July 30, 2006

Welcome to my redesign

If all went well, my blog should look different to you. I was getting tired of how my blog looked, so I chose a new template for it, and here it is. It's one of the main Blogger templates, with some slight revisions. I was hoping to use something a bit more unique, but I found that it was much harder than I thought to find good Blogger templates, so I went with something reliable from Blogger themselves. Anyway, I think it looks cleaner and a bit less-amatuerish than my old design. I hope it looks right for everyone.

July 22, 2006

Hickville, heat, and late statement on "hiatus"

The other day, in my daily news summary email from one of the news stations in Portland, there was an item that caught my eye because it mentioned the area where I grew up. There was a burglary at one of the country stores that dot the area around where my parents live and the store owner took things into his own hands and went after the burglars with a shotgun. Besides the clinical language of the police report, the whole story is just so backwoods. But that's where I grew up. I know this store; it's hardly 5 minutes drive from my parents' house. And as you can see from the photo, it looks like something out of a Western. I think the walkway in front of the store is even made of wooden planks. And of course the owner had a shotgun. That's pretty much a given.

If you are in the Netherlands, then I don't need to talk to you about the heat. Actually, if you're in the US, or anywhere in Europe, I probably don't need to talk to you about it either. Portland has temperatures over 100 F this weekend. Amsterdam is a bit cooler at the moment, if you can use cooler to mean "not as hot as 36 C, but still over 30 C." Our house is just unendingly stuffy. It's not cool enough at night to try to draw in some fresh air then. Fortunately we got two fans from O's mom because without them there's just no air moving in the house. A fan has certainly helped me sleep the past few nights, though I still hardly need a sheet on me. I've been going through glass after glass of tropical punch KoolAid. It's been warm for nearly the entire month of July, minus some cooler days in the week after we got back from Spain. I don't think I've seen it be warm here for so long, and it's meant to be hot for at least the next week. An actual proper summer, though I'd be happier if we had air conditioning.

I am very late with this, but when I found out about it I was too busy to write anything about it, and then we went to Spain, and then I was lazy, and well... But I felt I really should write something about one of my favourite bands, who've been around for over 10 years, breaking up. Sleater-Kinney announced an "indefinite hiatus" at the end of June and I felt gutted, though not as gutted as I could have felt. After we saw the band in Brussels in May I admit that, because things didn't seem right between them, I had thoughts that this was a precursor to them breaking up. But I didn't think they actually would, I thought I was just overreacting, especially since their shows in the UK seemed to go well. But then it actually happened. Crap. Way more than "crap"; more like "oof", as in the "oof" of being hit in the stomach. Despite their having been around for so long, it felt like it was too soon. Their last two albums in particular have been so good, it just seemed that they couldn't quit now, they had to make more great albums that were even better than the last. And I had to see them play in Portland one more time. They are playing their last shows in Portland, in August, at the Crystal Ballroom, where I last saw them play in the US. I'm devastated that I can't be there. I'm pissed that the last time I got to see them live was that off show in Brussels with the lame crowd. But I can't change geography... I became an S-K fan when I bought Dig Me Out in April of 1997, about a week before I planned to see them live because I'd heard a lot about them. The first few times I saw them live, despite their growing popularity and Greil Marcus declaring them the best rock band in the US, tickets for the shows, always at the beloved La Luna, were only sold at the door and usually cost about 5 bucks. I remember sitting in front of La Luna the 2nd or 3rd time I went to see Sleater-Kinney play, sitting on the ground waiting for the doors to open, and next to me a girl was explaining the band to the boy with her: "It's three women: two guitarists and a drummer." "Wait, there's no bassist?" "Nope." "How can you not have a bassist?" "They just don't." With Carrie and Corin's guitar lines pounding and weaving together, a bassist was not missed. And dear Janet was the most fun drummer to watch, ever. Some shows were better than others, especially once their massive popularity associated with Dig Me Out died down, but they never disappointed. I remember, at probably the last show I saw of theirs in Portland, semi-stumbling and weaving my way back to the merchandise table, in a bit of a daze still from the concert. When I got back there, I ran into Lance Bangs, Corin's husband, who I had just spoken to after the show because I sort of knew him via email. I was hot and puffing my shirt in and out in an attempt to cool off and I told him, "Tell the band that their shows are the best anywhere. I never rock out at other shows like I do with Sleater-Kinney." I don't know if he actually passed that message on, but I really meant what I said. And was Greil Marcus right, are (were?) they, still, the best rock band in America? Probably. Not many out there can beat their honesty, integrity, power, and downright rockiness. Sleater-Kinney, you are leaving a big hole in the musical landscape, and you will be sorely missed.

July 16, 2006

A week in Spain, part two: jesters in Madrid

So, my story from Madrid that I left out of my other post... One evening we were hanging out in the Plaza de España, which was a lively square. Various entertainment for the summer seemed to be going on. There was a stage set up with some intermittent live music playing. In the midst of that, there was a random, student-art type thing where a guy dressed in ragged clothes with a cat mask on was sitting around next to a tv for awhile. Then he left and a bunch of people who had been sitting around the square sat on the ground in front of the TV, pretending to watch it. The guy in rags came from off to the side and spat up something that looked like ketchup and stumbled around before finally crashing next to the TV. The ones "watching" the TV booed and yelled at him for getting in the way. At the end they threw pieces of paper at him which said (in Spanish) "Does a reality greater than TV exist? Dare to look, coward." Right. Then they all broke up and left the scene. Hilariously, a homeless woman came over to where the guy in rags with the mask was still lying next to the TV and she was poking at him and saying something we couldn't understand. Doubt she was part of the plan.

Anyway, we went back to sitting in front of the square's fountain until awhile later when we noticed a bunch of stuff going on down near the stage that was set up. There was a guy on stilts and some fireworks going off. We joined the crowd watching and found a bunch of people dressed up as jesters (I think they called themselves "bufónes" in Spanish) doing various silly, jestery things. O has posted one photo of a few of them. One side of their costumes was a typical jester costume, but the other side was like a skeleton, and their makeup was half-life, half-death as well. But they were happy people and loved playing pranks on the crowd. The guy on stilts had a tank full of water on his back (I think a tank like you use to spray pesticides) and he was always spraying the crowd or aiming at one person in particular. He got me right in the back at one point and when I turned around to give him the evil eye, he of course put on an innocent face.

After the first bit in front of the stage, where there was a lot of talking we didn't understand, along with some dancing and fireworks and acrobatics, the jesters told us all to come follow them and dance with them, and slowly, shyly, the crowd did. They circled us around the square, stopping occasionally for more antics. Or just doing them as we walked along. There was a guy on a unicycle who would purposely run into you or pretend he was about to crash. Another guy did that freaky thing with the clear balls where he runs them over his hands and arms as if they weigh nothing. Others just tapped you on the shoulder and ran away. And all the while the spraying of water...

They stopped for a bit when they got to the point opposite from where we'd started and there was dancing and music and more tricks. O got this photo when one of the jesters snuck up on him while he was taking a different photo, then O turned the camera on the jester. No long after that, I got pulled into their fun when two of them came walking towards me holding hands and snagged me between them. They then circled around me and danced me into the middle of the crowd. I stood there giggling while they danced around me. I don't remember much except for their faces going around and around. Another one joined the circle and they continued spinning around me. Soon they started shuffling me across to one side of the crowd, to a bench where two older women were sitting. They got the women to scoot apart and had me sit on the bench between them. One of the jesters sat on my lap, and another sat on his lap and so on until 4 were piled up in front of me.

I turned to the Spanish woman to my right, who'd had her nice quiet evening with her friend interrupted, and I just shook my head and laughed. She laughed back. All the jesters got off me and let me go hide back in the crowd, waving goodbye as I left. The one at the front of the four of them blew me a kiss. I now regret not slapping the guy sitting on me in the butt to see how he'd react to that.

We all continued on around the square and we came to a trapeze that had been set up. One guy did a little trapeze act. Then a woman, who I loved watching, did a fire-eating act. Then they got someone from the crowd to try the thing where you twist around in long pieces of fabric and hang upside down and such. They made it seem like they just picked this woman who volunteered to try it who then happened to be really good at it, and they had me fooled at first. But she did too well to have never done it before. When she went back to where she was sitting she was telling a guy in the crowd that she really had never done that before, but she was just a good actress.

Soon after this the time for their act was over, and they all took a few bows. We gave them a hearty cheer, especially those of us who had followed them all around the square. It was so fun, so spontaneous, and they really tried to get people to loosen their inhibitions for just a little while and enter their strange, silly alternate reality.

July 15, 2006

I'm on TV!

Well, sort of. Internet TV. A video. When Josh Ritter played in Amsterdam at the end of May, it was taped by Fabchannel and now they've put together a video of one song, Wolves, that is available for download (as opposed to Fabchannel's stream-only). At about 2:59 into the video there's a zoomed-in shot of the crowd past Josh's legs and it pans over and there I am, just to the right of Josh. It's kind of dark, but it is me! I think O is blocked by Josh's legs in the shot, unfortunately.

It's official! (and some other stuff)

After months of discussion, I finally have a new job role at work! It's not a totally new job, but rather something that I will do for roughly half my time in addition to my old job. The title they settled on for what I will do is Research Assistant - Sales. What I will do is, yes, mostly research to support pitches and proposals our Sales department does to get new business, but also I will do a bit of putting together documents and slide kits and making sure they look good, and I'll be involved as a team member during preparations.

The reason I was looking for something new in the first place was because I've been at my job 4 years now and it's not been very challenging for a long time, but it's very hard for me to find a completely new position because most of the jobs are for people with PhDs and science backgrounds. There are a couple of areas I could move into without a science education, but they aren't jobs I'm interested in. On top of knowing my job in and out for awhile, my team often just didn't have enough work for me to keep me busy, so I was bored a lot of the time. I was looking for a new job for about 2 years, with no luck, but then I had my idea to go to Australia next year and I thought it would be best to stay at my current job and use my years with the company to help bargain a long-term leave instead of quitting my job when I go. But if I was going to stay, and stay in the same position, I wanted some new responsibilities and more challenging tasks, so at the end of 2005 I started talking to my manager (who then left early this year) about what I could do. There were a couple of ideas of what new roles I could take on, and we bounced back and forth on it a couple of times, but then someone in the Sales department came to me a couple of months ago about doing support for them and during June I was trying out the new role. Everything went fine (minus a pitch preparation that was a disaster, but we pulled through and the guy who made it a disaster ended up leaving the company), I liked doing the work, they liked me doing the work, everyone was happy, so last Tuesday I sat down with my manager and the head of Sales to discuss making it all official. And part of making it official is that I get a raise! I don't know how much it will be yet, but it will happen. I'm very happy with that, especially since when I first (very nervously) brought it up, my manager said she wasn't sure I would get a raise because it might be seen as a horizontal move, which I didn't agree with at all. Fortunately the head of Sales, who is also General Manager (so in a position to get things done) felt a raise was deserved. Yay! I may be disappointed by the actual amount I get, but for now I'm happy I get one. And I do like the work I will do with Sales, especially the research, I like delving into a new area and sleuthing things out and getting people the info they need.

On other topics, with the Bos en Lommerplein shut down, we had to find an alternative place to get groceries today. The closest option is a Dirk, which we usually avoid like the plague. And which we will continue to avoid like the plague. Our trip today brought back all the bad things we hated about having to shop at the Dirk on the Mercatorplein when we lived in our old house. It was crowded, they didn't have a lot of the things we were looking for, the lines stretched back into the store and we were standing in them for about as long as it took us to get the groceries we were buying. Which wasn't even that much because they didn't have quite a few things we needed. As we waited in line, being pushed and shoved as people reached to get to the shelves we were standing in front of, or as we made sure someone didn't cut in front of us, or as kids went running through the lines, we said to each other "Nuh-uh. We ain't doing this again. The money we save by not going to the Albert Heijn (the other nearest store) is not worth the loss in sanity." We had to go to the Albert Heijn as well, to get the things the Dirk didn't have, and it was quiet and calm and you could actually navigate your cart through the store. It's much smaller than our usual AH, so it still was missing some things we needed, but they weren't really essential things. O says the plein is meant to be open again in a few weeks, once they make sure it won't collapse, but I thought it was going to be closed for the forseeable future. We'll see how it goes.

I guess quite a few people tuned in to watch the Star Wars trilogy on a Dutch channel last week. We caught a bit of a couple of the movies, and the first night we saw part of one, we were lying in bed later on and distinctly heard someone walking by outside whistling Darth Vader's theme. And just a few minutes ago there was an energetic kid outside "singing" the main Star Wars theme. I guess watching the movies really stuck with some people.

July 13, 2006

A week in Spain, part one: Madrid

I thought it'd be best to break down the story of our trip to Spain into parts, making it easier on myself and on whatever possible reader there might be. So this is part one of, I expect, three: Madrid.

- I liked Madrid, but not as much as Barcelona. It certainly has a big city feel to it, though the main older part is quite walkable. It was hillier than I expected, and it wasn't fun hauling uphill in 35 degree weather. But it was a dry heat! I knew that the natives eat late, and I've seen that in other Mediterranean countries, but I always had a hard time falling into the late pattern myself. This time we did fall into it quite easily. Because it was so hot, we didn't feel like eating much during the day, so we just ate a snack here and an ice cream there, took a nap and relaxed in the hotel from about 2-4, puttered about some more and, yeah, didn't really feel like having dinner til it got dark around 10. I found it a great rhythm to live in.

- Our first night in Madrid we ended up eating dinner at a rather crap touristy place on the Plaza Mayor. The food wasn't so great, but we were treated to a light show when it got dark. A large white circle was set up on the building across from the projection area, the circle being a big screen for certain parts, while other images were just projected directly onto the buildings of the square. It was all put on by some organization, I never really figured out what they do, but the images were very much in a "celebration of humanity" vein with videos of people dancing and happy babies and bustling cities being shown on the white circle. Meanwhile, the other images projected were things like various Atlases holding up the world, shapes of a hand, and mythological-looking figures from different cultures. It didn't totally make sense, but it looked pretty.

- Madrid has a lot of great museums, but we only went to one, the Prado, because it has a lot of great Flemish paintings that I wanted to see, namely most of Bosch's works, including The Garden of Earthly Delights which is one of my favourite paintings. It was brilliant to see for real, though barriers kept you from getting too close. O and I were looking at the details of it for a good while, but as I kept saying to him, you could look at it every day for years and probably still miss some little detail that you suddenly see one day. There were other works of his, but they were less impressionable. There was, however, The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which was similar to The Garden of Earthly Delights in its gruesomeness and amount of detail. I quite enjoyed that painting as well. To be honest I don't remember much else that we saw in the museum, there were a lot of religious paintings, sometimes by a painter I knew, but you can only see so many images of Jesus and Mary and the Magi before it all becomes a blur. I do remember suddenly being face to face with the Deposition by van der Weyden and going "Oh, I remember that one from art history!" It is a quite bright and well-composed painting and the actual size of it is very large, so it was impressive.

- I had read that it was recommended to check out the Atocha train station (where the Madrid bombings took place) because in the older section of the station there is a whole tropical garden. At first I was skeptical, like did we really want to especially visit a train station, but I'm glad we did because it was beautiful inside (and it fortunately was near our hotel). This part of the station (which has no trains in it) is high and light and, yes, mostly filled with a tropical garden with palm trees and leafy plants and ponds. There are little paths going through it with many benches for travellers to relax on. It has to be one of the prettiest train stations in the world. We started at the higher part of the station and when we got down to ground level we found a large pond that had tons of turtles in it. I swear we were there a good 15-20 mins watching the turtles (and it's not as if they're that active), counting the turtles, and playing spot-the-turtle-in-the-water-plants.

- One day we decided to relax our feet a bit more so we headed to the huge Parque del Retiro, which was also handily close to our hotel. We had to walk quite awhile just to get to what we were looking for, the Crystal Palace, which sits in front of a pond and which I thought would be really pretty to see. I noticed that this park is quite different from my idea of a park based on ones I know in Amsterdam or even Portland. There were less big areas of grass and more plants and trees. People hanging out in the park weren't there with picnic blankets lounging in the sun or shade, but rather sitting on one of the many benches. It was a bit different, but still really pretty and all the shade was very welcome. We found the Crystal Palace and were in luck to find that a temporary art installation was going on. An artist designed a mirrored floor for the building and you could go in, for free, and enjoy the space and light and reflections. You had to take off your shoes and put on socks which were provided for you, but then you could pad about with this massive mirror under you (it is not recommended to wear a skirt in there; I happened to be wearing one, and you and others can see straight up the skirt, plus it's just not very flattering seeing your legs from that angle). Some people chose to lay on the floor for awhile and look at the reflections. The coolest thing about the mirror being there though was that it reflected light from the building's own glass ceiling and created all these bits of prismy rainbows floating around. You could see this even outside of the building and it just looked so awesome.

Ok, I may have to do at least 4 parts of my story. I left out one main part of what happened in Madrid because I don't have time to type it out right now. So, stay tuned and I'll get that part up soon.

July 11, 2006

The e-age and mass exodus

One of my younger cousins is getting married next month and I just went though the process of buying her stuff from her wedding registry. I've bought from a registry only once before, but that was for a person living in the Netherlands. This time, I went online, chose the presents, ordered them, and they'll now be sent directly to my cousin, all wrapped and with a notecard included, so I'll have bought her gifts that I only saw from photos online and never touched myself. Such is the 21st century.

In other news, O was reading nu.nl and the lead story was that the Bos en Lommerplein, 5 minutes from our house, was being cleared out because they need to research if the structure of the plein is safe. Things first came into question in February when a delivery truck parked on the top level of the plein caused a crack that shut down the underground area for a few days and forced the market that sits on the upper level to move to a nearby street for a few weeks. They put in reinforcement beams in the lower part, but apparently there is still doubt as to how safe the buildings are. Suddenly this evening they shut down the plein and the nearly 200 residents all had to move out to hotels. We went to check it out and O took some photos. There were a lot of cops, as well as fire trucks and ambulances, the whole perimeter of the plein was blocked off, and people were heading out with stuffed suitcases, backpacks, and the occasional pet in a carrier. It must really suck, they say it could be weeks before people are let back in. Though what if they declare that it's too unsafe to go back into? And it's a bit unnerving that for 5 months they let people go about their business and let the market fill the square again, but now, so suddenly that people had to move out in 4 hours, they say that the whole plein has to be empty for awhile. We'll have the slight inconvenience of not being able to do our groceries in our normal shops for awhile, but I really feel for the people forced out of their houses.

July 10, 2006


All the things I bought in Spain involve sheep. I was selfish this trip and didn't get anything for my parents or even any sweets to bring back to work. But I couldn't resist the lure of the sheep.

It started when we passed a shop in Madrid that had all these cute and silly shirts featuring bulls and sheep. It was late and they were closed, but I knew we had to go back the next day. We did make it back to the shop, and I planned to buy one of their shirts, but in the end I couldn't find one I really liked that was in my size, so I just bought a hankerchief with sheep on it.

A couple of days later, we were sitting around my cousin's house and a neighbour boy comes in with a little backpack with the same sheep pattern on it. I was like "Hey! Those sheep again!" Little did I know that this company is very popular, and in fact is Basque, though they have shops in most major cities in Spain. They have the tongue-tripping name of Kukuxumusu, which apparently means "the kiss of the flea" in Basque.

According to the history on their web page, the whole shirt thing started in 1989 between 3 friends who wanted to design something a bit fun to sell during the running of the bulls festival in Pamplona. Now they design everything from mugs to underwear to key-rings. They're sort of like the Spanish Paul Frank. (As a side note, one, I didn't know that Pamplona was part of the Basque country; two, Pamplona was only about an hour drive from where we were staying; and three, the running of the bulls was going on while we were visiting my cousin (it takes place every morning for a week). So we could have gone to see it, if we really wanted to and if we could even get into the city. We did see some guys though dressed in the white clothes with red hankerchiefs that is the typical dress for the running of the bulls.)

So, back to what I bought... I got the sheep hankerchief in Madrid. Then, a couple of days later, we passed one of the Kukuxumusu shops in San Sebastian and I went in to see what shirts they had. The shirts there were more Basque focused. One I quite liked showed the various "sports" of the Basque country, things like sawing logs or walking on stilts. I went for one though with a bunch of sheep on bikes and underneath it says "Euskal Herria" which means Basque Country.

The same day, as we were driving around San Sebastian, we saw a lot of cars with these sheep stickers on the back. My cousin had no idea what they were about, but he assumed it was something Basque, since he only saw them around that area, not elsewhere in Spain. I wanted a sheep sticker of my own. And I found some, though not in Spain actually, but in one of the small French towns we went to. Since I don't have a car, I bought a sheet of four smaller sheep stickers, with the plan to put one on my bike. I finally looked at the website mentioned on the stickers, and yes, the sheep represent an organization that promotes Basque culture. I just think they're really cute.

So I may have overdone the sheep thing. I could have got a shirt featuring bulls or something else instead, but the sheep are just too sweet. I'll just avoid wearing it all at the same time.

July 9, 2006

Hola, I have returned

Yesterday evening O and I returned from a week in wonderful Spain. I'm not sure which country I love more, Spain or Italy. We've been fortunate to have visited both this year. Spain though has tapas, a language I studied for 4 years, and a touch less machoism than Italy, I think. This trip, in going to Madrid and the Basque region in the north, we finally saw more of Spain than just Barcelona. And there is so much more to see in the country. I want to go back already.

Madrid was hot, as we expected, about 35 C (95 F) every day, but it was the first time I'd experienced a dry heat like that. You feel like a heavy wool blanket is wrapped around you, but you don't instantly get sweaty and sticky. It was quite pleasant. But you really do start dragging in the afternoon. We fell into the Spanish rhythm of sleeping in the hot part of the day and not eating dinner til 10. What a life.

After about 2 1/2 days in Madrid, we flew to San Sebastian to see an older cousin of mine who lives near San Sebastian with his wife and 6-year-old daughter. I hadn't seen them since their daughter was a baby. I was a bit nervous about staying with people I hadn't seen in so long (especially since I find travelling with others difficult sometimes) and I wondered what their daughter was like now, plus I hoped O liked them and that they liked him, but in the end it all went fine. Ok, the 6-year-old could be a bit of a pain at times, but when we went out sightseeing, it was just O, me, and my cousin, so we weren't suffering from kid overload by the end of our stay.

Since they have a car (you kind of need to have one where they live), we got to see so much of the region, though there was so much more to see. We actually spent a fair bit of time on the French side of the Basque area, going as far north as Biarritz. The town my cousin lives in, Hondarribia, shares its bay with the French town of Hendaye, separated by a river that feeds into the bay, so you are across the border in minutes by car. The area has a much more temperate climate than most people associate with Spain, which meant we got rained on a couple of times, but it also means it is much more green. Add some hills and the ocean and you can't help but want to move there.

I'll write a fuller story eventually, but I wanted to post a bit for now. Maybe I should take up the habit of blogging during a vacation, it would make things a lot easier on me...