Friday, July 28, 2006

Bastogne!


Sure, you love World War II. You've read all the books. You even celebrated the 4th of July by reenacting the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. But how can you make WWII... delicious?

It's a simple answer, my friend. Bastogne! Like the sands of Omaha Beach, Bastogne! crumbles into your hand, reminding you of fallen comrades. But wait until you put them in your mouth. The faint taste of pine and gunpowder will really take you back. And with three times the flour and saturated fat of civilian cookies, your carb coma will obliterate any painful flashbacks.

Bastogne! The "Battle of the Bulge" has never tasted so good.

Ooh, Another Parade


















It was Spontanous Parade Weekend in Amsterdam, um, six days ago. Not a single warning provided! Shame, shame on city government.

This was about the Israeli-Lebanon War. (Are we calling it that yet in the U.S., or are we still sticking with euphemisms?) It was better attended than the Pot Parade, but the dance music wasn't nearly as good. Haircut quality was up 30% though.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Expat Mike TV Awards

The Emmy nominations were so horrible this year, I decided to put together my own awards. Announcing the Expat Mike TV Awards 2006. The winner is starred and can accept their trophy at my house, anytime. Call me.

The biggest surprise was that Big Love swept the Drama awards this year. I thought Big Love was quite good, but looking back on it, the acting was just superb. There were some close calls in each category, but it was a weak year, overall, for dramas.

Note: There are a few "quality" shows that I don't watch. These include Deadwood, Rescue Me, The Sopranos, and The Shield. You might notice a pattern here. Hint: Men with too much testosterone kill people on a regular basis. That's not just a hint, that's pretty much the whole thing.

Notes reflecting your abject horror are welcome in the comments section.

Best Comedy

Arrested Development
*Entourage
How I Met Your Mother
Scrubs
The Simpsons


Best Actor, Comedy

Jason Bateman, Arrested Development
Zach Braff, Scrubs
Bryan Cranston, Malcolm in the Middle
Terry Crews, Everybody Hates Chris
*Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother


Best Actress, Comedy

Tichina Arnold, Everybody Hates Chris
Marcia Cross, Desperate Housewives
*Lauren Graham, Gilmore Girls
Jane Kaczmarek, Malcolm in the Middle
Eva Longoria, Desperate Housewives


Best Supporting Actor, Comedy

Will Arnett, Arrested Development
Kevin Dillon, Entourage
John McGinley, Scrubs
*Jeremy Piven, Entourage
Ethan Suplee, My Name Is Earl


Best Supporting Actress, Comedy

Kelly Bishop, Gilmore Girls
Megan Mullally, Will & Grace
*Jaime Pressly, My Name Is Earl
Jessica Walter, Arrested Development
Liza Weil, Gilmore Girls


Best Drama

Battlestar Gallactica
*Big Love
Grey's Anatomy
Lost
Nip/Tuck


Best Actor, Drama

Patrick Dempsey, Grey's Anatomy
Matthew Fox, Lost
Kevin McKidd, Rome
Edward James Olmos, Battlestar Gallactica
*Bill Paxton, Big Love


Best Actress, Drama

Geena Davis, Commander in Chief
Mary McDonnell, Battlestar Gallactica
*Chloe Sevigny, Big Love
Jeanne Tripplehorn, Big Love
Polly Walker, Rome


Best Supporting Actor, Drama

Victor Garber, Alias
Gregory Itzin, 24
Daniel Dae Kim, Lost
Terry O'Quinn, Lost
*Harry Dean Stanton, Big Love


Best Supporting Actress, Drama

Yunjin Kim, Lost
Jean Smart, 24
Kate Walsh, Grey's Anatomy
Chandra Wilson, Grey's Anatomy
*Grace Zabriskie, Big Love


Best Nonfiction Show

Can't Get A Date
Life on the D-List
*Project Runway
The Daily Show
The Colbert Report


Best Guest Star

Alec Baldwin, Will & Grace
Blythe Danner, Will & Grace
*Michael Emerson, Lost
Michelle Forbes, Battlestar Gallactica
Leslie Jordan, Will & Grace


Bearable TV Show Shown on Dutch TV

*America's Next Top Model with Kim, the fierce Wesleyan lesbian
Friends reruns
Pardon My French (BBC2, about three people who have to learn French in a month -- that's comedy)
The Simpsons reruns
Wimbledon (long over)


Worst Show Shown on Dutch TV


Classified: I am preparing a book-length treatment to appear in spring 2008.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Stamppot


In our continuing series on Weird Local Foods, I present you with stamppot, the traditional Dutch peasant dish. A local guy absolutely insisted that I try it, and it was the least I could do. Even though it was nearly five euros at the grocery store, which is ridiculous.

Stamppot and I did not get along. Stamppot is really just a big mushy pile of potatoes and kale. It's yuckiness was enhanced by its very unfortunate plating, which I suppose is my fault. The meatballs were so bad, I couldn't tell if they were turkey or beef, because beef here often tastes very off. I got through about half of it before I had to bail.

I got a double serving of sorbet that night.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Bonus: Download This

Just some amazing music you should try out, if you haven't heard it already:

Albums

Josh Rouse, 1972. I've been on an alt-country kick for awhile now, and this is probably the best, except for the actual best...
Download: "James"

The Jayhawks, Rainy Day Music. J'adore this album. If you don't like this album, you're dead. Gorgeous melodies.
Download: "Stumbling through the Dark"

Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine. This album didn't get nearly enough press. It wasn't some sort of comeback. It's a great album.
Download: "Better Version of Me"

Iron & Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days. I'm a little reluctant to recommend this album. It is very, very quiet. It has moments of bliss.
Download: "Naked As We Came"

Susan Tedeschi, The Best of Susan Tedeschi. I had sort of heard of her before, but not really. Then I heard her cover of "Tired of My Tears," and I was really impressed.
Download: "Rock Me Right"

Death Cab for Cutie, The Photo Album. Yeah, that band from the O.C. They are really good; this is my favorite of many good albums.
Download: "Styrofoam Plates"

The Killers, Hot Fuss. I know, they sound like something your niece listens to. They should -- it's great rock & roll music. Listen to the lyrics -- this isn't just your standard teenage band.
Download: "Somebody Told Me"

Singles:

"Crazy," Gnarls Barkley. This has made it to the U.S. by now, right? So cool.

"Heartbeats," Jose Gonzalez. Saw the YouTube video, loved the song, album's dull as dirt.

"I Love You 'Cause I Have To," Dogs Die in Hot Cars. Just because you need a reminder of that bitter mix tape you made in the early 90s.

"Landed," Ben Folds. Didn't like the album, obsessed with the single.

"Feel Good Inc.," Gorillaz. Even if you don't like hip-hop.

"Chicago," Sufjan Stevens. His albums are so... meandery. I can't fall for them. But this is a great one.

"July, July!" The Decemberists. Their album is why I have a ban on Irish movies -- dour, dark, dull. This was the bright light.

and of course....

"Amsterdam," Guster. I promise I liked this song before I came here. But it's great. So is "Careful." Can't quite get into the albums.


Please post your own recommendation in the comments... I love discovering new music.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Update!

Remember when I told you about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch legislator who was being kicked out of the country for lying on her asylum application? She's in DC now working for a right-leaning think tank (which is too bad, she's not all that right-wing, really). Christopher Hitchens thinks her book, The Caged Virgin, is the bomb.

The good news for her is that the Dutch immigration minister, a very butch little gnome named Rita Verdonk, has decided that it's valid to use your mother's maiden name as your surname. Thus AHA never lied, and she can remain a Dutch citizen. Uh huh.

The bad news for everyone is that after the announcement, the government collapsed.

The Dutch government is elected through one of those wacky multi-party systems that are all the rage east of the Atlantic. The current "conservative" government here -- placing them just to the left of Michael Moore -- is a coalition of many parties, because no one party has a majority. (There are so many parties, in fact, that there is even one for NAMBLA-type pedophiles. I am not making this up.)

Well, one of the parties, D66, decided that Verdonk's decision lacked integrity, because Verdonk has portrayed herself as a hard-liner when it comes to immigration reform. So they pulled out of the government, leaving them without the majority of legislators they need to govern.

So the prime minister had to make a trek out to see Queen Beatrix to ask for her permission to continue as a minority government, to which she gave her royal and magnanimous assent. This essentially means that nothing will get done here until elections early next year.

The whole thing is kind of hilarious to the Dutch, and even more hilarious to expats like me. It's ridiculous enough that governments collapse over minor disagreements, but collapsing a government because one person is allowed to remain a citizen is just over the top. Did I mention that D66 actually supports allowing AHA to retain her citizenship? And that the legislature voted nearly unanimously in accord just weeks earlier? Crazy.

In the meantime, we're having the hottest Dutch July since the Big Bang, which means that sometimes it's in the high 70s. It's really spectacular.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

10 Things I Really Like About You

I have been awfully hard on this wonderful country. It's just not that funny to talk about all the good things about a place. So as sort of a disclaimer, here's 10 things about the Netherlands that I really, really enjoy.

1. Public transportation. I know, it's kind of like saying, "Oh Post Office, I do love you so!" But it's so easy to love. Everything is on time, from trams to buses to trains. To the minute. There is an incredible amount of information too. This picture comes from a bus in Enschede. It tells you the next five stops on the bus and the exact time when the bus will arrive. Why do we not have this? It's enough to make an American feel positively disenfranchised. Enschede, by the way, is only slightly more populous than Ann Arbor.

2. Pubs. I hate American bars. Bars are smoky, dirty, and loud. The people in American bars almost invariably make me sad, because they are dirty, drunk, and sad. Dutch pubs are fun, they serve decent to excellent food, and you can almost always sit outside on a warm day. You can have an actual conversation. And waiters deliver your drinks, so you don't have to stand at a bar for half an hour begging for an appletini. Or if you were a real man, a martini. Except real men don't use the subjunctive.

3. The weather. We've had a couple of hot spells where the heat pushed 90 degrees, but the summer weather is mostly spectacular, averaging in the low 70s and mostly sunny. It's warm enough to wear shorts, but cool enough to wear pants.

4. Benches. Amsterdam has benches everywhere, usually at particularly picturesque locations along tree-lined canals. Great places to hang out and read a book for an hour or two.

5. Tree-lined canals.

6. No tipping. And taxes are included in the bill. Splitting a check among friends was never so easy. The service is just as good, too, except at the hated apotheeks.

7. Cheap dessert. Grocery stores in general are surprisingly reasonable here. Meat is more expcnsive than the U.S. by quite a bit, but everything else is cheaper. This is especially true of the dessert aisle. I can get a double serving of five different sorbets for less than $2. The pudding section -- yes, there is a pudding section, dwarfed in size only by two sections of yogurts -- is a cheap dessert lover's dream. A chocolate pudding with whipped cream is all of 18 cents. I didn't think you could buy anything in a western country for 18 cents.

8. Money. ATM machines are everywhere. In three minutes I could run and touch three different ATM machines from my apartment. No one really takes credit cards, which is fine by me, since AmEx charges 2% in currency conversion fees alone. Oh, and the best part: no pennies. People just round up or down. I'm adding that to my list of future campaign promises. Rational money for a rational society!

9. History. I live next to Rembrandt's last house. I often lay in bed at night thinking, Rembrandt died next door. That's insane in the membrane and insane in the brain.

10. Stroopwafels. These are two crunchy waffle cookies with honey in the middle. They're an enormous hit of sugar injected directly into your bloodstream. Dutch smack, basically, except for, you know, the actual Dutch smack.

Next week: Back to things that annoy and amuse me, like Dutch politics and trying to find an ear doctor.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

An Open Letter

Dearest Netherlands,

There are so many wonderful things about you: your English-speaking people, fascinating architecture, quiet canals, and superb public transportation. You do so many things well, it seems petty to focus so relentlessly on your flaws.

That said, your comprehensive assault on my ability to sleep cannot continue. I may be merely a visitor here, but I deserve a decent night's sleep. This may require painful changes, as your national strategies for reducing sleep are so multi-faceted and effective, like your salespeople and your military. (Ha ha, just kidding there.) But you seem so sincere in making visitors happy and profitable, so you probably have no idea what you are doing. Here are a few notes on sleep to serve both you and your people.

Beds. Despite all evidence from here, it is quite reasonable to spend more than 40 euros on a bed. Beds should not creak like a haunted house staircase every time you roll onto your back. It is also legal for beds to be higher than three inches from the ground. Some people even prefer not to have to crawl into their beds on their hands and knees.

A note on size: Adult people generally graduate from a twin bed after the age of 10 or so. Pushing two twin beds together does not constitute a "king-size" bed, as the king is likely to slide between them and flop helplessly onto the floor. This does not improve his sleep.

Mattresses. I'm sure you are unaware of this, but mattresses can, in fact, be thicker than two inches. I'm not sure what you're putting in there, but it should not be hay or anything that is hay-like in texture. In general, laying down on a mattress should not cause your partner to roll into you uncontrollably, and the mattress itself should be firmer than your average marshmellow.

Sheets and Fabrics. I must emphatically stress that linens which touch the human body should not be made from recycled sandpaper or any other industrial by-product. We find them itchy and uncomfortable, even if they are excellent for removing dead skin and lice.

Pillows. Your scheme to replace pillows with cheap sacks of flour is not fooling anyone.

Sunlight
. We wholeheartedly approve of your decision to keep the sun aloft until 11pm. This is a welcome addition for night owls such as myself. Having the sun rise at 5am is significantly less desirable, though. Have you considered moving further south or east?

As with my previous letters on train schedules and plumbing, these are all merely suggestions. But with a few simple changes, life can be happier for everyone, visitors and natives alike.

Sincerely,

Saturday, July 01, 2006

What's My Line?

Sadly, in all lives a time comes when you must stop analyzing the dryer and do some real work. I was scheduled to give a talk at my sponsor university, Twente, about a two hour train ride from Amsterdam. Twente lies on the far outskirts of the Netherlands, only a few kilometres from the German border, in a small metropolis called Enschede.

Europe isn't all cutesy houses and snobby ├╝ber-trendy urbanites. Enschede, for example, has all of the village charm of a suburban office park. The university is nicer and the only campus-based university in the NL. In Europe, universities are generally just buildings in the middle of the city, and aren't so big on grass and such. Think NYU or Boston University. This university, Twente, has a reasonably pretty campus because it's just to the left of German hillbillies and was built in the 1960s instead of the 1260s.

This picture, here, is an expression of rural Dutch wit. It looks like a deep lake has somehow taken root around an old clocktower, but in fact it's just the top of a fake clocktower placed in the middle of a fetid, algae-ridden little pond. But the effect is quite charming.

I picked this week for my visit because I was promised a real, honest-to-goodness Dutch Ph.D. defense. I was practically begged to attend one and many promises were made as to its fascinating and obscure aspects. As a connoisseur of anything even slightly weird, I was in.

An American Ph.D. defense is pretty straight forward. You write a full draft of your dissertation, and your chair allows you to schedule an oral defense. It's technically public but no real people go unless your mom insists. You give a very brief presentation that annoyingly reviews things the committee already knows. The committee members then ask you a lot of penetrating, deeply disturbing questions that make you question why you thought you had the intellect to get a Ph.D. at all.

After a short recess to plumb your flaws, they greet you as Dr. So-and-So, shake your hand, and outline the six months of detailed revisions that must be completed before you can take the degree. Then you might go to dinner or something. Most people try to do something special afterwards on their own. I dragged my poor boyfriend to Hawaii without his violin, and then tried to kill him by driving over the Rockies during a blizzard. Good times.

In the NL, the oral defense is scheduled only after the dissertation has been fully completed and in fact published, in paperback. So the candidate is defending something that is already, quite literally, a book. The oral defense itself is limited to no more than one hour, and a university official keeps time to the second, loudly banging his stick on the floor when time has elapsed. And how can there be any revisions, when the dissertation has already been published? The whole thing is thus ceremony at its most transparent.

The audience consists of the entire department on the left, and the candidate's family and friends on the right, like a parody called Academic Wedding. The candidate is supported on stage by two pronyms, friends who stand on each side in case the candidate falters. The candidate gives a brief, content-free presentation to the audience, which the committee is not allowed to attend. With time to spare at the end, the candidate lets the audience know that hors d'oeuvres will be served beginning at 16:30.

The audience is ordered to stand as the committee enters. Consisting of two proponents (advisors) and four opponents (friendly outside reviewers unworthy of the word), the committee members are befrocked in their academic gowns and allowed to ask no more than one question each. They speak only when called upon by the moderator, who controls the microphones, each of which lights up in red when the member is allowed to speak.

The whole affair resembles nothing more than a medieval game show. The opponents ask long, byzantine questions, often more comment than question, and the candidate, knowing that time is short, filibusters until the moderator loses patience with the answer. The entire defense thus consists of exactly four endless questions and four endless answers. The official bangs the floor and it's over.

The committee retires to deliberate over a long foregone conclusion. After they return and present the degree, the proponents give long, wonderful speeches about the wit and persistence of the candidate, and how much he will be missed by the department. Then there is the brief reception with drinks and the promised hors d'oeuvres, where there are more speeches and gifts are presented.

The new Ph.D. is then expected to throw a rather elaborate party for the department at his own expense. The party can cost anywhere from 2000 euros to as much as 10,000 euros, which is over $12,000. There is eating and a lot of drinking and even more speeches from relatives standing on chairs. The department usually sings a song about the candidate with invented lyrics. This time it was to the music of "O Nederland!", a tune I knew by heart due to the endless TV commercials selling patriotic cell phone ring tones.

That was enough for me. I retreated to my hotel bathtub for a long soak and good old American TV. I enjoyed it so much that the two-hour immersion caused a charley horse that had me screaming in pain and then prevented me from getting out of the tub, "I've fallen... and I can't get up!" for a new millennium. But that's another story.