Sunday, 30 June 2013

In the Pink!

From my garden in Utrecht I hear the Saturday noon-time carillon bell concert, this week featuring the Village People’s YMCA, ABBA’s Mama Mia, and Daft Punk’s Get Lucky. Venturing out I find the city center is closed to auto traffic and the streets are festooned with pink balloons, rainbow flags, pink unicorns and hearts, and packed with pink-clad revelers. A flamingo-themed dance stage at Neude, live music stages in the Dom Square and behind the town hall, a student stage at Janskerkhof, a kid’s area with a bouncy castle, puppet shows and its own DJ, the large crosswalk on Lange Veitstraat painted in rainbow stripes, and rainbow flags fluttering on the Dom tower along with the national flag. Yes, it’s Pink Saturday in Utrecht! 
Meanwhile, back in the USA, this week the US Supreme Court issued two much-awaited decisions: one striking down a federal law, DOMA, denying federal benefits to legally married gay couples; the other striking down a California law, Proposition 8,  prohibiting gay marriage passed by voters just months after the California Supreme Court held such marriages were legal. However, the latter was not a ruling on the merits of the gay marriage ban but on a technicality; the State of California refused to defend Proposition 8 and the group defending it had no standing to do so. That decision thus affects only California. So, the long and short of it, in the USA, legally married gay couples are now entitled to the same federal benefits as all married couples. But gay marriage is legal in only thirteen states, now including California, and the rulings have no effect on the remaining states, 29 states of which have outlawed gay marriage. And now in California, as thousands of gay couples rush to marry, backers of Proposition 8 are making another emergency effort to block gay marriage. 
In contrast, the Netherlands became the first country to legalize gay marriage in 2001. Well before then, gay sex has been legal since 1811, openly gay people have been allowed to serve in the military since 1974, are protected by anti-discrimination laws in employment and the provision of goods and services, and can legally adopt children. Pink Saturday was originally a gay protest held on the last Saturday in June of 1977 against the US anti-gay campaign led by hate-monger Anita Bryant, and quickly became an annual event held in a different city in the Netherlands each year. However, what began as a protest is now an annual celebration of diversity, equality and love. 
This year Utrecht is, as ever, the hostess with the mostest! Music, celebration and revelry both indoors and outdoors into the wee hours, Pink sporting events, Pink camping, everyone involved, I even spotted a Dutch Government Pride banner with the insignia lions in purple holding a rainbow shield. After all the heated controversy, commentary, and drama from across the pond this week, Pink Saturday descended like a cotton-candy cloud of lightness, cheer and goodwill. Politics and legal debate wilt as the sun glimpses through the summer clouds, and for once this June, nothing is raining on this parade!

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Flood, Sweat and Beers

It’s summertime, and the living is cheesy! Summer in Utrecht is rather like having one summer in two cities: on the one hand, Mark Twain’s damp, chilly San Francisco, “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco;” on the other, damp, steamy New Orleans at its sultriest. And in between, some perfect L.A. moments of bright sunshine with a light, cool breeze (but no smog!).  

Of course, this changes by the day – if not the hour – so be prepared! Be mindful of Cheever’s famous last words, “It was a splendid summer morning and it seemed as if nothing could go wrong.” But it can also be a dismal rainy summer morning and seem as if nothing could go right – yet it does! The longest day of the year was such a day, beginning with dreary morning showers but ending with a barbeque celebration in a lovely garden, dancing to lively South African Swing, accompanied by clear skies, a full “super moon,” and a sunset just after 11:00 p.m. A midsummer night’s dream!  

So, what are some signs of summer in Utrecht?   

You never do shed your coat on that Sunday afternoon picnic and you bike home shivering in a sudden downpour.  

The very next day finds you in shorts and tank top, getting so hot and sweaty in your upstairs workspace that you decide to go to Albert Heijn to pick up some groceries just to get out of the heat.  

Putting on sunscreen is a secret signal for the clouds to roll in; if the rain does not wash it off, you will sweat it off the minute the sun comes back out. Naturally, then you get sunburnt.

It makes no difference whether you run on an indoor treadmill or outside in the rain, either way you are soaking wet in minutes. At least in the rain you get in your shower at the same time! 

Outdoor seating at pubs and cafes spills out onto the streets and wharves, every seat taken, with empty, forlorn interiors. That is, until it starts raining and a sudden gust of chill wind sends everyone scurrying indoors!   

You get sick of pulling weeds in your garden and decide you rather like that wild, natural look.  
You no longer bother trying to figure out which festival or event is behind random spontaneous musical or theatrical performances or displays of art; like toadstools in the moist summer air, they just appear out of nowhere and sometimes include elves!  

The bike lanes in the city center are clogging up with sight-seeing pedestrians and tourists on rental bikes who abruptly stop or turn right in front of you, causing you to lose a shoe trying to skid to a stop. Luckily, you have learned some handy Dutch epithets and they have no idea what you are muttering!  

As the tourists come, many of your classmates are leaving to complete their theses in far-flung places. A scant month to deadline, your thesis can wait as you go to a series of farewell gatherings to review the LLM year: a flood of memories, a great deal of sweat, and a steady flow of beers! A toast to the departed, may your lives be as complete as your theses soon shall be!   

Ever drifting down the stream —
Lingering in the golden gleam —
Life, what is it but a dream?

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, Epilogue


Sunday, 16 June 2013

Sauce for the Flanders

When it comes to dining, Utrecht features a vast array of choices. There is leisurely fine dining, with diverse international cuisines and wine lists. There are also many charming, homey cafes for faster and lighter fare; and even faster, some very tasty take-out in interesting combinations such as Indian/Surinamese and Thai/Vietnamese, not to mention pizza and shoarma kapsalon. But for a truly fast guilty pleasure, one needs look no further than the nearest Vlaamse friet stand. Flemish (Belgian, not French) fries, served in paper cones, fresh, hot, and salty. But the best part is the sauce. In the Netherlands, there are nearly as many types of friet sauce to choose from as there are types of black licorice – and that is going some!  

The basic sauce is, of course, mayonnaise. However, there is also official “frietsaus,” which, as far as I can tell, is just a lighter version of mayonnaise. And, you can, of course get ketchup if you must, or even better, curry ketchup! But beyond that, there is chili sauce (chili and mayo), cocktail sauce, piccalilly sauce (mixture of pickles, turmeric, crunchy vegetables and mustard), mustard sauce, green pepper sauce, garlic sauce, Samurai sauce (sambal and mayo), curry sauce, Andalouse sauce (mayo, tomato paste and paprika), tartar sauce, Joppie sauce (this is some sort of secret sauce that seems to include mayo, curry, and onions), and sate sauce (peanut sauce). You can also get a “Frietje Speciaal,” consisting of fries with mayo, curry, ketchup, and raw onions), or a “Frietje Oorlog” (meaning “fries war,” referring to the messiness quotient!), consisting of fries with mayo, sate sauce, and raw onions. And, the newest sauce featured at Mannenken Pis? “Wietsaus” – yes, weed sauce, marijuana flavored (no, not Alice B. Toklas fries, as regrettably, it contains no THC!).  

Still not fast enough for you? Well then, time to hit the wall – the ubitquitous Febo Automatiek! A wall on the street with rows of small square compartments with clear doors, each with a ready, hot snack inside; you can peruse the selections on foot or even on your bike. A veritable red light district of junk food! What’s on display? Frikandel,  a sort of minced-meat deep-fried hot dog. Or Bamischijf, a square disk of breaded, Indonesian-style fried noodles. KaassoufflĂ©, cheese in a puffy pastry, and gehaktstaaf, a rod-shaped meatloaf made of mystery meat, probably a combination of beef, chicken, pork, and vegetables. And then there are the krokets, crispy cylinder-shaped deep-fried rolls, including sate krokets, filled with chicken and peanut sauce, and vleeskroket, filled with meat. There is crispy kip corn, which is chicken breaded and fried in corn meal, and kip krokant, spicy fried chicken. A broodjebal, i.e., a meatball on a bun, and numerous burgers to choose from, including a grill burger, a cheesy grill burger with “unieke grillsaus,” a double grill burger, and even a Samuriburger with, you guessed it, Samurai sauce!  

Available all over the Netherlands, what is sauce for the Goois is also sauce for the Flanders! Partake at your own risk!

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Rock Steady

Writing a thesis is a Sisyphean task – forever laboring to roll a rock up a hill only to have to roll right back down. One needs diversions, and what diversion is more apropos than – wait for it and groan– rock n’ roll! There are many small venues in Utrecht city center. To name just two, there is the Tivoli, which has a diverse agenda featuring everything from reggae to metal, and the Oude Pothuys, located in a werf kelder and featuring free local live music every night at 10:30 p.m. Being able to walk or bike home from a show makes for a very hassle-free outing. But what about big concerts at major venues? I recently ventured to two such events, one at the Amsterdam Arena, and one at the Ziggo Dome. Next door to one another, both venues are located a short walk from the Amsterdam Bijlmer Arena train station in southeast Amsterdam, less than 20 minutes by train from Utrecht Centraal station. 
First, Rush at the Ziggo Dome, a multi-purpose venue which seats 17,000. The acoustics are great, the food, from La Place, quite good, and the venue incredibly clean – so clean, in fact, that we did not hesitate to sit on the floor, which was spotless, with no sticky patches of undetermined origin. And, despite a sold-out show, entry was painless and buying food or using the W.C. entailed no long waiting lines. Like so much in the Netherlands, it was very well-run, well-maintained and very organized! I went with a friend by car. In the USA, leaving a show typically entails finding one’s car in an enormous parking lot with very few exits for thousands of cars all leaving at the same time, meaning you can spend nearly as much time getting home as you spent at the show. However, the parking garage at the Ziggo Dome was not the least bit crowded, likely because most people go by train, and getting in and out was a breeze. We made it back to Utrecht in record time – 40 minutes after the show ended!
Next, Muse, with Biffy Clyro and Bastille opening, at the Amsterdam Arena. A massive soccer stadium seating 51,000, the acoustics are mediocre and the food is typical stadium fare, pizza and burgers. However, despite the size of the venue and the crowd, getting in and out proved painless; there are specific entrances that must be used for each seating section and thus no bottle-necking at one entrance. Going by train this time, the post-concert exodus made for most crowded train station that I have ever seen! A tide of people all waiting to get through OV chip scanners, it was a surprisingly jocular crowd with no display of ill temper. In fact, the backlog of people waiting to go up two escalators to the train platform resulted in a few hardy souls running up a downward escalator, becoming a spectator event in itself with much cheering from the crowd! Once at the platform, we managed to squeeze onto the next train that arrived. The conductor cheerfully announced on the loudspeaker that the train was “lekker druk,” and we were on our way. It was a short 20 minute ride to Utrecht, and despite everything we were still back about an hour after the show. 
If only I could rock my thesis as easily! Alas, time to stop rocking and get back to rolling…  

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Pilgrim's Progress

Back in Utrecht, out of the frying pan of spring in Phoenix and into the cool, wet chill of spring in the Netherlands! Jet-lag and weather-lag aside, it is good to be back. The spring rain has made everything even greener than I remembered, with flowers blooming everywhere. Especially my garden. In fact, it seems that while I was gone it decided to hold an orgy, spawning a riot of weeds! Still, much as I normally detest gardening, I enjoyed a sunny afternoon mucking about while listening to the nearby Dom tower bells playing everything from Lara’s Theme from Dr. Zhivago, to Finiculi Finicula, to Eleanor Rigby. Later, after doing laundry, cleaning house and sweeping the kelder, I sat on the canal wharf at sunset – which these days does not  arrive until after 10:00 P.M. – enjoying some wine and good Dutch cheese as I watched the boats, canoes, and kayaks drift by. Bliss!  

However, getting my house in order after my unexpected detour is but a prelude for the next big step – it is time to belatedly begin the trail of the lonely thesis pilgrim. Yes, after – finally – completing my last term paper for my last class, it is down to just me and my thesis. Funny, much as I groaned over group projects, I now rather miss having group mates with whom to collaborate and commiserate! House Beautiful is soon to become Bunyan’s gaol. Your thesis is supposed to be the culmination of your entire LLM, worth twice as many credits as a class (no pressure!), and which must be completed during spring and summer – just when your brain needs a rest, the days become long and sunny, outdoor cafes beckon, and your feet start itching for travel and adventure.   

Like any pilgrimage, a thesis is a journey that must be undertaken alone, with faith that you will find the answers along the way. From the Slough of Despond, where you bog down in procrastination, to the Valley of Humiliation, where you realize that your thesis question is as clear as mud, and on to the Valley of the Shadow of (brain) Death as your endless research takes you down the primrose path of interesting, but ultimately useless, information. You may reach the Plain of Ease for a brief respite, only to encounter Doubting Castle (with no Promise key!). Try as you will to be a hermit in the Delectable Mountains (or, in the Netherlands, Molehills) the seemingly back-to-back spring and summer festivals lure you to the distractions of the Enchanted Ground. Oh, to finally reach the Celestial City of COMPLETION!!!   

And then what? Who knows! Another pilgrimage in the form of a PhD? A new job? Perhaps a pilgrimage of a more physical nature, the Camino de Santiago? I know somebody who did all three Caminos in the space of one year, each a little longer and more painful. Yet each more satisfying and fulfilling; a time to endure, reflect, and gain perspective. Such is the nature of pilgrimages. The first step is the hardest, whether it be with your feet, your mind, or your heart. Once committed to the trail, it is just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. So, it is finally time for me to stop talking the thesis talk, and start walking the thesis walk. Here’s to finding the way and staying the course – blisters notwithstanding!