Thursday, March 28, 2013

Random Supermarket

I really should document the variety of butter sculptures available to the supermarket consumer throughout the year. I was a little disappointed not to see any butter bunnies. What molded butter statue will they have next month?

Every time the store has these things, I start thinking about this trailer, and then it makes me want to go to the Iowa State Fair.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Becoming Dutch, prt. 2

Do you ever have events in your life that you think aren't going to be a big deal before they happen, but in actuality it's a very important moment in your life? That's how I felt about the day I became a Dutch citizen. In the weeks leading up to the ceremony I barely discussed the ceremony with anyone, taking on a happy but relaxed tone about the whole thing. Privately during my quiet moments, I was in turn excited and very nervous about getting up  in front of a large crowd of people. I kept worrying that I would mispronounce the words or that I would trip and fall on the stage with everyone watching or that people would judge me as not being Dutch enough. During this whole process I have contemplated what it means to take on a new nationality. In this globalized world, the role of the nation-state is not what it used to be, and we have culturally assigned a different meaning to citizenship, but I am struggling to put into words what that meaning is exactly. I have especially tried to think about what it means to have dual citizenship.

Before the ceremony began, old films of Amsterdam were projected behind the podium. Very cool.
I've loosely followed parliamentary debates in the Netherlands on the question of dual citizenship. In certain situations (like mine), holding two passports is allowed, but that doesn't mean certain political parties aren't opposed to the practice. Dual citizenship can be a difficult concept to wrap your head around, especially because granting citizenship to an individual requires an oath of loyalty to a nation. There is a worry that loyalty to two countries could possibly create a dilemma for individuals in certain situations. I found this report from the Migration Policy Institute to be quite helpful in explaining the issues some people have with dual nationality. For me, at least, dual citizenship has more to do with my concept of identity than it does with any question of loyalty. It goes without saying that I, of course, feel loyal to the Netherlands; my husband, my daughter and my home are all here. I read Dutch newspapers, shop in Dutch supermarkets, follow Dutch politics and celebrate Dutch holidays with my Dutch family. I look forward to voting and having a say in the place I call home. It has been difficult at times to acclimate to life in a new country, but I can honestly say that I feel settled here. Things that used to irritate me I now pass off as quirky and just part of life. When Niek's friends start waxing nostalgic about their youth, however, I start to feel like an observer looking in on a past I can understand but cannot relate to.

Here I am not stuttering or falling across the stage.
How could I ever not feel like an American when my childhood and a good chunk of my adulthood are rooted in the U.S.? It's part of my identity and not one that I could just forget. My parents and some close friends are American and still live there. In this digital age, I can read American papers every day if I want to, although I am sometimes very thankful to be removed from the 24-hour, American news cycle. I'm actually really grateful that the construct of dual citizenship exists. It affords me the opportunity to create a new identity in a hyper-connected world--at least, the Netherlands and the U.S. feel deeply intertwined within my own identity. I can't help but think how different it is for me than for immigrants from only a century ago. My grandparents used to tell stories about their childhood and their parents' identities as Americans. My great-grandparents immigrated to the U.S., and when their children were born they were brought up to be "American" with very few ties to the old country. Sure, their cuisine was tinted with the flavors of central Europe and their Catholic parish was comprised almost entirely of immigrant families from Yugoslavia. Despite living in a neighborhood full of families just like theirs, my grandparents only ever spoke English in their homes, having been told by their immigrant parents that Americans only spoke English. There is a passage in the novel, Middlesex, describing a ceremony at the Ford Motor Company for new immigrant employees that struck such a chord with me, because it reminded me of my grandparents' stories. All the employees start the pageant in the traditional dress of their homelands before descending into a pot and then remerging as "Americans" all dressed in similar looking suits. Becoming Dutch felt nothing like shedding my past the way it must have been for immigrants only a few generations ago. It no longer feels necessary or even right to renounce my past. I get the sense that their is a collective acceptance for dual nationalities, and I don't feel any friction with this new identity.

Those were my thoughts leading up to the naturalization ceremony. The night before I couldn't sleep from all the excitement, and before leaving for the ceremony I put my hair up four different times before I felt it was right (not apparent in the blurry photo below). In a room with lots of other families about 50 people made an oath to be loyal and true citizens to the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The speech emphasized tolerance and respect for difference: a multi-culti moment that felt a little forced but was a nice sentiment, nonetheless. They didn't call my name until almost the very end. I think they went in random order, so there was really no warning when it would be my turn.

It's official! I'm Dutch now.
After the ceremony they served Dutch foods like cheese cubes and bitterballen (fried meat balls). I didn't have any of it because I was busy chasing after this one:
She walks now and does not sit still.
My family, bless them, marked the occasion with a few Dutch presents to make my transformation into citizen complete. I now have a sandwich box for my lunch, which came complete with a cheese sandwich and licorice (gross!). Do you see the cookbook with pea soup on the cover? That slim volume is full of Dutch cuisine recipes. I can sum it up for you with just a few ingredients: potatoes, peas, sausage, apples.

I applied for my passport last week, and that's when my new identity finally become something tangible. I looked down on my passport application and saw my nationality listed as Dutch. It feels very real now, and I'm happy about that. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Becoming Dutch

After my very old MacBook up and died more than a month ago, I thought that I would deal with the transition to a computerless existence pretty well. I have an iPad mini and a wireless keyboard, so I thought that I could handle most daily tasks. That was an error in thinking on my part. Living without a computer after hauling around laptops for more than a decade has been really hard. Writing without Word has been, well actually it hasn't been anything, because I can't seem to write without a screen. When I had to write papers in grad school and hit a writing block, I would take a break from my computer and write things out by hand. Now that I have no computer, I can't seem to get any thoughts down on any medium. Niek is at a conference tonight, so I have commandeered his laptop and am finally writing the post I meant to write almost a month ago.

In February, I finally became a Dutch citizen. It feels like it took a long time to get to that point, but in reality, I think the whole process went fairly quickly. I applied for my citizenship back in October, but the preparation for that step started around this time last year. All foreign, non-EU residents are required  to prove that they have integrated into Dutch society after having lived in the Netherlands for a few years. This is required for all residents, not just those planning on becoming citizens. You can do this in one of two ways: pass an integration exam (inburgeringsexamen) or pass a Dutch as a Second Language (nederlands als tweede taal, aka NT2) exam, which is called the staatsexamen. I had very little interest sitting through the class for the integration exam. Furthermore, I had zero interest in creating a portfolio of everyday tasks (ordering bread at the baker, filing a police report, etc.) to prove I could navigate daily life in the Netherlands, which is a required component of the integration exam. Instead, I decided to take the staatsexamen. It seemed the right choice for me. I could put on my CV that my Dutch was at the level of those studying at the university level, and I wouldn't have to sit through any classes. The NT2 program at a university in Amsterdam recommended a self-study book, which I worked my way through all summer long. Studying wasn't unpleasant, but it gave me some awful flashbacks to the days when I was prepping for the GRE. I truly hope this was my last exam, although I'm sure it won't be. I'm sure I'll find something else in the future I will need to study for. That's just my life, I suppose.

After thinking that I failed the speaking section of the exam--the only section I felt I didn't need to study for, so confident I was in my speaking capabilities--I got my results five weeks later informing me that I passed. This fulfilled my integration requirement and my last requirement for the citizenship application. When Niek and I went to file my paperwork to apply for citizenship, we were both struck by how anti-climactic the moment turned out to be. We sat in a tiny cubicle with a civil servant whose first two questions to us were, "Do you know how much it costs to apply?" and "Are you prepared to pay today?" Our answer was yes to both the questions. That satisfied his curiosity as he printed forms for me to sign. He gave me a packet with further information about the process, directed us to the cashier's window and reminded us that my paperwork wouldn't be processed until we paid. Thanks.

A few weeks later, I got a letter from Immigration and Naturalization Services (IND) informing me that they had received my application. Every few weeks I would get a letter letting me know that my application was making its way through the pipeline of bureaucratic red tape. I was on edge almost every day when I heard the mailman delivering letters. Have you ever seen a crazy, thirty-something woman check her mailbox at least six times a day? You should have seen me. You missed out on something truly bizarre. Poor Johanna had no idea why she got carted down to the mailbox so often. When the letter finally arrived at the end of January, I was almost hysterical. There it was, the letter informing me that the queen had taken the advice from the good people at the IND and was granting me Dutch citizenship. I just had to attend the naturalization ceremony in Amsterdam, and then it would be official.

And now I see that I have rambled too long, so I will make my story two parts. Until tomorrow!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Broken computer

My computer decided it was done living, which has left me feeling a little lost for the past few weeks. While I can surf the internet on my phone, typing with my thumbs is something I'd like to leave to the generations behind me.

I found this yesterday at the supermarket, however, and just wanted to share. It's a coffee pastry with, to my mind at least, the unfortunate name of Bolus. You know, like the ball of chewed food in your mouth right before you swallow. I bought it anyway. It wasn't anything to write home about. When Niek saw it, he told me that you can also use the word bolus to talk about poop. Hmm...Add this one to the list of cultural incommensurability.

Sorry that the picture is upside down. I can't seem to rotate image using the Blogger app.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Cult of Nespresso

I know America has the whole Keurig thing going on with coffee these days--at least that is what the internet has led me to believe. We've never truly bought into the whole single serving machine (too wasteful, mediocre coffee) in this house, even though George Clooney doesn't travel without one.

Once grad school finally broke me down and made me realize how wonderful a cup of coffee could be, I became a coffee shop kind of person. I like the ritual of going to a place, preferably with someone else, and having a barista make me a drink while I talk/read/study/work. Now that there is a toddler in the house, I don't always have time or the desire to go out for a cup of coffee. It really is not relaxing to chase after a toddler who thinks power outlets are toys. Besides, I feel like Christina Applegate's character in the opening scene of this episode of Up All Night when I place my order. Unlike her character, I have never pretended to know anything about music, and as yet (knock on wood) I have not done a face plant and gotten called ma'am afterwards. Side note: I have fallen during a run on an icy day and been stepped over by housewives doing their grocery shopping. Is that better or worse?

This past summer during our vacation in Switzerland we had a Nespresso machine in our rental house. This was a blessing for a house full of coffee drinkers. We were in the middle of the Alps at the end of a valley. It's not like there was a Starbucks around the corner. My mother-in-law enjoyed the Nespresso so much that she bought one as soon as she returned. I fail to see the logic behind her choice, because they own a very nice espresso machine. I think she had such a fun time on vacation and wanted to hold onto that. Plus, she likes having decaffeinated coffee at night and can't easily switch out the beans in their other machine. She must have asked me twenty times if I wanted a Nespresso for my birthday this year, to which I said no every time. A few weeks ago when my in-laws started babysitting for us one morning a week, they showed up with a Nespresso. They drink about ten cups of coffee a day and couldn't bear to spend so many hours in our house without their caffeine infusion. Looks like we are the owners of a Nespresso, despite my protests. This one:

I resisted at first and tried to dislike it, mostly because it's another appliance taking up space in our crowded kitchen. I think it's just in my nature to be a bit contrary--not one of my better characteristics, I'll admit. I have the demeanor of a grumpy old man on certain days. I still don't love it, but I have started to enjoy its convenience factor when people come over for a visit. Niek even used it this morning, because he knew he wouldn't have a chance for a good cup of coffee today. The coffee, while not spectacular, isn't bad.

Hats off to the Nespresso marketing team. Once you buy one of these machines and start investing in the coffee pods that go in it, you get to belong to a club. The Nespresso stores are sleek and modern, and you can try all the varieties in the store. If you are a club member you can stop in anytime just for a cup of coffee, which gets served to you at a coffee bar in the special Nespresso cups you can also buy for your home. It's as if you get celebrated for buying your machine every time you go in. Seriously, nicely done NestlĂ©. With that kind of customer service it's no wonder the place is packed whenever I walk past. I'm not the believer Nespresso wants me to be, but I suppose I can't be the loud-mouthed naysayer that I was. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Diet Cleanse (or not)

The Whole Living Challenge should be entering into week 3 in our house right about now, but instead I just finished a latte and a muffin. To be perfectly honest, the cleanse lasted all of four days before I looked at Niek and told him we were going out for coffee and a croissant. Go ahead, tell me that I was wrong and it was a stupid idea.  I won't disagree with the assessment.

The first day was horrible, and I was hungry all day long. The next few days were okay, but I still couldn't ever reach a point of feeling full. I wasn't missing the dairy or caffeine, and while the carbohydrate cravings were present, they weren't overwhelming. It was the protein I felt was lacking. I just wanted to tear into a steak or a piece of chicken or a can of chickpeas. Overall, I was just hungry and felt that I wasn't consuming enough calories. I almost fainted a few times during the last two days. When it got to that point, I admitted that it was stupid and that I wanted to stop.

These foods never tasted so good.
I had my doubts about the efficacy of a cleanse before we even started, so I am not surprised that I ended up disliking the experience so much. Some people swear by them, but I am not a believer. Niek and I discussed it and came to the conclusion that our diet is already a well balanced one, and there wasn't much need to cut out the "bad." The experience wasn't for naught, even though it sounds that way. Without my normal breakfast (two pieces of bread, one with jam and the other with cheese) I felt less bloated in the mornings. I've stuck with smoothies most mornings since then and am enjoying it for now. Niek, realizing that he didn't miss coffee as much as he was expecting, has cut back to about one espresso a day. I'm now more likely to reach for dried fruit and nuts for a snack than a piece of bread and cheese or a cookie. That's something, I suppose. However, I didn't need to attempt a "cleanse" to come to this conclusion. A small adjustment in my routine would have been enough.

Routines need a little shaking up every now and then. I gave the issue of our eating/cooking routines a lot of thought these past few weeks. Before embarking on the cleanse, my habits had felt so deeply ingrained, and I was having trouble figuring out what I needed to change--if anything. Did you miss the NY Times article about shopping habits from last year? Since reading that article and becoming fascinated by the research behind habit formation, I've spent too many hours examining my own habits, especially those surrounding the food in my life. By shaking up my routine (ever so briefly) I feel like I've been pushed out of a rut I felt stuck in. Although I'm not happy that I attempted doing a cleanse that left me cranky, tired and hungry, I am glad that I now feel better. I hated banishing foods and all are now welcome at our table again. Life is back to normal.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


It snows here so little that I actually enjoy seeing white on the ground in January.  Mid-winter snow in the Midwest always felt annoying to me, unless it caused a snow day, which it almost never did.  As expected, here in the Netherlands the trains aren't running on schedule, and the traffic jams this morning snaked their way from one corner of the country to the next.

I, however, am enjoying our short foray into a winter wonderland.  We finally had a use for the snowsuit I bought Johanna way back in October (just in case) when we decided to test out the running stroller's handling in the snow this morning.  Amsterdam was gorgeous in the pre-dawn quiet, and it reminded me why I don't mind getting dry hands and chapped lips during winter runs.

Just a quick Instagram photo from my phone today.  My computer would probably die if I tried to do something as taxing as uploading an image.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Steve Jobs Diet

Last year for Christmas Niek got a copy of the Steve Jobs biography. It took him all of a few days to read, and I think he came away with some more insight into what has made Apple so successful.  I have never read it, but the only fact Niek chose to share with me was this: Steve Jobs was a fruitarian. Just fruit, all the time. Apparently, he also believed that his diet prevented him from having body odor, so he didn't wear deodorant.  He was wrong about that, by the way, but I guess the people he worked with didn't really want to tell him about it.  Maybe they needed one of those deodorgram services.

For the last few months I've been kicking around the idea of doing a--I still can't believe I'm doing this, because it sounds like something I would never do--diet cleanse once January rolled around. I actually wanted to do it last January, but Johanna was just so young, and I didn't want to do anything too drastic while she was fully dependent on me for her nutritional intake. Multiple injuries in the past year have also made it difficult to get back into a running routine, leaving me feeling pretty disgusted with myself at times. In the past year I've tried a few times just not to eat refined sugars for a given amount of time (a few days at the most), and I never successfully made it more than a day and a half. I wanted to see if I could live without sugar, but it turns out I couldn't. One part of me has absolutely no problem indulging in a treat once a day (or even multiple times a day), but there's another part of me that thinks I should be able to live without processed sugars without feeling like I'm going to go crazy.  I like balance in my life, especially when it comes to food. There should be room for all types of food in a balanced diet, and food should bring joy as well as nourishment to our lives.  Something, however, has just felt off lately, and I don't feel balanced.  Who knows what it is. If I actually knew why my diet felt off-kilter I would just go ahead and change it, but at this juncture I feel the need to take a step back.  Here we are, then, willingly choosing to eat a fairly restrictive diet for the next three weeks.

We're following the suggestions set out in the 2012 Action Plan from Whole Living. [As an aside, Whole Living has just been dumped by Martha Stewart Omnimedia, and it doesn't look like there's going to be a 2013 Action Plan.] As far as fluffy, wellness-type magazines go, I liked Whole Living pretty well. The Plan is 21 days with a bonus week at the end, although the recipes for week 4 look a lot like what we would eat on any given week, anyway. We started this morning, and while not awful, I am hungry. This week we are eating fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and nut oils. Meat, dairy, caffeine, alcohol, gluten, and processed foods are not allowed. During the first week even legumes aren't allowed. I think the lack of protein is what is leaving me feeling hungry; there are only so many nuts I can eat in a day.

Our friends and family think we are crazy.  My mother-in-law almost lost it when I told her coffee was off the table.  She offered to bring us a caffeine-free variety. One of Niek's friends, who came over for our Second Christmas pork belly, said that nothing on earth could move him to give up meat and bread for three weeks. My dad made a face every time I brought it up during their stay, and my best friend thinks it sounds unhealthy. I'll keep you posted about how I feel about dabbling in "cleansing" diets as this thing progresses.  I'm still not totally sold on the idea, but I'm willing to try it out.

Ever since Niek agreed to do this with me, he's been making jokes about our "Steve Jobs Diet." While not as restrictive as what a fruitarian eats, it does take some of Niek's favorite food staples (re: bread, bread, cheese and more bread) off the table, so to speak. He jokingly threatened to do it only if he also gave up deodorant for the duration.  Dutch people are much more forward than Americans, and Niek isn't the head of a ridiculously successful technology company, so I don't think his colleagues would hesitate to tell him that his diet doesn't prevent odor. Yeah, the rest of our life is staying the same while we consume unnatural levels of squash and sunflower seeds.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Christmas 2012

After a few days of gluttony, we're embracing a pared down diet over here. Christmas was, as always, a family affair that rotated around the dinner table. Christmas seemed to sneak up on us this year, and I felt woefully unprepared. Most of the presents were bought a few days before they had to be given out, and we didn't do our meal planning until just before my parents arrived. I choose to blame this on a combination of celebrating Sinterklaas and being busy with things that interest me more than decorating a tree: finishing a free-lance project, reading Slate, getting outside for the few minutes a day that it isn't raining, keeping a toddler from careening to certain injury from the top of the sofa.  I'm not a Christmas fanatic, and I am often very glad to live far away from months-long Christmas displays in Target and the custom of putting up the tree on Thanksgiving evening.

What I totally got behind this year was our Second Christmas (December 26) dinner. We usually celebrate with my parents, who are staying with us, and a few close friends. In the past I've viewed it as a chore, since one of our friends doesn't like seafood and the other doesn't like cheese.  Because I tend to shy away from preparing meat, mostly because I am lazy, I've had a difficult time coming up with menus that suit everyone.  This generally leaves me a nervous wreck.  I also prefer to make fun desserts, although the crowd of meat eaters at our table gets less excited about my efforts than I generally do.

This year, we did it differently.  I nixed the dessert and bought some nice bonbons (insert frowny face for no Holiday baking), and Niek declared we would be roasting pork belly.  Pork belly?  Where are we going to get a 6 lb. pork belly? It turns out that there is an amazing butcher about five minutes from our house.  I must have walked past that place hundreds of times thinking it was nothing special.  His display case holds mostly potato salads and a few chickens.  Given the modern Dutch penchant for heat-and-serve meals, I wrongly assumed he would not have pork belly.  When we walked over there on the Saturday before Christmas, the place was packed.  Niek asked the lady behind the counter about our cut of meat, and I heard her shout into the back, "Do we still have pork belly today?"  The butcher came out and asked how much we needed.  Next thing I knew, he was hoisting almost half a hog onto a back counter and grabbing a sharp knife. Honestly, it's been years since I've been to a real butcher  shop, and I've never ordered such a large cut of meat.  Even though it was a really simple cut, it was pretty awesome watching him work.  We were so excited about our purchase, and we couldn't stop talking about having an actual butcher in our neighborhood. I'm kicking myself for not going in before now.  I think that experience is what got me excited for making the meal and entertaining friends.

Niek did most of the cooking, although I stepped in as sous-chef/baby wrangler throughout the afternoon. Here's Niek getting ready to prep the huge chunk of meat we bought:

The roasting pan we borrowed from my in-laws barely fit in our oven.  Seriously, we had about 1/8" on either side.  We were so terrified it wouldn't fit.  The recipe we used called for cooking the meat at a high temperature (250 degrees Celsius=482 degrees Fahrenheit) for the first hour in order to create a crispy skin.  It certainly worked, but it also created a smokehouse in our living room. Our oven is so small that the meat came closer to the oven's heating elements than we would have preferred. We had expected a bit of smoking but not to the degree we had. All our windows stayed open for about an hour.  It was either get a little cold or feel like we were living in a campfire.  

I'm so proud of Niek's cooking abilities.  The meat was delicious, says the woman who has no great love for pork.  It was, however, a really fatty cut and not one that I would want to eat weekly.  For Christmas, though, it hit the spot.  I was sad to see the evening end.  This is really the first time I felt like I truly embraced the fun of a second Christmas.  The 25th was all about my father-in-law's amazing meal--and it certainly was amazing--but the 26th was our chance to relax and have fun in our kitchen. I suppose we'll have to get more adventurous next year, since we now know where to buy our meat.

Even the toddler had a good time.  Did you know giant spoons are more interesting than food?

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Winter Blahs...

Last night I read a post on a blog about a woman who sits under a light therapy lamp at least once a day all winter long, and I got a little jealous of her miracle lamp.  This morning it wasn't truly light outside until almost 9:00 a.m., and as I ran through the streets of Amsterdam in darkness watching kids and their parents heading to school with their bike lamps on, all I could think about was this feeling of winter blah.  It hit me early this year.  Usually I don't get this way until mid-January, and by that time there are only a few weeks left of nasty darkness before the days become exceptionally longer.  Not sure what it is about this year, but we haven't even reached the shortest day yet.  I'm almost there, almost there.

The terrible news about the school shooting has not helped much and has left me quite weepy in the evenings as I listen to NPR's Morning Edition while cooking dinner.  Technology has made it so that I can feel connected to American current events and culture even when I would rather bury my head in the sand. 

I've been surprisingly good at keeping the winter food blahs at bay.  It's mostly due to my love of Ottolenghi's vegetarian cookbook.  I would shower the world (or at least all of my friends and acquaintances) with his books if I could.  I know that I need to broaden my horizons and add a few more cookbooks into the rotation--forlorn Tessa Kiros books on my shelf, I'm thinking of you you--but I can't get enough of his warm and hearty meals.  Maybe it's because he lives in London and knows a thing or two about the cold days when the damp seeps in.

I need to go make some soup and stare at my Christmas tree for a few minutes before I head outside and soak up the few hours of overcast sun that we still have today.  Only a few more days until the sun starts staying up longer.