Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Concert

Happy Christmas Eve, everyone!

I am very busy today, so no time for a long post. Here, everything happens on Christmas Eve, so it's all about eating, decorating the tree (done this morning!) cooking, eating more, and opening presents today. We'll be eating potato salad and trout, salmon and/or schnitzel for dinner, apparently the Czech tradition. I'm quite happy as it is a lot like ours at home - we eat smoked fish and my dad makes a special potato salad - but no carp. Carp is the real Czech tradition - there are tubs filled with live carp all over the city, and when they are purchased, men in bloody aprons with big knives gut them on the spot. But my family here doesn't eat carp at Christmas. I am slightly disappointed as I think I have never tried it (or maybe when I was four), but it is a very mild disappointment as my mother says it tastes like mud, and I trust her opinions as well as her taste buds.

So, no big catch-up, but I uploaded some videos from the Christmas concert we went to yesterday afternoon, and I will embed them here. It was so nice and beautiful, underneath or at the foot of the Charles Bridge, and all Czech carols - I know the tunes to most of these but the words, except the chorus to one, which we learned as kids and performed for my father on Christmas Eve. Maybe we should have done that more often!

Saturday, December 19, 2009


This morning, I went with Roman to take Ema sledding. (No, the picture I've posted has nothing to do with the entry, but it's Prague looking pretty at Christmastime. What more could you ask for?) We got all bundled up because it's -7 (that's 19 degrees Fahrenheit) or something out there (it was -10 earlier but we waited and it got a teeny bit warmer).

We trudged out - don't you love that crunching sound of snow beneath your feet? - to a little hill covered with kids. I stood on the hill while Roman went down with Ema, and watched.

At some point I looked down and gasped. Hundreds of little snowflakes were clinging to my black wool coat. Not the snowflakes like we get in Portland - little wet clumps of snow - but real snowflakes, that looked like the kind you cut out of paper! And, because it was so cold, they stayed like that: 6 little hooked arms radiating away from the center. I couldn't believe how pretty they were, and I can't remember ever seeing snowflakes that looked so much like, well, snowflakes.

I do remember, one year long long ago, when we lived on Morrisson street, and it was snowing, we ran for the microscope. We caught the flakes on plastic slides and slid them under the lens quickly, trying to catch a glimpse of their shape before they melted. (You see? Another random memory that I haven't thought of in years, and here, today, in PRague, it comes back to me.)

But these ones, today, were so much bigger!

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Different Sort of Home for a Different Holiday

Prague is a complicated place, for me. The sensations that are wrapped up in, through, and around this city are so multi-dimensional, concerning so many different parts of me, of family, of memories and future, of linguistic phenomena... it's like a sensual explosion of self-discovery.


Getting here was certainly an adventure. I came by train, dragging my suitcase down three or four cars to find my compartment. My compartment mates were not the dressed up girls or older couples on vacation that I had passed in the other compartments, no; in my compartment were three guys, in their twenties, some pierced, some tatooed, drinking beers before moving on to whiskey.

In my head I was thinking, how is this possible? Then, This never would have happened to Betsy on her train trips through Europe. No, I live in the 21st century, when it is okay to put young women in cars alone with three strange men...

Of course I was making a mountain out of a molehill. There were two Dutch guys, friends, and a German, who made the trip from Dresden to Amsterdam frequently for work. They watched TV on a laptop, I watched the last episode of "Glee" on my iPod. (It was excellent.) Then, at some point, a German man got on and insisted through huffs and puffs and pouts, rather than just talking like a normal person, for bed. (The younger German in my compartment even said, "Whoa, tiger!" to get him to calm down!) So I got in my bunk, too, and the others went to an empty compartment to kill a few hours.

I woke up around 8, looked out the window at the sunrise - a layer of pink sitting on the horizon - and thought, "Hooray! Prague in an hour and a half!" I dozed until we pulled into a station, the name of which included the word "Berlin".

That did not seem right. I tried to picture a map of Europe in my head, wondering if we really were in Berlin, and if you could really get from Berlin to Prague in under two hours.

The answer is no, you cannot. We were 326 minutes delayed.

At least I got to enjoy some scenery. The snow in Berlin made everything look dirty - you know the dusting that is not enough to cover any of the unsightly things, but enough to make everything look filthy and old in comparison to that fresh white snow? It was like that. But once we were in the country, it was very pretty. And the landscape is so rugged! hills and bluffs and huge wide rivers... Oh, I have missed this sort of topography.

We finally arrived at Holesovice station - I knew we were in the Czech Republic when I saw the haceks on the signs for Decin station - and I stepped off the train just as Kata, my second cousin, and her daughter Ema came up the stairs to the platform. I had finally arrived in Prague, where I am spending Christmas and New Year's.

And that's when the strange feelings and thoughts and observations and memories start coming.

Well, really it started with the Decin station. I had only seen the name written without accents, but when I saw the sign, I knew how it was supposed to be said. My father's language is one that I can pronounce, to a certain extent. I can read, I just don't know what I am saying.

Then I start hearing things, reading signs. Zlaty means gold. I remember that. And Cerny is black. And Most is bridge. And these are all words I saw on signs during our tram ride through Prague. Short phrases sound almost as familiar as English, though I don't know what they mean. When I hear the translation, it's like deja vu - I knew that.

Of course, the Czech Republic is inextricably linked with my father - but so many different versions! I saw three bridges in a row, and thought of the time, 5 years ago, when the whole family was in Prague. Dad showed three small bridges, directly above and below each other, and said proudly, funnily, "Now, kids, here, we have a tri-bridge situation."

And then there's the memories, the little ways Czech was always present in my childhood: my dad speaking Czech, which mostly happened in the background - Dad on the phone with the grandparents. Or when my grandparents visit, and Dad stumbles along, his English showing through where his Czech has worn thin from under-use. Letters that came for my father on rustling paper as thin as tissue paper, in air mail envelopes with the blue and red borders, in writing I found illegible - whether it was the handwriting or the language that I didn't recognize, I don't know. The occasional box of oplatky that my grandparents sometimes brought after a trip to the Czech Republic, the unreal stories my Dad told to me and sometimes my classmates at school about running away in the middle of the night, and those flickering silent movies of him and his sister, as children, fighting corn-husk wars.

And even dimmer, and weirder, are the memories of my first time in Prague, when I was four. I think some of these memories are the re-fabricated kind, growing in my mind out of stories and pictures and home videos and my mother's Gourmet article. But some things I remember for sure: Kata and Lucka playing with... comics? bubble gum wrappers? Something which they kept very specially in an envelope and took out to admire. The amazing playmobil farmhouse we got for Christmas. Looking out of the car at several inches of snow, and footprints and car tracks in that snow. A shop window like some sort of elaborate vending machine. I think I remember even breakfast on Christmas morning, and then, of course, the Christmas tree sparkling with real candles, and my brother and I on our new hobby horses.

And that's not even the half of it. I can't explain it all, but it's so strange to come here. Memories and a strange feeling of having found something that's missing, but not being able to reach it. It is so strange to feel like, in a way, I belong here, or come from here, that this is somehow a home, and on the other hand being such a stranger to it.

I've decided that 2010 is the year I start making an active effort to learn Czech. In the past, each time I've come to Prague, there has been a reason not to start learning. In 2003, I was living in France, and I needed to focus on French, not get distracted by another language. In 2004, I was with the family, speaking our bubble of English, like all of the other tourists. But this time... my Dutch could use a distraction, I'll be here for nearly three weeks, and... it's time.

In the past, when I have mentioned to my father or grandparents that I want to learn Czech, that I wish Dad had spoken it to us more as children and think it's too bad that I don't speak it, they have told me, "Oh, Czech is a useless language, you don't need to learn it." But now I speak two useful languages (French and Spanish), and after this many trips to the Czech Republic, where I actually have family, it would indeed be fairly useful for me to speak it.

So I will start now, while I'm here, because at the age of 22 I still don't know how to conjugate a basic verb in what was my father's primary language until he was... well. Not much older than I am now. Which gives this undertaking a nice sort of symmetry, a link to the past and my Dad. It's time to start, and hopefully after this year, I will be closer (proximity-wise, I mean; my father and I to have a very good relationship) to my Dad and be able to test out whatever I learn and practice pronunciation and conversational skills with him. I will treat him as an untapped resource of great cultural value!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sinterklaas 2009

I'm celebrating a little late this year. As Sinterklaas was actually on a weekend, most group celebrations were postponed. (Luckily for me, as I was in Paris on the 5th.)

So yesterday we had a Sinterklaas party with all my fellow students and most of the teachers. I feel silly calling them classmates because although I don't know all of them that well, I like them all, and all of my friends here are also my classmates. So the distinction is fuzzy.

We had the party in someone's apartment, not far from school, and everyone brought some food - it was supposed to be something from your country. This gets tricky for me, because what is there to bring? Hamburgers?

Okay, I know there are more American foods than that - once I brought coleslaw to a potluck, I thought that worked pretty well. But this time I opted for hot chocolate. Not exactly an easy thing but one thing about me is I love cooking and making things complicated for myself in that area. So, yes, let's premix the dry ingredients for two different hot chocolate recipes at 7 in the morning, cart them to school with all sorts of whisks and measuring cups, stop at the grocery store later to lug around 5 liters of milk and a pack of marshmallows besides, and then take over someone's stove for an hour or two, invite various friends to be co-chefs, and whip up a couple of batches of the stuff under the impression of very great effort.

Actually, lots of people asked if I had made it myself (what does that mean, actually?) or if I usually made it that way at home. (Yes. I mean, we don't grind the cacao beans ourselves to make the cocoa powder or anything, but we get plain milk and cocoa powder or chop up some chocolate and add our own sugar and spices and all of that sort of thing.)

So I threw together some Mexican hot chocolate and a batch of "Hungarian Heat" from my hot chocolate book ("Is this really just a book about hot chocolate?" someone asked. Again - yes.), and although I think I added a bit too much paprika it was pretty tasty, especially with the melted marshmallows to soften the picante blow.

We did it all in English this year, so I did not have the trouble writing my poem that I did last year. But in hustling to get everything together at the last minute (up until 3, and then up at 7 to get the hot chocolate together) I forgot that I would be receiving something too. (Don't you love that?)

As usual, however, the poem was by far the best part. Since it references my blog, I obviously have to repost it here. I still don't know who was my sinterklaas, so if you would care to reveal yourself in my comment box you're welcome to, and receive some credit for your creativity. But the mystery is also pretty fun.

Sinterklaas was worried because he couldn't find Grace in his book
Fortunately Zwarte Piet yelled: Sint! Come look!
Kids these days have a book of their own
On which they can show how much they've grown
I found a link to a diary of sorts
And it seems Grace really likes sports
She would love to receive the Boston Red Sox
Alas, I couldn't fit the players into a box
Eventually I used her blog as my muse
And bought her something I think she can use
Sint and Piet

Genius! Genius!

Oh yes, the gift: A Time for Tea with Mary Engelbreit box, containing a tea egg (always extremely useful) and a very informative booklet on varieties of tea. In the second pack was not just one chocolate letter, but five, carefully wrapped so as to spell out my name.

Dank je, Sinterklaasje!

Tonight, it's off to Utrecht to do it again with my old RA friends, in the form of a Sinterklaas sleepover. It is sure to involve more good food and merriment, as well as a Christmas movie and a game of Scrabble. Can't wait!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Faux Pas

Yesterday morning, I made a mistake.

It was really obvious, and the moment I said it I felt like such an idiot. I did, after all, LIVE in France for six months, but I guess the influence of the somewhat prompter and more time-concerned Netherlands has rubbed off on me.

Marie Clare and I had stepped into a honey store near her apartment. There was a funny round man presiding over the store, stocking and unpacking boxes at a leisurely pace. We said our bonjours and began to hover over beeswax candles and soap and the widest collection of honey varieties I have ever seen.

Really: Orange honey, lemon honey, and honey of just about every other citrus fruit you can imagine, plus their blossoms. Rosemary honey and thyme honey and all sorts of other herbs. Eucalyptus and Acacia honey and other trees. Even Buckwheat honey.

Another man came in to look around. He was either a street cleaner or a garbageman or one of those other jobs that involves green clothes and a brighter, more neon vest on top. The two men were chatting happily. Marie Clare and I wanted to smell some of the honey, so I turned to the man and politely waited for him to finish talking to the other customer.

When he turned to me, I asked if we could smell the honey.
"Non," he said, and for a second I was afraid I had asked if I could feel the honey rather than smell it, but then he continued to explain that we could taste it.

Then he turned back to his other customer.

I waited a moment longer, and when he turned back to me, I explained (still in French, of course!), "It's just that, we don't have that much time."

I knew the moment I spoke those words that they were the wrong words to say. Very wrong. Faux pas is an understatement, I think.

But it turned out okay. Although I could see a little glint in his eye, He simply replied, "D'accord. Mais je finis", and turned back to the customer.

At which point I thought, okay, laisser tomber, fair enough. Let the guy finish his conversation. It is Sunday morning, after all, and you should probably just be glad that he hasn't kicked you out of his shop.

In the end it was fine. He seemed quite happy with us. I asked if he had a larger jar of some of the flavors and he began explaining to me how the bees, you see, they are not like humans, they take vacations all the time (which to me sounds an awful lot like some French persons. Marie Clare has lived in that area, a very non-touristy one, since August and never passed the honey store when it was open, and then suddenly on a Sunday morning, voila!) and therefore it is impossible to predict when you will be able to get honey and when you will have to wait. And then, after we made our purchases, he said, "Merci, jolies filles", so I think it worked out okay.

But still. Really. Telling the Frenchman in the store that we were in a rush, when he was in the middle of a conversation? I thought I knew better!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Bonjour Paris!

It's an unoriginal title, but it has been floating through my head the past few days as I've walked around Paris, because for some reason, I can't stop thinking about the song from the Fred Astaire/Audrey Hepburn film, "Funny Face". (And I don't even like that movie very much. I know, sacrilege, for a Fred fan like me...)

But it's true, I am in Paris, and I am loving it. How could anyone not?

The first day I was thinking of Portland a lot. I felt a little guilty, because really, who comes to Paris for a long weekend and can't stop thinking of Portland, Oregon?

But then I realized that, even if I could go home now, I would at least push it off until next week, and probably until after the end of January. (I'll really be on the go these two months, with trips to Paris, Prague for two + weeks at Christmas, a day trip to Antwerp with school, and, hopefully, a week in Norway in January.)

And I am so happy here!

Paris at Chrstimastime is really nice. I've only ever been here in the April-June months before, and once in October, and December is very different. One thing I discovered is that it costs more to come here in winter because you can't sit in a park all afternoon. You can't buy your sandwich to go and eat outside because the benches are all wet from the rain or it's just too darn cold to sit still that long. (Although I'm being a little silly, it's not that cold!) So, instead, you buy your sandwiches for there and pay almost a euro extra to sit. Or you do what I do, and walk all day, wreaking havoc on your feet.

So far I have seen some very funny little things. The first morning, I arrived at 6, dropped my things off in Marie Clare's apartment, and went for a cup of coffee. Then I spent most of the morning on the banks of the Seine, the Ile de la Cite and the Ile Saint-Louis, watching the sky. It was amazing. (When I get back home I will post pictures but as you can imagine they hardly do the real thing justice.)

While I was doing this, I saw a boat, which seemed to be looking at something. Then I saw what it was looking at: two snorkelers in the river. They were covered head to toe in wetsuits, except their hands, which were bright red. That water must be so cold.

Yesterday I saw a very impressive man in a cafe. He was extremely tall. His overcoat nearly reached the floor. He had on black suede shoes and blue and black striped socks, a great pair of glasses and held a cigarette in a holder. It did seem too bad that he had to go outside to actually smoke. The indignity! But in reality, I still can't say that I mind.

Today is a busy busy day! Fabric shopping and coffee with a friend of my family. Actually, both our families. And I'll fill the rest of the day with... more walking, probably, and possibly shoes - my feet are really dying here - and either a movie (although Marie Clare disapproves) or lots of sitting in a cafe with my journal and Guy de Maupassant's "Clair de Lune et autres contes", which I have looked for in three countries and finally purchased here.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Home for the Holidays

Middelburg early on the morning of (my) Thanksgiving

Last weekend, I returned to Middelburg for the first time since early September.

The reason I finally made the trip was to make Thanksgiving dinner for and with all of my old housemates (as well as the new ones) and some friends. They had been trying to reserve me for the meal almost since the semester began, but I deferred, as I thought I might want to try it up here in Leiden with my new friends. However, my kitchen is miniscule, the oven is more of a microwave, and I have no place to serve the meal. Moreover, as the weeks went by, I began to really miss my housemates, and realized that the only thing that could be better than Thanksgiving in Middelburg would be Thanksgiving in Portland.

Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. This is to be expected, for a girl who likes food as much as I do. I remember in 3rd grade, when I did my state-wide writing exam, I chose the option to describe my favorite holiday and why I liked it. Needless to say, it was really easy for me to go through the November meal dish by dish, describing each platter in depth. I don't think I mentioned the friends and family part, and if I mentioned being thankful, it was probably only to appreciate the food.

And so, from the first year I was out of the U.S. on Thanksgiving, I undertook to make it myself. This is my fourth year celebrating in the Netherlands, and the third year celebrating with this group of housemates (the first year I served a group of 12 friends). Each year, an item is added to the menu. The first time, I only made cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and Brussels sprouts. I bought rotisserie chicken at the market, and made apple compote with whipped cream for dessert.

The second year I ate with my new housemates, but only a few of them, as I believe there were "only" 8 at the table. The addition to the menu was yams, which I did not really know how to make, or how to buy, so we had a mixture of yams and sweet potatoes, and we made the chicken at home, as that year I started the tradition of pushing Thanksgiving back to Fridays, when there is no market (but also no school/deadlines the next day). One of my housemates made the dessert - Baked Alaska.

Last year was the biggest meal I have ever prepared, or at least directed. In attendance were 10 housemates, plus several boyfriends and girlfriends and neighbors. It was a huge undertaking, and I believe quite successful. The edible addition was the second kind of yam, provided by my housemates Sarah and Sascha, who had begged me to make yams with marshmallows on top. Being me, I refused, but said they were welcome to make it if they wanted to. So they did, and we all decided it belonged with dessert, which were jelly roll cakes.

This year we ate with 12 friends, housemates and acquaintances. I invited Lacey, a girl from Portland who I helped get set up at RA, and she in turn brought another American girl from Austin. The three of us and Sophia - who's lived mostly in New Jersey, making her the 4th American girl - took care of most of the cooking, and the others (almost) all helped with preparation.

Fleshy pumpkin and dark brown sugar (it's what they have here) look like scoops of delicious ice cream.

This year's addition was pumpkin pie, making it the most traditional Thanksgiving (in terms of food) so far! I was quite pleased with the way it turned out. They took forever to pre-bake, and the crust on one was a little underdone, but other than that they were fine. The filling was very delicious, despite the lumpiness (just about every Thanksgiving recipe calls for a food processor. I know the pilgrims did not have these, and still, it is almost impossible to find a recipe for handmade pumpkin pie!) and the crust was not perfect but at least the outer edges were quite flaky and delicious. I even made hard sauce, so the whole meal was complete. I think it should be noted that almost none of the diners had ever had pumpkin pie before, and they all (said they) liked it.

Each year, of course, something goes a little wrong. The first year, I cooked at a friend's house, and in my haste brought over a carton of yogurt instead of milk for the mashed potatoes. (This was fixed by a run to the store.) Last year everyone ate really fast, which was disappointing for me.

This year, we managed to last at least an hour before we ran out of food - three chickens is not enough for 15 hungry college students, it turns out. However, we had to wait for the chickens a little long, and did not eat until 8. This meant that the glass of wine before dinner turned into glasses of wine before dinner, which meant that by the time we sat down to eat, some people were pretty tipsy. And that might be an understatement.

But it didn't matter. We all went around the table to say something we were thankful for - most people were thankful for RA, for bringing us together and for liking it so much, and for me making the meal; only David was clever enough to come up with something original ("I'm thankful that it's the weekend!").

And then we ate. And talked, and laughed, and ate some more, and discovered a forgotten dish of stuffing in the oven (which had turned itself off) and ate some more, until there was nothing left but some mashed potatoes and a few stray Brussels sprouts, and the plate we had set aside for a housemate who couldn't be there.

While the pie baked, we sat in a circle in the common room and played singstar and had a generally lovely time.

And it really was like going home for the holidays.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Cures for Homesickness

Lately, I've been a little homesick.

Not miserably so; far from it. I'm pretty happy here, but it's hard to settle in to a new place in a bigger city when you've just spent three years in a small town where almost everyone knows almost everyone else and where you practically live with all of your friends and classmates.

Luckily, though, I've been living abroad (off and on) since I was 15, so I'm getting pretty good at dealing with homesickness. These are the things that always make me feel better - or at least make me feel like I'm not the only person in the world who has felt this way before!

1. Betsy and the Great World, by Maud Hart Lovelace
The Betsy-Tacy series includes several of my most beloved books, and the 9th book in the series is perhaps my favorite. I first read it when I was barely 16, living in France, and pretty homesick most of the time. It was such a comfort. Following 22-year-old Betsy Ray across Europe in 1914 always makes me feel more glad to be in Europe and less sad not to be in the U.S. I take it with me everywhere I go.

2. Les Demoiselles de Rochefort a film with music by Michel Legrand - or the soundtrack
This is one of my favorite movies. A musical, in French, with Gene Kelly speaking in a wonderful and hilarious American accent (though I've never been able to figure out how much of his part is dubbed). Anyway, it concerns two young women, dissatisfied with their small town lives and lack of love, and lots of amazing costumes and nice songs. It also reminds me how much I've learned through these experiences and how worthwhile it all is. Each time I watch it, I understand a new aspect, plot twist, or scene better, and I'm so glad I went to France, which was the foundation for all of my other trips abroad.

3. Alles is Liefde
A Dutch Sinterklaas movie, inspired by Love Actually. Every time I watch it, I feel like I could never bear to leave this beautiful country. I also have the same type of learning experience as I do with #2, only this time, it's with the Dutch language and culture.

4. "Frasier"
Sometimes I just want to be sad. Getting over it is all very good, but happiness isn't so great if it isn't contrasted with occasional periods of sadness. So when I just want to miss the Pacific Northwest, I curl up with a cup of tea and a few episodes of Frasier, which always crack me up, and have since I was a little kid.

5. Portland's Wikipedia page
A similar way to wallow that is always fun - and educational! - is to spend some quality time with Portland's wikipedia page, learning some awesome new facts. When people here ask me about Portland, I tend to overwhelm them with random facts. I start with the more well-known things - the Simpsons! Nike! - and then move on to the obscure. For example, did you know that Portland is the second-largest wheat port in the WORLD? Also, it has the most beer-breweries of any city in the United States. And, the Portland Art Museum has 40,000 pieces, compared to Seattle's 25,000, and is the 7th oldest art museum in the country, and the oldest on the West Coast.

Take as many doses as necessary, preferably with chocolate, and you'll be good as new in no time!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


October was really good, as far as personal blogging records go.

And then came November, and here it is, nearly two weeks in, and I haven't posted once.

What happened?

I've decided to put it in a (short) list, for maximum clarity.

#1: NaNoWriMo. Yup. National Novel Writing Month is upon us. Or me. I've been wanting to do this since 2007, but the Roosevelt Academy simply didn't allow for any student to invest so much of their time outside of school, least of all in the month of November. At Leiden, I have fewer hours of class and less homework and therefore I am finally able to attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in one month.
So far I have learned that, when using this writing strategy, you can't spend much time searching for the perfect word.

#2: Distractions. For example, today, I spent several hours on Microsoft Access, which we are learning to use in my Digital Media Technology class, creating a database of my book collection. Just for fun. It is exactly that.

#3: Lack of inspiration. For some reason, nothing has hit my blogging fancy lately.

Until Tuesday, when my History of the Book professor mentioned something about the fact that, when you walk into the University Library, there are no books.

THANK you! Someone else notices this! I have been wondering. What a weird idea! When you walk into the library, you pass through a main hallway, devoid of books, to a locker and coffee room, where there are obviously know books.

Then you walk back through the main hallway and into a huge hall of computers. According to my professor, they used to keep Encyclopedias and other reference books here. Now, however, it is table after table of computers. And it is always packed. And there is not a book in sight.

Pass through to the next large hall, as we always do on our way to our manuscript class, and you come to a huge open space, with a glass ceiling three stories up, and... no books.

They are all hidden away, behind the walls.

Now, in Portland, there are lots of books in the libraries I've been to. You can't miss them. Except maybe in the grand hall of the Central Library, but that's where people are checking out books, so you're bound to at least catch a glimpse of something. And sure, there are a lot of people on the computer. But there were also people looking at books.

And in Middelburg, you walk into the library, and there's a big open space, but... you can see the books. And when they have their sale days to sell of the old, discontinued books, they are front and center. You can't miss them.

At the Leiden University Library, you basically have to hunt them down. Also, the staff is not helpful. I couldn't figure out how to use the printer last week and people kept trying to explain it to me from their desks, far away from the printers. No one would actually get up and show me.

No good library, and no good cafe. How's a girl supposed to get any work done around here?!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I have a Secret...

... I miss Middelburg.

Two weeks ago, I had a skype call with a group of friends from RA, and one of them said, "Do you know, I don't miss Middelburg, one bit? I miss you guys, but not Middelburg."

Even as I responded indignantly, I was questioning whether I really missed Middelburg myself. Most of it, certainly, is missing such great friends. Maybe what I miss now is my housemates? And they'll all be gone in the next year or two.

Then again, I obviously miss the coffee. Ko D'oooooor claims it has the best cappuccino in Zeeland, but so far I haven't found anything better in the Netherlands.

And the lovely walk to school! I even miss the parking lot all back, like a brick park, all red and green, or red and orange in fall. And the street I raved about last spring. Just looking at those pictures makes me want to go for a walk, in Middelburg, with the Lange Jan tilting over every other building, and the graceful Oostkerk standing humbly on its little square.

I knew for certain that I missed something about Middelburg, not just my friends, the other night when I was trying to fall asleep. I was lying in bed, too warm, because although it is late October, and I open the window every time I am home, and I haven't turned on the heat in two weeks, my room is always warm and stuffy.

I lay there and could not settle down, so as I closed my eyes, I pictured my room in Middelburg. My table over there, the couch and armchair and bookshelf with four times as many books as I have now. More than picturing it, I could hear it: quiet. Or maybe housemates laughing in the common room, their voices growing loud the minute someone opened the door. The wind in the vines that grew along the street, and the occasional scooter buzzing by to deliver a pizza. The voices of students humming louder and softer as they passed my window, mere feet away from me in my bed.

How could I not miss the place that had been my home for three years? Middelburg was not a six-month excursion, like Nice and Moca were. Though I loved both those places in their own way, and they have shaped who I am, they simply aren't Middelburg. Though I get excited when I remember the Dominican Republic, or hear Spanish being spoken, and still have that weird, unrequited love of France, when a teacher now mentions a printing press in Middelburg or a 17th-century map of Zeeland, I'm as thrilled as if they're telling the class what a wonderful place Powell's Books is.

I doubt that I'll feel that way about Leiden after only one year, but then again... you never know.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Letter to the Vlaamsche Broodhuys (Flemish Bakery)

Dear Vlaamsche Broodhuys,

You are a blessing. In this country of mostly mediocre bread (though much better than the soggy white rolls in the Dominican Republic, or the weird, collapsing baguettes in France), you are a culinary highlight.

You make what my mother once called "honest bread" – a description that has stuck with me. I know what this bread is. It gets hard, not moldy. It was not meant to be sliced ahead of time. It has air bubbles and hard, dark crust, and when you tear it, it is fascinating to watch each little segment part from another.

When you toast your product, it doesn’t acquire the texture of cardboard (made worse when it is put on a plate to sweat in its own steam), and when you press it, it springs back to life, rather then squishing into sad form.

After three years of mediocre bread, three years of bringing better, crustier bread back from vacations to brighter bread cities… it is heaven to have you waiting just down the street.

I just wish you put a bit – just a bit! – more salt in it.

Yours in bread and butter,

Monday, October 26, 2009

Write, Jot, Scribble - Part II

I didn't think there would be a follow-up post on this topic, but you never know where a blog is going to take you.

I've been shut up in my room without internet since Friday, with the exception of an hour in the computer lab at school on Sunday, and it's enough to drive me crazy. Especially since I have spent most of that time writing a paper on the subject of... blogs. (If I was shut up in my room for two days without internet and without looming deadlines, I'm sure I would be quite happy to watch some of the movies I own and read through half of my bookshelf. But I had a looming deadline.)

This paper is supposed to be 8-10 pages, with type size 11 and 1.5 spacing, which ends up being at least 3,500 words. Okay. Not the end of the world. Luckily I had done some research Wednesday and saved several articles to my computer, so I could do most of the writing without the internet. I'm not quite finished, but close.

Today in class - the first since last Tuesday - everyone asked each other about their progress on this essay, which is due tomorrow at 6 p.m. The answers varied greatly, but the one that surprised me the most was from a classmate who said he wasn't a very good typer and had therefore written his entire paper... by hand.

All I'm going to say is - imagine! That used to be the norm! Despite my love of pen and paper, I can't imagine doing such a thing. I remember a few years ago, I used to sometimes get started on a research paper by writing the introduction by hand, because my ideas seemed to flow better that way. Nowadays, I can get started very easily on the computer. But since I began my bachelor's degree, the idea of writing 3,500 words of academic writing by hand hasbecome more or less... unthinkable.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Slow Down

I am going to learn from the past week and do something productive tonight.

And I don't mean write my essay or work on my manuscript assignment.

I mean sit down in my armchair, away from this confounded computer, and read.

This week has gone by too fast. Tomorrow is already Friday! All I have done is set my alarm ambitiously early and end up sleeping through it until 11. (Even on the day I had class at 11:15, heh heh.)

So after spending the entire afternoon counting the pages of a very old Dutch Bible and trying to figure out where one quire begins and another ends, I am going to sit back and chill out.

Nothing spectacular - It'll be Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates, along with some tea and the last couple stroopwafels. But I am very excited.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


The stroopwafel (pronounced "Strope-vaffle", kind of) is one of those truly wonderful Dutch things. One of the things the Netherlands should be known for, along with tulips and clogs and windmills and canals (and maybe instead of weed and red light districts).

The truth is, I can go ages without these things. I think I have to, because if I buy a pack, I usually end up eating the entire package in one day, which is obviously bad for my health. It is also bad for my stomach - take it from me, it really doesn't feel good to eat ten of those in a day.

I could occasionally just buy one "Superwafel" at the market, but the problem with that is they don't come with a cup of tea. Stroopwafels were meant to be eaten after being softened over a cup of steaming tea, preferably until the layer of stroop (syrup) between the two waffles is runny and gooey.

So I usually go weeks, or even months, without a stroopwafel. And then someone comes to visit.

When Katharine was here a few weeks ago, I think we ate a pack a day. (Sounds like a bad smoking habit, doesn't it?) Granted, there were two of us, and we walked a lot as well, so it slightly lessened the damage. Only slightly.

Whenever I go home, or go somewhere, I take a pack or two as gifts. I took some to Hopi when I visited her in Edinburgh. I bring several packs home to my family when I return.

Well, I bought a pack today. I've been so disciplined with sweets lately; that stash of lebkuchen and pfeffernusse are packed up in a kitchen cupboard, and I eat only 2-3 after tea and another 1-2 after dinner, which is a true accomplishment for me. I am my father's daughter. I eat until it's gone.

I had two after a very nice lunch (good bread, cheese, and two mandarins), and two more after dinner (chicken, mushrooms, eggplant, and potatoes - the eggplant was supposed to be gone by now and it distracted me, so I forgot about the brussels sprouts which were to be my greens! Tomorrow, I guess).

But even the steep Dutch stairs between my room and the kitchen cupboard were not enough to keep me away from the stroopwafels. Just now I ran (climbed?) back up the steps and grabbed two more. I plan to get started on a big essay tonight, after all.

I took two from the package and, before I twisted the plastic sack back together and closed it with a twistie, I noticed that there were only three left.

Meaning... there were only nine in the package.

Meaning I was CHEATED! Out of a stroopwafel! There are always 10 stroopwafels in a package!

It's probably a good thing, but I am very disappointed.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Frankfurt Buchmesse

Last week, the students on my program (and some of the professors) went to Germany.

The main reason for the trip was to go to the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Photo by Juliana

This was not a book-lover's heaven, as you might have expected. "Book Fair" sounds like an amazing, fantastical place, like Powell's Books only floating on a cloud. Or something.

It's basically a place for publishers and printers to talk shop and make deals and get the rights to translations. Also, if you want to buy something, you can't until the last day, or if you are talking to a very nice person and smiling and begging a lot. So really it's kind of like a book-lover's hell, seeing all these things and not being able to buy anything.

(Really good for the student wallet, though.)

It's also a place to introduce new gadgets. For example, we found an eReader we hadn't heard of, the Hanvon WISEreader, which was cheaper than we expected and looked to be at least as good as the two we had seen in class. (I still hate how they flash the negative of the page to mimic page-turning, though. I think they should just have a bar slide across the screen or something.)

We were less impressed with the OnlineMag and OnlineBook, basically a PDF that can show videos and has a slightly niftier bookmarking option. I see the draw for promotional material, but other than that it didn't seem like a very clever answer to the question "what is going to happen to print?"

We were more impressed with a Spanish company, Moleiro, which makes facsimiles of manuscripts, only better. Down to the last detail. If a page in the original manuscript was made from two pieces of parchment stitched together, than the reproduction page is also stitched together, by hand.

I was also impressed with a Czech textbook I spent some time poring over.

What I enjoyed the most, though, was the international experience.

The expo center (I guess that's what the venue is) is probably the most enormous complex I have ever been to, and it is full of stands from pretty much every country in the world.

I went to the area for Italian publishers, and it was full of Italians, talking and gesturing on their telefoninos. It was like stepping into Italy.

I spoke and heard so much Spanish it was amazing. This was due to spending time with my Colombian friend Juliana, who really got us into the stands and into conversations with the people working them.

There was a big Dutch section where people were speaking Dutch, and at the Norwegian book stands, people were speaking Norwegian.

I found the Czech stand and looked at all sorts of books and thought about how I should be able to read these titles, but can't. I looked out for any Peter Sis translations, too, but didn't see any. So I sat and looked at that Czech course for quite a while, while Juliana and Chiara rested their feet.

Photo by Juliana
It was so much fun to step from one country into another, or, more precisely, one language into another. So, although it was maybe not a book-lover's heaven, it was perhaps something close to a linguist's paradise.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The German Prince

Just got home from my course's trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Gutenberg Museum, and the Kloster Eberbach, and have to admit that the highlight of the trip - though probably not the most illuminating experience of it - was none of these things.

It happened today, at a gas station mini-mart on the German highway.

We - nine young women packed in a mini-bus, screaming along to Alanis Morissette and Michael Jackson - were just hanging out, stretching or smoking or stocking up on German treats, and about to hit the road again.

When suddenly, up pulled this amazing car. Maybe it was a Rolls Royce, but whatever it was, it looked like a million dollars.


Out of the car came, first, the chauffeur, with a mustache, glasses, and a black jacket with a seal embroidered over the pocket and a crown on his lapel.

Then, out of the back seat, came a guy wearing a ridiculous, ruffled, silver shirt.

And finally, a thin blonde woman with huge hair and dramatic makeup, a red mini-dress, matching red strappy sandals and a black fur stole.

So we all convinced Malka to go and ask who it was, because, as Elli kept repeating, "I really think it's someone famous! Maybe an actor or a singer..."

Malka came running back.

"Oh my God, you guys! He's a prince!"

Shrieks and excitement from the car, which we had been on the verge of starting up and driving off in. Instead, Malka went back and asked if we could take a picture with them (and the car), and they agreed! The silvery guy did not seem to mind at all. We asked what his name was, and he told his chauffeur to write it down for us, which made us very excited - he even has someone write for him!

So the chauffeur wrote, "Maximilian Michael von Anhalt".

After much laughter and many "Dankeschön!"s, we got back in the car to laugh some more, speculate about the prince, boast to each other about how we would surely win the photograph contest, and scream along to some more Alanis Morissette. (She's very empowering.)

So, now that I'm back in Leiden, with internet access, I thought I would look this guy up.

Maximilian Michael Prinz von Anhalt is a rich health club owner and socialite who, according to wikipedia, bought the name (not the title) "Prinz von Anhalt" from Zsa-Zsa Gabor's husband, Frederic Prinz von Anhalt, for two million dollars. Frederic got the name from his adoption by an actual Royal. Apparently Maximilian was adopted by Fred and Zsa-Zsa last year. Technically, neither he nor Fred are royals - though Maximilian certainly tries to present himself as one.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Write, Jot, Scribble

I like to write by hand, generally; I think it comes from my years of journal-keeping. I feel my thoughts flow better when they are released in one fine, concentrated point, rather than splayed out across the keyboard via ten fingers. When I start a story, I usually begin with my writing notebook, and don't turn to a computer until my second draft.

So I thought it was funny when one of my Digital Media Technology teachers said, "from now on, all documents are digital-born". Meaning, I suppose, that nothing comes to be on paper anymore, which I would argue is not yet the case.

I type school assignments and papers, and sometimes little blurbs of fictional thought. I also type my blog, unless I get an idea on the road and flesh it out in my jotter.

That is what I meant this entry to be about: my jotters. (Just another example of how typing allows too much freedom - I tend to jump back and forth between paragraphs, and even sentences, which is a confusing and annoying technique.) I was just flipping through them to gather some ideas, and as usual, I was surprised by the amount of material I've stored away there, and was motivated to try harder with my current jotter. (It comes and goes, and was best kept, unsurprisingly, when I was graded for it.)

Another thing about writing by hand: more shopping. It's just so fun to look at all the different types of paper and notebooks and pens! What joy is greater than discovering a new pen that suits you perfectly? Or a notebook with dimensions that are perfectly conducive to your needs?

One of my best writing techniques was to use a particular fountain pen - a rather cheap one that dried up kind of quickly. As long as I was writing, the ink flowed properly, but if I spent too much time thinking or daydreaming, I had to put the lid back on and tap it impatiently on a surface to get the ink moving again. So I kept writing, and if I didn't know what to write next, I wrote slowly, rather then stopping, until the words came to me.

The problem was that I was writing a story for an assignment in the creative writing course I took last winter, and it had a word limit. A word limit I surpassed - 8,500 words, instead of the 4,000 word limit, which resulted in me having to literally cut it in half.

In that case, it might have been good to use a word processor, and have the word count in a simple click.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Curse of the Cool Course

Last semester at the Roosevelt Academy I took a course about 17th-century Dutch painting. It was a great class - so much so that it rarely felt like a class. Mostly, I just felt like I was attending an interesting art lecture, as I have done occasionally in the past, or reading an exhibition guide. I always meant to write a blog entry about the way it felt, but never got around to it.

The problem was that it was hard to get motivated. I felt so laid-back about the whole thing - dark lectures with the paintings lit up on the powerpoint screen and a stream of information flooding in - that I really had to make sure I was thinking about the studying part. And not getting distracted by the interesting bits of historical information that kept cropping up in my reading.

(For example: couples' portraits were often two separate portraits, one of the husband, and one of the wife, with them sort of facing each other, so that they could hang on opposite sides of the fireplace. This was because Dutch houses of the time [holds true today, though] were rather small, and people didn't have a wall that was big enough for a huge double portrait.)

Now I am re-experiencing this phenomenon at Leiden, in the course called "The Manuscript Book in the West".

I never expected to study ancient manuscripts. (If I had, I would have paid a lot more attention in that not-for-credit Latin class I took in my first year at RA.) Yet every Thursday, there I am, in the special manuscript collection section of the university library to spend two hours learning about manuscripts.

And it's the exact same thing. That classes are great. We look at really old books and the teacher tells us how they were made, how they were preserved, how they were marked, and why.

But it really just feels like a trip to the museum (okay, if I was an extra-special, high-profile client), where instead of reading a plaque I hear it from an expert, and there is no glass between the manuscript and me.

I need a switch in my brain. One side would be labeled "Focused Academic Active Listening/Reading/Studying". The other would be "Passive Absorbing Oh-My-Gosh-Isn't-That-COOL?". In this one, you tend to remember the little, fascinating-but-useless bits of information rather than the big picture things and theory that help you pass the test.

Incidentally, the latter one was especially dominant in most of my linguistics courses.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Leids Ontzet, Part II

Well, I promised I would report back, and I promised I would take pictures. It actually wasn't quite what I expected - much more like a big old kermis (carnival) and a lot less like... well, I guess I expected something more like Queen's Day. More partying in the street and live music. There were outdoor discos Friday night. But as there isn't much to report, I'll treat you to a quiet, visual entry, beginning with dinner on Friday and ending with dinner on Saturday.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Leids Ontzet, Part I

Tonight begins the special Leiden festival, Leids Ontzet. Every October 3rd, the gemeente celebrates their release from Spanish invadaers. Or something, definitely don't quote me on this. It's about when the Spanish were repelled from the city. There was a siege, and the residents were starving, but when it ended, troops brought the citizens herring, and a boy found a pot of hutspot that the Spanish had left behind: potato mashed with carrot and onion. (The picture below is from the time we had it for dinner with my housemates at the Roosevelt Academy in Middelburg.)

The streets and sidewalks outside restaurants are tented, there is a huge carnival in town, with stands for oliebollen, sausages, and suikerspin (cotton candy) all over. It is drizzling but no one seems to care. There are barges on the canals which will eventually support stages and beer stands. There are an enormous amount of beer kegs in the street, waiting to be hooked up to the spigots.

My friend Katharine is visiting on part of her trip around Europe and Morocco, and two of my RA friends are coming from Utrecht tomorrow to check out the madness that will be Leiden on the 3rd of October.

I promise to take pictures!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

10 Years

Today is a special day in my family: 10 years as Red Sox fans! I've blogged about it on the baseball blog I keep, rather irregularly, with my mother and sister.

Other than that, I have a horrible cold and can't be bothered to do much of anything, such as go to class, try to write coherent sentences (I had to, for the Red Sox, but that's as much as I can offer today), or even think.

So I'm going to go watch "Fever Pitch" now, and remember how exciting everything was, and daydream about how much I want to live in Boston. Which I don't. I used to, and movies like that make me want to again, but mostly, I don't. It's just a romanticized notion in my mind.

See? I can't think straight, let alone write, so I'm really going to stop now.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Letter to Shawn Spencer from "Psych"

SPOILER ALERT! If you watch Psych, and haven't seen the episode "Bollywood Homicide", you don't want to read this.

Dear Shawn,

Do you ever learn from your cases?

I mean, you're a twit, and a dope, and all of that, but then you solve all these cases, so you must be pretty smart. (You're funny, too, which is the main reason I like "Psych", but that's a whole other story.)

So you help this guy Raj, who thinks he's cursed because bad stuff happens to all of the women he gets serious with. And you, Mister Super Psych(ic) Detective Shawn, you find out the person who's doing it is Raj's brother's fiance. She's in love with Raj, and keeps pushing back her own wedding date with his brother Jay.

Meanwhile, Shawn, you get insanely jealous when Juliet dates Raj as bait, and pretends to be engaged to him. And you know Juliet is jealous of your girlfriend, Abigail. And even when you're getting all smoochy with Abigail, you still get distracted by Juliet.

So really, didn't you learn anything from that case? Like, maybe you should stop putting it off, and break up with Abigail?

But I guess that wouldn't do much for the suspense of the TV show.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Future of Reading

This weekend, I was to read an article for school on The Future of Reading, from a 2007 issue of Newsweek, mostly about the kindle and the ebook.

I find this stuff rather depressing.

Sure, I think the kindle is a good idea. I can definitely see the attraction of the gadget, especially for travelers and frequent fliers. It would be a great thing for any exchange student, who is only allowed one or two suitcases to stuff her whole life into. Same for the college student, and school reading as well as recreational.

But as a replacement to the book, I remain quite old-school in opinion. I don't like to imagine a world without the material book as we now know it, and it depresses me to read so much about it. Different theories on how the book will die, when the book will die... It's enough to make any book reader want to go bury themselves in a book! (Preferably one that takes place hundreds of years ago and doesn't contain any of these modern distractions).

What scares me the most is that when people talk about the future and the book, they indicate that all sorts of changes will have to be made - to novels, and to the way people write. This isn't the case with the future of music and film - these media are already well-adjusted to the fast pace that the internet enables. But the kindle will be able to link all of these words, ideas, and works together through hyperlinks, etc. - a modern, networked footnote.

And that is going to change the way we read.

And that prospect, to me, is not a very happy one. Luckily, I don't think the book will disappear during my lifetime - I think there are too many people of my generation who like books for their physical form as well as their content. To me, however, it's still a dismal thought. How can you compare browsing on with a trip to Powell's or De Slegte and browsing in person, not just scanning the books but touching them, and smelling them, and finding little inscriptions and dedications from previous readers?

The kindle, as far as I can see, only stimulates two senses, and one of them - touch - it stimulates only minimally.

On the other hand, many people love the smell of books, or the weight of different-sized works in their hands. When I turn to one of my favorite comfort books, I pick up Betsy and Joe - the binding is coming undone and the pages are yellowed. It is old and dog-eared, but it is familiar and comfortable, like a friend. And that's what you want in a comfort read. For me, the physical differences between and variety of books is a big part of the attraction.

One more thing about books and their current form that I think will keep people from giving them up too quickly: books are an identity construct.

When I go to someone's house, I notice what books they keep on their bookshelves. And I'm quite sure I'm not the only one who does this. I may not have very many books here in Leiden, but the ones that I do have - baseball books, travel guides, books in French, Spanish, and Dutch, Betsy-Tacy books, Jane Austen, poetry, Dominican authors - it's all part of who I am, and it's displayed on my bookshelves.

As Cicero said, "A room without books is like a body without a soul". I don't think he was referring purely to content. It is the presence of that content. I take comfort in the fact that it will be a while before the feeling that is conveyed through a single kindle on a table will be the same as the feeling we get through hundreds of books on shelves.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Letters to Hell

Once a week, I go have a course called History of the Book. This week, the lecture was about the spread of the printing press, it's basic workings, and interesting aspects of the press or results of the printing press - for example, the decision to use Latin fonts instead of Gothic ones.

During the break, we ran upstairs to get a look at the printing room they keep for our department.

What a nice room! Some tables, several bookshelves, piles of papers and all sorts of odds and ends, including a surprisingly high number of beer bottles.

In the center was a printing press - not the original kind, but the rolling kind, which is a later development - and nearby, the typecase - the divided box, resembling what people use to store fishing flies or beads, containing the letters according to frequency of use. One corner was labeled "Hel" (Dutch for "Hell").

The type, made of lead, damage easy. If you drop a letter, it becomes useless - so the typecasters put them in the little box (which must really be more like Purgatory) before they gathered them all and sent them to "Hell" - that is, back to the pot, to be melted and recast as new letters.

On our way out, the instructor said we could all take a letter from a box. I just reached in and grabbed one, opting to be surprised rather than to dig around for something I liked. One girl got a nice capital g, and another girl, a lower-case e in some sort of helvetica font. A friend of mine got a sort of stamp spelling out the words, "The Netherlands".

I got this teeny B. How teeny? In this picture, it is lying on a stack of post-it notes.