Friday, October 26, 2007

Three American products you can find on store shelves.

Sure, America is everywhere. But there's less infiltration into the grocery store market here than you might think. At a regular-sized store (meaning covering a similar area to one at home) you can find sodas and some sugar cereals and snack foods, of course, but beyond that, not much. Culinarily speaking, the US isn't all that. Every once in a while, though, something familiar will catch your eye and remind you that we have contributed a word or two to the international dialogue that is food:
  • Ocean Spray Cranberries; always around this time of year

  • Tabasco brand tabasco sauce (although I bought Louisiana brand because it was like 2 cents cheaper--totally not worth it)

  • Philadelphia cream cheese, which seems to be on some kind of astonishingly thorough marketing campaign, such that a variety of the quicky sandwich shops (even the non-chain ones) have "Philadelphia" sandwiches. I just noticed the packages in the grocery store for the first time the other day, although the sandwiches have been advertised for at least 6 months. I tried fromage blanc on my bagels the one time we made them, and it just wasn't the same (the texture wasn't creamy enough), so I'm looking forward to some real cream cheese next time.

Also of note is the fact that small children speaking French is just about the cutest thing ever.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Oy vey. So very behind.

We went to the Netherlands in August, a few weeks after returning from Germany. We had planned on staying in Amsterdam, but since we were only a couple days away from our departure date when we made our plans, everything within reason was already taken. We ended up in Haarlem, a 15-minute train ride outside of town, which was considerably cheaper. The train cost €6, which I believe was round-trip, but if you get a ticket that's valid for the whole weekend and they don't stamp it, then you can reuse it. Not that we would advocate this sort of behavior.

We got to Amsterdam on Friday around noon and, after having lunch in a charming restaurant called First Class in the train station, just wandered around all day. As we walked, I discovered that my mental geography of the city was significantly different than how it was actually laid out. It's good that we didn't rely on my memory. Later we had a beer at a lovely cafe by one of the canals. We got a good spot outdoors for people-watching, and later discovered that it was mentioned by our guidebook--the first time we've ended up at a recommended place by chance.

By late afternoon we were ready to kick back for a while, so we took the train to Haarlem and checked into our place. After a decent but extremely slow meal at an Italian place that seemed to favor the better-dressed patrons on the ground floor to us schlubs upstairs, we walked the dark streets of the quiet little town for a bit.

We spent the next morning exploring the hofjes in Haarlem. Hofjes are enclosed courtyards with small dwellings surrounding them. Most are open to the public but semi-private in nature in that you generally have to open a door and go through a passage to get to them, and can only see them during visiting hours. There always seem to be older women sunning themselves in them, and they always seem to find some task in their homes that requires their immediate attention when outsiders arrive.

We also checked out the grander of the two St. Bavo churches in town. It was full of interesting little touches throughout. Our favorite was the dog beaters' chapel. They had problems back in the day that people in this modern age can't conceive of, such as dogs attacking patrons of churches or perhaps coming inside and disrupting services. So they hired dog beaters to keep them at bay. So grateful were the people of St. Bavo's that they built the guys a chapel of their own, decorated by carvings of men beating dogs.

Built into the sides of the church were squat cottages containing shops. We checked out the old fish market where they were hosting a free art exhibit. The artist had taken white batting and placed it throughout the building to give the appearance of snow drifts. We put on booties and walked around in the softness and pretended to be cold. There was also an upside-down replica of the church rendered in lace hanging from the ceiling (behind Jack in the photo) and some fake bodies covered in shrouds, but it was all about the snow for us.

We then made our way into Amsterdam to check out the Van Gogh museum. Having printed out our tickets in advance, we avoided the lines of about 5 people deep at the admission booth. All our saved time was subsequently lost since the ticket reader couldn't get the hang of the UPCs we printed out on the ink jet printer. The museum was really crowded, but there was some interesting stuff I hadn't seen before.

After that we took the free ferry across to the other part of Amsterdam across the Ij. It was not at all touristy or canal-y, and therefore interesting in its normalcy (a mosque at left). At the port for the return journey was a fabulous Italian snack shop that I'm totally going to again if I'm ever in the area.

We crossed back and went to a small museum in one of the canal houses. The upper story of this home contained a Catholic church. Apparently, back in the day, being Catholic in the Netherlands was frowned upon, so they had to worship in secret. In this case it was a pretty open secret, as the churchgoers would all assemble at this guy's house at a certain time on Sundays. Many people also had prayer corners in their own homes designed for easy hiding. And some built elaborate religious scenes in bottles--much better than ships, if you ask me.

We found a bar overlooking a canal crossroads and watched the early evening traffic go by. There was a blind corner there, but no collisions occurred. There were occasional traffic jams, however. It was a great people watching opportunity--the solitary couple having cocktails on the much-too-large wood-paneled boat piloted by a dapper captain, the party boats playing thumping music and cruising the waters for members of the opposite (or same) sex, the penny-pinching boaters in their aluminum launches with a cooler of beer, the loungers with glasses of wine and a boat full of pillows. Also a boat with a guy painting a portrait of another person on board, advertising an open house at a school.

More wandering commenced, ending in dinner. Having had a pretty small lunch we were psyched to try the Indonesian rice table. Amazingly, one of the places in our guidebook actually had available tables, so we sat ourselves down and got ready for a feast. A rice table is composed of rice and a dozen or more different dishes. We concluded that we were in for a LOT of food, as we ordered the one with like 20 dishes. Once they arrived, we discovered that each was only a couple of bites of food, and although it was still more than we could finish, there wasn't a ton left as I thought there might be. Perfect for a grazer. Delicious and satisfying.

Having done the full-on tourist thing that day, we decided to complete the evening by going on a canal cruise. We succeeded in taking an awful lot of blurry night shots and having a lovely time.

Sunday, the day of rest, we rented bikes at the Haarlem train station and rode west. The bikes were old beaters that cost us €6 each to rent. They had coaster brakes and for the life of me I just could not get the hang of them--I think my normal foot position when I come to rest has to be modified. We wanted to go to the seaside, but the rental guy didn't have any maps and the Tourist Information center was closed. So we just...followed the signs. No problem. I would like to say we got some exercise, but it's about a 5 km ride to the water, nearly all flat. We took a lot of photos while biking to prove that we did it and to add some danger to the ride.

After taking in the North Sea we traveled down to Zandvoort, a lovely resort town. The beach was populated by small vacation shacks that I'm assuming didn't contain indoor plumbing as well as a number of bar/restaurants with various themes, one of which was Brussels. Ours had a weathered Caribbean shack look to it, and it was adjacent to the Cuban place. There didn't seem to be much variation on the menus, surprisingly. All the establishments had wind breaks, and some formed a warren of glassed-in rooms that people were tanning nakedly in. I'm not sure why health codes wouldn't prevent such a thing, but hey.

Following lunch it was time to conclude our trip, so we took the other way around back to Haarlem. Once in town we stopped by the other St. Bavo church, which was an Art Deco building that, although free to the visiting public (the first St. Bavo was €2), was virtually empty aside from us and the 3 old men who were staffing the information desk. Then we rode around a bit more, delaying the inevitable, went into the main square for beers and bitterballen (which were surprisingly not bitter), returned the bikes, hopped on the train, and headed home, towards new adventures yet to be realized.