Category Archives: 0. The Netherlands

In Which I Reveal I’m a Writer, Am Judged Insane


So imagine this.  I was in the lovely American Book Center in the heart of Amsterdam (our flagship English language bookstore) about to buy an arguably trashy read I found in the bargain section.  The counter is right next to the giant news stand and while the clerk was ringing up my purchase I did a sudden double take when I saw what you see on the left.

I pulled the magazine out to confirm, with my heart beating rapidly- yes, this was the Astronomy magazine for which I wrote the cover article, sitting innocuously on the news stand with all the other magazines!

By this point the clerk wants the four Euro for the book and is giving me an odd look, so I feel obliged to explain.  “Sorry, but I wrote this cover article!” I say proudly.

“You wrote the cover.” He says this with a Dutch accent and a tone I’m not entirely certain of, but is very similar to one I hear if my native English pace of speech gets too fast and excited about something (which, let’s be honest, happens a decent amount).  So I explain.

“Yes, I’m an astronomer and I write, and I wrote this cover article.”  And I put the Astronomy magazine back on the newsstand- fun as it would be to purchase I have copies of the magazine already, and this is encouragingly the last one they have.

“I’m sure you did,” he says, with a funny look on his face.  It’s then I realize that the clerk’s tone is not the “I don’t understand” tone I assumed but rather one far more impossible to deal with- a tone that doesn’t just say “I don’t believe you” tone but downright “this girl is nuts!”

“The door is that way,” he says with the same tone and look as he points helpfully two meters behind us at a doorway that any sane, rational person can spot seeing as you have to walk past it to get to the counter.  And I realize at that moment you can’t actually tell someone you’re not crazy when they already think you’re making up being a scientist and writer for your own odd, perverted reasons.  So I go.

The funny thing though?  Though my pride took a hit the writer in me doesn’t really mind, as for the rest of my life I have a good story from it.

“Home” For the Holidays


Key West, Florida, 2012

Going back to the USA is one of those things that happens to me in gradual stages of recognition.  For me, they can be summarized as follows:

– The “Americans are really loud!” stage, which more or less happens the same time as the “everyone is talking with my accent” stage- that is, while waiting to board the plane to the USA at the airport.  Suddenly the banal conversations of how Aunt Reba is doing or your theory on why the US dollar is about to undergo hyperinflation is suddenly very loud and un-ignorable and often even bringing in surrounding strangers into the conversation.  I’m not sure if this exclusively because Americans talk very loudly together or I tune out all the Dutch I don’t understand, but suspect it’s a healthy dose of both.

– The “you expect everything to be the same but life of course goes on without you” stage, which of course happens in most places you re-visit after some time elapses but is somehow more unsettling when it’s the country you were born in.  For me this moment happened this time upon landing at the Newark airport for my connection, seeing a bunch of skyscrapers on the horizon and idly wondering what city they were, and realizing with a start it was the New York City skyline now dominated from New Jersey by the Freedom Tower.  Which yes, I knew they were working on in my absence, but it is somehow unsettling to realize you don’t immediately recognize the New York City skyline.

– Somewhere during the course of the trans-Atlantic flight, by the way, one reaches the delightful stage of realization that you can have random conversations with strangers and no one thinks strangely of you for it.  I know this isn’t a language thing because the Brits never do it either- instead all of European culture doesn’t encourage random idle conversations that I know of- but now I’m back in the land where if I don’t have a few random conversations with those around me in the course of a few hours I’m the odd one out.  It’s great!

– Reverse culture shock stage.  America is big- our buildings are big, our cars are big, a meal in a restaurant is usually lunch and dinner in other countries, and we sprawl out our cities to make them bigger and require use of our cars to manage them.  The size of the country also leaves me quietly happy because when you grow up knowing you can fly several hours and still be in the same country the Netherlands always seems a bit stifling.

The other thing I always enjoy in the USA by the way is nature- Holland is an amazing place to live for urban life and culture and all that jazz, but I’m still fairly convinced every square inch of the nation is cultivated (even the national parks have fences).  Nature is one of the things America does best, and you don’t really realize it until you don’t have easy access anymore.

– Then if you’re heading to visit parents in Florida like me, there is the “it’s December but 80 degrees out and I managed to get sunburnt” stage.  It’s frankly a little strange to arrive down there and realize all the cold and dark from northern latitudes does not apply to people’s daily lives, and it’s rather tempting until you remember that in exchange for this you must live in Florida.

– Then finally the last stage (which, if this was a stages of grief thing, would be “acceptance”) which is the odd realization that while I love the USA I have no plans to move back for a few years at least.  I wonder how much this opinion would change if I had ever lived in a New York City or San Francisco in my life instead of Pittsburgh and Cleveland, but too much familiarity strikes me as a little boring in my day-to-day life.

Put it this way, I love to roam around the USA whenever I’m here, but when I lived in Cleveland meticulous planning of multiple round the world trips seemed like a reasonable and rational thing to do.  I still do plenty of trips now, but at the end of the day they always assume my return to Amsterdam.

Until then, I’m home-but-not, enjoying a few weeks in the country of my birth.  Merry Christmas!

My First Article for Sky & Telescope


Things are in a very busy place right now in PhD Student World, so if you want to read something by me I encourage you to head out to your local news stand (remember those?) and pick up a copy of the January 2013 Sky & Telescope (I believe they do a digital edition as well these days).  My first article for them appears in the issue, all about the Dwingeloo radio telescope which I’ve mentioned here before.

This was a fun article to write, and I got to talk to a lot of lovely people while researching it.  It’s also a good one because saying you’ve been published in Sky & Telescope impresses a lot more geeks than saying you’ve written for Astronomy– it’s much more technical a magazine, and many people don’t realize the latter actually has a larger circulation.  Frankly I’m just amazed to see my name there at this stage, and reading my words in such professional circumstances seems bizarre to me.  I certainly never thought I’d be writing an article about a Dutch radio telescope!

Ok, back to busy PhD Student World.  Will re-emerge after my first-ever conference talk which will happen this coming week…

My Dutch Television Debut… With David Sedaris

In a curious quirk of fate, I happened to hear and get tickets to a filming of a Dutch television show called College Tour.  It’s quite a fun program where they get a bunch of college students together to ask a famous person (Desmond Tutu to Susan Sarandon to the guy who kidnapped the heir to the Heinekin fortune) pretty much anything under the sun… and the show I got tickets to involved the American comedian David Sedaris!

Edit: embedding does not seem to work well with the Dutch news site, so the link to the video is here.

Naturally I had to ask a question if I was already sitting there, and you can see it at around 19:50 in the show itself.  Note that this is a Dutch television show that airs on Friday nights so while my part is ok the entire show not exactly safe for work- for example, at one point they have him read from 50 Shades of Grey

All told my Dutch television debut was also interesting just because it was also a simple introduction to the world of TV editing- my question went as far as the segue into American politics and that part came afterwards, yet I’m still mysteriously shown as standing and nodding the whole time!  So that was interesting in itself, but all in all quite an enjoyable experience and I don’t think I embarrassed myself too badly on Dutch national television debut.

A Day Trip to Delft

One of the nice things about living in the Netherlands is there are so many lovely little places to visit for the day if you’re bored and up for some exploring. (Of course seeing as you’re hard-pressed to remain in the country after 2 hours journey from Amsterdam, virtually the entire country is a day trip by American standards!) I have a list of various places I’m determined to see in the area, and next up on the list was Delft which is about an hour’s journey by train from Amsterdam. Continue reading

Photo: Haarlem, the Netherlands

Not to be confused with its American counterpart with only one “a” and where you are much more likely to get mugged, the Dutch Haarlem is about 15 minutes by train and an hour by bicycle from Amsterdam.  I know this because I happened to do both in one direction each this past weekend- not a bad day out!

Aan de Amsterdamse Grachten…

The title of this post comes from the name of a lovely old Dutch song, “On the Amsterdam Canals.”  The sort of old song you will hear sung by people in the wee hours of the night, but anyway, the first bit of the chorus roughly goes:

On the Amsterdam canals
I pledge my heart forever
Amsterdam fills my mind
The most beautiful city in our country…

Indeed.  I’ve been here nearly a year, and am fairly convinced that this is not just the prettiest city in the Netherlands but maybe even the entire world!

But anyway, one of my most favorite things about Amsterdam is the view from my apartment, namely sitting out on the little balcony and watching the world go by.  In Amsterdam, this translates into a lot of boats- big tourist boats, little old wooden ones, and pretty much everything in between you can imagine. (This boating is not at all like the sort one does in the USA as you’re not allowed to have a wake- instead it’s more of a cruising while enjoying drinks and snacks with friends sort of boating.) Some of the boat traffic is particularly amusing for various reasons, necessitating a picture, so here is the best of the canal traffic I’ve seen over the past year for interested parties-

The legendary clog boat!  Which I saw once just after I moved but didn’t think to take a picture, was kicking myself for several months that I hadn’t taken said picture, but finally spotted at the end of May.  Whew!

The living room boat- this guy actually keeps his boat one canal over, I’ve seen him several times.

This picture was taken in the middle of winter and I’m not sure what it’s about- I suspect the group needed a picture for something?

Lots of strange boats on Queen’s Day filled with revelers…

And part of a regatta of boats- a very long one actually, they caused several traffic jams- which was about who knows what, but things like that happen quite often in Amsterdam.

All those people in Amsterdam
All those lights late at night on the square
No one can wish for more
Than an Amsterdammer!

Artie Aardvark Absconds Around Ameland

Once again it is time from our faithful correspondent, Artie Aardvark, to give his account about an astronomical adventure! This time it’s the 2012 NAC, or Dutch astronomers conference.

Hello everyone, and welcome to Ameland!  It’s an island in the North Sea close to Germany so very, very far away from Amsterdam by Dutch standards.  It was a very pretty place, but most importantly I was excited to come and learn about Dutch astronomy while here! Continue reading

Dutch Queen’s Day!

The Dutch are not, as a rule, a particularly patriotic people- no one bothers to fly a flag unless it’s one of a handful of days even on official government buildings, and in fact it turns out when I wanted to buy a Dutch flag it took me several stores to fulfill this quest and even then I only found one in a tourist shop.  The exception to all of this though is every year on April 30, when the country catches oranjegekoorts, orange fever, and goes crazy in a giant street party to celebrate the Queen’s birthday in an event known as Queen’s Day (Koninginnedag– rolls right off the tongue doesn’t it?). Continue reading

Tiptoe through the Tulips… at the Keukenhof

My brother was visiting me for a few days just recently, which of course meant we did all the touristy things one never does when you actually live somewhere. And one of those very touristy things is a visit to the Keukenhof, the largest gardens in the world and most Dutch people themselves have never visited despite it being less than an hour from Amsterdam.

It’s their loss honestly, as it turns out the Keukenhof is ridiculously, gorgeously lovely and pretty in a way that makes you take a million photographs but it doesn’t really capture the beauty of it. Sure there are a bunch of other tourists around, many posing for truly awkward pictures, and no Dutch child voluntarily dances around a maypole on a Sunday afternoon in traditional costume that I know of (though my brother and I watched in solidarity, having done many similar performances in our lives), but this is really one of those special places. We’re spent hours wandering around admiring everything, and if you don’t believe me, well I guess the photographs capture a bit of the magic-