Saturday, October 19, 2013

Things making us happy in Leiden

1. We now own rain gear.

It rains a lot in Leiden, and biking is our means of transportation. Owen is a strong enough biker to hold an umbrella while he bikes, but I'm still getting to that point. And although I have a couple of jacket-like articles of clothing I didn't have anything resembling real rain gear til this week. After last Sunday's trip to church and getting soaked to the skin both ways, I went and bought us both some cheap raingear. 
grocery bags don't really cut it.
rain gear is much better!
2. Visitor!

Mark, one of Owen's closest friends, and a friend of mine since Deerwander days came to visit us here in the Netherlands. It has been a blast having him around during the days, going to museums with him and having him in and out over the last nearly two weeks. He's come and gone a bit, going on adventures to Scotland and Ireland, making the most of this visit to Europe. It's been great. 

3. Museums.

I mentioned that I've been heading to museums with Mark during the weekdays, but Owen and I have also been going. He's writing up a blogpost about the Naturalis Museum now. I should say that for a city this size, Leiden has a ton of excellent museums, all with a very Dutch flair. They are usually bilingual throughout the museum (which is so nice for us) but the museums are always eager to point out local achievements. These artifacts were brought by the first Dutch archeologist working in Egypt, these tools belonged to an innovative Dutch surgeon, these tile pattern was originally based off of Chinese influences but became emblematic of Dutch domestic culture and export. I think in the US, we are much happier to dip our fingers into other people's achievements, or to not care as much how the things we use came to us. I like this Dutch national pride. And it makes sense. They have a lot to be proud of. 

4. Baked goods.

It's been chilly in our house, and although we now have learned how to turn on the heat, a cold house has made me very eager to bake. I will post another post very soon with the recipe I use for Roman Apple cake adapted for the gluten intolerant, but for now, here's the original recipe I found online. 

5. Dutch class.

Owen and I are taking a Dutch class at his department. It's an immersion class so you really have to do the work or you'll look like an idiot, but I already feel like a bit of one given the other students. We have a lot of students from Italy in the class, and many of the students know four or five languages. This past week we all went around the room saying where we come from and which languages we speak. The first student said, "Ik kom uit Italië, ik spreek Italiaans, Engles, Frans, Spaans, en een beetie Nederlands." There were almost as many distinct languages as students, with languages as diverse as Latin, Romanian, Mandarin, Hindi, Japanese, Russian, Serbian, and it made my shaky accomplishments in highschool French look poor indeed. Everyone in the class is fluent in English as well as their native tongue, (Owen and I are the only native English speakers) and most students knew at least three if not more. It's so easy to think of my language as the only one worth knowing, (particularly with all the time and effort I've put into studying it) but how simple to not realize other people think the same. 

6. Knitting. 

Another way we've been keeping warm is knitting. I am very nearly finished with my first ever sweatervest, and I'm thinking fondly of my mother-in-law and new family and our happy trip to Rhinebeck Sheep and Wool festival a year ago this weekend. Here's what I wrote about it last year.

7. The Prague fiasco

Here is some of the furniture at our gate. 
Now this story may not sound like a happy story at first but stick with me. Mark, Owen and I had planned to be in Prague this weekend. We thought it was high time to explore a little more of Europe, and Mark was eager to see Prague, so what better occasion? After much careful planning (it can be tough to travel with significant allergies in yet another unknown language) we got up very early yesterday morning to head to the Rotterdam Airport, a place full of cushy couches, delightful little coffee-drinking nooks, security with our shoes on, and decor with a whimsical flair putting us in mind of the Oegestgeest Bank office. Our flight was cancelled, and then merely delayed, then cancelled for real, no reasonable flights to take us there a little later, so our plan was a wash. Mark was still eager to go and see another country, so he caught a train to Belgium, and we planned on heading back home, figuring out how to cancel the rest of our flights, and get our money back and our new plan was to meet him in Brussels today. But here's what happened. We got home and my stomach with which I had been on nebulous terms all day, decided to outright revolt, and I found myself sicker than I've been in about seven years, probably longer. Which brings me to the happy parts of the story. I am so thankful that I was sick at home with a immeasurably sweet husband taking care of me. Not in a youth hostel. Not at some great historic landmark. Not on a train. Not in a plane. Not anywhere but home. New weekend plan? Sleep. Stay in bed. Watch old Disney movies. Eat applesauce and bananas, maybe rice. Work on finishing the sweatervest--or possibly just watch Owen finish it. Maybe go to church and a baby welcoming party if I'm feeling stronger tomorrow. Mostly? I'm planning on loving and being loved. 

The Naturalis Biodiversity Center

Hello again, friends!  Here's another post by me, Owen.

We've posted before on going to the Van Gogh Museum, but Leiden itself has a lot of museums we can visit for free with our Museumkaarten.  Last weekend, Clara and I went to the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, whose exhibits on the variety of life are astonishing.

More pictures below!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Why is Clara learning Math?

One of our readers asked about a note in the corner of our whiteboard in the kitchen. It has my to do list for every day, three things: learn math, learn dutch, finger puppets. The reader understood the bit about Dutch, and who knows about the finger puppets, but what is this about learning math? Owen already knows math, but why is Clara spending her time every day learning math? Here are some reasons. 

Which makes the implication false?
Because I am married to a mathematician. 
As the wife of a mathematician it is totally socially acceptable for me to say, "oh I don't know anything about math" or "I don't understand any of it!" It's totally acceptable for wives of mathematicians, biologists, computer scientists, etc. to not know or care about their husbands' work. This not a thing I like. In a letter to Owen I remember saying that when I'm dealing with math I feel like trying to scuba dive with only snorkeling equipment. I know there's incredible stuff to see down there, but I don't have the resources (be it time, education, or perhaps determination) to dive down and actually see it. Owen compared our individual fields to countries. Theater-land is very tourist friendly. It's made for visitors. But Mathland? "It's a nice place to live, but I wouldn't want to visit." This is probably part of why it is so standard for the friends and families of mathematicians to be okay with not knowing about math. But I don't want to be acceptably ignorant.

Because I spent three years with the PEGs.
Perhaps one of the reasons I don't want to be "acceptably ignorant" is because of three years living and working in the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted, with girls (affectionately known as PEGs) as young as twelve going to college early. There was no such thing as "acceptably ignorant" in that dorm. I was surrounded by young women who wanted to create whole worlds, who would sell geeky Math Club valentines in February, who worked with animation. PEGs who did cognitive and behavioral research with shrews, slicing the brains of their experimented-on shrews to understand more about how our own brains function under certain stimulus. PEGs who loved math classes best of all, perhaps because no one was telling them it was a thing for boys

Because I want to become the role model I would want my kids (or nieces, or nephews) to have.
Amelia Earhart? Not a mathematician, but her quote holds
I love a lot of things associated with traditional femininity and domesticity. I like to cook, and I'm glad that I can have built up kitchen skills for adapting recipes, substituting ingredients with confidence and ease. I play the violin. I like costume dramas, and have read all of Jane Austen's novels. I have two masters degrees in Shakespeare. I love fairytales. I have a lot of poetry memorized. I knit. I crochet. I sew. I even embroider. I do a lot of papercrafting, and although I'm not sure I would qualify the work of my hands as art, I certainly fall into the highly skilled side of the crafting frontier. I love children's books, and have been told dozens of times, "You will be such a great mom!" With all these (often) gendered skills and activities, it would be easy for me to just stay in the "right brain" side of the world. There's enough in art and music, in fairytales and all these interests to last me a lifetime. It would be easy to stick to the creative and artsy humanities side of things. Let other people (guys?) do the math and science "left brain" stuff. But I don't want to be that example for the world's next generation. I don't want to encourage girls to go into math and science because I approve of that idea, or because it frustrates me that our world still thinks of math and science as things that women aren't good at. I want to be a woman who is competent and capable with numbers. I want to actually think that math is fascinating and beautiful. 

Paper engineering? I love this stuff.  
Because math is fascinating and beautiful.
A lot of things I've loved my whole life are math-y things. Origami, patterns, logical thinking puzzles. In college I took a class on "Advanced Logic" which was really a giant excuse to read Godel, Escher, Bach-- which is a gorgeous, complex book, full of ideas so fascinating I still lie awake thinking about them six years after taking the class. One of the reasons I fell in love with Owen was all the years of hearing about math from him. He would tell me about theorems or paradoxes which fundamentally changed the way I thought. Learning to think in new ways made my world bigger, full of even more questions, more things to discover. This sort of learning feels great. Don't believe me? Listen to RadioLab online. Watch Planet Earth on Netflix. Or just watch some Vihart videos, like this one about Fibonacci numbers (I bet I can tell you how many petals are in a flower!) . Or if you think that factorization isn't beautiful? Watch this, fast forwarding when you like but make sure you get to 243. Owen got all excited when our friends' house number was 243, and I didn't get it till I saw the animation. Which is another thing that's crazy and wonderful. Owen sees numbers as special and interesting, the way I think about words, not just a combination of digits but entities with meaning and relationships. I want to dive down into that. 

Owen used tea to explain logical implication. (see first image)
IBM has a bunch of short films out with little girls interviewing women working in technology for IBM, and they end every interview saying "Let's build a smarter planet!" I like this plan, but I'm also excited about us all just becoming smarter people. Stanford offers a ton of classes online for free! I'm taking the one on Mathematical Thinking, and it's great. I'm glad I have so much opportunity to learn here. Learning Dutch. Learning about a whole country and its history and its place in the history of the world. Learning to edit video, learning screenwriting, and yes, learning math.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Leiden's Relief: a city-wide party

The celebration of having food to eat is something I can get behind.

This week marks the anniversary of Leiden's Relief in October 1574.  Short version: after Leiden's city council decided to swear loyalty to Prince William of Orange, rather than Sovereign Lord King Philip II of Spain, Spanish armies sieged the city for several months, and the inhabitants ran out of food long before help came.  But eventually, a fleet of Dutch rebels broke dike after dike to flood the land around Leiden, and the Spanish forces fled the rising waters.  The fleet brought white bread and herring to feed the starving citizens, who had also scavenged the abandoned Spanish camp for some "Hutspot" (mashed potatoes, carrots, and onions).  These dishes are traditionally eaten every October 3rd since.

I had originally thought that this was something the rest of the country quietly noted, but apparently it's all and only Leiden that closes shop to celebrate.  (Thanks, Michiel, for the correction!)  I got both Thursday and Friday off work, but the city had been gearing up all week—on my Monday morning commute, I noticed the sudden appearance of a roller coaster in the town square:

Meanwhile, Clara tried to post a letter and discovered that the postbox had been temporarily sealed so that (in the words of a helpful passerby) "drunk people don't try to pour beer into it."  Two notes: 1. This was three days before any celebrating was due to start.  2. Yes, we now have stamps and can reply to letters!  If you've written to us already, we are on it!

By October 2nd, on whose evening the party started, I was having difficulty getting home on my bike through the crowd, so when Clara and I decided to see what the celebration was like on October 3rd, we went on foot.  Here are five things we noticed:

1. Crowds.  Not just near the open areas by the train station, like we'd thought at first, but thronging the streets and canals.  It was clear from the massively multiplied quantity of parked bikes and cars that this was an event people travel from far and wide to witness.  We had left our valuables at home and took only a little cash, but even then we didn't feel comfortable stopping to take pictures except from some quieter vantage points (so you don't get the full effect from these photos).

2. Temporary platforms had been raised over the canals to facilitate the festivities.  We think there might have been some temporary bridges too, but we're not sure yet.

3. There was so much garbage.  Empty plastic cups and cans, paper plates, even a mostly full but abandoned wine bottle in the street.  Here's a shot of a (usually pristine) grassy area so you can see some of the detritus.

4. The city was just generally decked out.  Even to the rigging on some of the ships, everyone seemed really happy to be celebrating:

5. Live music.  Mostly people singing English pop sings with Dutch accents, but Clara and I love to hear people singing.  Tiny venues like this one sprang up all over town, so that you could always hear someone playing as you walked. 

By midday on Friday, everything was back to normal: streets swept clean and people going about their business.  Next time this happens will be Queen's Day King's Day, when not just the city but the whole country celebrates.

Thanks for reading!  You've asked for shots of funny Dutch signs (we're on the lookout), more candid photos of inflatable kayaks (may be a while, folks), and more pictures of us happy.  Here's an installation on the last request:

Does your hometown, or anywhere else you've lived, have any unique holidays?  Tell us in the comments!