Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Still cheesy

Once bitten, but apparently not twice shy, I headed back to Deen yesterday to pick up another of the little cheeses in an earthenware pot that go by the name of "ovenkaas". They will make a lovely dinner with some raw veggies to dip into the hot cheesiness. Damn. The ravening hordes have descended on Deen's foreign cheese sale and there's no more ovenkaas. I settle instead for a calvados-spiked camembert in a little wooden box, relieved to see a new sign that states a cost of €0.99. Hurrah! Maybe somebody high up in Deen is reading my blog.

The only problem with this cheese is that it smells. In fact, it is quite overpoweringly stinky. It spends the afternoon in the fridge at work and then I reluctantly transfer it to my bag for the ride home -- with a 90-minute stop at yoga en route. As I take my yoga kit out of my bag, it becomes apparent that it is now impregnated with the scent of cheese. And it's a packed class, so I can't even hide away in a corner in an attempt to apologise for the eau de fromage I'm emitting. Oh well, never apologise, never explain -- that's the only way to live!

Baked, it tastes fantastic, developing an oozing stickiness that works perfectly with roast broccoli and carrot sticks. Try it.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Cheesed off

Off to the supermarket at lunch time, for another aimless wander around the aisles, desperately searching for something that I haven't eaten a hundred times before. What's this? A sale on all "foreign" cheeses? Fantastic! Deen has a very good cheese buyer, so this is good. However -- and you knew there was going to be a however, didn't you? -- the pricing is a little confusing. Piles of individually wrapped cheeses, and one price sign that says "€0.99 per stuk of per 100 gm." Which means they're either 99 euro cents per cheese or per 100 gms, but gives no clue as to which cheeses cost what. I figure I'll risk it and stick three in my basket. After I've been through the checkout, paid up, and then gone to get some stamps, I remember to check the receipt. Two cheeses were priced at €0.99 each, as expected; one cost €2.49. Wait a minute! It doesn't even weigh 250 gms, the only way it could have cost that under Deen's bizarre pricing policy! It weighs 150 gms, so somebody somewhere in the pricing control room has clearly fucked up. I briefly consider going back to complain, but then dismiss the thought: There are long queues, a couple of poorly trained checkout staff, and I simply don't have the linguistic ability or patience to explain why I've been overcharged by €1.50.

And that, dear readers, is why I'm moving back to the UK.
Of course, my inability to use the phone might have been the result of my lack of sleep last night. Unlike last Friday, this had nothing to do with me worrying about the Dutch housing market or our return to the UK; no, this was solely the fault of our irritating neighbour downstairs. At 5.45 a.m., he pulled his curtains -- hung on the world's noisiest curtain rail -- back, ensuring that most people in the flats around the light well woke up. To encourage the others to leave blissful sleep behind, he started clattering around, seemingly throwing large wooden objects onto the (wooden) floor. And finally, just in case someone had managed to elude him, he talked. Loudly. In fact, you could call it barking. I don't know if there was someone else there, whether he was talking on the phone to someone who's extremely deaf (as I suspect he is), or simply shouting at himself, but it was bloody annoying.

All this from the man who came up to see us on our first visit to the flat as owners and informed us, after the usual courtesies, that we weren't allowed to install wooden floors without the requisite and approved amount of insulation because "it would cause too much noise." Grr argh!

Wait: I'm confused!

At 8.30 this morning, I was feeling smug -- getting down to the gym at 8, despite PJ's absence in Madrid, and then completing 40 lengths of the pool will do that to a Dumpling. As a result, I decided to SMS PJ and inform him of my mighty achievement. It turns out, however, that I have no idea how to use the SMS functionality on my new Nokia N80 handset; unlike the rest of the world, I've never used a Nokia phone before and it's not the same as either my SonyEricsson OR my Samsung. Foiled at even the simplest task of entering the recipient's address, I had to admit defeat.

N80 1: Norfolk Dumpling 0

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Norwich 1: Hull 1

I skipped a week. Yes, dear reader, I simply couldn't face posting about Norwich's loss to [clench jaw] Ipswich. As bad luck would have it, a new colleague started in our London office the following day and he turned out to be a tractor boy. Boo hiss! Fat chance any of his work will ever get edited by me! (I kid!) So, yesterday's point against Hull was something of a relief, although we ought to have held on for the win. I'm not impressed at the manager: Blaming the fans, when it's his team that conceded a last-minute goal? It's not like they were firing crossbow bolts onto the pitch.

This afternoon, I watched the Manchester United: Chelsea match alongside Jo, Alan, and Holly. Not the most thrilling of encounters and the Dutch commentators' half-time analysis was noticeably lacking in anything that might resemble "spark", but a very pleasant couple of hours nonetheless. I think I'm just out of the habit of watching full-length matches, something to rectify in a few months' time.

Heigh-ho, another weekend over. Off to bed -- sleep well!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

So, I like trees! You got a problem with that?

The sky today has been near-permanently overcast; heavy grey clouds, strong winds, and the occasional shower. As such, I needed a picture of some blue sky, just to remind me what it looked like. Hyde Park in November looks an awful lot like the Golden Gate Park in March. Spooky.

What also helped chase the grey clouds away were some delicious onions baked with cream and parmesan, courtesy of Nigel's The Kitchen Diaries, served with jacket potatoes, Paxo sage and onion stuffing balls, and parsnip chips.

Yes, it's all carbs, all the time in Dumpling Towers right now.


Coming back through Heathrow last week, we passed this vending machine on the way to our gate.

OK, so it's not used underwear from Japanese schoolgirls or the delightfully named Pocari Sweat, but it's certainly a step in the right direction toward a sales assistant-free future. And considerably better for you than cigarettes -- although the value of the Dan Brown novels is debateable.

Instant literary gratification, just a few coins away.

Friday, November 24, 2006


Last night, I watched with some amusement as a colleague was served a pumpkin and sage veloute with scallops at a work dinner. He'd ordered it, thinking that it was some kind of casserole that majored on the scallops and pumpkin; to his surprise, he got soup. (Which shouldn't have been so much of a surprise, given that the waitress had removed his knife and fork and substituted a spoon, but hey -- the conversation was riveting!) A very fine soup it was, too. Veloute is just a posh way of saying thick and creamy, as far as I can tell, and it's my favorite type of soup. I know some deluded fools prefer thin soup with bits in it, but they're wrong. Thick and creamy is reminiscent of the finest soup known to mankind -- Heinz Cream of Tomato --it's soothing, and requires no mastication whatsoever. (That's mastication, for all you illiterate pervs out there.) How could it get any better?

As further evidence, I give you my cauliflower cheese soup, with a garnish of roasted cauliflower. Liberally laced with grain mustard and strong oud kaas, this is exactly what you need as the temperatures drop and the rains come. And, they're incredibly easy to make. Lightly fry garlic and onion, stir in chopped veg (preferably including a potato, Atkins be damned), add boiling water and Marigold stock powder and a few herbs, and simmer until everything's soft enough to put through a blender. Stir in some milk or cream while reheating and Bob's your uncle etc. You can do this with any kind of root veg and it will always be fabulous.

The lights are going on all across Europe

Cycling home last night, I realized that the Christmas lights are up on the negenstraatjes -- the 9 streets, one of Amsterdam's more attractive shopping areas. And it wasn't pouring with rain, so I stopped to take a picture. While not on the same scale as those on Oxford Street or Regent Street, they're rather appealing, non?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

All things considered, I'd rather be in Amsterdam

The good things about being back home:

1. Room to swing a rather large cat
2. A shower that works well
3. A duvet -- and a toasty hot water bottle

The bad things:

1. No maid service, meaning no milk in the flat, meaning no tea this morning
2. Waking up at 7.15 to the sound of driving rain against the bedroom window
3. Having to cycle to work, rather than jumping on the 390 bus

Thank goodness for supermarkets and waterproof rain pants.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A typical London lunch hour

You pop out to get a tuna sub and visit Argos to get a particularly nicely designed hairdryer, and you come back with said tuna sub -- and two dresses. No hairdryer: It's lovely design means they don't keep it in stock, won't deliver if you order online, but make you order it and then go into the shop to pick it up. I don't understand this. If they have to get it from a central depot to the store, why can't they deliver it to my work address?

Oh well, the dresses are lovely. AND I ordered a ticket for the RSC's production of Much Ado About Nothing, starring the very fabulous Tamsin Grieg -- the lovely leading lady of two of my fave comedy series, Green Wing and Black Books. I'm going to a matinee performance in the week before Christmas as a little present to myself. I can't wait!

Monday, November 20, 2006

The camera never lies -- bastard thing

While in London, I've had time to think about new professions. You know, in case my dream of becoming a highly paid kitten and puppy petter falls through. So far, I've come up with two alternative career options:

1. Eco-surveyor. Help middle class people (like us) who are buying a new house (like us) to figure out how much work is involved in making it eco-friendly (as we will want to). The newspapers are obsessed at the moment with climate change, so I reckon eco taxes can't be far behind, making this scheme a winner.

2. Teaching people how to take good photographs. Now, I don't mean taking decent holiday snaps; I mean appearing in photos without looking like a loon. This is something close to my heart, as we have no decent photos of me. The camera doesn't love me, but actively despises me. It can scent the fear emanating from me whenever someone wants to take a picture, capturing the rictus grin, the attempts to relax, the terrified gaze. I gurn instinctively. What I want is to spend an hour with a professional photographer, but not in the manner of those makeover "glamour" sessions advertised in the back of women's magazines, who smear inch-thick Vaseline onto the lens and drape you in some scratchy red nylon underwear. No, I want someone who will tell me how to stand, how to relax, what my good side is (there must be one, right?), where to look, and take some pictures that convince me that I'm not a freak. And I believe that I'm not the only person who feels like this -- my mother is the same. There's got to be a market for this service.

Any other suggestions on what I could do with my life?

A London weekend

No Net access this weekend, so no posts. Our hotel failed to provide us with an ethernet cable, despite us asking them three times. It's the sort of service that goes along with staying in the world's smallest hotel room -- there is barely room to set up an ironing board or towel off after the inevitably weak shower. We made it up to the gym last night, only to discover minimal lighting, no airconditioning or water, and stacks of hotel safes -- the ones that aren't available in our room.

However. We spent relatively little time in our room over the weekend, preferring to be out and about, catching up with old friends and indulging in decent pub lunches. Saturday saw me at the Narrow Boat, on the canal behind Islington. Sunday, we made it over to the Ladbroke Arms for quite fantastic pumpkin gnocchi and apple crumble and custard. While the food was great, television proved to be somewhat disappointing. All the decent stuff is on cable now, so we were stuck with Channel 4's countdown of the greatest Bond songs -- which largely served as a reminder of how dreadful most (if not all) of the films were. Ah, list shows. So cheap to produce, so fiendishly addictive to watch. At least this one replaced the irritating chirpiness of professional rent-a-gob Stuart Maconie with the more entertaining insights of Marc Almond. Last night, we were reduced to watching Planet Earth and some wistful Alan Titchmarsh program about mild eccentrics in the UK -- the sort who participate in village fetes or hold the title of "Butterfly Expert for the National Trust." A portrait of England at its best. Unlike this morning's journey to work, when four of the tube lines were down and many of the bus drivers were on strike. And people want to know why we don't want to move back to London?!

Friday, November 17, 2006

Poten af van onze homo's

So, the Dutch elections don't seem like the most interesting of topics -- after all, they happen just about every year and not much seems to change as a result. The dykes keep working, much of the Netherlands doesn't bother doing the same, and the tax authorities continue to fart around with my 2004 tax return. However. You do get some excellent election material -- such as this banner that I spotted near my yoga studio.

For those of you who don't read Dutch, it says "Hands off our gays!" and was erected (snarf) by the GreenLeft Party -- the party that I would almost certainly vote for if I could figure out how to. (They're Green and they're left-wing: What's not to like!?) The banner on the other side of the road, which I was unable to snap, bore the slogan "Vrouwen on top!" (Women on top). These just aren't your typical election slogans, and I love them because of that.

PS: Don't believe all the marketing bollox around your always-on, always-available camera phone. It took me ages to figure out how to turn my new Nokia N80 handset to the camera function -- and it was pouring with rain. Bastards.

Hello Kitty!

This is my new favorite cocktail, courtesy of Shochu on Charlotte Street. It's shochu (Japanese spirit), raspberry juice, and soda -- so it's both alcohol and at least one of your five portions of fruit for the day. And it comes in a very cute bottle with pictures of the world's favorite cat on it.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Product placement to the nth degree

Our inner geekiness was revealed -- yet again -- during last night's screening of Casino Royale. At one point, Bond checks out some surveillance footage at a hotel, and during the scene, PJ turned to me and whispered: "Look! It's on Blu-ray disks!" It took a few seconds for me to figure out the significance of this seemingly random comment: Casino Royale was produced by MGM, which is owned by Sony, which also supports Blu-ray. After that, though, it was impossible not to notice that every single piece of consumer electronics in the film was Sony-branded: Bond's Vaio laptop, several SonyEricsson phones, a Cybershot camera . . . and we were somewhat surprised that Bond did not sit out in the grounds of his hotel with a PSP or entertain a Bond girl with a PS3 (not yet available in Europe!), a clear oversight on the part of the product placement team at Sony. This will no doubt make for a fun geek drinking game when we get the DVD. "Knock back a dry martini every time you see a Sony logo!"

I did, however, fail to spot the many Virgin Atlantic planes in the Miami Airport scenes; PJ, as a Virgin frequent flyer gold-card holder, did not. How sad.

Automatic toilets 2: Dumpling 0

Yesterday was a cruel reminder of my inability to properly use airport toilets -- at both Schiphol and Heathrow. Wait! That's not what I meant! I can "use" them well enough, but I can't make them flush. You see, they've replaced manual flushers with those ones that are meant to flush automatically when you stand up ... or, usually in my case, sit down. I've been caught, pants-down (literally), on them more times than I care to remember, yet, inevitably, I'll have to stand up and dance around the cubicle several times to get the damn things to flush once I'm, erm, done. More often than not, they won't flush at all and I'll slink out, shame-faced, leaving some poor woman in the queue to contemplate my execretions. Other people don't seem to have this problem, although they can often take a bewildering amount of time between flushing and actual exiting the cubicle. The only time the toilets fail to work for others is when the cubicle in occupied by a middle-aged woman and her extremely elderly mother who's just managed to contract explosive diarrhea on their long-haul flight into Heathrow. It's true: I've "heard" it happen.

Was that too much information?

Casino Royale smugness

Saw Casino Royale last night, and can report that it's top-quality entertainment and well worth going to see when it opens -- later today!

Ah, the sweet smuggery of exclusive screenings!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

London calling

We're off to London tomorrow -- for a week! Lots of shopping, catching up with old friends, and (irritatingly) work to get through. I'd like to promise anecdotes and photos from my sojourn, but experience shows it's hard to find time to blog. Please be patient.

Monday, November 13, 2006

A quick quiz

We have a new "pet" in the house. It's very sleek, impressively shiny, and won't be available in Europe until next year. Can you guess what it is?

My bike saddle has PMT

Well, it was retaining water this morning during the torrential downpour that occured on our way to the gym. As a result, I had a soggy arse by the time I got to work. Not a great way to start the week.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Biga is better

Yes, yes: It's another bloody bread-making post. This weekend's labour of loaves? Ciabatta. Yet another laborious, multipart, doughy extravaganza. This time, however, I didn't use sourdough starter or beer as the raising agent, but a biga. This odd confection starts off life as a rather firm, somewhat clumpy blend of flour, water, and yeast.

12 hours in the fridge transforms it into a squidgy, chilly mass, ready to be transformed into the crusty ciabatta we know and love.

First, you pull the biga apart into little clumps, add pasta flour, water, and a touch more yeast, and smoosh it all together. This is a lot of fun -- a bit like making mud pies as a child, but distinctly more fragrant.

Rest, "knead" (as far as you can knead something with the texture of porridge), rest, repeat. Then, I didn't so much shape it, as scrape it off my hands and let it ooze, like malevolent primordial gloop, across the baking sheet.

The final step is to wait, anxiously, as it bakes. At the moment, it has puffed up to quite extraordinary heights -- the long development time and weird kneading process has obviously paid off. And it smells fabulous. I wish blogger had a smellorama function so that you could experience this with me!

And it was well worth the effort -- just look at that crumb! Don't you agree?


Gosh, I have been exposed. A commentator below pointed out that my semi-vegetarian principles don't sit logically with my "food with a face" comment -- and anonymous is right! They don't. But, fish makes life so much easier when you're traveling -- and they're just not as attractive as sheep or cows. Does this mean, to take the argument to a logical extreme, that I would eat ugly people? I guess it depends on how much they'd annoyed me, how hungry I was, and whether they were served with plenty of mashed potato. If the answers were "lots," "very," and "buckets of it," then yes, order me a table!

However, last night was another all-vegetarian meal. Given the booty-demanding weather, I decided to make a curry and turned to my Cinnamon Club cookbook. This has the most gorgeous pictures, and the recipes work pretty well in a domestic kitchen, although I lack some of the more esoteric ingredients. Indian food doesn't have the long tradition here that Indonesian does, so while it's possible to find shelves of sambal and cassava chips in Albert Heijn, it's not so easy getting hold of dried fenugreek leaves and asafoetida. In general, though, it's possible to approximate the flavors. Last night involved a cauliflower and mushroom curry, adapted from a marrow recipe in the book; this really exemplified the Indian ability to produce heat without the burn and was damn fine.

The side dish was more of a leap into the unknown: Rajasthani chickpea dumplings with yoghurt. I made up a stiff dough using chickpea flour, spices, yoghurt, and ginger; rolled it into two sausages; poached them in a spiced broth; cut them up into smaller pieces; and then cooked them again in a spicy yoghurt sauce. Although the yoghurt sauce split while cooking (hence the lack of a photo of the finished dish), it tasted great. I'm not a huge fan of yoghurt in savory foods -- it's almost too sourly tangy for me -- but it worked so well with the spices and the chewy dumplings. Definitely a keeper.


It's rather pleasant lying in bed on a Sunday morning listening to the rain lashing against the windows and the wind howling and knowing that you don't have to go outside. However, getting out of bed to make tea is a different story. To keep my delicate toes warm, I pulled out this rather fetching pair of -- booties? I don't care that they make me look like an overgrown toddler; I'm toasty.

BTW, it's quite difficult taking decent pictures of your feet; this shot involved a matchbox and self-timer, and I'm rather pleased with the results -- even if I am off-center! And, this is the closest you'll get to seeing a picture of me on this blog.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

West Brom 0: Norwich 1

Oh yes! This win -- away from home! -- puts us 9th in the table, despite having a goal difference of -4. Coincidentally, this is the same as the goal difference we had at the end of our glorious 1992/3 Premiership season, when we came third -- a bizarre achievement, if ever there was one.

In addition, one of my friends (and former employer) is a keen West Brom fan. The only Norwich: West Brom match we've managed to catch in the past 13 years of friendship resulted in a spectacular 3-2 victory for the Canaries; said friend sulked through the subsequent curry and drive back down to London. I'm guessing he's going to be just as happy when we meet up for lunch next week. Happy days!

And an old geek, at that

In the lift at work last night, I heard a colleague chatting on the phone about her plans for the evening: They included attending a party at 9 and then going to a "hip-hop party" at Melkweg after that. I'm sure that was just the start of an action-packed weekend for her, whereas I had the following activities lined up:

Various crime procedurals on TV: CSIs Miami/New York and Without A Trace
Food shopping
Switch to beta blogger
Cook dinner
Watch film
Bake bread and cookies
Watch Bones

I can't wait till I'm old enough not to feel bad about the lack of excitement in my life.

I am a geek

I just switched to the beta version of blogger and actually read all the information about dynamic serving -- and found it interesting. Damn.

Four more years

It's been almost four years since I last ate meat, but I've recently started craving it again. I saw a picture on a food blog of a roast chicken, marinated in a garlic lemon brine, that got me salivating, and every time I saw pheasant on a menu, I have to force myself to look at the veggie options. Perhaps it's got something to do with the dip in temperatures and the wonderful pictures of roast or braised meats in Nigel's Kitchen Diaries. It's not so much the meat itself as the rich, sticky goo that comes from slow cooking it; tofurkey simply doesn't give you that. And of course there's the smell. Not only do I have to contend with evil neighbours who insist of frying steak as I return home from the gym, but I pass an eco-butcher's shop each morning, and quite often they're frying their sausages, ready for the day. Meat. Smells. So. Good! However, I'm sticking to my semi-vegetarian principles and keep finding images of cute cows and pigs online as a reminder of why. Food with a face, people!

Luckily, there are some alternatives. A chilli sin carne made with tofu crumbles was pretty damn special, particularly when spiked with a tin of earthy, Spanish smoked paprika that I found at the back of a cupboard.

And the deep-fried tofu with amber sauce that was part of last Sunday's Ozu-inspired Japanese meal was delicious; a light cornflower crust and savory sauce really lifted the bland tofu.


I just wish that the government would outlaw frying sausages (or bacon) in public places. That sort of sensory overload is so unfair!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Gilty, your honour

An hour to kill tonight between work and dinner at Wagamama's with a colleague. What to do -- the gym or shopping? So, off to Amsterdam's ritziest fashion street, the PC Hoofstraat. This is home to all those stores that you never dare actually go inside, such as Valentino, Chanel, and Mulberry, as well as a remarkable number of brands that I've never heard of. I like to think of myself as reasonably fashion-aware, but McDonalds? Scapa of Scotland? It's all faux preppy middle-class clothing for people who want to look like they live in a Ralph Lauren ad without actually paying for, y'know, Ralph Lauren. Not my cup of tea at all. I did make it in to a couple of shops and even tried on an eye-wateringly expensive (in my book) ruffled satin dress in Laundry Industry, just for shits and giggles, but it made me look like I was wearing maternity clothing, so back on the rack it went.

In fact, the only thing I've seen recently that I am strangely drawn to is in the window of American Apparel on the Westerstraat. Every time I cycle past the shop, my eye is drawn to the mannequin wearing [gasp] GOLD LEGGINGS! Yes, shiny gold lame, full-length leggings. Intellectually, I know that these are quite ghastly. Wearing them, I wouldn't look like Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger, but more like a gilded sausage with VPL. They are so wrong in every way and yet I lust after them. I covet them. So shiny! I want gold!!

Thank goodness AA's always shut when I ride past.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Have I been possessed by an empath demon?

It certainly looks like it. I've managed to "inherit" PJ's jetlag after his past few trips; he sleeps soundly, while I toss and turn at 5 in the morning. And the past two nights I've woken up -- at 5 a.m., of course -- worrying about other people's work problems. I'd understand if I were worrying about my own challenges, but other people's? Of course, I'm also coming up with outstanding solutions, but my colleagues do look a little confused when I pounce on them as soon as they get into the office and tell them my ideas for them.

They should just be grateful I don't tell them about my dreams. Those are really weird.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Old dogs, new fruit

In an otherwise frustrating day, a small achievement: my first persimmon. Persuaded to try a piece at one of Amsterdam's more expensive greengrocers, I was seduced by its tender flesh and mild flavor -- a cross between a mango and a peach. I bought the remainder of the fruit and ate it at my desk, feeling virtuous and adventurous.

Next on my list of exotic ingredients to try? The jicama. Although I don't know where I'm going to get one around here. Buying parsnips is difficult enough, but a crisp, flavorless root used in Mexican cookery? Challenging. Amsterdam residents: let me know if you have any suggestions.

Museumnacht 2006

Well, it was worth it. We've never managed to do Museumnacht before, either choosing to be out of town or safe at home, watching the rain lash down on the shivering tourists as they make their way from one crowded museum to another. But we kicked off the evening outside FOAM, headed over to the Museum van Loon -- home to one Ferdinand Bol, best known for the street named after him and the subsequent, original FEBO.

A pitstop at the Hermitage for a chance encounter with some friends and an attempt to buy Russian beer and vodka; in true Russian style, we queued for ages -- and then found out they were serving Heineken, so left, disappointed. On past the crowds outside Artis, to a very pleasant little bar on the Entrepotdok: by this point in the evening, PJ had done culture sober and was getting grumped. Revitalised, we cycled on to the very fabulous Energetica. The old engineering duffers who run the place had really made an effort, aided considerably by the fab building -- Amsterdam's oldest power station and a decent DJ.

The boys demonstrated their considerable theramin talents, only to be outshone by the very serious, Kraftwerk-inspired pros.

More beer, a magic act (which I enjoyed but PJ sneered at, and Bill couldn't see), and then back across Amsterdam to the Institute for Mediakunst. This featured Smirnoff Ice, entertaining computer-generated meejah installations, and a bonkers 5 minutes in a pitch-black room watching sound waves generating light. And then home to bed, mildly pissed but embiggened by our interaction with culture. Well worth 16 euros of anyone's money.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Red light district

At the gym this week, I discovered a piece of equipment that would allow me to exercise and read at the same time: it's some sort of bizarre arse/thigh-toning cardio machine. Anyway, I had no reading material with me so was forced to rely on The Times, the local English-language newspaper. While it has a dull-as-ditchwater style and lacks a decent copy editor, it is full of gems like this:

On the home front, the mission [in Afghanistan] has continued to fuel discussion. This week, the media was captivated by Annemarie Jorrtisma, President of Taskforce Women, Safety and Conflict, who suggested that prostitutes be sent on foreign missions to reduce sexual tension, which could prevent confrontation with locals and internal problems with sexual harrassment.

While the paper went on to quote the Ministry of Defence rubbishing the idea, nobody bothered to talk to the prostitutes potentially involved. It's one thing sitting in a window overlooking a beautiful canal in Amsterdam and servicing the pissed/stoned tourists who wander by, and quite another going into a combat zone in countries not renowned for their tolerance of sexuality in women to relieve stressed soldiers. Can't they just put bromide in the water supply like proper (19th century) armies?

My other favorite story was about the death of a former civil servant and possible money launderer for top criminals in the prostitution sector. (Sector? What is it, a service industry? Oh right, I guess it is.)

According to sources, it is not likely [name] committed suicide for personal reasons. In the last few weeks, he was busy restructuring one of his brothels bought at the end of the 90s with loans from Cyprus.

Doesn't this sound like it should be an Endemol reality show? Extreme Brothel Makeover, perhaps, or maybe just The Brothel. Three couples compete to remodel and relaunch brothels in Amsterdam, hire the new girls (a variation on Holland's Next Top Model), and pull in paying punters. The couple that sells it on to the biggest criminal in the sector wins. I'd watch! And given the Dutch predeliction for both makeover shows and sex on TV, I'm sure lots of other people would, too.

The best (easy) bread in the world, ever

After my frustrating ticket-purchase-related trials and tribulations last night and this morning, it was lovely to come home to a loaf of home-made bread -- and made by PJ, not me. This is the simplest bread recipe I've found and it tastes wonderful. It's very much a man's bread, consisting of merely mixing flour and beer, although I guess it would be fun to get children to make it (if you're unfortunate enough to have any) and a great way of introducing them to the life-long fun that is alcohol. Anyway, here's the recipe.

Beer batter bread

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C/Gas 5. Melt 2oz/50gm/4 tablespoons of butter. Mix together 3 cups (450gm) of plain flour (white or brown), 3 tablespoons of sugar, 1 tablespoon of baking powder, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Pour in a bottle of beer -- any beer; we've used Heineken, Grolsch, and those quite undrinkable dark Trappist beers successfully -- about 330 ml (a soda can size, for the Yanks). Mix briefly, adding more beer or some water if it seems a little dry. Scrape into a lined small loaf tin -- I use the liners from Lakeland Limited -- and pour over the melted butter. Don't skip this stage; it makes the top all yummy and crusty. Bake for 45 minutes. Leave to cool for about 5 minutes, then remove from the tin. Devour. Toasts well the next day, too.

Find me a trained monkey, stat!

I am a calm, patient person. You know this, I know this. And after five years here, I've come to expect -- no, demand! -- incompetent service from the public authorities. But this morning was something special. I cycled round to the central tourist office at 9 to buy some tickets for museumnacht. I had tried to do this last night, but the ticket office in the Leidseplein had closed by the time I got there at 7.45 -- clearly, nobody needs to buy tickets in the evening. So, I'm up early, I head off to the tourist office at the station, and my heart sinks on seeing the long line of grim-faced tourists waiting for help. But wait! What's this? A separate queue for buying museumnacht tickets -- and there's only one couple at the counter? Perfect!

Except that the couple at the counter are trying to buy tickets for a boat tour. And they are the type of people who are ahead of you at airport check-in -- you know, the ones who stand there for 20 minutes discussing endless permutations of seat combinations and baggage allowances. (How? How can it take them so long to complete a simple 3-minute process?) And the woman helping them is clearly inept, and takes 15 minutes to explain the boat tour and sell them the tickets. And then she prints out the wrong tickets, ones for a tour of the Rijksmuseum. So back to the incredibly slow computer/ticket machine, reprint the correct tickets, explain again where the boat tour starts, and then mark up a map for them; when they ask if they can have the map, she says it will cost 2 euros, so they leave it -- just as I would have done. They leave. She disappears to tidy up the counter area behind a pillar; clearly, if she can't see me, I can't see her, and won't get at all frustrated at her sudden absence. She reappears, fails to make eye contact with me until I bark out my request for three tickets, and she nervously jumps to it. Only she prints out two tickets (drie does not sound like twee, even in my poor Dutch), so back to the computer to print out another ticket. I want to pay with PIN. Unsurprisingly (at this point), she doesn't have a PIN machine at her counter -- I mean why would she? She's only SELLING TICKETS, FOR GOD'S SAKE! NO EXCHANGE OF MONEY NEEDED THERE, RIGHT? I trot off to the other end of the tourist office to the seeminly only desk with a PIN machine. Another 3 minutes passes as Ms Incompetent tries to get the computer there to recognize the bar code on the tickets and process the payment. Finally, 25 minutes after I enter the office, I leave -- tickets clutched in my hot little hands. And don't even get me started on the fact that the tickets supposedly cost 14 euros, except that it's impossible to buy them for that amount as everywhere selling them adds on a service charge of at least 2 euros.

Bill -- Energetica had better be worth it!

Friday, November 03, 2006

Cutting the umbilical cord

Well, snipping away at it, one box of content at a time -- or 73. Let me explain: We're moving back to the UK next year, and have decided to get a jump on the process by shipping about half of our stuff over to PJ's storage unit in north London. The packers came today, boxed our "collectable toys" and "lots of video games" (their packing labels) into the afore-mentioned 73 boxes, and whisked them away. We're left with dirty carpets, walls that need painting, and various bits of computing kit dangling from the ceiling -- and the weirdest sense of deja vu. The flat is starting to regress, taking on the appearance it had when we moved in: relatively little furniture, few books or DVDs, and hanging cables. And it makes the return to Blighty just that little bit more real.

Anyone need a Billy bookcase or two?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Come on out, you little blighters!

No time for blogging last night; I was far too busy making ravioli using my new ravioli shaping and cutting device, courtesy of Deirdre Schadler. I haven't yet watched my DVD of Eat Drink Man Woman yet, my other gift from PJ's recent trip to the US, but I somehow doubt it will be as useful as this. I only had one minor tantrum while using it, thanks to the lack of instruction around the need to oil it before putting a sheet pasta on it. The first set of my butternut squash ravioli were just a little bit reluctant to come out, resulting in my digging them out with a knife, splitting one in the process, and thus generating a minor tantrum. PJ suggested oiling the mold, then retreated to a safe distance and pretended to be burning DVDs. The greased-up second batch were considerably less limpet-like and rather more impressive. Both sets, of course, tasted fantastic, and were undoubtedly enhanced by eating them while watching the irritating Marisol get offed in a sweeps week episode of CSI: Miami.

FYI: The pasta is streaky because I used saffron in it, hoping that it would yield a deep yellow tint. It didn't work as well as I'd hoped.