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?!