Wednesday, 30 November 2011


Gremlin: with the origin of the word possibly derived from the old English gremian, 'to vex', the gremlin is said to be a mischievous goblin-like creature with an inclination to damage or even dismantle mechanical devices, as well as disturbing all things electronic.

I've got one.

And the little bugger apparently likes to travel, for things have not only gone berserk at my home, but elsewhere (read: everywhere I'm at) too. At this rate it won't be long before I'm shunned as the Visitor from Hell - as opposed to the usual red carpet treatment (I Come Bearing Gifts - chocolate mostly).

It started with the cooking unit. That stopped functioning from one minute to the next; cooker, oven and microwave. Let me tell you there's definitely a limit to the amount of cup-a-soup and take-away meals a hard-working girl can endure without reaching the upper levels of crankiness. We deserve a hot meal. Especially with these temperatures.

Next thing to go was my internet connection, followed close on its heels by my laptop. I have broadband that works reasonably well most of the time, but over the past two weeks it's been all over the place. And none of the usual tedious tricks, like resetting the modem (with much exaggerated sighing and rolling of eyes) seemed to make much of a difference. The laptop added to the rage by taking up the habit of rebooting on its own accord. Mostly when I was right in the middle of something very important - like trying to browse for a new winter wardrobe. Obviously the thing was out to spite me.

The list goes on. I won't bore you by mentioning all the bits of hardware, software or general gadgetry that over the past couple of weeks produced a mocking death rattle as I dared approach them, but take it from me that they were plentiful. So plentiful in fact that if I hear the well-meant phrase 'have you tried switching it on and off' one more time, I swear someone is going to get hurt. 

The ultimate blow was saved till last though. Out of the blue, my central heating system stopped working last week. Now I know that I've been gushing about the autumn season and it's colours, and how the evenings have an added level of cosiness to them - but only when the indoor temperature is significantly higher than that outside. It's all very well to enjoy the sound of the wind howling around the house when you're snuggled up nice and warm on the sofa - but it stops being fun when you're shivering under three throws. And no amount of pretty candles or a glowing fireplace can restore that feeling of cozy comfort provided by a well-heated home. Try reading a book with icicles for fingers. It just doesn't work. Suffice it to say this one was seriously below the belt. Something definitely has it in for me.

You'll be relieved to hear (I hope) that most of the problems have now been sorted or have at least stopped from happening. Things have been incident-free for a full two days. But I'm not fooled. My gremlin is trying to lull me into a false sense of security - so that next time he strikes, it will catch me unawares.

Someone please lend me their cat to hunt the critter down.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Ode to Soup

I woke up on Saturday morning with a sore throat. My head felt really hot and my limbs were aching, and all I could think was: oh dear God NO. I so can not use a bout of the flu or a cold right now. Not in my weekend anyway.
I had to try and nip this thing in the bud, so I cancelled all my social commitments and installed myself on the sofa, cushions propped up in my back and wrapped in my warmest, softest blanket. Which happens to also be the prettiest one. Not that it matters but even when sick one does hope to do things in style. Bright flames in the fire place, a pot of tea with honey and a large stack of books by my side: the perfect conditions for a weekend of self-indulgence and pampering. Or so I thought.

I still couldn't help feeling shivery, light-headed and altogether weak. Which was getting in the way of my otherwise delicious sense of playing hooky. Obviously I needed to bring out the big guns to fight the malaise. Which in my family means bringing out the pots and pans and whipping up some comfort food.*

And what could make you feel warm and fulfilled quicker than that easiest of comfort foods: a big bowl of hearty soup? Liquid solace of the NON-alcoholic kind. A quick rummage in the fridge and the kitchen cupboards and I found I had the ingredients for a nice and rich potato soup. With a bit of extra kick to chase the last of the nasty germs away.

Under an hour later I was spooning up the result. And felt instantly better. With my soup cure, lots of naps, hot baths and general lazying about, I came out of the weekend feeling quite my old self again. I'll still make some more soup though this week I think. Just to be sure. You understand.

If any of you are suffering from the cold weather as well and could do with a quick pick-me-up - minimal effort required - here's what you need. Don't be fooled into thinking a potato soup must be quite a bland affair. This soup is packed full of flavour and the bit of extra (chilli pepper) kick will make your toes curl. And your eyes water. Nah, just kidding. Honest.

Ingredients (European measurements)

A few bits of pancetta or any other kind of smoked, streaky bacon
Two table spoons of olive oil
One finely chopped shallot or half of a regular onion - red onion adds a bit of extra flavour
Two small cloves of garlic - or one big one, chopped 
One not too small chilli pepper, chopped
350 gr of potato, sliced into small parts (about 3 big potatoes and one small one)
600 ml chicken stock
125 ml of cream
250 ml of milk
25 gr of flower
50 gr of strong Italian cheese like parmezan (or actually, any other cheese you like)
Fresh chives
Black pepper to taste


Heat up a big pan and let the bacon get crispy in its own fat. Take it out and keep aside. Add some olive oil (about two table spoons) to the bacon fat. Stir in the onion first and let it colour a bit, then add the garlic and the chilli pepper. Don't let the garlic get too brown, it'll taste bitter (she says from experience).

Add the chicken stock and the potato, bring to the boil and let simmer for about 25 minutes till the potato is soft. If you prefer a chunky soup or just can't be bothered with any extra effort (that would be me), just mash the potato up a bit with a fork or with a masher, while still in the pan. If you prefer a smooth soup, put the whole thing in a food processor. Keep in mind that that means extra things to clean. Just saying.

Put the milk, the cream and the flower in a bowl and stir together, then stir it slowly into the soup. Don't worry if you don't have any flower - the soup will be a little less solid but the taste will be great all the same. Add black pepper to taste (the soup shouldn't really need any extra salt because of the chicken stock, and the bacon and cheese that are added as a topping - but check anyway).

Fill a large bowl with soup, add a bit of the cheese and bacon and sprinkle with fresh chives. As this is quite a rich soup I would normally have it with a nice green salad, but this time I made some yummy, crunchy bruschetta with tomato. To die for. 

In case you're wondering: I did not burn the bread. This was a wholegrain baguette - so quite dark in colour to begin with. Not that it would matter because I quite like burnt bits anyway. Yes, I KNOW those aren't good for you. Like a lot of other great things (theatrical sigh).

* Even when half dead we can still whip up some comfort food. What can I say. 

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Castle in autumn

Legend has it that one night, long ago, the devil flew across the skies over the Low Countries. On his back he had a satchel, and in the satchel he had stowed numerous castles. Where did he get them, and what did he plan to do with them? The tale doesn't say. Now what good old Beelzebub didn't know was that there was a tear in his bag, and that every now and then, a castle would fall from the sky and tumble on to the land below. Until he flew over the land of Brabant. By then the tear had gotten so large, most of the remaining castles in his satchel fell out and landed in the soft Brabant soil. Which is why to this day, Brabant is the region in the Netherlands that boasts the most castles.

The last bit at least is true. Even though many have disappeared over time, the region I live in is still home to  a fair few castles, manors and fortresses. And oh, I do so love them. There is something magical and mysterious about a castle. As a little girl I devoured many a tale of enchanted castles with secret passageways and hidden rooms. Still do in fact. And I have always loved exploring yet another one of these beauties.

They're obviously not all very grand or impressive. Most of them are actually on the small side, in castle terms that is. To me that adds to their charm though. You can still picture them as a home that way. And it adds to the 'hidden secret' factor. A small castle in a secluded spot in a forest - perfection.

Since a couple of weeks, my trip to work takes considerably longer. I'm forced to take the scenic route at the moment. After my initial hissy fit, I had to admit that the scenic route is, in fact, just that. It leads me past some really charming spots - that I had all but forgotten.

Every day, just after sunrise, my trip takes me past Kasteel Heeswijk - Heeswijk Castle. It looks mighty pretty in the first light of day, often with wisps of mist still about it. So pretty in fact, that I decided to stop there briefly this morning. Just for a stroll around the grounds.

It was lovely. Very quiet, very serene. Not another soul about. Apart from the black swans in the moat that is. Yes, you heard me. Black. Swans. More than a hint of fairy tale there. Even though the tale that came to mind most during my walk was that of the Snow Queen. Calling it a chilly morning would have been a serious understatement.

The original castle was built in the 12th century. But over time, bits were added, destroyed, rebuilt etc. The result is charming. And it has played its role in history. It was besieged many times because of its strategic position close to the majestic city of 's-Hertogenbosch (my home town, yes). And none other than Louis XIV, the (in)famous Sun King stayed here for a while - during an attempt to conquer the Netherlands. Which failed.

Of course the question you're dying to ask me - and if you're not I'm going to tell you anyway - is whether there is a ghost story attached to this castle. Well. Have a guess.

Many centuries ago, Sir Robert of Heeswijk left his castle in the dead of night, evil on his mind. He planned to lie in wait for his daughter's lover, whom he wanted to slay. It would not have been his first foul deed. Not a very likeable character this Robert was. Alas for him, the marshes around the castle proved more treacherous than his heart. He was trapped, and he drowned. It is said that his ghost has haunted the castle grounds ever since. People have heard his cries, as well as seen a blue apparition. Which is why he came to be known as The Blue Knight of Castle Heeswijk.

Did I see a blue ghost on my stroll? No. The only blue things I saw were my hands. Did I already mention it was COLD??

I took the pictures with my iPhone and then gave them an arty-farty filter.
I'm quite pleased with the result too actually.
The book I took a pic of is 'Spoken en Kastelen in Nederland' (Ghosts & Castles in the Netherlands) by Anton van Oirschot, 1974.  

Monday, 14 November 2011

Monday morning laughs

This one made me smile.

And yes, the company I work for has a British parent company. So I have been able to witness my dear British colleagues coming to terms with what they perceive as our Dutch bluntness. The right term would in our view of course be 'straightforward' or possible 'direct'. But alright. Let's not nit-pick.  

And admittedly it does take the Dutch a bit of time to realise they could - at times - do with a somewhat more careful wording of messages. Just like at times they need to peel away the layers of British politeness to come to the core of messages. Not that the average Dutch person is shy about asking questions. To try and get to the heart of the matter - with all the subtlety of your average battering ram.

Funny that small cultural differences exist even between countries so very close to each other. But to me it makes moving in the corporate world all the more interesting and fun.

And we do pick up things from each other. Only last week a British colleague called me and said: 'Can I just be Dutch with you?'.

I love it.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Paper Moon and my five things

'Happy Life'

I was lately browsing through the archives over at Heartfire at Home when I found a post that got me thinking (that happens to me more often with Linda's posts): if you could take only 5 things from your home, what would they be?

Oh dear. Tricky one that.

When I bought my new apartment this spring, I knew I had to start ruthlessly decluttering. Ruthlessly. Not only because I'd have less space to hide my stuff in (note the keyword HIDE), but also - and mainly - because it was time to let go of the old. It was quite a task. A Herculean labour even - but without the smell of cow shit. I managed in the end though. Which means that the vast majority of the stuff I've got left - still quite a few bits and bobs - are things I really love. And would therefore much prefer to keep.

Hm. But what if I really HAD TO choose?

This is really hard. Well, there are my two loved-to-death old teddy bears (I don't still sleep with them, no). So I'd probably grab hold of those instinctively in case of a calamity. And then there's all my paperback or leather-bound friends. How would I ever be able to choose from those beloved treasures? But I suppose, if I really had to... I'd probably go for some of my hard-to-replace old loves. I'm obviously counting 'a couple of books' as one item here. Just as my teddies are one item. Alright? And some special mementos like cards and photos and other small pieces I could put into one big envelope or a small box so that'd be just the one thing too (she says in a tone that makes it clear she won't not suffer any objections).

But then it gets really tricky. So many of my other treasures are hard to carry. I can't see myself run outside with hands full of asian ceramics or my collection of tea pots (yes, I have a 'thing' for tea pots - and tea as a beverage obviously). I suppose I could wrap myself artistically in one of my much loved Designers Guild throws that are the epitome of cosy gorgeousness to me (maybe it's a good thing they cost an arm and a leg or I'd get me a new one every week rather than once in a blue moon - when I think I REALLY deserve to splurge). As for my long-coveted fire place: I wouldn't be able to move it one inch let alone get it out of the house. And no matter how happy I am to have it - it's still 'just an object'.

So I walked around my apartment and wondered what really lifts my spirit when I look at it. And won't give me a hernia as I try to haul it out of the house.

After a quick browse I had my answer. I'd go for the paper-cut art that I found in a tiny shop at Greenwich Market in London, called Paper Moon. It's run by a lovely Chinese couple of which Wei, the female half, is the artist. She makes the most gorgeous Chinese folk art: paper-cuts, using just scissors and sculptural knives. The level of detail is astounding. I'd have been ready for a mental institution after just trying to do one tiny perfect leaf or little person. With a notice on my door that says 'keep scissors away from patient at all times'. Every piece is priced in accordance with the number of hours it took to create it (most of my pieces took between 10 to 12 hours). And they're still very affordable.

I just adore those fairy-tale like images, they're like little stories that you can see something new in every time. Most of them look more Scandinavian to me than Chinese somehow. Oh, and I really love their meaning. Each piece represents a special kind of traditional 'blessing': good fortune, long life, love. What's not to love? They obviously make great presents too, as you're not only giving someone a pretty work of art, but in a way a symbolic blessing as well.

The photos don't really do them justice, but I thought I'd share them with you anyway.

Detail of 'Happy Life'

'Garden of Eden'


So yes, I'd go for these lovelies. They're super lightweight too, as I still haven't framed them. Hum. And of course they'd count as just the ONE item. I'm pretty sure my house will be home to several more of them before long though. Would have already had me some more if I hadn't been sure Ryanair would give me grief over several of the bigger items - that I therefore reluctantly left behind. My wallet gave a tiny squeak of relief. If you ever wonder what kind of present would say you really love me - get me their large white butterfly paper-cut. You don't even need to gift-wrap it. Be prepared to have to wake me from my swoon though. NOT with a bucket of cold water.

Huge sigh.

So that leaves me just one last thing to choose. Which is obviously going to be the large wheelbarrow I'll put in the storage room. That I can stuff with some cushions, books, tea pots, throws and some really special memento knick-knacks. Of course still only counting as ONE item.

Don't give me that look. What do you mean I don't quite get the meaning of the exercise?