25 March 2010

Fabric and Notions at the Albert Cuypstraat Market

Most visitors to Amsterdam will make a trip to the famous Albert Cuypstraat Market, an enormous year-round outdoor street market. There's food and flowers and fashion and fabric and furniture amongst other things (some even not starting with 'F'). But there's also a wonderful little notions store that you might miss if you're not careful. Along the North side of the market, hidden in the shop behind a rather boring booth that's mostly unexciting yarn, you will find Jan.

Jan De grote Kleinvakman

They have just about every notion that you could imagine, and some that didn't even occur to me before seeing them there (everything from crochet flowers to safety eyes). They have a huge wall of trims (and then more in bins). Unfortunately my picture of the whole wall turned out blurry, but below is a peek at one tiny bit... just picture this extending floor to ceiling for a long, long ways. One type of trim I'd never seen before was bias tape that was polka dotted and then edged with little lacy scallops. It came in about 6 different colours and was so pretty!


And taking up nearly as much space as the trims were buttons! All the trims and buttons were nicely sorted by colour or style too, which makes it easy to scan for what you like.


For fabric, head back out of this dimly lit cavern of goodies, and into the market. There's one booth that sells "craft pieces" that are pre-cut lengths of cotton. There's a huge variety in style from strawberries and flowers to Japanese block-print batiks to hilariously touristy stuff with blue windmills and tulips. I couldn't resist this map patterned piece today... and I don't even have a sewing machine here yet! Incorrigible!

Global Map fabric

If you want to find this booth particularly, it's nearer the Ferdinand Bolstraat end on the South side, and he's usually only there on Friday and Saturday. But there's lots of other stalls selling all sorts of fabric off the bolt too.

Rolls of batik fabric

Update: There's a website for the stall that sells the pre-cut lengths: Hobbylapjes.

24 March 2010

All the world seems in tune...

Purple crocuses

I love Spring. I think it's probably from living on the West Coast as a small child (which is also the source of my love of rocky beaches, mossy and damp forests, and the ocean). Spring is supposed to start in February. But after the age of 6, I've spent most of my Springs in places where Spring dawdles in around mid-April or early May. And then it's usually around for about 20 seconds before it decides to be Summer. Montreal was like that. We had glorious long Autumns, but fleeting Springs.

White and Yellow crocuses

So I am absolutely savouring every moment of the long and glorious Spring in Amsterdam. Several weeks ago I started seeing crocuses and snowdrops and this past weekend I saw some daffodils. It's also been Spring-y inside lately with some hyacinths. If you're wanting a bit of Spring and it's not what's outside your window, treat yourself to some beautiful flowers!

Vase of Hyacinths

Or just draw some. I drew on the envelope of a letter I sent recently. Email is very convenient, but the tangibility of a real letter is always a treat. My Mom, in particular, has been spoiling me with lots of little postcards (some of them seen propped against the mirror in the photo above). Whenever I think of how fun it is to get Real Mail, I always think I should send more of it. Perhaps visiting exotic new places will encourage me to follow through!

Envelope Embellishment

08 March 2010

From Urban planning to the Food on our Plates

Or, Unexpected Musings as a result of being an Expat...

Roses on my table

So from my last post, you might be getting the impression that it's a grocery paradise over here. It's not quite so easy. One thing I've noticed in the stores in Amsterdam (though not at the amazing variety of farmer's markets) is an obsession with over-packaging. We bought some crackers once that, within the outer package, were individually wrapped in groups of 8. WHY??? Certain types of fruits and vegetables are packaged on foam trays with cling film, or in plastic bags, or simply wrapped in cling film. It seems intensely unnecessary and is one definite downside to shopping at the local grocery store chain. Once we have bicycles (something I hope to find second-hand and soon), I plan to do more shopping at the farmer's market where I can bring my own re-usable bags for things. On a related note, at D's workplace, they have a wonderful sounding canteen, but for hygenic reasons have individually wrapped each portion of cheese and meat. So to make a simple sandwich generates a ton of waste.

Something else I've noticed is that, as a result of the latest obsession with being environmental by taking your own bags shopping, there seem to be a zillion new bags being made. I see them everywhere from fancy designer ones, to promotional ones, to cheap department store ones. I mean, at least they're re-usable, but still, it seems excessive and little bit missing the spirit of the idea. I can only imagine that some will not be sold and that the excess stock will end up in a landfill somewhere.


I have been reflecting recently on consumption and waste and where we find value and meaning in our lives. A lot revolves around the food we choose to buy, grow, prepare, and eat. We have been eating a lot better since moving to Amsterdam. Mostly because we are being more frugal and cooking all our meals from scratch. We never ate a lot of pre-prepared food or ate out a huge amount, but we're doing so even less here.

Making this sort of drastic, long-distance-and-short-notice move, with its associated massive reduction in Stuff, has resulted in a lot more changes than just the scenery. It's forced me to think about just about every lifestyle choice and be more conscious in choosing what I want. When you don't experience any change, it's very easy to stay within your comfort zone and not examine WHY you do or believe something. So far, I think this has been the most rewarding part of this experience and not at all what I expected. I thought it would be the travel ... which will probably be great too, once we get to that part of the Expat Adventure. As it is, I've been far more productive in writing and drawing than I had been for ages, I'm getting much more regular exercise (love the climate here!), we're eating much better, I'm feeling very content with having fewer things (though I still am excited to get our boxes with what we did choose to ship), and I feel like I'm benefitting personally from consciously re-examining my beliefs and assumptions.

06 March 2010

The Grocery Dilemma

sausages at the market

North America is big. Really big. You may think it's a long way down to the grocery store, and in general, it is. And this is the source of many problems.

First, when the grocery store is far away, you're likely to go less often. This has two consequences: you'll buy more food and less of it fresh. Buying more food generally leads to buying things you won't end up using (it's hard to always plan perfectly just what you'll need a week or more in advance) and fresh food tends to be the healthiest. So already, you're set up to be less healthy and to waste food.

Next, for whatever reason it originally started, stores in North America carrry enormous bulk sizes of things. The smaller quantities are then priced unnattractively, so that it seems like a financially sensible choice to buy the large size. This makes your groceries heavy and since your grocery store is far away, it's not feasible to walk. So you're spending more money because you're buying more food at a time and you're driving instead of walking, which is worse for both you and the environment (and costs you even more money when you consider all the tangential costs of cars).

Finally, because you've had to buy lots of food, in large quantities, you need a larger space to store all that stuff. So you're spending more on your home or apartment.

In contrast, consider if your grocery store was 5 minutes walk away. It would be more hassle to drive there and find parking than to just walk over. Then you'd have to buy less stuff because you'd need to carry it home, but if you're that close to the grocery store, you can go every couple of days. So suddenly, you can buy fresh food every couple days and be more accurate in planning what you'll use and get some exercise too. I was lucky enough in Montreal to be in this situation. There were small grocery stores scattered all over my neighbourhood, so I could easily walk to the store every few days. The one piece that still caused a problem, though, was the way small quantities of pantry items tended to be overpriced compared to the bulk sizes.

fresh scones

Something that annoyed me initially in Amsterdam was the lack of bulk sizes. I do a lot of home baking and go through flour pretty quickly. I was used to buying 10 kg bags. The bags of flour here are 1kg. However, the key difference I've realised is that I'm not paying a markup for the small package. It's about 0.58 € (includes taxes) and while I can't pop into a Canadian grocery store at the moment to check, I can just about guarantee that a 1kg bag of flour will cost more than $0.80! Once you lose the pricing incentive to buy the large size, it suddenly becomes clear that bulk purchasing is really not advantageous. It means you have more money tied up in "stuff" that you don't really need yet, for some things it means they won't be as fresh when you get to using them (or might even be spoiled if you get bugs or mice), and it means you need space to store all your bulk stuff. If you're walking home with groceries, it's also much nicer to be carrying 1kg at a time rather than 10kg!

I think many of our current problems in North America could be solved by returning to an urban model where it was convenient to walk to stores (and if we got over the obsession with bulk and "supersize" options). It would be better for our health, our pocketbooks, and for the environment. But why won't it happen anytime soon? Because it means more overhead costs for the corporations and thus smaller profit margins. Shopping at farmer's markets and smaller shops is great if you have that option. But what can people stuck with a distant, monolithic grocery store as their only option do?

I don't have the solution other than to say that it presumably works in Europe, so why not in North America?

01 March 2010

Travel Art Kit

I mentioned it briefly in my previous post and I thought it might interest others to know what's in my Mini Travel Art Kit. Here it is all packed up:

travel art kit

And here it is, all unpacked:

travel art kit unpacked

Clockwise, it consists of a small sketchbook, some watercolour brushes, 2 black pens, a refillable eraser barrel, the blue plastic pencil box (containing a mini-sharpener, a gum eraser, a kneaded eraser, and an assortment of pencils and pencil crayons), large pencil sharpener and eraser, watercolour paper postcards, a strip of paper with my pencil crayon spectrum of what's in the box (42 colours), a box of watercolour pencil crayons, and a box of pencils.

As you can see, there's certainly some duplication, so it could be smaller. I used to have fewer of the loose pencil crayons so that the box of pencils also fit in the blue plastic box. But this has grown organically with things I liked to have available. For example, I prefer the pencil sharpener that catches the shavings to the mini one that fits in the box. And I do like to have a big range of colours in my coloured pencils... overall, it's still pretty compact.

travel art kit

If anyone else reading this has a travel art kit, I'd be interested to hear what's in it! If you're thinking of making one, I highly recommend having a hard-sided pencil box rather than a fabric case, so that your art supplies are protected (and if anything is leaky, it's contained).

On an unrelated note, nice weather in February (ie. hovering around 0°C), often with no snow, is amazing. I'm usually feeling quite downtrodden by the grey, cold weather in February and know it will continue in March. This year, it's been unusually cold and snowy in Amsterdam, but that translated to balmy for us, in comparison to a Montreal February. And March is starting off with a glorious sunny day! After this blog post, I'm off for a walk, maybe to one of the numerous year-round outdoor markets.