We spent New Years Eve in Amsterdam this year with some friends from San Francisco. One of our guests is German so she brought a New Years tradition with her. It's called Bleigießen which is a tradition where each person melts pieces of lead (we used tin) on a spoon and then throws it in some water. You're then supposed to do fortune telling based on what you think your new metal shape looks like.
We had fun, though most of our initial shapes looked like terds. Brett's looked vaguely like a golf club and mine looked kind of like a sickle. I was a bit concerned to have a shape like the grim reaper's tool, but our guest assured us that it could also mean that you're getting rid of something bad. I'll take her interpretation any day :-)
As for New Years in Amsterdam, it's a bit crazy. The fireworks are going off like mad, and have been since 2PM. I can only imagine what midnight will bring. If you go to Dam Square there are revelers packed in like in New York City - but our colleagues warned us that we would likely have fireworks thrown at us if we went. After hearing about close calls and burnt jackets, we decided to stay home where it's warm. Happy New Year everyone!
For World Animal Day she gave Holly "dog beer." For Christmas she found a "Yule Log for Dogs." Maybe for New Years she'll give her some dog champagne or a dog scale for the impending New Years resolutions :-)
Earlier this month I was in 3 time zones and on 9 planes in 7 days. Needless to say, I was pretty tired by the time Christmas Eve came around. How to recover? With a gourmet Christmas dinner for two sitting on the floor in front of the TV of course :-) It might not look like much - but it was delicious! Hope you all had a great holiday.
When Brett and I were at Oktoberfest, they served some street food in dishes made out of edible "cake cone" like materials. At the Christmas markets, they served the drinks in ceramic mugs and charged a 2 Euro deposit. At Starbucks they serve coffee in reusable cups, unless you request takeaway. I quite like this effort and wish more US companies would adopt earth friendly operating principles.
While at the Christmas markets, we ate...and ate...and ate. Lecker!! (German for yummy).
First up...sausages, sauerkraut, and potatoes...
Roasted pig knuckle with more sauerkraut and crispy potato.
A fried mashed potato ball stuffed with meat...
And raclette (warm melted cheese) on a toasted roll. Delicious. Sadly this is only about half of the food we ate over the 2 days at the markets. I didn't post the pictures of potato pancakes, fried dough balls, spaetzle (german pasta), flatbread with onions, cheese and bacon, or little domes of marshmallow like foam covered in chocolate. We were very full on the train ride home :-)
One of the great things about being in Amsterdam is how easy it is to get to other countries. Dusseldorf, Germany is just 2 hours away by train, so we decided to check out their famous Christmas markets.
There are 6 different markets in Dusseldorf, each serving different snacks and treats and selling different holiday gifts. It's a great atmosphere, as there are wonderful scents in the air, decorated Christmas trees and street performers playing Christmas carols.
The atmosphere gets even better at night, as all the lights start twinkling and people stand around outdoor tables drinking gluhwein (warm spiced wine) while kids ride the merry-go-round. It's very festive and easy to get in the Christmas spirit.
If you're Dutch and you have kids, chances are that tonight you're eating a cake shaped like Sinterklas' politically incorrect black helper, Zwarte Piet. You've also given your sweetheart a letter made of chocolate shaped like the first letter in their name.
Last, you've asked a neighbor (or hired someone) to knock on your door and drop presents wrapped in a garbage bag at the doorstep so your kids could think that Sinterklaas just came. You put your shoes out by the fireplace (or radiator) along with a carrot for Sinterklaas' horse, and the next morning the shoes are filled with candy.
It's interesting - but I think I like Santa Claus better. Who knew hiring a personal Santa to knock on doors was a business though. I wonder how much they get paid....
While traveling to London, Brett and I started laughing after reading the local paper. It had a picture of a veteran policeman holding a pair of bright pink flip flops in his hand. The story was about a local police department who handed out free flip flops as a way for the drunk ladies of the town to get home safely. Seems there’s quite a problem with young ladies tottering about on high heels after a night of drinking, and as their balance fails them, they get some nasty scrapes and sprains. We laughed it off as an amusing British newspaper story, but noticed many other indications that the government was trying to change various drinking behaviors. We saw a series of posters in the tube (subway) with paraphrased messages like:
1) Don’t fall on the tracks after drinking. 436 incidents last year. 2)Plan your route home before you get too drunk and pass out on the toilet in a bar after smearing lipstick across your cheeks instead of on your lips. 3)Don’t brawl with the subway staff who are trying to help you find your way home (and clean up after you).
We laughed everytime we saw the signs, but my favorite is the flip flop story. Too funny. You can read the article here.
This is the only picture that Brett and I have of our trip to London. Sadly, our memory card was lost, somewhere in the streets of London after a full day of touring. This is an especially ironic passing as the reason it was removed from the camera in the first place was to protect the pictures from theft in case the bag check staff at a restaurant had sticky fingers and stole the camera. Alas, the camera is still here, the photos are gone, but the memories remain. Here are the things you will NOT be seeing photos of on my blog....
1. The Tower of London. 2. Brett inside a British Guard booth looking “mock mean.” 3. Lori hugging a statue of an archer. 4. The sign at the Tower of London that told guests how to get to various points like the toilets, the entrance, and of course – the beheading area, which had it’s own unique cartoon like symbol – making beheading seem cuter somehow. 5. Buckingham Palace in the rain. 6. The London Eye in the rain. 7. Brett in front of Westminster Abbey in the rain.
Oh well. I always have the pictures in my mind…and the one photo from the camera’s internal memory.
While riding the train to Heathrow airport on Sunday, Brett and I were seated across from a young woman and her two male companions - all with suitcases. A few stops from the airport an announcement came on. If you weren’t listening closely it sounded like “passengers for the airport should exit here and wait on the platform.” They quickly jumped up and ran off as one of the men said “Wait! Why are we getting off? Nobody else with luggage is exiting!” They attempted to re-enter the train but the doors had closed. It was only after the train started moving that we noticed the girl had left behind a Harrod’s bag and an umbrella.
For those of you who don’t know, Harrod’s is like Barneys department store in New York. They’re super high-end, selling everything from $15.00 a pound raw turkeys to $5,000 pairs of shoes. They also sell tourist trinkets and affordable luxuries like $5 boxes of tea in Harrods tins. The other thing to remember with this story is the idea of “suspect packages.” In London, they’ve had terror attacks in the subway, so all through the subway stations there are signs saying “if you see unattended luggage or suspect packages, let us know.”
Brett and I were eying the package. My thoughts ranged from: I should give it to Lost and Found at Heathrow….to…....I wonder if there’s a diamond bracelet in there…....to…....I could use an umbrella….....to....There’s probably security cameras in here…..to.....If we told an employee about the package, would they stop the train and evacuate everyone, causing the train to be delayed? ..to…..Maybe we just shouldn’t say anything because it seemed like a genuine accident....
When we arrived at the next stop, a subway employee came on to pick up garbage. We watched speechlessly as he just picked up the umbrella and the Harrods bag and unceremoniously dumped them in his garbage bag along with the water bottles and newspapers. In seconds he was back off the train and we were left to wonder: Did that man just throw away a diamond? An explosive? Or a Harrod’s keychain. I guess we’ll never know.
I'm used to thick fluffy (or wet) Rochester snow. In Amsterdam we get snow pellets. They look like styrofoam but come down a lot harder. If they come with wind, I recommend goggles. The wind gusts were so strong at one point this past week that Brett was literally stopped in his tracks while riding a bicycle!
At lunch in the cafeteria here I've seen boxes of little chocolate sprinkles available for purchase. My colleagues said you put it on buttered bread. I didn't think much of it until I noticed a box on our shelf at home.
I tried a few and discovered that they're DELICIOUS. Waaaaaay better than US chocolate sprinkles. Think "portable chocolate frosting." Yum.
If you live in the Netherlands, you probably keep a "birthday calendar" on the back of the bathroom door. Since the bathroom door is usually directly in front of the toilet, there's a clear line of sight to view the upcoming birthdays of your friends and family. This always makes me chuckle, as my company sells photo calendars. Your loved ones could be looking right back at you as you do your business. In a house we visited last night, the calendar had pictures of the Dutch royal family in it. How patriotic :-)
The other interesting thing about Dutch bathrooms (referred to as "the Toilet"), is that there's ONLY a toilet in the room. Then, next door (or across the hall) there's another room with a sink to wash your hands and sometimes a true shower or bathtub. It always makes it interesting at parties. I never know which door to use!
Should I be concerned that my husband is addicted to a video game where you do things like pretend to talk on the phone with your Wii controller until you see a special signal? Then if you're too slow hanging up your "phone," a vending machine falls on your head.....and if you're fast enough a vending machine falls on someone else's head?
Did I mention he won top prize for his skill in this game at a work offsite? I'm so proud :-)
I'll just say it. I'm going through a phase of "mild fear of flying" right now. I'm not sure what brought it on (I've been through this before) - but it's back.
To set the stage, I've flown over 500,000 miles in just the past 10 years alone. I've traveled on 7 seat tourist planes, planes that never go high enough to pressurize (the windows even open), turbo props, regional jets, private planes, and "heavies," including 747s. I've flown in countries that have histories of poor aviation safety like China and Panama. I've even flown on helicopters a few times.
To calm myself over the years I've familiarized myself with the numerous sounds of various planes (flaps moving, landing gear deploying, water bottles thumping on the floor). I've listened to the pilots on United's "Channel 9" so I know why planes are turning, going higher or lower, or throttling their engines, and I've even read a book called "Ask the Pilot" that talks about the various activities on planes.
Overall I've been relatively nonchalant while flying.....a champion sleeper. Until this past trip to the US. On the flight from Amsterdam to Dulles I gripped the arms of the seat when we encountered the slightest bit of turbulence. On the flight from Puerto Rico to Orlando I was convinced there was something wrong with the plane. I could smell it. Smoke! The inside of my nose was burning and it was getting worse. I looked around to see if anyone else was alarmed, and upon seeing peaceful fellow passengers I asked Brett if he smelled anything. He said no, and I relaxed a bit. The smell became stronger again. I looked up to investigate and discovered....it was coffee. Just freshly brewed coffee being served by the flight attendants.
Needless to say I felt like an idiot after that one. I was a little bit better on my flights to DC and Amsterdam, and after doing some more reading about how safe flying is, I feel better. It's a good thing, because I learned Friday afternoon that I have to fly to London on Monday for work.
I've kicked this fear before. I guess it's time to boot it to the curb again :-)
On Friday I took an early morning flight from Orlando to Washington, DC and spent the day running errands before my 6PM flightback to Amsterdam. One of the stops was Wegmans - my favorite grocery store. I stocked up on a bag of fresh corn tortillas and put them in my backpack.
As I was going through security I noticed the screener's brow furrow, and then he called for a bag check. I've seen this look before, having had several embarrassing security incidents in my past - from forgetting about a box cutter in my bag shortly after September 11th to having my bag test positive for explosive residue.
The woman who came looked at the screen and said "Do you have tortillas in your bag? I need to look inside." After checking my bag and laughing, she let me take the "dangerous tortillas" and I went on my way. I was impressed with how she knew they were tortillas before even opening my bag.
It's not the first time I've been busted for tortillas. Several years ago I was traveling from DC to Rochester and was bringing my brother some fajitas from his favorite Tex Mex place near my house. I had carefully packed up the entire meal (chips, salsa, tortillas, meat, rice and even the beans). I got stopped for a random bag check and after looking through one side of my bag the screener said "Let me guess..... The tortillas and chips are in the other pouch?" I had to laugh and smile sheepishly as he discovered the rest of my loot.
Brett and I went to Safeway today to stock up on some American food. We were checking out and I noticed an elderly man at the end of the register putting a few of our groceries in a bag. I thought he was the customer in front of Brett, so walked over and said politely "I think those are ours." The man said "I know." Brett jumped in and said "Lori - they bag groceries for you here. Remember?" Oops. I felt like such an idiot and apologized profusely to the poor bag packer who continued to look at me like I was crazy.
In Amsterdam grocery shopping is a little more self serve. You unpack your basket and then have to furiously start packing everything up before the next person's stuff comes streaming down the belt - stopping to quickly pay somewhere in the process. They have a little dividing bar to make sure customer groceries don't mix - but we've still been caught "holding up the line" with bigger grocery purchases when the 3rd person in line is trying to get their groceries packed up, the 2nd person is still packing, and we haven't finished. Then you see the looks of disapproval from the customers behind you and the occasional annoyed look on the cashier's face.
That poor bag packer at Safeway. He probably thought the crazy lady was being mean to him - accusing him of stealing her groceries when he was just doing his job. Have I really been gone that long that I've forgotten standard grocery store protocol? Geesh. I'm an idiot (or jet lagged, or both :-)
Brett and I are flying back to the US today for a 2 week tour of Washington, DC, Isabela Puerto Rico and Orlando, Florida. Much eating, drinking and shopping is sure to be done. And talking. With me, there's always talking. Can't wait to see family and friends.
Here in Amsterdam, there are two big days for Christmas. The first is December 5th when St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas) comes to Amsterdam by Steamboat from Spain with his helper, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete)to give good children presents. The 2nd is December 24th where families gather for a holiday dinner and open presents.
A skinny Santa from Spain in early December is kind of fun, but the concept of "Black Pete" as Santa's helper makes me uncomfortable. I'm sure my emotions are shaped by our US history with slavery, and I know I'm not in the US right now - but I still can't quite get over my discomfort with this tradition. There's a funny David Sedaris story on the topic called 6-8 Black Men It's worth the read if you've got a few minutes, and summarizes the tradition from an American point of view.
I saw this street fair the other weekend. Maybe it's just me, but these rides look WAAAAAY more stomach churning than the ones I saw at carnivals growing up. Look at the people upside down on the ride on the right. Yikes! I did find the "wheel of meat"above the grill at the refreshment stand amusing though :-)
Brett and I got our residency decisions from the Dutch government and it looks like they're going to let both of us stay in Amsterdam for our 1 year contracts. That's nice to hear - especially since on our visit to Ireland, my passport was stamped with a mark that said I had to leave the country after 7 days! Brett didn't have that restriction. I'm hoping it was random otherwise I'm going to develop an inferiority complex :-)
Today Brett and I started cooking for one of our favorite dinner party menus - Cinco de Mayo. It doesn't really matter that it's October and our recipes aren't Mexican. It's just fun to cook and have a few friends over.
One of our biggest challenges with this party has been finding the right ingredients or finding an appropriate substitute. Today Brett was in the grocery store and he called me to find the translation for heavy cream or whipping cream since nothing looked familiar and the last time he guessed, he ended up drinking something that was like buttermilk...
The online translator was no help so I called a local American friend who has lived here for 10 years. He was stumped too and was describing things like sour cream and things that had the consistency of yoghurt. It was only after I said "it's like milk but used to make creamy soup" that he and his colleagues got it and told us to look for "kookroom" or "cooking cream." Brett finally found it and was able to make his soup :-)
One thing we couldn't find was Cool Whip type ingredients. My Dutch friend said "This is the land of dairy. Why eat chemicals?" Good point.
In Europe the law requires cigarette packaging to carry really large warnings about the dangers of cigarettes. Warnings on the packages I've seen are about 1/3rd of the front of the carton. They've attacked it from pretty much every angle - from beauty to health, to fear to relationships. A few text samples are shown below but they're even more frightening with the pictures. Think the US will ever get this agressive?
1) Smoking kills 2) Smoking seriously harms you and those around you 3) Smoking causes fatal lung cancer 4) Smoking causes aging of the skin 5) Protect children. Don't make them breathe your smoke. 6) Smoking can cause a slow and painful death. 7) Smoking contains benzene, nitrosamines, formaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide. 8) Smoking when pregnant harms your baby 9) Smoking clogs arteries and causes heart attacks and strokes 10) Smoking reduces blood flow and may cause impotence.
Some of the ads have supporting pictures as well that are pretty gross. I'm guessing it's working since Europe seems MUCH less smokey to me compared to 10 years ago.
In Ireland we kept seeing signs that said "Traffic Calming ahead." We never figured out what it meant but it made us laugh each time we saw it. Was there classical music ahead? Soothing lighting? Aromatherapy candles? It was probably just a sign to slow down but it was fun to imagine.
We also saw this sign in Dingle. I guess you don't want to drive off a dock while driving in Ireland. Perhaps all too common an occurance here if they had to put a sign up? :-)
In many ways Ireland felt very similar to the US. Maybe it's the shared language, but the pub culture was also very familiar - especially if you've frequented an Irish bar or two in your lifetime. My favorites this trip: The Laurels (my namesake) and Murphy's (my favorite Irish bar in Old Town, Alexandria).
We saw live Irish music one night as well, and while I don't have any pictures it was a memorable experience. Picture 4 Irish guys in their early 50s jamming with a fiddle, accordion, guitar and drums. The locals all stopped by to shake their hands and buy them a pint between songs, while the crowds stomped their feet and clapped to the beat. It was a really festive and welcoming environment and all you could do was smile.
One other thing that made me laugh was the things for sale in the tourist shops. They had everything from slippers made to look like Guinness pints to Irish sayings such as:
"Finnegan: My wife has a terrible habit of staying up 'til two o'clock in the morning. I can't break her of it. Keenan: What on earth is she doin' at that time? Finnegan: Waitin' for me to come home." :-)
After spending 1 day in Dublin, Brett and I took our rental car out into the Irish countryside. They drive on the left there, and the driver sits on the right. The shifter is on the driver's left as well, so it makes for an interesting experience. At least the windshield wipers didn't go off everytime you wanted to turn left in Ireland like they did on our trip to New Zealand. That part of the steering column matched US cars. My job was to remind Brett to "stay left" at every turn or roundabout. For once, he didn't mind me being a "back seat driver" as it's easy to slip into US driving rules if you aren't vigilant.
We drove from Dublin to Limerick and then stopped in Killarney for 2 nights. We used Killarney as the home base for our drives in County Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula over the next 2 days. It was was overcast much of the time and there was a good bit of rain as well, but that's what gives Ireland such lush green landscapes.
The Ring of Kerry in County Kerry
The country roads are narrow and bumpy and we encountered more than one sheep on the road who had escaped their pasture, but overall it was a very pleasant drive.
A "red" sheep. We saw sheep painted blue, and green too.
I'm sifting through all of our awesome countryside photos so stay tuned for those, but in the mean time, here's our Ireland potato chip post.
At the airport in Cork we had dinner at Subway. We tried a "local favorite" sub with chicken tikka in it. It was tasty - but then Brett spotted them. Prawn Cocktail potato chips! There they were, in a shrimp colored bag - but without any sign of shrimp or cocktail sauce on the package. The only supporting visuals beyond the bag color were icons featured a cutting board with peppers and cheese.
The only explanation we could think of was that the cutting board icons were a symbol of the Walker company's "Do us a flavour" promotion where all new chip flavors are submitted by consumers. It's a cool promo where you take a picture of the flavor you'd like to see on a chip and send it into the chip company. If your flavor idea is selected, you'll see your chip in stores for a limited time. On the Walkers web site there are some really interesting flavor suggestions like jelly bean, creamy cheese and bacon or salmon, avocado & soy. How fun!
As for our chips: they didn't taste like shrimp or cocktail sauce, but they were tasty.