Archive for November, 2006

no matter what, there’s still sweat involved

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

I learned a new word today. (Actually I learn new words every day, though how many I remember is another question.) I thought the two guys in my office, discussing corporate metrics in Dutch, were talking about someone named Annalise. In Dutch that would be pronounced AH-nah-LEE-sah, and I actually thought what a pretty name it was…. until I realized that word they kept using was actually Dutch for “analyze”. It would be a *facepalm* moment, except I have a feeling that someday I may actually get a training slide out of this. Something about how useless collecting data is unless you actually analyze it and act on the information, portrayed by a character called Annalisa. (Maybe that’s just too coy.)

The Dutch phrasebooks I’ve seen all have one major omission: they’re good about teaching numbers, but they leave out the alphabet, perhaps thinking adults really don’t use the names of letters much. Only problem is that we do, for instance in spelling out names. In most cases I can get by with the Spanish names for letters, which are remarkably (well, given history, not so remarkably) similar, even in the odder (=farther from English) cases. For example, ‘y’ is pronounced ‘ee-gree-ayga’ in Spanish, ‘ee-gree-ayk” in Dutch. However, this method isn’t infallible. For one thing I don’t actually remember all of my Spanish letters! In general, Dutch vowels are much more consistent and predictable than ENglish ones. Single vowels are about the same as Spanish, and there aren’t many silent vowels, hence my comfusion with Annalisa. However, there are also diphthongs. They are also predictable, but there are a lot of them. Two vowel sounds can be placed together without blending into each other (much); with the diphthongs, this means it’s not rare at all to have three vowels together in a word. I have a bit of trouble with some consonants too – for instance remembering that ‘n’ is usually dropped in words ending in -‘en’. (So my city is usually pronounced “Eindhoveh”.) Mostly when I pronounce words wrong, I know better but am just sucuumbing to my English-language reflexes, which makes me feel a bit slow.

One interesting thing about this year’s Holiday Challenge is that since we can only really erg in the boathouse after work, Ted and I have been doing our pieces side by side. For comparable amounts of perceived effort, we calculate I take about 30% longer to do the same distance. It’s very frustrating for me. (I think I should get an extra pin at completion, or get a pin for a shorter distance, or something.) It’s a problem with a twofold cause: it’s not just that I’m slow, but also that he’s fast.  Ted’s been trying to placate me by claiming that once we start our language lessons there will be a similar gap in reverse between the speed of my progress and of his. I’m not convinced; I don’t think he’s as bad at languages or I as good as that implies. Then again, it’s not like he gets that distance on the erg without lots of sweat and hard work, just that he gets there with sweating and working hard for less time.

hangop at The Horsie

Saturday, November 25th, 2006

Just a small foodie update. Dinner tonight was very interesting. We’d had a large and late lunch, so elected to just try to find somewhere to get a bite in the neighborhood of the hotel, the the Pijp. After asking advice from the hotel clerk on which way to go, we walked a few blocks and ended up at Het Paardje (The Horsie, I think, more or less – the -je is a diminutive but doesn’t always mean literally small). It looked like a corner bar – in fact the bar took up most of the room with ables just around the edges. After Ted commented that most of the people there seemed to know each other, I kept expecting to hear “Norm!” But it was the menu that was special. It was not extensive but clearly put together by someone who knows their food. Most unusually, though frites (French fries) were available as a side dish, they weren’t automatically served with any of the dishes; instead there were potato gratin, potato puree (mashed, I’d assume) and stamppot (mashed potatoes with other vegetables mashed in, a traditional Dutch dish).

Ordering required some aid; they didn’t have an English menu, and while I can puzzle out most of the items on most menus I encounter now, this one had a lot of words I hadn’t met before. The items I did recognize featured things like Pernod-butter sauce or wild spinach. There was a bit of confusion, in fact; Ted meant to order a salad with slices of duck, or possibly duck confit, but ended up with the same salad as mine, involving wild spinach and melted goat cheese. I also had a shrimp bisque; at least the restaurateurs said it was shrimp, but the Dutch word wasn’t either of the two I’ve seen elsewhere for shrimp: kreeft instead of garnalen or gambas. Presumably it’s related to the French “crevette”, but the texture of the tiny shrimps was more like crawfish. The bisque and salad were both very good, anyway.

After dinner we ordered dessert and “fresh mint tea” (verse muntthee). I thought the word “fresh” modified “tea” – even the coffie machine at work offers “verse thee”. Instead it turned out to refer to the mint – we were offered glasses full of hot water and fresh mint sprigs. We were given honey instead of sugar to sweeten it. There were four options for dessert, including crepes with ice cream and cheese assortment. One other item was homemade “tarten van Marion – I was thinking that this might refer to marionberries, but it turned out that Marion is the woman who bakes their cakes. Ted chose her brownies. I chose a traditional Dutch dessert hangop, mostly out of curiosity. Apparently it’s made of buttermilk, or more likely of the Dutch version, karnemelk (neither of us have gotten up the nerve to taste it yet). The best way I can describe it is that it was like a whipped yogurt, just slightly heavier than whipped cream. This rendition was served with rhubarb compote. I found it best to eat the compote and hangop together in each spoonful. Very fresh tasting and not too sweet; actually I think I’d like it best for breakfast.

if my feet fall off, you’ll know why

Saturday, November 25th, 2006

So this is the weekend of Exhaustion in Amsterdam. Thursday was a full day of work followed by an hour on the ergs (first day of the Holiday Challenge – which I suspect may be impossible this year, as we leave for the cruise on Dec 16) followed by the easy 2-hour drive to Amsterdam followed by the nightmare of finding our hotel (Amsterdam street signs are few, small, and posted where they are nearly impossible to see from a car) followed by the difficult job of finding a parking space. In the process of paying for parking I realized I had either lost my PIN card (which one uses to pay for parking here) or left it home. We finally got to bed around midnght.

On Friday we got up at 7, had breakfast, had more tea at a cafe in order to collect the 18 euros in change we needed to pay for a full day of parking, walked to the American Consul on Museumplein to have our house-selling papers notarized, were pleased to learn the the only FedEX drop-off point in A’dam is within walking distance of the Consulate, walked back to Museumplein with a detour on PC Hoofdstrat for some attempted shopping, took a tour of a diamond-cutting place, and went to the Rijksmuseum. This turned out to be under construction, so they had only a small part open but had put most of the museum’s chief treasures in that area. We were just as happy, because we’d have been far too tired by then to do the whole museum. I especially wanted to see the Rembrandts and Vermeers to see if they had captured that golden Dutch light pouring out under clouds I’ve been looking out at for a month now; I’d have to say Rembrandt did, Vermeer didn’t do quite as well, though of course the paintings may also have faded a bit. Jan Steen and some of the others there definitely had caught it as well.

We’d bought Museumkaarts at the Rijksuseum that get us into some 400 musea around the country, so we also stopped in the Van Gogh Museum even though we were too weary to pay proper attention to the whole thing. I wanted to love Sunflowers, after what Bear wrote about it, but I couldn’t – it was just a bunch of bright and somewhat tawdry yellow to me (and why it was in England in April and Holland now I don’t know – maybe it was loaned out.) The one that did it for me instead was “Wheatfields under Thunderclouds”: more of that Dutch light.

We walked back to the hotel and crashed for a couple of hours, then took a tram back into the Centrum, walked around the Rid Light District a bit (in A’dam it’s a tourist attraction!), did a wee bit of ahopping, had dinner at one of the many Chinese restaurants on the next street over.

Since we hadn’t managed to purchase any of our holiday presents yesterday, today was dedicated to shopping – NOT Ted’s favorite sport, but he held up admirably for a few hourse. We took the tram to Muntplein, visited the Bloemenmarkt (floating flower markets) and another couple of stores near it, then walked along the very crowded Kalverstraat up to the Dam, stopping here and there (I am being purposefully vague, if you can’t tell) and in the two big English-language bookstores (one American, one British) for me to stock up a bit. After a stop at a cafe, we took the tram back and it was rest time again. Ted was making noises about going to use the ergs at a gym nearby, but considering he’s been sound asleep for an hour I think that may not happen.

If we don’t manage to finish the Holiday Challenge this year, it would be a bit sad: we’ve done the full 200,000 meters between Thanksgiving and Xmas every year for at least 5 years now. However, it began Thursday, we’re in a hotel without an erg this weekend (walking our feet off), we’ll be visiting Munster next weekend (small hotel=probably no erg, Christmas Markets=tons more walking), and we’ll be on a cruise from December 16 until after Xmas. And we have to use the ergs in the (cold, TV-less) boathouse at the moment because our own won’t arrive until Friday Dec 1, and most days we don’t leave work until after 6. Ted sitll thinks it’s doable, but I don’t see how. I probably will try for at least the 100,000 meter level, though, just to maintain continuity.

they all went down to Amsterdam

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2006

Last night we had our intake interview for our Dutch lessons – unfortunately, we may not be able to begin them until January, because we’ll be out of town from mid-December through the end of the year.

We will be having a non-traditional Thanksgiving this year. First we’re working, then if we can get out early enough Ted wants to erg for an hour and a half – tomorrow is the start of the Concept II Holiday Challenge. Then we’ll be coming home, showering, grabbing some dinner, and driving to Amsterdam, a couple hours away. (At least Ted agreed this is only practical if we can leave work a bit early.) The trip to A’dam is so that we can be in line when the US Consul opens their doors at 8:30, because they are the only ones we know of in this country who can do US notarization. The title agent involved in selling our house sent us some documents to sign at the end of last week, for us to get them signed, (US) notarized, and returned to her by this coming Monday. We did discuss giving our realtor a power of attorney before we left, but never ended up doing that, so we get to do the whole A’dam trip. I wouldn’t be so annoyed if the title chick didn’t keep blithely chirping, “Well, Well, that’s why we sent them in plenty of time!” Wrong, and with how little notice can *you* take a day off work, lady? It wouldn’t be a problem for me, but Ted’s been swamped.

When we stop at Subway, we may get turkey sandwiches. On the other hand, I can’t really complain. We do get a weekend in Amsterdam out of all this – while we’re there, we’re staying through Sunday morning.

Sinterklaas arrives in Eindhoven

Sunday, November 19th, 2006

Yesterday, we went to see Sinterklaas’ arrival into Eindhoven. He comes on a boat from where he lives on the coast of Spain, along with his helpers, the Zwarte Piets (Black Peters). Sinterklaas clearly has a much easier life than Santa Claus, between the hanging out on beaches in Spain instead of at the North Pole and having the help – here the Zwarte Piets do all the work of going down the chimneys. Sinterklaas is dressed a bit more in keeping with the historic bishop St Nicholas; right around Halloween we saw a mitre in a store window that was small and fuzzy. We couldn’t figure why a kid would want to dress up as the Pope until we ralized that of course it wasn’t a Pope hat but a bishop’s mitre, for dressing up as Sinterklaas.

There was a crowd of people out to watch him coming to town, with lots of kids in costume as either Zwarte Piet or Sinterklaas himself (the smaller thumbnails are links – click on them to see a larger image). We had a perfect view from the balcony of the rowing club boathouse, not to mention plenty of warming cups of chocolate or tea.

Before the saint arrived, the crowd was entertained by a wide assortment of Zwarte Piets. (Note: The Dutch stoically ignore the non-PC aspect of Piet – someone told us in previous centuries he was actually dressed as Sinterklaas’ slave, with a chain around his ankle. Now they’re trying to figure out how to reconcile a beloved tradition with a tradition of tolerance, and in the meantime ignoring the whole issue to keep the kids happy. We did notive that though there were black families in the crown, none of their kids were in Piet-gear.) There were soccer-Piets, hula-Piets juggling Piets and even an Elvis Piet .

Finally, Sinterklaas’ boat arrived.

Sinterklaas disembarked and climbed onto a stage where he was welcomed by the mayor of Eindhoven.

Meanwhile, his horse was carefully guarded:

After some short speeches and a lot of music, a band formed up and led the parade, with Sinterklaas on his spotted horse
and a truckload of Piets and they all paraded off into the city.

differences and universalities

Wednesday, November 15th, 2006

I tell you, every day is an adventure here. A few minutes ago I put some money into a vending machine. As it fell down, the chocolate cookie-sort-of-thing I had chosen (item 41) got stuck on something else (item 61). I had a bit of extra change, so I decided to get the something else and save it for a snack another time. However, the machine decided instead to give me item 62, which was identical to item 61, but which was not the thing holding my other item in place. So now I am down €1.30 and I only have one snack. That’s not a particulalry Dutch thing, of course; American vending machines jam all the time too. The difference is that, had this been an American vending mahcine, I’d probably have known what, exactly, item 62 was. When I said something about it, the group of guys who had been standing there attempting unsuccessfully to help me by hitting the machine in strategic places (another universal) said, “It’s a gevulde koek!”

I think they were being sarcastic, or maybe they really didn’t know how else to describe it. Anyhow, I had figured that much already, having learned how to read some years ago. I could even make a guess at the literal translation, “filled cake”, without needing to consult my dictionary. That still wasn’t much help.  It turned out to be sort of a little round pie, maybe 4″ in diameter and lens-shaped, with a delicate almond paste between the top and bottom crusts. Quite tasty.

Another difference is that a US vending machine would not have had three separate types of licorice, one with candies that were each half banana-flavor, half licorice. Without buying any, I couldn’t tell if any of the licorice was salted instead of sweet.

Speaking of that, microwave popcorn can be obtained here in either sweet or salty versions. The sweet kind isn’t bad: it involves real sugar and not an excessive amount of it. (You can buy microwave kettle corn in the US, but it’s usually made with sucralose – yuck!)

People at work often refer to business “metricses”, which always makes it sound like Gollum as Quality Consultant.

The weekend before last, the adventure part was when we went to Utrcht; they were working on the train tracks, so sent us in a bus the last part of the way. Even a little deviation is more of an adventure when you don’t know your way around or understand all of the announcements, though of course it’s made considerably easier when railroad personnel can reliably answer questions in English. Last weekend we went to a local modern art museum, the van Abbe, so the only strange part was some of the art, and it was meant to be. The building was beautiful and I’m sure the exhibits were well designed, but it turns out modern art exhibits leave us just as baffled and unexcited in Europe as in America. As I said, some things are universal.


Sunday, November 12th, 2006

Paula asked a silly question last weekend as we got off the train in Utrecht, “Do you want to go to the Catharijneconvent museum or take the tower tour first?” Any one who has known me for long should know that I want to go to the top of everything, and that will always come first. From what my parents say, this started at a very young age. At every family gathering the stories of me as young boy pointing to a tall nearby object and saying, “Help’erTop!” are always recounted. They tell me one of my favorite things to do was to get my dad to carry me up to the top anything tall. I guess this continued until I became too big to carry and/or the items I pointed to become too tall.

So the first thing we did when we arrived in Utrecht was to follow the Oudergracht canal to the Domkerk tower to purchase tickets for the tour. The Domkerk tower is a very impressive 100 meter tall tower that was built as part of St. Maartenskathedraal between 1254 and 1517. However, in 1674 there was a tornado that devastated the nave of the church between the tower and the transept of the cathedral. The devastated nave was never rebuilt so the tower now stands as a separate structure, making it that much more impressive.

The tour of the Domkerk tower was excellent. The tour guide was very knowledgeable, energetic, and best of all fluent in English. We climbed the narrow passageway to the first rest stop which was the once living quarters for the tower keeper, which looked just like a room in a castle. We then continued the climb to the ringer bell level. This is where the very large bells that are manually rung hang. One of the bells is the 2nd largest in Europe and creates an awesome sound and intense vibrations, even when hit with a tiny rubber mallet. The next level was at the base of the carillon bells. These are the bells that can be played by the bell player who sits in a small room in the middle of the bells or by the automatic system that plays a tune every 1/4 hour. We were lucky enough to be at this level on the hour so we got to be a part of the playing bells, plus we could feel the large hour bell in addition to hearing it. This level was totally exposed so we could look out over the city in all directions. I actually thought this was the end of the tour because the remaining roof structure above us was held up by a very thin, ornate, and open structure. But to my surprise there was a very small circular staircase build into one of the pillars that allowed us to climb another 20+ meters to the very top. This circular staircase was one of the smallest staircases I have ever been in and was so tightly wound it actually made me dizzy climbing up it. The 360 degree view from the top was great: you could see the outline of the Roman castle, the flying saucer that crashed into the new government building (Dutch modern architecture), and the numerous canals that radiate through the city.

rowing pictures

Sunday, November 12th, 2006

Yesterday, I passed my rowing test (so now I can out alone in a single – I was already allowed to go out with someone else) and then Lieke and I took a double out for a row. Ted, who had rowed a double in the morning, brought the camera and took some pictures. I’ve tried to include photos here that let you see the canal and how narrow it is (just barely wide enough to turn a boat in most places), the scenery beside it, and the other boat traffic on the canal. You can see the name of our boat in one of the pictures – like most of the Beatrix boats, the Rissebeek is named after a small Dutch river somewhere.

one more thing

Thursday, November 9th, 2006

While I’m on the subject of food, I would also like to say that whoever decided putting tuna on pizza was a good idea is very, very wrong. (I didn’t eat it on purpose. We went for pizza with the company rowing club (!) and that was one of the pizzas available – the cheese-covered lumps fooled me. I thought it was a nice innocuous mushroom, onion and extra cheese ‘za.)

So far, I don’t really have any complaints about life here that I can’t match with complaints about life in the US – I never thought anchovies on pizza were a good idea either.

However, we washed down the pizza with pints of expertly poured Guinness from the Irish bar two blocks from our apartment. Can’t knock that.

not all new experiences are good ones

Wednesday, November 8th, 2006

When you move to a foreign country, every day is an adventure, at least in some small way. Yesterday’s adventures centered around food. I still have no idea what was in that pastry I had at lunch, for instance. (The cafeteria has signs over the food. I didn’t see one in this case, but decided to be daring.) No one else could quite figure it out either, but it involved small chunks of what was probably pork in something mushy, bright yellow, and tasting faintly of curry, all inside slightly greasy pastry.

For dinner we went out to sample a major cuisine we’d missed that’s very common here: Indonesian food. Verdict: two thumbs down. I have a vague memory that we went to an Indonesian place and liked it in Amsterdam ten years ago, but maybe it was a different variant. We have no reason to think the restaurant we visited last night didn’t prepare the food well: we think it’s just a mode of cooking we don’t like.Wanting to taste the classic dish, we ordered a rijstaffel, which consists of rice accompanied by many small dishes – 14 in this case. The meal began badly with an extremely greasy Javanese chicken soup. Ted decided it had too much meat in it, a thing I’d never heard him say about anything. After that they put some small warming tables (heated by candles) on our dinner table, and brought out rice, several small dishes containing beef, pork or chicken in assorted sauces, and some fruit / vegetable dishes also in sauces. We did like the fried and sweetened coconut there to sprinkle on the other dishes, and I didn’t mind the kimchi’i-like cabbage dish or the things remsembling small empanadas that turned out to be fried bananas, and there were a couple of beef dishes I didn’t mind. Otherwise, however, if we ever decide to do Indonesian again it will be elsewhere and we’ll be ordering individual dishes rather than rijstaffel.


On the other hand, our experiences of last weekend were good ones. I passed my coxing exam at the rowing club and can now cox any boat (that can understand commands in English. The exam was pretty funny, because it featured me coxing Ted and Lieke (the woman I’ve been rowing a double with) in a touring double built more like a canoe than a racing scull. On Sunday we went to Utrecht and visited the Dom Tower and the Museum Catherijneconvent, but I’m hoping to get Ted to write that up. (If he doesn’t, I will.) For Ted’s family, it will come as no surprise that the words “Help’er top!” were appropriate to the visit.