Back in Utrecht

Gouden Kalf
I’m back!

After a gruelling trip back, which included a missed flight in London and what seems to be an elbow injury and too many bruises to count, I finally made it back to Utrecht yesterday. I saw the Domtoren on the taxi ride home and managed to get a quick shot of the Gouden Kalf (Golden Calf) before they take it down. It’s part of the decorations for the annual Nederland Film Festival, which I missed this year. I always get a photo of the kalf, though, so I was glad to not completely miss a year.

More NC photos and stories to come, interspersed with regular Utrecht content, but for now I’m cuddling the cats and the boyfriend and enjoying being able to walk everywhere.

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Utrecht

If you were wondering, I made it without incident back to the US on Monday. I lived here long enough that I’m not experiencing complete reverse culture shock, but I am a bit more aware of certain things now. It feels more as if my life in the US and my life in the NL are two completely separate things. Not good or bad; just completely different.

As for photos and blogging, I’ve been taking photos, but unfortunately I forgot to get a plug converter for my European laptop (with a useless battery), so I can’t upload photos until I get an adapter for my laptop. I did take a couple of photos today with my phone’s camera, though. One of the amusing differences between Utrecht (and much of the Netherlands) and North Carolina is the matter of elevation. We’ve got a lot more hills and mountains here. For that matter, just getting to the house requires muscles I haven’t used much in the past five years. Trust me, the photo doesn’t begin to show how steep a hill this is. I’ve been on rollercoasters with easier drops.
Fortunately, there are lots of magnolia trees to enjoy on the trek.

American Influence in Utrecht

Bolwerk Shore
In honor of the Fourth of July — America’s Independence Day — I thought I’d post a couple of photos of things with a touch of the US in them that I’ve seen recently around town. Some have made me laugh, while others have stood out simply for being here.

The first is the photo above. You may not be surprised to find out that this building belongs to one of the university student associations. The large Bavaria banner and flag isn’t referring to the German state. It’s the name of a common beer brand. Although the beer banners, bird statue in the window, and bicycles out front make it look like many a student domicile, the sign saying Bolwerk Shore made me laugh. The cringe-inducing show Jersey Shore has made it to Europe, and the students seem to have created their own version, although hopefully just as a joke for the end-of-year party they had had the night before. (Bolwerk refers to the street name, for what it’s worth.)

Not a typical sight ...
On the same street, but different day, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of this yellow school bus. In the US, I wouldn’t have looked at it twice. It was a common enough sight throughout the school year and I’ve ridden my share of them as well. Yet here in the Netherlands, they stand out the way a double-decker bus would stand out in the US. They just don’t exist here. Students use regular buses to get to and from school, if they use the bus at all.

However, it’s not the first time I’ve seen one here in Utrecht, but that one was being used as a children’s mobile book store. I can’t help but wonder if it’s the same bus, though. After all, it’s been two years since I saw the bus the first time.

Happy Fourth of July to all of my fellow Americans, wherever they are in the world, and to everyone else, Happy Thursday!

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other

Amerika in UtrechtAmerika in Utrecht

There’s a travel agent office next to the Oudegracht that does themed window displays, depending on the dream destination being promoted. Kangaroos for Australia, matryoshka dolls for Russia, and so on. In other words, stereotypical visual shorthand. When I saw the window this past weekend, I couldn’t help but stop and stare.

Sure, the American theme caught my eye. A touch of home, though the images depicted aren’t really the America I know best. I’m an East Coast/Southern girl and this window display had a distinctly Western vibe. Still, I couldn’t help looking at this touch of Americana in the heart of Utrecht.

But then I noticed something seemed not quite right. (Besides the whole cowboy/Indian theme which seems a bit off these days, never mind the fact that two of the statues had a distinctly Village People look to them.) What really threw me for a loop was the Georgia licence plate. As much as I love seeing the Georgia tag again, with its delightful peach, it just does not fit in with the rest of the Western display. Georgia is very much east of the Mississippi, unlike Kansas, Texas, and Arizona.

It’s one of those minor things that only someone who has spent a lot of time in the US is going to notice or care about probably, but it still amused me. Even more so when I saw that they were promoting trips to Amerika and Canada. They zeroed in on one very specific theme that barely scratches the surface of the North American continent, but something still got lost in translation, a bit like the rib restaurant flyer we received a few years ago. It’s always interesting to see how your home country is interpreted by others.

Amerika in Utrecht

Vieren Vier

Rising Above
It was four years ago today that G and I arrived with three pets in tow to make our new life here in the Netherlands. It’s so nice of everyone to celebrate today, under the guise of 2e Pinksterdag and Memorial Day. We’re celebrating today with rookworst kebabs on the grill. I also enjoyed some time on the terrace in the sun before I gave pinksterdag new meaning.

My goal for the year is to work on my Dutch language skills and to try one of the Domtorentjes from a local chocolate shop. They date back to 1922 and are made of dark chocolate filled with a chocolate cream. Plus, they’ve got the Domtoren on them! Lekker!

A Rose Is A Rose …

Tales From Windmill Fields is hosting an Expat Blog Hop today, in which she poses the question, What is an Expat for you?

I use the term expat for myself, but I often wonder if immigrant isn’t a better word choice. To me, expat has a connotation of impermanence, someone who is only in the new country for a limited amount of time. I tend to think of expats as students or workers on a set contract for a few years. On the other hand, immigrant has gained a negative connotation over the years, as politicians try to blame a country’s problems on immigrants, usually people from poorer countries.

Even among my fellow expats, I’m a bit different. I’m not a “lovepat”, someone who moved here to be with their partner who is from this country. I’m not really a travelling spouse in the typical sense, either. While my partner did move here for his work, it was his own business, and we made the choice together that the Netherlands would be a nice place to move. It certainly had business benefits, but culturally and linguistically, things would have been easier in Italy, where my partner is from, and where I have visited, both on my own and with him. Certainly, my ability to converse in Italian would have been faster and easier, since I already had some knowledge of the language and found it much easier than any other language I’ve studied.

Among our Dutch friends here, we’re fondly (I hope!) referred to as the foreigners/buitenlanders. But at least we do have Dutch friends here now. We have a Dutch neighbor whom I met through Flickr and now we say a cheerful hello when we see each other out and about. Even some of the people working at the grocery stores we go to recognize us and say hi, making me feel at home.

I’ve moved around a bit over the years, even within the US. When you consider the size of the US, just moving from Florida to North Carolina, as I did when I was 16, was a bit like moving to another country. The accent was different; some of the cultural traditions were a bit different; and of course, I was too far away from my friends and some of my family to see them easily. I then moved to New Orleans (in another time zone!) when I went to university, so I left behind family and friends once again, only to make new friends who would also spread out to other states after graduation. I moved back to North Carolina for a few years, just in time to make some wonderful friends, but then I moved to New York, leaving those friends behind and having to make new friends all over again. I did make friends in New York (and New Jersey and Connecticut), but then left them behind once again when we moved back to North Carolina. My friends are now spread out across the US. After all, I’m not the only one to make big moves.

So I got used to not having all of my friends nearby. I also grew up with a small family spread on two continents, so I didn’t grow up with all of my family and friends in one place. Even my family in Florida was at least an hour’s drive from where we lived. Maybe that has helped me to make the adjustment to being so far away from family and friends. It’s nothing new to me.

Culturally, it’s not like the Netherlands is that different. It’s still a Western country with many of the same traditions and habits. The differences just make things interesting! Well, except for the lack of window screens and air conditioning. Warm weather without AC means open windows with no screens. That means me about to lose my mind killing flies that have gotten into the house. Yes! I just killed another! Ha!

In the end, my accent will always give me away as a foreigner here. I’m still not sure if I’m an expat or an immigrant, though. I don’t quite feel like either, as I suspect most expats/immigrants feel. We each have our own story and our own experiences. We just are. If I have to call myself anything, can I just be an Utrechter? I do love this city!

Check out the other people not originally from the Netherlands for their take on things by clicking here:

Adventures in Grocery Shopping

This afternoon around 1 p.m., I decided to head out to the grocery store to pick up the one or two small ingredients I needed for dinner tonight. I thought since I needed so little, I’d just head to the little grocers down the street from us. Then I got there. There was a line of high school students out the door. I forgot that they all converge on the various grocery stores at that time of day.

There was no way I was going to deal with that crowd just for a few tiny items, so I turned around and debated heading home and waiting, or just going ahead to one of the regular grocery stores since I was already out. I decided on the latter, and headed to Plus on Voorstraat. The store has undergone a makeover and reopened recently. I hadn’t been in since the renovation, but had seen a glimpse of the new inside yesterday. As I approached, I started to wonder if it was actually open, since there was a large dumpster standing where the entrance used to be. Fortunately, I saw a couple of students approach the same spot and then turn around and say something about the new entrance. Aha! I guess students are useful for some things. I looked a bit further down the street and there it was, the grand new door!

As soon as I walked in, I could tell they’d done quite a bit of work. It was all a bit fancier — certainly fancier than it had been in the past — and they even had a section that seemed to offer take-away food of some sort, staffed by actual people! What used to be the liquor store section has been turned into a small dining area. The lighting is much more ambient, otherwise known as not so glaringly fluorescent. The shelves are all a bit nicer and everything looks a bit less dusty than it did in the past.

That particular branch of Plus has always been a bit hit-or-miss with me. On one hand, they do sometimes have a few of the more interesting ingredients, including dried lentils and premade pizza crusts, not to mention a decent selection of different types of nuts. On the other hand, there was sometimes an odd smell inside, and stuff really was kind of dusty. The new design of the store definitely makes it more appealing to me and in some ways, it seems more like the grocery stores I was used to in the US, with a wider selection of both food items as well as kitchen items. They now have some simple pots and pans, even! They also have a few small sewing items, as well as some simple tools and things for your bike. It’s not the kind of stuff you necessarily need all the time, but I always appreciated being able to get some of these smaller items as I was doing my normal grocery shopping, rather than having to go to a different store. [To be fair, if you go to the Albert Heijn XL stores, they have all of this kind of stuff and more, but when you live in the city center, you don’t go all the way out to AH XL very often. It’s nice having this kind of stuff local.]

As in the past, Plus also has a few items that some expats may be happy to find. I saw two types of marshmallow fluff, as well as regular marshmallows (white and colors), along with yellow mustard, boxed mac and cheese, peanut butter, and Duncan Hines cake mix. Sadly, no ranch dressing, but they did have some Reece’s Peanut Butter cups and I treated myself to one, since that’s what we usually bought in the US to give out on Halloween. It may be a day late, but it’s still going to be enjoyed! They also stock multiple types of maple syrup, although I noticed the ones in the organic section all cost around €7,75 a bottle (I think that’s around US$10). I think some of the other “foreign” foods were also still pricier than I remember them ever being when they were “domestic” foods. It’s a good thing the Reece’s were the only thing I really wanted or am likely to buy often. Most of the other stuff on offer is stuff that I didn’t buy very often in the US, either.

I’m not sure about their new check-out counters; it seems a bit cramped and awkward now that there’s no more conveyor belt and only one small counter spot for two check-outs. Otherwise, I’m kind of digging the new Plus. I might have to give them another try when I’m doing regular shopping and see how their selection stands up.

[I’m pretty sure this post is one of the more banal ones I’ve ever written, but for fellow expats and those living near enough to Voorstraat to do some shopping, it might be of some use or interest. Now excuse me while I go have a peanut butter cup with my afternoon coffee.]

She’s a Rich Girl

Amy recently posted a link to an interesting map about names in the Netherlands, particularly the regional differences. It’s fascinating to see the tendencies toward certain names depending on the location, but I was particularly interested in (and amused by) the naming tendencies here in Utrecht.

Red areas would seem to coincide with affluence (or at least elitism), for the first names prevalent here are associated with socio-culturally prominent groups. These names, prominent in and around Amsterdam, The Hague, Utrecht and Haarlem among other places, are often Old Testament-y (Daniel, Sarah) come from nature (Luna), or might be French (Stéphanie, Olivier).

Thank goodness my Luna will fit right in here! Poor Lola and Pippo. I hope they don’t get teased in the schoolyard!

Luna living up to her rich-girl name:

Lola and Pippo, the buitenlanders:
Sit Anywhere

Same But Different

Since moving here, I’ve had to find a few food alternatives for some of my recipes, because certain ingredients just aren’t available here, or at least not easily available. I’m usually fine with this, but there are a few ingredients of which I just can’t help but prefer the American version. Today has been a study in adjusting and not adjusting.

First off, this morning I made a batch of chocolate chip cookies. Merian was coming over to help me with some tax-office stuff — more about that later — so I figured the least I could do was offer some homemade cookies to accompany her coffee. That said, you can’t really buy chocolate chips here. All sorts of other chocolate stuff, but not the semi-sweet morsels so common in the US. No big deal, though. This is an easy cooking dilemma to fix. Just get some of the lekker (tasty) chocolate bars they sell here and chop them up! I went with the dark chocolate with bits of orange that I had on hand. I like a small square for my dessert in the evening. The cookies turned out quite well and Merian seemed to really enjoy them. Just as well. It meant I could send off the bulk of the batch with her so I wouldn’t be tempted to eat them all.

My second round of cooking today represents the other end of the ingredient spectrum. A good ol’ pot of chili is easy enough to make, even here, but I’ve discovered that the Dutch chili powder doesn’t taste at all like the stuff I’m used to in the US. On one hand, it’s not that big a deal; you still get a nice bowl of food. On the other hand, sometimes I just really want that specific chili flavor that I know so well. I had my mum send me some last year, but I’ve used up the last of it today. Sadly, I don’t think I really had enough to properly flavor it, particularly since I used a can of the “chili” kidney beans they sell here. They’re already seasoned and I think they were a bit more powerful than my small bit of Harris Teeter-brand chili powder could handle. Oh well, another jar of chili powder should be winging its way to me soon enough.

Generally, I try to just adjust to not having certain items and just get used to what I do have on hand. I enjoy finding alternatives or hunting down harder-to-find ingredients here in town. I even make my own ranch dressing these days and have gotten used to the slight taste differences in the peanut butter and the Coke. Since this is my home now, I don’t want to be one of those annoying expats always whinging about how things are different/not as good here. So I adjust. But if I can get chili powder sent to me regularly, I’ll be a very happy expat. Surely, I’m allowed to miss one little thing. 😉