Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Oliebollen


For weeks now stands have been popping up all over the country tempting passers by with the most alluring smells. And until my sister came to town, I exercised the most amazing willpower I never knew I had, and resisted my desire to try a Dutch renowned oliebollen.

It is tradition here to eat oliebollen on the 31st and New Years day. But the Dutch, being the genius people that they are, decided there's no reason to limit yourself to only 2 days a year of savoring the delicious dessert. So, not only do they provide weeks worth of opportunites to eat them, they also provide limitless varieties... although original and raisin filled (no thank you) are the most popular. Ava and I decided not to follow the option of the masses, and shared the most delicious (and warm) apple filled oliebollen.


So, while the rest of you bring in the New Year by watching the ball drop, or setting off fireworks, I will be stuffing my face with balls of fried dough drenched in powdered sugar. Yum.

Friday, December 26, 2008

In the air, there's a feeling of Christmas


To immerse ourselves in the Christmas spirit, my sister, two friends of mine, and I took an extended weekend trip into Germany to visit a few Christmas markets. Nothing says Christmas better than food, hot chocolate, decorated Christmas stands, more food, Germany, and Christmas music being played as you wander around the markets, only to be topped off with even more food.

On Saturday we were on the road by 10:30 and made our first stop in Valkenburg, which is just within the Dutch border. Valkenburg is a tiny town famous for it's caves. The caves were made centuries ago as the rock was quarried out of the underground. In WWII it was used as a bomb shelter and today it's not only a tourist attraction, but is where they hold their annual Christmas markets. The market wasn't as impressive as I was expecting, but the caves themselves were quite neat to see.

Around 4pm we left for Aachen, Germany, about a 30 minute drive away. After checking into our hostel we spent the rest of our evening basking in the spirit of Christmas. The town was decked with Christmas ornaments, decorations and cheer. It appeared as though the markets never ended... what a shopper's delight!
video
The next morning we started off on the road right after a quick breakfast, to head for Koln (Cologne) to go to church. The Hertz navigation system lead us on quite the adventure the entire trip, but especially that morning. We drove in circles for about 20 minutes trying to find exactly where the church was to no avail. In the end we went to church in Bonn, where half the members are English speaking. Member after member invited us to their ward Christmas lunch right after church, to which we naturally obliged.

During lunch we were told to check out the medieval market in Siegburg on our way back to Koln. Our attention was immediately caught by a game of mouse roulette. We spent many suspenseful minutes waiting for people to bet on which archway the mouse would enter once placed on in the roulette board. Once all the bets were placed, the dealer brought out the mouse. (Which brought a quick shiver down my spine, due to recent events). The end turned out to be very anti-climactic. As soon as the furry thing was placed inside the game board he didn't even bother to circle around once. No more than 1.5 seconds went by before the mouse entered an archway, and the game was over. Worst of all, the winner didn't even get the money... he got a tiny toy mouse instead. Glad I didn't waste my money on that game.


An hour or so later we left for Koln, dropped our luggage in our hotel room and headed towards the city center. Driving over the bridge at night gives the most amazing view of the skyline, with it's gothic church being the crowning jewel. The church, which took about 600 years to build, was absolutely amazing. We spent the evening watching mass, not understanding a word, in the enormous building.

The next day we met up with more friends from Amsterdam in Koln. We all spent the first few hours of the day visiting one market to another. When it comes to variety and creativity, Koln, by far, has the best markets out of all the ones we visited. Each of the 7 markets in the city had entirely different themes and atmosphere. A gnome market, angel market, Grimm Brothers market, and the list goes on. Plus, Koln houses the Lindt chocolate factory. Now, what's better than that??

In the evening we drove up to Essen where our hostel room was booked. We had about 30 minutes to see the markets in the tiny town before they closed for the evening. The city was much newer, which didn't provide as nice an atmosphere while walking around the market as the other cities we had visited. But, that aside, it did have one thing going for it: a food stand that served fruit with melted German chocolate drizzled on top.


The final day was spent in Dusseldorf. All the Dutch rave over the markets there, so I was expecting something much better than what we found. Dusseldorf is quite a modern city, which didn't provide as great a backdrop. And although there were 6 markets, they were all quite tiny. Needless to say, I wasn't too impressed. But then again, nothing says Christmas better than a giant Christmas pyramid... which did make our trip complete!

Thinking about it, I'm sure all of us spent more money on food than we did anything else. Good thing cars don't have weight limits...
Yep, there's nothing better to put you in the Christmas spirit than by visiting the markets in Germany. This is one tradition I'm planning on keeping! Anyone want to join me next year?

Friday, December 19, 2008

caught on tape

My sister arrived yesterday to spend the Christmas holiday with me. While wandering around the city, my dad just happened to catch us on the DonnieCam (live video feed from one of the streets of Amsterdam). What are the odds?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Take nothing for granted...

... especially a nice warm shower.

In the past few weeks my showers have gone from the second most enjoyable part of my daily routine (1st being sleep), to my least enjoyable daily routine. Please note exhibit A.

exhibit A

This is the type of shower faucet that once graced my shower wall. The knob on the left turned on the water and the one on the right adjusted the water temperature. At least that's what it was supposed to do... and had done up until a few weeks ago. The past few weeks the water temperature in my shower has gone from reasonably warm to lukewarm. About two weeks ago, not only was it lukewarm, but it alternated between that and cold. I'd stand pleading with the shower water to warm so I could get the rest of the shampoo out of my hair.
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Then, last Sunday was like the straw that broke the camel's back. The shower water was cold... the entire time. Now, if I were in some warm and exotic island, a cold shower wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. But, with the 32 degree weather outside, cold showers really aren't what I consider enjoyable.
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So, after a number of emails back and forth with my landlord trying to figure out what could be causing the issue, we determined it was the faucet. He replaced the old faucet, with this wonderful, absolutely beautiful new one.

And today, taking a shower became the #1 enjoyable part of my day. I could have stayed in it for hours as the steam billowed upward, ... but I didn't. I did stay in it a bit longer than usual though, to make up for all the cold showers I've had the past week. I think the new faucet and I are going to be the best of friends throughout the rest of the winter months here in Amsterdam.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Three blind mice

"She cut off their tails with a carving knife, you've never seen such a sight in your life!"

The gruesome tale I'm about to tell not only created an underlying kinship between the farmers wife and myself, she then became my hero as well. She was calm, cool and collected. She didn't scream, jump on a chair and call for her husband (who obviously hadn't performed his "protector-like" duties by making sure there were no holes in the house... which is something that could lead to an entirely different discussion). No, this wonderful, quick thinking woman, who was being chased by three disgusting, albeit blind, mice grabbed the nearest deadly weapon in view and with such accurate precision cut off their tails. What an empowering story!

Although my tale didn't have as gory an ending, justice was just as sweet. About a month ago the seasonal cold was being passed around the office. I tried my hardest to hold my breath from the moment I walked through the doors in the morning, until the moment I walked out them at night to save me from the germs floating in the air. Needless to say, I was very unsuccessful at that. One of those evenings as I arrived home, my throat was a bit sore. "Here we go," I thought as I was cursing my co-workers, "guess it's my go round." So, as I was pouring a few drops of my grandmother's wonderful herbal remedy, thieves oil, into some water I noticed a bag of spaghetti noodles I had set on the counter had a hole in it. "Well that's a waste," I said as I threw away the bag. I then was off to bed.

My throat was on fire that night. I laid tossing and turning in my bed for hours, along with getting up frequently to try everything imaginable to coat my throat. Around 5am, as I laid awake in my bed, I heard a rustling noise which appeared to be coming from my kitchen. Three things ran through my head at that time. A) Who's in my house with me?, B) I did lock the door, right? and C) Man, I wish I had a bat.

I quietly tip-toed out of my bed, peered around my door, and quickly flipped on my light. To my horror I watched as a shocked mouse fled from the bag of cereal it was eating and hid behind two large jars that sit on the counter. "ARG!," I exclaimed. A nasty mouse was running with it's filthy feet all over my counters and eating the cereal I had laid out the night before to take with me to work! This meant war. A totally uninvited creature who was infecting my sanctuary with it's nasty body deserved to die, I reasoned. I thought of grabbing a knife, or a hammer, but decided against it since I didn't have the patience -or enough bottles of Lysol- to clean up mouse blood from my counters.

I grabbed a glass bottle, in hopes of trapping him in there. As I pushed aside the jars he was hiding behind I noticed I needed a spaghetti sauce bottle instead, since the opening would be a bit bigger. When I went to grab another bottle, the mouse made a mad dash to freedom - running across the counters, jumping over the sink, sprinting over the stove top and then was out of sight when he reached the washing machine. I was fuming- "I keep a clean house," I mumbled, "it has no right... my heart's beating a mile a minute... stupid mouse... how dare he... I feel like crap... why my house... one way or another he's going to die!" My lack of sleep didn't help the situation at all.

I set about sanitizing my counters and hopped on the internet in search of brutal home-made ways of killing a mouse that deserves such a death after what it put me through. Either there is no such way to kill a mouse, or people of the internet world are much nicer than I am, because all I could find were humane ways of disposing of such nasty creatures. "What is wrong with the world?," I thought, "What's next? Humane ways of disposing of roaches??" Unable to do much more without mouse traps or poison, I left for work.

My colleagues laughed when I told them the story of my living nightmare. "Welcome to Amsterdam," they chimed. I heard things like, "it's common in winter for mice to come indoors, are you sure it's a mouse and not a rat, -and- you should get a cat." "It's not a rat!," I exclaimed, "and I'm allergic to cats."

My throat got worse during the course of the day, and within a 5 minute time period, my voice all but disappeared. Since I was virtually useless at work, due to no voice, I left a bit early. On my way home I bought 5 mouse traps at the pet store. The lady at the counter stated that it was the day of the mouse trap and that they were selling like wildfire. Then to add to the comforting words she already gave me, she smiled and stated "the mouse infestation is only going to get worse as it continues to get colder outside." Finding no humor in her words I thought "these better work... otherwise I'm buying a shotgun." Before arriving home I bought 2 more traps and a few boxes of poison at a general hardware store.

That night was just as sleepless, since my cold had worsened. Again, around 5am I heard noises, but I couldn't pinpoint where the sound was coming from. After a few minutes of listening, it dawned on me that the creature was inside my dresser drawer where I kept my food storage. I was beyond outraged at this point. I felt so violated. As I opened the bottom drawer where the food was kept the mouse scurried out and hid itself under my bed. I spent the next 30 minutes cleaning out my drawer, salvaging canned goods and whatever wasn't torn into.

Since I had left one of my drawers cracked open, it gave him easy access to the food. But he managed to leave feces all over my clothing in the process... which provided me with 2 days worth of laundry to take care of. Once I was done with the temporary mouse proofing of my food, it was nearly 7am. I was feeling tired, achy, and all around horrible so I called in sick. I grabbed the pillows from off my bed, wrapped myself in a blanket and fell asleep on the couch, because there was absolutely no way I was going to be in the same room as that... thing.

That afternoon I bought a tupperware tub and placed my food storage there, then piled heavy objects on top to make sure the mouse wouldn't be able to squeeze it's way between the lid and tub. I also learned that my upstairs neighbors were trying to get rid of not just one, but two mice in their house. My neighbor proceeded to tell me that he never had mice problems until my landlord bought cats, which chased the mice upstairs. "Why??," I thought "Why didn't my landlord tell me he had mouse infestation problems when I first moved in? I could have started mouse proofing the house then."

Later that evening as I was talking to my mom, who initially thought I was my little brother's friend due to my hoarse voice, I heard scratching noises coming from my bedroom. "I bet he's trying to dig a hole into your mattress," my mom quipped. "Not funny!" I replied while running into my bedroom to beat it out of my mattress if it actually happened to be in there. Gratefully, by the time I was ready for bed I saw it running along the baseboard of my kitchen, so I knew it was no longer in my bedroom.

The next morning I noticed he was eating the food off the traps without them detonating. This was one sneaky little bugger. When I related my dilemma to anyone who would listen, one of the missionaries said she had a mouse in her house when she lived in NYC. She told me they filled all their holes with insulation foam, and never saw the mouse again. Brilliant! I ran to the corner paint store and bought a can. I used up the can on what I thought were all the holes in my house. "There," I sighed, "if he's in, he can't get out and will die."

A few days went by and I hadn't seen him, although paranoia seemed to get the better of me and I was jumping at every sound I heard in my house. I knew he was in the house somewhere. One week from the first mouse spotting, one of my co-workers came to my house to install a light fixture in my bathroom. As I'd pause at times to focus on a noise I'd just heard, he'd insist: "Claire, it's not the mouse, calm down." But once he left I noticed one of the mouse traps had shifted. I knew neither my co-worker nor I was near the trap. It only meant one thing... I was not paranoid after all.

Not even 30 minutes later I heard the most blessed sound: SNAP! "JUSTICE," I cried, "sweet, sweet justice!" I could have shed tears of joy. I started dancing around my apartment in the sheer excitement of it all. After a few minutes, and once I was sure he was good and dead, I went to see my victim. It definitely wasn't the same mouse I had previously seen. The mouse I found dead in a trap was a baby. Which meant: there were more of them! Ugh. I had visions of my entire house filled with a mouse colony, soon to be unable to step on the floors because it'd be covered in mice.

"No," I demanded, "this has to stop here and now!" Now actually turned into 2 days later, which was the first time I could get more insulation foam. The following night, however, my upstairs neighbor and her two boys came down to chat. I asked her about their mouse problem, and told her I had bought insulation foam which in the end I was hoping would work. She agreed it was a smart idea, but said the mice didn't bother her since she wasn't scared of them. (Oh, I wasn't scared of them either... but they sure as heck bothered me!) She said she grew up in Amsterdam, so was used to them at a young age. She said she remembers her parents pointing to a mouse under the table and saying "oh look honey, there's a mouse eating the crumbs you dropped, now we don't have to vacuum." I choked back a gasp and forced out a laugh instead. Although, I'm sure my facial expression said it all.

It's now been a few weeks since I went over my house the second time with insulation foam. I discovered that there was a few inch gap between the back of my cabinets and the wall, so I made sure to fill it up nice and tight. I haven't seen a mouse since then. Granted, I'm still a bit paranoid, running into the kitchen when I hear a sound. Or waking up with a start at 2am, like today, when I heard scratching noises... which ended up being hail tapping the window.

My hope is that he's gone forever, and that the insulation foam is doing it's job at keeping the mice at bay. But I'm not about to test it by leaving anything out on the counter, that's for sure!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sinterklaas poems

Since my poem really wasn't anonymous at work, I've decided to share it with the blog-o-sphere. Children write poems to Sinterklaas when they're young. Adults write the poems as if they're letters written by Sinterklaas. The colleague of mine who pulled my name wrote the poem in English as well. It wasn't hard to figure out who it was, since out of everyone, he knows the least amout of English. Poor guy had no luck this year.


Poem written by me:


Willem,

Sinterklaas was trying to find his way through a cloud of smoke...unable to see where he was going, he ran into a bloke.
"Hello, my name is Willem" said the deep voiced man,"Where is it you're headed?" he asked, "I'll help you if I can."
"I was heading to your house," Sinterklaas said with a smile.
Although trying to be polite, he was coughing all the while.
"Funny thing is," said Sinterklaas, "a while ago I could see.""But around here it's all cloudy,... now, how could that be?"
Willem answered: "Oh, it's just my cigarette,no need to dispair --
Actually, if you would like one, I have more right over there."
"No, no," replied Sinterklaas, "they're not good for me.
--But,since you have one extra, you can give it to Zwarte Piet."

- Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet



Poem written to me, with a picture to boot!



Piep, Piep,.......

There is a mouse in the house of Claire.
Even he is thick or fast, Claire will catch him at last.

Sint



-- stay tuned for the story behind that poem.

Friday, December 5, 2008

What's in a name?


"That which we call Sinterklaas, By any other name would be as Jolly." Although 'Santa Claus' derived from 'Sinterklaas' by the Dutch immigrants who were living in New Amsterdam (now New York), all the Dutch here say that he is two and completely separate individuals. Either way, he/they started out as the same person: Saint Nicholas. He was a generous Greek Bishop, born in what is now Turkey. His legend has lived on, but before he turned into Santa Claus, he was... and still is, known as Sinterklaas.

Being from German heritage, we celebrated Saint Nicholas day (December 6th) growing up. As kids we'd stick our shoes outside the night before, and received candy in the morning. Later on, Saint Nicholas would stick the candy inside our stockings (a. they were much cleaner, and b. they were MUCH bigger!). The Dutch go one step farther.
In the middle of November, Sinterklaas arrives by boat from Spain with his helpers named Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). In the days of Saint Nicholas, three small boys were sentenced to death for a crime they didn't commit. Bishop Nicholas saved them all, and they decided to stay with him, helping him go down the chimney and jumping on rooftops to deliver presents. It's said that the reason his helpers are black is because of the soot from the chimneys, so no, there are no racial connotations.

From then on, the country is abuzz with Sinterklaas activities, all building up for the 5th, which is Sinterklaasavond (Sinterklaas Eve). Many children today still stick their shoes by the fireplace the night of the 5th, which is the only part of the tradition I'm used to, and receive presents on the 6th. However, the more common tradition is a bit different. After the singing Sinterklaas songs on the evening of the 5th, there will be a loud knock on the door or the window, and a sack full of presents is found on the doorstep, or next to the chimney.
Many families only exchange presents on Sinterklaasavond in place of Christmas... others do both. Adults join in on the fun by writing poems about each other which poke a bit of fun of the person they're writing about. That's exactly what my team did at work. In November we drew names, since the poems are supposed to be anonymous, and read them aloud today. Obviously the one I wrote wasn't anonymous since it was in English, but I'm still not admitting I'm the one who wrote it.

I'm sure I gained a few pounds today after eating all the pepernoten (Sinterklaas cookies), chocolate covered shortbread cookies, and gingerbread cupcakes that were part of the celebration. Plus, Sinterklaas had stopped by my managers house and dropped off chocolate letters for us all, which we received after reading aloud the poems which were written for us.

On my way home from work I watched as a mom pointed to the window of their home for her son to see Zwarte Piet's hat caught on the windowsill. The boy looked at the window incredulously, his eyes as wide as saucers. Then this evening my upstairs neighbors came down to visit. They said that Sinterklaas had left a present for me in the sack Zwarte Piet dropped off to them. So they brought me the present (another chocolate letter) along with homemade pepernoten. Yummy.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Thanksgiving, Dutch style


Ten points for anyone who can name where a large majority of the pilgrims first settled. Any takers? ---- No, it wasn't in the US, otherwise I wouldn't have asked that question. And your answer has to be more specific than 'The Netherlands'.

The very fist place the pilgrims fled was to Amsterdam. But, if that was your answer, you'd be wrong. They lived in Amsterdam for 6 months, but didn't settle there.

The correct answer is: Leiden. They settled in Leiden for 11 years before making their pilgrimage to the US. Leiden is about an hour away by train, and just north of Den Haag, in western Holland. Obviously the pilgrims didn't take the train there, but I wasn’t keen on renting a horse and buggy to provide the official travel time.

On Saturday I was invited to go to the English speaking branch of my church to have dinner with them. Which means, I was lucky enough to have two Thanksgivings this year. (Thursday I shared it with 14 other Americans here in Amsterdam.) Since the branch meets in Leiden, I went early with two friends to tour the town and get us in the Thanksgiving mood.

Leiden looks like a smaller version of Amsterdam, but with a lot more breathing room. It wasn't hard to see why the pilgrims wanted to call Leiden home. We wandered around town for a while, toured a few churches and stopped at the pilgrim's museum. For 3 Euros we received a phenomenal hour long history lesson of pilgrim life. The museum volunteer was originally from Oregon. Thirty years ago he just ‘happened’ to move to Leiden, then decided to get his masters degree in the history of the city from 1550-1650. Now that he is retired, he volunteers at the museum, willing and ready to answer any question you can throw at him.

The main reason the pilgrims moved to Leiden, which was the 2nd largest city in Holland at the time, was because there were many opportunities for work. However, after 11 years, work wasn't as plentiful and they began to worry that their children were being corrupted by the Dutch. So they made their voyage across the wide blue sea, making a slight detour in the UK to board the Mayflower.

If you and I are on the same wavelength, you may think, "wait…, ‘corrupted’ by the Dutch?" In response to your brilliant question, I’ll tell you what I learned. The pilgrims were quite orthodox in their religion. They had 3 meetings every Sunday. The 2nd meeting was mainly a discussion between men, and the women and children had to sit silently and listen. -Albeit, at times women were permitted to contribute to the discussion.- During this 2nd meeting, their children would get restless as they heard the little Dutch kids playing outside in the afternoon sun. And that was how the Dutch were corrupting the children of the British religionists.


After the lesson we stopped next door at an antique shop, which housed artifacts of the pilgrim era. It was a labyrinth of items to walk through, and quite neat to say the least. I'm not sure what anyone would do with half the items they had, such as a broken church spire. Although, I’m sure it would make for a good conversation piece.

Our last stop before dinner was to visit the city's fort. I was in awe that there was a hill, and such a large one at that, in the Netherlands. ...Until we discovered it was man made. The view from the top of the fort was beautiful, and again confirmed why the pilgrims chose Leiden to settle in for so long.