Sunday, 31 March 2013

Faux Paas

The public holiday calendar in the Netherlands is a bit lopsided in that apart from the Christmas holidays, the holidays are all clustered in the months of Spring. Queen’s Day (soon to become King’s Day) is on April 30, Liberation Day is May 5, and Good Friday, Easter Monday, Ascension Day and Whit Monday vary from year to year with the church calendar. So for the student, Spring brings a welcome respite not only from the cold weather but also from months on end with no holidays to break up the intense academic routine. Easter, “Paas” in Dutch, brings an especially welcome four-day weekend. This year it is March 29 through April 1, just after Spring’s formal debut and coinciding with daylight savings time. A fine forecast for the Paas weekend!

But, what is the MATTER with Spring? Have you seen it lately? “One swallow does not make a Spring make, nor does one fine day,” indeed! First sunny afternoons, chirping birds and blooming flowers, then an icy cold shoulder! Snow flurries give way to bright, inviting sunshine that turns out to look much warmer than it actually feels. Is Spring just a heartless tease? Is it menopausal, blowing hot and cold? Is it having a fickle and faithless midlife crisis? Is it bipolar and off its meds? Or is it being held hostage by Winter and suffering from a touch of Stockholm Syndrome? It certainly feels like Stockholm around here lately! As observed by Mark Twain, “In the Spring I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours.” But then the weather in the Netherlands is unpredictable at best in any given season; perhaps Spring comes by its impetuous mood swings quite honestly. So bear in mind, “To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with Spring.” (George Santayana must have been lamenting a Spring fling in the Netherlands!)
Although it’s a real pity that Spring has custody of all the holidays, perhaps there is a silver lining to all this icy sunshine. Academic advisors caution that you must do as much work as possible before nice weather and the accompanying siren call of picnics, festivals and outdoor revelries becomes irresistible. When Spring finally makes up its mind, settles down and starts dropping hints about Summer, the last thing you will want is to be stuck indoors doing research. So rather than moaning about being stood up by Spring for the umpteenth time, perhaps best to ignore its antics and get back to work. Or try going a bit Zen: “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.”
Zalig Paasfeest to all! Have some ice cream and hot chocolate, and like the Paashaas, don’t shed your winter coat just yet. After all, tomorrow is April Fool’s Day!

Sunday, 24 March 2013


When it comes to groceries, the Dutch do not “stock up” like Americans. Americans tend to buy in bulk at enormous supermarkets that sell not only food for dinner, but microwave ovens for cooking it, something to wear while making it and perhaps a dining table at which to sit and eat it. The Dutch shop more frequently, buying smaller quantities from many smaller, specialized stores and markets. The super-size mentality has never caught on in the Netherlands; as ever, the Dutch prefer the small and cozy. Perhaps it is  also a function of less distance to travel for groceries, less storage space for bulk quantities, and the limitations of what can be carried home on a bike or on foot! Such practicalities shorten your shopping list considerably, and make you prioritize and think about quality rather than quantity.

Less is also more when it comes to choices. Consumer choice in America can be downright paralyzing, with aisles and aisles of different versions of the same product. With or without seeds? With or without pulp? With or without added calcium and/or Omega 3? Organic? White or brown eggs, from free range or cage free chickens? Which of 10 different scents and color schemes?  So much easier to just grab something from amongst two or three options, toss it in the cart and reserve the existential anguish of life-changing decisions for the local baker shop, with so many degrees of delectable to contemplate!
Speaking of carts, they are not free. You have to put a coin into a slot that releases the cart from the nest, which you get back when you return the cart. Perhaps a practical solution to the phenomena of forced shopping cart disappearances and the ubiquitous orphaned shopping cart adorning American parking lots, streets, alleys and even remote places like river beds! However, most people just use shopping baskets, which are always free. I was quite puzzled at first by the very long extra handle on these baskets, until I saw someone unfold one and then use it to tow the basket. This basket-cart hybrid is the Smart Cart of the grocery store!
Bags are not free, either. No query of paper or plastic, it is strictly BYOB – bring your own bag. No idly standing by while a chatty cashier asks about your day and a bagger sacks up your purchases. Cashiers here are friendly enough but strictly business, quickly scanning items and piling them on the counter. You must pay for your groceries and then quickly scoop them into your bag before the next person’s items start piling up behind yours. Like bicycling in traffic, you are flustered at first, proceeding clumsily and annoying everyone behind you. (Thankfully, no pinging bells!) And, you have no one to blame but yourself when inartful bagging results in your bag  breaking at an awkward moment or getting home and finding that your (generic) eggs have broken and made a mess of your (generic) box of cereal. Oh well, tomorrow is another shopping day. Don't forget your bag!

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Bringing your cake and eating it, too

Certain occasions celebrated the world over have a distinctly different flavor in the Netherlands. Take birthdays. The standard birthday greeting, “hartelijk gefeliciteerd met je verjaardag!” does not translate into “happy birthday!” Rather, it means “hearty congratulations for your birthday!” Not a celebration of your birth, but congratulations for surviving another year? Upon reflection perhaps not a bad sentiment! And, not only are you supposed to congratulate the person whose birthday it is, but also that person’s family and friends! Another difference is that at birthday parties the honoree, rather than being feted and served, scrambles around serving guests with drinks and snacks. In fact, at birthday parties and in workplace and school birthday celebrations, the honoree is expected to bring his or her own birthday cake. Which is then served by the honoree to the guests – with luck the honoree will get to eat it, too!   

A traditional “verjaardagskalender” helps in remembering birthdays. Like a normal calendar, there is a page for each month. But instead of each page containing blocks of weeks and days, the days are listed vertically with a line next to each in which you inscribe the names of people born on that day. Since they are yearless, you can keep using the calendar year after year, continually adding names. The original birthday app! You will never find a Dutch W.C. without one. (Why the W.C.? Who knows! This is a Dutch bathroom mystery in the same category as why is the toilet always located in a different room (the W.C.) than the bathroom, and why do sinks in W.C.’s have only cold water?)  

There are traditional special birthdays, like “crown birthdays” at ages 5, 10, 15, 20, 21. But best of all is the “Sarah birthday,” celebrating a woman’s 50th birthday. (“Abraham birthday” for a man.) This celebration honors a woman’s age and hard-earned wisdom; a major event to look forward to, not the usual “over the hill” birthday celebrated in the USA and elsewhere. Traditional Sarah birthday celebrations entail a Sarah cake in the shape of the female figure, a Sarah doll in the front yard dressed or decorated by family, and visits by guests and well-wishers dressed as Sarahs.  

And then there is the most celebrated birthday of the year, Koninginnedag – Queen’s Day! Queen’s Day is celebrated on April 30, which was Queen Juliana’s birthday. Queen’s Day began in 1891 to celebrate Queen Wilhelmina’s eighteenth birthday, which was in August. It was rescheduled to April 30 to commemorate Queen Juliana’s coronation on her birthday. Queen Beatrix, whose birthday is in January, continued the April 30 tradition to honor her mother but perhaps also in recognition that January is not the best time to hold the largest outdoor celebrations of the year!  

This year will be the last Queen's Day in that Queen Beatrix is going to abdicate in favor of her son, who will be crowned King Willem-Alexander on April 30. It will then become King’s Day, and as his birthday is on April 27, no reason to change the date!  I wonder though, as we all offer each other congratulations on the King’s birthday, will he have to bring his own cake to the party and will he get to eat it?

Sunday, 10 March 2013

It's Complicated

My relationship status with my thesis; well, it’s complicated. Let me Count the Ways. (My apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.) 

First, in the short term, it’s complicated “to the level of everyday’s most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.” In the midst of third quarter classes, group projects, term papers, and externship work, you must develop a thesis topic and outline – a short-term goal with long-term consequences. Not only must you commit to a topic and outline, but you must find a thesis supervisor and second reader. Although you will devote the entire fourth quarter to writing your thesis, you must lay the foundation now, in the midst of all those more pressing short term deadlines. So easy to neglect the forest for the trees!  

Second, in the long term, it’s complicated “to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach, when feeling out of sight.” Hard to believe, but you are past the halfway point of the program and must think about post-grad goals. Deadlines loom for applying for various jobs, internships, PhD positions, both in and outside the Netherlands. Your thesis is a tree in a much larger forest, one to plant with care.  

Third, in terms of the “big picture,” it is complicated “with the passion put to use in my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.” You find yourself again pondering, what do I want to be when I grow up? And where and how do I want to live my life? In considering that forest, it is easy to forget all about the trees – until you trip over their roots or smack right into one as you gaze beyond the tree line. Third quarter is a nesting doll of decisions, a crossroads of many paths and possibilities. It is complicated “with the breath, smiles, tears, of all my life!”  

Which thesis topic, which career path, and which Road Not Taken? (My apologies to Robert Frost.) “And both that morning equally lay; In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I marked the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way; I doubted if I should ever come back.” Yes, life is about choice and choice is about loss; in choosing one thing you forego another. But choices must still be made.  

And so, “I shall be telling this with a sigh; Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” No, this really isn’t about glorifying the “less traveled” road; both roads are equally untrodden. It is about indecision, justifying a choice arbitrarily made, all the while wondering wistfully where the other road may have led. At the poorly marked crossroads of desire and regret, you just strike a path and hope for the best.  

So, have I chosen a thesis topic? Do I know how that will fit into a career path and the bigger picture? I have narrowed it down to two possibilities. Well, maybe three. Soon I must pick one, declare myself “in a relationship,” and see where it goes. In the meantime, my apologies for straying thoughts, but it’s complicated!

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Springing Forward

The dogs of winter still lie dozing by the door, sometimes springing up with a ferocious snarl, other times whimpering in their sleep, paws twitching. But spring is surely creeping up on them, no matter how vigilant their watch! Some signs that vernal equinox approaches:

You wake up at 7:00 a.m. and realize the sun actually got up before you did.
You leave class at 5:00 p.m., and the sun is STILL up!
Dogs and cats are shedding enough to knit new coats for next winter.
A riot of crocus, daffodils, and of course, tulips, has taken over the flower market.
A pot of flower bulbs, with its promise of the future, brings a smile to your grandmother's face.
Tentative green shoots are coming up through the melting snow in your garden and the cracks in the brickwork –shades of work to come!
The Paas haas (Easter bunny) makes an appearance in stores, along with all those chocolate eggs. As though an excuse for consuming copious quantities of chocolate is ever necessary in the Netherlands!
You suddenly find yourself quite popular with friends in the US who wish to plan spring and summer trips abroad.
You start planning outdoor adventures that won’t entail dressing like Nanook of the North.
Your wet hair no longer freezes, it just gets really frizzy.
You notice spring collections in clothing store windows.
You notice the gym is more crowded lately; the New Year’s resolution crowd has given way to people working off personal layers of winter in preparation for the aforementioned spring collections.
You see signs of spring cleaning, with everyone cleaning out closets, cupboards, and even friendships. (What DID we do before Facebook developed an app for that?)
Yes, it is still plenty cold and I am hearing more grumbling about the weather than ever; perhaps just cold-fatigue, much like heat-fatigue in Phoenix in early September. As in running a marathon, the last stretch is the hardest. You just have to wait for that second wind to ease you through. Like spring itself, it always comes.
Goethe said, "We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves; otherwise we harden.” Spring is a time of thawing, softening, reviving and redeeming. The hope of spring does spring eternal, even more so in its nascent state than in full bloom. The dogs of winter have had their day and they were not without their charms. However, perhaps now best to leave them lying in their hoar frost beds, and spring forward to a softer, warmer future!