Sunday, December 31, 2006

Crazy hors d'oeuvres

There comes a point in every home cook's life when he or she verges on the brink of insanity. Reader, I reached that point this evening. I was just preparing to pipe devilled egg mayonnaise back into the quail eggs that I'd carefully hollowed out earlier and it struck me that this was ridiculous. I was desperately trying to over-achieve, following one of Rick Tramonto's recipes (albeit scaled down), and hitting crazy Martha Stewart follower territory. I put down the piping bag, filled the whites using a teaspoon (much simpler), and placed them carefully on the glass serving tiles -- the easiest way to make food look good. Sanity regained ... until I started on the courgette slices. Damn. Here's to simpler cooking in 2007.

Pane carasau

I have a lot of kitchen equipment. Maybe too much. After all, who really needs an ice-cream maker, popcorn maker, pasta machine, food processor, mini food processor, blender, mini deep-fat fryer, ravioli accessory, voodoo man knife stand, two teapots, two stove-top coffee machines, a kettle, and many, many pots and pans? And that's not counting the stuff we shipped back a couple of months ago. Whenever we look at houses for sale, the size of the kitchen is of near-primary importance -- anything less than 12'x10' ain't going to cut it.

So, I'm always delighted when I find a recipe that allows me to make extra use of a piece of equipment that I already possess. I spent last week looking through my new World Breads book and came across pane carasau, also known as carta di musica. This simple recipe requires you to roll out the little balls of dough incredibly thinly, never my favorite task -- but in a lightbulb moment, I figured I could use my pasta machine to do it for me. I've seen the pizza makers at our excellent local do something similar, albeit with a much larger machine. Anyway, I gave it a go and bingo! Each ball took less than a minute to roll out to near transparency and then only a few more minutes to cook in the oven. Piles of crispy, rosemary and sea salt crackers for only a few minutes work. Hmm, I wonder if could use the pasta machine for rolling out pastry? That would mean I could bin the rolling pin, freeing up some valuable cupboard space...

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Norwich 1: QPR 0

Hurrah! Finally, a positive result -- and against QPR. This is what we needed after Boxing Day's dismal 0-0 draw with Southend, a bad-tempered match that failed to see Norwich score despite playing with an extra man for the final 35 minutes. I saw supporters walking down to Carrow Road on that day -- the weather was foul, the tickets will have cost about 20 quid each, and yet there will still thousands of fans there. When managers criticize their supporters, they would do well to remember the cost -- both financial and emotional -- of following a team. It's far cheaper, warmer, and (usually) more satisfying to go to the cinema (or stay in playing tennis on the Wii).


Guess what PJ just set up? Yes, our brand-new Wii! And although we've not broken out Rayman Raving Rabbids yet, we have tried out Wii Sports. What fun! I've already managed to develop tendonitis from playing tennis and golf, while PJ was exhausted after his boxing bout.



And finally bowling: Bring it on, Nagel -- bring it on!

The intrepid Vince Ray

Walking through London 10 days ago, I spotted a building frontage decorated in a strangely familiar manner. A skull in a top hat, smoking a cigarette? Why that must be the work of Mr Vince Ray! And it was. Check it out -- The Intrepid Fox, now just by Centrepoint.

But wait! There's more! The man and his work get everywhere. When we were in Brighton in October, we headed off to find the vegetarian shoe shop, but spotted this in the window of Wildcat on the same street.

I get scarily overexcited when I see this sort of thing or Miss Katie's corsets featured in a magazine supplement or PJ quoted in the Sunday Times. Don't I have a talented family!

Friday, December 29, 2006

Things I've learnt from my Christmas presents

1. Socks with individual toes hurt if you have (Normal for Norfolk) webbed feet.

2. Lily Allen doesn't sound at all as I'd expected. Instead of being shouty-sweary, she's actually rather sweet and summery.

3. Baked beans and mashed potato make for truly excellent spicy bean burgers.

4. Lobsters hold claws as they walk across the ocean floor together. This has also guaranteed that I will never eat lobster again.

5. Eating too many violet creams in one day will make me feel sick.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Six degrees of separation

Over the Christmas period, it came to my attention that I am closely linked to two famous -- okay, one famous, one infamous -- people.

1. Edith Piaf. Yes, that Edith Piaf. While watching a BBC4 documentary on her, we noticed that she appeared on the stage with one Howard Vernon. Who he? Howard Vernon was a Swiss actor who appeared in a number of films by legendary Spanish schlock-horror director, Jesus Franco. Yes, yes, but how is he linked to the Dumpling? Well, not only does my brother know him, but I also translated a film script for him -- a remake of The Awful Dr Orloff, previously shot as Faceless, starring Howard Vernon as the eponymous Dr Orloff. Oh, how I remember that summer translating the script: 3 days locked in a tiny room, trying to figure out how to use my flatmate's boyfriend's crappy old PC, and using a dodgy dictionary to work out the meaning of "gemir".* Happy days -- which paid for my coach fare back to the UK (via Antwerp).

2. Tom Stephens. Who? Tom Stephens, suspect number 1 in the Suffolk Strangler affair, and acquaintance of the man who was charged with the murders. Tom Stephens was two years above me at school. I never met him or knew him -- if I had, I'd be writing something for The Daily Mirror, rather than wittering on this blog -- but probably shared a school bus back to the village where he and my best friend lived.

Actually, Tom Stephens isn't my only brush with the sordid criminal underworld. Reggie Kray died at the Town House Hotel in my parents' village -- a hotel to which I once delivered the Sunday papers. So there: Don't mess with the Dumpling or I'll nail your head to the floor.

* Gemir: to moan as if in the throes of sexual ecstasy -- and a verb that prompted my flatmate's boyfriend to ask just what kind of script I was translating.

Holiday hassle

Of course, our return home wasn't as smooth as we might have wished. Thirty minutes in a queue at Norwich Airport while two ground staff attempted to check in a large number of people got the day off to a bad start. The pilot tried to apologize for this, stating that a lot of people were off sick today, but that didn't really cut it. The big problem was that many of the passengers hadn't prebooked their hold luggage and so were being charged SIX POUNDS for each suitcase. And so of course the ground staff had to "process the payment" at the check-in desk, which added extra time to an already slow check-in system. In addition, Flybe delayed its flight to Glasgow, but clearly didn't bother then segregating the queue to check in the remaining passengers for the (then) on-time flight to Amsterdam first. That would have been too simple, apparently. As a result, we sat on the plane waiting for the one last passenger and his/her luggage to turn up. And then, Privium had the temerity to not be working yet again -- we pay major ducats for this service each year, and it only appears to be in action about 50% of the time at the moment. Sigh.

And when we finally got into our somewhat chilly flat, we discovered that our power had managed to turn itself off at some point during our fortnight's absence -- probably on December 21. We're not sure why: After all, we weren't using the dreaded dishwasher/kettle combo when away. Regardless, the food in the freezer needs to be binned -- probably not a bad idea, given its age -- and I'm not sure my sourdough starter will recover (sniff). Oh well, could have been worse: the flat is positively icy and thus doesn't stink as much as it should. For our guests this weekend, it should be fine by New Year's Eve.

Christmas 2006: No broadband

Slow trains; fog on the line (it's all mine, all mine!); fish n chips; alcohol; shop, shop, panic, shop; second-hand book shops; slippery wrapping paper; crap tape dispenser; grey cloud and drizzle; great food; more alcohol; Hamster; encounter with old school teacher; Sainsbury's on Pound Lane; panic shop, shop, shop; filthy shoes; curry!; alcohol; Santa's been; books; Sugababes CD; Bendicks chocolates; Rayman Raving Rabbids; Sex Pistols mug and chocolate eclairs; spiced apple juice; butternut squash loaf; still grey clouds; Racing Demon (I won!); alcohol; long walk in grey drizzle; Carrow Road; Rick Stein; Freaky Friday; salmon; yet more alcohol; heart-attack-inducing pudding; Newmarket; prediction whist; packing; Flybe; queues; passport control; queues; Wii; and home again.

Friday, December 22, 2006

It's not all work work work

American companies don't seem to have the same attitude toward the days before Christmas that British companies do: There's no gradual wind-down to the holidays, complete with alcohol-fuelled Christmas parties, Secret Santas, and a generally tinsle-y attitude. No, it's meetings and work up until the last minute, one day off, and then back to the grindstone. As a result, I decided to create my own relaxing final few working days.

First up, Wednesday afternoon's trip to the RSC to see Much Ado About Nothing. Great plan, lovely theater, excellent performances from Tamsin Grieg (Green Wing!, Black Books!!!) and Joseph Millsom (er, Peak Practice!?) as Beatrice and Benedick. But. And there's always a but. It was the final day of school for the year, it was a matinee performance, and it was Shakespeare -- of course there were going to be hundreds of teenagers on school "treats". To be fair -- and I rarely am -- the children that surrounded me in the Grand Circle were generally well-behaved. They seemed largely engrossed in the action and applauded wildly at the end. The funniest things though were their reactions to the Shakespearean sexual innuendo/kissing, and the occasional swear word. Despite being worldly wise, street-smart kids, they let out a collective "Ew!" as Beatrice and Benedick kissed, and there was a sharp intake of breath and furtive, shocked whispering as Benedick spoke of the "bastard Don John". I'm sure these kids swear like troopers every other word, but the apparent transgression of respectable grown-ups swearing still shocked them. I wonder if actors get special training in dealing with these school-dominated matinee performances? At the very least, they should get danger money.

Then, after a somewhat tedious journey back to Stokey, it was off to an open evening at the studios my sister works in. This was an opportunity for all the different artists who rent space there to show off their works. Herbalists, book-binders, musicians, makers of soft furnishings, "proper" artists, and high-class lingerie makers all welcomed in a motley assortment of proud parents, hippy friends, and -- in my sister's case -- the fetish demi-monde. Miss Katie's corsets looked amazing, and to our delight she sold one of the peg to a visitor. Vince Ray also sold some of his masterpieces, we chatted to lots of lovely, friendly people, and I've got some new links to put on my blog. Looking for saucy jewellery? Check out Prong. Or go for a ride with Pandora Pitstop. Fun, fun, fun.

And then, yesterday afternoon, twas the London office's Christmas party. Given that the first rule of blogging is don't blog about work, I won't reveal what happened there, but it was very entertaining. And was followed by chips/veggies/dips in our hotel room while watching Criminal Minds and Father Ted -- a relaxing (near) end to a tiring week.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Seven nights, five beds, one cat

I've led an itinerant life for the past week, sleeping in five different beds:

1. Dumpling Towers, Norwich: quiet and comfy.
2. The Notting Hill boutique B&B I have access to: luxury writ large.
3. A Jacobean cottage, Chipping Campden: thick duvet, overly soft mattress, bloody freezing!
4. Imogen and Adrian's, Vauxhall: a reversion to childhood, with fish fingers, potato waffles and spaghetti hoops for dinner, washed down with hot Ribena. Yum!
5. Chez Vince Ray/Miss Katie, Stoke Newington: It may only be a couch, but it's very comfy AND comes with a cat. Jackie has been exceptionally well-behaved, settling down at my feet each night and staying put until I get up. She's so much quieter than puppies -- and sorts herself out in the morning, rather than needing to be taken for a walk. And given how cold it's become, that is a good thing. I'm swinging back towards favouring cats after my recent puppy conversion -- which is just as well, given that we're planning to get two on our return to the UK.

And it doesn't end there: Thursday night sees me in a hotel in Central London, before heading up to Naarich on Friday afternoon. Exhausting stuff.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Yet another surreal eTrade experience

My company told me that I needed to contact eTrade corporate support to check whether I needed to complete a form that shows I'm a foreigner who doesn't pay tax in the US. Being both a good corporate citizen AND sufficiently pissed off about paying high levels of tax in the Netherlands, I decided to womanfully wrestle with eTrade's IVR system. I logged into my eTrade account, noted down my account number, and got started. Problem 1: The telephone system refused to acknowledge my password -- even though I'd just used it to access the Web site. Confused, I put down the phone, logged off, re-logged in to check that it was the password I thought it was, and then phoned again. Problem 2: The system didn't ask for my account number this time, but still refused to recognize my password -- twice. At this point, it kindly put me through to someone human. Problem 3: She told me that I my online access to the site was currently disabled and that we'd have to reset my password. I pointed out that this wasn't true and that I was, in fact, looking at my account details online at that very moment. She just giggled, pressed a few buttons, answered my question about form W-8BEN (and no, I don't have to recertify this year), and we bid each other adieu.

I hate that site (but I like my options).

Monday, December 18, 2006

Pass the parcel

A birthday party without games just wouldn't be right. And so we played a rather adult and drunken version of pass the parcel, complete with naughty forfeits courtesy of merry funster Imogen. As expected, the birthday boy bore the brunt of these:

Downing shots.

Picking up a champagne cork with your teeth, part I.

Picking up a champagne cork with your teeth, part II.

Pole-dancing around Clive, the highlight of the evening -- if not the weekend.

Unfortunately (for the blogosphere), I failed to get photographic evidence of Pippa's boob print against an icy window. We'll just have to trust her on this one.


After wishing for cats for the past five years, I've become a convert to the joy of dogs. Here are the three poppets that I spent the weekend with:

Emmy, star of previous posts, at rest (for once).

Jake, once-abandoned pup found wandering the streets of Chepstow.

Millie, comparatively quiet and well-behaved.

It was so much fun having a pack of dogs bounding round the house all weekend, crashing into chairs, slobbering over the quince jelly and cheese, and wreaking havoc wherever they went. Forget about pristine houses and new-fangled notions of hygiene -- these puppies taste your patience and strengthen your immune system. Fantastic.

To Clive, on his birthday

It's rare to have a perfect weekend. Usually, the weather, a killer hangover, or a missed flight conspire to taint it. But not this weekend. This weekend is a very strong contender for best weekend ever. Why? A 17th century cottage in the middle of one of England's prettiest villages. Lots of food and drink. Three dogs. Two log fires. A great group of friends. And a top bloke's 40th birthday. It's hard to imagine how it could have been any better. Thanks Pippa!

A vegetarian's lament

Brunch in the countryside -- so very, very tempting.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Well, have you?

Have you ever stayed with friends for the night, had a lovely meal and a late, just-before-midnight cup of tea, used the bathroom, been to the loo, got into bed, switched out the light and realized that that last cup of tea has gone straight to your bladder and you need the loo again? Only the house is now silent and everyone will hear that you're going to the loo again and you start to worry that they will be wondering what on earth is wrong with you that you need the toilet twice in quick succession? And you start worrying about whether you do in fact have diabetes or a urinary tract infection, and the more you worry, the more you want the loo, so you're lying foetal-like in a vain attempt to repress that urgency, but the last thing you're going to do is fall asleep like that and after 10 minutes you decide to get up and just bloody go to the loo, and you're trying to be quiet but the doorknob squeaks, and you stub your toe on the bathroom door, and you manage to hit the switch that turns on both the light AND the extractor fan, so now you KNOW you've woken up everyone in the house and they're just lying in their room laughing at you, and so the following morning you decide to sneak out of the house and book into a hotel the next time you're in London?

No, me neither. It sounds like it would be terribly stressful.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Bag lady

There's a new system driving the fashion industry, based on totes, satchels, slouchy shoppers and chic little clutches. It is called bagonomics and is founded on the principle that the handbag is king. According to baganomics, no other fashion item says more about your taste, personal style or aspirations than a bag, and for that reason it is essential to get your hands on the right one.

So says The Sunday Times' Style Section, which I've been reading while back at the Norfolk branch of Dumpling Towers. This is scary stuff. My bag collection consists entirely of a nylon mini-rucksack (Decathlon, not Prada), a bike bag that clips onto my bike's rear frame, a grimy pink nylon Muji bag, and an assortment of laptop bags bearing the names of various trade shows and CE companies. Instead of standing out as (variously) an independent intellectual feminimst or an eco-warrior or a relatively wealthy fashion-aware celebrity gossip fiend, I must come across as a single, male IT help-desk worker. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's just not me.) I must confess that I've never owned a handbag, could never understand the appeal of something that couldn't take a decent-sized book and Nintendo DS, as well as tissues, "women's products," and an emergency packet of crisps. The thought of spending more than £10 on a bag brings me out in a cold sweat, and I'm certainly not going to ask PJ to splash out on something frivolous that I can't eat or read.

Instead, I will continue to wait slightly shame-facedly by the luggage carousel for my CES 2005 wheelie to appear, while stuffing my sudoku book and passport back into my Nintendo laptop bag. Cheap and practical -- that's me and my bags.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Lunchtime blogging

I'm working from home today -- again. This time, I'm waiting for the painters to arrive (not a euphemism). Last year, we had some work "done" at the back of the house; the bill was supposed to include the repainting of window frames, but ours were never done. So, our building committee's treasurer organized for the painters to come along today to do the job, only ... no sign of them. Yet.

I think I know what the problem is, though. Our treasurer left a note on the front door telling the painters to ring my doorbell on arrival. It was there at 7.30 -- I checked -- but when I went down to get the post at midday, the sign was face down on the floor. I've put it up again, but my gut tells me that the painters came, rang the wrong doorbell once, and then buggered off -- probably to the beach, given that it's quite a nice day.

Sigh. This means that we'll have to reschedule, it'll be raining on that day so they won't turn up as it's apparently impossible to paint when it's wet, and this damn work will only get done on the day we show the house to potential buyers. I don't even have a phone number to call them on; the joys of "outsourcing" the arrangements to a third party. And I've just managed to burn my cheese toastie -- the key advantage of working from home -- while writing this post. Bloody hell!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Wet wet wet

I got drenched three times before 9 a.m. today -- quite an achievement, albeit not six impossible things before breakfast. And only one of those soakings could be called voluntary. The cycle ride to the gym at 7.35 was grim, dark, and wet -- at one point, I actually cursed out loud, scaring the local taxi drivers huddled smugly inside their cars. The swimming pool was very wet, but blissfully quiet. Worst by far was the short ride from the gym to the office -- in a torrential downpour. I kept comforting myself by promising that this time next year I'd use a car to get to the gym. Much to my surprise, it didn't rain on the way home. I would be thankful for small mercies, but the enormous spot growing painfully just under my chin is making me far too grumpy for that.

Roll on 2007.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A whole heap o' chocolate

My food dilemmas for the next few days are at an end. As I handed over my (only slightly squidged) lemon cake to Alan and Jo, they gave me a kilo of Cadbury's! Four different 250 gram bars of chocolately goodness.

Not only that, but Alan then made scrambled eggs and smoked salmon to accompany Arsenal's 1-1 draw with Chelsea. Junior Gooner Holly spent the (somewhat dull) first half watching the game supine on her mat, little legs flailing in excitement. The second half perked up, with a very entertaining final 15 minutes, and then it was back out into the cold -- heading home to some very exciting ironing. Yay! Food, football, and friends: there's no better way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

The finished product

OK, so I clearly can't cut straight and the combination of raspberries and lemon frosting oozed slightly more than I'd anticipated, but it still looks -- and tastes -- extremely good. The cake has a slight crunch from the cornmeal it contains, and this nicely offsets the softness of the filling.

My one problem? Getting this round to Jo and Alan's in time for Chelsea versus Arsenal at 5. Could be messy.

Lemon polenta pound cake

PJ's away again this week. Last week, it was London and Paris for 4 nights; this time, it's 6 nights in London, San Francisco, and San Jose. While I'm on my own, my eating habits tend to disintegrate. Instead of wholesome veggie pasta bakes, it's cheesy nachos and ice cream. I prefer having meals you can polish off in one sitting, rather than having leftovers peer resentfully at you from the fridge, only to be binned on day three. I'm just not good at adapting my cooking to suit one person -- even if that one person is me.

However, his nibs' absence does give me the opportunity to try out things that he wouldn't like: noodle dishes crammed full of coriander, for example, or this lemon pound cake. Not only does it look like a great recipe, but it also has so much lemon juice in it that it almost counts as several portions of fruit for the day. And, it was pleasantly time-consuming to make, and more fun than either the pile of ironing or bits of extraneous work that I need to do today. I intend to split it, sandwich it together with some lemon marscapone frosting and perhaps a few raspberries -- yet more fruit. Looks like "healthy" eating can be achieved, after all.

Norwich 1: Sheffield Wednesday 2

I am not, however, the Canaries' bitch. But I do feel like a glutton for punishment. every Saturday, I turn to the BBC sports site with a sense of misplaced optimism. Most weeks, I'm cruelly disappointed, yet keep going back for more. When will this end? (Probably when we get relegated to Division 1.)

I am Nintendo's bitch

1. Wario Ware
2. Nintendogs
3. Rayman Raving Rabbids

Dick Dale + cute rabbids = bliss.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Oooh, shiny!

Yesterday was hard. Getting up with a mild hangover. Having to finish tidying and cleaning the apartment. Making polite conversation with the man who came to view it. Having our makelaars take pictures of the ultraclean and tidy apartment around us. Work. Thus, it was a positive relief to head out into the rainy evening for a spot of culture. We headed over to the Muziektheater to see Nederlands Dans Theater I perform Silent Screen and Toss of a Dice. The first involved music from Philip Glass, film inspired by FW Murnau and DW Griffiths, and incredibly bendy dancers, who sent me into paroxysms of envy. So lean, so sinewy, so flexible! All good stuff, thoroughly entrancing, fabulous dancing.

The second part of the evening, Jiri Kylian's Toss of a Dice, was also impressively bonkers. A largely dark stage, illuminated by spotlights playing over a very large, pointy metal Japanese sculpture that circled over the dancers, pincers moving viciously. Some French bint reading a poem over the top of clicky-clacky modern music. Giant pointy sculpture finally coming down to earth, one dancer interacting impressively with it -- dancing around it, almost but not quite getting impaled on it's pincers. PJ found the sculpture somewhat distracting, his more practical mind wondering about whether the pincers were moving randomly and what sort of motor it was using. I just enjoyed the dancing. With modern dance, you never have to worry that you're missing out on a key story point or character development; you just sit back and marvel at the athleticism on display.

The crowd was younger and scruffier than for the performance of Jewels that Beth and I went to see, although that could have been the effect of the quite appalling weather. PJ and I decided to walk home along the canals in the drizzle -- which got heavier and heavier as we hit the 9 streets, but it was still rather magical. And we had umbrellas and knew that we would be able to change as soon as we got in. All in all, a fine end to a very tiring day.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Can write

Yesterday afternoon's productivity was destroyed by the weather. Between 3.30 and 4, Bill and I sat in our 7th floor eerie, gazing out of the windows at the most amazing display of meterological activity. Thick, evil, low-hanging black clouds scudded in the east, headed out over central Amsterdam, and then circled round to dump buckets of rain over the city. The lights in the tram depot across the Schinkel came on, trees bowed over, and the wind drove waves up the canal. All the seagulls scarpared as thunder and lightning -- very, very frightening -- played across the nearby sky. As the dark clouds swirled around the Philips Tower in the east, the sun illuminated the dense clouds in the west, casting a sulpherous glow in the sky and lighting up the houses across from us. A huge, double rainbow appeared, followed by a swathe of blue sky in the west draped with thick pink clouds. Most bizarre and most entertaining -- better than television!

Can't. Speak

Twas the office Crimbo party last night: 3 hours of shouting pleasantly (for once) at people over loud music -- trying to balance the conversational demands of finding non-work topics to discuss with people you mainly only know through work. Thank goodness for that universal middle-class obsession, house prices. And ski-ing holidays. Got back at just before midnight, Febreezed the hell out of our clothes so that the apartment doesn't stink for our viewing this morning, and collapsed into bed. Killer sore throat now, won't be talking at much above a whisper for the rest of the day. God bless IM.

However, I did appreciate working for a long time in an office with what seems like a pretty high turnover of staff: I was able to recycle my 2004 Christmas party top and only a couple of people might have been in a position to remember it. Score!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Bring me my bottle of white vinegar -- stat!

Despite deciding not to put our apartment on the market until January, we've got our first viewing on Friday morning. After our makelaar called this evening to ask if that would be okay, I went into a cleaning frenzy. Throwing out old bottles of vinegar, vacuuming the storage room -- hell, I've even cleaned the fridge (for the first time since we got it). Not that I really expect our viewer to look in the fridge -- and it's an English bloke, so I really don't expect him to check the vegetable section. But it's terrifying having someone look at your house and judge it. I'm going to spend the next 36 hours trying not to breathe or shed hair.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

One right pain in the arse

In a fit of enthusiasm, I decide to book my rail travel for the Christmas period. That's one return ticket from Norwich-London-Norwich and one single ticket from London to Norwich. Off to One's online ticket service I trot, clutching my credit card in my hot little hand. I go through the silly registration procedure, book my return journey with tickets to be delivered to my parents' Norwich address, and realize I've forgotten to book the single. Back into the system I go. I go through the first few stages, get to the bit about payment address and delivery address, and notice that it's automatically populated both with my Amsterdam address. Well, that's no good: I won't be here to get the tickets. What's more frustrating is that I have no option of going to either London Liverpool Street or Norwich stations to pick up the tickets in person -- I have to have them sent by post so that, presumably, One can sting me for the postage. I change the delivery address to be that of the 'rents, click on to the next page, put in all my credit card details, and hit okay. Feeling a little nervous, I head over to my email account to check what they've sent. My return ticket looks fine; the single ticket is going to be dispatched to Amsterdam. W.T.F?!?!

No problem, there's a call center. I call, explain the problem, and am told that I can't do anything about this. Even though I've only just booked the tickets and they haven't been dispatched, I can't change the delivery address. I can give them the credit card number, I can tell them it was the site's problem, not mine, but none of this makes any difference. That ticket is lost to me. Abandoned because it will not (given the reliability of national postal services) arrive in time. Instead, I have commissioned Dadddy Dumpling to head down to Naar-ich Station tomorrow to buy a replacement ticket, using the vouchers that One sent me the last time they failed to provide trains for a service I'd booked on. If, by a miracle, the original ticket turns up here before next Wednesday, I'll either try to claim a refund or sell it at Liverpool St Station on the day of travel.

Thank goodness it was only a 10 quid ticket; I can afford to lose this. And One can afford to lose my goodwill as a customer, as I have no damn choice on that line but to use them. Until April 2007. As soon as we're back in the UK, we're getting a car. Screw the environment and screw One.

Let's go shopping!

Of course, Sinterklaas isn't just about political correctness and being dragged off to Spain for being naughty. Oh no. It's also an opportunity for shopping. Albert Heijn, our esteemed supermarket, delivered a fabulous Sinterklaas packet with our last order. It included candy, liquorice drops, and a wonderful children's story book titled "Hoera, we gaan boodschappen doen!" -- Hurray, Let's Go Shopping!

This remarkably glossy little book tells the delightful story of Sinterklaas and helper Piet having to go to a supermarket -- guess which one! -- to buy all the things they need for December 5. Why? All the other Piets -- the cleaning-up Piet, the cook Piet, the steamboat captain Piet -- have disappeared. (I assumed that they've all buggered off to the beach for the day or have taken long-term sick leave, but that's not made clear in the book -- a missed opportunity for educating children about their future employment behavior, I fear.) Anyhoo, Sinterklaas and Piet are confused by all the different stores (cheese shop, fish shop, butcher's etc) and so forget lots of things. Off they hurry to Albert Heijn to buy everything they need in one place. Not only that, but this Albert Heijn has the cleanest floors, the fullest shelves, and the friendliest staff you could want -- far better than anything AH provides in the real world. Their checkout assistant tells them of the happiness an AH bonus card brings (even though it's not free). Not only that, but Sinterklaas buys AH shopping bags, so if his own sack breaks, he's got replacements! To conclude, they have the best Sinterklaas party ever -- all thanks to Albert Heijn. In fact, they had so much fun at the store, that they went back the following day!

This has to be one of the most cynical -- and clever -- pieces of marketing material I've come across. I hate marketers, but I tip my metaphorical hat to the AH marketing department. Brainwashing the kiddies at an early age: brilliant. Expect a call from Big Tobacco any day now.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Another linguistic trifle

In the UK, a coffee cake is a cake flavored with coffee. Preferably, with a coffee buttercream filling and plenty of walnuts.
In the US, a coffee cake is a cake that you eat while drinking coffee. It's not usually coffee-flavored.

In the UK, a teacake is a flat yeasted fruit bun that you toast, slather in butter and jam, and have on a Sunday evening as a light supper after a hefty Sunday lunch.
In the US, a teacake is a cake that you eat while drinking tea -- even though the Americans don't like proper tea. (Have you ever ordered a cup of tea in the US? Please don't. It's vile.)

Two nations separated by a common language indeed.

Wake me up (again and I'll kill you)

One thing I would ban, though, is the gatherings of noisy f***ers in the flat behind ours. On both Friday and Saturday night, the tenant had clearly invited a group of friends back to his/her place for post-bar beers -- complete with group singing to Wake Me Up (Before You Go Go) and Heaven (Is A Place On Earth). I could really do without being forced to listen to the atonal shrieking of 80s classics by pissed frat boys and girls at 2 a.m., so was delighted on Saturday when I heard the tell-tale rattle of Martin's curtains, followed by his (loud) voice and the rapid exit of several guests. Noise-obsessed neighbours are fabulous -- when they're not focused on you.

Cogitating and conjugating

I'm a traditionalist, supporting my country's culture.
You're a Sinterklaas impersonator, spreading joy and pepernoten to kiddies.
She's a radical extremist set on bringing down the Dutch way of life.

Not my views, but those of the former immigration minister, the much-loved Rita Verdonk. In what was largely derided as a vote-grabbing move prior to the recent elections, she announced that she wanted to ban burqas from being worn in public, even though only a handful of women in the Netherlands wear them. Of course, this wasn't an attack on Islam, oh no; this was about public safety, and as such, ski masks and motorcycle helmets with visors would also be banned. Um, right. I believe you; thousands didn't.

As a columnist in my favorite English-language newspaper published in Amsterdam and The Hague mentioned, this attack on face-obscuring attire seems at odds with the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas. This involves many people -- including some poor operations stooge in our office -- blacking up their faces (Zwaarte Piet) or wearing a huge white beard (Saint Nick) and tossing handfuls of rock-hard gingerbread pellets at passers-by. (Oh yes, I know, children get gifts if they're good and put in a sack and beaten and taken to Spain if they're bad, but my experience here has mainly been of being bombarded with sweets at my desk while attempting to do some work on December 5 -- sweets which largely go uneaten, except by the mice.) But there's a definite amount of face-obscuring taking place, but this is Dutch tradition rather than religious fundamentalism, so that's okay.

I don't care about burqas. Wouldn't want to wear one, except on bad-hair days, days when I have enormous spots, days when it's pelting down with rain and could do with having a full face covering so that my glasses don't get wet -- hmm, that's probably 350 days of the year. Let me rephrase that: I wouldn't want to HAVE to wear one. But I'd defend the right of someone else to wear one. I was rather hoping that this law would come to pass because the opportunities for public protest would be so much fun; lots of people hanging around in Dam Square wearing fencing masks or wedding veils or those giant sunglasses that US starlets favor, begging the police to arrest them because the whites of your eyes aren't visible. But Verdonk's party didn't do so well in the elections and is unlikely to be part of a coalition, so the proposal -- and my various protest outfits -- should come to naught.

Sanity restored? Let's hope so.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Sunderland 1: Norwich 0

After a successful midweek trip to Leicester, Norwich slumped to defeat against Sunderland yesterday -- leaving The Canaries hovering at 15th in the Championship. That's one place above Crystal Palace (sorry, Jo) and, most importantly, two places above Ipswich. You see, it's not really about promotion or relegation or title shots or qualifying for Europe; it's purely about beating the Suffolk tractor boys.

Meditation rage

There's always one. She -- it's always a she -- comes into class at the very last minute sets out an array of items: a bottle of water, a towel, a packet of tissues, various sweaters. She is clearly going to be trouble, preferring to achieve nirvana through accessorizing than through calm thoughts. And she was. Throughout today's 21/2 hour meditation class, she loudly swigged water, coughed, blew her nose, and generally fidgeted. Instead of achieving one-ness with the space around me, I found my fingers clenching against my thighs, my mind racing with murderous thoughts -- and what I'd blog about once I got home.

The cycle ride home didn't help my mood. This is what happens when you don't take a hat or waterproof trousers with you on every journey.

I got soaked. Which meant I couldn't face heading out again today to spend several hours with screaming rugrats -- sorry, Bill and Beth! I'll make up for it over the holidays; promise.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Saturday afternoon cookie club

The smell of paint is quite intoxicating; even more so, when you layer on the aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. I spotted this recipe recently on the excellent BakingSheet site and remembered it at around 3.30 when I was feeling twitchy and in need of biscuits. 45 minutes later, several trays of cookies emerged from the oven.

These are great -- very thin and crisp around the edge, soft and chewy in the middle. I used white chocolate chips instead of dark, and would have sandwiched them with the icing recommended had PJ not started to demolish them before they were cool enough to fill.

Paint it . . . cream

It's a cold, wet day outside, but I have a naked man painting my bathroom. No, that's not a euphemism: There really is a naked man painting my bathroom. Why? We had a makelaar (estate agent) come round yesterday to see about selling the apartment, and she recommended that we paint our bathroom ceiling before she takes photos. Apparently, Dutch viewers won't appreciate the lovely aqua -- it's like water, right, and it's a bathroom -- that we currently have and would prefer a more neutral shade. Having spent many years watching the wonderful Anne Maurice, House Doctor, on Channel 5, we're able to overlook their stupidity and just fix it. We really want to sell this place -- quickly.

What do you think looks better? And yes, that elbow is all you're going to see of my naked painter; he's threatened me with death if I post more. Although, how he'd get the blood spatter off the walls, I'm sure I don't know. Damn stuff gets everywhere, and it will show up nicely against the cream.

PS: He's naked because it's easier to get paint off yourself than off clothes -- or so he says. I'm not totally convinced that this is as innocent as he claims.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Shag your students; collect 20,000 euros!

Another great story from The Times involved a teacher at a school in The Hague who had a sexual relationship with one of his 16-year-old pupils. This is considered an illegal abuse of power here, but despite this, the teacher was awarded 20,000 euros when the school suspended him and ended his contract. How is this possible? You break the law; you break one of the fundamental principles governing teacher-student relationships; and you walk away with a huge sum of cash!?!


The explosive nature of Dutch speed skaters

Another Thursday at the gym, another opportunity to read the entertaining (for the wrong reasons) English language newspaper, The Times. This gem in the sports section caught my eye:

Combustibility, as opposed to a long, rhythmic endurance race, is not one of the Dutchmen's best features.

I'm sure that if thoroughly doused in petrol, a Dutchman is just as likely to combust when lighting a cigarette as someone from any other nation -- but I'm sure that's not what was meant. This looks like a Word thesaurus or babelfish mistranslation of "Exploding out of the blocks/off the starting line," but I think I almost prefer the original. I'd certainly pay good money to watch Dutch speed skaters going up in flames, an event that would attract record viewing figures.