Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The perils of modern living, part the second

Two hours in Terminal One at Heathrow and you start to realize just how much rubbish is available for consumption -- particularly when one is a captive and bored audience. Teddy bears wearing Union Jacks (Harrods), iPod accessories (boo, hisss!), Filofaxes (still? really?!?), and expensive fountain pens. Who uses a fountain pen nowadays? Can you still buy ink? How do you blog with a fountain pen?

My lowest point came when BMI announced that it had delayed the flight by 30 minutes. I'd finished reading Grazia and was thus goal-less. I found myself in Austin Reed, idly checking out smart stripy shirts and co-ordinating tank tops. Smart they might have been, but in 5 weeks' time, I'll be working from home -- and thus able to sit around in just my skivvies, marinating in a pool of my own filth, should I so choose. I will have no need for "work" clothes (as indeed I don't now, to be honest), no need to shop in upmarket stores in airport terminals, no need to color co-ordinate shirts and jumpers. Hurrah! I will be feral editor -- hmm, sounds like the name of a new blog ...

A packed social agenda meant that I started writing this on Tuesday but didn't get round to posting it until now. Oh, how hard it is when one is in demand!

I can believe it's not 'bena!

There are some brands that really define the product: Jacob's Cream Crackers, Terry's Chocolate Orange, and Branston Pickle, to name but a few. There are many generic copies but they never taste quite right. This "startling" discovery was brought home to me a few minutes ago when I made myself some hot blackcurrant. Now, normally, I would of course use Ribena -- the blackcurrant cordial of choice in the UK. But I don't have any. And the nearest over-priced UK supplies store is 6 km away. And I've run out of green tea and I really wanted a non-caffeinated beverage now. So, I had to buy a French sirop de cassis from Deen, and it's ... okay. Yes, it's hot and blackcurranty and vaguely sweet and definitely coats your teeth with syrupy, sugary goodness, but it's not Ribena. And it never will be.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The perils of modern living, part the first

What is the difference between an iced latte and a latte frappe? I ask because I was confronted with this conundrum in Heathrow's Terminal One Cafe Nero earlier today -- and I did not know the answer. The "barista" regarded me with contempt as I expressed my confusion at her question about whether I wanted one or the other. Clearly, the differences between two types of cold milky coffee should be well known to anyone living in the West in the 21st century; indeed, they probably make up an entire section of the SATs for 11-year-olds in UK schools nowadays. But I remain resolutely wedded to the "O level gold standard" and had no clue.

It turns out that an iced latte is a cold milky coffee blended with ice and served in a plastic beaker with a straw. A latte frappe is a cold milky coffee blended with ice and sugar and served in a plastic beaker with a straw. Duh! How could I have been so stupid!? After enduring public humiliation to buy my overpriced beverage, it wasn't even the knock-off Starbucks frappucino that I'd been hoping for. I will never darken Cafe Nero's doors again (unless PJ needs to access Wi-Fi in a hurry)!

UK/European jet lag is a bitch

No, seriously, it is awful. It's now past my normal bedtime and I'm not the least bit tired -- despite waking up at 5.45 (UK) this morning, worried that the scary TV alarm wouldn't go off at 6.30, thus causing us to miss our respective flights. (It's a good job that I'm not both paranoid and OCD-esque; that would be dreadful. And very irritating to live with, I suspect. Maybe that's why PJ spends so much time on planes to other countries. Hmmm.)

Anyway, I'm not tired now, but I will be exhausted tomorrow morning. And wet. Yes, it's STILL raining.

OCD is a good thing. Really.

We saw seven rental properties yesterday. And I know that they're rental properties and that therefore the tenants simply don't give a toss about making them look decent for the likes of us who are looking round, but still. Some of them were SO untidy! I had to restrain myself from picking up bits of paper, dusting the shelves, and folding up the clothes strewn on the floor. Thank goodness most of the places were empty, thus giving me the chance to breathe out and relax after the more stressful viewings.

Not that it had any impact on our decision; we rented one of the more untidy properties. Location -- i.e., just around the corner from a tuck shop, a cinema, and a couple of truly excellent pubs -- is far more important than current state. And when we move in, it won't be untidy for long.

Road works on the M3

Guess I'd better get used to them. After all, I envisage doing the run up to Heathrow once a month or more, unless I can persuade PJ to use a train/bus combo. It was raining as we left our hotel in Winchester, it was raining more heavily as we hit the M3 just five minutes later, it slowed to a depressing drizzle as we hit the long queues of traffic between junctions 4a and 3, and it was raining as we dropped off the hire car. It rained as my flight to Amsterdam sat on the tarmac, watching PJ's flight (probably) to San Francisco pull away from its stand. It was raining as we came in to land at Schiphol, it was raining when I got off the train at Centraal, and it rained as I walked home. Four hours later, it rained as I cycled to yoga, and it was still raining 90 minutes later when I cycled home. Inevitably, it will be raining at 8.30 tomorrow morning when I set off for work.

I can't wait until I'm a home worker. Then, rain will not bother me. (Except on Wednesdays, when I walk to Winchester railway station to get the train to London.) Hurrah!

Monday, February 26, 2007


We're in Winchester for a couple of days, finding somewhere to rent (details to come), hence the lack of weekend posts. However, I did get to take some snaps that should give you a sense of why we like this city. Cathedrals, cottages, and -- just 5 minutes from the town centre -- countryside.

However, we have walked miles today and my feet now hurt. So, we're in our hotel room watching Project Catwalk and wondering how on earth the producers managed to find people who were even more vile than those on America's Next Top Model (and British to boot). Great stuff.

Crusty jugglars!

Hot Fuzz was fantastic. Very funny, great action sequences, and the damnation of crusty jugglars and living statues. I laughed till I cried! Two thumbs up, fine weekend fun!

Friday, February 23, 2007

Branding 101

While I recognize that few of you are as big a fan of Victoria Beckham as I am, if you have any interest in the following topics -- marketing, branding, celebrity, cultural globalization, football in the age of YouTube -- you should read this article. It is a great read about the Beckham brand and why it is so successful. Enjoy!

More reasons to be cheerful

The oven debacle means that I am determined to use up my sourdough starter in non-bread-related recipes. I dug out a sourdough pancake recipe and whipped up a batch. This is good stuff. Even straight from the fridge, the sourdough starter frothed up to provide fluffy, airy, tangy pancakes -- excellent laden with maple syrup. I ate six of the beasts to assuage both my hunger and my depression.

I have also put The Fratellis album on, which is also a good mood-lifter. I'm particularly pleased that listening to it has allowed me to identify the song played in the most recent Apple iTunes ad; it was bugging me -- another reason to hate Apple!

And that was the oven man on the phone

My oven man just called me. "I have terrible news" he said -- not the best way to open a conversation but an excellent example of Dutch directness. "The part won't be available for several weeks." Although, it will be available before we move out on April 11th, OR SO HE CLAIMS!

I am distraught. No home-made bread for several weeks!?! PJ has offered to buy me a breadmaker to get round this problem. I am very tempted. Does this make me a deeply sad person?

I am also making sure I only ever get household appliances from major manufacturers and distributors. None of this "hand-crafted by artisans in small mountain-top villages in Italy" rubbish. It's got to be big, it's (probably) got to be German, and they have to have spare parts on tap.

That was the oven man

He was here for all of 5 minutes and told me that the heating element in the oven was broken, he needed to order a new part, and that it would have to come from Italy so would take at least a week. Luckily, it shouldn't cost more than about 175 euros, including labour and parts and today's visit. However, I knew the heating element was broken. If the oven doesn't heat up but the grill, microwave, and fan still work, it's a pretty safe assumption that that's the problem. I told the Whirlpool customer help line this when I phoned on Monday. So why couldn't they have ordered the part then?!? Instead, I am left breadless for another week (at least). Grrr.

Do you know the oven man? The oven man? The oven man!

I am waiting for the oven man, the man who will magically restore my ability to make bread. Or rather, my oven's ability to bake bread. I have no knowledge of when he will arrive; he will simply call 30 minutes before he intends to be here, thus allowing me enough time, presumably, to cycle home from wherever I am in Amsterdam and be there to let him in. I am working from home, just to be on the safe side, but dare not go to the toilet for the rest of the day in case he calls and I don't answer. I've already had a coffee though -- damn.

He will be paid in cash -- 99.50 euros, to be precise. Apparently, 100 euros is either insufficiently complicated a sum or just too much for the Dutch to contemplate paying -- although, inevitably, I will have to pay 100 euros. I very much doubt he carries a big bag of 50-cent coins around with him, preferring instead to look mildly incredulous that I can't give him the exact amount. "These crazy, overpaid expats!" he'll think. "Throwing away a good 50 cents because they can't be bothered to find the right amount!"

The 99.50 is just for him turning up and doing some work. It does not include parts. I don't know how I will be billed for those, whether I will be expected to rustle up another 100 euros at the drop of a hat or whether I will have to go out to the nearest cash point to get more money. It would be helpful if they billed us, but that doesn't appear to be an option yet. Who still carries large quantities of cash round with them? I use PIN for everything, as I suspect many people here do -- it means you can pay the exact amount in a supermarket instead of being overcharged by the cashier rounding the amount up to the next 5 cents. Maybe that's why so many people in the queues at Deen, our lunchtime supermarket near work, look so confused when they're asked to hand over money for goods purchased; instead of just being stupid, they've merely lost their PIN card and have no idea what these strange pieces of paper and shiny coins are. (I won't miss going to Deen every day. Oh no.)

No sign of the oven man yet. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Thank God they're going!

That's what I imagine our neighbours are saying. We've just watched an extremely noisy episode of Battlestar Galactica, with Starbuck blasting the frak out of the baddest Cylon raider in the galaxy, and now PJ is happily blasting the frak out of assorted ne'er-do-wells on the Xbox 360 in Crackdown. I'm sure our middle-aged, Dutch-speaking, mainly-residing-in-Chelsea purchaser and her elderly father will make a very peaceful and welcome change.

Unless, of course, they put down [dramatic pause] wooden floors! Mwah-hah-hah!!!

Ring a ring o' roses

But, I am pustular. For some reason, I have started to get multiple spots again. I keep eating raw carrots for lunch in an attempt to boost my vitamin intake and ward off the dreaded red lumps and bumps, but to no avail. Attempting to carefully style my hair across the worst-affected areas makes it hard to see anything -- tricky when cycling to/from work and when spending all day reading a screen. Even Origins' fab spot killer has stopped working, defeated by my overly hearty sebaecous glands. Time to get the bleach.

Life is good

Three things that made me happy at the gym today:

1. My iPod mini conjured up enough charge to last through my session -- most unusual. Normally, I listen to it when fully charged in one session, leave it in a drawer for a couple of days, take it out for the next session and discover that the battery has drained itself. I hate Apple.

2. The All-England Tennis Club has announced that women will get the same prize money as men this summer. Finally.

3. The Nordics World Ski Championships are taking place in Sapporo, Japan, at the moment, and all the Japanese spectators wave miniature skis in the air to show their support for the competitors. It's SO cute!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Owwwww! I ache. I ache a lot. So much for feeling smug yesterday upon not aching after a decent run at the gym on Monday evening. The "forward bends" yoga class has destroyed my thigh muscles. I could feel the pain setting in last night while watching Battlestar Galactica, gazing in admiration and wonder at Jamie Bamber's arm muscles. (Seriously, they're amazing. And he got a first from Cambridge. Why weren't there arm muscles like that on my fellow students when I was at university?) A hot bath did nothing to stop the stiffness, so getting out of bed to make a cup of tea was unpleasant.

To distract me from the pain in my thighs, I've decided to break in my new NINE-DOLLAR 3-inch heels from the US. This is a great idea! By mid-afternoon, I shall be sitting at my desk, gently rocking back and forwards as I rub my mashed toes and strained calves, thigh ache completely forgotten.

It's a good job I don't conform to society's brutal standards of beauty and therefore don't have to suffer for fashion. Oh no.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

If it's broken, should I fix it?

A moral dilemma: On Friday night -- of course it was Friday night! -- the oven broke. It all started off well. Turn oven on, leave to heat up, open oven door, power in the apartment goes off. Reset the fuses, turn oven back on, open oven door, power goes off again, reset the fuses ... and 20 minutes later discover that the oven isn't hot. In fact, I can take the baking sheet out with my bare hands, and while I have a degree of asbestosity as a result of years in the kitchen, this is not good.

So, the dilemma. With six weeks to go before we move out, do we fix it? On the "No" side is PJ: it's hassle, it will be expensive, the buyer will almost certainly redo the kitchen anyway, and it's not our problem. On the "Yes" side is me, always the people-pleaser, scared of "getting into trouble" with our buyer when she discovers that her combi oven has a functioning microwave and grill but no baking capabilities (and thus inviting karmic retribution when we buy another house), and (probably most importantly), starting to get twitchy at the thought of not being able to make any bread for the next six weeks. I'm probably going to have to abandon my sourdough starter here when we leave; I'd like to use it one last time.

After framing the question in the context of "Would you live without broadband for six weeks?" I win. The customer service line was remarkably pleasant and helpful, the engineer is coming on Friday -- and I'm hoping that it won't be too complicated/expensive to fix. Normal baking should resume on Saturday.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


I am reading:
"Esclavos de una obsesion" by Anne Perry, in Spanish.

I watched last night:
The final three episodes of Arrested Development. Sniff. C'MON!
The first three episodes of the second part of Season Two of Battlestar Galactica.

In general, I'm watching:
Top Gear
CSI: Miami

I'm ridiculously excited about seeing:
Hot Fuzz
Next Sunday. Probably in Basingstoke. CAN'T WAIT!!!

Sunday afternoon in Dumpling Towers

PJ is doing vital work, killing zombies in a shopping mall. I head out to forage for food and take photos, and then come back to ironing, blogging, and listening to a free Daily Mail CD of The Stranglers. We are both content, after our own fashion.

Madame Sin

The nearest thing Amsterdam had to a near-real-time crime map was in its Love For Sale exhibition a few years ago at the Historical Museum. This was a great show on the history of prostitution in the city, complete with recreations of the infamous windows and maps. These large-scale plans of the canal ring and city centre had marked on them the sites of the vast numbers of street walkers, brothels and windows in this trade-based, sailor-rich town -- ranging from the 17th century through to relatively modern times. It was fascinating trying to work out which numbers on our canal had been houses of ill-repute (or still were). Not ours, unfortunately; that was a warehouse from 1621 through to the 1980s, but there were others along the canal that traded in flesh, rather than goods. In fact, most days I cycle home past a house that offers personal services. Not on the canal ring, but a rather quaint-looking house called The Golden Key on the Overtoom. I had always been intrigued about it, then did the obligatory Google search. The other evening, for the first time in the five years I've been past it, the door was open. As one might expect, the walls were a deep red with gold accents, and there was a large, menacing man in a long, black coat and shades standing about. Looking menancing. How very bordello!

I still have my doubts about prostitution in the Netherlands -- whether it's as clean and wholesome as its advocates make out, particularly given the number of junkies who tout themselves at the back of Centraal Station and the fact that very few of the women in the windows appear to be Dutch or even Western European. However, the Dutch do demonstrate that it's possible to run brothels relatively discreetly in residential areas, causing a minimum of fuss to the neighbours. Something those of us from more prudish/hypocritical nations should learn from, perhaps?

Speaking of which, I read a comment on another blog -- the excellent Johnny B's Private Secret Diary -- which said that:
Basically, if you come to England and go into a small deli, etc. then if there are pork pies stacked up on or behind the counter it means that the shop is actually a brothel.

It's a bit long to go into now, but the way the pies are stacked/arranged etc is traditionally a 'code' for the services that you can expect...NOTE - this does not apply to supermarkets or butchers!!! If you see pork pies in supermarkets or butchers they are just pork pies for sale - - - do not ask for sex as you will end up highly embarrassed...
Is this true? I've never heard of this before and am wondering whether it's a wind-up of foreign readers or something that I should have been aware of when a meat-eater!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Chelsea 4: Norwich 0

Damn. Damn damn damn.

Actually, the scoreline is a little harsh. We lost our goal keeper early on, thanks to Chelsea's dreadful pitch -- what, they can't afford groundskeepers at Stamford Bridge? -- not only stayed in the game, but were doing pretty well until Chelsea's first goal. A goal just after half time, followed by two late, injury-time strikes killed us off. Damn.

And now I owe Clive a tenner. Sigh. Back to concentrating on the league.

Love Me, Love My Sore: The Untold Story of Norfolk Dumpling

Occasionally, the Interweb throws up some sites that make your day better. Among all the stories about pantless celebrities and anal pedantry about coding are little gems, such as photos of stuff on kittens or cats in sinks. This week, I came across two sites that greatly improved my well-being.

1. The Lifetime Movie Title Generator

When we first moved in together, it took a little bit of time for us to adapt to each other's weekend routines. I tend to wake up early and do stuff; PJ stays up late and sleeps in till noon. Given that I had hours to kill, I started taping and watching dire chick movies -- the sort involving teenage pregnancy, eating disorders, drug abuse, accidental prostitution. You know, the ones with Tori Spelling or former Charlie's Angels. Complete brain candy, and just as addictive and decay-inducing as the real thing. Eventually, I found my Saturday morning yoga class and decided to stretch my body rather than stunt my mind. But earlier this week, I came across the movie title generator site. Now, when I'm feeling down, I can create my own appalling flicks -- such as the title of this post (it's all about scurvy).


Equally riveting is the geospatial mashup -- a term I learnt this week when doing some research for PJ. You can use it to map reported crimes in Chicago, selecting by street, route, or even crime type. So, if I want to see what types of homicides took place in January and where, I just tap it in -- and bingo, details about whether they took place in apartments, at street level, whether vehicles were involved! Other than one highly expensive and under-whelming visit to the Windy City in 1990, I know little about Chicago, but this is still a disturbingly engrossing site and probably where the CSI peeps get their script ideas from. I just wish they had one for the UK, although it would probably show Hackney as the most crime-ridden district and I'd therefore worry for my sister's and Clive/Pippa's safety. While also feeling smug, of course, about moving to an area where the already-low crime rate is still falling. Hah.

Anyway, if you're bored -- check them out.

Friday, February 16, 2007


We've sold our apartment. Actually, we got the offer two weeks ago, signed the preliminary contract at the notary's last week, and confirmed the completion date this week -- but I didn't want to write anything about it for fear of jinxing it. Yes, I'm that superstitious.

Now that we've reached this point, I don't know how to feel. Happy that we won't be losing a bundle on this place? Sad because it's a great apartment, and we'll certainly never find anywhere like it again? Excited at the prospect of finding a new place in the UK to buy and do up? Overwhelmed at the thought of all the stuff that we need to do before we move -- such as getting through our extensive alcohol collection? All of these things, but mainly just a wee bit deflated. We've been talking about this move for the past two years, but now it's real.

Oh well, it's always best to leave a party when you're still enjoying yourself, rather than hanging on to the bitter end and heading home when the sun's coming up and I have no idea where this is analogy is going. Time to stop. Now.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Norwich 3: Blackpool 2

Norwich's glorious last-minute FA Cup victory over Blackpool has earned the Canaries a match with Chelsea. Oh ... goody. Clive and I already have a tenner each riding on the outcome. Meanie that he is, he wouldn't agree to pay me 10 quid if Chelsea won, the only safe bet of this round. Pessimistic, moi?

CSI: Amsterdam

A glorious morning so we decide to cycle through the Vondelpark. But what's this? Our usual route through is blocked off by police tape, and an ambulance and four police cars are parked close to a small bridge. After cycling along a muddy path and across a sandy field, I get the chance to look over my shoulder at all the fuss. A body is hanging from the bridge, backlit by the rays of early morning sun. That explains the police presence. I hope they're checking the rope for epithelials.

It's hard to understand why someone would top themselves on such a beautiful morning, but as Bill said when I told him about it, the person had probably put this in his agenda weeks ago -- and if the Dutch make an appointment in their agenda, you can count on them keeping it. How sad (the hanging, not the Dutch fastidiousness around diaries).

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Miss Katie strikes again

Not only is Miss Katie featured on various blogs that I read, but she is also creating the burlesque outfits to be worn by the "hostesses" at The Brit Awards tonight. Today's Hello Magazine features a photoshoot with two girls wearing her corsets alongside Russell Brand, foul-mouthed "comedian" and host of The Brits. Not only that, but she gets to attend the awards show and the after parties, something that's completely wasted on my celebrity-blind sibling. (Seriously, she worked on a Christian Dior show and didn't recognize John Galliano when he came over to speak to her!) Three cheers for Miss Katie!

Valentine's Day

While many in the blogosphere see Valentine's Day as an opportunity for a very loud "Bah Humbug!," I'd like to take the chance to celebrate -- but not the grand romantic gestures, the roses, the teddybears holding balloons. No, for me, it's all about the small moments in a relationship. The cup of tea that my father has made every morning for my mother for the past 40 years. My sister getting up at 4 am to drive her fiance up to Nottingham because he'd hurt his ankle -- despite her never having driven on a motorway before. It's for every couple that says please and thank you to their partner, even if -- especially if -- they're alone.

For me, it's the phone call. Those of you with partners who travel a lot on business will know what I mean, but for the rest, let me explain. It's the phone call PJ makes every time he gets off a flight to let me know he's arrived safely. It might be a call after a short trip to London or an SMS at 2 am when he's arrived in LA. It doesn't matter: I need that call before I can continue with my day or get to sleep. In fact, it's such an instinct for him know that I can see him reaching for his phone even when I'm traveling with him. And if that's not worthy of celebration, I don't know what is.

Monday, February 12, 2007

I fought the law

Well, not really. These little mice are actually mini LED lights from HEMA, extremely handy for fixing onto handlebars with their little elastic "tails." They are beautifully designed, extremely powerful, and comply with the new need to have lights fixed to your bike, not to a jacket or bag.

And, they were very cheap. Hurrah for HEMA!

Healthy food

After the gourmet delights of fishfinger pie, we opted for something a little healthier last night: Chinese noodle salad. This is a recipe I've made many times before, but it is just SO good. Regardless of the time of year, the vegetables you have to hand, or the protein that tops it, it brings a burst of color to the table and fresh crunchiness to the palate.

This time, I used deep-fried tofu, coated in a batter of egg white and cornstarch. Finger-lickin' good!

We sat on the floor in front of the TV, taking it in turns to dig into the bowl, while watching Top Gear's American Special, the funniest (and yet scariest) hour of TV so far this year. And it will take a lot to beat. Watch the repeat on Wednesday night at 8 (CET) on BBC 2. You won't regret it.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Houston, we have a problem

I've made pastry cases many times, and I've never seen one blow up like the boil in How To Get Ahead In Advertising.

Let's take a closer look.

The worst of it is that this is destined to be a quiche. So I can't just create a bloody great hole in the middle and hope that it deflates; if I do that, all the egg mixture will leak out of the bottom and burn onto the dish. But if I leave it as is, the pastry will set in its mountainous form, and the egg mixture will merely pool around the bottom of it, moat-like.

Decisions, decisions . . .

White trash dinner

Last night saw the destruction of my culinary reputation. The cause? Fishfinger pie. First, lightly grill frozen fishfingers, top with baked beans and place in the oven to heat through; pile this high with [whisper] instant mashed potatoes, cover in cheese, and put it back under the grill to brown.

It was fantastic. And we ate every last scrap of it.

Graag gedaan

A domestic Sunday. Pouring rain this morning thwarted my attempt to go for a run, itself the result of my thwarted attempt to go to yoga yesterday -- the lock on the studio door was broken and wouldn't open. Given the climatic setback, I decided to do my own yoga session at home while my sourdough rye bread was baking. The sloping floor, so off-putting to our many viewers, does make some of the standing postures a little awkward; well, that's my excuse for not being able to do The Tree. The bread was great, by the way, despite it's failure to rise as much as I'd hoped. It's very tangy, showing that my repeated efforts to kill off the starter have come to naught. I think I'm going to need to find a good home for it over here. Trying to get it past security and onto a plane back to the UK will prove near impossible. I can't imagine putting 100 ml of scenty, beige starter into a ziplock plastic bag and convincing airport authorities that it's not some form of biochemical weapon -- which it is, but in a good way.

The rain eventually stopped, exhausted no doubt after falling continuously for 16 hours. Off to Super de Boer for supplies, then I left PJ to mule those home while I set out for a walk. Along the Herenstraat, across the Nieuwzijds Voorburgwal, and onto the shopping hell hole that is the Nieuwendijk. After quick trips to Kruidvat and HEMA, I made my way against the tide of unwashed humanity back up the Nieuwendijk, along the continuation of the Nieuwendijk by the Haringpakersbrug, aka Sodom & Gomorrah -- past lots of "smart" shops, dodgy tourist stores offering glass bongs and dildos (and probably bong-shaped dildos), and gloomy coffee shops. On to the Harlemmerstraat, where the aforementioned coffee shops have been displaced by upmarket oil and vinegar shops -- hurrah! And then back home, stopping to admire the view from the Pastoorsbrug at the top of the Keizersgracht. I'm going to miss this view.

At home, PJ was looking very pleased with himself. He'd managed to detach the door of the electricty meter cupboard downstairs; we did have a key for the lock, once, but haven't used it since we moved in and have no idea where it is now. Well, we now have a lock that we can take to a locksmith and get a key for -- and we can (ideally) get some money back from NUON for overpaying on electricity for the past five years. We watched some TV spots for Hot Fuzz, ate some of Jo's lovely cake, I made pastry for a quiche for tomorrow evening, and PJ continued to wrestle with DragonQuest 8 on the PS3. All in all, a relaxing day.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Who can I sue?

I have a cold. This is not man flu or even Clive's variation of the aforementioned virus, complete with Jimi Hendrix hallucinations and panoply of over-the-counter medications. Nope, I woke up with a sore throat, fuzzy head, and have now started sneezing, so it's just a cold. And I can't even blame Holly as the plague carrier in this instance, as she's not at school yet and thus not acting as a conduit for germs. I will have to search harder for the source of my misery. But you can keep your Vick's nasal sprays: I have my snuggle hoody and a new pair of snuggle socks to make me feel better.

Save the Schinkelkade trees!

The local council has started cutting down trees on the Schinkelkade near work, denuding the canal and making the street look very empty and harsh. I hope that this is because the trees were damaging the sides of the canal wall and not, as I suspect, to make more parking spaces for cars.

Overcoming your fears

It's not very inspiring when you tell your colleagues that you're babysitting a friend's child that evening and they fall about laughing, clutching their sides as they ask if your friend is clinically insane. Doesn't do much for the old self-confidence. And I was nervous enough as it was, having never babysat before. Yep, 35 years old and this is the first time I've spent an evening alone with a child. While I thought about drafting in reinforcements in the form of more experienced child wranglers, I eventually decided that I needed to do this alone. Jo had asked, she clearly believed that I was capable of not breaking her child, and she's an excellent friend: It had to be done.

Besides, how difficult could it be? I wouldn't be feeding or (please God) changing her; she hasn't yet figured out the Internet, so I wouldn't have to stop her from accessing dodgy Web sites; and she can't crawl yet, which means that my Hollywood-movie-induced fear that I would turn my back for just a few seconds to answer the phone/pour a stiff drink and Holly would start crawling along a 60-foot-high crane would largely be unfounded. Although, I did do a quick reccy of the area for cranes, just in case. You can't trust kids.

Off then to Alan and Jo's for an evening of 5Net and baby. Holly behaved herself through Judging Amy, largely I think because she was being fed by her mum at that point. During Extreme Home Makeover: Blind Man Edition, she seemed fine kicking around on her mat, not as upset as I was by Ty Pennington's over-emotional demeanour and general shoutiness. (It was very moving though.)

However, when Medium started, Holly got upset. Now, I've always believed that Patricia Arquette's scary hair and Lithium-inspired acting were enough to make small children cry, but I never thought I'd see it in practice! But Holly was grisling and writhing as if in agony and generally carrying on. Panic!

I turned the TV off, tried shaking various rattles and toys in Holly's face, but eventually gave in and picked her up. As nothing snapped, I tried holding her up against my shoulder, patting her on the back (wind, perhaps?), and she stopped crying. Success! I put her back down on the mat. The crying started again. I picked her up again, carried her around, and then she burped loudly (and wetly) against my shoulder. After a few minutes of rocking, she dozed off. Back down onto the mat she went, I ran downstairs to get some Coke and a Jamie Oliver cookbook to read, and sprinted back upstairs to make sure she hadn't died in her sleep. I'd read a recipe, check for breathing, read another recipe ... it was exhausting!

PJ arrived, en route from Copenhagen. When Holly woke up and started crying again, he told me to ignore her -- that this was just attention-seeking behaviour and that I shouldn't reward it. He's HARSH! (And also just a little bit concerned that 2 hours with a baby would uncover my deeply buried maternal instincts.*) My ability to tolerate crying ranks well below my fear of spoiling a child, so I repeated the holding/burping/rocking sequence with some success. She was still mildly whingy when Alan and Jo returned, but not so much that they needed to call Child Services. To my delight and considerable relief, Holly continued to cry on and off once her parents were holding her -- it wasn't me! We finished off the evening with slices of Holly's christening cake, Jo presented me with a gorgeous chocolate and pear cake as payment for services rendered, and PJ and I walked home through the chilly Amsterdam night.

Needless to say, I slept like a (good) baby last night.

*No worries on that score. My ovaries shrivelled further with every cry. I have total admiration for parents, but I couldn't do this 24x7.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Truthiness in a waffle cone

If they make this, I will fly to the US, buy it, and eat it.

Frosty the Snow-Dumpling

The much-heralded snow arrived at lunchtime. In fact, it had been so heralded that the rail service starting delaying trains before it arrived -- now that's customer service! Just don't tell any of the incompentent private companies that make up British Rail; they'd love to do that.

Considerably heavier than the light shower we had earlier in the week, the snow started coming down thick and fast at about midday, about the time we'd planned to cycle over to WTC for lunch at Wagamama's, followed by an appointment in one of the buildings there. We held off on lunch, trying to convince ourselves with eternal British optimism that it was brightening up, but at 1.30 we had no choice but to head out into the snow. Ignoring the BBC's advice to take a spade (although a flask of hot tea would have been fantastic), we pedalled slowly over to WTC -- a journey that normally takes 10 minutes, but today took 25. This was, it must be said, also to do with the fact that the road we needed to turn onto was closed off by building works, so we had to do a huge loop around the complex -- no fun in driving snow and on slippery bike paths. However, we arrived safely, to be greeted somewhat incredulously. "You cycled in this weather!?!" Yep, foolhardy and proud of it.

After the meeting, PJ slyly slipped off to Schiphol in a taxi to wait out the inevitable delays on his flight to Copenhagen. I had to cycle the 10km back home, the snow now replaced with heavy, horizontal sleet, which stung my face and made it tricky to see where I was going. Please keep your fingers crossed that it doesn't freeze tonight; slush is bad, but ice is worse.

The situationalists strike back

Cycling through the Vondelpark this morning, we saw a couple of green plastic chairs -- expensive ones -- in the middle of the path. Unsurprisingly, a thrifty Dutch woman was standing by them, clearly trying to figure out how she could carry them on her bike. Free chairs are too good an opportunity to pass up! Cycling on, we saw several more chairs, only this time they were positioned in the middle of a field and had a table. "Bet you it's wacky art school students," said PJ. "Bet you they got a hefty grant from the government to do it," I replied. We then went on our way, chortling to ourselves about the lunacy of a tax-and-spend-on-layabout government that lavishes money on public art installations. And then, as Thatcher's children, felt rather envious and just a little bit sad.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Pimpin' Miss Katie

While it's lovely to be quoted, it's even more exciting to see your sister's creations pop up in a bloglines feed that you subscribe to. Check it out!

Zesty lemon bars

After two weeks of room service, conference carbs, and some admittedly excellent restaurant meals, it's good to get back to home cooking. Well, sort of. My cooking muscle has somewhat atrophied during our time away, resulting in Thai take-out the night we got back, faux spag bol the following evening, and me begging PJ to make his lovely veggie stew yesterday. Given that he is incapable of cooking less than a vat of this wonderful stuff, we have leftovers for dinner this evening -- to be eaten with mini roast potatoes and roast broccoli while watching Top Gear. Perfect.

However, I need to get back into the kitchen, and what better way than to try out a new piece of equipment. Yes, we might be moving soon and yes, that means that every new purchase comes with an additional 50 euro moving cost, but I couldn't resist this when I visited mecca -- Crate & Barrel.

For the uninitiated -- i.e., English and Dutch -- among you, this is a pastry blender. I've read about this implement for years in my US baking books but have never known what one looked like. So when I saw this on offer for 9 bucks, I knew I had to have it, along with a very cute lemon juicer. What I needed next was a recipe that would allow me to use both, preferably for something cookie-like. Consulting my trusty array of US cookbooks, I came across a recipe for Zesty Lemon Bars in the San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook. Not only did they need lots of lemon juice, but they also required you to cut butter into flour and icing sugar to make the crust. Bingo!

This is a pretty nifty tool; it made short work of the butter, and I won't be picking up bits of pastry from under my fingernails for the next few days. I think we have a winner.

And this is how it all turned out: not quite lemony enough for my tastes, despite doubling the amount of lemon juice and zest in the recipe, but then I do like things to be sour to the point of tear-inducing. However, they are a very definite burst of sunshine on a grey day and the crust is fantastic.


Not really, although according to the UK weather forecasts, this is what a blizzard looks like.

Two inches of snow -- enough to cause TRAFFIC CHAOS! across the UK and prompt warnings to take a flask of tea, a blanket, and a spade with you on long journeys, presumably to dig yourself out of those deadly two-inch snowdrifts. I think the rest of Europe must snigger at us behind our backs.

The observant ones among you will notice that this isn't, in fact, the UK; it's the view from my window at work. I'm going to miss it.


While in Boston last week, I got to attend some cultural sensitivity training. Oh, they called it something like Managing Virtual Teams In A Global World (or words to that effect), but it was really an attempt to educate us all about how different we are -- Americans versus Europeans, Dutch versus English, etc. -- and why can't we all just get along! (I'm hoping that I wasn't selected for this training because some of my colleagues had read this blog and decided that I was overly insensitive to other cultures, but that's always a possibility.) Anyway, it was all very interesting and enlightening but it failed to address a key cultural difference: Toilets.

I'm always surprised on my trips to the US by how different their toilets -- or rather, toilet stalls -- are. Be it in the office, the "restrooms" at Barnes & Noble in the mall, or in the executive lounge at Logan (shameless name drop, I know), the walls of each stall don't extend all the way to the floor. In fact, there's a good foot of space between the ground and the bottom of the wall, allowing you to identify the inhabitant by their shoes, trousers -- hell, if you're a US starlet, by your "va-jay-jay"(as I believe the kids are now calling it). This is highly unsettling. In the Netherlands, the toilet walls extend to the floor; you could kill someone in our office toilets and fellow occupants of the bathroom would be none the wiser. In the UK, there's a gap of just a couple of inches -- enough to allow the air to circulate in case you got trapped, but not much more. In Japan, you have the option of using white-noise generators to avoid embarrassment. But none of this in the US. Their stalls are far more like the ones you get in UK schools, which allow rampant bullying and the extraction of teenage girls who've just given birth unexpectedly in them during afternoon break.

I'm not the only one who noticed this, in case you think I'm weird. My Finnish colleague Kaisa -- owner of the delightful Tommy and kittens from June last year -- also raised this when telling me about her nasty bout of stomach flu. Most distressing. Thank goodness we're back with more civilized stalls.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Insert your own punchline

Emailing with Imogen yesterday about our plans to move to Winchester, she said that she liked it because it felt very "Norwich-y". I agreed, but was about to add that it lacked a decent football team -- and then stopped.

You can do the rest.

Note to self

Don't put a metal necklace on before drying your hair. Heated metal burns -- not a good look.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Happy Birthday!

Many happy returns to the beautiful and talented Miss Katie. Hope you're having fun this evening!

Splish splash

Off to the pool this morning, jet-lag be damned, only to find that I wasn't the only one in there. Outrage! The large man with glasses who is usually the only other swimmer in the pool at 8 a.m. also looked shocked. Seven people in the pool at 8.05 -- what is the world coming to? One woman braved the "fast" lane, upsetting the lone male swimmer who had been paddling up and down holding on to a float. As soon as she arrived though, he cast the float aside and started swimming lengths furiously, in his flashiest, splashiest crawl. And not just crawl: He also started on the lane-hogging butterfly, clearly determined to see off this upstart. No such luck. Mevrouw kept swimming along quietly, unruffled by the display of testosterone.

If I'd got beyond 16+ biology, I'm sure I'd have something amusing to compare this to, but I didn't, so I don't. It was just funny.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Norwich 2: Leeds 1

Yes! After a dismal run -- far too depressing to report here -- we're back in business (please permit me some hyperbole in my excitement)! And without Earnshaw, to boot. Mid-table obscurity will be ours!

The return of airplane movies

Another excellent choice of films on the Boston-London flight. Amusingly, they had to announce that Flags of our Fathers had been replaced by Jackass II -- it would have been far more entertaining if they hadn't announced this and allowed the cries of horror from those expecting serious WW2 drama but getting Johnny Knoxville's testicles to resonate around the cabin. (I take a moment to ponder whether those who fought for the Allies in WW2 now watch the antics of Steve O and Knoxville and believe it was all worth it?)

Despite the high recommendations that Jackass II received from two of my colleagues, I opted for Clerks II and Marie Antoinette. The former was funny (but not as funny as Clerks), surprisingly sweet, and did nothing to upset my love for Jeff Anderson as Randall. Marie Antoinette was the perfect movie to watch on a plane when you're starting to get tired but recognizing that you only have 3 hours to go before you land, so there's no point in trying to get any sleep. It's all about atmosphere, emotion, gorgeous cinematography, and very little dialogue. Kirsten Dunst, an under-appreciated movie actress, was excellent and provided a hugely sympathetic portrayal of one of France's most-loathed historical figures -- no wonder it got booed at Cannes. Worth a second viewing in a quieter environment and on a larger screen.

In praise of the electric kettle

And, we're back in Amsterdam again. What a relief! There's a part of me that believes that I'll never actually come home from one of these trips (which can make traveling with me somewhat stressful) OR that when we get home, the apartment will have burnt down. Luckily, the latter was not an option this time, given the frequent visits by our makelaar; I just wished we'd asked her to buy us some milk so that we could have had a cup of tea when we got in, instead of having to brave the "delights" of Albert Heijn at 7 pm on a Saturday evening.

In fact, the worst part of the trip home was the layover at Heathrow for 3 hours. I love flying with Virgin, don't get me wrong, but from the point that we touch down at Heathrow until we touch down at Schiphol, I wish we'd flown KLM/Northwestern direct to Amsterdam. I was so tired yesterday that I walked into the men's toilets in the BMI lounge and stood, staring bemusedly at the urinals, trying to work out how women would use them, before realizing I was in the wrong place.

It is lovely to be back in an air-conditioning-free zone, though. I woke up this morning not looking like the Bride of Frankenstein, for once, and I've yet to receive an electric shock off our carpet. I have clean socks and underwear, and -- best of all -- an electric kettle! In fact, an electric kettle would be my desert island "luxury" item (complete with generator, teabags, and milk, of course). I don't understand how people survive without them: Kettles on a gas hob take far too long to boil, and you can't make hot Ribena using a coffee machine. Even the crappiest hotel room is significantly improved by the presence of a kettle and tea set.

After living outside the UK for seven of the past 10 years, it turns out that you can take the Dumpling out of Britain, but you can't take Britain out of the Dumpling. Or something. I'm still tired.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Woke up this mornin'

In fact, to get all passive voice about this, I was woken up this morning by the world's noisiest plumbing. There was a great moaning and clanking and humming at about 6.45. Mindful that I had missed Boston's last full-scale (and apparently inter-generational) terror alert on Wednesday, I got up to investigate -- but this was no cartoon advertising stunt, merely someone in the room next door having a shower. Clearly, the Boston Sheraton can add paper-thin walls and booming pipes to its staticky carpet collection, making it an attractive holiday destination ... for masochists.

New $9 shoes

Yes, you heard me. These lovely brogue-esque, T-bar, 3-inch heels cost just NINE DOLLARS!

I popped out of the conference at the Boston Sheraton at lunch time to take advantage of the Ann Taylor Loft sale, and dropped $136 on clothes (ssh, don't tell Customs!). The shoes were marked as $29.99, rang up as $14.99, and had an additional 40% taken off -- coming in at $8.93 or four pounds and fifty-four pence!!! I realize I'm revealing the full "depths" of my shallowness, but this has made me very happy.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Static Cling Death Part Deux

This, THIS is the carpet that's been causing me so many problems this week. That's not counting the blindness induced by the pattern and colours, of course. Who would design (or choose) a carpet like this?