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.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Single Servings

Here's something about living in Leiden that I hadn't thought of before I actually experienced it:

Cooking for one.

What can I say about it, except that... it sucks?

I've forgotten, over the years I spent in the best house at RA (that would be Bagijnhof 14), what it was like to cook for one person. I did that in my first semester at RA, when I lived in a different house, one in which no one ever cooked together. The last two and a half years, though, I had dinner with my housemates four nights a week. That usually meant:

Three nights a week I didn't have to cook; food was provided for me. This was usually a complete meal, although sometimes low on vegetables - but not usually. (My) favorites included stamppot, David's delicious, simple, lentil soup, Anouk's tortellini with cheese and bell peppers, Dana's pasta with salmon, spinach, and mushrooms... etc.

One night each week, I cooked for 8 or 9 people. Usually it was fun, although it could be difficult to accommodate everyone's tastes and diets. (Like the boys who wanted meat every single night, and later, the vegetarian.)

That left three nights to provide for myself. No problem. Make something easy on Friday, like pasta with tomato sauce (people started to think I ate nothing else, but it's not true, I swear!). Eat half on Friday and save the other half for Saturday. Sunday was the lazy night; since you had procrastinated all weekend, and probably not left your room on Sunday, a bit of rice with butter or some simple easy vegetables was usually enough.

But here, in Leiden... I'm on my own. Seven nights a week.

Which means that last week, I had the same thing for dinner on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday night: pasta with bacon, wilted spinach, and parmesan. Not bad at all, but anything gets repetitive by the third night. I changed the menu on Thursday to polenta with tomato sauce with sausage, but had a repeat on Friday. Saturday I took a break, but just ate salad and some bread and cheese, which isn't exactly a hearty meal, and now that it's pretty much fall, I like the idea of a hot meal more often.

Wanting to save the two portions of Thursday's tomato sauce that I froze for Monday and Tuesday (when I have class until 5), I decided to be creative and simple tonight. I browned some onions in olive oil with some "Italian herb mix" and made polenta. When the polenta was almost done, I put the onions in the polenta and wilted some arugula from yesterday's salad in the oil. I served the arugula half on top, half on the side of the polenta with lots of salt, pepper, and chopped (this house has no grater!) parmesan.

Not bad. Plus, I made plenty of extra polenta to refry for lunches during the week.

But this kind of ingenuity is exhausting. Those three thoughtless days each week at RA were really an amazing thing, and I am going to miss them - but not only for the food.

Here, after making my little plate of food for one, I climb backwards down the stairs (they're stereotypically steep) to my little room, and watch an episode of something, or the Red Sox game. I'm done within 15 minutes, for sure, and then I go back upstairs and do the dishes.

The end.

In Middelburg, dinners could last two hours, if the conversation was good. Everyone in my house got along, and most of us liked most everybody else as a friend, not just as a housemate.

I was so lucky.

Now my ex-housemates keep trying to engage me to go back to Middelburg and cook them a Thanksgiving dinner, as I have the past two years. I'm holding out a little, still hoping I might make some friends here who I could share the holiday with. But if I'm not lucky, I'm pretty sure it'll be a traditional Middelburg Thanksgiving, once again.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Glimpse of Life in Leiden

This morning, as I was walking into town and noticing the little things that are becoming more and more familiar to me, I started thinking about the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

What a stupid phrase! Sure, it works for some things, but only if those things can’t be explained in less than a thousand words.

I could take one picture of my new life and post it here, or I could write a thousand words about my new life here. And the words would be much more valuable and descriptive.

So I decided to try writing a thousand words about me in Leiden.

I live in a little house on the Groenesteeg. It’s a small bike street that leads off of the Hooigracht, one of the streets marking off the center of the city. I have four housemates, all girls, none of whom I know. I’ve met each of them once or twice, but they’re never in the kitchen at the same time as me.

My room is halfway between the ground floor and the first floor. I have a big window, and everyone’s heads can look in just at the bottom of it. I need to buy some of those privacy stickers that blur the window.

It’s a small-ish room, with a built-in table and shelves. Now that I have a bed, it’s more or less home, though I still need to hang pictures and assign everything to a specific place.

Around the corner from me, on the Hooigracht, is an organic food store. They’re hiring for part-time workers to start this month, but I can’t work there. One employee asked me, during my last transaction, if I could understand him. If they think I don’t understand simple customer-employee interaction, there’s no way they’ll ever hire me.

Keep walking, past the Belgian pub and the University housing for international students, and you come to the Lange Rijn. Turn right and walk along the canal for the equivalent of one city block, and you get to the first of three bridges. The first bridge is mainly a big street bridge, it doesn’t really feel like a bridge when you’re on it. The next bridge is a pedestrian and bicycling bridge. It’s made of wooden planks, and the metal railings are painted white and hung with flower boxes, and it is further decorated with the bikes that are locked along the railing. The third bridge is a market bridge, sort of like the bridge over the Rialto in Venice, only not as amazing.

On the right side of the canal – my side of the canal – there are some shops and bakeries, and then, after the third bridge, pubs. On the left side of the canal, there are lots of cafes – all bad or mediocre. (My brother agrees with me on that.)

On Wednesdays and Saturdays, market is held here. When I came to Leiden with Annarita last February, we walked along this canal and looked at the market, how could I have known that this would one day be my neighborhood?

I turn left at the third bridge and walk past the Stadhuis, or City Hall, to get to my classes, which are mostly held in the Lipsius Building. If I walk straight along the canal, I come to the V&D Department store (they have a department store here!). Cross back to the right side of the canal and walk up an alley, I arrive at Harlemmerstraat, the main shopping street in Leiden. (Easier to pronounce than Lange Delft, the shopping street in Middelburg.)

Last night I went for a drink at the Meneer Jan with a classmate from the Roosevelt Academy who I ran into for the first time. We meant to meet people in her literature department, but didn’t. Then we went to the Einstein, where they have international student drinks every Wednesday, but I only recognized one person and she was speaking her native language with a group of fellow countrymen so I didn’t say hello. (Man, RA really had it figured out, with the English-only rule!)

The walk to my classes is nice, a little longer than I am used to, and very busy. There are so many people here, so many more than I am used to! And still, the disenchanted students who have been here for three years already complain and go to Amsterdam and the Hague when they want to have a good time. To me, Leiden is a metropolis. Riding my bike is a scary undertaking, completed only three times.

Classes are interesting, although so far, not especially stimulating. And, when I look at the screen with the class directory, I get excited at the names of courses like, “The World According to Beowulf”, which are no longer in my field. On the other hand, things like New Media and Society will be interesting, though I think I am a traditionalist and will get annoyed/depressed about books. Digital Media and Technology will surely be a good and rather useful course, in which I get to learn about things like HTML and TEI encoding. (I’d never even heard of TEI before class on Thursday, and now I’m supposed to work on encoding 100-year-old letters [or older?] in TEI for homework.)

The grading is strange; I have to get used to the Dutch grading system (on a scale of 1-10, 6 being a pass, so actually not all that different from the American system). My courses mainly have two graded components: a paper and an exam, each worth 50% of the grade. In one class I only have a take home exam and one thousand-word paper. (I’m pretty sure I couldn’t just take a picture instead…) I wonder how the difficult the assignments and reading will be in the meantime?

So, here it is, one thousand words about my new life. It’s still not very exciting, but then, it’s only been one week. I’ll just be patient.

Pictures will come later.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Netherlands, Take Two

I've just about complete my move. I used to live in Zeeland, now I live in Zuid-Holland. I've left Middelburg for Leiden.

After graduating from the Roosevelt Academy, I was accepted to do a one-year masters in Book & Digital Media Studies. The program starts tomorrow.

The last time I posted I was still in Portland - quite a while ago. I can say that it was very, very hard to leave this time, easily the saddest goodbye since I left for six months in France when I was 15. This summer in Portland, something happened. I've always loved my hometown, but never minded leaving it before now. Now, there is no where I would rather be (that includes Leiden).

Hopefully that will change a little over the next year, because I like to be happy wherever I am!

A lot has happened since Portland. In sum, I attended, volunteered at, and presented a paper at the 2009 PALA Conference in the last week of July. My paper - on Catherine Sanderson's blog, Petite Anglaise, and her book of the same name - received a lot of interest, enthusiasm, and generally the response was very positive. The same went for the other undergraduate presenters, my friends Isabelle and Annemijn.

It was also a great experience for bonding with other classmates, older and younger, as well as teachers. I met a lot of interesting students from other schools as well, and actually lost the attitude I always had regarding Ph.D.s. You know, that I would never get one.

Now it's sort of like a very slight possibility at some point far in the future.

After the conference, I spent a week bumming around Middelburg, crashing in different rooms of different houses with different friends, and looking for a room in Leiden. I found one at the end of that week, but couldn't move in until August 31.

The following week, my brother arrived with his friend Taavi, from Estonia, and Taavi's sister Miina. They had been traveling around Europe, mainly in Germany, France, and Spain. We had a busy week, going to Brussels, Gent, and Amsterdam, and carting most of my belongings up to a garage in Voorburg, near the Hague.

Taavi and Miina left a week later, and after a few days together in Middelburg, Simon and I went to Voorburg to stay with some family friends. We went go-karting, and I spent most of the rest of the time in Leiden, attending the international student Introduction Days. Which were not extremely stimulating, though fun.

That weekend - last weekend - we went to Apeldoorn and stayed with friends, who took us to the Kroller-Muller museum. This was a really amazing experience; I think I may have been there once before, when I was nine, but that was a long time ago. Now I recognized many Fernand Leger pieces, and after my Dutch presentation last fall, I know a lot more about Piet Mondriaan and Jan Toorop - though I hadn't heard of Toorop's daughter Charley, whose work I really liked. And then, of course, there is the huge collection of van Gogh paintings, which was quite breathtaking.

Monday we moved my things into my room in Leiden, and spent the week together doing everything from carrying furniture and running boring errands, to dinner at Marius in Amsterdam and visiting friends in Utrecht.

Finally, on Friday, we went down to Middelburg to spend the night. I still had some things to gather, and Simon was flying out of Brussels on Saturday, and Middelburg is much closer than Leiden. Friday night we went out for really good fries with my housemates and had a lot of fun.

Simon and I got up at 5 on Saturday so Simon could catch the 6:21 train with time to spare. It was really sad to see him leave, he had become such a regular presence after three weeks, and it was so nice to have him here while I was making the transition from Middelburg to Leiden.

But now he's gone, just in time for me to begin my program. I start tomorrow.