Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Mmmm... Old Cheese Sandwich...

The Netherlands is well-known as a cheese-loving -- in fact, generally dairy-loving -- nation. People here drink milk at lunch just like Americans drink diet soda. Personally, I'm not excited about milk, but I do love cheese. Gouda and Edam are the Dutch cheeses that most Americans have heard of, and I came here with high hopes to discover the local nuances of these and others.

Admittedly, doing so at the local grocery store may not be the best way to get started. However, Albert Heijn, the local food genius, comparable in spirit at least, if not in execution, to Danny Wegman, does quite well, so that's where I began. I think that a full comparison of Wegman's and AH would be quite interesting, but I'll save that for a different day.

The refrigerated cheese shelf at AH looks something like this:
Lots of choices, lots of differently colored packages, therefore lots of new cheeses for me to explore -- right? Well, I pored over my choices here for quite some time, and as far as I can tell, it's all pretty much the same kind of cheese. And, the interesting bit is, they never say exactly what kind of cheese it is! I suppose it's something like when my aunt-in-law, who is Chinese, said, "when I cook, I don't make Chinese food, I just make food!" Here, it's all Dutch cheese, which I presume means Gouda, so there's no need to specify!

Great, so what do all the choices represent? I analyzed the packages and found three independent dimensions of variation. First, and most obvious, is the form factor of the cheese: whether it be sliced, block, diced, etc., and how many grams of cheese are involved. Second, a numbering system that includes values like "21+" and "48+." I asked my colleagues at work, and apparently these numbers correlate with fat content, but aren't simply percent fat -- I'll leave that semi-unanswered for now. Third, the only verbal description of the cheese, with monikers like "jong," "belegen," and "oude."

Which reminds me of a tangential story from my third day of work. I left work for an appointment over my lunch break, meaning I missed lunch in the cafeteria (known as the canteen, by the way). When I got back, starving, I dropped into the mini-Albert Heijn in the complex where I work to grab a snack. Conveniently, Albert had made me a selection of packaged sandwiches, and I found one labeled "Oude Kaas." I know just enough Dutch to recognize the literal translation of this as "Old Cheese." Instinctively, my mind's Homer-voice thought, "Mmmm... old cheese sandwich...," and I couldn't not buy it! It was quite tasty, on a multigrain bun, and turned out to be just the thing for my mid-afternoon hunger.

Faced with the cheese selection at the real AH, I recalled my oude kaas sandwich, and figured that the oude cheese was old, or aged, and in fact the edges of the oude kaas slices are often a little darker, looking a bit like cheese that's been sitting out for a while. This is a good thing, I assure you, as the flavor gets quite nice with a little time! Later, I did some Google research, and indeed jong, or young, cheese is the least ripe, mildest variety, belegen (and extra belegen) is medium, and oude is well-aged (over 10 months!) and sharpest. Correlated with this dimension is the hardness of the cheese, and I read that the most oude cheese is rock-hard and is shaved instead of sliced. Mmmmm...

Eet smakelijk!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Adventures in the Bus Lijn

Traffic in Eindhoven, be it car (auto), bicycle (fiets), or bus (bus!) is extraordinarily organized. There are bike lanes, bus lanes, and regular lanes; there are stop lights for each individual lane, no right-on-red, stop lights for the bike lanes, pedestrian crossing lights, and bus-specific signals as well. Very organized, yes, but also potentially confusing -- I've found myself driving into both in the bus lane as well as the bike lane!

The traffic flow at each intersection is carefully choreographed in a way that is still unintelligible to me. I recall simple American intersections where the only uncertainty a driver has is whether the left-turn arrow turns green before the straight-ahead traffic or after... Here, you wait and watch a lane from somewhere allowed to go, then some pedestrians allowed, then something else to happen, maybe a bus goes by, and suddenly you get to go. It's easy to get distracted while waiting, and nearly impossible to "jump the gun" and go before your light is green, because you really have no idea whose turn is next. No chance of the common-in-Rochester "New York left-turn," which is the quick-off-the-line left before the regular traffic gets going.

Anyway, I have been meaning to write about my adventure in the Bus Lijn for more than a week, mostly because I wanted a good illustration of an Eindhoven intersection to show all this confusion clearly. Behold exhibit A, conveniently viewed from our temporary apartment on the 7th floor:
In this photo, you'll notice many lanes going many directions. In the center are the bus lanes, indicated by the large white letters spelling BUS as well as the actual bus. On either side of the bus lanes, normal auto lanes, and further out, bike lanes, which tend to have pinkish pavement and crossings marked with big white squares. Beyond those, pedestrian sidewalks, with crossings marked with little white dashes. The opposing street has all of these except bus lanes.

So the other weekend, when we still had our rental car, I managed to drive in the bus lane (bus lijn, pronounced like bus line) as well as the bike lane (fietspad)... The bike path was just a quick oops, kind of like cutting the corner too close. Later, I hung a left, and before I knew it, I was driving over the words BUS LIJN, with grassy medians on either side, and I couldn't do anything about it. Strangely, there was another car further down the block, also in the bus lane. I guess it happens!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Now I'm Really Living Dutchly

I am more-or-less living in limbo: no apartment, no residence permit (it's pending, of course), no bank account (also pending), etc. I have health insurance, but the policy number is pending. I live in a hotel, which sounds posh and nice, but in reality is claustrophobic. I eat out for every meal, which also sounds great, but in reality is tiresome and heavy. All this feels like some kind of twisted vacation -- it's fun and interesting to be in a foreign country, but I'm spending all my time trying to remedy the aforementioned problems rather than enjoying the trip...

So, today I rented a bicycle from the hotel and rode it to work. That is the essence of living Dutchly! It was a gorgeous, chilly, sunny morning, and the bike paths were chockablock with scarfed Dutch commuters. I biked through the park; I biked by the big avenues without any worry about cars; I biked through intersections with the special bike-lane stoplights; I biked into the complex I work in and locked the bike in the ground floor of the parking garage. Very pleasant, a good way to get going in the morning, and much faster than the walk-bus-walk combination I've been doing until now. I'm sold!

Here are some action shots taken from the saddle. First, a typical Eindhoven intersection with the pink bike path, mini bike stoplights, pedestrian crosswalk to the right, and of course car lanes to the left. Very organized, and very safe for biking.

Next, the approach to the only hill on my commute, the little bridge over the Dommel River.

And finally, approaching the High Tech Campus (on the right, across the road).

As I mentioned, it was chilly this morning. Not cold by upstate New York standards, but cool enough that I wore gloves. I noticed that I was in the minority with regard to manual insulation. I saw quite a few cyclists with one hand on the handlebar and the other in their pocket! Makes sense, I guess -- warm one up for a few minutes, then switch! I was the only one with one hand on the handlebar and the other taking photos, though, for sure!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bier Automaat

No, this isn't your typical American Pepsi machine... this one serves Heineken! I discovered this in our hotel, and by golly, I was obligated to give it a try. Yep, it works! Heineken in a can for €1.50. Homer would definitely "woohoo!" about that.

And, speaking of bier, it turns out that Dutch restaurants serve ridiculously tiny beverages -- that is, unless you order beer. If you order soda, water, or sparkling water, you invariably get a glass 0.2L bottle and a tiny tumbler to pour it into. 0.2 liters is 6.8 ounces, meaning less than 1 cup! For €2! For reference, a typical American vending-machine soda, at 20 oz, is thus just about exactly 3 Dutch servings. What I find interesting is that in the same restaurant with the 0.2L sparkling water, ordering a beer gets you about twice that volume, always poured neatly in a glass meant for the exact brand of beer you're getting, and often with a little paper skirt at the bottom to absorb the condensation. I think this disparity clearly illustrates the priorities here! Also, if the tidy, normal-sized beer isn't enough, in some places you can order a grote bier, or large beer, that is just about a pint -- perfect for the Brits in the house, I guess. I haven't attempted to order a grote water, but I have successfully gotten a carafe of tap water.

Back to the vending... Automaat is my new favorite Dutch word which appears to be used for any kiosk/service/vending machine. The machine that dispenses parking passes is a parkeer automaat; an ATM is a geldautomaat or bankautomaat; a coffee dispenser is a koffieautomaat; etc. For an interesting assortment of verkoopautomaten, or "machines that sell stuff," see this page. Based on all my newfound knowledge of automaten, and the aforementioned pictorial examples, I assume that the Heineken-hawking Pepsi machine may be properly called a Bierautomaat -- my new favorite machine.

Friday, October 10, 2008

All's well in the 'hoven

I'm not sure if "the 'hoven" is an established nickname for my new hometown, but if not, it should be. It's not unprecedented, either. The city just a bit north of here is known as "den Bosch," rather than its full name, 's-Hertogenbosch, but really, who would say all of that and start it with an apostrophe-ess, anyway?

The real news behind all this name-chatter is that my wife, my dog, and me all made it safe and sound, if slightly overtired, to Eindhoven today. This involved a drive from Rochester to Toronto that took 4 instead of the usual 3 hours because of emergency road construction; a long, overnight, but thankfully direct, flight to Amsterdam; and then a sleepy, trafficky, 2-hour drive to Eindhoven. Meredith and I had a surprisingly comfortable trip in the immense coach cabin of our KLM 747, nicknamed "City of Nairobi" and really not much smaller than some cities. Somehow the seats didn't seem so cramped, and the duration so intolerable, as they have on other trans-Atlantic flights, . Maybe it was the thrill of actually doing this; maybe it was the great service from a huge team of flight attendants (truly, no irony here, despite the seeming impossibility in today's air-travel scene: they were numerous, polite, and super-efficient); or maybe it was that the seats were just a tiny bit more suited to my lumbar region than the last Airbus I rode. Sure, there was traffic, the plane left late (but landed early), the dog dropped a load in her kennel along the way somewhere and emerged scared and stinky, and the Amsterdam car-rental folks took a while to get a suitable substitute for the car I actually reserved... but in any case, we made it. And, most importantly, our hotel let us check in early so we could couch out for a bit before attempting to convince our bodies it was mid-day instead of 6am after a sleepless night.