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


Change of Scenery

Sorry I've been out of pocket a bit. It's been crazy. I'm writing this in a hurry, so my writing may be rougher than usual as I don't have time to edit and obsess. Also, I'm addicted to blogs after I followed Reid's advice and starting using Google Reader. And THANK You for the Comics Curmudgeon.

Last week was my 3*cough* birthday. No worries if you didn't know, because I probably didn't tell you. I'm long past getting excited over birthdays. I will give the Dutch credit for birthdays, though. Instead of wishing people "Happy Birthday" they say "Congratulations!" It's like three cheers for making it another year! Woohoo! This I like.

Back in January, B- and I made a deal that I could go with my yoga teacher from back in DC to a retreat in Costa Rica. She takes a group each year, and it's conveniently around my birthday. B- got to go to Australia recently, so I get to go bliss out in the tropics. Congratulations, indeed! I leave tomorrow. Hence the reason I've been busy.

This will seem tangential, but I'd also like to point out that while I was shopping for last minute travel items I noticed that some aspects of shoe fashion are showing improvement. For instance, the worn out look seems to be on the way out. However, one notably scary 80s throw-back is "in." Like the banana clip, I urge you to show restraint. Remember jazz shoes? Consider this a public service announcement.

Yet, Chuck Taylor's (aka Converse All-Stars) are also back. This is the third cycle of the low-tech basketball shoe in my lifetime. I've always loved them. I bought myself a new pair for my trip.

You'll see from the photo that I'm also learning to knit socks, which is a special project I'm taking on while I'm in Costa Rica. Bring on wacky, wacky socks. I figure if I'm going to wear shoes that I wore in the 8th grade again, I might as well go balls out on footwear in general.

And the last thing I have to say is in regards to the Obama 1984 YouTube thing. Meh, I don't think Hillary seems fakey or like Big Brother in the clips that they used. Those clips aren't damning at all, and frankly I think the ad falls flat on its face. And if the pre-teen that probably made that video ever read "1984," he'd know that anyone who invites differing opinions (as does Hilary in the clips that were lifted) is incongruous with the themes of that book. I'm just sayin.' I'm not buying into that hype that dumb ads like this are going to change how campaigns play out. And c'mon really. He didn't even think it up himself - he did a "mash up" (can someone tell me what the hell a mash up is? I thought this was plagiarism, but what do I know) of an awesome Apple ad. Must everyone rip off Apple? And lastly, to the guy who hosts "Talk of the Nation" on NPR, b/c I'm sure you read my blog, the ad was a dig against IBM, not Microsoft. Microsoft wasn't even around then. Pshuh, journalists.

BTW, this by no means I necessarily support Hillary. I dunno yet. I have big reservations about all of them. I just don't think she deserves that, especially from freakin' Democrats. The woman gets enough crap from Rush and Newt. Can Republicans ever have normal names?

Anyway, you see that I need to go bliss out in Costa Rica. See ya'll in a week!


There's No Basement in the Alamo

In case I was pining away for Texas, I could go here for my birthday dinner: Condor City. Heh. Yee Haw!

One of my all time favorite movies has one of my all time favorite movie scenes. I could watch "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" any day just for the scene when Pee Wee goes to the Alamo looking for his stolen bike in the basement. Few movies feature the city I consider my home town (yes I get to choose b/c I was an army brat) even though it boasts one of the nicest downtowns anywhere. Pee Wee's film is particularly choice.

What I miss most about about San Antonio, and it isn't ranch-style houses with the gravel landscaping, is the food. As much as French food intrigues me and Indian food calls out to me every day, nothing and I mean nothing compares to a sloppy plate of TexMex goodness. You haven't lived if you haven't had heuvos rancheros in the wee hours of the morning while still a little drunk.

Even though I haven't eaten meat in 10 years, save for one Xmas dinner at Ivaner's Auntie's house and a desperate McChicken sandwich in New Jersey, I do occasionally have cravings for flesh, usually Texas delights. Obviously we can all wax poetic for a juicy, Texas Longhorn steak. But, there is one item that might compel me to eat meat right now: the Macho Cheeseburger from Chris Madrids in San Antonio. That is some seriously good hamburger right there. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

I'm not the only one that feels this way. I took that photo of the famous Chris Madrids bumper sticker last October on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was stuck to the box that was supposed to contain the log. Surreal and yet not surprising.

As much as I love, love, love TexMex food, I've never really been into Fajitas. But what I wouldn't give for a Taco Cabana bean and cheese taco any day of the year. Back in high school, I lived on that $0.39 goodness. Yep you read that right. Thirty-nine cents.

And of course I miss Dr. Pepper (also from Texas) like my life depended on it. Thank god I had a fast metabolism because I nursed a 40oz tumbler of Dr. Pepper everyday, all day for three years. Sometimes we refilled at lunch. Crazy.

Long about 1991, Stop-n-Go sold these giant bottles that would change color depending on the temperature of the liquid inside. If you bought a bottle, then you got free soda refills all summer. Good for me and my low-on-cash friends. Bad for Stop-n-Go. Several franchises went out of business from this promotion. Say what you will about the rest of the film, there is real truth to the Big Gulp bit in the movie "Reality Bites," though I can't speak for the Houston soda drinking scene . Reid will have to fill us in on the haps in East Texas.

I apologize for this ramble, but consider this the first entry in a series of things that are great about 'Merica. I leave you with a clip from one of the best movies. Ever. Too bad nobody has uploaded the Alamo clip on YouTube.



Happy O'Postraphe Day

B- and I have decided not to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. We've redubbed it O'Postraphe Day in celebration of our Irishness, as opposed to a lasting symbol of British oppression.


B- turns to me this morning and says, "what did St. Patrick do anyway?"

Jen: "Ran the snakes out of Ireland. I dunno why we celebrate that though."

Cue Wikipedia with the scoop on St. Patrick. Seems that Patty wasn't even Irish. He was a Briton, and a missionary at a time when the Catholic Church regarded Celts as godless animals. So, Patty was at the front lines of quashing Irish heritage. And we love him why?

And the snakes? There were never any snakes in Ireland. Wikipedia suggests that the snakes were actually Druid symbols. Wiki goes on to speculate that Patrick was instrumental in introducing the concept of threes, so prevalent in Irish symbology, a three leaf shamrock if you will. Basically, Patrick was manipulating the existing belief system to be more compatible with the Catholic Church.

I didn't used to care about the historical problems between Ireland and Britain. My family has been in America for several generations now, and I'm a typical mut. Owing to my mom's Irish maiden name, however, I've always identified more closely with my Irish heritage.

A couple of years ago, Mom and I traveled to western Ireland on a pilgrimage of sorts. The West is relatively rural, providing a glimpse of traditional life. It's also the region most devastated by the famine that compelled so many to leave their home for America, including mine and B-'s Irish ancestors.

What struck me was the sheer beauty of the land. It's the Emerald Isle for a reason. Holy cow that is one green country. It's just so spectacular. And the sea is so blue. So blue. Everywhere you go is evidence of the rich and ancient culture that prevailed for centuries before the Romans came to muck it all up. The Irish are a people that love their country. The soil is fertile and families are close. There is no reason to leave.

It's not easy to piece together the circumstance of the famine. It's a very controversial topic with some likening the English behavior to genocide. Wikipedia's account is notably balanced, but the view within the hardest hit regions is that the neglect was deliberate. Keep in mind that at the time it was a widely held belief that the Irish were a subclass of humans, inferior to the English. The idea that Irish and English are different was only recently debunked by a DNA study of Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English people revealing that we are all from the same stock. The growing rift between Protestants and Catholics is also considered to be a contributing factor. Regardless of why, the British government had an obligation to feed its starving people and they didn't. The just didn't.

They forced my family to flee their beloved country, and that hit home as I stood atop the cliffs of the Dingle coast gazing at the treacherous sea. On the one hand you have an amazing land and a strong sense of place. On the other hand you have a dangerous passage to a country that doesn't really want you, where you are going to be treated like dogs. What a choice! What a crappy, crappy choice.

People sometimes snicker at Americans with Irish heritage who cling so strongly to a culture that isn't really theirs. For me, it's because in my heart I know that my ancestors didn't really want to leave their land, and that they sacrificed so much for me to be here at all. To hold them in memory is to honor their struggle.

So, what does this all have to do with me and B- rejecting St. Patrick? Patrick was British and among the first to treat our ancestors like so much crap, though he did it less obviously and bit more subversively. The only reason he's the patron saint of Ireland is because of the strength of the Catholic Church and good marketing. I'd even be ok with that, even though we're not Catholic, but for him playing a role in suppressing our ancient culture - the very thing we celebrate on his day.

Instead, we'll raise our glasses to the O'Postraphes in mine and B-s' family (even those that dropped the O' to avoid stigma in America), for their courage and sheer will to live. We remember.

Éirinn go Brách

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To Wii or Not to Wii?

Wii's are still in short supply and high demand over here in You're Up. The word on the street is that new shipments have come in here and there. Also, the PS3 makes it's European debut next week. I'm thinking PS3s might distract some potential Wii buyers, upping my odds of getting my grubby paws on Nintendo's new sensation. Awe yeah.

But. But.

Everyone knows that Euro TVs are different from U.S. TVs, so the game consoles are different as well. Game developers also employ the same pesky region restrictions on the games themselves, meaning that your console must match the game region for it all to work properly. I'm sure you can hack them, but do I want to sift through the fodder of that Google search? Not sure. Do I want to risk busting a 250EUR purchase? Really not sure.

So. What to do? What to do? I can't take a Euro Wii to the U.S. I can't leave for six long, gloomy months.

What if I bought a PS2? Might that be a good compromise? Given it's low, low price I might even be willing to hack the PS2 to get it to work in the U.S. What do you think?

C'mon people. Can you tell I'm bored here???


I Am The Paperwork Queen, I Can Do Anything

As you all know, B- is not an American. He's the greatest in all other respects. But, he cannot just willy nilly fly back to the U.S. and stay longer than three months. In the eyes of the guvment, he is but a tourist.

Thus begins immigration filing, round three. Let me type that again for effect. Round three. In little more than one year. I must have it out for myself. First, B- and I came to Holland. Then I had to apply to stay in Holland. Now we're high-tailing it back to 'Merica. More paperwork. Shmaperwork. I'm a pro. I could do this in my sleep.

At first, applying for residency in the U.S. seems easier and and more straight forward than our Dutch immigration. At least our forms are in English. The process to bring a spouse to the Land of the Free happens in two steps.

Step 1) Prove you're married. As the "petitioner," I first submit documents to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS, formerly INS) that prove I'm a U.S. citizen along with documents that prove we're married: marriage certificate, joint lease, joint bank account statements, and affidavits from friends swearing that they believe that we're married.

Step 2) Mysterious application process at U.S. Consulate in Amsterdam. Upon declaring that we are, in fact, married, the USCIS sends a letter to the consulate stating such. Then we dunno what happens, but it can take 10 weeks. TEN WEEKS.

Did I mention that the Step 1 takes 12 weeks? That's 22 weeks total, or in layman's terms 5 1/2 months. We can't even send off the paperwork for round two until our stupid bank sends us a cashier's check in the mail. Lazy jerks said it could take two weeks before we receive the check. Waaaaah!

What's more than a little unnerving is our lack of knowledge about what really happens during these 12 and 10 month steps. Will we have to go to Frankfurt so they can quiz us on personal details about each other? Crap, I don't know B-'s favorite color! C'mon now, it never came up. Will they show up to our apartment unannounced one day to make sure our unmentionables mingle in the same laundry bin? Note to self, must vacuum pet hair off furniture more regularly.

But even more importantly. What am I going to do with myself for the next six months? At least six months. We can't really make arrangements to leave until we know when B-'s visa will be approved. Realistically, we're here until October.




This is Kind Of Interesting

I got sucked into MTV's "Made" last night, watching this chubby, ditsy blond girl try out for the girls soccer team, not unlike the chubby, goth girl who decided to be a cheerleader. How do they find these girls that cry on a dime? This show is only vaguely interesting but I did sit through a marathon one rainy weekend. What does it say about a person who's 3*cough* and still watches MTV? Before you judge consider that I have a grand total of 6 channels that regularly show English-language content, and two of those broadcast news.

I couldn't watch this episode all the way through because the girl's parents were these total a-holes and kept laughing at her. The dad actually wanted to bet $100 that she wouldn't make the team. No wonder she never followed through on anything else in her life. Jerks. I channel surfed away for awhile, only to return at the end when she got offered the manager position. Ouch! Girl even broke a finger during try outs. Peekay, sistah, surely that counts for something doesn't it? At least JV right?

After the show, MTV played the following video from Just Jack. Amazing that MTV Europe actually plays videos, even if only in between the stupid, insipid shows imported from the States. Putting that aside, Just Jack is kind of interesting in a Lilly Allen talky-singy, not hiding the accent kind of way. He comes across as a bit more sincere and less bratty than Allen, though. His new album, "Overtones," turned up in the end of January, and he's all over the UK at the moment. Here's your chance to get in on the buzz before he hits. If he hits. I'd like to point out that Robbie Williams (remember that guy???) is a super huge mega star over here but is totally off the US radar.

It occurs to me that this song, about the rise and fall of a B-list celebrity, is the perfect commentary on the poor girl who didn't make the soccer team. She's the only one I've seen on "Made" to fail to reach her goal. With her lame parents discouraging her along the way, how could she possibly make it? Yea really, why you gotta go and put stars in her eyes?



Learn To Cook Update

It's been a slow week with B- out of town. Still, I've been working on this whole cooking thing.

Ever since B- and I took our first trip to Paris together a couple of years ago, I've been obsessed with "secret" ingredients. The French are masters of this. The best thing I ate that weekend were a couple slices of carrot and zucchini. They were infused with such complex flavors, and yet they looked so plain sitting on my plate that I almost didn't eat them. When we were in Paris last month, we ate a similarly mysterious carrot mash that knocked us out of our chairs.

I've started uncovering these secrets, and it's got nothing to do with butter. Note that I dunno if these are what French cooks use, but they certainly add an unexpected kick to otherwise ho-hum dishes.

1) Add a bit of vanilla. A lot of people add sugar to savory dishes to balance the flavor. But consider a little bit of vanilla pod (remove the seeds or it's too intense) when seasoning vegetables, particularly root veggies (like potatoes, parsnips, etc). And don't be afraid of the uglier vegetables. They're yummy mashed and pureed. I made an excellent mixed root mash with a touch vanilla bean.

2) Try milk instead of water when boiling potatoes for mash. Back off the butter and salt. Add flavored olive oil instead.

3) Add cinnamon to pasta sauce. This seems to work as a replacement for sugar to curb the acidity, and adds a bit of mystery to the dish.

4) Not salty enough? Try a bit of lemon juice before adding salt. Lemon juice brings out the flavor of other spices, brightening up the dish. Probably not the best thing for creamy dishes, though. ;)



Dude, Where's My Market?

Back in Autumn, a farmer's market sprung up on Thursdays across the street from our apartment. What better way to promote laziness than have a farmer's market set up shop right in front of you?

This one featured local fruit and veggies, organic juices, farmhouse cheeses and deli items if you're into that. It wasn't big, but it was perfect for our neighborhood.

Then one day this guy shows up with his medieval horns.

It was cute at first, and seemed to attract a bit of attention. Yeah cute until it became obvious that he only knew how to play one scale. No tunes, just this one scale. Over and over and over again. All day long.

After his second appearance, the market was no more. Did he scare the market away, or is there just nothing to sell at a farmer's market this time of year? Judging from the look on that woman's face, my money's on the former.



The Official Unofficial Withdrawal

There's no other way to say it, so I'm just going to say it. B- and I are leaving Holland. Well it's about 95% certain that we're going to leave Holland, and... AND... we're going back to the USA. Yes! I'm so psyched.

This is probably not a surprise to many of you. You can probably tell by now that we aren't exactly in love with the Netherlands. Some days, many days, I actually hate it here. On good days, we just sort of exist and put up with it. That's not a way to live, especially when you don't have to.

The When and Where is a bit up in the air. The When depends on the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, and how long they'll take to process B-'s immigration application. The Web site says 10 weeks. We're mailing the application next week. The When depends on where the bidness is, and it's this latter bit that makes it not quite a 100% done deal.

Nevertheless, with any luck we'll be shipping out this summer. Woohoo!

In the meantime, we'll do what we can to see still more of Europe and I'll be heading to Costa Rica in April for a yoga retreat with my teacher from back home. Good times. Good times.


Do As I Say Not As I Do

Et tu, Al?

A one-man, conservative "think tank" got his paws on Al Gore's 2005 and 2006 utility bills and called foul this week. Seems that Al and Tipper Gore racked up a $30,000 utility bill in their Tennessee home(stead) last year. Yow! ABC News breaks down the figures. Nutjob uber-conservatives are using this information to call out the Gores for a hypocritical lifestyle. Be that as it may, it doesn't change the fact that anthropogenic global warming is a major problem.

But let's take a closer look at the data. Here's what I see, based on what I spent in Alexandria, VA in 2005.

I lived in a 750sq. ft. ground-floor flat down the road from the Pentagon. The Washington, DC area has four defined seasons including snowy, icy winters and stinky, hot summers. Having spent considerable time in Northern Alabama, I can attest that Tennessee is no less wintry (sometimes worse b/c Southern states get more ice than snow) and is even stinkier than DC in the summer.

I worked outside my home, and had a busy lifestyle that often kept me out of the house at night and on weekends. Most of my time at home was spent sleeping. I was very careful to turn off lights when I wasn't around, but I did have various electronics that probably sucked electricity in their standby state. I had an EnergyStar dishwasher, but my fridge was about 8 years old. I rarely cooked, and when I prepared food at home I usually made sandwiches. I only paid for electricity. Water and gas were including in my condo fees. I probably consumed less electricity in the summer than most people in the DC area because my condo was naturally cool. My average electricity bill was around $120/month. That is $120 per month for barely being in my one bedroom condo. Interestingly, when my condo was empty while I tried to sell it, the bill plummeted to about $30/month. Even just sitting around, we're expensive creatures.

No credible source is reporting on the square footage of the building in question (only nutjob right-wing bloggers who don't cite their sources), but the Gores' utility bills are based on a 20 room main house and a pool house (it's not clear how big the pool house is and whether or not it contains their pool). Just looking at the home, the Gores paid $544/month in 2006 for electricity and gas*. That's only $424 per month more than my electricity-only bill, and they own a structure that is many, many times bigger than my home. He and his wife also work from their home, so to be truly fair one should look at comparable figures for office space where computers and office equipment as well as lights and such are on all day. My conclusion is that foot-for-foot and figuring that they probably spend more time at home than I did, their bill is really comparable to mine.

But the heart of the matter is whether or not it's hypocritical for the Gores to live in a giant home while encouraging less energy consumption by Americans. I have to conclude: no. Here's my reasoning.

1) I do think a pool house is a bit excessive. Then again, my parents are pretty average and they have a pool that has a heater. An awful lot of Americans have backyard pools. I don't see a reason why the Gores can't have one too, and anyway he never said people shouldn't have pools.

2) A 20 room house also feels excessive. But, if it's energy efficient, the size of the house doesn't necessarily matter. The ABC News article reports that Gore is renovating the home to be more efficient, particularly since it's older. They already purchase green power and are installing solar panels. They have taken other measures to make the house more efficient. These technologies will allow us to keep our big American homes. In anything, they're going to show us how to do it.

3) If the Gores don't live in that house, someone else will. That someone else may or may not make energy efficient improvements to it. Should the Gores build a new one? No. From an environmental impact standpoint the cost of building a new house, even a really green one, can be higher than retrofitting an old one. New homes require new timber and other materials processed from raw materials (extraction and processing have big impact), transport costs for materials and workers, energy use during construction, the removal of trees and shrubs from the property itself, the reinstallation of landscaping (garden centers use energy and excessive amounts of water), etc. etc. The list goes on. We already know that it's better to reduce and reuse before recycling, meaning that even building a new home with some recycled materials is more impactful than updating an old one.

4) Al Gore's message is about presenting the facts of global warming and its impact on our planet. His home doesn't change that. He also does a great job pointing out that individuals can make small changes that have a big impact. I caught him on Oprah a few weeks ago going through a Home Depot shopping for energy-efficient home improvements. For something like $30, you can make your home 30% more efficient. My point is that he doesn't advocate wholesale changes (though I think he should). He doesn't tell people to move out of their McMansions. There's a lot you can still do without upsetting your lifestyle, and that's his message. Who wants to bet that many hypocrite finger-pointers haven't even seen "An Inconvenient Truth" or read the book? Who's the hypocrite?

5) I agree with those that say that this new "study" is the last breath of the global warming naysayers. These are not people that are holding Gore up to a higher standard. These are people who want to dig their head in the sand. Really what's the point of calling someone a hypocrite anyway? Do you feel that it gives you an excuse to ignore the advice? Does it really make his message less potent? If you want a reason to cop out and this is it, you're the one that's lame and, frankly, you suck. You are not contributing to solving the problem by calling Gore names. Al Gore is doing something, and you are not. You are actually the hypocrite.

6) Some people say that this affects Gore's credibility. Huh? That makes no sense. He didn't do the research and come up with the facts. He's just talking about them. I can't stress this enough: none of this business about his house changes the message. This is a classic case of shooting the messenger. Just because you don't want to hear it, doesn't mean that you shouldn't listen. Vilify Al Gore all you want, it's not going to make the problem go away. Period.

* I compared my 2005 bill to Gore's 2006 bill for a few reasons. I left the US at the end of 2005, so that's the only data I have. Also, the difference in costs between 2005 and 2006 could reflect cheaper gas prices in 2006. Because I don't know how much gas I used, I thought it would be better to give the Gores a bit of a handicap. However, even with their higher 2005 bill, I think my point remains the same; foot-for-foot they're not leading excessive lives.