -- or just about any Winona Ryder movie other than Beetle Juice and Heathers -- again.

And yes, I realize the hypocrisy of complaining about someone's self-indulgent whining in a blog that is all about me and my bitter outbursts, but I don't care.

What do small children and pigeons have in common?

They keep being hit by bikes. Well, I saw the aftermath of various child/pigeon-bike interface scenarios yesterday on my ride home from work. The pigeon incidents -- yes, plural -- were more visceral but less noisy than the child one. Although, the little girl's father was complaining loudly to the cyclist who'd "hit" her, stating that he shouldn't have been cycling so fast. The cyclist was trying to make the point that the girl actually clipped his rear wheel as she shot across the cycle lane, and therefore it wasn't his fault, but the father was having none of it. He was clearly trying to transfer his sense of guilt at having failed to keep an eye on his daughter, resulting in her injury, to the cyclist. The moral of the story: don't let your kids play near busy cycle paths. Or if you do, don't be surprised if they get hurt.

I guess another answer to the question posed in the blog title could have been that they're both annoying pests. But that would seem a little harsh. On the pigeons.

Happy FORTIETH birthday, Simon!

Was it really only 40 years ago that England beat Portugal in the semi-finals of the World Cup AND my older brother was born? Yes, yes it was. Forty years. My, how time flies. Simon: have a wonderful day celebrating your 40th birthday. And remember, you're only as young as the women you feel! Oh, wait ...

I know, I know: a little cruel to keep harping on about the fact that Simon's 40 today; after all, I will also be 40 one day. However, I will also always be five years younger than him -- and isn't that what sibling relationships are really about?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The old ones are the best

A couple of years ago, I received a great little book called Trade Secrets, based on the BBC programme of the same name. It outlined hundreds of really useful and highly effective cleaning tips, perfect for fueling my mild cleaning obsession. Best of all, the advice doesn't involve the use of proprietary and thus expensive cleaning products, perfect for fueling my mild obsession about saving money. While PJ mocked my book, he soon started turning to it for recommendations on the best way to descale a kettle or remove wine stains from the carpet. And last weekend, we soaked our shower heads in ordinary white vinegar -- which at 40 cents a litre is considerably cheaper than Viacal. Admittedly, the smell in the bathroom was a little tangy, but all the limescale that had been blocking the holes and preventing me from enjoying my early-morning shower disappeared. Vanished! I was left merely with the mild scent of vinegar in my hair this morning, giving me a certain fish n chip shop air. Mmmm, fish and chips.

Now, where can I buy some borax?

Monday, July 24, 2006

Once more into the pool, dear friends

I think I'm going to have to find another day for my pre-work swim; the pool has been far too crowded on the past two Mondays. I don't like my zen calm being disturbed by people swimming faster and more flashily than me. Not that I'm competitive, of course.

However, it's good to see that people are still using their swim trips to carry out scientific experiments. We've had: "How much weight will I lose if I swim two lengths and then head into the sauna?"; "How much weight will I lose if I don't actually swim but parade up and down the side of the pool while wearing tiny blue trunks?"; and "How much weight will I lose if I don't actually swim but lie in the jacuzzi watching the man parading up and down the side of the pool while wearing tiny blue trunks?" This morning's piece of research was attempting to answer the following complex question: "How much weight will I lose if I attempt to swim a length without actually using any of my limbs?" Not much, but you will gain several bruises as the people who are trying to exericse bash into you. Twit.

There are times when I really really hate other people. And I think those times are increasing in frequency and duration.

Top Gear? Top notch!

"I'm going to use a hammer."
"No, please don'"t."
"Why not?"
"Because ... it's a pikey tool."

Hurrah! Hate cars but love this show!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Now that's more like it

If you listen very carefully, you might be able to hear the thunder and lightning that's rolling around in the background -- along with torrential rain! Hurrah!

ETA: the rain is now so heavy that we can't see the houses across the canal. The temperature has dropped by 4 degrees. And PJ's put the kettle on for the first cup of tea in days. Lovely, lovely rain! (Just make sure you stop before 8 on Monday).

If this is the result of climate change, kill me now

It's almost too hot to blog. The sun's disappeared, it's overcast, and the air is horribly still. I'm hoping this merely presages an almighty thunderstorm, but I don't think we're going to be that lucky. For the first time ever, I wore shirts and a tiny top to yoga -- not as tiny as the halterneck top and hotpants that one girl wore (ill-advisedly without a bra) -- and still sweated buckets. AND I got to view all my hidden-until-now cellulite and worry about whether my knickers were on display. Not really relaxing. It was a punishingly active session, one that made me realize that I must never attempt Bikram yoga. After 30 minutes, I wanted to lay down and die; 60 minutes in, and I thought I was going to pass out during downward dog. I crawled home afterwards and dozed on the sofa for about 40 minutes, something I never normally do during the day.

The ironing can wait till tomorrow. Dinner is hoummus and raw veggies (no cooking required). I'm off to look at pictures of igloos.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Why must they taunt me so?

Somebody at Albert, our supermarket delivery service, obviously read my blog about my kitty biological clock -- and has an extremely cruel sense of humour. Yesterday's free gift with our essential water-beer-coke order was a packet of cat food. Yes, the perfect gift for the couple who have never ordered pet supplies from their service and so clearly don't have a cat. Sniff. Bastards. Now, I don't know much about marketing -- I only correct the spelling on research about marketing -- but one of the key points is about targeting the right audience with the right message at the right time. Giving sample packs of cat food to people without cats wouldn't seem to fulfill that mission.

In addition, what do they hope to achieve even with cat owners? What's the best you can say about cat food to your friends? That Patches didn't hate it or vomit profusely after eating it? In my experience, that applies to virtually every foodstuff going: birds, squirrels, spider plants -- Aristotle even ate malt loaf and porridge! And cats are curiously reluctant to participate in viral marketing campaigns; their lack of opposable thumbs makes it difficult for them to email comedy videos on YouTube to their friends.

So Albert, wrong audience, wrong message, wrong time.


I think I'm in love!

The heat wave has continued, but the airco at the office was working today -- a real relief after yesterday's oven-like temperatures. We decided to take advantage of the fine weather and headed out for dinner, hoping that one of the many fine restaurants around us would have a table outdoors that wasn't reserved. We were in luck. Restaurants here don't seem to need a license to drag all their tables out on to the pavements, forcing pedestrians into the road. Of course, the general lack of cars makes this easier, although it's still entertaining watching groups of tourists getting nearly mown down by the bikes. The tinkle of bike bells is less a warning, and more of a threat in these parts.

Tonight's venue was Seasons on the Herenstraat; we'd been there once before during the winter but had sat indoors and the airco was clearly broken. I baked, and needed to head outside to cool down in the icy rain. However, tonight was perfect. A long, light, warm evening; a street protected from direct sunlight (I have vampiric tendencies); great food; and an utterly gorgeous black spaniel to watch. He/she belonged to the restaurant's chef and spent the evening wandering up and down the pavement, soliciting scraps from the tables here and at Top Thai next door as shamelessly as the ladies in the red light windows across the canal. Unfortunately, he'd clearly been trained not to cross the street and so I was reduced to gazing longingly at him from my table. Not that I was minded to share my shrimp broil -- piles of shrimp, roseval potatoes, and corn-on-the cob, drenched in hot, oily butter and herbs -- nor my creme brulee. My puppy love only extends so far.

One of the advantages of the cramped nature of pavement dining is eavesdropping on your neighbours. We were witness to an amazing coincidencental meeting. The table behind us contained two Americans, who -- as Americans will often do -- said good evening to the young lady parking her car alongside our tables. It turned out that not only was she American, but that she was from the same town as the visitors -- and had attended the high school at which the husband taught, although a little before his time. They promptly called for an extra chair and glass and immersed themselves in recollections of teachers and places that all were familiar with. All in all, a charming little vignette for a perfect evening in Amsterdam.

I'm still hoping that it rains tomorrow, though. Eating out is one thing, but sleeping well is far more important.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

From Spain to Japan -- and back again

Tonight's dinner:

Last night it was Spain; tonight it was Japan. Again, we wanted something cold that didn't require much cooking, but then I started reading my bento box recipe book and got carried away. Our dinner consisted of braised tofu and mushrooms, rice balls (heh, balls!), soy sauce egg, the usual cucumber and broccoli pickles, and miso-marinated spring onions. The latter dish was something of a Sino-Hispanic experiment: I scored and marinated spring onions in a mixture of miso paste, sake, and sugar, then wiped it off and grilled them on our griddle pan -- rather like the spring onions I had in 1997 at a restaurant in Barcelona (amusingly named El Glop) although those came with a romesco dip. My version was rather good, even if I say so myself, but I think PJ would back me up on this. The onions had softened slightly while taking on a salty-sweet-smoky flavor. While most of the dishes started out hot, they were all cold by the time we ate, as we were waiting for our Albert delivery to turn up, but were none the worse for that.

I wonder where I shall turn to tomorrow for culinary inspiration. Suggestions?

No! Don't jump!

A couple of weeks ago, a waiter told us that the pigeons in Amsterdam were getting stupider, and he's right. You see far more of them merrily pecking away at a piece of detritus in the middle of the bike lanes and refusing to give way to the cyclists. I saw one get run over last year by an extremely fast Dutchman, who just shrugged and laughed; most disturbing (both the "hit" and the reaction). But I don't think this one is as suicidal as some of his chums.

Oh well, even if he was, there are plenty more.

Things to do in Amsterdam when you're hot

1. Buy a fan.
Summer is most definitely here now, after a protracted and somewhat chilly spring. The past few weeks have seen the temperature rise and fall like a whore's drawers, but it's the humidity here that's the killer. The daily routine is as follows: wake up, shower, dress, towel down as already sweaty, cycle to work, change, pray that the airco works, slowly dissolve into a pool of sweat, cycle home, shower, dress in a single item of clothing that doesn't actually touch the skin, sit in front of the window with a large glass of iced water, towel down as still too sweaty, go to bed. Rinse and repeat. After several weeks of putting off the inevitable, I finally purchased a small table fan yesterday -- €17.50 and worth every euro cent. I can now lie in bed and having cooling breezes play across my ... ahem, let's not go there. However, I'm still reluctant to have it on overnight in case it overheats and the apartment catches fire -- making it far too hot to sleep properly. Good job I'm not overly paranoid about these things.

2. Make gazpacho

I've long since foresworn the Spanish food items I loved most: chorizo, jamon serrano, natillas. But gazpacho is still my go-to summer recipe, which is odd given how much I dislike raw tomatoes and tomato juice. I think it's something to do with the combination of tomatoes and vinegar and cucumber. My talented Bulgarian but Madrid-based semi-sister-in-law Milena sent me this recipe: I highly recommend it.

Skin 6 large ripe tomatoes (score, pour boiling water over, leave for a few minutes, rinse under cold water, and peel). Chop and place in a blender along with 1/2 a cucumber (chopped), 1 red pepper (chopped), 1/2 a large onion (yes, chopped), a clove of garlic, a hefty glug of olive oil, and a good splash of vinegar. Blend for a couple of minutes until pink and slightly frothy. Taste, add salt and pepper as necessary, and more oil/vinegar/garlic to your liking. You can also add more tomato if it needs beefing up, so to speak. Blend again, briefly, and then pour into a bowl, add half a dozen ice cubes, and place in the fridge to get really cold. (I usually sieve it but then I hate vegetable gloopy sludge and getting tomato seeds stuck in my teeth; you may not be so fussy.) Top with more finally diced cucumber/pepper/onion, an ice cube, and perhaps some hard-boiled egg and croutons. It can start to go a bit fizzy after about 12 hours, so you want to eat it the same day.

From this:

To this:

This is quite a thin soup, but infinitely preferable to the thick stodgy ones with bread in.

3. Work from home
It may not be much cooler than in the office, but at least I can shower every hour and not bother with restricting undergarments.

Speaking of work, time to get back to the grindstone.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

It won't be all white on the night

Given that I'm pretty cack-handed when it comes to applying make-up, I adore skincare products -- if my skin looks great, I don't need to bother with anything else. The latest range to meet my approval? Liz Earle's products, particularly the Cleanse and Polish Hot Cloth cleanser. It smells yummy, works like a dream, comes beautifully packaged, and isn't hugely expensive, particularly compared to the Eve Lom range that it (allegedly) mimics. However. I do have one problem with it. It requires you to use a muslin cloth to remove the cream, and then suggests that this cloth should go into the dirty washing pile after just TWO uses! I'm not sure what most of the customers are using this cleanser to remove -- coal dust? Pancake foundation? -- but this is insane. I'd need to have 7 cloths just to get through a week and even that would rely on me doing a white wash every week, which simply isn't the case.

Why? Because I hate white clothing. For starters, white looks pretty dreadful against the pallid yet blotchy skin that I possess, and I don't tan. Ever. Next, white clothes only look good the first time you wear them. Even if you manage to avoid the inevitable tomato sauce incident, the first wash will transform crisp white clothing into grey limp rags, regardless of the washing instructions provided on the label. I discovered that this is because of all those lovely modern fibers that they now use to give your clothing stretchiness; if you wash anything vaguely elasticky at above 40 degrees, it will instantly turn grey. Bleach doesn't do much for them, either, and seems hideously toxic, to boot. On top of that, I am incapable of avoiding the inevitable tomato sauce incident. Every white t-shirt I've ever bought has acquired a Coca-Cola stain shortly after purchase; I am apparently incapable of drinking from a can without getting it all over me. I now change out of any light-colored clothing before eating, regardless of food color. Eating naked or swaddled in a giant towel would be the easiest way to go, but rather impractical with company and chilly during the winter.

As a result, I possess very little white clothing, which means it's usually 2 weeks between white washes, which means I'd need 14 muslin cloths -- and why do I keep typing "muslim"? -- and I don't have time to iron 14 muslin cloths every 2 weeks, and yes, I'd have to iron them! Aarggh! Too hot, must lie down!

Great product, though. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Like peas in a pod

A recent article in The Observer claimed that women were happiest when engaged in high-flow activities: those tasks that are sufficiently challenging to be completely absorbing but that aren't beyond our capabilities. (I'm not quite sure if or why it might be different for men, and the article didn't enlighten me, annoyingly.) For me, sudoku fits that bill, as does cooking. PJ is still astounded that I can happily spend time making bread, watching it rise, punching it down, watching it rise again, shaping it into loaves, watching it rise, baking it and misting it several times with water (think The Exorcist) and still claim that it's a no-fuss recipe. In total, though, it's just 10 minutes of my time, albeit spread out over several hours (or, in the case of sourdough, several days) and with a usually tasty end result. I, on the other hand, find it dfficult to understand his willingness to spend several consecutive hours trying to install a piece of networking equipment -- which often involves testing various wall/device interface scenarios, and then filling and repainting the resulting holes. Each to their own.

The results of yesterday's high-flow endeavours:

Lemon polenta cookies. The dough was easy; the absorbing part was piping it into s shapes. I finally got to break in my new piping kit. Fun!

Homemade pasta: Easy once you know how, and incredibly satisfying to produce. And it tastes fantastic. We had this with a chilled creme anglais and 3 varieties of legume, courtesy of this recipe. The sauce did little for me on its own, but poured over the warm pasta and beans? Bliss!

Fresh beans. I like to think of myself as a well-rounded cook, but I've never cooked with either broad beans or these capuciners before. Broad beans taste nicer, but these purple pods were gorgeous to look at. And shelling and peeling the beans was an enjoyably Zen task. Om!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Read out

I'm finding it difficult to read at the moment. I used to get through several books each week, but my last few visits to the library have seen me returning untouched books, well past their due date. I keep track of everything I've read and the downward slide in books completed is noticeable there, too. January 2005: 10 books; January 2006: 4 books; July 2006: 1 book so far. I blame Nintendo. When I got my virtual puppies in September last year, I little realized that they would eventually take up about 45 minutes of my day -- particularly the half hour before bedtime, my prime reading time. My burgeoning sudoku addiction doesn't help, either; given 10 minutes of downtime, I'm far more likely to pick up a pencil and start puzzling, rather than ploughing through another chapter of a novel. And if I do read, it's most likely a recipe book or gossip site.

Maybe I'm read out; my job (reading/editing) and my primary hobbies (cooking and reading the InterryWeb) have finally exhausted my ability to focus on the written word for more than 10 minutes at a time. I've also become far more critical. Previously, I would make myself finish any book that I started, regardless of how dreadful. Now, I will happily toss it aside if it doesn't fully engage me from the get-go -- a bad habit. And one that I'm determined to break. I have lots of books awaiting me on the shelves, a seaside holiday coming up -- Latvia! -- and I will get through half a dozen books if it kills me. Although PJ's trying to persuade me to crack open Trauma Centre for the DS, damn him! I will resist! I will read!

Boating, dragon-style

On hearing loud (Dutch) voices outside on the canal, our normal response is to mutter curses and swear words and shut the windows. However, when they're accompanied by the sound of large drums, we feel compelled to take a look. And this is what we saw: 4 dragon boats being propelled up the Keizersgracht, on their way to ... well, we're not sure. They look a little unstable to head out on to the IJ, but any form of race would need a much longer, straighter stretch of water. Most odd.

My search will go on

When you're looking for a lemon cornmeal cookie recipe and come across one that contains "light butter, Splenda, and egg substitute," you have to quell your heaving stomach and wonder why anyone would bother to make cookies that contained no natural ingredients. Buy them from a shop if you want a purely artificial experience. Ugh!

And they call it kitty love

Tick tock, tick tock. That's the sound of my "biological" clock, but it's not calling for kids. Oh no. Take a look at the little beauty below and you'll see the object of my affection. This ginger poppet was in residence at the William IV pub on Shepherdess Walk last Sunday, when we met up with Clive and Pippa and their respective families for a post-wedding-day pint and lunch. He/she happily basked in the sun on a corner window sill, stretching occasionally and submitting to being scratched behind the ears and cooed over by a demented female (me). Great pub, by the way. Big open room, huge picture of William IV, lovely helpful bar staff, and top chips. Perfect for reading the papers in of a Sunday lunchtime. Check it out if you're near Old Street/Angel.

Back to the kitty love. It's getting worse. I've started furtively reading the online listings for cat shelters back in the UK, hitting ctrl-tab whenever PJ enters the room. "Patches and Charlie have lost their owners and are looking for a warm, friendly home." "Mr Tibbs is an affectionate kitty, with a slight bowel disorder, who needs lots of love and attention." I'll give him lots of love and attention -- bed-wetter or not! I know that this is bad for me. I know that I need to stop. But I can't! They're all so adorable and I want to love them all!

But there are signs that I'm going too far in my yearning for a kitty. PJ pointed out a toy in the shop round the corner that he implied was highly appropriate for me -- Crazy Cat Lady, complete with bad hair, ripped clothing, and 14 cats that you can position around her. A harbinger of things to come? (I hope so!)

Death and taxes

Unsurprisingly, the most painful part of booking the holiday in Latvia -- Latvia! -- was forking over large sums of money to KLM for the flight to Riga. The actual ticket price wasn't so bad, but the airport taxes are astronomical. You can pretty much guarantee that you will add on 85 euros to the cost of any flight leaving Schiphol and for what? So that they can build a runway in Haarlem that adds an additional 30 minutes on to your journey time when you land on it? So that they can put X-ray machines at every gate but not staff them until just before the flight is due to depart so that you still have to queue for 30 minutes to go through them -- thus rendering the "privileges" of your expensive Privium card virtually null and void? So that they can provide inadequate ventilation systems at the many smoking areas, all of which are co-located with the food retail areas -- yum! A dose of nicotine with every bite! So that they can install TV screens in every departure area but only show CNN, thus guaranteeing you are depressed before you get on the plane?

And it's always raining when we land back at Schiphol. And, irrationally, I'm going to blame the airport for that, too.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Being bored and boring

I can tell when I'm really bored: I either start shopping or eating or shopping for food to eat. Both are ruinous on my figures, bodily and financial. Sundays are particularly dangerous: I'll head out for a bike ride and come back with bottles of soy sauce, packs of weird Japanese ingredients, and assorted crockery. So yesterday, when boredom struck, I was determined to break this habit and went for what felt like a longish walk. I walked to the Hoofdorpplein and, I must confess, popped into "pile 'em high, sell 'em not particularly cheaply" drugstore Kruidvat -- but buying contact lens solution isn't really shopping, per se. Then, round the corner, along to a canal, over the canal, down the other side of the canal, past the drunks sleeping off hangovers on the grass by the canal, and past a tattoo parlour. I was very tempted to head in and get something done, but then I remembered how even a simple blood test led to large quantities of blood pooling in my arm and massive bruising for weeks after and that I'm terrified of needles, so I didn't.* Back to my walk, past a very pretty cottage that clearly used to be way out in the countryside but is now stuck between a light-industrial estate and a dual carriageway, on past the graveyard and back, appropriately enough, to the office. It felt like a long way, but it only took 20 minutes. The perils of not wearing a watch.

And then I shopped. And ate the prawn crackers left over from lunch. So bored.

*There's very little point to this entry. But I was bored, so welcome to my world.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Speaking of holiday resorts

We have finally -- finally! -- booked a summer holiday. Just 5 days away in glamourous Latvia! Yep, Latvia. Land of bogs and cold winters! Near Lithuania and Estonia! Exporter of wood and wood products! Producer of beets and potatoes! Famed now for cheap stag weekends in Riga and taking part with gusto in the Eurovision Song Contest! Latvia!

I blame marketing for this turn of events. On the way back from London, I picked up a free copy of a shockingly edited "magazine"/advertising supplement called Spavox. This is devoted to spas, and had a feature on one in the Latvian seaside resort of Jurmala. It ticks a lot of our boxes for a holiday: relatively short flight, not too hot, Internet access, and cheap. Especially cheap. (Have I ever mentioned that PJ and I are super, super cheap?) So, I did a little bit of surfing on Monday, we emailed the featured hotel on Tuesday morning, got a remarkably swift response in English, and had the whole thing booked up about an hour later. Bingo! So, we're doing a 3-night spa package and then a night in Riga. I'm envisaging beefy Russian masseuses modeled after Rosa Klebb, sorting out the knots in my back while turning up the heat in the steam room to torture those who annoy. It's going to be great!


To the man in the blue swimming trunks at the pool this morning

Sir, were you aware that getting into the pool -- without showering, tut tut! -- and swimming two lengths and then getting out and heading into the steam room for 20 minutes does not actually constitute particularly effective exercise? You were? OK, carry on then -- it's what everyone else does!

Actually, there are a number of men who hang out poolside between 8 and 8.30 in the morning without doing any, y'know, swimming. One guy spent 30 minutes sitting in the jacuzzi today, keeping an eye on the comings and goings. Another regular merely sits on the loungers near the pool. Several seem to spend a lot of time parading up and down beside the pool; it often feels more like the Promenade des Anglais in Nice rather than the local gym. All these things would seem fine if we were at a Caribbean resort or, indeed, the beach at Nice, but somewhat less appropriate at a private gym at 8.30 in the morning in Amsterdam. I'm starting to think that the pool is actually a cruising point, with the added convenience that people aren't wearing many clothes. Which is fine. If you like that kind of thing and are relatively discreet. But again -- 8.30 IN THE MORNING? I can barely open my eyes at that time, even when I'm in the pool!

As you were.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Quick fashion quiz

If you're wearing a purple top, green belt, and black lycra mini-skirt, what color and type of shoes would you pick to complete the outfit?

If you answered "light brown high heels," congratulations! Come on over to Amsterdam; you'll feel right at home!

Clive and Pippa: The final set

The ushers, looking smart, feeling satisfied -- a job well done. Everyone was seated, mostly in the right places and mostly with an order of service. Who needs rehearsals?

Emergency shoe repairs: I could say something here about shoddy Dutch shoemanship, but I'm feeling charitable, so I won't.

Her name was Lola, she was an ... ice-cream van? Lola's restaurant was the venue for the bride and groom's first date, so getting its ice-cream van along was a lovely touch on a warm day, and the G&T sorbet helped get people in the mood for the plentiful champagne and Pimms that awaited us at the reception.

And just to make sure there were no incidents with the old bill after said G&Ts, a couple of London buses took us to the reception. I haven't been pointed at by tourists so much since I had to wear sub fusc for finals back in the city of dreaming spires in 1993.

All in all, a lovely day: a happy occasion, great people, top-notch food, and lots and lots to drink! Perfect!

Clive and Pippa: the first dance

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Clive and Pippa: The first few pictures

As promised, some photos from the wedding. I'm under strict orders to go to bed, so will have to make this quick.

The groom, radiant, at the pub before the ceremony -- pre-match drinks being an essential part of any traditional English wedding.

The best man, attempting to tie his cravat properly. He made a pretty good fist of it -- eventually -- and was an excellent best man, coping admirably with the shockingly unrehearsed ushers.

The ring-bearer: One pickled egg to rule them all. Batman masks are apparently de rigeur at all the most fashionable London weddings, nowadays.

The serious stuff in the church.

Emmie, the noisy offspring, not allowed in for the serious stuff in the church. Why are dogs banned, but babies allowed?

More to come tomorrow when I'm not using one of the slowest PCs ever allowed out of the factory. Or our dying-on-its-attractive-yet-woefully-underpowered base (and thus equally slow) Mac.

A tragedy, narrowly averted

Sunday morning saw us in Islington, feeling somewhat fragile -- clearly we'd had far too much wedding cake the night before. The Gap was having a sale so, as is our want, we headed in. PJ got some stuff, I idly picked up a pair of jeans, and handed them over at the last minute -- no time to try them on as we were off to the pub, but at 12.99, it wouldn't really matter if they didn't fit.

I tried them on last night. Could barely get them up over my thighs and they didn't come close to zipping up. I could see the look of fear in PJ's eyes as he started to back slowly out of the bedroom. Battling rising hysteria -- and with a certain degree of difficulty -- I pulled them off. "But they're my usual US size 6R!", I wailed. "This can't be right!". And it wasn't. Turns out they were a UK size 6R, a US size 2R: The multiple sales stickers had covered up the US sizing and my rather tired eyes had simply made a mistake. Crisis over!

However, I now have a rather nice pair of blue, left-weave bootcuts in a US size 2R. Any takers?

Monday, July 10, 2006

Another urban myth dispelled

I spent much of yesterday's flight back from London tut-tutting to PJ about somebody having their mobile phone on (yes, I'm so much fun to travel with). I kept hearing the tell-tale three-tone "turn-on" noise, and conveniently blamed it on the children sitting a row ahead of us. When we got home, however, I discovered -- to my shame -- that it was MY phone making the noise: I'd turned it on on Friday evening after landing and never actually turned it off. Oops. I'd apologize psychically to the children, but eh -- they were really irritating anyway. And it's good to know that my phone didn't actually interfere with aircraft systems -- this time.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

. . . and I'm back

From London, after an excellent wedding. Photos and full report to come. But first, the World Cup Final. I can only conclude that France don't really want to win. They had the run of the second half, Zidane had more freedom, and yet Henry was never in the box when Meluda (frequently) got a long way up on the left. The World War II jokes are coming thick and fast at Dumpling Towers, and show no signs of letting up. Extra time has just kicked off; back in 15 minutes.

And, not much to report. FIFA might claim that this has been an excellent tournament defensively, but that does make it rather dull for spectators. I want to see goals -- lots of 'em, and I don't mean during penalty shootouts. There ought to be a better way of deciding the match: golden goal, playing until the first player drops from exhaustion or someone scores, randomly pulling out names of players to take off. Anything rather than penalties -- and not just because England are crap at them. OK, back to the telly for the next 15 minutes. Let's hope someone -- anyone! -- scores.

Oooh! High drama! Zidane's off, and deservedly so. Why would he headbutt a player in a final? When there are TV cameras everywhere!? It's absolutely insane behavior! But will hopefully lead to a goal.

No such luck. Penalties. I'm rather hoping that France win, just because the Italians didn't do anything in the second half or extra time.

And it wasn't to be. That's so unfair. Italy really didn't deserve to win. We've decided that FIFA should have a pool of judges, boxing style, who would rate the teams on the basis of their play throughout the game. Three of those judges' scores would be randomly selected, to decide the winner. This would only apply in the final, I think, but would give the game to the better team.

Damn. My Italian colleagues will be unbearable tomorrow.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Coming soon? Apparently not

It's been ages since I checked out the movie trailers on the Apple site, but I just have and I really really really want to go and see The Devil Wears Prada -- right now! Who knew Meryl Streep could look so utterly fabulous!?

So, I just checked out the Pathe site for Amsterdam, and the film doesn't open here until OCTOBER 26! Why so long? So they can attach some incorrect subtitles that completely miss the snarky insults? Bah!!!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

You couldn't score in a brothel

Five things I'm enjoying about the Portugal-France match:

1. The jeering from the England fans every time that pouting, Cliff Richard lookalike Christiano Ronaldo gets the ball. Yes, it's petty and pathetic, but his little sneers and winks fully deserve it.

2. The desperate over-acting by the Portuguese every time they slip over . . .

3. . . . and the referee admirably turning a blind eye to it every time.

4. The fact that the French manager looks exactly like what a French manager should look like -- a philosophy lecturer at the Sorbonne or a rive gauche art critic.

5. Scolari clearly getting more and more agitated as his teams fails to score yet again. Not counting the penalties on Saturday -- and really, who does? -- when did Portugal last look like scoring in open play?

Still sweltering

The thunderstorm they've been promising has not yet arrived, so it was another sticky, sleepless night in Dumpling Towers. I awoke feeling both swollen and dessicated -- something that would seem most unlikely from the 5 seasons of CSI (the Las Vegas one) that I've watched. Of course, I did focus rather more on Nick's haircut and Catherine's hugely inappropriate workwear -- hey, she could be Dutch! -- than on the science-y bits, but it still seems like an unlikely combination. It clouded over at lunchtime and the temperature started to drop, but then blue skies returned and the heat has returned in force. Curses! Foiled again.

My brain is fried. I can barely think (or type). I take back every nasty thing I've ever said about airconditioning.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Longing for autumn

Complete the following. I hate hot weather because:

No prizes, just the satisfaction of knowing that you agree with me and are adding to my list of reasons (below) as to why hot weather is unpleasant.

I hate hot weather because:

1. Towels never dry.
2. I can't sleep.
3. Cooking is a chore.
4. Cycling/walking/breathing make me sweaty.
5. Clothes don't fit.

Monday, July 03, 2006

A minute on the lips

So, we've got a wedding this Saturday -- Clive and Pippa. I'm reading a poem, PJ's an usher, all very nice. It's going to be a smart do, but I'm feeling confident. After all, this time last year I bought myself a dress specifically for weddings. Good fit, nice pair of shoes to go with it, co-ordinating bag and cardi. Sorted.

Or so I thought . . .

"Oh well, guess I'd better try on the dress just to make sure it still fits, ha ha!" I joked when I got home from work. "Wouldn't it be a disaster if it was too small!"

You know what's coming next, don't you?

Yep, it strained across my hips. Where it used to hang nicely across them, it now pulled taut. Why? WHY? I have NO idea. I mean, I'm cycling at least 60 km a week, doing AN AVERAGE of FOUR exercise sessions on top of that, I have made ONE cake in the past two months, and still! THE BLOODY DRESS NO LONGER FITS!!! That's 50 quid per wear and a whole heap of misery!!!

I suppose I should be grateful that, bizarrely, a dress I bought 3 years ago is suitable (Chelsea blue) and still fits -- apparently my weight gain is localised exclusively to this other dress. And I should be grateful that I have enough food, unlike many people in the world. And that I'm not actually overweight, despite the incipient (or is it now full-blown) paranoia. And maybe it's just all the swimming has lifted my arse by about an inch and broadened my back, thus rendering the dress unwearable But good God, is it too much to ask that age + healthy diet + doing more exercise than anyone else I know not actually result in weight gain? Is it?

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Chocolate-flavoured hubris

I woke up this morning feeling remarkably upbeat; England's defeat has not had the soul-shattering effect that previous ones had. Time for some cake-making. I've shyed away from this in the past 6 weeks, as part of my lower-carb approach to cooking. However, I'm hosting a book club meeting this evening and this sourdough chocolate cake recipe appealed. And after my baguette success yesterday, I was on baking fire -- what could possibly go wrong?

To start with, all seemed well. The mixture came together beautifully, filling one cake tin and leaving enough left over for a few breakfast muffins. Into the oven, no problem: I was feeling smugly competent! After 10 minutes, I could smell burning. That was odd. The top of the muffins were charring. I turned the oven temperature down and then took them out 5 minutes later. Meanwhile, the batter in the cake tin below had barely started to cook. I shifted it up a rack, closed the door, and set the timer. When I looked again, the top of the cake had also charred. Curiouser and curiouser! Until I realized that I'd turned the grill on, rather than the oven -- it's a tiny Dutch combi oven, and the grill bars don't glow red unless you've got them set at 225C. Blast! No matter! I just put some silver foil over the top of the cake, turned the oven on, and left it for 10 minutes. Took it out the oven, figured I could cut the charred part off, and all would be well.

Which it would have been, if I hadn't managed to drop the cake while turning it out of the tin. Oh, not from a great height -- and not onto the floor -- but it was enough of a drop to cause the cake to crack into 3 pieces and then for two of those pieces to split horizontally, too. Apparently, pride really does go before a fall.

At least it tastes fantastic.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Plus ca change

Another tournament, another penalty shootout -- another defeat. This is actually the first time I've been able to watch and, no, it didn't make any difference. I just can't believe Lampard and Gerrard; they were so half-hearted! Carragher was unlucky not to have his first shot allowed. Good for Hargreaves (and I never thought I'd say that). Bah!

Bye bye, Sven. Close the door behind you on your way out.

ETA: Doctor Who was excellent! Well scheduled, BBC1 -- you pulled me out of my pit of footballing despair!


Sven's taken Joe Cole off to let Crouch come on after the petulance of that little thug Rooney. But why Cole? Why not Lampard, who has been woefully off-target and sloppy all match???


ETA: ok, extra time. It's still 0-0. England actually seem to be playing better since they've gone down to 10 men. Maybe it's forced the creation of the space that they were so sadly lacking. This is exciting stuff!

But I still don't want it to go to penalties.

EATA: Guess what? Penalties! Why did it have to be penalties!

Our cross to bear?

I had an interesting chat with Mama Dumpling the other evening. I was telling her about my new England flag, pictured above, and she said that the Cross of St George always made her feel extremely uncomfortable, as she associated it with the National Front and the British National Party. To be honest, I hadn't thought about it before. Yes, in my youth, they pretty much exclusively used the flag, but since the devolution of Scotland and Wales, England has had more of an independent identity and football fans have adopted the flag and removed it of its nationalist connotations.

However, am I being naive? After all, I grew up in what the National Front charmingly called the Last White City in England. There were three -- count 'em -- non-white pupils at my 1200-strong school. And while Norwich was regularly voted the politest city in England, a Guardian journalist wrote a scathing piece about how unwelcoming people were to those of color. What he failed to appreciate, of course, was that Norfolk people are generally unwelcoming of those whose grandparents weren't born in that village -- as I'm sure Mondale will attest! But racist? I'm not convinced.


I'm a winner either way

If we win, great! If we lose, I don't have to spend hours before each match feeling sick with nerves.

The sun's over the yard arm

"Do you have any prematch rituals, Dumpling?"

"Why yes. I imbibe several strong drinks, usually featuring vodka or kahlua or both, and eat lots of bread. Or chips. Or cake. I find that watching England play while I'm in an alcohol- and carb-induced stupor is infinitely preferable to watching them play with my faculties fully intact."

To that end, I used my fabulous sourdough to make some baguettes. And don't they look professional!


Despite getting home at midnight and deciding to have a shower and make up a batch of sourdough bread, I still woke up early this morning. It's nerves. England v Portugal for a place in the semi-finals. I think I'll be okay as long as it doesn't go to penalties; I hate penalties, and not just because every time I've watched us take them, we've lost. It's just so arbitrary and hugely unfair for the goalie. Perhaps I should take heart from the fact that 40 years ago, England played Portugal in the semi-finals on July 26 and won. And not only did they win, but my brother was born at the same time. What do you mean, "What did your father do?". Of course he watched the match! It was the semi-final of the World Cup! What would you do!?*

So, just got to stay calm until 5 o'clock. Perhaps some yoga will help me find and maintain a Zen-like calm. It's worth a shot.

* Papa Dumpling would like me to point out that it was 1966 and men weren't allowed in the delivery room. So he really had no choice but to watch the match. Honest.

Good food, great company, fast trains

I managed to just avoid a Cinderella moment last night, making it back to Dumpling Towers as the Westerkerk clock struck midnight. I'd been down to Leiden for the evening, you see; the lovely Jessica took me out for dinner as my birthday present -- and very good it was, too. Gazpacho as an amuse bouche, the tuna tartare pictured below as a starter, a lovely piece of halibut and some scallops as the main -- unfortunately on a bed of asparagus, as neither of us like it, particularly the white flabby stuff -- and melon soup with berries and apple sorbet to finish up. We sat outside the restaurant, enjoying the long, light, and warm evening; we were on a charming side street, notable for the loud group of sorority sisters having a meal outside their house and for the large number of men in flash cars who cruised up and down the street periodically. Drug dealers? Simply perving on the sorority girls? Hard to tell. We then strolled (or in Jessica's case, hobbled -- new shoes!) back through the very busy streets of central Leiden to the station, where my non-pumpkin-based carriage awaited.

The Dutch rail service is what makes evenings like this possible. No need to book ahead, no weird tiers of fares, frequent and rapid services that run late into the night. The train I got back to Centraal left at 23:17 and was packed -- and was one of about 4 or 5 per hour. It went via Haarlem, where the station was also heaving with people on their way back from an evening at the beach. I guess this is why people can just use bikes and not need a car -- the train service fills in any gaps. Impressive.

Overall, a really lovely evening out. Thank you, Jessica!