Sunday, February 22, 2009

In Too Steep

Before I finally get started on my homework, I always have to brew myself a big pot (or thermos) of tea. (Sometimes I also have to write a blog post, to, um, get in the mood, but that's another story...) I drink a lot of tea. Much more than water. More than coffee. I always have a pot of tea at the ready, because it's comforting, warm, and tastes nice.

But, as with most other edible products, I have a quality threshold. A threshold that is rarely passed in the Netherlands.

Due to its extensive trade history, the East India Company, its connection with Indonesia, and all of that, the Netherlands would have a rather remarkable tea tradition.

Well. It doesn't.

If you order a cup of tea at most cafes, you will get a cup of hot - but not boiling - water and a dish of tea bags. The majority of the selection is usually herbal, with one or two Early Greys or English Breakfasts. Nothing to write home about, and hardly worth the minimum 1.50 you will be charged for it.

In the nicer cafes, the sorts of places you would also trust for a cup of coffee, you can count on a better quality and selection of tea: Japanese Sencha, Earl Grey, Lady Grey, Assam, Oolong, Lapsang Souchang, etc. They are generally not tea bags, but loose tealeaves that are dosed into tea bags as ordered or served in cafetieres.

And when you go to a friend's house, you never know what to expect. Usually there's a simple black tea of some sort (always my preference), but there can be other strange options. The selection at the Albert Heijn is wide and strikes me as increasingly unusual.

Once, a friend offered to share her teabag with me in the break room: honey. I have seen melon tea at a friend's house, blueberry tea at the grocery store, and at work, strawberry tea was always very popular.

How do you make tea leaves out of a melon? With strawberry and I suppose possibly even blueberry, tea could be made with the leaves and blossoms of the plant. But with the melon? Why not just heat up some artificially flavored melon juice?

And honey - what is the point of somehow making a sort of powder that is flavored like honey, when you could just take a spoonful of honey and let it dissolve in your hot water?

And caramel tea? How does that work, exactly, because caramel is simply caramelized sugar, and the problems I have with this concept are the same as those I have with honey tea. Surely you could just stir a spoonful of caramel sauce into your cup, or let some brown sugar dissolve into your water.

Then there are those flavors that just seem so unlikely - such as banana/vanilla/pineapple tea. I can't help but be amused by these flavor options. Of course, such outlandish flavors must be available all over the U.S. and many other countries as well as the Netherlands, but I never encounter them there.

I still ask my parents to send tea from home whenever possible. I forgot to bring some back with me this time, but some day soon I hope to receive a package containing my stock of earl grey, Lapsang, darjeeling, and black currant tea. My tea canisters are looking pathetically low.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Exchange Legacy

During my senior year of high school, my family hosted an exchange student from Italy: Annarita. This is something I recommend to everybody, just as strongly as I recommend actually going on exchange - although I don't mention it as much. You get to share and learn, and of course you disagree and there are hard times but in the end everybody is usually a better person for it.

This week, Annarita came to visit me in Middelburg - the first time we had seen each other since she left Portland in June 2005.

I met her at Schiphol, and it was almost immediately clear that neither of us had actually changed all that much. Despite my exchange to the Dominican Republic and the last few years in the Netherlands, and even though Annarita has studied at universities in both Italy and England, we are both more or less the same as we were at 17. Perhaps slightly more mature.

But only very slightly.

We spent Wednesday afternoon walking around Leiden, which I hope to one day call home (although in these last months in Middelburg, I am really beginning to dread the day I catch the intercity train out of Middelburg and leave for good, never to return except as a visitor). It was a beautiful, sunny day, and Leiden, although not the most beautiful Dutch city, has some very nice views, buildings, canals, and windmills.

Thursday was spent around Middelburg - a good cup of coffee at Ko D'oooooooor, a walk to the Oostkerk, the library, and the nice used bookstore, and stopping for a tasty tosti and cup of coffee at St John's Coffee House. Then to market to buy a few things for the house dinner, a pack of the obligatory stroopwafels (if there is one thing you HAVE to eat when you come to the Netherlands, that's it - herring is a close second, but stroopwafels get top priority), and general browsing.

Thursday night found us at the student bar, enjoying Annarita's favorite beer (Heineken) and RA society.

Friday I spent in school, and then a cup of tea at Honeypie, dinner at the Pannenkoekenhuis with some of my housemates, and a night out with some friends at Schutterschof.

Today was, sadly, her last day - how quickly three days go! - and we spent it having coffee and appelgebak at Ko D'oooooooor, walking along the canal, and visiting the Abbey. We stopped for a bakje of the best frieten in Middelburg, picked up a souvenir pack of stroopwafels for Annarita to take back home, and waved goodbye from the platform of the Middelburg station and the 3 o'clock intercity train to Amsterdam.

It wasn't what we did, though, that was so nice. It was the simple fact that we did it, that we did anything. That we saw each other again.

Minutes before the train came, I had said to her, "Do you think that way back in 2005, when you left, we would ever have believed that the next time we saw each other, it would be in the Netherlands, as college students?"

It's pretty remarkable. These exchanges create extra branches on our family trees. I know members of my aunt's Dutch host family, and my French host mother was my grandparent's "French daughter". My brother recently spent a year in Ecuador. And I have to tell my sister (for the hundredth time) how lucky she is - she just found out about the host family she'll be living with next year, near Naples.

If I could do it again, I would. In a heartbeat.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Hearty Snack

My study snack of choice for the past couple of weeks has been a small handful from the sack of Necco Sweethearts that I brought from home (along with a package of High School Musical Valentines that I distributed to friends yesterday).

They're perfect because you don't eat them very fast and you get sick of them after eating only a very few. But they can also be a little distracting, especially if you are a literary-minded person.

Also if you once took a class called "Topics in Linguistics", with a lot of emphasis on cognitive metaphors.

Once I glanced down at a sweetheart before popping it in my mouth and froze. It said, "Top Chef".

I've no idea how that's romantic. It seemed to be a nice, if slightly generic, compliment. They could just fill the hearts with other little two-word niceties like, "nice hair" and "good legs".

Then I picked another one that said "Stir My ". And later, still another, that said "Melt My ". Hmm. Maybe these are image schemas - I didn't do too well in that class. At any rate, Necco seems to like the cuisine-related suggestions they get from people. I also get distracted by all of the hearts that have to do with contact. From "Call Me" to "Fax Me" to "IM Me", there are a lot of these. Who even uses a fax machine anymore? Okay, some people do, but they seem to have been relegated to purely business-related contact. What are they trying to do, record the history of communication means in summary? A quick visit to the Necco website tells me that VP Walter Marshall introduced "Fax Me" in the '90s when he first decided to add and dismiss sayings each year. Therefore, "From old tech, 'Fax Me' to new tech, 'Email Me', Sweethearts keep the pulse on the heartbeat of the nation".

So it looks like perhaps they are logging an overview of the history of communications. They should introduce some more old-school sayings, like, say, "Write Me". I don't think they have that one.

Anyway, I sure wish I had thought of this as a topic for my final paper in linguistics last spring. It probably would have been, well, sweeter, than whatever it was I chose to write about - I've shut that assignment out of my memory.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The View from the Counter

When Torrefazione Italia closed in 2005 and I broke down crying at the end of my last shift, a coworker did her best to comfort me. "There'll be other cafes," she said. That seemed unlikely at the time, but, within months, I was frequenting Costello's Travel Caffe for an afternoon of coffee and reading, and Mio Gelato replaced my job. It wasn't the same, of course, but did I really want it to be? I loved them both, for the coffee they served and for the coffee I made, for the people I served and the customers I met.

Since then, there have been several other cafes. I remember certain cafes I have visited on trips - Kopplin's Coffee in Minneapolis, the local Insomnia Coffee chain in Dublin, the Black Medicine Coffee Co. in Edinburgh, the multiple Autogrills on the roads in Italy where Dad and I stopped for a quick shot of espresso - and each time I go back to Portland there are new places to try at my parents recommendation, and the old places to go back to (especially Northwest Coffee House for a delicious mocha and Extracto for a bowl latte and the best chocolate shortbread cookies).

But it's not just the coffee I love. It's the atmosphere.

Cafes are the most inspiring places, ever, anywhere. All I need is enough change for a cuppa, several sheets of paper, a pen with a full ink cartridge, and I'm set for hours.

The effect is even better when I'm working.

This past week, I've done some last-minute filling-in at a local cafe, one of my favorites. In the lulls between customers, I grab a scrap of paper and jot thoughts and ideas down. I sketch out characters and build up plot triangles. Clever bits of dialogue, either from a real-life customer or from some wonderful part of my mind, pop out and clamor to be recorded.

Last summer, I was working on a novel in my free time. The thing that kept me writing, all summer long, was my job. As my hands cupped a steel pitcher and I waited for the milk to hit the right temperature, the ideas hit me. I scrawled on napkins and scribbled on receipts. After work and on my days off, these scraps were grouped together and became a fictional Portland coffeehouse with character, bustle, and, of course, coffee.

The view from behind the counter is the best narrative viewpoint.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Long Winter

This afternoon, as I was curled up on my couch under the window with a book and a cup of tea, I looked out the window and saw some very ominous clouds and decided I had better go do the grocery shopping right then, rather than waiting another hour (as I had planned) and probably getting stuck outside when those clouds broke.

Outside, it was freezing, much colder than expected, and my teeth chattered as I rattled down the little alleys, able to go at breakneck speed as it's Sunday and there's hardly a soul on the streets.

I zipped through the store, getting held up only when I had to wait in line, first to get to the canned tomatoes and second, to get to the half-full organic milk. (I don't know why but the grocery store is always crowded on Sundays, contrasting with the rest of the town.)

On my way back home, I felt specks of moistness. I would get home just before the rain hit.

Inside, I ran to my room, then back to the kitchen to put things in the refrigerator when I glanced outside and saw big puffy snowflakes circling down.

This has been one long, crazy winter for me. Probably the snowiest of my life. We had a big snow day here in November, and it snowed without sticking several other times before I went home to Portland for Christmas break. There, we had a week of heavy snowfall, and after that, freezing weather more or less until I came back to Middelburg.

Here, it's been below freezing for days. This past week it warmed up a little.. but not much. It snowed on Monday, and stayed most of the day (that's when these photos were taken) - absolutely making the day for me, one I had been dreading.

It's not the snow that's so amazing, though - I've seen snow before, and I've seen it enough in Middelburg. I still think it makes everything incredibly beautiful, especially here, but I was much more surprised last Saturday when I went for a walk, on a beautiful sunny but cold day, and turned a corner to see a huge stretch of canal icing over (see picture below).

I had walked to the library with a housemate and her boyfriend, who told me that not only in Friesland were people ice skating on the canals again, but even in Zeeland, it was possible. People had skated from Middelburg to Veere - about a half hour away by bike.

Oh, how can I have missed that? What could possibly be more picturesque than ice skating on a Zeeuws canal?!?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Procrastination Deactivation

This semester has started pretty much like every other semester before this one: I'm just not that into it.

My classes are all very interesting - even fascinating. In class, I enjoy the discussions. I take notes and jot down the names of books and people and events that I want to look up. Things I should find out about. Facts and figures that could be useful to me in the course.

But outside of class I really don't care. I'd much rather read a book or watch a movie and work on my knitting.

The difference between this semester and the others, though, is the effect of this disinterest. In past years, I procrastinated, avoided homework, and just tried to wait until I got back in the swing of the things.

This time, it's the opposite.

I have been so on top of my homework that I constantly have free nights. I'm usually done by 9 at the latest, leaving me plenty of time for movies or reading or friends.

The lengths I will go to to get homework out of the way is rather astounding.

Tuesday night, the party night at RA, I watched Singin' in the Rain with my housemates (who had never seen it!), and then decided to go ahead and join them to the student bar, Barrel, for a drink.

Barrel was a bust - I didn't know more than 8 of the people present, and the whole time I kept thinking, "If I went home now, I could still get something done."

So, I left. I went home and I read half of the assigned chapter of my art history book. Which didn't even have to be done until Friday.

And after that, at about 3 in the morning, I got online to talk to my brother about a music assignment. Also not due until Friday.

Thursday evening, when I was done with everything for the next day, I seriously considered doing my literature homework for Monday. In the end, though, I opted to watch another Fred and Ginger ("Carefree" - quite decent; the first movie where Ginger Rogers really stood out and I felt actually displayed something of a talent for acting).

Then I got up early on Friday and did most of my lit homework before I went to Art history at 11.

And after I was done with classes at 4, I went home, brewed a pot of coffee and took out the walnotenkoek I treated myself too, and did my music homework. Then I finished the rest of my literature. And now I have almost nothing that must be done this weekend.

It's so strange, but it's gotten to the point where the thought of doing homework tomorrow is even more disgusting than doing it today.

I don't know what has gotten into me, but it might be serious.

At least I hope it is.