Archive | June, 2010

My Balcony Garden

17 Jun

When I was a kid, my grandparents lived on a 66 acre farm in Harmony, Nova Scotia. We used to visit them almost every summer, and some of my best memories involve being barefoot in the gardens, picking something for dinner, or for a big batch of jam. Grampa used to feed us raw asparagus straight from the ground, and at 7-years-old, I really thought that was a perfectly normal thing to do.

Now that I’ve been in Amsterdam for quite a few years, I realize the effect that having no space for gardens, and therefore, not growing your own food, has on your relationship with produce. For many, fruit and veg comes wrapped in plastic at the horrendous Albert Heijn, a chain that has monopolized the Dutch grocery store market in North Holland. There are a few ‘farmer’s markets’ in the city, most opened only on Saturday, but if you stock up then, you’ve got to eat everything up by Tuesday before it goes off. Just freeze it, you say? Well, most people here have bar fridges with shoe-boxed sized freezers…the kind of fridge you’d have when you were living in university residence.

This says a lot, doesn’t it: in most grocery stores here, the amount of space given to fresh produce is often much less than the amount of space given to pre-packaged, ready-made meals. No wonder why the Dutch have a terribly bland reputation when it comes to food, most people don’t know how to cook!

Anyways, back to the fresh stuff. My balcony is 1.5 metres deep and probably about 4 metres long. That’s big enough to grow some stuff, so for the past few years, I’ve been doing just that. I’ve successfully grown lettuces and tomatoes, though we went on holiday when everything was ripe last year, so our friend Adam got to eat them all.

This year, I’m growing yellow tomatoes, beef heart tomatoes and courgettes. And I’ve just planted some carrots and peas. One of the reasons I grew courgettes this year is because I want to stuff the flowers and I haven’t been able to find courgette flowers in any market in town. Here’s my progress so far:

Tomatoes were planted in April…

Courgettes, also planted in April.

The peas…I saw a teeny, tiny shoot this morning. I planted these last weekend.

There’s something absolutely thrilling about growing your own food, even if it’s in a small pot on a Dutch balcony. Even if something doesn’t work out quite well (strawberries circa 2009), it’s satisfying standing on my balcony each morning marveling at how quickly something has grown.

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Johnny Depp is 47, Office Floods & More

9 Jun

Woah, dlisted just posted this great photo of Johnny Depp in honour of his birthday. As if Depp could get any hotter, here he is holding a really cute puppy!

What’s your favourite Johnny Depp flick? I think mine is Cry Baby, the early Depp years.

Grant and I were in the UK this weekend. We managed to get some tickets for the free Rage Against the Machine gig in Finsbury Park — a celebratory gig in honour of fans voting in Killing in the Name as the Christmas #1 this year. The sore ribs and bruises are a great souvenir of one of the most memorable gigs I’ve ever seen…me, and 40,000 other people.

Shitty that Transport for London didn’t provide any additional tubes or buses since the Tube closes earlier than usual on a Sunday night. Grant and I wandered around for 90 minutes looking for a taxi or a bus to take us back. The night was capped with Grant being pick-pocketed for his phone as he got into taxi. Classy.

For a change, we also had some time to spend in London on our own, so we went to the Natural History Museum. Man, kids sure do love that place and I can’t really blame them.

DINOSAURS. Huge reproductions, real fossils, and a hilarious mechanical, life-sized T-Rex. Plus, those silly mirrors, lots of fake stuffed animals and a life-sized giant blue whale. It was cool, but tiring dodging bugger-eaters and little shouting monsters, so we didn’t even check out the other half of the museum.

It’s still crap that I’ve not checked out any other museums or galleries in London, especially since most of them are free. We’re going to visit NYC for a few days at the end of the summer, and I’m definitely going to make it a priority to see at least ONE cultured thing.

In other news, there was a torrential rainfall today in Amsterdam, and part of the office flooded…unfortunately, it was the storage room. A whole bunch of us rallied together to clear the rooms as quickly as possible, the gush of rain coming in through the ceiling vents, of course, made things a bit tricky. Carrying out wet boxes full of reports in three inches of rain on a slippery floor = recipe for disaster. I made a right fool of myself by slipping and crashing into the water in front of twenty colleagues. Such an Amanda thing to do!

I vowed that I would never, ever, in a million years be wearing Harem pants, and yet, here I am, sitting barefoot at my desk in a pair of borrowed ones. My jeans are still soaked through, drying on the radiator.

Hey Dude, we’re trying to picnic here, can you masturbate somewhere else?

3 Jun

After a couple of cruel false starts, it seems summer has finally arrived in Amsterdam. To celebrate, we decided to meet up in our local backyard, the Westerpark, with a few friends and have a BBQ. One of the things I love the most about Amsterdam is that everyone uses their nearest park as a communal backyard. If it’s sunny and warm, it feels like 70% of the neighbourhood has dragged their blankets, picnic baskets, BBQs and tents to laze about for hours and hours. That’s what we did last night.

The thing is, there’s always a group of, let’s call them ‘transients’, that loiter in groups, necking back their EUR 00.19 tall cans of EuroShopper pilsner. They usually hang out on the periphery of the big green grassy bit on a bench at the footpath, when they get bored (or need a smoke, food, money, etc), they’ll wobble and lurch through the cloisters of picnickers waiting for someone to make eye-contact. As one very unwashed and uniformly grimy  specimen came dangerously close to our ‘backyard’, we all averted our eyes while making sure he didn’t get too close. He paused about 2 metres away and kinda swayed in the same spot for about 5 minutes or so before collapsing on the grass, face up, and passing out cold. He can’t be much of a nuisance if he’s not awake, we thought, and just ignored him and carried on chargrilling our various meats of choice that evening.

I guess…about 20 minutes later, Ben walked by Grimy and noticed he was having a particularly good time laying down…with his hands working furiously in his pants and a giant grin on his face.

Is he?

YES, he is.

He’s masturbating?

Oh my god, he’s jerking off!

Look at his face! GROSS!

We all gawked in disbelief, and I’m sure the male faction among us admired his boldness and freedom. But then he started undoing his belt and opening his pants and I was quite sure that I did NOT want to see his boldness. Finally, Liz and I piped up and shouted at him to bugger off and like waking from the most marvelous dream, ol’ Grimy realized where he was and stumbled to his feet.

Feeling some sort of bond with our group, he then stumbled around our little circle, laughing hysterically like we’d all just shared in some intimate joke (in a gross way, that’s kind of exactly what it was), mumbling interjections into our conversation and wobbling dangerously close to the BBQ. He asked Ben for a smoke, pointing at the pack of Lucky Strikes on the blue and white polka-dotted blanket. Ben, being such a polite chap, agreed and let Grimy pick up the pack before shouting “NO, wait…actually, I’ll do it!” and snatching the pack away, and, like it was a hot coal in his hand, flicked it to Colin and said “Colin, can you get a cigarette out?”.

Being the ever-so-obliging nice guy extraordinaire that Colin his, he pulled out a smoke and handed it to Grimy. Ben’s eyes lit up in horror as he witnessed the split-second contact of Colin’s fingers with Grimy’s hand.

Which hand was he using?

SHIT. These nice guys just gave Grimy an IN to the circle, something must be done. The bitch had to come out.

“Hey, Buddy, you gotta leave…we’re trying to have a nice birthday party here, you know?”

“Uh, yeah, she’s right…so, see ya later”

It actually was Ben’s birthday the next day, so we started mumble-singing ‘Happy Birthday to You’ in hopes that he’d go.

Grimy got the message and slowly shuffled off.

Ash Cloud, Venice, Verona – Oh My! Italy pt. I.

1 Jun

First, we flew to London and took the train up to Norwich to attend a wedding. We had about 30 minutes in the hotel to get ready, and Grant decided to turn on the TV. Lo and behold, the major headline darting across the screen on CNN was ‘Volcanic Ash – Risks of UK Flight Cancellation Sunday through Tuesday.’ EFFFFFFFFFFFF.

We were due to fly from London to Ljubljana the next day to meet my sister and her boyfriend in Ljubljana. Just part of a 5-day trip I’d meticulously planned for months. We were torn…do we stay the night and go to the wedding reception as planned and hope it works out, or do we race back to London and hop on the only flight left to Italy that night? Neither of us wanted to make the call, but we decided not to take our chances and we booked ourselves on a last-minute flight to Florence.

We booked the flight on BA, but discovered upon arriving at Gatwick that it was actually Air Meridiana (anyone?) that would take us there. The flight left on time, the plane half-empty, and we were quite disheartened to discover that it was a SOBER flight…and we really needed a drink. We arrived at the tiny airport at 11:30 at night, and were a bit bummed to see that nothing was open (no tourism/hotel info) and we just had to hop in a taxi and get dropped off in centre to find a hotel.

After one false start lugging our suitcases up 5 flights of stairs to find an angry fat man grunt that he had no spare rooms, we gave up and coughed up EUR 150 (ironically, the equivalent of what we were paying for 5 days worth of accommodation on the rest of the trip) to stay at the Sofitel. Whatever. The room was huge, the bed comfortable, and the location central. We scarfed down some pasta at a very expensive restaurant (nothing else was opened at midnight on a Sunday night), the kind of place where designer-clad patrons excuse themselves between courses to rack lines in the toilet.

We woke up the next morning and tuned into CNN hoping that our forsaken flight to Ljubljana was indeed cancelled. It wasn’t, so we wouldn’t be getting a refund. Accepting our fate, we were determined to make the best of Florence in the short time we had there (about six hours). The weather was gorgeous, 25 degrees and sunny, with very few clouds in the sky. Without a map or a guidebook, we wandered around, admiring the calm and collected beauty of the city. We happened across a piazza, where Grant noticed a crowd of people gathered around a basilica (church). Our curiosity beckoned us closer and we found that it was not a queue to get in, but a film set. The scene was a little person dressed in a sleeping gown (think: Dickens’ Scrooge) and cap being chased by a gaggle of angry nuns. Classic!

Film set in Florence

We wandered around for another couple of hours before hunger got the best of us, and then we bickered for 30 minutes about where we should eat. Being the research fanatic that I am, and absolutely despising wasting a meal opportunity on something sub-par, we probably walked further and longer than we had to before settling on some okay-priced pizza and tourist-priced beer. Then we wandered into the Piazza della Signoria and its impressive collection of statues.

Piazza della Signoria, Florence

We grabbed a sandwich from a nearby alley hole-in-the-wall joint that had a queue of locals (must be good) and enjoyed a glass of wine before heading to the station to grab our (very expensive) train to Venice.

Venice
It was everything we imagined it to be. A spectacular city that is crumbling under the weight of tourism…the revenue from which it is kept afloat. The island has a population of about 50,000; only a very small fraction of those habitants are actually Venetian. We discovered, unfortunately, that the highly recommended (and cheap) hotel (Hotel Helvetia) I’d booked was actually on the island of Lido. Now, on a map, Lido looks quite close to the mainland, but because you can’t really walk it (especially with wheeled luggage) through the choking throng of tourists, you have to take a 40 minute ride *around* the entire island on a Vaporetto (water bus). This made Grant very, VERY, grumpy. I, too, was disappointed, but I had done all the research so I kept it to myself and made it quite clear I wasn’t going to tolerate his complaining. In addition to the TIME it took to get to Lido, THE COST, my god. EUR 6.50 for a one-way trip! We opted for the EUR 18 36-hour pass, but I wonder if you bought a one-way and didn’t validate it, if batting your eye-lashes at the inspector would suffice.

By the time we got to Hotel Helvetia, consulted my research compendium, and hopped back on the Vaporetto for another 40 minute trip, it was about 9:30pm when we got back to the mainland. We exited at the Rialto bridge and made our way into the San Polo area to wind our way through alleyways to find a local restaurant raved about on chowhound.com. Addresses won’t do you much good, but we knew the place we were after was in the ‘1911’ region…these four-digit numbers are (often) clearly marked on the corners of ‘streets’. We followed the numbers…where 1200 can turn to 2200 if you turn the wrong way, and ended up in an empty square. None of the corners branching off the square continued from 1900, s0 we retraced our steps and started again. We did that twice more, the same route, baffled at the disappearance of the 1900 numbers. Not even the iPhone could help. Finally, after nearly giving up, we realised that construction was hiding one of the alleys off the square…the 1900s! 1999, 1976, 1955, and down it went…Grant excitedly counting each number as we ambled closer to the destination – 1911. After a confusing series of sharp twists and turns down alleyways no wider than one of us at times, we found it. AND IT WAS CLOSED.

FAIL.

I guess the one thing I forgot to note down in my research was opening and closing times. Blurgh. But all was not lost, we went back to a promising looking pizza/pasta joint that we’d passed three or four times en route and after ordering our food, discovered it was actually in our guidebook as a recommended place anyways. nom nom nom.

Algae-tinted canals, Venice

The next morning, we went back to the main station in Venice to meet my sister and Jeremy, who had just come off the 5 hour bus ride from Ljubljana that Grant and I were also supposed to be on. After Vaporetto-ing our way back to the hotel, and back to the mainland, we meandered (got lost a zillion times) back to Rialto and went to Al Merca, which The Independent calls ‘an obligatory midday stop for any self-respecting Rialto regular.’ I had a Spritz, a local neon-orange aperitif (Aperol & soda) and we felt a wave of accomplishment for reaching one of the ‘local haunts’ I had written down & finding it was actually true to form and we didn’t feel like tourists. We spent the rest of the day perched in various piazzas (avoiding San Marco), soaking up the sun and taking hundreds of photos.

Verona
So, taking the train around Italy is surprisingly cheap if you take the regional trains…it was EUR 8 to get from Venice to Verona…about 90 minutes. We stayed at B&B Filmonica in the centre of Verona, only a few minutes walk from the Arena, the second oldest coliseum outside of Rome. After the chaos of Venice, Verona was a welcome respite. It was quite easy to get out of the crowds, which were diminutive in comparison. We wanted to scope out an osteria that I’d written down, so we mapped our route along the river that runs through the city…our destination, Osteria al Carro Armato, wasn’t open yet, so we grabbed a pizza at a nearby place and made plans to return later that night. We saw a man walking a giant dog that looked like a panda.

Then, we continued along the river and Grant peed alongside it. He can’t hold it you see, he’s only got one kidney. That sounded a bit Muffy Mouse.

Anyways, we avoided the Juliet stuff, because it’s fictional anyways and none of cared much to rub her golden breast. We decided to walk around some more, stopping for drinks along the way, of course. I vowed to avoid beer as much as possible on this trip, but let’s face it, a warm glass of red wine on a hot day just isn’t the same. Why, though, was German beer on tap everywhere? I don’t think we came across one place that had Italian beer on tap!

…more to come