Sunday, 16 December 2012

It's the End of the World (as we know it)...

If the Mayans were right, the world is scheduled to end later this week, on Friday, 21/12/12, to be exact. (Can’t we at least have one last weekend??) Regardless of whether the world ends, the year soon will. Perhaps it is time to take stock. I am going back to Phoenix for the holidays, and technically I will be landing in Phoenix just as doomsday begins across the pond. For me, being in transit at such a time is most befitting! And, landing in a city whose namesake is the mythical firebird, consumed by flames and then arising from the ashes, even more so.

When this year began, I was a respected, well-paid lawyer with job security, excellent benefits, and a pension that would only improve the longer I worked. I was a home owner, with a minimal mortgage kept only for tax purposes.  Many would say – and did say -- that I had it made; I should just relax, enjoy the fruits of my labor, and be grateful for an enviable position in a very bad economy. Instead, I applied to UU, retired, sold my house, condensed my life to an assortment of boxes, stashed, along with my car, at my mother’s house, and moved to the Netherlands, where I was born, to begin anew as a student. Leaving home and coming home – all in one fell swoop. Beginning a whole new chapter: a tale of two cities, a tale of Christmas past, present and future. Which is my past, and which my future? I don’t really know.
What I do know, clichĂ© as it may sound, is that it is the journey and not the destination that counts. Terrifying (and exhilarating) endings, exhilarating (and terrifying) beginnings, embracing and letting go, destruction followed by renewal, winter to spring, old year to new, forever going back to the future. Every place you have lived, every challenge you have undertaken, every person you have loved, leave their mark on your soul. For good or for ill, you take them with you wherever you go. But you never know what lies around the next corner. Sometimes the past is just the past; a nice place to visit but you really can’t live there anymore. And sometimes the past revisited will surprise you by transforming into the future. You just have to wait and see, remain open to all possibilities, and savor the moments that go by on the way to… who knows? Just have faith that you will know when you have arrived, and will also know enough to act on it; choosing a future that embraces the past with no regrets, only hope.
My two beautiful cites: Phoenix, built on the ashes of the ancient Hohokam, again claiming a fertile land from the harsh Arizona desert with irrigation canals. And Utrecht, with its medieval canals and nearby new polder land, in a country whose existence is dependent on the constant effort of reclaiming land from all that water. In transit between the two, it may very well be the end of the world as we know it… and I feel fine!
Happy holidays to all, see you next year!

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Gasping through the Snow…

It’s snowing! The snowflakes, first drifting lazily, pick up speed and turn the scene outside your window into a snow globe. You tug on your boots and gleefully go out to take those first snow-photos, it is a winter wonderland! So nice to watch out the window as you sip some warm gluhwine at a local pub, and it is magical walking at midnight the short distance home with all that twinkling snow. But in the cold, hard light of day comes the moment of truth. You have someplace to go a bit further than just down the street, and face the prospect of riding your bike on a street surface that resembles a glazed donut. Suddenly everything you thought you’d learned about biking around Utrecht must be reconsidered!  

So, which is least likely to result in an awkward spill, walking or biking? Opinions vary, and of course cycling on icy streets is precarious. Turn too sharply or quickly, and you will find yourself breathlessly sliding onto the cold, hard street, seeing stars even in broad daylight. However, walking on icy, uneven cobblestone and brick is quite treacherous as well, and the snow does not soften the surface one bit!  The ice and snow do not prevent the intrepid Dutch from cycling; they just dress in more layers and pedal along with the usual aplomb, multi-tasking away. What’s more, the bike lanes seem to have salting priority over sidewalks or streets and look far more inviting than either. The final deciding factor, not only will you reach your destination far more quickly on a bike, but your feet will stay much drier! 

So, I set off on my first biking sojourn in the snow, wearing my thickest coat for padding in case I hit the street and snow boots with plenty of traction in case I needed to suddenly plant my feet. Gingerly, I set off, keeping my eye on the road ahead, trying to determine whether it was just wet or a patch of ice. It was mostly wet and slushy and I relaxed into my usual rhythm, taking very wide, slow turns and using my brakes judiciously. One nuisance is wearing a hat and a hood makes it difficult to look behind you before you move over, but of the usual pinging bells warn if you get in anyone’s way. I arrived safely, after a few slides and wobbles, and was grateful to peel off all my layers and be offered a lekker kopje koffie. Think I might survive winter in the Netherlands after all! After a Phoenix summer, in a mere four months, out of the frying pan and into the freezer – without shattering! 
I leave you with a holiday biking song I improvised along the way: 

Gasping through snow
On a one-bike open sleigh
Over the ice we go
Screaming all the way (oh non oh on, oh no!) 

Bells on bikes do ping
Making spirits fright
What fun it is to gasp and swing
A-splaying wrong tonight! 

Oh, pinging bells, pinging bells
Pinging all the way

Oh what fun it is to slide
In such a disarray - hey! 

Pinging bells, pinging bells
Pinging all the way

Oh what fun it is to ride
Right into that café!

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Dutch Oven

As winter looms, what traditional Dutch comfort food will keep you warm?
Stamppot, a mash-up of potatoes and boerenkool (curly kale), served with rookworst (smoked sausage) or gehaktballen (meatballs). Or Hutspot, a mash-up of potatoes and carrots, also served with rookworst or spek (bacon). A very quintessential Dutch mainstay, you can buy a microwave-ready version at the supermarket, although it is simple enough to make yourself. Comfort food on many levels, as it is healthy, high in carbs and really does keep you warm on those cold nights!
Soups. There is quite an array of wonderful soups, including tomato with goat cheese, beet, lentil and more exotic fare like Surinamese peanut soup. But my all-time favorite is good old-fashioned Dutch pea soup, also known as snert. Traditionally, it is very thick, like stew, and you know it is especially good if your spoon can stand up straight in your bowl! My mother used to make a huge pot from scratch, soaking the peas, slow-cooking with sausage or an actual pigs foot. The huge pot being necessary because the older it gets, the more times re-heated, the thicker and better it gets. In later years, she used shortcuts, using quick-cooking peas and hot dogs, and as healthy eating became the norm, using turkey hot dogs. (This was California, after all.) But her most clever addition was a pinch of baking soda to alleviate the by-product of all that pea soup in a small house; the proverbial Dutch Oven effect!
Sandwiches. A  brodje kaas (bread with cheese), to go along with your soup. But also high on the comfort food scale, hagel slag. Literally meaning hail storm, hagel slag is actually chocolate sprinkles used as a sandwich topping. Yes, a chocolate sandwich! What could be better? Available in milk or dark chocolate, and my own twist on this childhood favorite is using peanut butter rather than regular butter. Pick your jaw back up and just try it!
A bucket of mosselen (mussels), hot and steaming. Admittedly an acquired taste, as is raw herring. (The latter being a taste I have never managed to acquire, not even when washed down with copious beer chasers!)
Kroketten. Deep-fried rolls filled with ragout, although you can get vegetarian versions and even satay versions. A staple of every Dutch Automat, they are quite ubiquitous, as are their small meatball-sized cousins, bitterballen. You can even buy them at McDonalds, which features a sandwich called, you guessed it, McKroket! And then there is the McFlurry Kruidnoten…
Which brings me to Sinterklaas comfort food. Speculaas are cookies or pastries made with brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, ginger, topped with almonds or filled with almond paste. Kruidnoten are button-sized cookies featuring much of the same spices. One thing I miss is seasonal pumpkin-flavored everything, particularly pumpkin lattes at Starbucks. Pumpkins just don’t feature here, nor does Starbucks for that matter, except in train stations and the airport. My cousin informs me this is because Dutch people are far too sensible (and cheap!)  to buy such expensive coffee. But I recently went to Starbucks and had a seasonal speculaas latte. (You see, even Starbucks and McDonalds must give the Dutch their due!) Quite tasty, and quite a comfort!