Archive for the ‘learning our way around’ Category

why buy American?

Friday, April 27th, 2012

Someone asked me why I buy and bring back so much stuff from the US. Isn’t Dutch stuff good enough? The answer is, lots of reasons, depending on the kind of stuff.

  • Clothing: It’s a lot cheaper in the US, and also, I’m just too small to fit into a lot of Dutch clothes. (Actually, Ted got his work trousers, shirts, and a couple of suits tailor-made for him when we lived in Taiwan, and he gets more now and then on trips back there. Can’t beat handmade!)
  • Electronics: The same stuff is available, but it’s much cheaper in the US.
  • Food: I bring back a bag of my favorite pretzels whenever we go, because here all they have is “zoutsticks”, little pretzel sticks. They’re too small to be satisfying and so I eat too many. I also get pretzels whenever we’re in Germany. There’s lots of candy and cookies available here but I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. Also, we stock up on Clif Bars and protein bars and Luna bars because they don’t sell them here (except Powerbars at a few specialty stores). They give you a bit of nutrition without upsetting your stomach and we find them extremely useful when you need to eat something before sports, say on a regatta day. Dutch people tend to eat plain bread for this or ‘breakfast breads’ but since the bars have protein in them and are a little denser, I think they relieve hunger and stay with you better, without taking much volume.
  • Over-the-counter meds: Here’s where it gets complicated, because there are a bunch of reasons:
    1. Things they don’t have here. They don’t have Nyquil or an equivalent. It’s not that it relieves cold symptoms better than anything else, it’s that it puts you to sleep while doing so and lets you (me, anyway) wake up without being groggy. So helpful when you have a cold!
    2. Things that are cheaper here. They have multivitamins here, including our usual brand, but they cost a lot more.
    3. Things I don’t understand. It’s not you, Dutch products, it’s me – as far as I can tell, things like Claritin (for allergies) and Excedrin (for migraines) aren’t sold here but have close or exact equivalents, but I can’t read the box fluently enough to be sure. Especially when I’m sick!
    4. Things we just like better. We prefer the taste of Crest (not sold outside the US, for some reason) over Colgate or Aquafresh (sold in Europe and Asia). As far as I know, they’re all equally effective, this is just a subjective preference. (Actually, this is no longer true – these days we are getting old and we use a Dutch brand of toothpaste made for sensitive teeth. In fact, we have a tube of Sensadyne at the Oregon hose and I think the Dutch stuff works better. It tastes faintly of licorice, though.) On the other hand, I’ve been using Q-Tip brand (cotton swabs) since I began buying my own consumables; they have more cotton on the tips than any other brand I’ve used in the US or anywhere else. Other brands just feel like you’re inserting a sharp stick in your ear and don’t seem to have enough fluff thee to either clean or dry them.

So the short version is, I buy US stuff when either they don’t have it or I can’t fit it here, or when it’s much cheaper in the US, or when I just like a particular brand better. Or when I’m too stupid to figure out the equivalent Dutch product.

blue laws

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

You’d think a people with the history as great traders would be able to get the hang of being merchants and shoppers, but apparently not.

One feature of Dutch life that has gotten more convenient since we lived here in 2006-7, is that supermarkets are now open on Sundays from 4-8PM. (I have no idea why those seemed like the right hours to choose – shopping for dinner, maybe.) At least, that’s the theory.

In practice, not so much. Last week I wanted a couple of things I knew they carried at the Jan Linders but not at the biggest chain, Albert Heijn. So I walked on over, taking a heavy bag full of glass bottles with me. There’s a closer place to recycle them, but I decided to carry them further, to the supermarket, so I could return them for the deposit. But nope! Apparently Jan Linders does *not* open on Sundays. At least I got to dump off the bottles at the recycle bin, but I was tired from the rowing machine and would have much preferred to skip the whole.trip.

This weekend, I needed a few things, but of course I’d learned my lesson. So this time I headed off to Albert Heijn, sure that it, at least, would be open. Nnnnnnope. There was a sign on the door saying more or less “Sorry, we didn’t feel like opening today. We’ll be here next Sunday, we promise.” (Yes, I am exaggerating. It just said they were closed and would be open next Sunday.)

In a short-term flowering of commerce, all of the stores, not just groceries, will be open next Sunday, as an extra shopping Sunday before Sinterklaasdag (Dec 6, St. Nicholas’s Day, when Dutch children traditionally get presents instead of on Christmas.) We’ll miss that because we’ll be having more fun visiting relatives in Germany but frankly it loses some of the excitement when you’re used to living in places where shopping on Sundays is normal. (Actually, stores in central Amsterdam and Rotterdam are open on Sunday afternoons, but the idea is slow to spread.)

If you’re wondering, most people here are not religious and don’t go to church on Sundays, so it’s not that. On the other hand, lots of people don’t like even the limited Sunday supermarket hours, because you end up going then and it makes the day less relaxing. Personally I find it makes the whole weekend less relaxing when you can only do all your errands on one day, but I suppose it’s all what you’re used to.

Crowley spoke Dutch??

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Half the fun of learning Dutch, for me at least, is hearing the echoes of an older English. (I’m pretty sure that Kind Alfred and his compatriots would have found the Zeelanders of their time intelligible, or nearly so.) On my way home from my second Dutch lesson tonight, I realized that Aleister Crowley, in trying to sound archaic, was very nearly speaking Dutch. “An ye will, so mote it be” translates to “Als je wil, zo moet het zijn” (I think – not sure about that weird case of ‘to be’ and if it would really take the infinitive form). I knew about “will” in the older English sense of “want”, as in “as you will”, but hadn’t realized the moet-mote connection before.

That last word is closer than it looks, too, because the Dutch for “to be” is almost as irregular as the English:
I am -> ik ben we are -> wij zijn
you are -> je bent you (pl) are -> julllie zijn
he is -> hij is they are -> zij zijn
Note that ‘hij’ and ‘zij’ are pronounced respectively as ‘hay’ and ‘zay’ (well, nearly) and the connections are closer still. Looking at it, I’d guess that the Dutch, like the English, evolved from the mashing up of two or three roots that meant slightly different flavors of “to be” – which gets even more likely when you reflect that Spanish still has two words for it, “ser” and “estar”

Of course Spanish is Romance while English and Dutch are Germanic, but they’re all Indo-European. Anyway, English has a strong Romance influence from the centuries when it was ruled by Normans (not that they ever lost power, just that they integrated) and Spain ruled the Netherlands for a while, plus there’s a lot of borrowing from French due to proximity.

Anyway, I thought it was cool. Dutch is easy for an English speaker with a good ear to pick up anyway – my mom was nearly reading menus after a w

around Taipei

Saturday, September 12th, 2009

It’s been an interesting couple of days. Last night I went to a wine-tasting – Sommelier holds one every month where you pay an entry fee and then can drink as much as you want of any of all of a variety of wines. Ted’s in the netherlands, so I went alone – a friend at work was planning to go, but couldn’t make it. It’s more fun going out with people, but it’s often more interesting going out alone – you’re much more likely to talk to new people.

Things I learned: from the work-friend, who knows that area better than I do, that Wellman’s is right near it – that’s a store that sells US brands of food. It’s apparently largely junk food and prepackaged crap (the sort of crap expats might crave, like Kraft Mac’n’Cheese) but they also sell turkeys at Thanksgiving. I’m not much into Spam or Cheez Whiz and even if I wanted Doritos the local supermarket carries them, but I think I’ll check it out next week since I have a party nearby. You never know; maybe they have good pretzels. Or Luna Bars.

From a bunch of women I was talking to at the wine tasting, I learned something very important. I’d known Australia was very strict about sharp implements on planes – I’ve taken my knitting on planes all over the world, but I won’t be able to take it when we fly there next month. (I will put it in checked luggage, so I can knit at the regatta.) What I didn’t know was that they also don’t allow any food to be brought into the country, even in sealed packages. So we can’t take our Powerbars or have our US friends bring any. Hopefully we’ll be able to find some reasonable substitute there. (Eating local food is part of the experience while traveling, yes, but it’s not really something you want to do while you’re competing.) The women I was talking to all knew each other – people who don’t work and who are motivated to get out and get involved do seem to be able to make other expat friends more easily! Our problems with meeting people are that the majority of our Taiwanese coworkers live close to work, not in Taipei, and most of the expats at work are Dutch. We do hang out with some of them, but they tend, understandably, to socialize most often with other Dutch people or through the Dutch club.

Today I went to Ximending, in quest of a shop for embroidered and beaded shoes someone at work told me about. She gave me a map. but it was only in Chinese, and I wanted to walk around a bit anyway. I started at the Red House, an old theater that’s now an artisan’s market (and is apparently the city’s center for gay nightlife –
I’d been told a while back that the gay clubs were all in a plaza, but didn’t know where it was until I looked up the Red House just now! It was quiet in the day time, but some of the shops were interesting – I bought some earrings with handmade glass drops. The rest of Ximending was already buzzing by afternoon, though! Most people there were under twenty, and most of the shops weren’t all that unique, other than at the Red House – it reminded me of Copenhagen’s shopping pedestrian area, actually. I eventually found the shoe plae, and learned that its current proprietor is the third generation to run it. I bought machine-made shoes, under US$20 a pop, but am regretting now I didn’t buy some of the handmade ones. There were only a few, because apparently there are very few craftsmen left who can make them; even so, the handmade ones were under US$100. (Sorry, I will not be bringing shoes back as presents for family; I was able to find shoes that fit, but I don’t think they had any bigger than my size 8s.)

Next I went to the Breeze Center, a very high-end shopping center (as in, Cartier and YSL on their “luxury” floor, though other floors are more affordable) in hopes that I’d be able to find some of the varied stuff on my shopping list, but the crafts store failed me, the clothing stores didn’t seem to have any belts, and the bookstore was closed. At least I got the housewares I needed. Taipei shopping is organized by regions, so I will have to go to the “DIY street” to find my craft stuff. (If I’m very lucky I can find a belt to fit in my local mall and the bookstore there will have the map I need.)

Edited to add: I thought there was an earthquake while I was typing this entry!

because several people have asked…

Monday, August 10th, 2009

We’re fine. Taipei is ringed by mountains all around and they tend to protect us from the worst of any storms. Also, we only really got the first half of this one; the rest went south.

There was a lot of damage on the east coast, as there always is, because that’s where storms hit first. That’s where that hotel is that collapsed. (Well south of where we had intended to spend Saturday night, because we were going to go row this past weekend until the weather decided not to cooperate.) There have been terrible landslides, with some entire towns buried. The official numbers are currently 23 people dead, 32 injured and 56 missing but those numbers will rise much higher when rescuers can get into the areas of greatest damage; another news story says “Xiaolin Village in Gaoxiong County was one of the worst hit areas from the storm, with hundreds still missing after the entire village was buried under a landslide. Rescuers say 170 residents out of around 600 survived the mudslides.” I don’t know how long this link will stay current, but here are some of the stories.

out in the heat

Saturday, July 4th, 2009

I think I overdid things a little today. Ted’s away in the Netherlands so I decided to celebrate our anniversary by treating myself to a trip to the bookstore (only the big ones downtown have much selection in English). Today was the very first day the MRT line trough our neighborhood (and beyond) was open so I decided to brave the crowds. It’s about a ten-minute walk from our house, and it’s a hot day but there was enough cloud cover not to be really blazing. The line into town was about like the Philadelphia El during rush hour on a weekday, but then when I switched to the east/west line (not newly opened!) there were were even seats free – I hope that’s more representative of what normal Saturday crowds will be like once things settle down.

I went first to the Eslite flagship store as it’s closest to the MRT stop there – only about five minutes’ walk to three floors of bookstore plus four more of mall. I started with a cup of watermelon juice in the food court (why do we not have watermelon juice in the US? It’s awfully tasty and not terribly complicated to make – put watermelon chunks in a blender, blend, drink) because by after the walk and standing on the train I needed something wet. An hour or so later, I decided to head on south to Page One, because I wasn’t quite used up yet and the books I’d bought were light. That may have been a mistake, because that’s a lot hot walk, though at least there was shade. I stopped first for some food (tomato/mozzerella salad), but had to wait a while to be seated ad then again to be served, and by then the crowds were getting to me. I did a quick browse through Page One, picked up another couple of books, and headed home, where I am currently much enjoying the quiet and lack of other people (well, I wouldn’t mind if Ted were here………..) and letting my brain grow back.

Funny, because I don’t think my day would have been terribly stressful to a Taiwanese person, but between my Yankee lack of heat tolerance (though Taiwan is really not nearly as bad as Houston – couldn’t have done the walking at all there, even if they had public mass transit or anything in walking distance from it) and my Western attitude to crowds (i.e. I’d really rather not be in one, given the choice) It was pretty draining.

Yesterday I worked from home because I had visits with both my eye doctor and dentist. At the former, I learned that my right and left eyes now see 20/18 and 20/20 respectively – I think I can call the LASIK an unqualified success. I’m very happy with the clinic I went to also (Clinic 20/20, near the American school) – they’re clean and very professional, and not only the doctor but most of the clinic staff speak pretty good English. The dentist was for a cleaning, but there is one of the things I’ll miss when we leave Taiwan. This place is much better than our last US dentist (whose main virtue was accepting our insurance) and the hygienists here are very gentle, but the thing that is very Taiwanese to me is that, since they keep the place fairly cold, if I walk in wearing a skirt the techs will put a blanket over me. In the US you sometimes here about “Minnesota nice” or sometime “Canada nice”; I wonder if it’s much like “Taiwan kind”?

“do Americans drink Coke too?”

Monday, June 15th, 2009

On Saturday I had a haircut scheduled, so we decided to have dinner at the excellent Japanese place down the street from the salon. Oops. Fortunately we’d eaten early, a combination lunch/dinner, because it was only as we walked into our building’s lobby that we remembered there was a party/dinner for all residents that we’d promised to attend. Oops. So we had to eat a second dinner from the buffet there, or at least enough to be polite. Fortunately, sushi is one of those foods that wears off quickly.

We spent most of the time talking to the family who own the apartment we rent – Karen, the mother, speaks excellent English. They have an adorable daughter, maybe 9 or 10, and I don’t think she had met any Americans to speak to before. Her questions (with her mom translating)included:
– whether we liked Coke (we were drinking it at the time)
– whether we also get hiccups when we drink Coke too fast
– whether we dye our hair these color (for the record: no. I pulled up my bangs and showed her the same-color roots.)

Then she wanted to arm-wrestle me. 🙂 For being a kid a head shorter than I am, she’s strong! I had to use some muscle to win.

So that was Saturday’s fun.

Sunday morning, wegot to Costco at 11, instead of 10 as we’d planned and actually ended up leavin gin frustration at not being able to find any parking spaces. Sunday afternoon was better: I went to get a fitting for a dress I’m having made (for me! To actually fit right!). Predictably, it was too small in the armholes and a little in the stomach, but those can be fixed; that’s what fittings are for. I also brought in a pair of pants whose lining had ripped; the tailor determined that they could just be repaired instead of needing a new lining and she fixed them by hand for me, for free.

Since that didn’t take much time and I didn’t have to rush home, I decided to walk around a bit. As I was passing one of the storefront foot-masseage place, a woman asked me, “Massage-ee?” I demurred, walked on, then thought to myself, “Are you insane? You have the time for once, and a decent place to try,” and went back. It wasn’t a fancy spa, just one of ones that are common here with lots of chairs with ottomans (all covered in bright green vinyl) where you see people getting foot massages. Also, it was right by a hotel catering to foreigners, so I knew they’d be used to dealing with clueless first-timers.

It turned out they did more than just feet; they offered me a full-body massage for $1000NT for anhour (about $30US, probably on the expensive side here courtesy of the nearby hotel). The young male masseur began by having me sit in a chair while he worked on my shoulders. Massage here mostly seems to be shiatsu style – for this part he found the sore spots and then applied lots of pressure.

Next, he handed me some floppy long shorts to put on under my dress for coverage, then led me to the foot massage area. That was my favorite part, the foot/calf massage. The funniest thing was that the lotion came from a Vidal Sasson conitioner squirt bottle. (I presume it was lotion and that he was just reusing the bottle, rather than applying conditioner to my legs!) He finished by wrapping my feet and legs in hot towels for a few minutes, then playing percussion on my legs and soles. (Seriously. The man could have been a drummer.)

Finally he led me into the back room, had me lay on a massage table, covered me (still fully dressed) with towels, and proceeded to apply lots of pressure to various part of my back. (The other thing that puzzles me, considering how fine-boned many people here are, is why there aren’t a lot of broken ribs that way.) He also stretched out my hip joints nicely. I’m not entirely convinced that so much pressure right over the kidneys is a good idea, and my throat’s a little sore on one side today (drained lymph glands?) but I’m definitely feeling nicely loosened up. Next I need to try the new Thai traditional massage place in my neighborhood.

We have a regatta coming up this weekend, and it might not have been the best idea to get deep-tissue massage so close to it, but oh well.

My eyes are doing fairly well. I don’t have to wear safety glasses inside any more and can wash my face normally now, but I’m still using three kinds of eyedrops and still have a few more follow-up visits. I can tell they get tired more quickly still and are still a little more sensitive than normal, but I can see well, including enough near vision to do lace or sock-knitting without glasses. (I do feel a little eyestrain focusing on the socks in that car, and am going easy on that for now.) Friday Ted took the day off and I drove to and from work with no problem, even after it got dark on the way hoe. So far, so good.

a thousand stories in the naked city

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

The thing about Taiwan is, it’s never boring. Every time you go out there is something surreal or something new, a small annoyance or a tiny triumph. Today dragonboat practice provided all four, and we were the surreal element. First I went to 7-11 to pay a couple of bills, only to be told I couldn’t – they weren’t bills, just receipts from auto-payments. Which is nice, but reminds me of how much I hate being functionally illiterate. Then I caught a cab to the bar where we practice; it was a triumph when I was first able to give an address to a taxi driver, or tell him when to turn left or turn right, but this may have been the first time I understood what a driver was saying to me in Mandarin (basically, I handed him the card of the place, he studied it a bit, I asked “OK ma” (= OK?) and he replied with the equivalent of “Yeah, yeah, I know it.”) Then since I’d caught the cab on the wrong side of the street we went down some different streets than usual and I was pleased to notice a new Thai traditional massage place right around the corner from home.

Our dragonboat races are this weekend, so tonight was not really a practice, just a change to hand out the shirts and caps we’ll be wearing. A few people showed up who hadn’t been at practices before, and we did a bit of, er, ‘sweep rowing’ with our brooms for photo ops. With more people there we were in the main area of the bar instead of at one end, and the bar was a sea od Dutch orange – I think we provided the surreal experience of the night for a number of patrons. Unfortunately, my camera battery was dead, so I don’t have pictures.

I was thinking on the way home, there are a thousand stories in this city, and not all of them are Taiwanese. I’m getting a picture of the Philippines from here, too. Filipinos I knew back in the US had mostly been of fairly high status back in the Philippines; they emigrated because of a change in the family fortunes, or to give their kids more freedoms and more options, or because they were on the wrong side of a political change. Now I’m getting a picture of a country with a sharp divide between rich and poor; a lot of the Filipinos here seem to have emigrated to escape poverty. Taiwan is a lot closer and presumably easier to get to. Many work as maid or caretakers of some kind (they speak English and so are in demand among expats; our biweekly cleaning people are Filipino). There’s a whole infrastructure for sending packages or money to relatives back home, as with Mexicans in the US, and as in the US there are some issues with workers who don’t have proper permits to work. But two data points isn’t much to base a theory on, and of course I could be totally wrong.

Your assignment for today:

Friday, May 15th, 2009

Convey the message “If you spend NT$300 more [~US$10] you can get a VIP card worth 10% discount,” using only a calculator and body language.

Yeah, me neither. But the clerk at Burt’s Bees managed it, after we established that I speak only a few words of Chinese and she speaks scarcely more English. People here really are astonishingly nice to foreigners (even when there’s not a profit involved).

Also, yet another reason to love living in the future: I walked to the mall tonight for a dinner of teppanyaki and gelato. Try that in 1957!
(The teppanyaki, maybe, since Japan controlled this island until WWII. But with whiskey-flavored gelato?)

getting around Taipei

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

RIding in Taiwanese taxicabs can be … interesting, where by “interesting” I mean “prone to make me want to curl into fetal position and cover my head with my arms”. Yesterday, for example, travel to and from dry-land dragonboat practice (in a bar) featured both a left turn followed by another quick left with driving in the oncoming-traffic lane for 30m between the two turns, and driving most of the way across the Dazhi bridge in the scooter lane.

And coming home from dinner Monday night I get to hear the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. (Are the BeeGees still alive? Given that Air Supply is coming back again soon after a sell-out tour last year, I’d bet they’d do well here.)

Of course there are upsides to all of this. FOr one thing, those were two of my four, count’em four social engagements this week. Especially with Ted in the Netherlands again, it’s nice to go out and talk to people. (The other two are on-the-water dragonboat practice Saturday and teaching beading techniques to my boss’s wife Sunday.)

Even more important, I think that one thing I will greatly miss after we get back to the US is having the freedom of the city even after dark. I love being able to go places on my own when I need to, even being able to walk on city streets safely.