December 30, 2005

This week...

A few things I've been wanting to mention that happened this week, which I've had off from work and have been spending as a nice little vacation at home...

We've seen quite a few movies, mostly at home: a series of animal-related movies - March of the Penguins, Grizzly Man, and King Kong - and then tonight we watched 40-year-old Virgin, which was not as bad as I was expecting. The penguin movie: moving and well filmed, though I'm not sure why it's gotten the huge response it has. Grizzly Man was far more intriguing and weird, and quite a look at obssession and nature vs man. And King Kong was pretty good. It's made me want to see the original, especially since all I really know from it is the famous scene of King Kong standing on top of the Empire State Building holding the girl.

We saw King Kong at De Munt, and I knew it would be busy and such, so I didn't expect the audience to be a well-behaved one. It was ok in the end, but I moaned when this hyperactive kid we'd seen in the lobby ended up sitting right in front of us. He was the type who just could not shut up and I was glad he was at least in front of us, because I could see he was bothering the two people in front of him. But he actually was rather quiet in the movie and I hardly noticed him (I did hear him ask his dad though at one point, after so much of the movie had gone on and Kong hadn't appeared yet, "where is the ape?!"). The same could not be said of the guy sitting next to Onno. He looked to be around 20, but he acted as if he were 12, laughing with a moronic "huh-huh-huh" at really inappropriate times, like, oh, every violent fight scene, and after lines of dialogue that had no humour to them whatsoever. It was hard to enjoy a tense fight scene with Beavis sitting two seats over...

One day we went into town cuz I needed some things and I also wanted to see what the Albert Cuypmarkt was like, since I'd never been in all the time I've lived here. I can't say it was that worth going to. It seemed to me like any other market I've been to here, except maybe bigger. It still was a lot of stalls selling cheap clothes and electronics and household items, mixed with the occasional stall selling food that was more worthwhile. But I could go to the Bos en Lommermarkt 5 mins from my house and have the same selection. The only market I've liked here at all is the Noordermarkt, which, yeah, it has the expensive Farmer's Market part, but even the normal market around the corner seemed nicer than most. I wish I could go more often, but I don't go to that part of town much.

In the neighbourhood of the Albert Cuyp, I found the Tjin's toko, which I've heard about, and I loved looking around there, even though it's quite a small store. They have imported food from so many different places, including some American food. I ended up leaving with some black beans (which our local supermarket no longer carries) and some good ol' Nalley's sweet pickle relish. They are much cheaper than most import food places too, so I might be popping in there every couple of months...

I found out today (thanks, Steven) that Sleater-Kinney have made a new European tour to make up for the cancelled one in November. It's not until May, and it still doesn't come through the Netherlands, but at least it's a tour. There aren't any UK dates though (yet?), except for their curated weekend at All Tomorrow's Parties. And the tour is very similar to The Decemberists'. They play the same places in Cologne and Brussels, so we could even go back to Cologne and see the kind folks again at Gebäude 9 who took O's camera away. But I feel we'll opt for Brussels this time, though I'm not sure about the place they're playing. It sounds a bit theater-ish, but then we were going to see them play in a former church (that is more churchy than Paradiso) in Glasgow.

December 26, 2005


Family can be a pain in the ass. At least for me. I love 'em, but I don't really miss them, and I'm fine seeing them every couple of years. I don't even talk to them on the phone that much, even though cost isn't an issue, because I usually come away from the conversation depressed. It was so depressing to be at my parents' house last summer that we eventually left to go to a motel. There are many reasons why talking to them, or sometimes even just thinking of their situation, depresses me.

First of all, the house. It's the house I grew up in, but it's so run down and musty and full of junk that I can't stand to look at it anymore. It was built by my dad, but unfortunately it's falling apart. It's drafty and the only source of heat in the main part of the house is a wood stove which tried its best to battle the wind drafting in, as well as heat up a large, open space with high, open-beamed ceilings. My parents try to get some extra heat from electric heaters, but you kind of have to snuggle up to them, still with layers of blankets on you, to feel warm. My bedroom was the only one with a good electric floorboard heater that was actually put in when the house was built. When I went home for Christmas when I was in college, I would practically live in my bedroom since it was the only place that was decently warm. But there would always be windstorms that would knock out the power, leading to me desperately trying to keep the heat in my room, a battle I always lost, so I'd spend a night or two frozen until we got the power back. It's what makes me hate strong winds even now, even though it's rare to lose the electricity here.

For years now, the upstairs bathroom has been leaking into my bedroom which is below it. My room is carpeted, so it's soaked up water over and over again, and has not been cleaned, or in many cases even tried to be dried, so it smells moldy and nasty in most of the downstairs.

Those are two of the main problems, but on top of that there's the upstairs wooden floor that has been flaking away over the years, so it's all splintery; the leaking ceiling; the piles of dust and dirt and cobwebs; and the junk thrown into every corner. I'm not a neatnik, far from it (probably due to growing up in this house), but I just couldn't take it anymore when we were last there. I shudder to think of the day when that house will have to be emptied.

So, the house. It's not the only thing breaking down. My parents also have had one car after another break down on them to the point they couldn't afford to fix it. Once my mom completely toasted the engine of her car because my dad refused to have something in the radiator replaced (which only cost about 50 bucks, maybe less) and my mom was too tired after work to deal with it in any way, so she drove home. She made it, but the engine was dead after running with no water in the radiator.

Apparently my dad isn't driving anymore anyway, which is for the best. He's old, and his age is showing more and more. He's never been a good driver (he thinks going about 40 mph on country roads is pushing it speed-wise), but now he doesn't see well at night and I just don't think he has the reaction time and overall health to be driving. More importantly, he's having worse and worse problems with his short-term memory. Anytime I call home, I have the same conversation at least twice with him because he's forgotten what he already asked me. I swore that when we arrived to visit last summer he was going to find it a surprise because he'd have forgotten we were coming, but he seemed to remember. At least he still knows who I am and even always asks how O is. It's hard on my mom though, obviously, because she has to repeat herself so much (and usually at a loud volume because he can't hear well) but my dad also gets into arguments with her because he thinks she didn't tell him something when she did. When we were there, we were looking at photos my mom took when she came to Amsterdam the previous September. My dad suddenly said in a grave voice "why don't you think to show these photos to me? Don't you think I'd like to see them?" Which of course he had done already, a couple of times. But he ended up yelling at my mom that she was keeping him out of things on purpose, and no amount of telling him he doesn't remember things is going to help the situation.

Unfortunately, my mom is home with him more often because she lost her job in the spring. She's been trying to find something else, but I think it's hard, especially at her age.

And then there's my younger brother, who is 24 and still lives at home, along with his girlfriend. It's taken so long for him to get a life together. He went to college for about a year, then sat around on his ass for about 2-3 years not really working, and certainly not earning enough money to move out. He fortunately has a full-time job now that he likes, and his girlfriend has one as well. But they still haven't moved out. They have, however, bought a widescreen TV and a DVD player and expensive games and mountain bikes and my brother has a new car. Funny that they have the money for those things.

So I called home last night to say Merry Christmas to everyone, and early on I spoke to my brother and I made the mistake of asking when he was planning to move out. It lead to this argument where he was telling me "you don't know anything about me" and "who are you to tell me what I should do?" and "screw you." My brother can be a tad defensive. I got handed off to my dad (while I could hear my brother in the background ranting to his girlfriend about what I'd said), and eventually to my mom, and when I heard her voice I couldn't hold back crying anymore. She guessed it was to do with what my brother had been saying to me and she said to just ignore him and not let him get to me. In the end though, after I got off the phone with my family, and now, I actually don't feel so angry anymore that my brother still lives at home. He told me that he gives my mom money to help out with things, though he didn't say how much or for what. (When I was there in the summer, my mom said he paid $100 a month for living there, which I found a joke. Maybe he does help out more now.) Also, as he and my mom both said, it's good for my mom to have someone else there because my dad is driving my mom nuts.

Overall, I came away with a stronger feeling of "just let it go" than I had before. I usually have that feeling, but more for my own protection, because I can't do much about their situation anyway, so I try to remain ignorant of my mom still not having a job and the car breaking down again and all the other problems. I won't ask my brother again if he's moving out. He probably won't talk to me anyway. I still can't think too much about their lives though, how unchanging it is, and how stoic my mom is about it. She doesn't seem worried that she hasn't worked for most of the year and she's never even talked to a doctor about what can be done to help my dad's memory problems, even though I said she really needs to 6 months ago when I was visiting. When I mentioned it on the phone yesterday, it was as if the idea had never occurred to her, she's just been living with it, not thinking that maybe something can be done. I feel like when we visit again next year, probably at least 6 months from now, it's very likely none of this will have changed. I don't understand how they can live this way, but all I can do is leave them to it.

December 25, 2005

So, Christmas

Though it is Christmas today, by all intents and purposes Christmas was over yesterday for O and I. Another one survived. Due to members of the family going to other gatherings today, we had our little Christmas yesterday with O's mom, brother, and his brother's girlfriend. It went well, and besides me being sleepy and tired of dealing all day with a headache that just would not die, I didn't mind too much the hours spent with my in-laws.

Some of the presents I got: a strategic game called Carcassone from O's brother, an excellent book on 100 places to visit by Yorin (or whatever it is now) Travel presenter Floortje Dessing from O's brother's girlfriend, a bread dip from Oil and Vinegar and slipper socks from O, and a popcorn maker from O's mom, which I can't imagine using, especially since O doesn't like popcorn. Oh, and the lovely knitted scarf that my college friend sent.

O got some cool things as well, like a book on cheap but good restaurants in Amsterdam, a page-a-day calendar with a recipe each day, and a subscription to a scientific/technology magazine, Quest, which I'll enjoy reading too, though it's in Dutch. Also a sort of gag gift from his brother: mouth spray that gives you an "instant Irish accent" along with "Enjoy spending time with your mother" gum. He also got a grill pan from his mom, which is a bit too bad because I bought one just a few months ago.

It made me think of the differences between how we do Christmas here and how my family did Christmas when I was growing up. We gave wishlists in my family, which takes the surprise out of things, but my family doesn't have the energy or imagination to think of what to get other people, even though they also draw names, so they don't have to buy many presents. But at least you got something you had wanted or needed. I have no need or desire for a popcorn maker, and we didn't need another grill pan, but we didn't say that of course, we just said thanks and such, and this is supposed to be the more open and blunt family. I thought how in my family everytime someone gave clothes, there was always the comment "well, if you don't like it, or it doesn't fit, I have the receipt so you can take it back." But I think that idea would be rude here, even if we explained we already have something. It's not a big deal really, I just hate having a bunch of stuff around that I don't really want, in addition to all the other things we already own and just have stuffed away in storage. Anyone for a popcorn maker?

December 21, 2005

Surprise of friends

Last night I came home to find a little package had arrived in the mail from a college friend of mine. I took it out of the envelope and it's wrapped in Christmas paper, so I'll wait to open it on Christmas, but I already know what it is, due to the description on the customs form. It's a scarf, and I knew the moment I saw that that my friend had made it herself. This friend is a particularly mumsy, crafts-oriented person, like every year she sends handmade Christmas cards, which is really sweet. And it's like a million times sweeter that she sent a handmade scarf this year. I guess I find it thoughtful, but also a bit weird in a way, because I haven't seen her in 5 years and our contact has been reduced to exchanging cards at Christmas, and me sending her the emails I send when we get our vacation photos online. I shouldn't make it sound all negative and like "why did she go out of her way to do this when I hardly know her anymore?" It was a pleasant surprise and I can't wait to open it and see what it looks like.

And last night O and I went out with some friends for dinner, and I had a great time despite some horrendous service from the restaurant. I'm happy to be finally getting to know some people in Amsterdam, which started last summer when I finally decided to go to a dinner out with an Amsterdam expat group. I met Laura there and only a couple of weeks later she invited O and I to her housewarming and we met many of her friends who we've seen a few times now, including last night. One friend of Laura's we already knew, someone I've known for years from another expat group that isn't even active anymore, and now we are back in touch more than we've been in a long time, and she's so sweet so it's great to see her more often again. On Monday, I went with some of this group to a quiz night and had a fun time, so I look forward to doing it more in the new year. And Laura and O are already planning a joint birthday party for next month because their birthdays are only two days apart. After drifting away from the friends I was close to, mostly because they all live farther south and I don't make it down there much anymore, I'm so happy to finally know some people up here and I've had some great times with them in the past few months.

December 17, 2005

Visitors come blowing in

This morning I went to check my blog stats for the first time all week (I normally do that at work to procrastinate a bit, but I was so busy this past week that I hardly had time to breathe, let alone do any bumming around on the internet) and I had about 40 hits to my site and it was only around noon. I usually get about 15 to 20 hits a day. A sudden spike was coming from somewhere. It turns out that the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) linked to a blog post of mine from back in July. I've had 125 visitors to that post today. AIR's little mention of my post is brief, but it was cool that they found it and linked to it.

I've sent a few emails before to the editor of AIR, Marc Abrahams, and he's (almost) always sent a nice little reply. Also I found out a few months ago that someone I went to college with now works with the magazine on the side of her research work at Harvard. I wonder if either of them realize that I am behind the blog the magazine linked to.

December 11, 2005

My image of Catalan has changed completely

Expats living here thought it was bad enough enduring the Sinterklaas tradition that includes normal Dutch people putting on blackface to play the Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) that are the helpers of the big white bishop, Sinterklaas. Many Dutch people defend the whole thing and say it's not politically incorrect, it's tradition!, but in many ways the Zwarte Pieten freak me out. It's all meant more for kids anyway, and considering I'm sick enough of Christmas, I just do my best to ignore Sinterklaas each year.

Yesterday, however, I read about a traditional part of the nativity scenes in the Catalan region of Spain. Apparently, hidden amongst the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and all the other people and animals, is a figure called el caganer, which I think can basically be translated to "the pooper". It's usually a peasant man squatted over with his pants down. Yes, in the midst of the nativity scene. You can read about the tradition, how it possibly started, and what it's supposed to mean here. Thank goodness the Dutch aren't so religious anymore because this sounds like something right up their alley.

December 9, 2005

Cool, but doh

This evening a postman dropped off a package (while we were trying to take a nap; nice timing, thank you very much) and it was O who went down to get it. I was wondering what it might be because I have a few online orders floating around out there. It turned out to be a package from Land's End that I did not expect to get here for a very long time and its early arrival kinda ruined the surprise for O's xmas present. I say kinda because he still doesn't know exactly what he's getting, but now he can narrow it down a lot.

So yeah, I ordered it with the cheapest shipping I could get from the US, which was $10 for surface mail. The estimated delivery time was 8-12 weeks. That places it sometime after O's birthday next month. Which was ok, I was just going to say his xmas present was coming, but I needed to be cheap and not pay twice as much for the priority shipping that would get it here by xmas. So how long did my $10 surface mail take? One week. Actually, a bit less. I made my order one week ago, but it didn't ship until the 3rd, which was last Saturday.

I think they just made a mistake, they still billed me for $10 shipping, but on the address label it says Intl Priority Mail. That still is supposed to take 1-2 weeks. I love though how every company online is like "buy now or it won't get to you before xmas!!" and I get my package from the US in less than a week. It's all a scam.

In other news, I'm making my Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow. Yes, I'm a bit late, but I need my turkey (or in our case, chicken) and stuffing and sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce... Yum. No pumpkin pie though, O doesn't like it and I'm not so keen on it to make one for myself. I think we'll have enough without pie anyway.

I. Can't. Stop.

Those paying attention may remember that I saw the Decemberists about 3 weeks ago. And around the time of concert, I got a bit burnt out on them. You know, you are looking forward to seeing a band so you listen to them lots, "one last listen before seeing them play this live!", and no songs but theirs are in your head for about a week. Then there's the actual show. And then another few days or a week or whatever of nothing but their songs being in your head because of all the overload until you are yelling "all right, enough already!" to your brain. I particularly had this because I didn't really play any CDs the week after seeing the Decemberists, even though I was going mad from their songs. I just didn't feel like playing any music really, so I suffered through what my head decided to play.

A few weeks later and I still haven't really put on any CDs lately. I've been too busy at work to listen to music as well and I am too lazy at home. At least my brain's jukebox has had a bit more variety, so it stopped the madness. But then this afternoon I had a couple of Decemberists songs floating in my head, not even ones I particularly like, like Engine Driver, but it felt ok to hear them again. This built into a real desire to play Picaresque, and so I did, and it's like I just cannot stop listening to the Decemberists, and specifically to that record. It has a hold on me that few records ever have. I think it partly has to do with the stories in the songs; putting on the CD is like having storytime and by the end you feel like you've been around the world. Hell, by the end of Eli, the Barrow Boy, the 3rd song on the CD, I've already been pondering love and beauty and riches and poorness and death, and that's a lot for 11 minutes of music.

December 3, 2005

Sick bunny

A cold started moving in on me Thursday and now I'm feeling fairly unwell, though not as bad as I expected. The thing is is that I was supposed to go to Germany this weekend for the Christmas markets, so I had to cancel. It wasn't such an easy cancellation though...

I was going to the markets with a group from Meet in Amsterdam, an online-based group that plans all sorts of activities, a few of which I've gone to over the past few months. Two people started planning the Germany trip a couple of months ago and I was excited because I've wanted to go to the markets pretty much since my first winter here, but O has no interest in going and has refused to go. A couple of years I've tried arranging things with friends but that's never worked out. So this was a perfect chance. At first. As time went on and things got planned, I learned a valuable lesson: I don't really like travelling when the decisions are up to someone else. One by one things started to bug me about the weekend plans. The first thing was that while our original plan was to go to the markets in Dusseldorf, and that's where we'd be staying, we now were going to arrive in Dusseldorf, put our bags in lockers, and meet up with people from the Meet in Dusseldorf group, who apparently had no interest in going to their own Christmas markets and wanted to go to Cologne's instead. So we'd all head off down to Cologne and putter about their markets for a few hours and go to the Dusseldorf markets on Sunday. I had two qualms with this: one, I just went to Cologne two weeks ago, and even though the plan to go there as well was made long before I actually went to Cologne, now that I've been, I don't have much drive to go back again, especially not so soon; and two, our semi-managable number of 12 from the Amsterdam group was going to be combined with the German group to number close to 40 and I worried how on earth that was going to make for a nice little trip through the markets. I tried to be rational and tell myself that of course the organizers were going to make plans in case people got separated from the group, like saying we'd meet at a certain spot at a certain time, but I'm not good about being calm about these types of things and I fretted about this for an unnatural amount of time. I also worried about getting stuck with people I didn't particularly care for, which was easy when, out of the people going from Amsterdam, I only know about 7 of them, and only 2 did I consider friends. Again I tried to tell my worried mind to shut up and be open to meeting some new people on the trip, but it didn't like to listen.

As the weeks passed I started dreading the trip more than looking forward to it, which is such a bad thing to do when it was based in a lot of what-ifs. And I know that, I know how horrible my mindset got about the whole thing, but it's not something I can control very well. So I just tried to calm down about it as much as I could and not worry.

During this week, I sort of just wanted to get to the weekend and get it over with. Though maybe it wasn't the trip I wanted over with, maybe it was just all the unanswered questions about how it would go. Maybe it would all turn out fine, but I had to see that. I was quite anxious this week, really stressed about the trip, and then that carried over to me being quite stressed at work. Then I could feel that I was getting sick as Thursday went on, just a little soreness in the back of my throat that I knew was a cold coming on. Yesterday I felt mostly ok, but I decided, after a lot of debate, that I would email the organizers of the trip and say I couldn't come. When I first thought I couldn't go because I was getting sick, I did feel relieved, which is horrible, but hey, I was a lot less stressed on Friday after I said I couldn't make the trip. What was worse was my stupid mind then turning around and feeling regretful that I wasn't going now because I think I'd felt it was like a test to myself to go this weekend and have fun in spite of all my worries and show myself that I was being stupid. And now I'll not know what would have happened, and I'm kind of sad about that. But I really am not physically up to going out for two whole days and walking around in the cold for hours on end.

And now I have a new worry. I emailed the two people organizing the trip yesterday at 10:30 am. And I still have not had a response from them. My first thought is that neither of them got my email and they've been wondering what happened to me before going on the train an hour and a half ago without me, but I find that hard to believe when on other occasions I've had email replies from them within 5 minutes on a work day. So then my other thought is that they did get my email but didn't reply because they hate me now and I'll get an email when they get back telling me I'm banned from the group forever. But I think that's just me being paranoid and projecting all my worries out there because in reality they don't actually know all the thoughts I've had about the trip. Still, I'll feel really bad if somehow neither of them got my email and they come back Monday all pissed off at me.