On October 19, 2010 I moved from the US to The Netherlands. This is a love story many years in the making.

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Chili en tulpen

We went to look at the tulip fields, but found to our regret we were late; they were already 95% harvested. We did find a few fields that were still mostly intact…

…but even as we watched a guy driving a …tulpenbeheader? was cutting them down. I imagine it’s old hat to someone who does it every year, and I know why they do it, but it sure pains me to see the flowers just being chopped down to wither where they fall. All that beauty just destroyed. Pff.



The other field we found was unbelievable. The colors were all so bright they looked unreal. Even the green was blinding.

Having been thwarted in our mission to see the tulip fields, we drove looking for lunch. Along the way Carel spotted a guy who was loading big sheaves of what turned out to be would-be thatch for the house roofs of the wealthy. That’s a sight you don’t see often.

Have some buttercups!

We drove into a small town called Marknesse looking for lunch and on an absolute whim decided to try a place that said it served Vietnamese and Chinese food. Im very leery of Asian food outside of big cities, and in the Netherlands in particular. This is a culture that does not use a lot of spice in their food. I like my Thai, Cantonese and Vietnamese blisteringly hot, please!

We went in, sat down, and I asked the lady who brought our menus if they served pho. It took about 5 mins and her fetching out a man from the back to get my question across, and then I saw understanding and regret dawn in their faces. “I have the soup,” the man said, making a face, “but not the vegetables. And without the vegetables, it is not right. It is not good. And it is not pho.” The lady explained that the correct greens were very hard to find, and prohibitively expensive if located. A bit later she came with our food, and went to fetch plates for us.

Meanwhile, I had removed a saucer from under something and was beginning to make a puddle of soy sauce and chili oil. I had been very excited to see the chili oil, sitting on the table along with the other standard condiments, like it should do in any Asian place (but doesn’t, here!). I was making a proper puddle after so long, and I was really happy. She saw me making my puddle and her face lit up. Then there was quite a bit of chatter in her hodgepodge Dutch and shaky English, my halting Dutch, and Carel translating while trying to hide a smile at it all.

The food was pretty good! And! we walked out with a big cupful of the chili oil, to my extreme happiness. I’d asked where to buy it (I’ve been looking for it since I got here and haven’t found it. Sambal Olek, yes, but it’s not as good and not nearly as hot) and she told me that they make it themselves, and then hesitantly offered to sell me some. I agreed immediately, and now I have a couple years worth of chili happiness for the price of 3 whole Euros. I put it in an empty bottle of Nashoba’s Northern Comfort, and it looks great. Ah, bliss.

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Weird Dutch Town Names Tour #2 – Sneek!

We woke up this morning and saw…sunshine! On a weekend day! This never happens. I quickly looked at the forecast for Sunday and the rest of the week, and it’s dismal: rain and no warmer than 13C (48F). Well! That decided things in a hurry. Road trip!

Carel suggested Sneek, It’s on my list, so we packed up the dog, who is always up for an adventure, and headed out. Sneek is in Fryslan (Friesland) and is one of the 11 cities that make up the Elfstedentocht course. It’s been a city for a long, long time – it got city rights in 1456, and was critical for the shipping trade in its heyday. Now it’s the site many popular sailing races, and a center for water-centered-sport of all kinds. Also, as we found out, a major shopping center. Sneek, also known as Snits, hee!! here we come!

It’s about an hour away, like everything else in the Netherlands. It was a really pretty drive, all lush countryside, horses, cows, sheep and wide, wide Dutch skies. They call these clouds “stapelwolken” – stacked clouds, because, well…they are!

We forgot to stop and take a photo of the town’s sign, so you’ll just have to take my word that someone would name a town Snits. We stopped outside the city center and found a place to park, just in front of a “coffee shop” called Heaven. Directly across the street from where we left the car is the Waterpoort, or Watergate.

I found some stairs leading down to a small walkway right along the side of the bridge at water level so I went down, and as we were taking these photos*, the bridge started to go up.

Apparently it costs 2 Euro to have them raise the bridge for you. How that money is collected here is a mystery to me, but Carel tells me that some bridge-keepers use a fishing pole with a wooden shoe hung from it to reach out to the boats and gather their tolls. I’m not sure if he was pulling my leg or not.  [Editor’s note: Carel swears it’s true and showed me a photo to back it up] That vertical on the top right is half of the bridge, wide open to allow the boat to pass. It was a rather jarring sight, this great big modern motor boat with the ancient Waterpoort behind it!

After this behemoth passed, we went back up and crossed the bridge and headed toward the town center to see what there was to see. I took a photo from the middle of the Waterpoort.

We passed by a set of herenhuizen (gentleman’s houses) that had what I am told is some very old-fashioned brickwork. I was lucky enough to find some of it right alongside a more modern house, so I can show you the difference.

On the left is the modern type, which is nice and sensible and normal looking: bricks with mortar in between and slightly sunken. On the right is the older way of doing it, and for the life of me I don’t understand how it is done. The mortar extends above the brick and the surface is smoothed flat. How do they do that without getting the stuff all over the bricks? It must cost a fortune to have that restored today.

On our way downtown I noticed that even the trashcans here have little hats to keep the rain out!

We came up alongside the church and noticed an odd structure, built all of weird angles and…well, somehow very Dutch looking to me.

It is apparently a bell tower, restored in the 1800s and again in the 1960s. Standing right next to it and looking back at the church was dizzying, all the angles and verticals. It really looks like I’m holding the camera in a tilt, but the bikes prove I wasn’t. Strange!

We were hungry and needed a break so we stopped at a cafe’ that had outdoor seating to accommodate the dog, and settled in for some people watching accompanied by hot chocolate (met slagroom, of course!) and a snack. Carel had a ragoutbroodje that smelled wonderful and attracted the dog’s enraptured attention. I chose to sample the dessert that the bakery had won an award for in 2010 – a piece of oranjekoek (orange cookie).

I had to look it up, and found out that it was originally a Frisian wedding sweet.  It’s a sort of gingerbread with a layer of marzipan in the middle, with a thin layer of pink icing on the top. Why it’s pink and not orange as the name suggests it should be, is a mystery. If you want to try and make your own, someone posted a recipe. It was very good. I’d have it again without hesitation.

We went on and found that the center of the town was a whole lot bigger than we had anticipated. It was a sea of people and endless retail stores, ranging from well-known large clothing brands to small flower shops and everything in between, criss-crossed with canals lined with market stalls selling food and snacks; the dog inspected every passerby to make sure they didn’t have food for her. She’s a funny creature. I saw her look up directly at a man holding a phone in front of him, zero in on what he was holding – “Oh. Not food, too bad!” – and she shrugged and moved on. To think people believe dogs can’t talk! Mixed in with all the capitalism were some nice examples of classic Dutch architecture, too.

This kind of building is called a “trapgevel” (stairway house).


As we went back to the car I got a really nice shot of the Waterpoort up the canal from us, with a wonderfully dramatic Dutch sky as a backdrop.

That was it for Sneek. It was only 2PM, though, and we were not ready to call it a day yet. We thought we’d try and find someplace to let the dog out and have a run, and as we were driving along Carel noticed a sign which announced that a specific boat-race he’d told me about on the way down was happening this weekend! Sure enough there was a teeming mass of sails over yonder, so we found a way to go park next to the lake and have a look.

This race was just a practice skûtsjesilen, but who cared? The old fashioned boats looked lovely, and watching them maneuver around made me think wistfully of my father. He loved sailboats, and I wish so much I could share this with him. These grand old ladies were once just cargo boats, but have been preserved and loved, and now they are one of the prides of Friesland.

We also saw this gorgeous old boat, towing a tiny little boat behind it. I swear it looked like a mama duck with a duckling following her.

We walked along the bike path, letting the dog run free. There were quite a few other dogs there, including a 9 month old Rottweiler puppy that Daisy played with happily. That dog and another young black dog of uncertain lineage were chasing sticks into the water, and she watched them intently. After they left, she indicated she might be interested in trying this new game.

…so I started throwing a stick a short way into the water. I like this photo; how everything in it is moving forward at once!

Stick in flight! This is where I stop to express my astonishment that this kind of photo can be taken by a telephone. WOW. Click on it. Look how everything is in focus, from my face to the dog’s body and the stick hanging in mid-air.

This new game was received with much enthusiasm, even if she did get confused by the water hiding the smell of the stick. She’d wander around poking her head underwater looking for it, and would usually find it by bumping into it, but hey. It was her first try and she’s allowed some slack. She was awfully pleased with herself, and rightly so. She’s afraid of water, so this is big progress for her.

Another “Wow, my phone is amazing” comment – if you click on the next two photos, the detail is truly amazing. It even keeps the water drooling out of her mouth in focus.

This is a great shot taken by Carel! I love it. Everything is so clear (thanks, iPhone 4Gs!), even the water splashing around her paws. She is just beaming with pride, striding out of the water like she’d been doing this all her life and there’s even a conveniently placed boat in the background for a touch of Dutch. Awesome!

Some time later we were all tired, the dog was sopping wet and very happy, and I had a stew to make so we went back to the car, realized sadly that we didn’t have a towel for the dog, yuck! and drove home.

Home now please?

SO TIRED!

*I feel compelled to note that all these photos are straight off my phone. I haven’t edited them at all. Yay, amazing camera quality on a phone. Boo, not making them perfect.


Het Drouwenerzand – or, How Not To Manage Land

Spring has spung in The Netherlands, and with the rare and delicious blessing of sunny weather this weekend, we decided to go on another road trip. Carel found us an unusual National Monument to visit – a Dutch desert. It’s not big, of course, but it is a very different landscape from the usual Dutch array of rich grazing lands, trees, and canals. Het Drouwenerzand is an area of drifting, shifting sand dunes and sparse vegetation, caused hundreds of years ago by overgrazing, over-clearing of the heather and timber, and the mining of glacial boulders for use in building towns.

In relatively recent times, most of the area has been reclaimed and restored to its original healthy green state, but a portion of the desert was kept and made a National Monument – to which I promptly said “What, a monument on how not to do something? How very Dutch!”  Honestly, I have no idea what the motivation was, but it does serve as a stark reminder of what can happen if you don’t take care of your land!

First we went downtown for a visit to the Apple store, to get a case for my new phone and ask how much it would cost to repair my grievously wounded iPad. As we drove there I was delighted to see the crocus were up and in full bloom. Carel is much more blase’ about them than I am, familiarity breeding contempt and all, but he was willing to stop and let me take some photos.

I love how Dutch this one is – bulb flowers and a bicyclist zooming by!

I just love that the city plants these flowers everywhere. Nature then takes over and they spread all over the place. Gorgeous! These were in the center of a large round-about which is big enough to be a tiny park, with benches, statuary, and little paths.

As expected the Apple store wanted too much and we will be taking it to a 3rd party repair place. 300 EU to repair a cracked screen? Are they MAD?! I got a bumper for the iPhone 4 though, and I am now much happier about handling it. All the photos on this post were taken with it. The camera is amazing, and the iPhoto app on the iPad is really flexible and fun to use for post-processing. Being able to make all my edits by touching the image instead of fiddling with the endlessly over-complex Photoshop is great. Of course, it can’t do a fraction of what Photoshop can do, but for basic image editing, it’s perfect. That was 5 bucks very well spent.

Having taken a zillion flower photos, we headed out to Gasselte, which is the little town closest to the nature reserve we wanted to see. The reserve turned out to be more difficult to find than anticipated since some genius had the bright idea of building an amusement park right next to it and calling it the same thing. We finally figured out where the nature park was, found a place to leave the car, saddled up the dog and started off. This map posted at the start of the trailhead gave us a clue we were in the right area, but it didnt have a “you are here” spot on it, so we guessed, and struck off into the woods.

The dog was absolutely thrilled to have her freedom and ran off at the speed of light, making mad loops and circles around us at dizzying speed, leaping logs, dodging low hanging branches, launching herself from the tops of hillocks in a manner that did my heart good to see. You’d never know she’s got serious back trouble!

I saw a gorgeous old tree all covered with moss, arms reaching to the sky.

It looked like some mossy stairway to heaven for fairies or something. It reminded me somehow of the story “The Golden Key” by George McDonald.

Oh, ever so dramatic!

We walked on, not really sure where we were going, but we kept turning left and assumed we would eventually arrive at the desert. Since we could see some clear sky through the trees ahead, we figured we were on the right path. We obviously weren’t moving fast enough for Daisy, who waited impatiently for us some distance ahead.

Hurry UP!!

Finally we found the entrance to the area, which was guarded by a gate and a cattle guard. Carel lifted Daisy over it and we leashed her since we did not want her to trample the delicate landscape or to chase the local yak  population. They’re not really aggressive, but the males do weigh 800 kilos (1800 pounds) and I wouldn’t want one of them to get annoyed with my little dog. She IS a cattle dog, after all, and her genes would tell her all the wrong things – HERD THAT COW! – which the cow would likely object to rather violently.

Scottish Highland cow

We came over a little rise and wow. What a very, very not-Dutch landscape!

The sun came out and made all the sand into gold…

Carel was off taking a photo, and I saw the chance for a really great shot of Daisy’s POV.

It was time to leave, and we made good our escape, having bothered noone and done no harm. I saw one thing that puzzled me no end, though.

What, there are beavers here? With no running water in sight? And if not beavers, then WHAT ATE THAT TREE?


Wierd Dutch Town-Names Tour #1

Hello, my friends. I’ve missed you, and owe you a brief explanation for why this blog went dark with no notice. Last year starting in May my life got very complicated, what with personal illness and family drama of various flavors. I put all my energy into my family and had none left for creative endeavors like blogging (or anything else either). Things seem to be settling down now – I can’t bring my father back, but my Mom appears to be alright now, and my own health is improving steadily, so I can breathe out and start making things again. So here’s the blog again, now with new Spring Crocus masthead.

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I’ve been hearing complaints from various corners of the world about the fact that I need to start the blog again. So, with no further ado I present to you the wonderfully named Dutch town of Urk.

Yes, Urk. Ever since the first time I saw the name on a road sign I’ve been giggling helplessly at it, and demanding that we move there so I can have an Urk postal address. My love is a cruel man and refuses to indulge my desires, but did happily embrace the idea of a road trip to investigate what sort of a place a town named Urk could possibly be, so today we packed up the hond and drove down there. On our way there, we passed another town whose name I like:

(I was going to make a leek thing for dinner, btw, and I thought Id share: get a few leeks, and cut off the green parts. Blanche them until half cooked, drain well, and then wrap in nice slices of some good salty ham, and arrange snugly in a Pyrex pan. Cover with beschamel, a generous layer of grated Parmesan, and pop into the oven until nice and brown and delicious.Serve with salad and a rich dessert. Something chocolate.)

Anyway, back to the road trip. We arrived at Urk and made our way to the old town center while I read some facts from the wiki article about it. It seems that Urk began its life as “Urch”, lo these many years ago. Noone speculates, but I imagine the name was the Lord Du Jour’s name, which stuck and envolved slightly as the town changed hands a half dozen times over the centuries. It was an island until 1939 when a dike was built that connected it to the mainland. As such the local dialect remained static up until today, and it is apparently one of the odder ones in the Netherlands, which boasts no small amounts of oddity in general and in dialect in particular. Among other influences, young women would go work in Amsterdam for Jewish families, then return home to Urk with some Yiddish, which was duly incorporated…

So. Urk!

I had absolutely no idea what to expect from Urk, and I was really surprised to discover that it looks like a wealthy little town, with a certain amount of modern growth around the old former-island-city-center, and the center itself being extremely well and carefully preserved. It turns out that the rising price of fish and increasing tourism are benefiting this formerly isolated fishing community greatly. Witness this car:

With gas prices at NINE DOLLARS A GALLON I cannot imagine how this person can afford this vehicle.

Prosperity notwithstanding, some shop owners seem to have opted for low-tech security systems:

This little dog took his job very seriously indeed, and barked his fool head off at us until we were out of sight. Once we turned the corner, silence fell briefly, and then he spotted the next boarder to repel. Daisy was not impressed. Amused, we walked on past this cute little tea house.

It turns out that Urk is smack in the middle of the Dutch Bible Belt. Yeah, you read that right. I bet you didn’t even know the Dutch HAD a Bible Belt! It is a deeply religious and very conservative place, boasting no less than 3 Dutch Reformed flavor of modern churches within easy sight of each other – this is not something you see in NL, generally. Old cathedrals in the town center, yes. Churches that are clearly in regular use? Not so much. I sort of despair for them since they put all this religious fervor into backing Wilders, a frothing lunatic that is the Dutch equivalent of Berlusconi – a national embarrassment.

Aside from the churches, our first clue was a religious bookshop, with a very graphic and entirely disgusting anti-abortion poster on the door. Good thing I hadn’t eaten recently, as it made my gorge rise. And of course, it was an American image they’d chosen to use for their propaganda. At this point I came up with the idea of carrying post-it notes around with me, so that I could leave my opinion without defacing public property. I’d have left two or three stuck to that door saying “yuck”. Another one would have gone on the door of an Italian ice cream place called “Gelatos”. No, no, no. Ur Doin’ It Rong. The plural of Gelato is Gelati! Ah, well, lacking post-its I just ranted at Carel as we walked, much to his amusement.

Another clue about the religiosity of this place came with one of the weirdest Jesus Fish I’ve ever seen.

The moss encrusted chair and clog was disturbing. It looked like it had just been dredged up from the sea bottom – perhaps this was deliberate, and I don’t know what the desired effect was, but I found it creepy. We stopped at the museum to get a look at a map to see where we should go.

And off we wandered, heading for the harbor, which was an interesting mix of antique fishing boats (under sail), modern pleasure craft, and Serious Fishing Boats, fully modernized with powerful engines, winches, and Raytheon scanners aboard.

Some of the boats were wonderfully named.

SNEEK RELAX!

NYAH!!!

We also met a very …dignified Ship’s Cat, who was clearly taking the name of his craft upon himself.

Infantile amusement over, we went in search of the lighthouse, which has been operating in one form or another for about 500 years.We’d spotted it from the harbor.

Along the way, I found a few lovely shots. Look at this door!! The grain, the texture, the reflection in the glass…

A lovely old house, that can’t possibly look more Dutch, and was nice in that it was white rather than the ubiquitous dark brick which no matter how prettily arranged and accessorized, looks a bit depressing to this Mediterranean girl.

As, perhaps, I illustrate here with this photo of a hairdresser’s shop:

After a bit of wandering we found the lighthouse.

Below it was a beach, where I walked around a bit, crushing the skeletons of millions and millions of lives under my boots.

I saw the Loch Ness Monster! Poor Nessie, she’s a long way from home. I wonder if anyone will help her.

Carel took two beautiful shots of an old ship

By now we were tired, hungry and cold. So, we found the car, still being guarded by the Angry Shop Dog, piled in, and spent about 15 mins getting turned around inside Urk trying to find a way out. But, we prevailed, and as we crossed the border I asked Carel to stop and do his best Vanna White impression.

Goodbye, Urk! Time to go home for a nap and some spareribs, followed by Big Bang Theory and Top Gear, cos that is how we roll around here.


Full moon maunderings

In eight hours the moon will be full. It’s there now, riding high in the sky, fat and round and as full as makes no difference. I’ve always loved the light of the moon so I came out to sit in the moonbeam that was conveniently shining on my reading chair in the garden.

Its silver light bathes me in cold radiance, the breezes wrap me in shivery coils of gently moving air.  In the distance is a rushing sound. All is peace here in my garden.  I watch as gossamer wisps of cloud move across the face of it, none of them catching and holding, all slipping away, leaving her shining alone in the late night sky. I play tricks with my eyes, making two full moons and imagining being on another planet – one where two moons would be normal. I think about all the other full moons I have been witness to over my life, who I had been then and what I’d done. There are a surprising number of memories attached to full moons, some good, some great, and some just plain bad that I don’t want to talk about.

Here come the wispy veils again, covering the moon briefly so as to adorn her beauty with their softness.

I’ve been many people under the comfortingly cold and uncaring light of the full moon – I’ve been deliriously happy, whether high as a kite, or sober as a priest. I’ve been shattered, penitent, broken and despairing by the light of the full moon. Ive been hungry and been full, and I’ve found love under her light and what passed for it too.  The moon has seen much of what is important to me.

Full moons mark many significant moments in my life, it turns out. Right now it’s marking  a moment in which I feel entirely at peace in what has become my own garden in our house, eleven months since I arrived. This place has become my home. I smell the brine than comes right in from the North Sea on the wind and breathe deep. I reach inside myself and find one of the definitions of love, and smile as I move to comply with it.

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Sent from my iPad


Inmiddels…bloemenpracht

I’m working on a post about my friend’s visit, and hope to have it done before the next visitor shows up! But, it’s slow going and so, in the meanwhile…flowers!

We were at the garden centre yesterday and Carel turned to me and said with what I think was a certain dismay, “Over there – the most brightly colored flowers ever!” He was right, too. They really are, sporting a nearly embarrassing array of richly colored, wide blooms in an assortment of colors ranging from palest pink and peach to eye-searingly intense purple and hot pink, supported by fat little leaves in a cheerful mixture of red and green, covered with diamond-like crystals that glitter in the sun. And of course, I had to buy a flat of them, despite being uncertain what exactly I am going to do with the little darlings. According to the label they are ice-flowers. It’s an odd little plant, but!  I mean, how could I not buy plants with sparkles? They’re so beautiful! And, well, sparkles. What more do I need to say?

The rest of the garden is looking very happy and flowering energetically as well. This richly orange pansy is one of my favorite flowers:

This little blue guy – I don’t know what it it is called, but it’s terribly cute with its tiny blue florets!

One of the container plantings is looking like it will turn out just exactly as I has envisioned, which is always gratifying.

There is quite a bit more work to do on the garden, after which I will make more posts about it – there is a plan to make a small deck, add some seating, small tables and a tiny fountain, along with the obligatory barbecue. The Dutch are very, very big on barbecuing! Monday, though, I’m going back to the garden centre to return a couple of mistakes and pick up what I now know I need to finish off the planting part. It will look very cosy, I think. I can’t wait.


Niewe Tuin

Spring has well and truly sprung here in the Netherlands, to the palpable relief of the general population. At first you could not tell it by the temperatures, it remained gelid. But the flowers told me what should be happening, anyway…first the crocus came, the tender pale violet ones that are the most brave and flower alone, the vanguard for the rest, which sprawl out in richly colored patterns on the low hillocks of the Sterrebos.

They are everywhere, little lakes and ponds of color, surprise patches of purple,

yellow,

and white

in dark corners, in the medians, on sidewalks, along the train tracks, along the streets, in people’s gardens, all over the parks.

I love them. I plan to plant many of them, this fall. However, today was one of the first really fine days of Spring, and Carel and I had promised each other that we would tackle the garden this weekend if the weather permitted. Well, it didn’t just permit, it encouraged! We went to the garden center yesterday and bought some plants and pots to put them in, and today he took on the job of raking out all the old crap, cutting down the brambles…he basically did the whole cleanup job, bless his heart. I potted the new plants and did a lot of cleaning. This is the corner that gets the most sun, where I like to sit, before the cleanup.

and after!

This is the long side of the courtyard, along the house, taken from the far side

Here it is, afterward, taken from the opposite end:

And lastly the shadiest corner, over by the bedroom, before:

And woo, what a transformation!

I love it! It’s just so nice to be able to sit outside in a tidy space full of color and birdsong – there’s a blackbird who sings entrancingly for us each evening. I plan to add more plants but for now this will do nicely. Yay!