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Saturday, 28 January 2012

Ninth Letter: Chinese Five Spice and Charcoal

Hi *******

Wednesday 25th of January (significant date)

My home for the next 3 years
Today is a significant day for two reasons. Firstly, the module web site on my OU English Literature degree opened it’s doors, and with the opening my many decades of excuses about my lack of an education must leave. I’ve blamed everything from my genes and dodgy fourth finger, to the English teacher who made each twitching 13 year pupil in my class stand and spell, driving me to spend the entire year hiding behind my dad’s outside cotton hanky. (she never did ask me to spell anything) The second reason it’s a significant date is that it’s twelve years since Andy and I first met…. Oops, no that next month, ah well, if Andy reads this it will give him plenty of time to think of a treat.

It’s a strange week, I’m not sure where to start – probably with the things that weigh heaviest on my mind

This photo may not seem relevant, however it is a perfect
colour match for my Chinese Five Spice Spare Ribs

I wasn’t the best of cook in when we lived in the UK, but I could follow a recipe if given enough time and produce reasonably edible food. However since arriving in the Nederlands my cooking has got gradually worse. Obviously I lay some of the blame solidly at Andy’s door, there is so much he doesn’t want to eat: salads are out, unless full of raw chilli’s, chicken is looked upon with distrust and irritation unless cooked whole and roasted, the fish here isn’t as good as the Isle of Wight (fantastic fishmongers there, if not much else).  Lemons, ginger, leeks, French beans, broad beans have all been sent to Coventry as has Dutch beef. To make matters worse, much worse actually, two weeks ago we embarked on another special diet: high protein, high fat, no carbs or sugar. So my already reduced pantry has been condensed even further, we eat no root vegetables, fruit, peas, tomatoes, rice, pasta or bread. Producing tasty food has become a distant memory now we can no longer smother our meals in Heinz tomato ketchup. This week’s planned menu finally came to a halt when Andy bravely put his folk down on tonight’s assault. Piles of savoy cabbage, mashed cauliflower (which, in case you’re wondering, does not taste like mashed potatoes, even with added butter) and pork ribs in garlic and Chinese five spice, slow cooked then flash burnt. I was hoping for crispy spare rib with tasty trimmings  - I got charcoal and bland veg mountain.

‘All right?’ I asked Andy at the dining table, avoiding his eye.
            ‘It’s not your fault babe,' Andy replied, ' but I can’t take anymore this week, we’re eating out tomorrow.’ I peeked a look at his face, was that a tear?

                The other thing that’s weighing heavy on my mind is my new Dutch language course, it was my third lesson today. I’m not sure which part of my stupidly competitive brain thought it would be a good idea to study for a degree (having barely gone to school when it was compulsory), finish my 80’000 word novel (42,540 and counting) and learn Dutch, a particularly difficult language, especially the letter g which sounds like a h that your trying to gob across a dining room table.
Dutch home work completed in the Hejgend Hert cafe 
Now Dutch if you’re not aware has lots of weird, confusing rules. Grammar seems important (we didn’t have it at my progressive school in the 70’s), verbs keep changing with the addition of extra T’s, EN’s and occasionally the odd FT. Some word are preceded by DE and some by HET with no apparently need for logical or continuity. If you put JE at the back of a word it becomes all girly and baby like. You must speak differently to the elderly and people you think are more important than you. I’m not talking about putting on a posh voice, you actually have to change the words.  If this isn’t confusing enough the other two students are miles ahead of me, which doesn’t sit well and the teacher speaks 95% of the time in Dutch. Half way through the two hour lesson, I start watching the clock, nodding furiously whenever the teacher speaks to me, hoping she assumed I understand, which I don’t - and wishing for my dad’s old hanky to hide behind.

Andy didn't like the way Sean was eyeing
his meat in the Turkish restaurant 
Btw.. I’m very much looking forward to this weekend, I have my brother and his partner coming on Friday night on a whistle stop visit and buying trip in the Nederlands.  Then Saturday Steve comes to stay with us and give a keynote speech at a special games jam at NHTV.  The speech part doesn’t sound like fun I know, but Steve never passes a chance to wind Andy up or provide him with proof, that he’s not in fact always 100% perfect, leaving me to sit back and enjoy a bit of free entertainment.

Okay better go, Andy’s yelling for me to come and sit down.
Lots of love
Trace xxx

Ps… still not drank and have no desire too, beginning to wonder if I should see a doctor!

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Eighth letter: Turning chameleon

Hello *******

Carrying on with our tale: Life in the Netherlands began with many ups and downs, fortunately (I always shrink from the word luckily) for us more ups than downs.  However the one thing I hoped to be a massive up turned into a spectacular down.

Our new apartment is adorable, especially the spacious the living area, but as soon as our sticks of furniture arrived from the Isle of Wight we realised we had a problem. The space was perfect for playing with the dog, or rolling about an the floor making carpet angels and yes we really did this, the freedom of having so much space briefly affecting our normally high sense of decorum. 

So, once Andy finished terrorising Alfie and me by drilling holes in the concrete, he announced a trip to IKEA. This was more like it, I’d been a martyr, taken advantage of, (by way of the shower and towels) ignored and confused. Shopping in IKEA was something I knew how to do and how to do well. We switched on the Satnav and within ten minutes drew up outside the familiar blue, outsized container.  Andy gripping his list and measurements, marched passed all the little mini pretend houses, while I grabbed a couple of pencils (I know it’s wrong) and scurried behind. I’d never seen him this enthusiastic for shopping, his head twisting this way and that, scanning all the diverse furniture possibilities for our new home. Suddenly he stopped dead in the centre of the aisle.

‘I think we’ve passed it.’ He says.
‘Passed what? I says.
‘The cafĂ©, where did you think we were going?’

I retrieved my martyr’s hat, there would be no shopping until we’d spent quality time with IKEA’s meatballs.

Not sure how I expected to share the boot with this!
Within time Andy and the meatballs reluctantly parted. It took only a couple of hours to fill the two warehouse style trolleys: a nine foot dining table with chairs, three sets of black EXPEDIT, cubed, shelving units to use as room dividers, plastic boxes and wicker baskets to fit in said room dividers, a large red rug, light fittings, lamps, curtains, a frying pan, finally an enormous, striped palm tree and a purple potted Viola for me. As we collected each of the items from the rows of industrial help yourself shelves we applauded the decision to keep our mature, bulky four wheel drive car, at least we wouldn’t need to hire a van.

Or this!
The main reason we didn’t need to hire a van: Andy’s persuasive argument inspiring me to put life and dignity at risk. We’d tried several ways of fitting all the purchases into our newly shrunken car, and after some time accepted we needed to use the passenger seat to hold striped palm tree. I offered to catch a taxi or stay behind and wait for Andy to return later. Apparently this was a ludicrous idea, couldn’t I easily fold on top of the boxes by the back window? Evidently this was a double positive, it meant no extra journeys and I could stop the boxes flying out the rear window. Now in my teens or even twenties and perhaps even thirties I would have found this fun, possibly even thrilling, but as I’m a very long way past my thirties I found it neither.

The police car that drove up behind us on the dual carriageway, sent me into a blind panic as I tried to turn chameleon and mould my ample, rigid body into the cardboard boxes. How was I going to explain my lack of a seat belt? Surely we were breaking most laws of the Dutch Highway Code, Andy, driving with no rear visibility, carrying a dangerous load and a stowaway. I threw my coat over my head, and tried to make like a pile of clothes. A pile of clothes that occasionally lifted to check the whereabouts of the police car. Needless to say the journey home took a lot longer than ten minutes, with the Satnav developing a fondness for dead ends and cobbled streets.
Culture night

Okay better go and get ready, we’re off to a culture night in Breda, should be interesting! 
Trace xx

Btw.. I’m saying this quietly because I’m not sure how I feel. I’ve had no alcohol for over two weeks now, not in an attempt to lose those sticky 18lbs, but through too close an association with several glasses of wine on a night out recently. This is longest I’ve gone with wine in a decade; I’m loving not losing hours over the weekend and the feel of my brain cells and memory growing back. So perhaps this will become a permanent life choice. I’m not saying never, but watch this space.

The start of a 'too close an association with wine.'

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Seventh letter: Attack of the female Hairy Biker

Friday the 13th (Needed to wait till Saturday to post)

Hello *******

Sorry it’s been a while since my last blog. Last time I wrote we’d been formally registered with the town hall, we were legal citizens’ of Breda.  All we had to do now, acclimatise to the Dutch way of life - simple? No not so simple when you have a partner who works 16 hours a day, a hypochondriac, Tibetan Terrier and a head full of romantic dreams.

It looks friendly enough from a distance

  One of my reoccurring romantic dreams involves Breda market. We’re lucky to have twice weekly markets here in the cobbled Grote Markt.  The market is a gastronomic delight, full of: fresh fruit, vegetables, fishes, cheeses, herbs, flowers , speciality meats and pesto stuffed bread, it even has a section for bales of cloth should I ever feel the need for a bit of dressmaking .  In my day dreams Alfie trots beside me, obedient and leadless as I wander the sunlit market, I’ve already lost 18lbs, my hair is a flowing mass of golden ringlets. I carry a wicker basket and stop to exchange greetings with the familiar smiling stall holders, checking the freshness of their wares and only purchasing the freshest, tastiest of produce. In reality the 18lb’s hasn’t been lost for years, it’s still impossible to get a comb through my hair(hence my love of beanie hats) and Alfie strains at the lead whenever he spots a pigeon(often) or  to jump up at unsuspecting small children.
A small selection of the produce I don't buy.
   I’ve been here almost 5 months and today I made a momentous (to me) decision, I would buy from this morning’s market.  Forty minutes I wandered round the market, trying to find a peaceful stall brimming with fresh veg and an English speaking server. Eventually head bowed I gave up, knowing I couldn’t compete with the small Dutch speaking crowds surrounding the stalls and headed for home. On the way back I noticed three stalls cut off from the rest, and without giving myself time to back out, I picked up a small plastic bowl (Dutch market equivalent of a shopping basket) and started to shop. My white cabbage and 5 onions weren’t exactly adventurous but it was a start. I waited in the queue for the young handsome male server flirting with all the female customers, and mimed my small repertoire of Dutch words in preparation. As I got to the head of the queue my handsome server disappeared into the back of a van and out came the Dutch equivalent of a female Hairy Biker, this women not only didn’t speak English, (I could just tell) she looked like she’d spent the last 50 years digging cannels and the glare she gave me when I handed her my plastic bowl said this was my fault. I gave myself a serious talking too while she weighed my few purchases. Okay you can do this, it's no big deal, you're only buying veg and you know all the numbers up to 10. The noise that came out of her mouth as she held out her grubby gloved palm didn’t even nearly resemble any of the Dutch numbers I’d memorised. She repeated herself three times before I panicked and gave her 15 euros, she slapped the money back in my hand, tutted to the rest of the queue then hand wrote me a bill for 1 euros 35 cents.

Pre female hairy biker

                When Andy came home that night I tried to explain my sense of humiliation, however his mind was once more back on lecturers and he dismissed my concerns with a ‘I don’t know what you’re making all the fuss about, I don’t have a problem.’ Andy doesn’t have a problem because whenever he has to interact in Dutch, he just shouts the words ik Engelse. Which people respond to with beaming smiles and pats on the shoulder, answering immediately in English. In my first Dutch lesson this week, I found out why: for the last 5 months Andy has been loudly and proudly announcing  ‘I am an English woman.’

My hero
Before I sign off today I have to tell you about Alfie and what a hero he’s been this week.  Last Sunday he went for a romp around the forest with his new bestfriend Harvey the singing Jack Russell. Once back home he collapsed, I didn’t worry, after all he’d probably ran over 5 miles as he and Harvey ran after each other, jumping ditches and sniffing out secret trails. Around 8pm he started to cry, not full on yells but small little whines. By 9pm he’d developed a really nasty upset tummy and throughout the night he had to be taken outside as more and more bouts of sickness and diarrhoea shook his little body, five times he woke us between 11pm and 6am. Each time it took longer to wake us and at 3am neither of us are the fastest of dressers, yet our little dog hung on each time, waiting until he could drag us to the nearest scrap of grass before fertilising it with his red hot stream. There are many people out there with talented dogs, dogs that walk to heel or come back when called, dogs that can count, win doggy beauty contests even dogs that save lives, but you can keep them all, cos our dog’s got the sphincter muscles of Arnold Schwarzenegger and we wouldn’t swop him for the world.

Okay that’s all for today, back to my studies.

Trace xx