Archive for the ‘Cultural Differences’ Category

Some time ago on one of the various ex-pat blogs I read, I heard about a fantastic little creation of a British-Amsterdammer chef, Jason Hartley. With no restaurant of his own, he hosts a “popup” brunch at various locations around the city. The schedule is irregular, but for some reason I thought to check the lovefood homepage and, as luck would have it, 14 November was the day! And it perfectly coincided with my November trip home!

This round of brunch was in cozy Jordaan restaurant, Vlaming.  We were a little lazy and didn’t make it right at 11am, so we got slated for the second seating around 12.30p. Tragedy, the breakfast burritos were all gone by the time we settled into our seats! But no bother, Wout and I opted for a traditional English breakfast, complete with thick cut bacon, home-made organic sausage (OMG, so good!), an egg, soda bread, potatoes, black pudding (I was a little shy with this item), and beans inside a baked tomato. What a show! And, no surprise, the food totally won– I couldn’t quite finish.

Staying true to my roots, I topped breakfast off with a self-made bloody mary– they serve you up the liquor and you mix it the way you like at their bloody mary bar. Delish! But regaling the tale to a couple of Dutch friends at dinner last night, I learned that the British/American penchant for a boozy brunch is not shared by the Dutch. “A bloody mary for breakfast?! Shocking!” And yet, on further discussion, it was decided amongst the Dutch that beer for breakfast would have been totally normal. Let’s hear it for exploring cultural differences!

Wout and I have made a pact– we will be back for the next round! And this time, it’s breakfast burritos or bust! Nom nom nom…

Promo photo  source: http://www.lovefood.nl/


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Today is a big day in the Netherlands! The Dutch are heading to the polls to elect their House of Representatives (de Tweede Kamer).

The previous government was a coalition between the center-right (the Christian Democratic Appeal or CDA), the center-left (the Labor Party or PvdA) and the smaller Christian-right (the Christian Union) parties, with a CDA Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende. (It is a commonly held belief here that Harry Potter will look like JPB in 30 years). This government fell in February when the Labor party pulled out of the coalition because CDA broke a promise to withdraw Dutch troops from the NATO mission in Afghanistan. As America has been in the business of bolstering European support for a continuing military presence in Afghanistan, the collapse of the Dutch government even made headlines in the USA!

Jan Peter Balkenende, CDA (Source: Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst)

‘OMG, a government fell!?! What does that mean??,” I wondered back in February, as visions of chaos and soldiers marched through my head. Well, it wasn’t so dramatic. Forgive a brief politics lesson, but in a parliamentary system if a government falls before the end of a term, a caretaker government takes over and calls new elections.  In this case, Balkenende carried on as Prime Minister, but without any power to draft new legislation. Apart from a few projects already in the works, very governing has gone on in the Netherlands since February.

With the collapse of the centrist government, it was quite clear that the two center parties would suffer the greatest losses, with voters on the left favoring the smaller center-left party Democrats 66 and the Green Party, and voters on the right turning to the “libertarian-lite” party, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), and the anti-Immigrant, anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV).  Indeed, earlier this spring there was a surge in support for the Party for Freedom and it’s leader Geert Wilders, with some pollsters suggesting that the PVV would come out on top in the general elections.

As this is a personal blog, not a news or political blog, I feel no shame in skipping the even-handedness to state my views plainly: Geert Wilders scares the crap out of me. He is an immensely charismatic leader, able to stir up and mobilize feelings of fear and anger in his followers. For Wilders there is no room for multiculturalism. He firmly believes that immigrants, in general, and Islam, in particular, threaten the Dutch way of life and the “Islamisation” of the country must stop. The PVV platform includes banning the Koran, halting all new Mosque construction and a tax on head scarves (what Wilders crudely refers to as “Head Rag Tax”). Wilders’ discourse and policy agenda are so extremely offensive to me it’s hard to even know where to start. In the interest of avoiding an all out rant, I will only say that, as someone who values multiculturalism and as an immigrant myself, I am deeply opposed to the PVV.

Geert Wilders, PVV (Source: NRC Handelsblad)

Not long after the fall of the national government, the Dutch held local municipal elections in March. The PVV strategically ran candidates in only two municipalities where they did exceptionally well, coming in first in Alkmaar and second in the Hague. If the municipal elections were a practice run for the national elections, things looked pretty good for the PVV. However, in the wake of these electoral successes came some failures. As a largely one-issue party, it wasn’t clear that the PVV would be effective leaders. Further, the other political parties in Alkmaar and the Hague rallied together to block the PVV policy agenda. While only the Labor party has publicly declared that they will not form a coalition with PVV at the national-level, moves against the PVV at the local level do hint at a broader anti-PVV sentiment.

Mark Rutte, VVD (Source: Fotograaf Nick van Ormondt)

In the last few weeks, things have changed again and it seems that now “it’s the economy, stupid!” Issues of Greek debt, the international economic crisis, and high deficits and unemployment at home now top the list of issues of greatest concern to Dutch voters. And it’s likely that the “libertarian-lite” VVD and it’s leader Mark Rutte will benefit from the attention-shift to economic issues.  The VVD’s platform includes plans for cutting government spending, raising the retirement age from 65 to 67, and replacing university student “grants” with student “loans.” While the PVV will likely gain seats, Wilders is no longer expected to pull off an upset. And, as to the parties on the left, Labor’s popular new leader, the former Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen, may have managed to help the party recover from the set back of the government collapse. (Does the PvdA’s unofficial campaign slogan “Yes we Cohen!” seem familiar to anyone?)

Job Cohen, PvdA (source: Wikipedia)

Of course this post barely even scratches the surface of the 2010 elections (verkiezingen), with its hundreds of candidates and 17+ political parties. But hopefully I’ve given you a sense of my enthusiasm and nervousness as I wait to see who will come out on top and, given that it’s unlikely that any one party will have a majority, what the new coalition government will look like. Now that I’m an official resident I feel like I have a stake in things, thus making the elections extremely exciting… but it is also frustrating to watch from the sidelines without the right to vote, especially when issues of immigration and integration are on the table.

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Today I finally saw a doctor here about my knee problems.

For some time now, I’ve been sorting out eligibility, getting health insurance and finding a doctor. These things haven’t been hard, but they have been a little time consuming. And even though the amount of time consumed was reasonable, when you’re hurt or sick 5 minutes seems too long to wait. Navigating the Dutch health system has not been overly complicated, especially given that I have a local to help me. But even still, that which is new and unknown intimidates me.

But awesomeness of awesomes, we managed to enroll with a doctor’s group practice (huisarts groepspraktijk) only 1.5 blocks away from us. I mean, short of house calls, it doesn’t get much better than this! And given my state of mobility this morning, it was a good thing I only had to manage 1.5 blocks.

The doctor came highly recommended by a friend of Wouter and he was everything I could have hoped for: friendly and funny, attentive, thorough and extremely capable in English. (This last thing was not a surprise, but a relief, none-the-less.) But… and here we arrive at our major our cultural difference of the day… he was very conservative and non-interventionist in his approach.

Dear readers, I don’t intend to pooh-pooh this approach right from the starting gate. Nor was this an entirely unexpected turn of events. I often get shocked looks from friends when I mention my affinity for Tylenol PM on long-haul red-eye flights or when I confess to taking NyQuil for a cold or when I suggest that Wouter pop an ibuprofen or two for soreness after one of his indoor football matches. So it was not a surprise when, after an intensive and painful examination of my knee (I may have whimpered), Dr. Dutch sat me down, made a diagnosis, showed me some exercises to loosen and strengthen things up, wrote me a prescription for stronger pain/anti-inflamatory meds and sent me on my way. And you know what? Part of me wonders if the prescription was an afterthought, thrown in at the last minute just to ease me into the Dutch way of doing things.

This experience stands in stark relief to the treatment I received for these same knee troubles just a few weeks ago in the US: X-rays and MRIs were ordered, surgery was discussed, referrals to an orthopedist were made, all without a diagnosis. (When I mentioned the orthopedist referral, Dr. Dutch exclaimed: “Oh no! Please don’t go to an orthopedist!”)

Interventionist or not, I don’t care as long as I start feeling better. And while the physical problems remain, I am extremely relieved that surgery is not looming. At this point I don’t really know which approach to medical care I prefer:  Dr. America’s “let’s get this fixed NOW!” or Dr. Dutch’s “well, let’s just see how this goes first.” While I would prefer to feel better NOW, having a diagnosis and a plan of action makes me feel so much better than waiting in limbo for the surgeons. So for the time being it’ll be “when in Rome,” I suppose, and I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

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Some fun facts:

Hm… while this last one may be statistically accurate, I didn’t feel that way the first time I cycled in Dutch rush hour.

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I live a healthier life-style here in the Netherlands, hands down. I eat smaller portions. I eat out less. I go grocery shopping everyday and eat fresher meats, fruits, vegetables. I cycle more.

But that doesn’t mean that sometimes… every once in a while… now and then… I don’t have a deep-seated urge for something that reminds me a bit of Wisconsin… and takes a few years off my life.

This is *THE BEST* homemade macaroni and cheese recipe I’ve ever tasted! And of course we have Martha Stewart to thank for it. Now if only I could find some good Wisconsin sharp cheddar around here… I had to use Gouda, surprise surprise.

Perfect Macaroni and Cheese
Yield Serves 12


* 6 slices good-quality white bread, crusts removed, torn into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces
* 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for dish
* 5 1/2 cups milk
* 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
* 2 teaspoons kosher salt
* 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
* 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
* 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
* 4 1/2 cups (about 18 ounces) grated sharp white cheddar
* 2 cups (about 8 ounces) grated Gruyère or 1 1/4 cups (about 5 ounces) grated pecorino Romano (I used Emmental)
* 1 pound elbow macaroni


* 1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish; set aside. Place bread pieces in a medium bowl. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Pour butter into the bowl with bread, and toss. Set the breadcrumbs aside. In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, heat milk. Melt remaining 6 tablespoons butter in a high-sided skillet over medium heat. When butter bubbles, add flour. Cook, stirring, 1 minute.
* 2. Slowly pour hot milk into flour-butter mixture while whisking. Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick.
* 3. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in salt, nutmeg, black pepper, cayenne pepper, 3 cups cheddar, and 1 1/2 cups Gruyère or 1 cup pecorino Romano. Set cheese sauce aside.
* 4. Fill a large saucepan with water. Bring to a boil. Add macaroni; cook 2 to 3 fewer minutes than manufacturer’s directions, until outside of pasta is cooked and inside is underdone. (Different brands of macaroni cook at different rates; be sure to read the instructions.) Transfer the macaroni to a colander, rinse under cold running water, and drain well. Stir macaroni into the reserved cheese sauce.
* 5. Pour the mixture into the prepared casserole dish. Sprinkle remaining 1 1/2 cups cheddar and 1/2 cup Gruyère or 1/4 cup pecorino Romano; scatter breadcrumbs over the top. Bake until browned on top, about 30 minutes. Transfer dish to a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes; serve.

Taste of Wisconsin: Mac 'n Cheese
The links below have better (yummier) photos.

Sources: the original: marthastewart.com; tips: NY Times Diner’s Journal; drool-worthy photos: Smitten Kitchen.

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Hi Team! There is so much to catch you up on and I have been quite delinquent, I’m sorry. I will start in reverse with the most recent events, but then I might cheat a little and back post some new stuff so that it ultimately shows up in chronological order. You have been warned.

So big news on the relocation front! This morning I had my appointment with the Immigration and Nationalization Authority and now have officially applied for a Dutch residence permit! I was really nervous about this– would we have everything in order? What if we missed something? What would they ask?

  • What brand is Wouter’s toothbrush? (I checked this morning. Jordan!)
  • Where and when was your last vacation together? (Er, does Utrecht count?)
  • How do you spell the name of your street– in Dutch please! (I practiced for this, just in case.)

But in reality it was totally painless. Most of the conversing was in Dutch between the interviewer and Wouter– and, of what I could follow, most of that was either confirming we had included all of the required documents or idle chit-chat. Of course Wouter *is* my sponsor and there would be no application at all if it weren’t for him, but it did feel a little strange to just sit there passively and (mostly) uncomprehendingly while two people discussed my future! (Note to self: LEARN MORE DUTCH ASAP!)

Apart from confirming that we were prepared to pay the >$1,000 fee (OMG!!!), we didn’t have to say or do much. No questions, no verifying if our relationship was real, no spelling of street names (Jammer! I was so ready!). Indeed, for most of the appointment Wouter and I chatted while our interviewer typed things into the computer. I’d like to think that for part of the time the interviewer wasn’t typing at all but listening in on our conversation to see if we seemed “casual” and “boyfriend/girlfriend-like,” but I suppose that’s unlikely. In all honestly, I found myself a little disappointed that we didn’t get to tell the crazy story of how we met!

Having had American friends with spouses and partners from abroad and knowing how hard it is to get a green card, I feel really lucky with how smoothly everything has gone for me thus far. The Dutch system, as I’ve experienced it, shows a great deal of respect for people and their partnerships– if you can afford to pay, that is (lucky x 2). And of course, I cannot know what it would be like if I were in a more precarious situation, seeking asylum or a victim of human trafficking (x 3). And I’m lucky still (x 4)– being from the United States I was not subject to the language and culture examination. And I can probably attribute the lack of questioning to my American citizenship, rather than because Wouter and I make such a cute couple (x 5).

So now we wait a couple of months and hope that the luck continues! Cheers to that!

Birthday Beer, Cheers!

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Last Friday was the PhD defense of a Dutch friend Frank. He is former university-mate of Wouter’s brother and sister-in-law and, along with Wouter, they have been a tight knit group ever since. He finished his PhD thesis in Innovation Studies several months ago, but to make things extra special, he scheduled his defense for his birthday.

From Doctorandus to Doctor

It may be hard to believe but the Dutch PhD Promotion ceremony actually makes me consider starting my degree again in the Netherlands. The ceremony is incredibly formal, fairly succinct and the party that follows approaches the level of a wedding reception. The scale and grandeur of the event is a fitting marker of the accomplishment of completing a doctoral degree. The brevity is a nice testimony to the fact that you’ve been working your butt off for years so Pip-Pip! Bring on the degree! And, from my perspective, it’s a whole lot of fun! Well, maybe not for those few minutes the PhD candidate must face down the squad of academics firing questions at you. (Although Frank seemed to have a good time.)

So… how does it all work?

Several months before you expect to get your degree you must finish your thesis and send it off for approval of your committee. When you get the “OK,” you are officially done with the analysis and writing! Now you can look forward to becoming your own personal party planner. First you have to book the room and if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to get a slot some time in the next 6 months. At Utrecht University, where Frank did his degree, there is one room. It is beautifully wood-paneled and covered with fancy paintings of all of the PhD’s who came before you (all men). At the head of the room is a portrait of Beatrix, Queen regnant of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Indeed, Her Royal Highness watches over each and every PhD conferral. Posh.

Where Arieke will be promoted to PhD!(4)The Queen!

The next order of business is to begin consulting with a printer. Every PhD thesis is printed as a book. And these aren’t those big, ugly, black leather-bound tomes of old. These are normal books, with professionally designed covers and layouts, complete with ISBN numbers. Perhaps no one would ever order one of these puppies from Amazon.com, but it’s nice to know that when you’re done with your PhD you’ll have a professionally published book of your very own, along with copies to hand out as “required reading” to your friends, family and future graduate and undergraduate students.

Toasting to Frank's latest masterpiece!

As the day approaches, you send out invitations (and books), brush up on the chapters (some of which you probably finished 6-24 months ago… doh) and rent your tuxedo! That’s right! For the gents, tuxedos. For the ladies, formal dress somewhere in between conference attire and ball gown. To be more specific, the man’s costume is a “smoking,” which, according to Wikipedia involves a notched lapel and is “accepted by some as a legitimate … less formal alternative [to a shawl collar or peak lapel, although,] despite some precedent, it is disdained by purists for its lounge suit derivation.” You had no idea, did you?

I don´t think the Paranimfen are taking this seriously.

The event itself takes place over exactly 45 minutes– no more, no less. First the audience (your friends, family and colleagues) fills the room. Then they are instructed to stand as the representative of the university, your committee members and your discussants (faculty from other universities around the country and abroad, who will ask you questions) enter the room. They are clad in full on academic dress– togas/robes, silly hats, ruffled neck thingies (a la Ruth Bader Ginsburg). And last in you come with your backup– two friends or colleagues called Paranimfen, also dressed in tuxes or gowns. The purpose of these two people is mostly ceremonial, but officially if you are asked a question you’re unsure of or cannot answer, you can confer with your paranimfen (a la “phone a friend”). I am told that back in the olden days, these PhD promotions sometimes came to blows, so the paranimfen had your back if a fight should break out between you and your discussants.

Frank flanked by his Paranimfen

After bowing to the panel, you take your place at a podium and the paranimfen are seated. And without any formalities, the discussants launch in with questions (moderated by the representative of the university). This might seem a bit blunt or abrupt, especially given the setting and costume, but they’ve only got 45 minutes to lay into you so the academics are really chomping at the bit at this point! And so it goes, back and forth, a bit like a tennis match, until three-quarters of an hour are up and then an official time keeper busts in (also in full-on academic/Renaissance Faire garb), slams a big stick into the floor and announces that time is up.

At the podium, at the ready!

The audience stands, the panel files out to deliberate your fate in the other room. Again, given the time constraints, this usually only takes 5-8 minutes. But I’ve heard from my sources that the panel typically does debate about whether the candidate’s responses are sufficient to merit a PhD. I’m not sure if anyone fails outright (one would hope that your trusted advisor wouldn’t let you get this far if you weren’t going to pass), but I guess it’s not a given that there will be a unanimous decision. Meanwhile you and your paranimfen pose for staged pictures.

Frank's adoring fans.

The panel returns, again the audience stands and now you and your trusty paranimfen present yourselves in front of the university representative. At this point, any chance of suspense is quashed by the dead giveaway of success/failure– whether or not your advisor is carrying a red diploma holder. There is some formal talk and then your advisor hands over the diploma and everyone claps. Now to placate friends and family who have no clue what your dissertation was about (do you think they even cracked the cover of that book you sent them? Ha!), your advisor give a Laudatio, alternately praising your work and teasing you for any number of foibles attributable to graduate student– showing up late for work, turning stuff in late, drinking too much at department events, falling asleep in lectures, etc.


And then times up, everybody break! There is much hugging and hand shaking and everyone proceeds to the reception. Now here’s where things start to look like a wedding. There’s a receiving line. Champagne. Wine, beer and juice. Mini deep fried tasty things served on platters by young men in tuxedos. Then it’s on to dinner for the nearest and dearest (and committee members), where toasts are made and gifts are given to paranimfen and academic advisors (akin to bridesmaids and groomsmen, I suppose). Later everyone who didn’t make the short list for dinner shows up and there is more drinking, toasting and singing of silly songs (again alternately praising your work and poking fun). As folks get more raucous, the elder generations and important professional contacts begin to exit (hopefully). And finally, many hours later, you find yourself at some dank dance club, singing along to Lady GaGa and/or the Village People at the top of your lungs. Hopefully by now you’ve changed out of your tuxedo or ball gown, but if not you’ve probably gotten a lot of free drinks.

The receiving line.

Well, if you’re still reading, hopefully you now understand my deep seeded jealousy of the Dutch PhD conferral process. It’s not too late! You too can jump ship and start again over here. I just recently saw an advertisement for a doctoral student position called “PhD Student Predictive Markers.” (One gene to predict that you’ll be a PhD student FOR LIFE.)

"My my, what excellent work I´ve done here!"Gefeliciteerd Frank!

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