Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Mike Eats Weird Salads

You'll be surprised to learn that I'm not the most adventurous person. One of my fine colleagues sarcastically wonders when I'm finally going to get over to the Red Light District, bang a hooker and score some weed. It ain't gonna happen. Some people find those things exciting, but I find them kind of sad. Oh, and I'm kind of a wimp when it comes to that stuff.

Anyway, it could hardly compare to what you'd find at a simple grocery store. Inspecting the grocery store is one of my favorite foreign-travel activities. I can hang out in the frozen food aisle for a long as you'd take a gander at, say, a naked Asian transsexual who satisfies your raging foot fetish.

So to satisfy my miniscule sense of adventure, I'm trying to sample a few weird, culturally-significant items from the supermarket. Oh, the foods we'll taste! Exhibit 1 is pictured above, two delicious mounds of something covered in something shiny, sprinkled with corn and served with a cute little red shovel. It's as if someone dumped a can of corn on your mother's breasts and told you to dig in. Any little boy's dream.

I should mention that the Dutch are crazy for their lunchtime salads. Not leafy lettuce-based salads, mind you, but pretty much anything that can be mixed with mayonnaise (the national condiment) and formed into flaccid, mysterious mounds. Any decent catered lunch will offer you 57 forms of salads, the nature of which are completely indeterminable until you eat them. For me, Dutch lunch is a culinary minefield, but I imagine Forrest Gump would find it deeply meaningful.

This salad wasn't as scary as it looked. At first I thought it was simply potato salad, but it also turned out to have bits of beef in it that I didn't taste at all, a vegetarian's nightmare. Well, for an English-speaking vegetarian, anyway, as the single word on the top was "Beef." My beef salad was actually pretty tasty, once you wiped off the clam-molded mayo clinging ferociously to the surface, like Star Jones clenching her dignity.

I'm off to return to the Dutch countryside, hoping to find something interesting to say from there.

Monday, June 26, 2006

What the hell are you doing over there?

I get a lot of questions here at ExpatMike Centraal, but this is definitely the most popular. It probably says something that it is my least favorite one to answer, and this entry will definitely lack the amusing bon mots from Dutch society that I use to cover up anxiety about my research.

I have two primary projects here, neither of which is going particularly well. The project that I outlined for the Fulbright committee is an extension of my dissertation research, examining a concept I developed called metapolicy and how it can be used to understand broad trends in higher education governance and policymaking. Getting people to agree to interviews on this topic is nearly impossible, because I'd need to talk to high ranking officials and governance types, and they are either on vacation or too important to talk to someone with few connections and little status. So I'm talking mostly to experts in higher education. I still think I can produce a paper on this topic, but it will have to rely primarily upon document analysis.

My second project, and one that people find more comprehensible, is about how Dutch universities can promote social cohesion, particularly regarding the integration of Muslim students into society. You may have heard about two major assassinations that have taken place in Amsterdam since 2001. The first was the murder of Pim Fortuyn, a right-wing, gay, anti-immigration politician who had recently gained power. (Seriously). He led a political party devoted to eliminating Islamic fundamentalism and its ascendence in Dutch society, but he was actually killed by an animal rights activist, which most people treat as trivial -- he might as well been killed by the Ayatollah.

The second was a filmmaker named Theo Van Gogh, who was knocked off his bike on the way to work (not far from my flat, by the way), and stabbed to death as Van Gogh begged for mercy. The murderer was an Islamic fundamentalist infuriated by Van Gogh's film collaboration with a Dutch politician named Ayaan Hirsi Ali that accused Islam of violence against women. Hirsi Ali, in turn, is being expelled from the country for lying on her immigration application, and will soon arrive in the U.S. to make waves back home.

This has been the major political topic of conversation for years in the Netherlands. So you'd think that universities would have interesting things to say or do about this, because they're educators. There's a major social and political problem in the country, so maybe universities should, you know, educate people about it. Except they don't. Universities here simply do not see this as part of their mission, and faculty and students find the idea that the university could agree on anything as "preposterous." (That's a direct quote from an informant.) The curriculum has barely changed to reflect the changing landscape. Muslim students are not organized to advocate for themselves or for institutional change. (The University of Amsterdam does not even have a Muslim student organization.)

So my thinking needs to change substantially as I move forward. I need to take into account a university culture that values continuing dialogue rather than building consensus or cohesion, and sees its contribution to society coming solely through autonomous faculty members and research centers rather than through the institution as a whole. A lack of policy or university mission does not mean nothing is happening, but rather that it is happening through different means than would be expected in other national contexts.

So that's what I'm doing. Sorry you asked? Thought so. So enjoy this pretty picture of Dam Square, a 10-minute walk from here.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Big American

Every day, I walk the streets of Amsterdam. I see Dutch people everywhere. They are biking all over the place, usually while smoking, dialing the phone, and stabilizing an 8-year-old child.

I have concluded that I am, quite possibly, the fattest person in Amsterdam. In over two weeks, I have never seen a person bigger than me. I am setting Dutch world records, and in all the wrong categories.

Don't get me wrong: I'm pretty fat in the U.S., too. But I see people on a regular basis who are larger than me, often quite a bit larger.

There are no fat people here. Dutch people are, as a rule, thin as a rail. I commonly see men over six feet tall who weigh no more than 135 lbs. They wear t-shirts that would have felt snug on me sometime after my 3rd birthday. Gaydar is useless here.

The how of this is still somewhat of a mystery. The national snacks, bitterballen, are fried balls of sausage and gravy. They are unhealthy and delicious. They eat pancakes for dinner, most often with ham and melted cheese. These are served with massive pints of beer, and I can guarantee you nobody is drinking Miller Light.

Nonetheless, the result is that I am a curiosity here. There is staring, and the first thing they think is: American. I have stood quietly in the street and had people address me directly in English. If I responded in Dutch they would be shocked. They know what they are looking at. I am a walking American obesity epidemic.

This translates into amusing marketing campaigns. You can stick this Dr. Oetker's Big Americans Texas-Style Pizza into your oven and be eating like a Big American in just minutes. Everyone knows that the best pizza comes from Texas, land of Big Americans! Like all Big Americans, our Texas-style pizzas are crispy on the outside, soft on the inside!

I did not actually buy this pizza, of course, for fear of dying from shame.

Monday, June 19, 2006

I'm Becoming Madonna

When you go to a foreign country, it seems only polite to learn a little bit of the native language. If you're there for less than 10 days, you can safely learn "please," "thank you," "sorry," and "I'm an American, get out of my way!" It's just the classy thing to do. But if you're there for three months, you should try a bit harder.

The Netherlands may be the only country where native people have absolutely zero interest in watching an American struggle with their language. They don't find it cute or charming in the least. One clumsy "Dag" and their voice says, "How can I help you?" and their eyes say, "Please shut up now."

You may have heard that Dutch is the closest language to English. This is a dirty lie. I can watch TV in German, French, Spanish, Romanian, whatever, and basically figure out what is being said. Dutch may as well have been invented by aliens. Unless they stick in English words, which they do all the time, just to torture me.

The problem is the difference between written Dutch and spoken Dutch. Written Dutch is a breeze. If you want to come up with the Dutch word, just think of the Olde Englishe equivalent, and then spell it in the most bizarre way possible. So if you need the pharmacy, you remember that the Olde Englishe peoples called them apothecaries, cut off the end, double up some vowels and pointlessly change the c to a k. Shazam! Apotheek.

Note: Don't forget to close your apotheek on weekends and holidays, and during the day, and after 5pm.

Written Dutch turns things like signage and the grocery store into a fun logic puzzle. Spoken Dutch turns things like listening into Dante's 4th Circle of Hell. The problem is the vowels -- there are 16 of them. So 5 of them are ones you've heard before, and 11 of them have only been heard from walruses and geese. Surround the vowels with the same six consonents, each pronounced four different ways, and you can make your own Dutch words. Fun!

But the most disturbing thing is how Holland is changing my English. We're really close to the UK, and thus the Dutch learn their English from the actual English. Elevator is lift, apartment is flat, etc. And their English comes with a vaguely pan-European accent. Thus I find myself saying things like, "Ja, I really wish my flat had a lift to save my baack." Except baack isn't even a word, but just some fake American/English/Dutch hybrid that everyone finds confusing. So I just mumble my words and affect an accent. Just like Madonna. Me and Madonna, we're likethis.

It's enough to make me feel spiritually bankrupt. I've been hearing about something called the Kaabbaaaleeh...

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Dutch TV, Presumably Part I

You knew it was coming. I had to comment on TV. There is so much for you to know, so sit down and let's get cracking.

First, there is the scheduling. Dutch TV scheduling can best be characterized as anarchy. Friends starts at 8:05pm each night, Oprah at 11:45pm. Except Oprah also plays in the afternoon at 4:06pm, where it conflicts with the first half of Dr. Phil, which starts at 4:45pm. I believe this is a contractual violation, except that Dr. Phil also plays at 3:06 on Oprah's channel. The same exact episode. Why anyone watches the 4:45pm Dr. Phil is beyond me.

DVRs are unknown. Dutch people don't use TiVo as a noun, much less as a verb, so you have to know when things are on. I imagine that TV scheduling must be one of the major sections of the International Baccalaurete exam. Q: "You speak only German. Friends ends in 4 minutes, and Temptation Island II: Hamburg does not start until 9:53pm. What do you watch during the gap, and for how long?" The answer, of course, is Hotshots: WK Lingerie on the Veronica channel, where pretty people stand on stage and the audience votes who is more attractive.

The amount of time is trickier to calculate. Friends starts at 8:05pm, so you're thinking it ends at 8:35pm. Wrong! The commercials here are mostly on the ends, except for a massive intermission commercial long enough to induce suicidal thoughts. So the 8:05pm Friends ends at 8:31pm. Hotshots lasts for about 17 minutes, so your German speaker will be working or talking to other people or reading for an hour and nine minutes. Take that, Nazi scum!

Less well educated people simply pay for their ignorance for the rest of their lives, watching 14 minutes of Roseanne here, 23 minutes of Murder, She Wrote there. It's a completeist's nightmare.

Show selection leaves so much to be desired. Do you remember Mister Sterling, with Josh Brolin as a U.S. Senator who doesn't know how he's supposed to be addressed? It's here! How about Philly, with that chick from NYPD Blue, which lasted for at least three episodes? It's here! And The Simpsons, the best television show of all time? Hey, it's on twice -- on Fridays.

But why watch bad American TV, when you can watch bad TV from around the world? For example, it's Saturday morning here, so let's see what's on, shall we? Ah, there's Finola Hughes, who I remember from watching General Hospital in high school, until they killed her off. She's selling an ab thing. But it's all about What's New, Scooby-Doo?, kindly provided by BBC2. It has the best dialogue.

Hip Scrappy-Doo Replacement: "I'm going to keep my eye out for some wack stuff going on here."
Fred: "We'll keep our eyes out for wack stuff too."

Hip Scrappy-Doo Replacement: "What does he mean, stage?"
Velma: "He thinks we're members of his performance art troupe!"

So endless amusement is to be had, as long as you don't mind if your comedy is unintentional. I'd continue, but it's almost time for The Tribe, a show where New Zealanders tromp through the mountains and vote each other off.

It starts at 3:32pm.

Bonus: Which Famous Stars Speak Perfect Dutch?

Is it:

a) Pro surfer and Wentworth Miller-lookalike Kelly Slater?
b) Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria?
c) Nip/Tuck gender-bender Famke Janssen?
d) Boring Supermodel Claudia Schiffer?


Savvy readers would note that c) Famke Janssen, was born in Amsterdam. Indeed, her Dutch is flawless. (Well, it sounded pretty good to me.) But in fact the most correct answer is e) All of the above. Through the magic of dubbing, you can watch each of them schlock a) women's makeup, b) women's lipstick and d) wrinkle remover, which in Dutch are called 'rimples'.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Mike Learns How To Use The Dryer

Did you know there were different kinds of dryers? I didn't.

There are heat dryers, which you have just called "dryers," because that's what dryers do, and it's redundant. But in the land of Oz, there are also "condenser dryers," that use no heat at all, but somehow claim to dry your clothes. With tumbling and devil-magicks, apparently, because how the hell do you dry clothes without heat?

This dryer was nearly the site of my biggest defeat, my First Anglo-Dutch War of 1652-54, as it were, except without all the shady mercantilism. You see, you can push those buttons all you want, but nothing happens. And then you start to think, maybe nothing does happen, and an hour later the clothes come out dry. Because Europeans are crazy, pro-environment devil-worshipping witches and that's just how it works.

The washer was hard enough, with the 77 bottles and none of them looking like laundry detergent. Although several of them look like they'd make a delicous addition to a Panang curry. I figured that out, but the insane dryer was doing absolutely nothing, simply lording over me with its cold, dead white soul. If you look closely, you can see its devil marks above the buttons. The orange one slaughters a puppy.

The key is the bizarre square device in the upper left corner, which you probably didn't even notice. Lord knows you wouldn't want to wash & dry at the same time, for fear of blowing the 17th century building to smithereens. So that device only allows you to do one at a time, and when you want to do the other, you have to pull the appropriate cord. Right cord, washer. Left cord, dryer. With right cord, there will be no drying. Left cord, no washing. It will, however, eat up two hours figuring it out.

Whew. I think I deserve some of that Panang-Woolite curry now.

Mike Witnesses The World's Crappiest Parade

One of the benefits of living on a busy street seems to be a bird's-eye view of local parades.

The ever-parental Dutch government sends a letter warning you that a parade is coming, its topic and approximate length. Because you might want to move to Hengelo or close your windows. Which would be crazy, because we've been pushing 90 degrees all week, and the fan is a bizarre and unknown notion here.

So my first parade was for the Dutch pro-drug movement, advocating for the legalization of "soft drugs, so-called." You might be thinking, aren't soft drugs legal here already? And if you were me, might you be thinking about the pot-wafting coffeeshop that is practically across the street?

It turns out that soft drugs here are not legalized, they are only decriminalized, casting aspersion and societal disapprobation on the fine drug users of Amsterdam; thus the parade.

The parade -- look closely and see for yourself! -- was terrible. Basically kids & tractor trailers, only one of which had any message on it, and a vague one at that. (Legalize what? Your bad haircuts?) The Dutch youth meandered alongside in their standard-issue "Fight The Man" streetwear, the whole thing moving so slowly that if they were in front of a 7-11, they'd be cited for loitering. Obligatory musical accompaniment provided by famous Eurodance Musik DJ Anasthesia or equivalent. Only two of the junior rebels were seen actually smoking anything.

Despite all that, many of them seemed to be having a good time, and the others may have just been walking in the same general direction.

Mike Learns Amsterdam Is Pretty

You can safely publish that in the Journal of Duh, I know. I've been here before, and everyone knows all about the canals. But you really do forget how pretty they are, and how many there are. This city is just lousy with canals.

To recap, I've been here a little over a week, and I feel pretty much settled at this point. My apartment is located in the Jordaan neighborhood, just a couple of blocks from the city center. I live on a busy street (Rozengracht, for aficionados) but it feels like a real neighborhood. There are plenty of restaurants and tailors and ATM machines and other things real people need. It's a very livable neighborhood, and feels very safe due to all the people walking around at 2am.

Warning: This blog doesn't have a clear mission. It's somewhat to keep myself busy at night when the TV is bad (almost always -- more to come), it's somewhat to keep myself taking pictures of things, and it's somewhat to be amusing to all of you. If the two subsequent entries are any indication, I seem to have an eye for minutiae.

I'll have plenty more to say in future episodes, so just gaze at the picture and feel jealous.