On Nov. 23, 2005 I moved to The Hague from Washington, DC. This is my new Dutch life.


Help I've Fallen and I Can't Cook

As a freelancer, I'm only one small step up from house wife. I don't even have a child around to explain why things don't get done. B- brings home the soy bacon, and my inner Betty Crocker is compelling me to fry it up in a pan. After all, I am home all day.

B- is the better cook, though. As a student, he worked in a restaurant. I worked at Taco Bell. So, I can cook if by cooking you mean following a recipe. Give me some ingredients, and I will assemble them. I can assemble the same ingredients in different configurations and you will think you are getting a new dish. I am a mad wiz at all things Taco Belly, like burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, etc. - all lovingly crafted from the best canned, jarred and sellowrapped ingredients. B-, on the other hand, figured out how to make fresh, homemade salsa and the guy is not even from San Antonio, Texas, like uhm, me. I am so ashamed.

My problem is that I can only follow recipes. I don't even have a few non-recipe standby dishes in my head unless you count spaghetti with jar sauce and tuna fish sandwiches. I even like cooking, but I hate thumbing through cookbooks, making the list and shopping for items. Invariably, I can't find a key ingredient and my watch says 8:30PM, so I bag it for some excellent Indian take-out.

At least that's what I did in my old DC life. In my new Dutch life, I have far fewer take-out options. Indeed restaurant variety is not a selling point in The Netherlands. What can you do with a country that loves stamppot? But, all this recipe-following cooking is tedious and makes it feel like a chore. I have lazy tendencies, so anything that feels like a chore is a chore and is treated like a chore, that is not treated at all.

Poor B- does most of our cooking along with most of the working. It's not fair, so I'm changing that. I am trying to teach myself how to cook.

I'd take some classes, but they're all in Dutch. So, a while back we trolled the cooking section at the American Book Center (English-language books, hooray!) looking for how-to-cook books, not just recipe books. The problem with most how-to books is that they mainly cover technique. I know how to sauté and grill. I know how to separate egg yokes from the whites. I don't know how to make things taste good.

We stumbled across a gem, The Improvisational Cook, which endeavors to teach you how different ingredients work together. The whole point of the improvisational cook is to learn enough to play around on your own. Recipe freedom! So for every recipe is a handful of variations plus tips on other ingredients or techniques. Our copy of the book arrived from Amazon UK over the weekend (courtesy of a gift certificate from my 'rents) along with Cook with Jamie.

In order not to fall back on my whole routine of waiting until the last minute to thumb through the book for recipes, get frustrated and make burritos, I've added a bit more rigour to my how-to-cook program. I'm going to choose one dish on Monday and then spend the rest of the week on variations. Change the spices, turn a veggie puree side-dish into a soup, whatever.

Last night I began my journey with white beans with fresh rosemary and thyme, mixed green salad with homemade dressing, and onion toasts. All very easy. All very tasty. I'm going to share with you two highlights from last night's dinner.

1) Homemade salad dressing: We've been making our own dressing since Christmas when B- gave me a flavour shaker. Whatever you do, do not buy jar dressing. It's full of gross, chemically things, and it's too easy to make even if you just mix your own olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Seriously. Cook with Jamie includes a handful of yummy salad dressing recipes, one of which yielded the following excellent technique. Put a bunch of vinegar in a saucepan and reduce it down with one star anise in the pan. The anise infuses the vinegar with a bit of liquorice flavor that is really amazing. No kidding. Who knew to do that?

2) Bread: Onion toasts are a cool variation on good ole garlic bread. Brush olive oil on slices of baguette and toast in the oven for a few minutes. Cut a shallot in half, and rub the cut end on the toasted bread. The bread will take on a very faint onion taste that is mellowed by the olive oil. No butter. Not bad for you. Yummy!



Making the Best of a Tight Situation

This one is for PK. I know I'm still on and off the wagon with posting, but I swear I have good excuses. Being out of town, busy and sick are all good reasons to lay low. But PK's right.

The Netherlands' 16 million or so residents live in an area the size of two New Jerseys or Connecticut and Massachusetts combined. That's not really a lot of people, but it's not a lot of size either. Most of us, as in almost half, are crammed into a corridor of cities known as the Randstad, or edge city, because they generally skirt the coast. The Randstad encompasses Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht (and everything in between) and it takes not much more than an hour by train to get end-to-end.

In a word, it's tight. You can never really get away from people in the Randstad, and the size and price of housing is reflected in an area that's short on space and long (and tall) on people. It's also reflected in a grumpier, fussier attitude as people constantly angle for a swatch of personal space.

We live in a reasonably large studio apartment on the first floor (it'd be the second floor in the U.S.) of a row house. The top three floors were probably one nice, big house at one point. Today, there are five apartments in my building and we are in the largest one. The stairs and corridors are narrow and steep, allowing for quick height gain (the ceilings are all nice and tall) but making any normal journey up and down the stairs a bit perilous. Never mind moving furniture in and out.

Our furniture and boxes were brought up through the balcony via this ladder/elevator thingy (below). In the absence of a balcony, they'd have moved everything in through one of the big pictures windows.

A couple of weeks ago, I watched our neighbors across the street move a grand piano into their apartment. Naturally I snapped some shots. I suppose you might see this kind of thing in some of America's older cities, but this was a first for me.

Notice that someone in the second photo is running around in a robe with a towel on her head. You'd think you'd be a bit more prepared for a piano delivery. Actually I'm not that surprised. I once saw my neighbor bring out the garbage in his tighty whities.



Why Oh Why?

I couldn't decide what to write about today. It's not an especially newsworthy day. But two things stuck out as I scanned the headlines this morning.

Sometime over the weekend, Australia's Prime Minister John Howard decided to poke his nose in U.S. presidential politics, specifically criticizing Barak Obama's position on Iraq. My somewhat half-assed Google search on "John Howard" with the names of present and past Democratic presidential contenders concluded that he has otherwise never commented on U.S. Democrats' position on anything. Despite the fact that he's known on his own soil and by his own admission as Deputy Sheriff to Bush, he normally doesn't meddle in U.S. domestic politics. So why now and why Obama? I think the answer is obvious. Obama showed his chops and replied:

"I would also note that we have close to 140,000 troops in Iraq and my understanding is Mr Howard has deployed 1,400," he said.

"So if he is...to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest that he calls up another 20,000 Australians and sends them to Iraq, otherwise it's just a bunch of empty rhetoric."

I *heart* Barak Obama more and more each day.

The NY Times email this morning featured a story on the-kid-who-plays-Harry-Potter's new West End side project. Pictures speak louder than words: http://www.equustheplay.com/pr/index.php

Actually, no the words are frightening too. The play is about a stable boy who is discovered to have unhealthy relationships with the horses he minds.

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We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank

File this one under "I didn't see that one coming."

I rarely talk about music anymore, but I'm breaking my silence because I'm just so surprised. To some of you, this may not be new, but in my non-English speaking corner of the world most news travels slowly. Except of course that I knew before most of you that Anna Nicole Smith left the land of the living the other night. Thanks to my Google News homepage, I keep up with what's important.

Anyway, what I wanted to talk about today is Modest Mouse. Now they've been around for a good, long while slowly but surely amassing quite a following. Interestingly, the last live show I went to was Modest Mouse at the new Black Cat in Washington, DC just after it opened. It was around the time that my band broke up and my old roommate D- dragged me out to cheer me up. Modest Mouse was not the kind of band that appeals to the DC music scensters, so we figured that I wouldn't run into anyone I know, you know all those people that might stare at me with an uncomfortable mix if pity and smugness.

I'd known about Modest Mouse for ages, but this show was the first time I really listened to them. I've been a fan ever since, and their albums remain in heavy rotation on my iPod. See, they sit well next to my favorite band, The Flaming Lips, with their dopey-sounding yet insightful lyrics and unexpected melodies that are at once playful and dark. Also like The Flaming Lips, they've mellowed and matured over time like a fine Belgian beer - it goes down a bit smoother, but it still has a kick. I was especially keyed when I read that The Flaming Lips mixed the song "The Good Times are Killing Me" from the "Good News for People who Love Bad News" album. Yes sir.

Fast forward to yesterday. I'm listening to a podcast of "All Songs Considered", an NPR show that recently turned up on iTunes (I couldn't get by without iTunes), when they start playing the new Modest Mouse single, "Dashboard." I'm thinking it sounds a bit different, brighter somehow. It has an 80's quality, but in a good way, that seems a bit odd for a band that's been around since the early 1990s. When the song finished, the podcast DJ guy informs me that Johnny Marr is now a member of Modest Mouse.

Huh what?

Johnny Marr was, of course, the guitarist of The Smiths, whose break up was one of the most shocking and shattering things to happen to me in high school, not the least because I never got to see them live. The break up was topped only by the release of the insipid song, "Friday I'm in Love," which marked the end, not the beginning of the end, of The Cure. After both of those incidents, I lost faith in music that aims to be meaningful or make a big statement, resulting in my still-lingering preference for electronica and garage bands.

In one of the most unlikely yet perfect pairings, Johnny Marr has brought his special brand of melancholy yet shiny, jangly guitar to Modest Mouse and the result is divine, sublime even. Marr is no stranger to adding a bit of lift to dark material, and he does Modest Mouse no disservice. The opening of "Dashboard" is pure Marr, though I won't cheapen the song by likening the riff to The Smiths. "Dashboard" stands on its own. Isaac Brock is no Morrissey and when his vocals kick in, you know you're in for something a little different. My favorite part of the song has no obvious connection to Marr, however. The swoony violin bridge has a kind of silk road thing going on that makes me want to don a backpack and hit the road. Overall, "Dashboard" has an epic quality that makes you feel like you're in a music video when walking down the street listening to your iPod. I feel that way about Pulp's "Disco 2000."

I'm pretty cynical about music after years working at a radio station. I gravitate to quirky, odd, and above all unique gems. I haven't been impressed with the singer-song writer trend that indierock has been on lately. And I really don't like alt country. But it may seem surprising that I'd glom on to what some may consider mainstream. Sure sure the "also bought" list for "Dashboard" on iTunes includes Dave Matthews Band, oh gawd. But I swear, this song is good - one of the best I've heard in a long time.

Visit the band's Epic Records site to hear the song. It loads up immediately. Dreamy.




This past weekend the Sun managed to beat down the Clouds here in the low country and we managed a whole Saturday's worth of sunshine. As I've hinted before, this is nothing short of monumental. In honor of the occasion our mini-daffodils bloomed early. How 'bout that? For a much-needed dose of Vitamin D, B- and I took Nigel to Oostduin Park for a bit of wandelen among the dunes.

It's strange and wild landscape and hard to imagine that much of the Netherlands used to look like that. In fact, there are big chunks of the interior of the country filled with sand dunes. The following is a photo I took last Easter at Hoge Veluwe National Park, which is a good two hour drive East of The Hague.

Really, can you see much difference?

In other news, I posted some happy snaps from our trips to Vienna and France. Enjoy.

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It's Our Fault

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the executive summary of its 4th assessment report today. B- says that the IPCC is generally pretty conservative with its findings, and yet the figures are shattering. Best case scenario, by the end of this century average worldwide temperatures will likely increase by 3.2-7.2 degrees F due to human activities. This means ever more extreme weather and rising sea levels. In less than 50 years, scientists also predict that 25% of all species on Earth will be driven to extinction.

Let me put this in perspective. I'm 3x and I have a good chance of living until 2050. I get to live through mass extinctions. If I had a child this year, he or she will probably live until 2079. My grandchildren will live until about 2107. By time my grandchildren die, parts of Southern Europe are predicted to be uninhabitable. The same likely goes for Africa. If this doesn't break your heart, what does.

Yesterday Exxon Mobile and Shell both reported record-breaking profits. Between them, they make $180 million A DAY!



Poop Police

Ok yeah so I didn't quite make it back on the blog wagon (blagon?) after my last post. Between working a lot (and by a lot I mean A LOT) and getting sucked into past seasons of Grey's Anatomy (thanks iTunes), and B- being out of town for work, and me being generally disgruntled, I didn't feel like blogging. Sorry folks - I'll snap out of it.

B- and I are going through a "we hate it here" phase. All the expat books and magazines warned us that it would happen. One day you wake up and you just hate it here. It doesn't help that I can count the number of times I've seen the sun since October on one hand, and that it freakin' rains all the damn time, and that Dutch people aren't very nice and the only time they talk to me is to get in my face about something they think I'm doing wrong, AND that the BBC is running a month-long show about Brits moving to Australia where the sun shines all day every day and they have big, huge houses with lots of land. It also doesn't help that Nigel Beagle acts weirder and weirder every day - clearly he doesn't like it here either.

I don't blame him.

Yesterday a van pulls up along side me while I'm out with Nigel for his afternoon skull drag (he doesn't like to walk around our neighborhood for some reason). Two public servants jump out, one with an alarming facial disfigurement - you know the kind that you try not to stare at but what are you going to do? she's right there talking to you - accusing me of not picking up Nigel's poo. This is absurd given my views on the poop-leaving tendencies of everyone else in this country.

I tell her that he just peed, not pooed. She looks at me with suspicion. I show her my roll of poop bags, one of over 100 rolls that I smuggled in from the U.S. back in June, and self-righteously explain to her that I ALWAYS pick up the poo. It's disgusting not to. The other guy walks over from the van to back her up because I'm questioning her authority, and I explain to him that I didn't leave the poo because Nigel didn't poo. And he says, and I'm not kidding, "can we go see?" He actually wants to walk back over to where Nigel peed (Ok fine, he pees like a bitch. Seriously. Whatever.) to see if I'm lying or not.

What??? WTF is wrong with these people?

So, I march them over to Nigel's pee stain to examine the evidence. There's only but a puddle, just like I said. The woman says nothing and the guy starts apologizing. As we start back on our way, public servants pulling up the rear, Nigel does his little booty jiggle before he settles down to drop off a big one. The male public servant literally shouts, "Oh shit!" I turn and flash them my smuggest smile as I began to fidget for a poop bag. They hurry off in shame. Bastards.

A couple of weeks ago a bus driver accused me of trying to get out of paying the fare even though I'd just handed him my ticket. He actually told me that I didn't look like I knew what I was doing. Uhm, what? And that translates to me skipping a fare after I've already handed you my ticket how?

I picked up my new residence permit yesterday. As the woman handed it over to me, I had one of those Ally McBeal-type fantasies of going nutso at the immigration office, flinging residence permits all the while screaming about where they could stuff them. I assure you that I smiled graciously and thanked them for their time.

I'm not sure how long I'll last in these nether lands.