Friday, March 30, 2007

Housewife's choice

There are things I'm looking forward to when we move back. Even though the house we're renting has probably less square footage than our canal-side pad, we will have more rooms. Let me explain. Our current apartment has a huge living room/dining room/kitchen, a bedroom, an entrance hall that we converted into a video-game room, and a bathroom. Which means that when PJ is on the phone to the West Coast for 2 hours on a Friday evening (as he is right now), I have to cook really really quietly. Which is difficult, cos the lentil/tomato sauce keeps bubbling up and dripping water onto the hot ring. It also means I can't watch telly, although given it's just scary Patricia Arquette and her haircut of misery, that's no bad thing.

So, having a separate kitchen, living room, and home office will be lovely. As will have a second bedroom for people to stay in when they come to vist, rather than having them sleep in the front room and then having to tiptoe past them to make a cup of tea in the morning. I don't need to see my guests in a state of undress at 7.30 a.m. -- and they certainly don't need to see me before my first cup of tea of the day.

I'm also looking forward to having a "garden" -- okay, a postage-stamp-sized yard. I have a recurring fantasy of stopping work each day at 10.30 to sit outside and have a cigarette and a cup of coffee -- a bizarre fantasy given that I don't now and never have smoked. (I think it's a throwback to those 50s movies I grew up watching, when smoking looked so glamourous and healthy, something ladies did while chatting about which of their neighbours was having an affair and worrying about their daughter hanging out with the bad boy in town.) Sadly, that Doris Day-style fantasy is not the only reason I'm keen to have some outdoor space. I'm also keen to be able to put rubbish outside, rather than having to keep it in the apartment until bin day. It's rather restricting, diet-wise: We only have fish on Wednesdays or Sundays -- the days before bin day -- as otherwise the flat stinks to high heaven. But we will have outdoor bins and room for a wormery and tubs of fresh herbs and a teeny-tiny table and chairs! I will be able to leave little bits of fish out to tempt cats into the yard, thus not really violating the terms of our rental agreement.

And, finally, I'll have an airing cupboard. A real-life cupboard in the bathroom with the boiler in it and shelves for towels and sheets and duvet covers. As an avid reader of Martha Stewart's Web site and someone who can be distracted for hours by the laundry gadgets in the Lakeland catalogue, this is very appealing. The kitchen also has a tiny pantry -- not quite the walk-in chamber of my dreams, but still -- a pantry!

I am hideously domesticated. What a shame I've never wanted to have kids: I'd make a great stay-at-home mom/housewife.

The past six years, summarized

And far better than I could possibly manage.


Thursday, March 29, 2007

Boiled potatoes with saffron and mint

I have had a sudden burst of enthusiasm for cooking. Maybe it's the warmer, lighter days, or perhaps it's just the prospect of finally getting the oven fixed, but I feel inspired. Tonight's meal was also Mediterranean, but moving west from Greece to Spain. I used up the courgettes and feta from last night in a rather decent tortilla, chopped up the remaining tomatoes and cucumber for an almost salsa-esque salad, and made these saffron potatoes.

I think I've written before about my love for Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries. One recipe has been a particular standout -- red mullet baked in olive oil, vermouth, saffron, and mint. I decided to adapt this combo for potatoes. From Albert Heijn I bought some organic, kruimig potatoes and some fresh mint. I peeled the potatoes, cut them into chunks, and boiled them gently for about 15 minutes with a good pinch of saffron. After I drained them, I stirred in a hefty tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil, a splash of Noilly Prat, and a handful of chopped mint. I tossed this together gently, left it in the pan on the cooling ring until the tortilla was done, and then turned the yellowy, fragrant cubes into a bowl. A little more mint and a sprinkling of rock salt just to finish them off.

I guess it is somewhat extravagant to use the most expensive spice in the world for mere potatoes, but the results were excellent -- and I do have to empty my cupboards before the move. I won't be losing this recipe though.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Next stop, deep-fried Mars Bars

Fried food is the best -- not for your arteries, but certainly for the taste buds. Dinner tonight was Greek-inspired, including a big salad, pita breads, tzatziki, and these fried courgettes and chickpea fritters. Fried courgettes are really easy: Slice courgettes quite thinly, put in a bowl, pour over some milk, toss the courgettes, then toss the slices into another bowl containing a mix of fine cornmeal, salt/pepper, and dried herbs. Fry in hot oil until crispy on both sides. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with rock salt.

The chickpea fritter recipe is from my Mediterranean Street Food cookbook, beloved provider of the excellent Moroccan flatbread recipe. It's also extremely simple (and vegan), although stirring the chickpea paste is exhausting work.

Put 2 cups of chickpea flour in a saucepan and slowly add 3 cups of cold water, beating well with a whisk to get a smooth mixture. Season, and then place over a medium heat and cook for about 10-15 minutes, stirring constantly. The paste gets really thick really quickly and your arm will start to ache after a couple of minutes, so see if you can rope someone else in to help out.

After 10 minutes, take the mixture off the heat, stir in some oregano and a couple of tablespoons of olive oil -- or some finely chopped parsley -- and quickly pour out onto an oiled plate (I covered mine with cling film first). Working quickly, spread the mixture out to about 1/2 inch thick and leave to set. It sets firm really quickly, so don't tip it out and then answer the phone or have a cup of tea. At this point, you can leave it in the fridge overnight and it's fine.

Cut the paste into shapes, or sticks, or cubes. Heat up some olive oil in a pan. (The recipe says enough for deep-frying, but I just had about 1/4 inch in the bottom of a large frying pan and that was fine.) You want it to be hot enough to sizzle when you put your first fritter in. Add the paste shapes and fry on both sides until they're crispy and golden-brown -- about 4 minutes in total if your oil is hot enough. Scoop out, drain on paper towels, and then sprinkle with salt. And don't forget to turn the heat off under the oil.

This quantity will make a lot of fritters; I managed to quarter it by mistake, but there were still plenty for two hungry beasts.

(Vondel) Park life

Two weeks to go, and the weather is now glorious. I'm not sure I want this. It's easier to feel confident about your choices when you're battling the elements to get to work, less so when you're cycling in the sunshine through the Vondelpark. In order to capture the good times, I've been stopping to take snaps of the park, juddering to a halt (my brake cables seem to have stopped working) when a view takes my fancy. Such as those below.

What me? Emotional? No! I've just got some dirt trapped under my lens. Better go and rinse it out before anyone sees.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

O-day: April 4

As expected, Whirlpool failed to call me yesterday. I phoned them yet again this morning, and once again explained the situation. It's now a bit like my father's ability to read Harry the Dirty Dog off by heart to us when we were kids and demanding a bedtime story;* I know the dates, the promises, the missed appointments and can recite them rote. Anyway, the lady on the other end said that it looked like the engineer had the spare part and would come round on April 4, but that she'd check with a colleague and call me to confirm. Which she did. As did another colleague, 10 minutes later. So I don't know whether I've got two appointments or just one, but I don't care. My oven MIGHT get fixed less than a week before we move out.

Keep your fingers crossed for me.

* Harry was a white dog with black spots who liked everything, except having a bath. So one day, when he heard the water running in the tub, he picked up the scrubbing brush and he buried it in the back garden ...

I went, I bled, I rinsed

Phew! Thank goodness the dental hygienist is over -- for another 3 years (okay, 6 months). I think the panicked flossing and toothpick use of the past few weeks did what it was supposed to; the pain was not nearly as bad as I remembered. Either that, or 400 mg of ibuprofen before I went in numbed me to the worst of it. My jaw definitely aches, but I can feel individual teeth at the bottom -- nice. I celebrated with a handful of mini Dime Bars (soft on the outside, crunchy on the inside!). I can feel the tartar and plaque building up again as I type. Mmm, mini Dime Bars.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Mike Todman is dead to me

No response from Mike Todman, President of Whirlpool International.* He is clearly ignoring my email. Well, he's off my Christmas card list, oh yes! Perhaps I could send him a rusting oven tray as a threat ...

*I'm hoping he Google's his name each morning and will thus find my bitter little rants against him. Book smarts, you see!

Backstroke, Cloggie style

In the pool this morning, doing my usual 40 lengths: 2 of my breaststroke, 4 of backstroke, repeat 6 times, finish up with 2 of backstroke, 2 of breastroke. Out, shower, dress, off to work. There are a couple of regulars, who I'm now on nodding terms with -- and one old chap who even warrants the occasional good morning. I've always been slightly puzzled by his swimming style. He wears his glasses in the pool, so I understand the hesitant, head-above-water breastroke, but his backstroke is just weird. Normally, you lie flat on your back, kick your legs, and rotate your arms over your head, one at a time. Result? You power through the water (and yet you're on your back, so it's not like real exercise!). Not him. He lies on his back, knees down trailing in the water, and limply flails his arms at the same time partially over his head. Result? Extremely slow progress. I presumed it was just his thing, maybe the result of a medical condition or a lack of confidence in the water. However, this morning a middle-aged woman (i.e., older than me) was in the pool, slowly making her way up the lane in exactly the same way. Is this how the Dutch are taught how to do backstroke? You'd think with all the water around here that they'd need to learn how to swim properly, rather than aimlessly paddling along on their backs.


My Whirlpool nightmare continues

I just called Whirlpool. Again. On my first call, they cut me off as one of their call center staff picks up the phone. I take a deep breath. And call again. And get through.

"Shall I give you my customer number?"
"No. Our computer system is down and we can't look up at any information."

The woman did take all my details and did seem to understand that this was urgent. She might also have detected the note of hysteria in my voice as I outlined the problem. She promised that someone would call me back today.

I'm not holding my breath.

I sent an extremely stroppy email to the president of Whirlpool International -- one Mike Todman -- last night, complaining about the inefficiency of his Dutch operation. Not that there was an email address or even list of board members on the Whirlpool site; you can only get a number for customer "service" or press. But I figured that might work, and nothing has bounced back so far. Of course, it's highly likely that Whirlpool's global computer system has ground to a halt under the weight of so many complaints.

I am only one more phone call away from going down to Breda and taking the customer service center hostage until they get someone to fix my oven. Or setting up a word-of-mouth campaign to blacken the name of Whirlpool globally. I wonder if "Whirlpool are a bunch of" has been taken?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Tolkein's a piece of cake by comparison

After finishing the splendid read that was Symphony, I cast along my now-depleted bookshelves for something else. Luckily, I picked up a couple of books that were looking for a new home at Jessica's house-warming party last week. The one that caught my eye yesterday? "Kristin Lavransdatter" -- a stirring tale of a woman's life in 14th century Norway, by the Nobel Prize-winning* novelist Sigrid Undset. It sounds like a rip-roaring read. Let's check out the first page:

When the lands and goods of Ivar Gjesling the younger, of Sundbu, were divided after his death in 1306, his lands in Sil of Gudbrandsdal fell to his daughter Ragnfrid and husband Lavrans Bjorgulfson. Up to then, they had lived on Lavrans' manor of Skog at Follo, near Oslo; but now they moved up to Jorundgaard at the top of the open lands of Sil. Lavrans was of the stock that was known in this country as the Lagmandssons. It had come here from Sweden with that Laurentius, Lagmand of East Gothland, who took the Belbo Jarl's sister, the Lady Bengta, out of Vreta convent, and carried her off to Norway...

Blimey! There are two endnotes in that first paragraph, one of which is three pages long, outlines the typical setup of a Norwegian manor house in the 14th century, the development of masonry chimneys, and has diagrams! It's not what you'd call a gripping opening. However, I've started so I'll (attempt to) finish. Let's hope it gets less confusing and less wordy as it goes on.

*Not that winning a Nobel Prize for literature in 1928 means that much. After all, the Nobel committee probably handed these things out to anyone writing in Norwegian -- a bit like all Norwegians are on Olympic teams at some point in their life. What? It's true!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Salmon fish stew -- Brazilian style

PJ wanted fish. PJ likes garlic. I figured that PJ would like this recipe. It's really easy, takes only a few minutes to prepare -- plus marinating and cooking time -- and tastes excellent.

Have a go; you won't regret it.

The great clearout begins

Less than a month to go, so it's time to start binning stuff. This is great for me, painful for PJ. I spent two hours today pulling clothes out from our wardrobes, trying them on, discarding anything with holes, crusty armpits, or ripped seams -- and, of course, anything that didn't fit. It turned out that I had several pairs of jeans that I'd never worn -- which meant I could discard three other pairs. I also apparently like to fantasize that I'm 5'6" -- and keep buying trousers for said 5'6" Dumpling, and then failing to get them hemmed.

I also really like buying shoes, particularly stilettos, despite my inability to walk in them. (This picture does not include the 5 pairs of boots that I also have.) I've always loathed the image of 30-something women being obsessed with shoes and finding a man, as propogated by irritating TV programs like Sex and the City, but it might have a grain of truth in it.

Although PJ is just as obsessed with buying trainers -- and this is after discarding several pairs.

I ended my session feeling lighter in both wardrobe and soul, and with several bags ready to go to our one local charity store. I just hope there's a 5'1" Gap size 6 homeless person out there who'll appreciate all my castoffs.

Keep on running

I've never really enjoyed running. I'm not the right shape for it, for starters. Most "real" runners are tall and lithe and don't have any awkward lumps and bumps that need to be strapped down to avoid injury (you know what I'm talking about). I was reasonably good at cross-country at school, largely because I was just desperate to get back indoors and out of the winds from the Urals that whistled across the Norfolk countryside. From the age of 14 (when I started paying to play squash instead of doing cross-country), I stopped running and didn't take it up again until I moved to Amsterdam. And even then, it's not real running; I'm talking treadmills in a gym, where you can run and watch TV at the same time. I still don't enjoy it, in general, but it's the only form of exercise that really makes a difference. I can stop for a few months, take it up again, and notice within weeks that I'm fitter, firmer, more streamlined. Which is really irritating. Swimming is much more pleasant but doesn't have any where near the impact.

However, yesterday at the gym, I had a great run. 35 minutes, up around 9km per hour (not fast, I know, but I've got little legs), Green Day blasting on the new nano. (American Idiot always takes me back to driving Route 1 in California last year, so I was imagining blue skies, the Pacific Ocean, Big Sur.) I didn't get tangled up in my headphone wires, my towel didn't fall off the machine, and I felt great. After 20 minutes, the endorphins kicked in, and I just wanted to keep going. So I did. Woo-hoo! I'm PUMPED!!!!

I think I overdid it a little. By the time I came to cycle home, my legs were aching. After an hour with a cup of tea and my sudoku puzzles, I could barely move. I crashed out after a hot bath, a Thai takeout, and the first episode of Season Three of Battlestar Galactica. Today, to my surprise, I don't feel too bad. I might even make it to yoga later on. And then I will ache tomorrow.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Car trouble

Oops. Just managed to push a bit of cheese deep into this keyboard with the pen with which I was trying to fish it out. No wonder these things don't work for long!

Ahem, where was I? Oh, cars. Right. We want to buy a car when we head back to jolly old England. Our carbon footprint has been sparkly clean for far too long, and now it's time to zoom around the West Country visiting delightful pubs farmers' markets. What to buy? We have a few, simple criteria.

1. It must be reasonably cool, so that our sophisticated friends from the Smoke don't laugh at us.
2. It must have enough "poke" to "get us out of trouble."
3. It must be cheap (me).
4. It must be red (PJ).

Now, What Car? magazine hasn't been much help in narrowing down the field based on these criteria. Clearly, the Mini is the prettiest car, but there are a couple of problems. It's quite small and PJ isn't. And it's the car of choice for estate agents and ad execs, and do we really want align ourselves with these two minions of Satan? (Sorry, Clive.) After that, the cars all look the same. Three-door/five-door. Golfs versus Peugeots versus Renault. 205, 206, 305, 306. We don't have a clue. Our past cars are a Fiat Uno, Toyota Corolla, and Wolesly Hornet (me) and a Fiat Panda (PJ). Our years of watching Top Gear have taught us only about supercars and the folly of driving through Alabama, not about what car to buy to go to Sainsbury's and Cornwall.


Waiting for UPC

On rereading my previous post, I think I was too kind to UPC. Yes, my designated customer service rep was lovely when I got to speak to her, but I would much rather have carried out my transaction online. Or at least been able to access my online account.

The 10-step login process went a little like this:

1. Go to and enter client login details.
2. OK, user name -- probably ndumpling. It's been years since I logged in.
3. Nope, ndumpling is wrong. Try norfolk dumpling.
4. Wrong again. Hmm, how about Norfolk Dumpling.
5. Damn, I've been thrown out of the system. Because accessing your cable subscription details online is a lot like using an ATM and just as prone to fraud.
6. Go to "Forgotten your client details, muppet?"
7. Enter client number and surname. Ooh! I have this. It's on the online bills they send me once per quarter. Excitedly copy/paste in client number and surname.
8. Client number not recognized. WHAT!?!
9. Try tapping in client number carefully.
10. Still no joy. Give up and phone the call center.

It helped to pass the time. But, as Beckett would have it, the time would have passed anyway.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

More customer service tales of woe

My Whirlpool tales of woe continue. Suffice to say, the planning department never called me back, and when I called today, my unhelpful customer service representative merely said that the engineer had ordered the part on Friday (!), it should take 5 working days to arrive in the Netherlands from Italy -- because apparently FedEx doesn't work the Italy-NL route -- and my obviously unreliable engineer will call me about when he's able to come round. Yeah yeah. I've put a reminder in my diary to phone back on Friday, and I will devote some time to finding out the name and phone number of the head of Whirlpool so that I can shout at him/her.

In contrast, cancelling our UPC service today was almost laughably simple. After wrestling with their IVR system, a very nice lady told me the service would be switched off in one month's time. Nothing about a final bill or cancelling the direct debit, but I'm sure that will all follow naturally. Ahem.

And to prove that it's not just the Netherlands that suffers from complicated bureaucracy, yesterday I had to deal with First Direct banking application forms. PJ and I want to set up a joint account to pay rent and bills from back in the UK. First up, they need my permanent UK address. I don't have one. Then they need proof of my residence at said UK address in the shape of a utility bill or bank statement -- and it has to be an original, not a photocopy. Again, I don't have any of these. We phone the call center and get a good Northern lass who tells us not to worry, to put down PJ's mum's address (his UK permanent address) and to just skip the proof of residence; as PJ is an account-holder with them, it "should" be fine. Again, we'll see. But at least I understood their IVR system.

So, all we have left are the mortgage company, the contents insurance company, the life insurance company, the bank, the water service, the city of Amsterdam, and our Dutch pensions company. Should be easy!

A right old pain in the ... back

The thing about back pain is that it's so damn unpredictable. For example, I can manhandle heavy furniture packs at IKEA, lift weights at the gym, and generally schlep around my laptop, and nothing -- not a twinge. I roll over in bed this morning to get the cup of tea that PJ so thoughtfully made for me and -- BAM! Searing pain down my left shoulder muscle. A warm shower, some stretches, and a liberal (and stinky) application of IcyHot did little to relieve the pain, but a day in the office and several lovely pink ibuprofen tablets took the edge off it. I decided to go to yoga, a little worried and promising to take it easy, and again, all went well. In fact, it helped me get to grips with the concept we've been studying for the past few weeks -- using the support of the organs, rather than the muscles, in the different postures. This is a somewhat abstract, nay esoteric, concept and was difficult to grasp, but being unable to use the big back muscles on my left side this evening forced me to look elsewhere for support. And it worked! No doubt, though, merely sleeping will cause the pain to return. Woe, indeed, is me.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Ramvik, Lakke, and Vika Artur

An excursion to Leiden yesterday; the foolhardiness of an expedition to IKEA today -- we're really making the most of our final few weeks here. Thanks to Bill's expert navigation of the hellish upper floor of IKEA and his willingness to drive us back, laden with goods (not all of which were mini Dime bars), the trip wasn't too bad. Yes, it was hard to understand the new metro ticket machines at Centraal. Yes, we had a minor incident on the metro out to Bullewijk, where the metro appeared to break down at Amstel Station, we got off, and then the doors slammed shut and it headed off again, leaving us to wait on an icy-wind-ridden station for 7 minutes. Yes, IKEA was packed on one of the few Sundays of the year when it was actually open. And yes, it didn't have the plain wood version of the trestle table legs we wanted, forcing us to take the more expensive white option. But, all in all, it was a quick and easy visit. And the hailstorm we encountered on our way home was truly impressive!

We will never take the metro in Amsterdam again. And we will never go to the Amsterdam IKEA again. Sniff ... NOT!

Norwich 1: Stoke 0

Hurrah! A good week for the Canaries, beating third-placed Birmingham midweek and then yesterday's 1-0 vidtory over a reduced strength Stoke. We're on 50 points, are 15th in the table, and should now feel safe from relegation. Next season, I might even get to see them play -- as long as Southampton don't have a spurt and qualify for the playoffs and then move out of reach. Hurrah!

The little oven that could (almost)

Of course, I tried out my electric mini-oven on Friday. I knocked up a batch of rye sourdough bread and put it in to bake. This was a tough test; it should be cooked at 425F for about 25 minutes, and my "real" oven struggles at that heat. One problem with the mini oven became apparent very quickly. To get high temperatures, you need to have both the top and bottom heating elements on; the bottom one alone is not enough. However, the top element is really the grill, so instead of getting consistent high heat, you actually get a glowing red grill -- causing the top of the food to burn before it's cooked. I experimented with baking parchment across the top of the bread, settled for a lower temperature and a longer cooking time, and to my surprise, it worked. The bread rose (or as much as rye bread ever does), it was cooked through, with a fluffy crumb and decent crust. Perhaps longer, slower cooking is the answer for some breads.

However, this is my dream oven.

It belongs to the takeout pizza place I've raved about previously -- somewhere we're very much going to miss when we leave. I cycled past on Thursday night and for once it was empty. Carpe diem! I dashed in, ordered a couple of pizzas, and sat back -- smug in the knowledge that (also for once), it wouldn't take 40 minutes to get two pizzas. And, given that I was the only customer, I risked ridicule and asked if I could take a picture. The two members of staff looked slightly bemused, but agreed. Isn't it lovely?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

No head in the box at the end of this film, unfortunately

Channel-hopping late at night and eating cheese on toast, while PJ is swigging wine from the bottle. (I'm having a cup of tea.) We come across Emma, and I'm torn. I love the film cos Jeremy Northam's in it and is gorgeous, but Emma is played by Gwyneth Paltrow and she's ghastly. Argh!

We keep surfing.

Hello, kitty

Off to Leiden for a house-extension-warming party at Jessica and Maarten's. And what an extension! Two big rooms added on top of the house, giving great views across the rooftops and increasing the size of the house by 50%. I am deeply envious.

As an added bonus, I got to meet Mustapha the cat. PJ was very taken with him too, as unlike most cats of his acquaintance, Mustapha was happy to hang around in the same room -- and could even be persuaded to pose for a picture or two.

Tick tock, tick tock. We'd better buy a house soon. I really NEED a cat.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Must. Not. Go. Shopping. When. Angry

I now have Jude Morgan's latest novel. And a mini electric oven.

Here it is. It's not that much smaller than my non-functioning oven.

One of the things that I like most about PJ is that he doesn't judge me. I told him I'd bought a new oven in a fit of pique, and he just said "Good for you." No questions about where we'd put it or what we'll do with it when the other one's fixed (oh please!). I'm sure his internal voice is asking those other questions, but I can't hear that. Just "Good for you."

Guess what?

I just got a call from Whirlpool. As predicted earlier this week, the engineer can't come to fix my oven today because -- get this -- the spare part isn't actually in his car. So, on Monday, I was told that a different engineer couldn't come to fix my oven because the spare part was in the original engineer's car; now that part has mysteriously disappeared. The planning department will call me either later today or on Monday -- because they don't work on weekends and NEITHER DOES MY OVEN! -- and let me know when someone will fix it.

I honestly don't believe that this will be resolved before we complete on the apartment. I have baked my last loaf of bread in the Netherlands.

Bastards. Never buy anything from Whirlpool.


I'm on the loo, I hear my phone ping. I leap up, rush awkwardly into the living room, pulling up my jeans as I go. I don't want to miss a call from my oven man, who has promised to come today.

It is an SMS offering me a "gratis ringtone". Damn. I don't want a free tune, I want my oven fixed. I want to be able to bake bread and cookies, roast vegetables, and go to the toilet without worrying about phone calls! Is this too much to ask?

Truly, I suffer

I love my new nano -- really, I do. It's shiny and red and incredibly lightweight and sexy, and once I get all my tunes loaded up onto it (rather than the paltry selection on there as an emergency measure) it will be a great gym buddy. Or rather, it would be, if it weren't for the bizarro Nike armband that I use. This was clearly designed by a geek who has never tried exercising. The pretty black and red material stretches across the front of the nano, obscuring the controls and the screen. Yes, the manufacturers have helpfully printed the controls onto the sleeve, but you can't see the screen. So you can't see what's playing. Or if you've accidentally put it on pause. Or if the battery's running low. Or the menu, should you want to change what you're listening to mid-run. To do that, you have to undo the armband, take the nano out of the sleeve, make all the adjustments, put it back in the sleeve, reattach the headphone plug (which will have come out), and fasten the armband up again -- all at 9 km per hour. It's not easy, let me tell you. And, should you want to have the headphone socket at the top of the armband so that the wire doesn't get tangled up around your arm while running, the printed control symbols no longer match the controls on the nano. And it's hard enough to remember which way you need to scroll to turn the sound up and down -- particularly if you're a bear of very little brain like me. Serves me right for buying Nike, I guess.

But I still love it. It's just so very, very pretty! Damn you, Jobs!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

I am sceptical -- and in pain

Whirlpool just called. Apparently, my engineer has finished celebrating the birth of his third child and is returning to work. He will call at my house on Friday and fix my oven. I am not celebrating yet. Chances are he will discover something else wrong with the oven, or will have fathered another child with a different woman in a moment of super-fertility and won't turn up, or the weather will be nice and he will go to the beach. Any of those seem possible, if not plausible (particularly the last one). On the plus side, I no longer fear turning my mobile off, or indeed going to the loo without it. For the past two days, I have lived in a state of perpetual anxiety -- or more so than usual -- terrified that the phone would go off, I wouldn't be there, and I would miss my allotted 30-minute warning for the engineer's imminent arrival. So, a cautious "yay!"

The pain results from my foolhardy attempt to stave off the inevitable dental hygienist lecture by making up for 3 years of not flossing regularly last night. I cleaned, I flossed, I jabbed between my teeth with little wooden sticks, and flossed again. At the end of 30 minutes, my sink was full of blood and littered with dental detritus, and my jaw ached. And it continues to ache. I have taken 500 mg of paracetamol and will now add on 400 mg of ibuprofen in an attempt to overcome this. Work colleagues: please check on me throughout the afternoon to ensure that I haven't collapsed with liver failure.

The Dumpling's secret life with dentists

On rereading my driller-killer post last night, I realised that I hadn't given enough context for my fear and loathing of the dental profession. In the past 35 years, I have had:
  • 9 teeth extracted under general anaesthetic.
  • 3 teeth extracted under local (which involved a needle as long as the dentist's arm being inserted into the roof of my mouth. Nasty.)
  • 2 root canals. Because they thought they'd left a bit of equipment in after the first one.
  • Double-track braces top and bottom for the sensitive 15-18 teenage period.
  • At least 20 fillings. At least.
  • 3 amalgam fillings replaced with white composite ones.
  • 1 wisdom tooth extracted -- actually the least painful experience of all.

Every time I go to the dentist it is a painful and costly experience. If the dental hygienist starts haranguing me on March 27, I shall rise up out of the chair and declaim: "By God woman, thou shalt not lecture me! Modern management techniques suggest that the best way to get results is to offer praise and encouragement, not to berate your staff as if they were naughty 5-year-olds! Or to jab their gums with painful pointy bits of metal! Amend your attitude or I shall leave and never darken your doors again!" -- a threat I am in the perfect position to make, given that I never will darken her doors again. What with the leaving the country and all.

Alternatively, I might just take one of the kickass painkillers that was included in PJ's medical kit -- designed for the patient when performing emergency open-heart surgery in the jungles of Borneo -- and just try to get over the whole ghastly experience with the minimum of fuss. Which do you think is more likely?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Driller killer

I'm determined to make the most of my expensive health insurance while I still have it (for another 3 weeks) -- which meant I had to call my dentist today and arrange a visit to the dental hygienist. I hate the dental hygienist. I've managed to get over my fear of the dentist, thanks to the delightful (and gentle!) Marion and Daphne, but the hygienist still terrifies me. Maybe it's the way she lectures me for not going more frequently, or digs out great gobs of plaque along with chunks of gum, or because she gives me little wooden sticks to jab between me teeth and doesn't appreciate that they tend to snap off in my mouth, leaving me to extract the ends with a pair of pliers. Seriously. I hate the hygienist.

And when I called to make an appointment, the receptionist said that I hadn't been since 2004, which means it's going to be a BIG lecture and lots of pain. But at least it will be free. Heaven forbid that I should have to pay for such torture.

Monday, March 12, 2007

My oven is doomed

Well, that's what it's beginning to feel like. The repairman was due today, but Whirlpool just called to tell me that his wife gave birth last night so he's not working today. Which is understandable, but frustrating. You see, he has the spare parts in his car, so nobody else can fix my oven today. They don't know when he will be back at work -- probably by Wednesday as this is his third child and he presumably doesn't care about it as much as he did the first two -- but they will call to let me know, 30 minutes before he arrives. So, I either go to work on Wednesday and prepare to jump on my bike as soon as I get the call, or I stay at home for the week. Gah. I hate this system!

Oh well, at least I got the vacuuming done. Now I can go to work!

Anissa 1: Gordon 0

The fish was a bust. Maybe it was the (extremely expensive) halibut, which refused to pan-fry nicely but went rubbery on the outside while raw in the middle. Maybe the sauce just wasn't flavorsome enough to counter the blandness of this white fish -- although it tasted pretty good mopped up with some organic brown bread. Maybe I was just too stressed after blanching broccoli, frying fish, and finishing the sauce to truly enjoy it. I can manage two pans at once; three is pushing it -- much more suitable to restaurant cooking than to home. Gordon definitely loses out to Anissa's Moroccan flatbread in this particular culinary battle.

However, I should be fair: the piquant mushroom and vegetable salad was pretty good. It involved a lot of prepand ingredients earlier in the day (see photo below), such as skinning and pureeing tomatoes, and I'm coming to the conclusion that I really hate blanching vegetables, but it tasted good, with lots of bursts of coriander-ness coming through from the whole seeds.

I'm looking forward to having some more of that for lunch -- just one of the many joys of working from home. The others are that I'm able to blog and get the vacuuming done before starting work without feeling guilty. And unload the dishwasher, put a clothes wash on, and do some ironing. Hmm, maybe it's not so good after all.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Moroccan flat bread

The oven man is coming tomorrow, and I can't wait. Lacking an oven for the past month has tried my patience and my bread-making skills. This morning, I decided to rise to the challenge (yet again) and pulled a recipe from my new cookbook, Mediterranean Street Food by Anissa Helou. This Moroccan flat bread's spicy filling appealed and was only slightly messy to make.

The filling
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
3 tbs (40gm) butter, softened
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 tst paprika
1/8 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

Mix all the filling ingredients together, with a pinch of salt (to taste). I roughly chopped the onion and parsley, then put them in my mini-blender with the spices to cut them even finer before blending into the butter. You don't want large chunks of onion as they'll tear the dough.

The dough
1/4 tsp active dry yeast
1 cup plain flour
1/2 tsp salt

Mix the yeast with a pinch of sugar and 1/2 cup water and leave for 5 minutes. It won't go foamy, but that's fine. You just want the yeast to dissolve. Sift the flour and salt together and gradually stir in the yeast water. You probably won't use all of it, but the dough should be slightly wetter than bread dough. Knead for 10 minutes until smooth and pliable. I had to add about another 2 tbs flour during this to stop it sticking to everything.

Grease -- yes, really -- your worksurface and hands. Divide the dough into four pieces and stretch one out into a thin rectangle. Spread one-half with a quarter of the filling, fold over the plain side, and fold again to make a square. Press down with your hands to make it thinner. Helou warns you not to tear the dough, but I found it didn't make a big difference to the final product.

Heat a frying pan and add a little butter. Put one of our parcels in, press down to stretch it out a bit more, then leave to cook for about 3 minutes until golden brown. Flip over and repeat. Keep warm in an oven while you make the rest.

We had ours with fried eggs, a big mug of coffee, and Tottenham versus Chelsea in the FA Cup quarter-finals -- a near-perfect Sunday lunchtime. The breads were yeasty and spicy and worked really well with the runny yolks. No pictures, as I had very buttery hands and was constantly occupied over a hot stove -- and then we ate them really quickly. A veritable hit! For dinner, I'm making a couple of recipes from Gordon Ramsay's Sunday Lunch book -- a piquant mushroom and vegetable salad, followed by sea-bream with broccoli and a sorrel veloute. Only, I'm using halibut and tarragon. We'll see how it turns out.

The Elizabethan sophisticates weren't wrong

I'm reading Samurai William, an account of the first Englishman to visit Japan. It's cracking stuff, full of piracy, sinking ships, warring feudal lords, and blind prejudice. This, in particular, caught my eye:

Even those living on the fringes of the British Isles were deemed primitive by the sophisticates of Elizabethan London. One group was held to be particularly backward -- idolatrous, superstitious, and living in "barbarous ignorance." They were the Welsh.

And after yesterday's defeat on a very poor pitch at Cardiff, I think Canaries supporters everywhere can add a hearty "So say we all!"*

* Yep, I've been watching too much Battlestar Galactica recently.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Cardiff 1: Norwich 0

Damn. Damn damn. Damn damn damn and fraking damn. We have a goal difference of -10, we're 17th, and we had a crucial Huckerby goal ruled offside.

I can't wait for this season to be over.

The old boy done good

Wednesday lunchtime, we receive an email from our selling agent. Our buyer wants to come round that afternoon to measure up the apartment. Is this okay? We had a similar message through a couple of weeks ago, and we made sure the place was spotless -- only for her to bail on the appointment. This time, I desperately cast my mind back over the state of the apartment when I left for work that morning. Not spotless, but not filthy either; she'd just have to put up with the clothes on the floor and the crumbs on the carpet. It's not ideal, but she's given us the runaround plenty of times during the course of this sale, so tough.

Later that day, we discovered that it wasn't actually our buyer who went round; it was her dad and a couple of his mates. The father will most likely be living here most of the time, he wanted to show his chums the place, and apparently they love it! In fact, they love it so much in its current state that our wealthy and design-focused buyer may have a problem doing up the apartment as she'd like. Heh! I'm actually rather comforted by the idea of an old boy moving in here, setting up a table by the French windows in the living room, watching the tourist boats go by on the canal, wandering over whenever a police siren is heard, and amusing himself with the arguments in the street below. We've loved it here, and so will he. There have been yuppies in this here apartment for far too long!

Friday, March 09, 2007

Are the walls optional, too?

"So, what are you up to this weekend, work colleague?"
"I'm installing a floor in my new rental apartment!"

Cue bemused stares and Jon Stewart-esque utterances of "Waaaaaaaah?"

Yep, over here, an unfurnished apartment means you don't get a floor. OK, not a floor so much, but a finished floor. You get the concrete, but are expected to put in the nice wooden floorboards (or cheap laminate equivalent) and then take them with you when you leave -- because obviously you're next apartment will have rooms the exact same size as the last one. And don't even think about getting any appliances included in the rental: washing machines, driers, are all your responsibility. It makes me feel very lucky that we're getting carpets and a fridge in our Winchester property.

Of course, it makes a little more sense in the Dutch housing market. People are more likely to have long-term leases, and if you're planning to stay put for several years, you want your own things around you. I've lived in enough apartments with grimy furniture, saggy beds, and broken dishwashers to appreciate that. But still, you would have thought that a FLOOR was a necessity, rather than a luxury. I will never understand these people.

Norfolk Dumpling [hearts] Martha S.

There are days when you get home from work feeling as if you've been beaten round the head several times with a large bat. Blurred eyesight, general queasiness, perhaps even some light bleeding from the nose. I can tell it's been one of those days when instead of turning right to put the kettle on, I keep going straight -- for the booze.

Yesterday, it was kahlua and milk. You see, it's healthy cos it's got milk in it and it's relaxing cos of the kahlua! Mmm. A tall glass of that, the remainder of the fudge, a hot bath, and my first issue of Martha Stewart Living. I think I'm in love. This magazine has a cookie of the month section! It tells you how to organize your linen closet and make the most of a 2300 square foot basement area -- complete with crafting section! Clearly designed for women (and some men) with too much time and money on their hands, it's perfect. Added bonus: the pictures of Martha's cats looking impossibly cute in afore-mentioned basement. Kitty porn!

I hope I can get a subscription when we're back in the UK.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Norwich 1: Derby 2

Damn. Our run of fine results (okay, two fine results) is broken, as Derby come from behind to take victory. Martin scored again -- it won't be long before he signs for a better team. We are now 17th in the table, 14 points ahead of bottom-placed Leeds. Two more victories should see us safe from relegation, but it is far too close for comfort. C'MON!

It's a good job I don't have to make important decisions every day

6.30 a.m.: PJ announces he is awake, it's not raining, and he's off to the gym.
6.40 a.m.: PJ leaves the house.
6.50 a.m.: Rain starts beating against the bedroom window. Doh!

8.25 a.m.: I stand by the window, trying to guess whether it will rain in the next 25 minutes.
8.26 a.m.: Grey clouds. It probably will. I'm wearing a skirt. Decision time. Do I cycle in wearing the skirt and get wet when it starts raining or do I put my waterproofs on, put my skirt in my bag and change at work? The latter option is the sensible one, but I will attract strange looks from passers-by, given that it's not actually raining.
8.35 a.m.: Still torn. Finally, I decide that I just don't care that much about what strangers think, but I do want to get to work.
8.40 a.m.: Damn. First set of strange looks. I DO care what strangers think.
8.41 a.m.: Is that a patch of blue sky?
8.42 a.m.: Pray for it to rain. Wish strangers would stop giving me odd looks. What's wrong with being prepared? The British Empire was built on this motto!
8.43 a.m.: Hah! It has started raining. I am vindicated! Bet you wish you were wearing your waterproofs now, Cloggies!
8.44 a.m.: That's enough rain to prove a point. Am now feeling cold and damp and miserable.
8.59 a.m.: Arrive at work, soaked. Drip my way into the office and change. In my calendar, mark off another day until I can walk upstairs to work.

The lack of big problems in my life is clearly having a detrimental effect on my decision-making skills.

Monday, March 05, 2007

When I said I hated Apple, I meant the fruit

Huzzah! PJ's back from his week-long stay on the West Coast. And, he bought presents. First up (and most importantly), himself. Second, large quantities of my drug of choice -- celebrity gossip mags. (Sample headline: "Kevin's side of the story: The dark secrets he kept about his ex as he protects their kids -- and fights for reconciliation"). Third, a Nano -- in shiny, charitable red and with all the bells and whistles needed for using it while out running (other than evil Nike shoes, of course). Twice as many songs and hopefully twice as long a battery life as my now-fading Mini. And last, but not least, a Clangers' DVD. Huzzah!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

What's that coming up over the sofa?

Is it a bagpuss? Is it a bagpuss?

Why yes. Yes, it is. And isn't he cute? (Shut up! My cat plans have been put on hold for another year as the stupid UK rental market doesn't generally allow pets. I have to let out my feline urges somehow.)

Fantastic fudge

The oven will be fixed on March 12 -- huzzah! Still no baking for another week -- boo! I've had to find other things into which to divert my culinary frustrations, and today it was fudge.

This is great stuff and incredibly easy. Melt together butter, two types of sugar, and (ahem) condensed milk, bring to the boil, leave to boil for about 10 minutes without stirring, preferably while reading the brand-new cookery book you bought earlier in the day, add vanilla, beat till thick and creamy, pour into tin and try to leave alone until set. To this batch I added caramelized cocoa nibs and large flakes of sea salt. I adore salt with sweet things, and this is just perfect. It's sweet and creamy and slightly crunchy and salty and you couldn't buy anything better.

I handed nearly half the batch over to Alan and Jo for safe-keeping, but have still got enough at home to make me thoroughly sick before tomorrow morning's now-essential gym visit. And then PJ gets back -- huzzah x 2!

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Eat your heart out, Bonnie Tyler

We're talking total eclipse of the moon here. Although, it must be said, it's a little disappointing. Not only is it pretty similar to a cloudy night (of which there are many in the 'Dam), but the tree in front of our building is blocking most of my view of said moon. It reminds me of the time in my childhood when Papa Dumpling woke us up and took us outside to see a similar event. I couldn't see what all the fuss was about; the sky just looked very black. And then I realized that what I thought was the sky was actually a very thick, tall hedge and I was looking in the wrong direction. Science was never my strong point.

No hedges here, just trees. And a dark shadow across the moon.

"I can't believe you're leaving! It's such a great little flat!"


Click. Click. Beep. Click.

Papa Dumpling is photographing the flat. No corner is left undocumented, no angle to obtuse to commerate in digital format. Apart from the fear that he will capture my worst profile (all of them) for eternity, this is a good thing. It means that I don't have to worry about doing this before we leave. I can concentrate on the important things; getting the oven fixed, trying not to spill anything on the carpet or knock the worryingly loose radiator off the wall. And packing. Lots and lots of packing.

Click. Click.


Luton 2: Norwich 3/Barnsley 1: Norwich 3

Two games. Six goals. Six points. Ker-as they say-ching! It's not like the boys are back in business -- we're still 16th, after all -- but it's six points closer to staying up. And it looks like we've got a very handy little player in Chris Martin. Certainly far more use than the irritating lead singer of the incredibly irritating Coldplay (and husband to the infuriating Gwyneth Paltrow). Let's just hope we can keep him, for another season at least.

Friday, March 02, 2007


I am entertaining Mama and Papa Dumpling for the weekend, so posts will be infrequent. I am also not swearing, which is far more taxing. They are very laid-back about many things, but swearing is not one of them. Whenever I'm around them, I'm insanely conscious of what I'm saying -- and what PJ is saying. He's far less sensitive to this, and continues to curse happily, ignoring me cringing in the corner.

I have also been trying to swear less at work, and I think that generally I've improved -- although I lapsed today and let loose a string of invective aimed at a group of f****** muppets (not present in the office or indeed anyone that I actually know -- but they were still asking for it). A potty mouth doesn't add to the air of professionalism that I'm trying to cultivate, but it's really only for the next six weeks. Then, I'll be in my own little home office, free to indulge my foul-mouthed tendencies. Frak yes!

OMG!!! Puppies!

On my way home from work tonight, I saw the most adorable thing EVER! Not one, not two, not three, but FOUR Jack Russell terriers in the front of a bakfiets!!! No camera to hand, unfortunatly -- and my Nokia N80 was buried deep in my bag and switched off -- so no pictures. You'll just have to take my word for it. SQUEEE!!!