Thumbs Up for BodyBalance

As a cardio junkie, it’s often hard for me to diversify into low-intensity workouts. After all, when I’ve peeled myself out of bed and the darkness outside promises only chilled fingertips and a runny nose, there’s got to be tangible results at the end of this ordeal. Results can manifest themselves in (1) calories burnt; (2) sweat puddles produced; (3) muscles throbbing with lactic acid; or, (4) adrenaline rush. (Back in my heyday, I used to burrow through -20 degree weather to attend 6:00 a.m. spinning classes. Nuts indeed.)

There’s a price to pay for everything. More and more lately, I’ve noticed aches and sores in my body, cymballing my ratcheting years. I’m negligent on the stretching front – often only throwing in a few token back and quad stretches after 10km runs. This, I fully acknowledge, is not commendable behaviour. Recently though, I’ve been quite surprised at the power of stretching in alleviating my chronic and recurrent muscle twangs – thanks to my mother’s daily proselytizing over the wonder of yoga.

Sashiko pants

Good enough justification? (Sashiko pants by Lululemon)

I’ve always liked the idea of yoga, mainly because of the outfits and the ‘toning’ illusion that is perpetuated by all the lean and wiry devotees. Upon further analysis however, I concluded that it is not yoga which leads to leanness, but rather that skinny folk gravitate towards yoga. Sort of how the more latitudinally-endowed usually like swimming, because well, you know, there are certain components of our bodies that float better than others …. (I like swimming. A lot.)

Lopa lole

From Yoga to the Wine Bar (Lopa by Lole)

I just can’t bear all the “umming” and “ahhing” and the sitting still for ages that yoga makes you go through. It’s dull and when a class costs €15, I reckon meditation should probably be saved for homework …

Due to some cardio fatigue, I checked out BodyBalance of LesMills fame today, for the first time. It’s a yoga-taichi-pilates mixey-uppy sorta thing with upbeat music (not just crashing waves or Yanni). It’s actually one of the few classes in my health club that require passes but I was forgiven for my ignorance and allowed to wedge myself into a pretty crowded room. The instructor, Katja, was super accommodating to the expats in the room and conducted the whole class in impeccable English. The poses transitioned into each other at a good pace without too much dwelling on any one theme and were hard enough to make me break quite a sweat but not too hard to send people toppling over each other. In short, I loved it. Especially when it came to the meditation bit, Katja did it wholly in Dutch, so I could phase out and concentrate better on my neighbour’s pedicure.

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The Difference Between a Drugstore and a Pharmacy

In the Netherlands, there are two types of establishments purporting to sell you your pharmaceutical needs. Essentially, a pharmacy (apotheek) sells you drugs and some useful things. Conversely, a drugstore (drogisterij) sells you useful things (shampoos, vitamins, candies) and some drugs.

If you visit a doctor and need prescription medication, you need to get these at the apotheken readily identifiable by the shimmering green cross hanging on its outside wall. This green cross is a universal beacon throughout continental Europe signifying that help is close at hand. (But first, they will separate the wheat from the chaff by seeing how long you are able to wait before collapsing.)

In the several pharmacies I’ve had the privilege of huffing and sighing, I can promise you this behaviour was more than warranted. If you have three people in front of you, be prepared to wait at least half an hour. The pharmacists shuffle around, heads down, not acknowledging anyone, waving bits of paper in their hands – just going back and forth the pill cupboard and computers in anxious rumination.  When you do get to the front of the line, you’ll be amazed at the reams of paper and stickers that are required to dispense you a bottle of kids Vitamin D that doesn’t even need a prescription. By the way, things are out of stock very often, so if they have what you need, buy it in copious quantities.

Pharmacy

Pharmacy

My local pharmacy occupies a fair bit of space, thus requiring the employees to put in a lot of mileage to unearth a few bottles of skin cream. There are three cash registers but the staff use them interchangeably. What ends up happening is the queue sways to the right and left in rhythm to where the most alert staff is currently stationed. When I’m being served, I too do this “dance of the cash registers”. Two steps to the right (inventory check machine), two steps to the left, (typing out all my personal details), five steps to the extreme right (pointing out the Weleda oil), four steps back to the debit card machine, five steps to the left again (to continue conversing at the printer spitting out tomes). Instructions for usage are always in Dutch, but to their credit, the staff always take lots of time to translate it in English and to ensure you understand. (So, really, those aggravating non-Dutch speakers, like me, bear contributory responsibility for the growing lines)

To sum, if your request is somewhat benign and doesn’t require a prescription, try a drugstore for the basics like paracetemol, band-aids, and vitamins. They won’t have blood pressure medication, but if you can avoid the pharmacies, you may not need it.

Sashimi at the Dutch Fishmonger

Sashimi

A typical Asian thinks of “fishmonger” as a wet, stinky, scary, next-best alternative to hell. Some modern Brits reckon it’s where Gordon Ramsay goes at 6 a.m. to snuff out the competition. Americans hope for a Seattle Pike Place Market type of thing, fish-flinging and all that fanfare.

Well, at the local Bankastraat fishmonger (Zee Op Tafel or “ZoT”/“Sea on the Table”), it’s nothing like any of the above descriptions. This place doubles as a fishmonger and a casual-chic restaurant. You get to select your fish, have it cooked on the spot, and served to you with numerous glasses of wine. Almost like in Chinese restaurants with all the fish swimming back and forth in skinny aquariums, fervently seeking a way out. I used to knock on the glass walls to scare them as a kid, but have now repented.

At ZoT, the seafood wares are beautifully displayed on beds of ice. No stink whatsoever. The sashimi appetizer was fresh, the tuna was happily seared to perfection, not blasted into oblivion. (After a couple of unhappy incidents of cooked-to-the-max tuna steaks in other countries, I now go through a lengthy explanation of the searing concept to all who are willing to hear me out, starting with the wait staff.) Just doing my due diligence.

Given the freshness of ZoT’s products, I’d like to know what happens to the fish when the day is done. I suspect the staff and their families end up eating paella every night.

How to Create Your Starbucks Alter Ego

I’m probably not the only one who balks at announcing my real name in front of 20 strangers, just for the sake of a venti soy chai latte. Starbucks employees are required to ask for your name, which they then scribble onto paper cups, in the effort to avoid title disputes on cappuccinos. Some clothing stores do this too, like Lululemon. They write your name on the door and periodically holler “Hi Mary-Jane! How’s it going? Can I get you another size?” (translation – I know you’re not really a six, so stop pretending). So, everybody knows Mary-Jane is in the house and Mary-Jane is holding up the line, and Mary-Jane needs 3 sizes up. But what about reasonable expectations of privacy if Mary-Jane was actually the only Davinia-Andromeda in a small town?*

The second syllable sums up what I'm telling you ...

The second syllable sums up what I’m telling you …

What’s up with people demanding your personal information in public as though they were entitled to have it? Companies and marketing agencies pay millions for your personal information, lawyers work hard to delete your names from public access to information requests, Google is feverishly executing our “right to be forgotten”, so why does a little espresso machine pressure make us buckle at the knees?

It’s also tricky for barista and customer alike when geographic boundaries impact upon the ability to discern foreign sounds. Not quite sure what happens to “Krzysiek” in Guangdong or “Xuan Qing” in Texas, but its probably not pretty.

If ever you’re mulling over a moniker for yourself, here are some recommendations:

  • Avoid names with lots of “Ls” and “Rs” in China/Japan
  • Adhere to a max of two syllables – in repetition if possible (Mimi, Gigi, Dodo all good)
  • Model it after a famous citizen (Francois in Paris, Li Na in Beijing) but don’t take the mickey (e.g. not “Obama” or “Beyonce”)
  • Make sure you can say it with a straight face – bursting into giggles only raises suspicions. (so though “Cock” is a fairly common name in NL, this may not be your go-to.)
  • Enjoy the image you conjure with your real-life avatar!

As for me, my latest inspiration is Marlies Dekkers, the antithetical Dutch icon of frivolous frippery.

 

*then Lululemon and Starbucks wouldn’t set up shop there, so the question is moot, I guess.

War Memorials – And Those Who Guard Them

National War Memorial, Ottawa Image: Jcart1534

National War Memorial, Ottawa
                                          Image: Jcart1534

Yesterday a terrible tragedy occurred in Ottawa. A gunman let loose in Canada’s capital, just minutes from where I used to live, wreaking havoc in Parliament and killing a soldier stationed at the War Memorial. It was all the more devastating to learn that the soldier was a 25-year old father of a 6-year old boy.

I’d never imagine any War Memorial to be the scene of an attack. It is in stark juxtaposition with the commemoration of those who had lost their lives, a reminder of that we currently live in the happy days of peace. Or is it more a reminder now not to take the status quo for granted?

Perhaps one of the most moving memorials I have ever visited is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, this past August. Two soldiers stand in constant guard, they never move, except to tell you to back off when noses are honing in a little too closely. I’m not sure why, but the Tomb exudes an aura of power amidst grief. Much of it probably has to do with the solemnity conveyed by its vigilant soldiers.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Warsaw Image: Guillaume Speurt

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Warsaw
Image: Guillaume Speurt

Those who guard these memorials are always stolid yet hyper alert. I don’t know how they do it, standing for hours, heedless of the weather and all the annoying tourists around them. Perhaps the steadfastness stems from the knowledge that they serve an intangible yet crucial purpose that transcends the daily bustle. Perhaps it just stems from gratitude.

Are European Cars Cheaper in Europe?

Intuitively, I’d have thought the answer would be yes. If they are made in Europe, wouldn’t just the transport costs etc. render them more expensive elsewhere, such as in Canada? Obviously, that’s far too simplistic a rationale!

I had a couple of minutes to kill the other day at the Volkswagen dealer after bringing in our vehicle for yet another Adblue adventure (a phantom non-problem that cost €1,500 to “fix”), so I did a little window shopping and checked out the latest model Touareg.

Source: Left Lane 2014 VW Touareg

 Source: Left Lane
                        2014 VW Touareg

The 2014 Touareg Highline with the luxury pack all in, costs €98,351 (including taxes). They don’t sell many Touaregs in this dealership in The Hague – sometimes you don’t even see it in the showroom. With diesel costing around €1.45 per litre and petrol €1.65 per litre (the highest on the continent), it makes more sense to zip around in practical hatchbacks with better fuel economy. I have yet to conduct an empirical study, but hatchbacks/station wagons form about 80% of cars on the road in The Hague. (SUVs are much less common, except at my fitness centre where Range Rovers gobble up all the parking spaces). In general, Holland is a province where tall, tall, tall people like to cram themselves into small, small, small cars.

Anyway, I decided to build my own Touareg from the Canadian website. Turns out, pretty much the same model with similar specs costs CAD$79,108 (taxes included). At today’s exchange rate, this would mean the Canadian model costs €54,977. That’s 44% cheaper than in the Netherlands! Even given some margin of error in comparison, it’s still a hefty gap.

Some general thoughts: VAT is 21% here (not to mention a new vehicle purchase tax called “BPM”) while it hovers around 13% in Canada (it ranges); Cars keep their resale value a lot longer here than in Canada; and, I haven’t really done much analysis with other cars that may have juicier rebates in Europe.

Saying I Do …

Receipt

A waste of paper

… Want My Receipt.

One strange thing that happens on a regular basis in many grocery stores across NL is that checkout cashiers will ask you “Do you want your receipt?” Or something like “Wilt u het bonnetje”? In the early days, I was confused and a little flummoxed by the question, so my answers tended to range from a hesitant “no” (trying to fit into my new community) to a more aggressive “of course” while raising an eyebrow to telepathically communicate the unsaid “why on earth would you even ask”?

When I hear this question, I hear:

(1) Do you want to effectively waive your statutory rights in this purchase and sale agreement?

(2) Do you want to be unable to return any dodgy nectarines you may have bought today?

(3) Do you want to be unable to check the accuracy of your transactions today?

Pamphlet

Not a waste of paper

The rationale behind this question is apparently to reduce paper consumption. A noble cause, one that I too would champion, but for the inherent discrepancy in overall behaviour of the firms claiming to promote it. (See reams of promo pamphlets and cardboard farm animals filling up bins across the city.)

To me, it’s a clever cost-saving strategy on the part of the stores. No receipt, no claim. Unless you are the really intrepid sort who does not fear causing a scene at your local supermarket, swearing that the beetroot salad you bought yesterday (but disposed of the packaging as garbage collectors were coming in the morning), did in fact cause you food poisoning.

So, guys and gals, its time to say “I Do!” (“Ja, graag” will suffice.)

My Favourite Online Shopping Sites: For Practical Stuff

Since moving to NL, I’ve started doing most of my “useful” shopping online. It all stemmed from necessity. We didn’t know any better when we moved here, so our first two weeks in The Hague were spent buying: €100 kettle, €100 toaster, furniture in the five digits from merchants who did not accept credit cards, cheapy hair dryer/tongs (this I wouldn’t mind paying top dollar for but couldn’t find anyone who took me seriously – au naturel is the preferred look here), etc.; but the wake-up call was the €22 ice cube tray, which we did not buy. In the early days, we’d pound the streets of Noordeinde and Prinsesstraat, hoping to stock up our house that way. Sorta like blundering into a pinkie-sized Knightsbridge perhaps, looking to score a deal. Or Gangnam. Or Bloor-Yorkville.

Point being, there are lots of other options once you get over the settling-in frenzy. Hema and Blokker are good for basic necessities, but I digress from the focus of this post. Many Dutch and internationals shop online because the selection and prices are just a lot better. It’s a lot easier to do price comparison and you don’t have to wait an eternity to be served/endure the loyalty card chat.

Package

Salvation lies within …

In general, clothes and shoes are not a perfect fit for online shopping, unless returns are free and painless. I have been very pleased with Amazon UK and Amazon DE for getting stuff to me fast – not always free, but cheap. Amazon US fails me time and time again in NL. It’s something about customs. Watch out for this – really holds up the shipping process and racks up the cost (unknown at point of ordering). I have relatives in the UK, so my orders from John Lewis, JojoMamanBebe, Boots, make it to me free as well. Apart from that, Joules ships for OK charges; Asos ships everywhere (free) – great clothes for all price ranges – and Beauty Bay (free) is my perennial lifesaver. Seriously, you can’t get Mario Badescu anywhere here.

Some Dutch sites I’ve used but may or may not love: Albert Heijn – love for sure. Delivery charges are around €7 but I get my money’s worth of sweat and tears from the delivery guy. They only have one person per truck doing both driving and running up and down steep stairs with huge crates of food! AH is also linked up with Etos and Gall&Gall so you can get your drugs/alcohol delivered with your raw steak. Justeat.nl is handy for food orders and is reliable, except the day my dinner arrived at 1:30p.m. Wehkamp.nl did a dodgy on me when it processed my order for an electric fan, only to come back 3 days later to say they had run out. Guess who was melting into a puddle meanwhile. Beslist is a little confusing because they seem to sell a hodgepodge of things – only that they don’t really sell it but rather give you a bunch of links to pictures and prices on other people’s sites. Fonq.nl was fast and free with my blood pressure monitor. While searching for stuff on Dutch sites, it helps to translate your keyword first, then plug it in. (Same goes for the German sites). Paying for all this is handiest with a Dutch debit card (“iDEAL” system) because they charge for credit cards (MC/Visa), and have ganged-up against AMEX.

Now, I still can’t find anyone to deliver me a 20 kilo bag of rice. Ideas?

Healthy Eating Habits at Crèche

Partyat

Good thing I got my cake at home!

I’m happy to report that after two weeks at crèche, Petit-Homme seems to be settling in well. Morning goodbyes typically see 20 seconds of crying, and then he’s happy to play with his carers. I think what they say about not backtracking to comfort your child is true. I’m able to peek at him through glass panes after I exit the room, so I can assure myself that he has stopped crying. Going back in probably only reinforces the stress of separation.

Miraculously, Petit-Homme has been insisting on soothing himself to sleep now in his bed, instead of in our arms. Looks like he’s getting used to that independence at crèche – a really good thing as I was starting to wonder how to implement self-dozing!

He had a little birthday party the other day. The crèche has a low-sugar policy (really surprising given that many Dutch love their chocolate sprinkles on bread), so we were discouraged from bringing sweet treats. Health is a big deal at this place. For their meals, the kids get organic produce; quinoa, risotto, bulghur, free range chicken, salmon, fresh fruit and vegetable snacks.  The menus are posted weekly and there is an entire kitchen team dedicated to this endeavour. At Petit-Homme’s party, we were allowed to bring the teachers chocolate mousse cake, while kids tucked into yummy raisins. Petit-Homme even got a present from his teachers! As for his parents, we were forced to gobble down the two boxes of profiteroles we initially bought for the event. The sacrifices we make …

What’s in a License Plate?

It’s not just for the cops to know where to send your speeding tickets. License plates can give strong indications as to the values of a certain culture. Asians love numbers denoting wealth and when it comes to the license plate game, there’s no better way to spend your hard-earned cash. The loaded folks (or those who enjoy the appearances thereof) can pay tens of thousands of dollars (or more*) for the privilege of having cute numbers on their cars. In Singapore, for example, there are service providers matching up plate sellers and buyers.

The most popular number with the Chinese would have to be “8”. Because 8 (paht) kinda sorta sounds like the word for prosperity (faht). To me, its a bit of a stretch, so I’m still stumped as to why Chinese worldwide pay top dollar for 8s in just about any public manifestation of personal details. This cultural ‘phenomenon’ is not confined to Asia. Most of the Chinese I’ve known in say, Toronto, or The Hague, have all managed to eke out a few 8s in their telephone numbers.

Not Recommended to Date this Guy

Sure you wanna date this guy?

Local laws may not always allow you to splat whatever you want on a plate (unlike in US/Canada where its anti-climactic to see “VRYHOTGUY” climb out of his Mustang), but plate watching, like train spotting, can still yield interesting observations. Not sure if that Mercedes-Benz E-Class is ferrying around the Nigerian Ambassador or if it’s a cab-for-hire? If the plates contain CD, diplomats are on the move. If it’s a blue plate (in The Hague), it’s a taxi – grab it quick – taxis are like exotic birds here. Say your neighbour has BN on the plate, chances are he or she works at a criminal court or other international organization (quasi-diplomats). In Belgium, EU officials have specialized license plates, but due to a belief that the owners do not pay tax, such cars are frequently vandalized.

Plates can be a pesky barrier to our efforts to remain incognito. In movies, shady dudes change their plates when engaged in skullduggery. In real life, French Presidents will never stoop to that. They prefer zipping off on scooters for their night-time shenanigans (much more dignified).

*I must admit, the Saudis win this game hands down – see $14.3 million.