Sunday, 31 August 2008

A little driving and a lot of tofu

Today I did Amy Bento's Advanced Step Challenge, then drove us to ASDA to buy some under-the-bed storage boxes for Derek and to Sainsbury's for miso and some fruit. There's a roundabout in the ASDA parking lot (who knows why). I was making a left turn to leave the parking lot, and was shocked to see people from the other side of the roundabout cutting straight across it to the turning I was trying to make, rather going around it. (For my American pals, you enter a roundabout and go clockwise, yielding to traffic approaching from your right. I was yielding to traffic that should have been approaching from my right, but who were instead driving directly across the roundabout and cutting me off!) I waited for them all to pass, then made a careful left turn, like a good little learner driver. Some idiot came zooming across the roundabout as I was in mid-turn, cutting it entirely, and got right up behind me. I didn't look at him but Derek said he looked royally pissed off. Why I don't know. He was the one breaking the laws of the road! I drove around to Sainsbury's (executing a couple of very dodgy hill starts, I might add) and we got the miso and drove the rest of the way home without incident.

I wore my hearing aids 11.30-2.30 and put them back on around 4.30. I'm still wearing them and it's now 7.30. Today they haven't hurt the inside of my ears. Maybe I'm getting used to them being in there, or maybe I'm getting better at inserting them and not putting them at too weird an angle. While I was cooking lunch, I even forgot they were in.

Speaking of lunch, we played with the Japanese dishes again and I made miso-marinated grilled tofu, root vegetables braised in dashi (sweet potato, swede, daikon and potato), and a peanut-sauce stir-fry of celery, yellow pepper, daikon and bean sprouts. We had this with brown rice and shredded nori, followed by green tea.

I strained the liquid from the root vegetable dish and reserved it for the base for a broth, so for dinner we had kitsune udon with carrot, onion and shiitake mushrooms. Lovely stuff! Okay, so we had tofu twice in one day, but they are so different it wasn't really that noticeable.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

First day with my new ears

I put my hearing aids in at 8.30 and walked to work. The sensation when you put in your hearing aids is not unlike the moment when one of your ears that has been stopped up suddenly pops open. There's a sensation of sound rushing in. Of course, the sound conducted by my hearing aids is not a natural sound, so it is accompanied by a rushing background noise such as you expect to get from speakers. It's distracting until you start listening beyond it for actual sound, then you don't notice it so much. This could be because I have NHS hearing aids, which are not as high tech as some. Or it could just be the nature of hearing aids themselves. Don't know yet.

I got to work and a few of my colleagues admired my new 'magic ears'. (This is what we've been calling them at work. They have been right there with me through this long, long wait for hearing aids--I started this journey on the NHS in 2005). They commented on how invisible they are and made jokes about how they couldn't talk bad about me anymore.

I noticed that I could hear what they were saying a bit better from a distance, but the workroom has a big piece of equipment in it that makes a constant airy hum, and this sound may prove intolerable to me in hearing aids. I may have to take them out when in the work room.

On the enquiry desk, I found that I had to ask people to repeat things less frequently than without the aids, but I still misheard things and had to ask for things to be repeated occasionally. So there's no miracle here. I'm still hard of hearing, but I knew very well that hearing aids do not correct the hearing in the same way that eyeglasses correct vision. They can give a small boost to the hearing you still have, but they certainly don't restore normal hearing.

About 10.30, I switched to the directional setting so that my hearing aid focussed more on sounds coming from directly in front of me. This did seem to help me hear customers, so I might use that more.

The phone proved to be a problem. Holding the phone to my ear pushed my ear buds in and hurt. Holding the phone away from my head, I couldn't hear the caller. I will have to figure out what to do about that. I will probably develop a knack of not pusing down on the sound tube by holding the phone toward the back of my ear, or perhaps resting it on my cheekbone just above the ear.

At 11.30, I was feeling fatigued and took the aids out. It was a relief to get them out of my ear, not so much from a listening point of view, but from a comfort standpoint. It's hard to describe what it feels like to have these things in your ear. Imagine that you are walking around all day with a Q-tip (cotton bud) stuck in each ear, and on the end of each Q-tip there is a tiny speaker playing sounds down your earhole. That's pretty much what it feels like. Eventually you just want to pull it out! I noticed last night and today what a shock it is to pull them out. The sound just goes. It's like a wall shuts down over your ear, it's really weird. You don't realise how deaf you are until the first 30 seconds after taking out your hearing aids.

I put them back in after a rest period, around 2.00. I wasn't on the frontline much in the afternoon, so I didn't get much more practice with them. I did notice on the walk home, I could hear the people speaking around me much easier than I normally can. Street and wind noise normally cause me to shout and have to ask people to say things over and over. I can see how the hearing aids will be useful in that situation.

When I got home at 4.30, I took them out again, did a workout and at 6.00 put them back in again. I will wear them until I can't take it anymore and put them away for the night.

And that's day one!

Friday, 29 August 2008

Got 'em!

I received my NHS digital hearing aids today. They are called 'Oticon Spirit 3' and are produced specifically for the NHS. This model is otherwise known as Oticon Tego Pro, which is an 'old' hearing aid--it was released as Tego Pro in 2005. Now it is produced for the NHS because there are higher spec hearing aids on the market now, such as the Oticon Delta and others. The Oticon Spirit 3 has 4 settings, Daily/Normal, Directional, Telecoil/Loop, and Microphone plus Loop. It also has a volume control dial. Best of all, it is free on the NHS. The hearing aid, tubes, batteries, all are free. To buy retail, this hearing aid would have cost me £1200, with extra for spare tubes and £5.00 a pack for batteries. So all in all, even if it is 3 year old technology, I think it's a good deal.

I've been wearing them for 3 hours. Will give a better report after I've worn them awhile, but I can say I can definitely hear better with them!!!

As to the otosclerosis, the CT scan was inconclusive. There isn't any sign of it, but you can never tell just by a CT scan. So we are going to keep a watch on it.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Today's lunch

Kimpira Carrot and Bean Sprout Fried Rice

cooked brown basmati rice
carrots, chopped into small dice
chopped onion
fresh mung bean sprouts
garlic, minced
soy sauce
chili flakes
toasted sesame oil

Stir fry (either dry fry or use a touch of peanut or rice bran oil) the carrots, onion, garlic and ginger (quantities to taste)until carrots are just beginning to get tender on the outside but still crunchy inside, about 2 or 3 minutes. Sprinkle soy sauce over to coat and continue cooking and stirring. Add chili flakes to taste. Toss in fresh mung bean sprouts and stirfry VERY briefly. (Sprouts should remain crisp). Add the cooked brown basmati rice and take wok off the burner, toss ingredients to heat rice through. Salt to taste if required. Drizzle a VERY tiny amount of toasted sesame oil and toss through. (Use a judicious hand as it is powerful stuff!)

This was just something I threw together for lunch, but it was so good I had to post it! The whole thing takes under 10 minutes, including the chopping.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

London Weekend

Friday morning, I drove the car down the A5 to Milton Keynes, where we parked up in a multi-storey carpark and got a train to London to explore the Japan Centre and Chinatown in search of Japanese stuff. After the incredible shock of the cost of the trainfare (£37.50!!), we had a good time shopping in the Japan Centre for new dishes and pantry staples. I was disappointed in the Japan Centre's selection of bento supplies--there is more available on their website than in the shop! So the only bento item I bought was some little soy sauce bottles with cartoony faces on the lids. I did buy several little bowls and square plates and lots of Japanese food items, but now that I've been there I know that everything is available online and as they will deliver up to 30kg for only £4.95, it is FAR cheaper to order than to travel to London. We ate some absolutely delicious vegetarian sushi for lunch, with some homemade miso soup that was not only a revelation (SO much better than instant), but also it came free with the sushi!

Friday night, we stayed at Mark's place and then the next morning I drove us over to Bletchley station to go back into London to see 'Clone Wars' with all our friends. We were in for another huge shock at the trainfare (£46.60!!!) Clearly, driving to Milton Keynes and travelling from there served no useful purpose at all as far as saving us money. Bottom line is, visiting in the south costs a fortune no matter how you try to do it. We won't be back to London for a long time. We could have spent the weekend in Wales for what it cost us just to go in and out of London twice. Ridiculous.

The photo above is us in Victoria Embankment Gardens enjoying a picnic in the sun before the movie. We all then walked over to Leicester Square and saw 'Clone Wars' in a cinema called The Vue. Another London sticker shock: admission to the cinema was £12.95 each! (Just two days earlier, we saw 'The Dark Knight' in Nuneaton Odeon on Orange Wednesday for only £2.50 each...) God, London is such a rip-off. The movie was fun though. I really enjoyed it and look forward to the TV series.

After the movie, we went to a pub called The Angel, where Derek and I didn't have anything to drink at all but enjoyed a brief chat with the gang before heading off around 5.00. Then we had to get the train back to Bletchley and drive home. We got into Nuneaton at 8.30.

A good but expensive weekend, and a few lessons learned about bloody stupid London!! It's too bad all our friends live down there...

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Chinatown in Brum

Today we went to Birmingham hoping to get in to see the Birmingham Back to Backs, but there wasn't an appointment available, so we spent most of the day walking around, having a bento lunch at Mount Fuji, and then shopping for dishes in Chinatown. (It's a very SMALL Chinatown, consisting mainly of one strip mall called the Arcadia and a lot of restaurants. Oh well!) Lunch was very tasty. Derek went mad for the tempura!

I was on a mission to find some little Japanese dishes today and couldn't believe there wasn't one single Japanese shop in the second largest city in England. As a last resort, we went in Sing Fat Chinese Supermarket hoping they would have some dishes--and they did! I was beside myself with glee as I chose several bowls and small dishes. So of course, even though we had Japanese for lunch, I had to make something Japanesey so I could use our new dishes:

Brown rice, miso soup, kampira carrots, veggie fingers (okay, not Japanese! LOL), and cabbage with green onions. In this photo, the dishes are not arranged properly, and I hadn't yet brought out the little dish of sweet thai dipping sauce.

And here are the dishes after the meal, in proper order: rice bowl, soup bowl in front of diner, three side dishes above (in this case they were all on one plate), chopsticks nearest diner with tips pointing to left.

I'm sure I overfilled the plates! I am still stuffed and it's an hour later. Derek and I had fun trying to use chopsticks (o-hashi), but Derek did suffer a minor flip out trying to get the last few grains of rice out of the bottom of his bowl and swore while reaching for a fork. He had a grain of rice stuck to his lip. It was great fun having dinner on proper Japanese dishes! Now I just have to learn not to put as much food on next time (at least for me.)

It's off to the Japan Centre tomorrow--who knows what joys await us there!

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Wholemeal bread and a really bleak film

By request of hubby, here's a photo of the wholemeal bread I made yesterday. It's a basic 100% wholemeal loaf, with pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and pine nuts, and rubbed liberally with olive oil before baking. He's been going mad about it, we've nearly eaten all of it, and he liked it so much he made this photo of it!

I used to bake all the time back in the US, but have fallen out of the habit over here. Maybe I'll do it more often if it gets this reaction!

I also made my first batch of homemade soy milk today. It tastes milk. Much cheaper than ready made. I wasn't sure how long I needed to cook it, though. I know soy beans are notoriously indigestible if not cooked well. So hubby and I just had a bowl of cereal using it, and we'll wait to see what happens!

We just got back from seeing The Dark Knight. People have been raving about how good it is, but I found it overwhelmingly bleak and depressing. The only glimmer of hope that I could see in the film occurs when some ordinary citizens and some convicts have to make a tough decision. But that's it. Everything else about it is dark, dark, dark! Why would anybody want to live in Gotham? Why don't they just leave? What a dump. And, as I said to DH as we were walking to the car afterward, if Gotham is meant to be a microcosm of the world, what kind of vision is that!

So here are my observations about The Dark Knight:

*What is up with Maggie Gyllenhall's hair? Did they spend so much on special effects that they didn't have the budget for shampoo? I mean, ugh. (Plus,the old girl isn't aging well. Looking really lined and pruny around the mouth). That was a valiant attempt at a wiggle now and then, but compared to Ironman's Gwyneth Paltrow in those pencil skirts? Forget about it!

*Bruce Wayne's Batman voice is ridiculous. Raspy and overwrought. I know he's trying to hide his true identity, but why not talk like a Yorkshireman or something. That would leave 'em guessing!

*Two-Face's face is just not right. Not working for me at all. Wouldn't that eyeball dry out? And why wasn't he drooling out that big hole in his cheek?

*Heath Ledger's performance is nuanced and charismatic, although I did find the delivery of his first speech startlingly reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart! I think the only actor to match him in this film is Gary Oldman.

Overall, this was a good Batman film, nothing more. I'm glad we went on Orange Wednesday and only had to pay £5.00 for the two of us. I know Batman was never meant to be a great guy--he's a worse nutjob than the psychos he brings to justice. But this film's vision of human nature is just too dark for me.

I much preferred Kung Fu Panda and Mamma Mia!

May all beings be at ease--skadoosh!

Book Review: The Japan Diet

To me, veggies can be a scandalous pleasure. I don't have time to prepare fresh veggies every night, but when I do, I find the prepping and cooking to be therapeutic, almost like an instant meditation in your own kitchen. Washing, chopping and piling up cut vegetables feels wonderful. I take joy in the sound of water running out of the tap. I love the feel of cool water as I rinse the vegetables under running water. I like the splashes hitting against the vegetables in the sink.

The colours of fresh vegetables are magnificent. The rich purple of aubergine, the stunning orange and red peppers, the forest greens of broccoli and spinach. I love fresh herbs, too. When I snap a rubber band from around the stems and spread them out, the intoxicating aroma bursts forth. I swish the bunch around in the sink and the leaves are drenched with sparkling water droplets, the bright green gets brighter. I break off a young jagged leaf from a sprig with my fingers. It smells and looks gorgeous.

Such a moment fills me with peace and happiness. I stand still and think what a miracle.
~Naomi Moriyama, The Japan Diet

This isn't your ordinary weight loss book. It's more like 'Zen and the Art of Thinner Thighs'. I loved it!

The author, Naomi Moriyama, wrote The Japan Diet as a companion book to her best-selling Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat. (Which she wrote as a response to another best-selling book, French Women Don't Get Fat, by Mireille Guiliano. I haven't read that one because French food is not exactly vegan friendly!) I also haven't read Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat--it's on request from the library and hasn't arrived yet. Can't wait to read it, though!

The book tells how the author was raised in Tokyo on a traditional Japanese diet, never had a weight problem at all, then when she moved to America in the 80s she packed on 25 pounds in only 8 weeks because of switching to a standard Western diet! When she went home for a visit one summer, she returned to eating her mother's home cooking and the 25 pounds fell away, which woke her up to the beauties of traditional Japanese eating. This book explains the principles of traditional Japanese home cooking, and how we can apply these principles even when eating Western food. The author calls this 'Japan-izing'.

In essence, Japanese home cooking consists of 'seven pillars': rice, fish, vegetables, soya, fruit, noodles and tea. The Japanese eat 10 times more rice than their Western counterparts, 4 times more fish, and less than half the amount of beef and pork. Japanese people eat less fruit and more veg than Westerners. They eat 6 times less animal fat. On average, their daily caloric intake is 680 calories lower than Westerners. In 2003, the average daily caloric intake of a Japanese person was 2768 (only 569 calories were from animal products), while the average British person ate 3450 calories (with 1057 of those coming from animal products.) (Figures supplied by United Nations FAO Balance Sheets).

Why should we care? Because Japanese women live in good health longer than any other women in the developed world, on average 85 years, and their obesity rate is only 3%. In the UK, the average life span for a woman is 69 and the obesity rate is nearly 25%. That's why!

The typical home-cooked Japanese meal is centred on rice and miso or clear soup, with three 'side dishes' of vegetables, fish and/or tofu, perhaps some pickles, followed by green tea. There is no main course, but balanced portions of different foods. All the foods are served on small individual dishes, not grouped together on one plate. You get proper serving sizes this way. A rice bowl holds one portion of rice. A soup bowl will only hold one portion of soup. Serving a meal Japanese style means automatic portion control! You can refill your rice bowl, but you'll be aware of how much you're eating. (We all know how easy it is to ladle out 3 or 4 servings of rice onto a plate and not realise how much we're eating).

This image shows a Japanese meal of (clockwise from upper left) carrot and mushroom, fried tofu in broth with vegetables, spinach and courgette, white miso soup with vegetables and a bowl of white rice with edamame and black sesame seeds. Each dish is actually quite small, as you can see when comparing the size to the soup spoon and chopsticks. But taken all together, it would be quite filling and well-balanced.

Here is how the author suggests you could 'Japan-ize' a Western meal:

*Serving of lean meat on a small plate
*Small side salad in its own bowl, dressing in tiny bowl on side
*Little plate with a piece of multigrain bread
*Medium size plate with mixed vegetables

This would mimic the Japanese eating style of having a multitude of little dishes, making the meal into a feast for the eyes and feel like an event. It's a neat idea!

The author of The Japan Diet is not saying Japanese food is better than Western food, or that Japanese people have cornered the market on healthy eating. There is a lot of really rubbish Japanese food. And Japanese women are notorious for being weight-obsessed and doing very unhealthy things to remain actually too thin. But if you apply the old principles of Japanese home cooking with our current knowledge of good nutrition (like the value of whole grains and the importance of a wide variety of vegetables, etc), you can hardly fail to equalise your weight and improve your overall health.

We have been eating Japanese food lately, and when we go to the Japan Centre on Friday, I intend to buy some Japanese dishes. We have already cleared a drawer in the kitchen for them! Can't wait--I will post photos!

Monday, 18 August 2008

Peaks and Troughs

Driving lesson today. Very bad. It's like I have learned nothing. I screwed up so much, and the more I messed up, the more upset and tense and unable to think I got. It was not good at all.

I came home and had a big snotty cry.

Stupid, stupid, stupid system here. The instructor even told me today that she knew it was obvious I could do it, I just wasn't doing it at the picky standard required for my exam. I can drive, just not the way I'm supposed to.

I don't even have the strength to get indignant about it. I would love to quit, but I am not going to. I am going to keep trying. I am going to get that mutha-uckin' drivers licence.

On a lighter note, my shipment of Japanese food arrived today. Derek and I ate chirashi-zushi for lunch!

Saturday, 16 August 2008

So far Soy good

I am always on the lookout for plant-based health and nutrition information, and for the last couple of years, I've been feeling some unease about soy because of some of the claims I've read about the possible harmful effects of eating a lot of it. For vegans, tofu and other soy products can become a large part of the diet. We eat tofu around twice a week, but we do tend to have some sort of soy product every single day, even if it's only a splash of soy milk in cereal. In addition to all the health benefits that soy products are purported to have, I have also read that soy can increase the chances of breast cancer, lead to dementia in later life, and block absorption of minerals, amongst other things. This hasn't stopped me eating soy, but it's made me wonder and worry a bit, and buy different types of non-dairy beverages on a rotational basis (oat milk, rice milk, soy milk, almond milk, etc).

Even with the assurances of my food hero, John Robbins, I have still paused and wondered if I should limit the amount of soy in our diet.

I just found this article, that methodically explains and refutes the most recent studies that have been publicised as showing that soy intake is dangerous. It's reassuring for me, and I thought it would be of interest to other vegans:

Is It Safe to Eat Soy? By Virginia Messina, MPH, RD & Mark Messina, PhD

May all beings be at ease...

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Still here

I had a driving lesson yesterday. I'm going around the town now, driving around roundabouts and stopping at traffic lights and all that good stuff. Yesterday I learned my first manoeuvre: the 3-point turn. Needs work. I'm much less frightened during the lessons now. [Before my lessons, I take a mixture of flower remedies that I find helpful: Wild Rose (for enthusiasm), Chestnut Bud (to learn from past mistakes), Clematis (for grounding), Walnut (to deal with change), Impatiens (for patience!) and Cerato (to trust my own judgement). I sip that mixture in a glass of water for about an hour before the lesson, then when I am standing waiting for the instructor to arrive, I have frequent blasts of Rescue Remedy. It does seem to help!]

Weighed in at 135.2 today. *sigh* I would really, really like to be back down to 131 where I was right before Christmas. I am trying to eat less junk. Last week I only ate 4 biscuits all week. For a while there, I was eating more than that every day! So things are looking up, although DH and I did munch our way through an entire box of apple granola cereal in two days. Darn that stuff, it's so yummy!

Yesterday I put in a big order at the Japan Centre website for loads of Japanese pantry staples. I've experienced a sudden resurgence of interest in Japanese food. When I was in high school and university, I was really into all things Japanese, particularly food and language. That fell by the wayside over the years, but is coming around again! I will have to veganize a lot of recipes, and will post them as I do so.

(Above is a stock photo of a vegan bento in the style I'm using--just pack the food in. I don't go in for the overly cutesy-poo food styling that some people do for a bento, although I do enjoy looking at photos of them. This box just contains rice, spinach, carrots, and vegan scallops. The little bottle is for soy sauce. That's plenty of cuteness for me!)

Next week, the hubby and I are going to London to see Clone Wars with a group of our friends, and we plan a visit to Japan Centre. I'm dead excited. It's big department store that specialises in all sorts of Japanese stuff. Hoping to get more bento boxes and cutesy Japanese thingies!

May all beings be at ease.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Hello...bento! (Or should I say konnichiwa?)

After Christmas break 2003, I embarked on my initial weight loss journey and was successful. Over the last year or so, my good eating habits have deteriorated and I have gained roughly 3 pounds. So...

Since I've just finished an extended 3-week holiday, I thought I would repeat my technique of starting directly after a break and clean up my eating, step up my exercise and see what happens. I have been eating pretty much any and everything I want for a year, so I should think that a little discipline will make itself known pretty quickly.

To give me something new to play with and strengthen my resolve, I just ordered two lovely new bento boxes and a bag, and I am going to seek out some bento-box-for-weight-loss recipe books.

The two bentos are both 2-tier boxes with seals and bento bands, and the bag should be fine for either. I ordered them from Japan Centre in London. I am SO envious of residents of the US, who have a bewildering variety of bento boxes available for purchase online. As usual, my choices in the UK are quite limited. Still, these are cute and a good start. You'll notice I added a link (to the right under 'Information') to a website called 'Bento TV'. A girl called Sarah, sporting jarringly manga-like dogears and a bashful maiko voice, displays with fetishistic glee her vast collection of bento items and recipes. Check it out--don't miss the archives, particularly the segment on organising your bento supplies and how to make a heart-shaped hot dog! (Another counter-culture out there. Who knew!)

Could this be the beginning of a new collection and hobby??

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Amsterdam 2008--Day Two and Three

Sunday We got a hop on/hop off canal boat to Rijksmuseum, where we got off hoping that we could get lunch at the Golden Temple. (We didn't bother going in the museum because we were there in January 2007.) Disappointingly, Golden Temple was closed, so Derek and I split off from Hannah and Libby to get some more time in on the canal boats and they decided to hang around Leidseplein for a while. Derek and I got a lunch of stir-fry vegetables and some bananas and blueberries from a fruit stand, then took the canal boat back up the Prinsengracht canal. Some crazy French or German people came zooming under a canal bridge on the wrong side and smacked our canal boat, so we had to pull over for a few minutes while our driver had hot words and very European gesticulations with the other guy.

After riding the canal boats for a while, we met Libby and Hannah at the Tuschinski Cinema where we saw 'Mamma Mia' on screen one. We had the special love seat box with wine and nibbles! The film was wonderfully camp and awful, but that's something for another blog entry!

After the movie, we got Wok to Walk and strolled around the western side a bit to see lit bridges and a few girlies in red windows. Then we went back to the room and slept like LOGS!

MondayOur canal boat tickets were good until 12.00, so we hopped on to Anne Frank Huis and walked up and down the famous 'Nine Streets' shopping area. Unfortunately for us, Monday seems to be the day that shops either open incredibly late or are shut altogether, so we didn't get to actually go inside many of them. Too bad, because several of them looked fun and quirky. We strolled over to the Golden Temple in another valiant attempt to have lunch there, but incredibly they were closed on Monday as well!! Damn and blast. Before we split up, we had a quick lunch of roasted vegetables and bread (the girls got pizza) at a local department store and ate them perched on a window sill outside the shop, between some bicycles and fighting off the pigeons. Not very gezellig, but what the heck. Libby and Hannah parted ways with us after that to go and explore on their own and attempt to get into the Anne Frank Huis, which we were not interested in seeing. (It may sound odd, but my take on it is, I know what happened to the child. I don't have to go and stand in that little closet where she hid for two years and think about it. I'm supposed to be on holiday! They later told us it was very good and not too depressing, so maybe next time.)

Derek and I decided instead to do a set walk from the DK Amsterdam guide, which took us around the western side of Amsterdam where we saw quiet neighbourhoods of locals, most of whom seemed to be seated outdoors gathered around tables either directly and unabashedly on the pavement outside their front doors, or outside pubs and restaurants. They were invariably nibbling olives and cheese cubes and nursing tall glasses of chilled wine while talking, talking, talking. This is the so-called 'cafe culture' that Gordon Brown wants to create in Britain, but Derek and I discussed it at length during our stroll and we just don't see it happening here. We have a completely different culture in Britain. Particularly foreign to my eyes was the sight of whole families, and in couple of cases what looked like a congregation of several families, sitting around a table that had been dragged out onto the pavement in front of their homes, just gathered there eating, chatting, or reading and sipping wine. This is something you will never, ever see in England. Ever. To do something like that would be considered entirely odd if not downright bizarre. English people never sit in front of their houses. The only time being in the front garden is allowed at all is when you are tidying or weeding it. Otherwise, to spend time there is an unthinkably strange thing to do. I can back this up with a quote from an anthropologist:

This is one of the most important garden rules: we never, ever sit in our front gardens. Even when there is plenty of room in for a garden seat of some sort, you will never see one. Not only would it be unthinkable to sit in your front garden, you will be considered odd if you even stand there for very long without squatting to pull up a weed or stooping to trim the hedge. Front gardens, however pretty and pleasant they might be to relax in, are for display only.
~from 'Watching the English' by Kate Fox

And I can also substantiate through asking actual English people. My husband confirms that it would be considered odd to drag a table or even a chair out in front of your own home and sit there reading or eating. What actually said was, 'It would be considered weird to broadcast yourself when you should be enjoying your privacy in your back garden.' I found that very telling. So sitting in front of your home is 'broadcasting yourself', which implies a resentment on the part of the observer. The English love saying of people that they 'keep themselves to themselves', as if that were a high compliment. It's such an insular culture here. People do go to the pub, and sometimes sit outside their pubs if the weather is nice, but that is so far from a European cafe culture. I can't see it ever catching on here.

During this walk, we also discovered a petting zoo and some 17th century almshouses tucked away in a tiny courtyard.

On the way home from this walk, we decided to pop into to the supermarket to make a hotel room picnic. We got a bottle of grenache which we iced down in the bathroom sink, a couple of dark bread rolls, a bag of salad, then went out and got a box of Japanese stir fry and gigantic cone of chips and had a lovely little dinner in our room while watching a rerun of Dragon's Den. It felt oddly European to be eating dinner at 10.30 at night!

Tuesday We called the girls' room in the morning, but they wanted to go their separate ways that day, so Derek and I headed off for the Tuschinski Cinema where we enjoyed a delightful two-hour guided tour of the place. It was a fact-filled adventure and we got to see everything very close up, even sat in the second balcony, which was WAY up high (16 meters), so high you would have to look down at the screen to see the movie! We bought the full-colour book after the tour and had some lovely falafel sandwiches in a little shop across the street from the cinema, then strolled back through Chinatown and met the girls at the hotel to catch our train to the airport. We were home by 7.00!

And that's our thrilling Amsterdam weekend!

Friday, 1 August 2008

Amsterdam 2008--Day One

We went to Amsterdam 26th-29th July and had a great time! The weather was very warm and pleasant, except for one afternoon when it rained and we got soaked. We had our usual run of bad luck with finding a restaurant where we'd be happy to eat, but other than that, it was a great trip.

Saturday we arrived at 9 AM, dropped our luggage off at the hotel and went out for a walk around. I bought a new bag at the Tibetan shop near the Begijnhof. It was the first place we visited. We wanted to show our friends, Libby and Hannah, this small oasis of calm in the city centre.

Then we went marching off to the Oude Kerk because I had read in a guide online that it shouldn't be missed. I wish I had looked closer outside, because we each paid 5 euros to get in only to find that it was being done up on the inside and was empty of everything except some scaffolding! At least we got to use the loos, though.

We continued our march until we reached Museum Amstelkring, Our Lord in the Attic church. This is a house with a Catholic church hidden in the attic, built during a period when Protestant rule forbade Catholic worship. But, in the old Amsterdam tradition, breaking of existing laws was overlooked. You could attend services if the building didn't look like a church on the outside. Thus, a 'hidden' (sort of) Catholic church.

After that, we went and checked in to our rooms, had a cup of tea and ventured over to the edge of the Red Light District, had a hummus sandwich, then decided to turn our attention to walking to Leidseplein to buy tickets for Boom Chicago. It rained on us during this walk. We stopped along the way in various shops, and in one shop called Takara, I bought an umbrella and a little black wooden statue of an elephant.

Derek took this photo of us at Boom Chicago. See how drenched and knackered we look!

This was my view of the stage. Hooray for balding German guys who come in right before everything starts, plonk themselves down and then try to eat a hamburger with a knife and fork all through the peformance!

After the show, which was a funny sketch and improv show by a bunch of Americans (in English) with an environmental theme, we headed back to the rooms after eating falafel sandwiches while sheltering in a doorway to get out of the drips.

More in the next entry.