Saturday, September 30, 2006

Glad tidings from the belaastingdienst

Apparently, my taxes are now settled -- for 2003, at least. They have decided that I'm not trying to defraud them by wanting to pay as a resident, rather than a migrant; in fact, I'm trying to give them more money. Everything's squared away, neither of us owe each other anything, and that's just how I like it. Now, let's hope that similar settlements follow shortly for 2004 and 2005. I'm getting tired of receiving letters that merely say "Given your circumstances, we're still looking into your tax situation": they scare me.

It was the best of times ...

Clive's recent post on his new work canteen prompted Proustian memories of my own experiences of this wonderful phenomenon. Oxford University's central administration building had a great canteen, much used by the single men who worked in the offices. They'd eat a decent cooked meal every lunchtime, and then have beans on toast or soup in the evening -- saving lots of money in the process. It was also a top-notch location for our morning tea and afternoon coffee breaks -- considerably better value than the Maison Blanc round the corner, although the slightly stale chocolate bourbons couldn't really compete with MB's apricot croissants. Rewley House, home of Oxford's continuing education department, went one better: We had mandatory tea breaks morning and afternoon, with free tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and biscuits. Our department chief thought that we all needed a break from our computer screens -- this was back in the day when health and safety figured that staring at a screen for more than a couple of hours was bad for you -- and it was a great opportunity for us secretaries to get hold of the otherwise elusive academics that we worked with. And it worked. If I ever get to run a team of more than one person, I think I'll institute compulsory tea breaks, too.

The mother of all work canteens, though, had to be at Norwich Union. As part of every employee's benefits package, we got a full meal every day. Soup or juice to start, a choice of three or four main courses or a salad bar, dessert, cheese and biscuits and coffee. A roast lunch on Wednesdays, fish on Fridays, or you could opt for sandwiches/crisps/yoghurt if you didn't fancy a cooked meal. My colleagues in the Defined Benefits Pension section had a finely honed routine: Clock out at 12:00 and charge down the 9 flights of stairs to the canteen to be first in line; the obligatory 30 minutes for lunch, then back up the 9 flights of stairs to clock back in at 12:30. Then, settle down with The Guardian's quick crossword -- or cryptic, if we were feeling adventurous -- for a further 30 minutes before starting on our calculations once again. Despite having a hefty 3 or 4 courses each day, we didn't put on weight -- climbing 9 flights of stairs twice a day put paid to that. And it gave you enough energy to get through the afternoon's work easily, far better than the temporary carb boost you get from a packet of chilled sandwiches and a Mars Bar or the aching, empty sensation that comes along an hour after finishing off a salad.

My two summers at Norwich's finest insurance company have clearly spoiled me for any other employer. The lunches, the flex time, the sports facilities at Pinebanks ... even, I should point out, the Norwich Union flat in which I was born. And if my parents hadn't pretty much forced me to take up a job offer in London, clearly determined to have the house to themselves again after a year of me living at home, I'd probably still be there. If companies want to gain employee loyalty, perhaps they should stop looking just at salary and start providing these other services -- they're the things I remember most about my different jobs, not how much I was paid or what I actually did. Although, that could just be my food-focused nature. Reader, what do you think? What employee benefits are most important to you?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Discomfort Zone

As my time in Amsterdam starts its 6-month draw to a close, I increasingly feel that I have failed to fully engage with the city -- to learn more than transactional and yoga-related Dutch; to appreciate the myriad restaurants and cuisines (there's got to be more than broodje met kaas, right?); or to take advantage of the full range of cultural activities on offer, and I'm not just talking about the coffee shops and the ladies in the windows. It is therefore inevitable that, in these final months, I shall find myself out and about, buying tickets to dance and music, attending literary readings: in short, picking over the cultural bones of the 'Dam like an aesthetic vulture. (But, as I've mentioned before, no opera!)

And so it is proving. Two weeks ago it was the ballet; tonight, I accompanied friend Jessica from Leiden to a reading/interview with Jonathan Franzen, renowned American author of The Corrections and infamous snubber of Oprah's book club. He read from his new memoir, The Discomfort Zone -- an amusing chapter about bird watching that encompassed the death of his mother, his uncertainty around having children, and the onset of global warming -- and was then "interviewed" by a Dutch journalist. All very entertaining and enjoyable, particularly as he made the bold assertion (in the context of his audience) that art was, essentially, useless -- and should thus be celebrated for its very uselessness. After all, what other animal would devote so much time and energy to something so pointless? But, the audience found it hard to move beyond the "art is useless" opinion, failing to recognize the rhetoric of the embattled American liberal, weary of being attacked by the conservative right and the notion of the importance of utility in all things. Question after question centered around the notion of "usefulness", something that Franzen quite rightly alluded to as being more suited to a late-night discussion in a dorm room with some beer and those famous cigarettes from Amsterdam.

The moderator for the evening seemed to struggle somewhat in his role -- failing to divert the course of the conversation or questioning, prefering the grand statement about "art" or the nature of writing and failing to pick up on the seemingly evident humour or irony or sarcasm in Franzen's responses. Throwaway comments were treated with great seriousness. I've never watched much Dutch television over here; they're fond of broadcasting seemingly interminable "debates" from a studio one block down the canal. These usual consist of three or four middle-age men, enjoying the sound of their own voices and opinions, rather than actively engaging with each other. Well, that's what Jesscia told me this evening: Like I said, I tend to skip past these to David Caruso putting on his sunglasses of justice while promising little Timmy that he can call him any time he feels bad about his mother being murdered. Where was I? Oh yes, but at least this serious questioner was better than the moderator at the previous literary reading we attended together -- Candace Bushnell, author of Sex And The City. There, the moderator -- a well-known Dutch author -- was quite clearly drunk and quite fancied herself a Carrie Bradshaw, but coming across far more as a lewd, crude Samantha.

However, the evening served its purpose. I went out, interacted with the city and its citizens, caught up with Jessica, and ate some excellent sushi. I wish I had had the chance to ask a question -- something about blogging lowering the barriers to entry to publishing to a global audience, and the impact of this and all of us rank amateur writers upon this noble (if useless) profession -- but I was stuck at the end of a row and am incredibly shy at these things and the microphone would have been too high. But I got to take another pop at my Dutch peers and decided that I would buy The Corrections and probably also The Discomfort Zone. Well sold, Mr Franzen; well sold!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Hot from New York

PJ's 30-hour trip to New York saw him return with the news that Virgin Atlantic now provides sudoku on the in-flight entertainment system. Not only that, but it's multi-player -- adding an unnecessary competitive edge to my drug of choice. (Yes, I know it's sad. Leave me alone!) And given that I HATE to lose at anything, I'm a little nervous about my next flight to the US, bearing in mind the anguish I went through when competing in an in-plane quiz competition on one journey; I had built up a healthy lead going into the final round, only for my bloody handset to crash at the last minute. Curses! However, vengeance will be mine -- oh yes!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Albert? Is on notice!

In the last, thrilling installment of "Albert, crap delivery service", the Albert deliveryman gave us the wrong bag of frozen food -- resulting in various calls to their service line, delayed Indian takeout, the promise of a refund, and the sneaky consumption of the vegetarian snacks in the boxes of frozen cheap party food that we got in place of my scallops and cod. Today, we got our refund, but they failed to deliver the following:

1 bottle of balsamic vinegar
6 free-range eggs
1 bottle of olive oil
2 packs of passata
4 cans of chopped tomatoes
1 bottle of sunflower oil
1 tube of toothpaste
2 tins of tuna

No reason given for the failure to deliver, of course -- no warning by email in advance. Just "niet levenbaar" on the order printout, something I checked more carefully when I realized that the order was both too cheap and somewhat scanty. I'm beginning to wonder why I even bother with them.

Six more months, and then I'll be using Ocado. That had better be more efficient than Albert, or there'll be trouble.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Light up my life

Autumn's well and truly here. Today, it was dark when I woke up, grey and misty as I cycled to the gym (yay me!), lovely at lunchtime, and then overcast again as I cycled home. I now need to make sure I take my bike lights with me whenever I head out in the evening; these little things not only make me visible to cars, but render me invisible to the bike police. Yes, it's around this time of year that they start hiding round corners, waiting to pounce on the unwitting and unlit cyclist. On-the-spot-fines start at about 15 euros, particularly frustrating if your dynamo or light battery suddenly decides to give up the ghost as you're cycling past. In years gone by, the police have waited to impose the light laws until after huge signs have been put up around the city; once cyclists have had this warning, they're considered fair game. However, cycling home from a delicious meal at Bill and Beth's on Saturday evening, I saw one policeman perched on his motorbike over a canal, stopping the ill-prepared cyclists in front of me. Not only do the policemen get younger each year, but they're also starting earlier.

Oh well, this is one rule I can't complain about. It's unnerving enough to suddenly be confronted by a shadowy dark figure coming near-silently (apart from the squeaky wheels) the wrong way down a street at you when you're on a bike; far worse if you're in a car and could do some serious damage to them. Now, if only the police would fine the tourists who wander along the bike lanes during the day instead of using the pavement -- that would be both a real public service and an excellent source of income.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Plymouth 3: Norwich 1

The early part of the season goes from bad to worse. An own goal and a distinct lack of passion on the pitch contributed to a disastrous result. We're now languishing in 14th position, just ahead of teams like Colchester and Southend. Worthington is clearly incapable of installing any fire or drive into the team; when will he take the hint and leave?

I expect Delia to go psycho on their asses shortly.

Sticky buns

Family Dumpling's inability to keep house plants alive is legendary. Perhaps it was the bile and venom that saturated the air at home or the tendency of the cats to nibble on the spider plants on the piano, but the damn things never survived more than a few weeks. PJ and I have managed to keep our Freddy Krueger-style plant on the go, largely because it only requires watering once a month -- the salesgirl swore that it was impossible to kill. You can therefore imagine my concern when it came to keeping my sourdough starter active. However, months later, and the stuff is still bubbling away, even returning to life after a week at a time in the fridge. But this presents a challenge in itself: What to do with this bounteous supply of yeastiness? After all, a Dumpling cannot live on bread alone, regardless of how tangy and tasty it might be. Once again, the InterWeb has come to my rescue, providing page after page of sourdough recipes. In recent weeks, we've had chocolate cake, red chilli biscuits (US scones), molasses spice biscuits, and -- perhaps best of all -- sticky buns.


These are fabulous: a cross between an upside-down cake, Chelsea buns, and cinnamon buns. They're soft and fluffy on the inside, with a toffee-style crunchy coating. High in the essential food groups of sugar and fat and with slivers of almond, they go wonderfully with a cup of coffee and a good book. These are buns that really stay by you -- and that's a good thing. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Kids! What are they good for?

Debate at book club on Thursday night, for once, raged fast and furious. Normally, we gather, drink wine, eat chocolates, and talk about the book for 20 minutes before falling back into complaining about the Dutch. (I'd love to hear what the cloggies say about us at their book clubs!) However, "We Need To Talk About Kevin" dominated the entire evening -- or rather the themes raised in the book did. Can you get a bad seed or do you create them? Does lack of breast-feeding mean that you're going to raise a crossbow-weilding serial killer? Just what is mastitis? (Thanks for the explanation, complete with demo, Beth!) Is baby poo as bad as it sounds? Should you have children if you aren't going to take care of them fully? Should you have children if you aren't completely sure? When should you have kids -- before or after you've experienced "life"? When did the notion of the sanctity of the child -- and by extension the foetus -- appear? Has feminism liberated women or put additional pressures on them? What are the responsibilities of each member of a couple in a relationship? If you're not working, should you do the household chores? Does not having kids make you selfish (disappearance of the human race) or generous (too many people as it is)?

While infuriating at times -- I'm always right and it can be irritating to hear people disagree (badly) -- this was exactly the sort of engagement I'd hoped to experience. The somewhat challenging and divisive nature of the book and the fact that we were all 30-something women, either with children, thinking about having children, or (in my case) firmly decided about not having them helped enormously. And hopefully this debate will continue with our next choice: The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf. And it will allow me to display my staggering knowledge of celebrity plastic surgery, which has to be a good thing!

Lo, a child is born!

One of the quaint traditions over here is the public display of a stork to indicate the arrival of a new child. Apartment blocks will often have a communal stork, ready to be hung out of a window or over a balcony should the need arise. These usually take the form of a carved wooden effigy; this, however, is the best one I've seen so far:

PJ said it was almost worth having a child just to be able to put this up. Please note he said "almost". I was extremely worried for a moment.

Friday, September 22, 2006

I just want my Hamster back

I was going to blog last night about the joys of autumn, but that got put on hold when I saw the news about top TV cutie Richard Hammond's car crash. I'm an atheist, so there's no praying involved, but I am keeping my fingers crossed that he'll be okay and back on Top Gear soon.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

To a lady on her bicycle

O lady in the Vondelpark, cycling past me at high speed this morning: I'd have cycled quickly too if I'd been wearing your bottle-green knee-length leggings with a pair of denim shorts pulled over the top -- or, far more disturbingly, possibly integrated into the leggings, providing some arse-covering denim modesty.

Please don't wear them again. In fact, take them out and burn them.


Norfolk Dumpling

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


"My Big Fat Greek Wedding" is on RTL5 in 25 minutes; I've never seen it before; and PJ's not here to stop from watching it.

Thank goodness I didn't buy any ice cream earlier today. I'm going to feel guilty enough as it is.

Who's a clever boy, then? You are! Yes you are!

The average Englishman will assiduously avoid social interaction with his fellow humans and will generally become awkward and aggressive when obliged to communicate with them, unless certain props and facilitators are available to help the process along. He will have no difficulty, however, in engaging in lively, amicable conversation with a dog. Even a strange dog to whom he has not been introduced. ... You see, the English really are quite capable of Latin-Mediterranean warmth, enthusiasm and hospitality; we can be just as direct, approachable and emotive and tactile as any of the so-called 'contact cultures.' It is just that these qualities are only consistently expressed in our interactions with animals... the superior quality of our communication and bonding with animals can sometimes also have beneficial side effects on our relations with other humans. We can even manage to strike up a conversation with a stranger if one of us is accompanied by a dog, although it must be said that both parties are sometimes inclined to talk to the canine chaperone rather than address each other directly.

Kate Fox, Watching The English.

Kate has, once again, hit the nail on the head. Although I'm not a dog owner (but hope to be a cat keeper in the not-so-distant future), my first instinct on seeing a dog out for walkies is to smile at him/her -- and by extension at his owner. In England, this automatically elicits a smile in return. It would be rude not to, to such an extent that I rather believed that returning a smile was a human instinct -- perhaps part of the conditioning that we receive as children. However, this must be conditioning that Dutch children miss out on. People on the street simply do not respond to a friendly smile. Even if they have a dog. In fact, you're far more likely to get a scowl and a hint of aggression, as if you'd somehow indicated with your cheery greeting that you intend to kidnap their precious pup, molest it horribly, and then dump it in the nearest canal. Or maybe they think that I'm thinking that, yeah, that dog is cute, but clear up the not-so-cute crap it's leaving on my front door step. Who knows? All I do know is that I find this lack of civility, this removal of the essential oil of social interaction, depressing; I want to smile at puppies, maybe exchange a greeting with its owner, and then carry on about my business feeling a little better for having established some human/canine contact. Is that so much to ask?

Of course, that doesn't apply to the wild-haired loon with the poppety Jack Russell terrier who leered alarmingly at me after I smiled at his dog. Freak.

Here's one I made earlier

Last night's coconut and cashew nut rice dish was so gorgeous that I felt compelled to share the recipe with you. It tastes -- I'd say authentic, but I've never been to India so I don't know if it is or not -- fragrant. Can something taste fragrant? It's the cardamom pods that do it, adding an ineffable perfume to every mouthful that is different to the flavor they contribute. Whatever, I'm rambling, it's great. Make it, enjoy it, reheat any leftovers in the microwave, just as I'm doing right now.

3 tablespoons sunflower oil
1 medium onion, sliced
10 black peppercorns
3 cloves
3 pods cardamom, bruised
2 bay leaves
300 grams basmati rice, washed and drained
300 ml coconut milk from a can
1 green pepper, sliced
3 tablespoons frozen green peas
2 tablespoons raisins
2 tablespoons cashew nuts

Heat 2 tbs of the oil in a heavy saucepan and fry the onion until golden brown. Add the whole spices and swirl around for a minute. Add about 300 ml water (I used a bit more than that) and bring to the boil.

Add the rice to the pan and half the coconut milk and a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil. Reduce heat and add the green pepper and peas.

As soon as the liquid has been absorbed, add the rest of the coconut milk. Cover the pan and simmer gently until the rice is cooked through. (I turned the heat off after about 8-10 minutes and left it for another 10. Perfect.)

Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a small pan and fry the raisins and cashews for a minute. Pour over the rice to garnish and serve hot.

I only managed the first three steps. PJ has this weird hatred of fruit/nuts in savoury food, so I had to leave the nuts and raisins out. And I decided to scorch my fingers picking out the whole spices, rather than risk cracking an expensive crown. (I am now ready for a career as an international jewel thief). It was still excellent. Taken from India's Vegetarian Cooking -- A Regional Guide, by Monisha Bharadwaj.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A helpful hint

When you're making a lovely kaju saathe khichoi pulao (Parsi-style coconut and cashew nut rice) from a recipe you ripped out of a BMI in-flight magazine, it's worth counting the number of whole peppercorns you put in, rather than just chucking in a large pinch. Carefully sorting through a panful of hot rice for each of the little buggers is no fine. And no, it's not the heat they provide that's the problem, but the pain they generate if you bite into one by accident.

It tastes fabulous though -- and vegan, too! We're having it with a spicy cauliflower and butternut squash stew.

Monday, September 18, 2006

I just don't know what to do with myself

I don't think I like being off sick. I feel disoriented, adrift in the world, and I don't know what I'm allowed to do. Not going to work was the right thing to do; this cold is nasty and I wouldn't want anyone else to suffer -- okay, a couple of people but on the basis of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, I couldn't inflict that on everyone else. I also feel much better now: The perpetual headache has passed, the sinuses (sinii?) have cleared, and I'm just a little achey, but that could be because I'm having to access the Net at floor level.

No, my problem is more one of how should one behave when one is off sick? I rarely skived off school, and take maybe one day per year actually off sick -- rather than working from home. Are you allowed to surf? To go to the shop to get essential supplies of honey and lemons? If you're well enough to do two lots of ironing, are you well enough to be at work? Can one cook Danish fish cakes and cauliflower cheese souffles -- hypothetically speaking, of course. How about reading "Untangling My Chopsticks" by Victoria Riccardi, a book about Kyoto cuisine and tea ceremonies? And subsequently day-dreaming about spending more than just one day in Kyoto? Is this allowed under sick-day etiquette? Well, is it?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

But even a cold can't keep me out of the kitchen

As regular readers will have suspected, I bought a couple of cookbooks in Wales last weekend. I debated the merits of "Welsh Teatime Recipes" versus "Favourite Welsh Recipes" for ages, before realizing that they cost 99p each and so it was well within my budget to get both. Although Welsh Teatime Recipes was somewhat heavy on the recipes for economical fruitcakes, it did throw up a couple of temptations.

First up was Leek and Cheese Flan for dinner on Monday; today I made Welsh rarebit fr lunch, using up the red chilli sourdough biscuits I made yesterday. Both were excellent and reinforced my belief that I will never be able to turn vegan. Cheese is just too nice.

And then this afternoon I made another huge batch of my rather wonderful granola, enjoying the cinnamon toasty smell wafting through the kitchen as I watched Early Summer. This is not Welsh and definitely lacks a certain cheesiness, but is pretty damned good nonetheless. Don't you agree?

1665 and all that

Paint a red cross on our door; carry a bouquet of flowers to ward off the stench of approaching death. My cast-iron constitution has turned rusty and I've caught PJ's cold. And it's a stinker. Headache, sore threat, blocked sinuses, and aching limbs -- although that could be the result of yesterday's yoga class. I'm knocking back the paracetmol, hot lemon and honey, and waiting for the phelgm generation to start. If the pile of moist tissues that PJ's stockpiling around the house are anything to go by, I'll be hacking away with the best of them by tomorrow.

I'm not sure that my feeling of apathy has been helped by my choice of entertainment. This morning, I finished off "Out" by Natsuo Kirino, a novel I picked up in Cardiff last weekend. This was a gruesome tale of disappointed women and dismembered husbands -- far more gory than I had expected, with details of the advantages of scalpels over sashimi knives for chopping up errant men and the erotic pleasure to be had from raping a woman while stabbing her to death. Yep, a typical light-hearted Japanese romp. The cover art should have given it away: It's a picture of a bloody plug, with more blood washing down the plug hole. (For some reason -- temporary blindness, perhaps? -- this didn't register with me when I picked up the novel, or even after I started reading it; only this morning did I recognize what it was.) It's the second deeply unpleasant novel I've read in quick succession, after the unremittingly grim "We Need To Talk About Kevin", by Lionel Shriver. Now that's a book to put you off having children for good.

Perhaps to cleanse my palate after this gorefest, I watched the second in the Ozu trilogy I bought some months ago. Early Summer was a languid delight with tatami mats and kimonos galore; the only knives used were to cut up slices of delicious-looking shortcake. It's the sort of movie that makes me want to return to happier, more innocent days -- where women were giggly and submissive, men were grumpy and shouted, and heart specialists smoked on the wards. However, lots of static shots and minimal dialogue did tend to reinforce my lethargy, and getting up to write this was a real challenge. Time for some more drugs and tea.

(PJ is also fighting off his cold with Japanese culture, but his takes the form of pretending to be a valkyrie named Lennith and collecting souls to fight alongside him/her in Valhalla. Don't ask. Whoever said that video games lead to ADHD haven't seen the fierce concentration and dedication with which PJ can work through a game. In fact, if you were foolish enough to have children, I can't see why you wouldn't buy them one as soon as their little hands were big enough to hold the control pads: Keeps 'em quiet for hours.)

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Dance, my pretties, dance!

Regular readers might be surprised to learn that under my loutish, football-loving, vodka-swilling exterior beats the heart of a prima ballerina. Yes, I took ballet classes until the age of eight -- when it became clear that my inadequate physique and general lack of drive and talent were never going to result in me being a great dancer. I swapped barre exercises for voice projection exercises at a local drama class instead, standing me in good stead for my short-lived teaching career and ability to bellow at naughty students and analysts alike without damaging my vocal chords.

Despite this change in middle-class Saturday morning activities, I've always retained a love for the ballet. It's pretty, and sparkly, and terribly, terribly nice -- and, more importantly, it's not opera or theatre, both of which are just appalling. When living in London, I'd periodically take myself off to the Royal Opera House to watch Sylvie Guillem or Darcey Bussell, but I've been rather slack about doing the same in Amsterdam. Until last night. On our way back through Schiphol last weekend, I saw posters for The National Ballet's production of Jewels -- very sparkly! I booked two tickets, informed PJ of what we would be doing, and he agreed to come along -- and then promptly developed a cold. And not just a skiving man cold, but a proper phlegm-generating cold. Luckily, I was able to find a last-minute substitution and Beth came along for her first ballet performance.

And it was fun. The Muziektheater in Amsterdam is a great building; I mean, it's a shame they bulldozed an area of 17th century warehouse slums (which would now be worth a fortune) to build it, but it's beautifully proportioned, comfy seats, and fabulous ceiling with thousands of light bulbs that turn off and flip round just as the curtain goes up. The ballet itself was new to me. It's a three-act abstract ballet covering different styles: Emeralds is French romanticism; Rubies is New York jazz; and Diamonds is Imperial Russia -- a great introduction to ballet. The performance was generally very good, although one of the soloists in Emeralds seemed somewhat stiff, and the choreography didn't always match the music -- but I guess that's Balanchine's fault, rather than The National Ballet's. Rubies was my favorite piece, and it looked like the dancers', too. They performed with a real sense of joie de vivre -- clearly having a lot of fun and transmitting that to the audience.

Cycling home after, I realized that I've often failed to take advantage of Amsterdam. There are a huge number of cultural events every week, and I've never plugged into the "scene" enough to appreciate that. But now that we've finally set in motion the plan to leave, I'll find hundreds of things that I want to attend -- it's inevitable. I guess I'll just have to make sure we engage rather more with "culture" in our next home town.

For want of a nail ...

There's nothing quite like waking up at 3.15 a.m., realizing that in your OCD-inspired rush to clean out your Yahoo mail inbox last week you deleted the KLM ticket confirmations for your flights from Norwich-Amstermdam-Norwich -- the second half of which you haven't yet taken -- and then panicking that this means you won't be able to check in online and KLM overbook their flights to Norwich, meaning that you'll be bumped, and that will mean PJ won't get to the UK in time to get his flight to Chicago, so he won't make the important conference he needs to speak at -- and so on.

Luckily, broadband meant that I could check my Yahoo account, click hopefully on Trash, and find that the deleted ticket confirmations were still in there. Phew! All's well that ends well.

God bless the Internet!

Friday, September 15, 2006

You CANNOT be serious!

The long list of reasons why Dutchies shouldn't have to go to work rarely astounds me now; I've gotten used to the idea that work is seen as an option in life, rather than a requirement. However, one piece of information I acquired yesterday did leave me stunned. If you are sick while on holiday, you can convert that vacation day into a sick day and claim back that vacation day. As we were told this, you could hear British and US jaws hitting the table. WTF!!! If you're sick while on vacation, that's just bad luck! You weren't going to go to work anyway, so why should you claim it as a sick day? Unbelieveable! Amusingly, this doesn't apply to public holidays -- perhaps even the Dutch government couldn't face enabling the entire population to phone in sick on New Year's Day.

This is not information that's generally shared with employees -- hence my surprise after five years working here -- but clearly the Dutch are brought up to know their (idle) employee rights. Family member died? One day off. Getting married? Two days off. Moving house? Another day off. Don't really like your job but can't be arsed looking for another one? Take six months off on full pay -- you're clearly stressed!

The Daily Mail would have a field day over here.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The boys are back in town

Ah yes, the end of August/beginning of September signals the return to our street of the frat boys in the frat house on the corner. It's the time when new pledges arrive, taking part in all those fun little hazing rituals that are, apparently, a cornerstone of the Dutch university system. What will it be this year? Standing outside the house at 8 in the morning reading aloud out of a newspaper? Or perhaps running laps of the block in full frat-boy rig? As far as I can tell, becoming a member of a fraternity here involves very little: A willingness to wear the frat-boy uniform of pale blue shirt, navy blazer, and those appalling red chinos that Dutch men are so inexplicably fond of. In addition, they must grow their hair into the frat-boy cut -- a short, sharp crop at the back and a mop of heavy blond curls on top, greased down with lashings of cheap gel. (Seriously, a gathering of Dutch frat boys scarily resembles scenes from The Midwich Cuckoos.) And let's not forget an ability to heave a battered sofa up out of the stenchy beer cellar and across the street to the edge of the canal, so that 3 boys can sit and smoke on it while their house mates unconcernedly spread themselves across the road, a menace to pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists (i.e., me) alike. God knows what they're talking about: What jobs they're going to walk into, courtesy of their frat mates, when they (eventually) leave university? How to guarantee a large payoff from a company for being utterly crap in said job? How to badly park their enormous 50s American frat car so that it sticks out into the street, causing traffic jams? The possibilities are endless.

However, I should keep in mind what my mother always told me: If you can't say anything nice about someone, don't say anything at all.


But I can't stay silent!!! Their hair and trousers irritate me SO much!! I just want to KILL THEM ALL EVERY TIME I CYCLE PAST!!!! FIRST UP AGAINST THE WALL WHEN THE REVOLUION COMES!!!!!!

Phew. I feel better now. Time for bed.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Damn you, Jobs

For various reasons that would take far too long to go into here and now, I loathe Apple. Yeah yeah, I'm just being contrary: Their design is fab, everybody should ditch PCs etc, but I don't care. They're smug bastards who charge far too much for kit with " rechargeable" batteries that grind to a halt far too quickly and thus encourage environmentally unfriendly behavior. (Huh -- that didn't take as long as I thought.)

However. The just-announced iPod has Bejewelled Deluxe on it! I love this game! I developed RSI a few years ago from playing it solidly for several hours in a cold room on consecutive days over Christmas! My shoulder's never recovered! Add in Mini Golf, Pac Man, and Tetris, and you've got an iPod that I really really want!

(Drops to knees, raises arms in the air, and looks up)


Monday, September 11, 2006

Escape from Carmarthen

Carmarthen's early 20th century shire hall looms above the town, looking far more like Hitler's lair than a set of administrative offices. Luckily, there were some far prettier buildings -- mainly 19th century chapels -- scattered throughout the town and the countryside around it was stunning.

We were destined for Llandarog to help celebrate PJ's aunt/uncle's 40th wedding anniversary. We knew that there would be a number of young children there, so decided to stop at the White Hart for a swift sharpener* before entering the fray. What a gorgeous little pub, just opposite an equally picturesque church where a wedding was taking place. It's hardly surprising that Llandarog won a string of "Best-Kept Village" awards in the 1960s and 1970s, although it's recent lack of success must be a little disheartening.

Having fortified ourselves with a pint of barley-based stout (PJ) and a double vodka lime and soda (me), we headed off to Cousin Mark's for cake and conversation. Knowing that the latter would largely revolve around people that I'd never met (and that PJ didn't remember) and who were usually dead, we were planning an early escape. However, large amounts of cake and booze*, a bouncy castle, and the wine-fuelled* bonding of PJ and Cousin Mark over the challenges of parents who only talk about dead people (at length) meant we stayed until late into the evening. Good times in the wilds of Wales: Who would have thought it?

* I don't want to imply that we are dependent in any way on alcohol or have what the Americans might call "a problem" with it, but somehow our consumption always rises dramatically when we're in the UK -- and it does help smoothe most social interactions. This doesn't bode well for our livers on our return to our homeland.

Harry Ramsden's BIG challenge

Friday night in Cardiff, and we decided to eschew the delights of the "Marco Pierre White at Tides" restaurant in our hotel and head across the marina to Harry Ramsden's for proper fish 'n' chips. On perusing the menu, the Harry Ramsden Big Challenge caught PJ's eye: two large pieces of haddock, extra-large chips, and two portions of mushy peas for 10.99 -- and a certificate at the end if you cleared your plate. Let's see how he did.

The food arrives; PJ is feeling confident.

Let's take a closer look at what he ordered.

And 20 minutes later: All gone!

The manager was slightly taken aback by our enthusiastic insistence on getting the certificate -- but we wanted a momento of this stupendous achievement. All we have to do now is decide where to hang the framed testament to PJ's prodigious fish 'n' chip eating skills.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Here be dragons

Cute, isn't she? I've got a pair of cufflinks to match.

Civic pride

In the late 19th century, Cardiff was attempting to gain city status and the elders decided to go on a building spree. A fine set of civic buildings were constructed near the castle.

100 years later, it was the same story, but this time down in the bay and as a way of restoring not just civic but national pride. (And to provide a set for the resurrected -- or should that be regenerated? -- Dr Who. It was slightly disconcerting to walk along seemingly familiar streets, only to realize that you remembered them from the 2005 Dr Who Crimbo special.) Another impressive job.

It's all very sparkly.

On the docks

My great-grandfather used to work on the docks. However, I somehow doubt he was quite so Village People as this fine statue.

In place of the docks now are buildings like this, the St David's Hotel and Spa, our home for our two -- or should that be 1.5 -- nights in Cardiff. Nice. And I'm sure working there is considerably less stressful than hauling coal or loads off the boats. Even if the uniforms aren't as appealing.

Schiphol after hours

We've returned from Wales and finally have both a USB to miniUSB cable AND broadband. Hurrah! So here, as promised, are some pics.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Land of my forefathers

Ok, it turns out that there "was" a security threat last night; a hoax bomb threat to the plane next to the one due to fly out to Amsterdam to take us to Cardiff, which required the evacuation of lots of planes. Or something. Either that, or BMI Baby persuaded the local Cardiff newspapers to run the story to throw me off the scent. Humph! We landed in Wales at just before 1 a.m. local time, and got to the hotel at 1.30. In bed and fast asleep by 1.40.

It was worth it. This is a lovely city. The developed Cardiff Bay area is stunning, particularly when you get bags of sunshine and blue skies, as we did today. The city centre is less impressive -- too many malls, too many "super"clubs -- although the civic buildings developed in the late 19th century as part of Cardiff's bid to become a city are wonderful. Long, graceful boulevards with classical domes and columns, topped off with Welsh dragons, all set in rather nice parkland. Just lovely. Our hotel is very modern, great views of the Bay -- and of Harry Ramsden's fish 'n' chip restaurant, where we had dinner tonight -- and a spa area with pool and gym; we've walked miles and done some exercise today.

Again, apologies for the lack of photos. We looked into buying a USB to miniUSB cable today, but 20 quid seemed extortionate. You'll just have to hold on till tomorrow evening.

Off to Carmarthen tomorrow on the world's slowest train -- well, with the obvious exception of last Friday's 18:20 London-Norwich service -- for a day of family fun. And if there's no fun, we'll move on to Plan B -- getting hammered.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Where, o where, is our plane?

Norfolk Dumpling, why are you blogging so late in the evening? Are you so excited by the charms of Cardiff that you feel compelled to share them with us?

Fat chance. We're still in Schiphol, a "mere" 2 hours after our flight was due to depart, and no sign of us departing for another hour and 20 minutes. Apparently, there was a security alert that closed Cardiff airport for a couple of hours. Hmm, funny that. We've checked the Cardiff airport Web site and local BBC news and nothing's been reported. Now, maybe they've just got a little blase about security incidents recently, but I still think it would appear somewhere. (Admittedly, I can't face checking CNN, but they're probably still running serious news stories about the Suri Cruise pics in Vanity Fair.) So, it looks to me like BMI Baby -- that's BMI Baby you should avoid in future -- is telling porky pies to cover up their own incompetence and lack of aircraft. After all, who'd complain about people just trying to keep us safe?

Um, me, actually -- Schiphol is bloody depressing at midnight. I've got some great photos of deserted corridors that I'd love to share with you, only someone forgot to pack the camera cables -- and of course all the shops are shut now. It just keeps getting better and better! But at least we got a refreshment voucher; shame they couldn't warm up my "warme" chocolademelk for me. The good news is that we have a fab driver from our hotel who's provided us with more information about what's going on than any member of staff in this godforsaken hole. Davy will be getting a big tip tonight (if we actually get to meet him).

Mother knows best

The recent trip to Norwich gave me the opportunity to go shopping with my mother, something I've not done for years. (Well, for clothes. We always go food shopping together.) The excursion kicked off with me rapidly reverting to sulky teenager-hood.

"Come on then, let's try to find you a nice dress."
"I don't want a nice dress. I look awful in dresses. Why can't I get some trainers instead?"
"But you've got a lovely figure! You should show it off!"
"Don't say that!"
"About my figure! It's embarrassing! And nothing's going to fit. I'm so fat. And I don't have any friends and no one will ever like me."

And so on.

I'm surprised she didn't ditch me after an abortive visit to Monsoon, but -- just as she has done for the past 35 years -- she persisted and we hit paydirt in House of Fraser. After criticizing half a dozen frocks, we finally found two that I agreed, with a marked lack of enthusiasm, to try on. And I liked them. And they were both a size 10 (UK size 10, US size 6)! Now, I'm not sure if this is the result of Britain being in the grip of an obesity crisis (TM The Daily Mail), but I felt pretty damn good in the changing rooms -- positively svelte! -- unlike in my gym's changing room, where I feel like a stumpy, albino dwarf. I bought both dresses, have worn one of them to work (and got some compliments), so will obviously have to go shopping with Mama Dumpling more frequently. I'm sure she'll be delighted to hear that.

O what a beautiful morning

You can tell it's going to be a good day when you spend your shower time wondering if it would be too creepy to ask your boyfriend to put a towel over you in the event of you falling over while showering, hitting your head, and dying in a pool of soapy blood on the shower room floor. I really don't want to be discovered naked and dead. Terribly embarrassing and not at all British.

Maybe I'm watching too much CSI.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

It's the little things that make life worth living

Two things made me happy today:

1. I saw a tortoise in the Vondelpark on my way to work. I'm used to seeing wildlife in the form of ducks, dogs, inept rollerbladers, and the occasional parrot, but tortoises? Not so much. This one was quite small, with a dark green shell, and had clearly made it across the (luckily quieter) bike path with some effort, and was heaving him/herself gratefully on to the verge, hoping for a quieter life there.

2. I managed to work a reference to Norwich -- a fine city -- into a piece of research that I was editing, thus promoting this wonderful place to a much wider audience. Hurrah for Norfolk County Council's free Wi-Fi initiative -- even if it didn't seem to cover my hairdresser's salon.

As you can see, it doesn't take much to make me happy.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

"This is your RTL5 . . . Not"

After five years, I don't really expect that much from Dutch TV stations. Shows pulled from the schedule mid-season? Check. 45-minute shows chopped in half and shown as 30-minute episodes on subsequent evenings? Check. A season starting with episode 8, working back down to episode 2, and then leaping to episode 9? Checkity check. But RTL5 are really taking the proverbial with CSI: Miama (I know, don't say anything). Last week, Speedle was alive. This week, no sign of him, a bunch of new characters, and we're clearly half-way though an ongoing subplot about a mole in the lab. It looks like we've jumped not just episodes, but seasons. Why is it so hard to show one season at a time and in the right order?

Roll on a return to the UK and decent stations.

Monday, September 04, 2006

After Snakes on a Plane, it's time for Cats on a Car

Well, one cat. And it is likely to prompt the car's owner to start swearing. Our much-missed children in fur, Plato and Aristotle, loved lazing louchely on our family car, soaking up the residual heat from the engine as they sprawled across the bonnet. And leaving little muddy paw prints on it. And the occasional scratch in the paintwork. So when I say much-missed, I mean that I miss them, not the owner of the car in question . . .

Norfolk daze

Our visits to the People's Republic of Norfolk have taken on a soothingly repetitive rhythm: arrive late Friday evening (either by design or courtesy of the railways); get up late, go into town for a cheap but excellent haircut (Jem at Method), meet the 'rents at Loch Fyne for a late lunch, into M&S to buy underwear and teabags (240 Extra Strong One Cups), and then home for dinner and, usually, a Channel 4 "list" show -- you know, one of those super-cheap TV programs with a decent voiceover and lots of rentagobs like Stuart Maconie. Sunday involves reading the papers, heading to Sainsbury's for more essential items unavailable over here -- decent veggie stock powder, magic dusters, vast slabs of Dairy Milk -- and then a bit of a walk before heading to the joyously simple and laid-back Norwich Airport.

This weekend was no exception. The haircut was top-notch; the mussels in Loch Fyne very tasty; I got several outfits at the new House of Fraser; and the Channel 4 show in question was "Britain's 50 top comedy films", voice-overed by fellow Norfolk boy Stephen Fry (we went to the same 6th form college!) but, refreshingly, without Stuart Maconie or his fellow Z-list "celeb" peers who usually appear on "I love whatever you'll pay me to talk about." No, this had commentary from the likes of Kevin Smith, and the top three films -- as voted for by you, the British public -- were Shaun of the Dead, Airplane, and at No.1 Life of Brian. Fine films all and an easy way to waste several hours. And despite a short delay at the airport due to high winds, our journey home was straightforward. Even the dreaded security checks seem far more amenable and less stressful when administered by someone with a strong Norfolk accent -- although I was bemused that a man ahead of me was complaining about the fact that he wasn't allowed to take his roll-on deodorant in hand luggage. "Why doesn't anyone tell you these things?" he remonstrated with the guard; she looked somewhat nonplussed and ventured that it had been all over the news for the past month, but he was not satisfied. Muppet.

All together now

She's just a devil woman
With evil on her mind
Beware the devil woman
She's gonna get you*

*Actually, Emmy's more likely to roll around in something whiffy, bark a lot, and demand to have her tummy tickled, but still. Those eyes are scary!

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Time flies when you're having fun

Or, when you're working in London for a few days. The city is a time (and money) sink: Pop out for a quick political drink after work with the boss and you're suddenly half an hour late for the far more sociable evening you have lined up with sister and friends. Head out to get a sandwich at lunchtime? YOu get back to the office an hour later, having spent £50 on stuff. Nothing useful or essential. Just stuff. Even getting out of London isn't easy. We turned up at Liverpool Street Station 20 minutes before our train was due to depart, only to find that it was delayed, ominously, by 40 minutes. And then, all the trains were delayed by 40 minutes, people started getting off trains they'd boarded 10 minutes earlier, and it was clear that chaos was inevitable. It turned out that the overhead power lines had come down at Ingatestone and they weren't sure when -- or even if -- they'd be fixed. And the same thing had happened on Wednesday and trains hadn't left till the early hours of the morning. Sigh. Experience of the British rail network has taught me that it's never a good idea to wait around for more information; just find an alternative route, get moving, and don't try to find out whether they managed to fix the problem 10 minutes after you left. We phoned the parents, explained the dilmma, and Papa Dumpling offered to pick us up at Stansted Airport, a "mere" 90 minutes from Norwich. We dashed over to Platform 3, miraculously got seats on the train, and arrived at Stansted 40 minutes later. A bottle of white wine, thoughtfully opened before we left the office, and a pack of cream cakes sustained us while we waited for our chaffeur to arrive, and then, again miraculously, we found his car among the melee and headed up the M11 to fish pie and a good night's sleep.

Our swift decision was the right one -- as expected. Trains were still not running today and compensation forms were being handed out like candy in a playground at the station this morning. Unfortunately, I can only get my ticket price back in the form of National Rail vouchers, which surely violates all sorts of trading standards legislation -- or at least good customer service practices. Why can't M&S run the railways? You'd always get your money back, no questions asked. And the tea would be great.