Friday, December 7, 2007

And for dessert...

It's been a bit of a food-week, so I will wrap up with a brief post and a picture of one of my favorites, the Bossche Bol.

The Dutch have a soft spot for chocolate, although I haven't found any good native ones.  Belgium, though, has stellar chocolate, so heaven lies just a few hours south, just across the border at Dumon in Brugges (a topic for another day...).

The Bossche Bol is a flaky pastry crust, covered with chocolate, and filled with a light, fluffy white cream filling.  Absolutely wonderful; best done slowly with a really fine coffee, a candle, and a good friend.

So, as the wind howls, the rain blows, and the darkness falls, let's remember summer and some native dessert.

July 10 Porch 2

Bossche Bol exterior Bossche bol interior

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Foraging for Food (Part 2)

The Albert Heijn Photo Tour, illustrating the prior blog post:

1)  The Produce Counters

AH Produce 1 AH Produce 2

AH Produce Witlof AH Produce & Fruits

2) The Bakery

AH Bread Counter 1 AH Cakes

3) The Cheese Counter

AH Cheese Counter 1 AH Cheese Counter 4

AH Cheese Counter 6 AH Cheese Counter 5

4) The Meat Wall

AH Meat Wall 2 AH Meat Wall 1

5) The entire Bakery Mix section (and, for comparison, the equivalently sized Coffee Milk section)

AH Baking Section AH Coffee Milk rack 

Epilog)  And the Christmas Trees arrived  today, looking like big ears of corn.

AH Christmas Trees

Foraging for Food (Part 1)

Food shopping in the Netherlands is a more frequent and more local affair than in the US: I walk to the Albert Heijn (AH) grocery at the top of my block every other evening (left photo), and to the nearby butcher, bakery, and fishmonger weekly. The AH is open 9 to 8, and (as with all other stores) closed on Sunday (except the first Sunday of the month). There's also a fresh market in town center on weekends to get farmer's produce and cheeses (right photo).

Weersstraat shopping 01 Arnhem Market 02

Refrigerators are much smaller here, and I have to carry my groceries home, which leads to making smaller, more frequent trips for food. I take my own grocery bag (left: stores don't provide them), and need to have shopping done on Saturday if I want to eat through Monday. The store is similar in quality, but *much* smaller and goods are differently distributed than American grocers. So, a quick tour (unfortunately, not accompanied by AH's cute little hamster mascot)

Shopping bag

The AH opens with a produce section that is light on most vegetables: you can find exotics like leeks and witlof (left) more easily than lettuce or celery. I must bag, weigh, and label vegetables at the section's scale, otherwise I'll be 'sent back' from the checkout.

There is a bakery that makes breads and desserts, but almost no baking mixes apart from basics like flour and soda. I did make one appeltart from a box that looked awful going into the oven but spectacular coming out (right).

Appeltart 1

The meat and fish counter is completely absent, replaced by an attendant overseeing a vast selection of cheeses and processed meats. Cuts of meat (vlees), chicken (kip), and fish (vis) are prepackaged in color-coded trays along the wall and are generally single-serving portions. I don't think I can buy "a steak" the way I am used to.

Breakfast foods, cereal, eggs, and juices, are similar to the US. The big difference is the large section of chocolate sprinkle toppings nearby. Coffee is generally cappuchino in the morning and espresso in the evening: it is hard to find skim milk (magere melk, left), but Dutch Coffee Milk is the common substitute (right: thick and brown and not at all milk-like.

Coffee Milk 2

There is a good selection of cleaning products but almost no housewares (mousetraps, for example, are purchased from the pet store). Sponges, carpet cleaner, and fabric softener are hard to find. And, of course, there's the automated beer bottle return. You pitch bottles, foot first, into the porthole and get a credit receipt. Only beer bottles, no plastic, no Heineken returns (go figure...)

AH Bottle Return

And, yes, the chocolates are fabulous (but beware the licorice!).

I'll take a camera on my next trip and capture a photo tour...

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Podcasts to go

First, "Thank you, Sinterklaas!".

I've been feeling a bit underappreciated lately, mired in a flood of work that has consumed life in recent weeks. My team surprised me with a small gift and poem for today's eve-of-feast celebration: it made my day.



I was once program manager of a radio station, and have always enjoyed listening to programs while driving, shopping, or exercising. Dutch radio is completely opaque for me, though, the talk goes too fast to follow, and the music tends towards top-40 hits and oldies.

podcast Podcasts have been a welcome alternative. A podcast is a radio show, distributed over the Internet as an .mp3 file. I They can be easily and automatically downloaded: either install a podcatcher and specify the RSS audio feeds that you want to monitor, or subscribe through iTunes or Podshow, Downloaded shows accumulate in a directory, where they can be copied to an MP3 player weekly. I generally do a bit of cleanup on the file headers, using TagScanner to set the artists and genre consistently so that shows are grouped on my player's menu. That's it: you're good to go!

Dutch shoes Unfortunately, there are few instructional Dutch Language podcasts, so I usually just rip language lessons off of instructional CDs. Laura Speaks Dutch and Dutch Grammar Podcast are good shows, but only published monthly. SBS Radio, from Australia, offers daily Dutch-language news and entertainment programs, and there are a lot of home-grown Dutch music and politics programs indexed through

Beyond that, I regularly listen to about a dozen English-language programs, mainly drawn from entertainment, technology, public affairs, and writer's almanacs. I've put a short list of links to some of my favorites to the right of this posting.

And, if overuse and travel abuse damages your iPod, I can recommend a quick fix from UK iPod Repairs. These are good people who can fix almost anything and have been fast, reliable, and fair when I have a problem.


Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Bad weather everywhere

It's been rain and wind everywhere lately...

In the Netherlands, the rain was sheeting horizontally as I drive to Schiphol and back on Sunday, and then blowing past my office window in dark bands yesterday.

Things were worse in almost every regard back in Seattle though, as a major storm with 100 mph winds pushed in from the southwest. With the nine-hour time difference, first notices of school closures drifted in to my email by evening; then, this morning, there were emergency notices of all sorts. I logged into the Seattle PI to see what was happening in Woodinville, where my family lives, and I found this picture:

'Not a good thing to wake up to. Fortunately everyone is fine.

Despite all of the rain here in the Netherlands, I trust that the Dutch have the water under better control here. Driving by full holding ponds and cresting rivers, I never worry that the road might flood as in the US: the water level is probably regulated to the millimeter.

What the Dutch don't control as well is traffic on the roads. Invariably, in heavy rain, the major highways slow down and back up. My Tom-Tom suggests alternatives, which seem to fill with traffic just ahead of my arrival. One turnoff leads to another until I find myself in a long queue on a country road in the middle of nowhere, waiting for the one traffic light to let one car through at a time.

It seems a pity that the same intuition and mathematical precision that the Dutch bring to water flow can't be applied to traffic flows?

Monday, December 3, 2007

What's it like in Holland?

Yes, I do always try to say "The Netherlands", but it's hard to get the tonguetip back and forth from 'th to 'n and back to 'th quickly, so it sounds a bit lispy. Beyond that, though, I like living here among the Dutch.

Landscape: It reminds me of Nebraska: absolutely flat and open, with winds that blow unobstructed for hundreds of miles. The soil is mostly peat and sand, soggy and soft, so trees are small and dunes appear in unexpected places. The Dutch practicality shows through: they lay streets like I laid a patio at home. with bricks pressed into the sand.

I know that most of the country is below sea level, but I don't think about it most days (except when the Surge comes down from the North Sea and the Barrier has to be closed). We're all of 30 m up here, so I feel safe from the deluge, but not from global warming. Still, I don't worry about the ponds and rivers overflowing; the Dutch know how to work with water. Someone recently pointed out a regional air traffic control radar station to me, located at the commanding height of 50 m above sea level.

Weather: 'Totally Seattle: temperate and rainy, identical forecasts between them on most days. The painters got it right: the light can be yellow on days that the sun is out, and diffusely gray otherwise. Warm days are accented with Midwest-style thunderstorms; winter yields to the dull drizzle of the Pacific Northwest. The latitude, 55N, leads to produce long summer days and long winter nights: we'll surely freeze if the Gulf Stream ever gives out.

Countryside outside Leeuwarden 1 Countryside near Arnhem 2

People: Honestly, the Dutch have been open and welcoming in my experience: engaging, supportive, and tolerant as I learned to fit into life here. The typical person is tall and thin, intent and somewhat self absorbed, with an organized, logical, and pragmatic approach to life. They do have a proper process for most activities, but remain open to new ideas if you are willing to engage in a vigorous discussion. As others have noted, Dutch are, indeed, very direct, and I seldom have doubts about their opinions. If there is a problem, they are quick to tackle it, but if a situation is unfair, they are equally quick to complain (this can be a bit unnerving when it involves neighbors telling me how to put my garbage out correctly or strangers lecturing me on driving habits).

The Dutch are cosmopolitan and egalitarian, curious about people and very well informed about the state of the world. Still, they hold themselves somewhat aloof from it. They can be very insightful: I had a wonderful performance review that really made surprisingly effective suggestions. I suspect that part of it is the directness, but I'm convinced that they also study others more objectively. They have a quirky sense of humor, especially at Christmas. In tense meetings, they often lighten the mood with a wry saying, usually untranslatable (but probably involving tulips and bicycles) which gets a laugh. It spills over into "Random Road Art"; pointless and whimsical sculptures at roundabouts and freeway intersections that I've been cataloguing.

To my eye, Dutch women are striking: tall, self-assured, confident and cool (Nick in Wageningen got it right). Dutch men seem more reserved and academic, a bit sharper-edged than the women. More lanky than athletic, the Dutch are distinctive among Europeans: When I go to Oberhausen, only 100 miles away, I'm amazed by how completely different the people are, both in appearance and actions.

Lawn Picnic Signage

Culture: The Dutch value their home life a lot, and glimpses in the windows (always open, without curtains) reveal warm rooms filled with books, art, and flowers. They keep a strong and unique sense of 'being Dutch', but not as rooted in history or heritage as many Europeans. I seldom hear about the Golden Age or even the Second World War. Instead, their forward-looking discussions are often about current events, social issues, and the future shape of Dutch society. They keep the facade that Dutch is hard to learn and that they understand if I can't speak it, but I sense that they really expect me to make the effort. They love their holidays and vacations, their gardens and bicycles, the language and their haring.

It's a bit of a kingdom, compact and concentrated. But it is in good balance, works well for me, and seems easy to navigate when I take time to learn the rules and the language.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Work-Life Balance

One of the biggest dangers of being solo-expatriate is that there is no governor on my work habits.

I really like what I do and there is no end to the time that I can spend on it.  Worse, the US wakes up at mid-afternoon here, and the West Coast is just getting going at 5pm.  If I allow their phone calls and e-mails to hook me, I can easily stay in the office until 10 pm.  Even when I come home, the apartment is empty, and I can rationalize a hurried dinner while catching up on e-mails or pushing a bit ahead for the next day. 

The Dutch seem to have a better work-life Balance that I've tried to emulate (and accommodate). They work hard during the day, but arrive at 8:45, strictly, and leave at 5:00, strictly.  They simply don't do work outside of work, rarely joining evening phone calls or participating in a business dinner only if it's arranged at least a week ahead.

It makes sense: I don't think that the 'normal' 11-hour day and zero-vacation-day years did me any good in the US. When I went on sabbatical two years ago, I was actually 'on vacation' for the first six months, simply using up my accrued time off.  The forced simplicity of returning to school and cutting off the US workplace helped me to rediscover my ABC's: my proper Ambitions, my Balance of professional and personal sides of my life, and strengthening (and, regrettably, breaking) Connections with others.  It was a good lesson, but now that I'm back at work, I still battle my Type-A side to maintain these principles, putting them into practice each day (leaving by 5:30, for example).  At least, among the Dutch, there isn't pressure on me to break the rules.

And, on reflection, maybe there never was...


As a professional on expatriate assignment, I accept that my job is a contract, and that it will come to an end.  Some days that gives me motivation to finish my job in the allotted time; other days I make time for a talk or experience that I might otherwise have put off.  But there is always a sense of temporary-ness lurking in the background.  The role within the company, the inclusion in planning and meetings, the friendships, all will be transient.  I know that I can be recalled at any time, moved around without needing to be given a reason.

I think it comes home most outside of work, though.  There is so little in my life that is my own.  I have a wonderful car that I don't own.  I have a lovely apartment that belongs to someone else.  It is filled with pictures on the walls of places I've never been, and of people I've never met.  The furniture and plants were chosen by someone else; there are figurines on the window sill and a glass case of artifacts that hold memories for the owner.

DSC02899   DSC02896   DSC02897

My books, linens, clothes, and toiletries are my own, but little else.  It's helped me to learn how my chosen and selected surroundings do define me, and I understand how I grew, together with my house and, once, my family, to make a home.  The blustery rain beats on the darkened windows, the apartment sighs with forced ventilation and the quiet slosh of the dishwasher.  I'm lucky in lots of ways, but it all feels so impermanent and impersonal.