Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Plant lust

When I was nine or ten my parents borrowed an RV, packed it full of food, and drove to a campground twenty miles away where we stayed for a two-week summer holiday. A bunch of my parents’ friends were camping at the same campground so it felt more or less exactly like being at home except that we wore our bathing suits all day and no one went to work.

My memories of those two weeks are some of the best and most vivid of my childhood. I loved everything about that camping trip, but two things I prized above all else: first, being able to swim every day in the river that was just a stone’s throw from our RV door; second, the evenings, when the grown-ups would build a campfire and sit around it singing and drinking and telling stories and the kids would get to roast marshmallows and hotdogs and stay up way past our normal bedtimes.

Ever since that summer, camping for me has always been about two essential ingredients: fire and water. In my view, there’s no point going camping if you can’t go swimming every day and make S’mores every evening. The Dutch, I have learned, take a very different approach.

The Dutch don’t go “camping” like the rest of us. Instead they go “minicamping.” This makes it sound like everyone is hunched over in a too-small tent but it actually means that you are camping in a farmer’s backyard. Why this is called “minicamping” is beyond me, since nothing is reduced in size from normal camping; it’s just that everything happens at a different (and totally illogical) location. As a minicamper in the Netherlands your neighbours are the farmer and his family, a lot of other Dutch people as well as a healthy dose of Germans, and some haystacks piled up at one end of rows and rows of cabbage fields. The air does not smell of salt air or charcoal but of pig shit. Campfires are not allowed. Unless you brought an inflatable wading pool, you’ll have to drive to the nearest beach for a swim, as there’ll be no lake, pond or puddle at your actual campsite (though there may be some bathtubs filled with drinking water for the cows, which could work in a pinch).

To top it all off, the Dutch don’t have Honey Maid graham crackers, which also means no S’mores, not even “mini-s’mores.” 

On the upside, should anyone have a craving for a mid-July serving of cabbage rolls, you’ll be in the right place. And if you have plant lust, you should come to Zeeland, as we happen to have a minicamping site perfectly suited to your needs (see above). 

So Mom and Dad, if you ever want to go camping again, this time in the Netherlands, just let me know. I'll meet you at the farmer's. You bring the wading pool and I'll bring a lighter. And Mom, take your big casserole dish, just in case.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Liebster

So it seems the verbal mixed salad that is The Wooden Shoe Diaries is award-winning mixed salad. Wiffy over at Nine and Ninety Nine has bestowed a Liebster Blog Award upon me! "Hooray!" I hear you all cheer as ticker tape flies in all directions around my url. 

Let me say just how darned excited I am about it. My first ever award, and I don't even have to wear an evening gown and make a speech where I thank a bunch of people no one has ever heard of before squeezing out some fake tears. Thanks a bunch Wiffy!

Now, you may be wondering just what the heck the Liebster Blog Award is. Some research has revealed that the Liebster is like lint: no one knows where it comes from but it seems to be everywhere. Loads of bloggers like me have been given the award by fellow bloggers, making it one of the blogosphere's warmest-and-fuzziest awards ever. What was that sickly sweet movie with Kevin Spacey where you had to do nice things for a bunch of people whenever one person did a nice thing for you? Well, the Liebsters are a bit like that, because, once you've been awarded a Liebster, you then have to promise to share the love by nominating five more blogs that you think deserve this internet version of a standing ovation.

So I guess to sum up, the Liebster Award is linty blogsophere love.

Here's what you have to do if you accept a Liebster nomination:

1. Thank the one who nominated you by linking back (thanks Wiffy!)

2. Nominate five blogs with fewer than 200 followers - This I find tricky. It's not always possible to know how many followers a blog has, so I hope my five nominees (below) will not be offended if I've nominated them and they have a gazillion followers

3. Let the nominees know by leaving a comment at their sites

4. Add the award image to your site

Anyhoo, I had no trouble thinking of five blogs I wanted to nominate. Here are my top picks:

  • amy in .nl - a Midwestern-American type living and blogging in the Netherlands. Love the design of the site, and amy in .nl's witty tweets always amuse
  • company of clever -  Elz is another American, Amsterdam-based blogger. Her posts are always fresh and funny
  • 24 Oranges - a recent post on this blog called 'Hi, I live on "Fart Street"' will always have a special place in my twisted heart
  • bacon is magic - see what happens when another woman, this one not the author of a really famous memoir that became a movie starring Julie Roberts, leaves her job, her boyfriend and her country to travel the world
  • I Eat My Pigeon - as if the title alone wasn't enough, the rest of the blog is also pretty funny
So there you have it, my five Kevin Spacey lint hugs. Thanks Wiffy. Thanks mysterious person who invented the Liebster award. Thanks to the five bloggers above for their contributions to my ongoing experiment in online procrastination.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Ode to a 1970s bungalow, on the occasion of the commencement of a fourth week of renovations to the writer's current prehistoric money pit

The house I grew up in in Canada was built in 1979, a year after I was born. It was a sweet little bungalow with three bedrooms and a bathroom and a green sloping lawn with a big tree that shaded one side of the house in summer. It had storm doors and tightly-fitting double-glazed windows and a functioning central heating system that kept us warm all winter.

The house I grew up in did not have a coal cellar with an on-street hatch.

The house I grew up in did not lean: when you placed a glass on its side on the floor, it didn’t roll clear through to the other side of the house.

In the house I grew up in, all the pipes were tucked away neatly inside the walls.

In the house I grew up in, when someone had a bath and splashed a little water by accident, it did not end up on the dinner table one level below.

In the house I grew up in, the flush box was not made of cast iron or controlled with a pull chain.

In the house I grew up in, all the furniture could come in or out of the house through the door.

In the house I grew up in, mice never ate all our chocolate chips before we had a chance to make cookies.

In the house I grew up in, each tread on the stairs was at least as big as an average adult human’s foot.

In the house I grew up in, we had a back door.

In the house I grew up in, our neighbour’s kitchen did not extend into my bedroom.

In the house I grew up in, you never had to stop to wonder if an electricity outlet was grounded before plugging something in.

In the house I grew up in, you could not see the feet of people standing outside through the gaps under the door.

In the house I grew up in, paint did not flake off the walls for no reason at all.

In the house I grew up in, the space under the oven was completely covered by floor.

In the house I grew up in, the attic was not accessed by a pull-down ladder in the ceiling of the family bathroom.

In the house I grew up in, we did not have to stick coasters between the windows to stop them rattling.

In the house I grew up in, all the doors closed without anyone having to plane anything.

In the house I grew up in I never worried about not having a bag big enough for all the asbestos.

In the house I grew up in, if the dog barfed on the floor we did not have to scrape it out of the gaps in the boards.

In the house I grew up in, you could not get second-degree burns from touching the tap in the shower.

In the house I grew up in, there were no mirrors glued anywhere at groin-level.

In the house I grew up in, nothing was two hundred and fifty years old.

Here’s to the house I grew up in, and to all houses built any time after the invention of the telephone. And here's to the lucky buggers who get to live in them. May your pipes never leak, your floors never creak, and muddy-footed builders never darken your door.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

And another thing

And another thing. Chestnuts should be called klonkers because “klonk” must be the exact sound made by chestnuts as they fall to the earth. Plus, the word for “vowels” in Dutch is klinkers and the word for “consonants is medeklinkers (which, rather unimaginatively, means “between the vowels”). Hence, I propose that we change the word medeklinkers to klankers and then we’d have a nice neat trio: 

klinkers - vowels
klankers - consonants
klonkers - chestnuts

Sometimes I think they should just put me in charge. I have heaps more great ideas where this one came from.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

You say kastanje, I say klonker

Photo courtesy of Nieuweband
A few years ago, in an effort to behave like a real grown-up and cook a proper meal, I downloaded a recipe for roasted winged beast of one kind or another and went to the supermarket in search of the necessary ingredients, one of which was a jar of chestnuts. At the supermarket I had little trouble finding most of the other ingredients, but by my third lap around the store, I still had not found the chestnuts. They were only needed for the stuffing, but being a perfectionist with the emotional maturity of a four-year old, I decided that if I didn’t have chestnuts, the whole meal would be ruined, as well as my entire weekend and possibly my husband’s as well. It was roast bird with port-enriched cranberry chestnut stuffing or no roast bird at all. I would find chestnuts or else be declared world’s worst adult, after which I could promptly regress to Jell-O for dessert and colouring outside the lines.

Before I sacrificed myself on the altar of failure, I decided to check with one of the store employees in case maybe they did have chestnuts but I had somehow miraculously missed them on my multi-leg tour of the aisles. I approached a supermarket employee who was busy stacking shelves.

“Excuse me?” I said.  

“Hi, yes. Um. Well (which in Dutch sounds a bit like “Hoy, ya. Eh. Now”).  I’m looking for something. I think they’re called klonkers.”

“Klonkers?” she said. The puzzled expression on her face convinced me instantly that there was not and never had been any foodstuff called klonkers in the history of Dutch cuisine. I would have to resort to Plan B.

I said, “The English word is chestnuts.”

She repeated the word ‘chestnuts’ in something that approximated English but it was clear it was her first time with the word and she had no idea what it meant.
“I’ll go ask my colleague,” she said.

She went away and came back with a sixteen-year-old boy who was apparently her go-to linguist. I repeated the part about how I was looking for something that I thought was called klonkers in Dutch. I hoped he would jump in and say “Oh, klonkers! Of course we have klonkers. Come right this way!” This did not happen, so I also repeated the part about how they were called ‘chestnuts’ in English. The sixteen-year old shook his head. Maybe, he suggested, if I explained a little more about what kind of product this ‘chestnuts’ was, they would be able to help me.

“Well,” I began. “They come from trees. You place them inside of birds. Usually at Christmas.”

The girl employee and the boy employee exchanged looks.

“Lemons!” the girl offered. Yes, that was it. I needed help finding the blindingly yellow fruit that was displayed prominently near the entrance of the store.

“Bread!” said the boy hopefully. Now, not only was I actually holding a bag of bread in my hand at that moment, but in what world would a squishy food ever be called klonkers? (not that any food actually is called klonkers, as it turns out, but still).

Seeing that we were at an impasse, I thanked them, checked out my cartload of things that were not chestnuts, and left the store. As I loaded up my bike with carrots and cranberries and luxury chocolates that would never know the joy of sharing a table with chestnuts, it began to rain, just like in the movies when the person is having a bad day, like when their husband leaves them or someone dies or they lose their job. My day was just like that, I thought. Thanks to the recipes section of the Martha Stewart Living website I had become the tragic hero of my own sad life-movie.

Back home, I threw the damp loaf of bread on the table and sobbed into my arms that I hated this country and its stupid language.

“What happened this time?” my husband wanted to know.

“What’s the Dutch word for ‘chestnuts’?” I asked him through pitiful tears.

“Kastanjes,” he said. “Why?”

Later, after both the bread and my eyes had dried out, I was able to look back on the day and find the whole thing a little bit funny. I even laughed about it, all the way through our dinner of pheasant with port-enriched cranberry walnut stuffing.

Monday, May 14, 2012

What you mean to say (write) is not always what you say (write) #3

What I meant to say (write):
What I actually said (wrote):

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Card of Death

Photo 'Postzegel Beatrix', from the website of the Maastricht Aktueel
I love getting mail. Even when I am not expecting anything I still get mildly excited when I hear the postman put something through the slot in our front door (and then leave the slot open – Mr. Postman, my house is as draft-proof as a straw hut. Can you kindly slap the slot door back in place next time, before I die of exposure in my own home?). However, as if my love of mail was not already tarnished weekly by the annoying habit some companies have of sending me bills for boring things like water and gas, in the Netherlands I also have to contend with what I like to call the Card of Death.

The Card of Death is a greeting card that someone sends you to tell you that someone (else, obviously) has died. The first time I received the Card of Death, as it was neither mine nor my husband’s birthday, and we had not just moved house/had a baby/done anything remotely worthy of celebratory stationary of any kind, I initially thought some wonderfully thoughtful friend or family member had sent us a card, just because. Someone missed us. Someone was thinking of us. Someone, swept up in a gush of uncontrollable gratitude for our mere existence, felt so moved to share their feeling of joy at knowing us, that they decided to put a stamp on it. But a closer look at the reply address revealed that this was unlikely. Who the heck do we know in Eexterveenschekanaal anyway? And what kind of name is that for a town? I took the card to my husband          .

“Oh yeah,” he said. “That’s to tell us that my cousin so-and-so died.”

“Which we already knew,” I said.

“Yes,” my husband responded.

We knew that cousin so-and-so had died because my mother-in-law had called us up a few days earlier to inform us. This card, then, was just a blunt reminder. I began to see the card as fitting in well with the particularly Dutch habit of looking all issues, including death, square in the face. Human loss and mortality are facts of life, the card seemed to say to me. Don’t try to avoid them or pretend they do not affect you. Okay, I thought. I can dig a culture that wants to be honest about life and death, but can we do this after I’ve at least had my first cup of coffee?

The Card of Death is blatantly unfair to foreigners unschooled in the Dutch way of death. This is because, before you open it, the Card of Death looks from the envelope like a regular greeting card. Admittedly, the envelope is stark white with a black border. But then, isn’t black-on-white the hip colour combo for wedding invites these days? And what about Hallowe’en cards? Those can have black on them. Okay, so maybe I couldn’t think of anyone I knew who was getting married in the near future. And who even sends Hallowe’en cards? But still, don’t tell me I should have known.

Fellow expats, beware the Card of Death, and whatever you do, do not react joyfully when you receive an unexpected card with a sombre colour scheme in the post. It probably isn’t a tres chic black-and-white wedding invite. It’s probably the Card of Death, a stark reminder of our fragility and, hopefully, an incitement that we should enjoy that first cup of coffee with all our might.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

What you mean to say is not always what you say #2

What I meant to say:

What I actually said:

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Double Royal Rule

I can’t seem to escape monarchies. First I lived in Canada, where I was ruled by Queen Elizabeth II. She lived far away and I mostly only saw her on TV so she didn’t seem really real to me growing up, even after that time she came to my hometown on an official visit and her car drove past my house with her in the backseat, waving. I waved back. Later I moved to England where I was ruled by the same queen, which I guess must have been more convenient for her because at least now she didn’t have to travel so far to wave at me. Now I live in Holland where I’m ruled by another queen who I have only ever seen on TV, except for that time she came to my town on an official visit and stood on the steps of the old town hall, waving. I waved back.

As a child I would often play princess dress-up in my room with my sister’s homecoming queen tiara as a crown and a blanket tied under my chin for my royal cape. Sometimes I had a flyswatter for a wand because when you’re seven you can be both a princess and a magical wizard at the same time without even having to pay extra income taxes. I suppose as a child I knew we Canadians actually had a real life queen, but I didn’t really believe in her. Royalty, to me, was something reserved for fairy tales. Remember Sleeping Beauty? That was royalty. A princess, dancing and singing in a dark forest, smiling and talking with her woodland creature friends; a wicked witch; a poison apple; a prince who didn’t mind women who hang about in dark forests talking to chipmunks and who also happen to have really difficult step-in-laws. I played princess dress-up because to me a world with royals in it was a Disney fantasy land. I dreamed that one day I too could be swept off my feet by a handsome prince (with a tin can for a crown and a blanket tied under his chin for a royal cape). Royalty was not something for the real world. What a surprise then to find myself as an adult living under not single, but double royal rule.

I wouldn’t mind having so many queens in my life but I feel even more like Dennis the constitutional peasant from Monty Python and the Holy Grail because I, as an ex-Canadian-resident non-citizen of the Netherlands, can’t even vote in a national election anywhere. The Canadians don’t want me interfering in their national business (fair enough, although I would point out that I probably can’t make things any worse), and the Dutchies won’t let me vote in national elections here until I get a Dutch passport, for which I must renounce my Canadian nationality first. And wouldn’t that also mean renouncing my queen? In the old days that kinda talk would lead straight to a beheading.

On the upside, I am allowed to vote in the municipal elections here in Middelburg, so at least I’ll have a say in where the new bicycle stands should be. That’ll make me feel involved. A Canadian in Holland: ruled by two queens, with absolutely no say in anything. Long live monarchy. Happy (belated) Queen’s Day.