Putting together a capsule wardrobe for Spring

There has certainly been a shift in the cultural zeitgeist these past few years – Marie Kondo is taking over the internet with her decluttering advice, tiny houses are rising in popularity, and capsule wardrobes are in.

I have been increasingly more interested in minimalism, fewer possessions, buying less stuff, and living more simply for a while now. But ideas are not always easy to put into practice, especially when you have bad habits embedded into your behaviour.

As a teenager, I shopped for the bulk of my clothes from a catalogue (hey, no judging, it was cool – sort of) but as I wore a uniform for school, clothes didn’t matter so much to me. They were just comfier things I could change into after a day of polyester shirts and Schrödinger’s tights that rode up and fell down simultaneously.

When I finally had to dress myself 24 hours a day (and pay for my own clothes) my buying habits became vastly more erratic. The questions I would ask myself when shopping were “is this cheap enough to justify to myself?” and “do I like it?” not “does this fit with the rest of my things?” or “will I wear this often?”. I’ve never been a shopaholic per se, but I have used shopping as a means to perk myself up, so my clothes throughout my 20s have been a mishmash of whatever random things I liked that day, what was in the sale/cheap, and what I could find that would fit my shape (fat legs, small waist = no trousers will ever fit you). Putting on weight didn’t help, and I found it harder to find things that I thought made me look good… so I pretty much gave up.

Losing some weight has been a big motivator for me to start re evaluating my wardrobe, because I was sick of investing so much energy in deciding what to wear, sick of wasting money on bad purchases, and sick of looking like a fabric shop vomited on me.

I came across Project 333 and the idea fascinated me, so I decided that along with culling my wardrobe in general, I would start planning out a capsule wardrobe for 3 months (roughly March – May, but starting from whenever Spring finally springs). The idea is that for 3 months you wear only 33 items. This includes tops, bottoms, dresses, outerwear, and shoes. Of course you can set any rules you want and the number 33 is totally arbitrary.

Having decided to give it a go for Spring/Summer, I got rid of anything that didn’t fit (quite a large amount now) and anything that I didn’t really like any more.

I ended up with around 40 items, which was great! Until I actually looked more closely and tried to make outfits with the items.

IMG_20160218_171705 IMG_20160218_173548 IMG_20160218_173811 IMG_20160218_173930 IMG_20160218_174023 IMG_20160218_174221

As you can see there are patterns and colours all over the place, none of which really go with each other. This is what happens when I just pick out stuff I like without thinking about what it will go with. Lesson learned.

Showing this to a couple of friends who I consider quite stylish helped me identify the gaps, which were primarily plain and neutral tops. And the shoe situation was also a bit sad…

So I ordered a few different plain tees and a cardigan from Uniqlo. Stuff from there tends to last pretty well considering the price.

I also went shoe shopping, which is one of my least favourite things in the world. I have flat, narrow and shallow feet. Dainty little footsies and chicken ankles. Literally nothing is comfortable, and having to get the assistant to go back to the storeroom again and again raises my stress levels like nothing else.

But I did it, and ended up coming home with two (!) new pairs of boots. So I spent about €200 in total for the season (for two pairs of boots, 2 tank tops, 3 t-shirts and 1 cardigan) but in theory I shouldn’t have to buy anything else until summer arrives.

I also realised that I was making things too difficult for myself by trying to do a combined Spring and Summer capsule. So I put aside the things I won’t need until actual summer, and focussed on the slightly less exciting prospect of clothes for temperatures between 14-20C (for people who work in Fahrenheit that’s roughly in the 60s).

Once I’d bought the basics, got the right boots, and got rid of the warm weather stuff, things started to come together.

IMG_20160226_094402 IMG_20160226_094611 IMG_20160226_095157 IMG_20160226_100453

(Not shown: my black leather jacket and 2 pairs of Toms. I may also carry a pair of black skinny jeans over from winter, but I’ll see how it goes first)

It’s not perfect by any means (and at 39 items, it’s a little larger than Project 333 called for) but I think once Spring comes and I start wearing the items I will be able to see what is working and what isn’t working.

However, consider my reasons for doing this in the first place:

  • Spend my money more efficiently
  • Have clothes that go with other things I own
  • Be able to get dressed with more ease and less agonising
  • Look more put together
  • Own less stuff, and be a more responsible consumer

I feel like I’ve achieved what I set out to do, even if there are still improvements to be made.

My next step will be to look at my accessories (scarves, jewellery, belts, bags) and purge the excess, although I have never been a massive accessory shopper, the things I have don’t necessarily match with my clothes.

So hopefully I’ll report back in the summer and tell you how it went!

 

Reading Harry Potter for the first time: Part 2 (Chamber of Secrets)

Part 1 – Philosopher’s Stone

Warning: Spoilers for all 7 books throughout! Long post! Much snark!

Chapters 1–5: Dobby and the return to Hogwart’s

So Harry’s had a predictably shit summer holidays because his extended family are awful and Dobby the house elf has been keeping his letters from him because he doesn’t want Harry to go back to Hogwart’s. Apparently the somewhat convoluted plan is to make Harry think he doesn’t have friends so he doesn’t want to go back.

Dobby also does some magic, which not only causes Harry to be punished significantly by the Dursleys, but also gets him a stern letter from the rather Big Brother-esque Ministry of Magic. I would ask “How are they possibly monitoring all the magic use in the world?” but it’s obviously magic, duh.

But if we assume they can monitor all the magic, how can they be so ineffective against dark magic? Unless, of course, they ARE the dark magic…

Oh yeah, I’ve just remembered that character that Imelda Staunton plays was from the MoM! And she was bad, right? Or was she just an annoying bureaucrat? Can’t remember.

No, she must have been evil.

joeytribbiani

So is Dobby meant to be incredibly annoying? Or is that just me? I dunno why, but I feel like house elves would probably be female. So far it seems like all the magical characters are default-male.

Now Ron and his brothers have appeared with his brothers to jailbreak Harry. Wooo action scene.

The moving photos and book covers in the wizard world are pretty cool and I think we’re moving towards this as a society with our love of animated gifs. It would be cool if eBooks had animated covers.

Even the nice wizards are really dismissive of the human world, talking about “Muggle rubbish”. I feel like Muggle is supposed to be a really derogative term, but it’s bandied about by everyone. Sounds like a massive racial slur to me.

“The new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher must be a fan – bet it’s a witch”

What’s with the casual sexism?

So the Weasleys seem to be a really awesome family (it’s these kinds of literary families that make me want lots of kids) but concerned – quite rightly – about putting their 6 (?) kids through a massively expensive private school. Even a wealthy family would struggle with this, so why are the Weasleys painted as being so poor? Second-hand books aren’t exactly a sign of an impoverished life, especially in the wizarding world, where old books are commonplace, surely? [Edit: OK, they are probably poor because they have spent all their money on putting their kids through private school. Which leads me to wonder, are there other wizarding schools? Are they cheaper? Or free? You’d think if there were you would see some sort of inter-school Quidditch tournament.]

Ginny’s crush on Harry is adorkable.

So owls are used as the postal service. But if Ron has a rat how does he get letters delivered anywhere during term time? Surely then everyone should have their own owl PLUS a familiar? That’s like saying you may have an e-mail address OR a personal journal.

Harry has a bank vault filled with wizard gold. But he’s all like “oh, I don’t have any money in the Muggle world”. Like there wouldn’t be a money exchange somewhere. There seem to be way too many mixed families for this to make any sense. Also, where did his parents get all that money?

Floo powder seems like a horrible, horrible way to get around. Not only that but Harry is terrible at following basic instructions like “wait until you see Fred and George”.

We learn from Malfoy Sr that the Ministry are conducting raids. Raids? Seems like this Ministry of Magic are a rather authoritarian government. Were they even elected? Or did they all come of out Slytherin too? But Malfoy Sr does seem to have lots of potions for poisoning Muggles, so maybe they are trying to do good after all.

They refer to Hermione as “a girl of no wizard family” and lament that “wizard blood is counting for less everywhere”. So she has no wizard blood but is still a witch? I really hope this is explained.

Hermione’s Muggle parents are exchanging money! So that means Harry is rich in both worlds. Unless the exchange rate is really bad.

Gilderoy Lockhart sounds like the Lord Flashhart of the wizarding world.

Malfoy Sr is a nasty piece of work, which does make me feel bad for Draco. It’s not like he really had any better examples to follow. I’m kind of surprised that Mr Weasley and Mr Malfoy resorted to physical violence, but I supposed if there had been magic involved the MoM would have been round immediately.

Harry and Ron steal the magic car, leaving Ron’s parents presumably stranded on platform 9 ¾ indefinitely. How are they going to get the car back from Hogwarts? Can you just tell magic cars where to go? They say they need to worry about aeroplanes, but isn’t the train to Hogwarts in another dimension? I assumed Hogwarts was in the wizarding world, far removed from Muggles.

They’ve been heading North from London for several hours so can we assume that Hogwart’s is in Scotland?

Violent tree attacks them in their car, conveniently empties luggage and gives Harry, Ron, Hedwig and Scabbers the chance to get away first.

“Why didn’t you send us a letter by owl? I believe you have an owl?”

Because Ron and Harry aren’t exactly street smart, Professor McGonagall. Also, as much as everyone is dissing Muggles, you’d think they would have co-opted the telephone system by now.

Punishment feasts at Hogwart’s consist of sandwiches, pumpkin juice and silver goblets.

You can have your golden goblet back when you’ve learned to behave, Harry!

Chapters 6–10

Jesus, these howlers. Is public shaming really an acceptable form of discipline in this world?

Aaaaand the messed up points system is back. Hermione gets 10 points for answering a question correctly in class. Does that mean that answering 6 questions correctly would have earned her as many points as Harry got for saving the school/world in the previous book? If so, how could anyone be so upset with them when they got 150 points docked for wandering around at night? Just answer 15 questions in class! And if Ravenclaw is supposed to be full of smart students, how are they not winning every term?

Lockhart is insufferable. I think he’s meant to be though. How did he even get this job?

“My name was down for Eton, you know, I can’t tell you how glad I am I came here instead”

Hahahaha

Why has no teacher helped Ron fix his wand yet? Surely they wouldn’t be punishing him by denying him an important piece of equipment he needs for his studies? Maybe you can’t fix wands. Seems pretty dangerous having a clumsy second year roaming around with a broken wand, that’s all.

Quidditch practice at dawn and they make Harry feel guilty for the fact they lost the Quidditch Cup last year because Harry was UNCONSCOUS IN HOSPITAL. Aren’t Gryffindors supposed to be kind and understanding?

[Boring sports interlude with everyone getting really worked up about sharing pitches and comparing dicks brooms]

Oh, so it’s Mudblood that’s the awful racial slur and Muggle seems to be fine. The whole pure-blood thing is supposed to be a Nazi reference/metaphor, right?

But if there’s nothing wrong with being a Muggle, why is it such an offensive term? Offensive terms are normally offensive when a group of people has been historically repressed and dehumanised. Has something like this happened with Muggles? Did they have to fight for Muggle rights?

“Most wizards these days are half-blood anyway. If we hadn’t married Muggles we’d’ve died out”

How strange. Is the wizard birthrate abnormally low? OR were *they* the persecuted ones?

So someone born to a wizarding family with no powers is called a Squib. That’s nice. I’m really starting to think that wizards are just assholes.

“Have you got anything to tell me Harry?”

This is the point I lose all sympathy for Harry (and teenagers in general).  Dumbledore is a kind, gentle man, who can help you with your problem, but he chooses to stay silent out of a kind of misplaced loyalty to his peers.

Chapters 11-15: Sleuthing around

The terrible trio have based their entire plan on successfully concocting this Polyjuice Potion based on the assumption that Draco is behind it all. They don’t seem to have stopped to think “hey, what if it’s not him?”

We find out during a wizard duel that Harry can talk to snakes – or rather, everyone else finds out. Of course, this looks super dodgy, and now everyone is kind of suspicious and terrified of Harry. Wizards seemed pretty scared in general, with all the “you-know-who” stuff, and being afraid of a young wizard because he has the same talents as another wizard who was a bad wizard. Some very superstitious people, it seems. But then again, as Hermione pointed out in the first book, wizards aren’t terribly logical.

People are being petrified left, right and centre. And even though Harry doesn’t have anything to do with it, he’s being all like “should I have been in Slytherin?”.

“Snap out of it Harry! In five years’ time no one will give a shit about your petty little life at school, especially what boarding house you were placed in!” is what everyone should be saying. The whole school seems to have a really insular, co-dependent vibe though.

Our trio spends Christmas day dicking about turning themselves into Crabbe, Goyle and an accidental cat. The Slytherin password is “pure blood” – gee, how original guys. You might as well have made the password “we are evil, tee hee hee”. But seriously, are we to assume that everyone in Slytherin is a pure blood? If so, then the school/sorting hat really bears some responsibility for putting all the pure bloods in one house together. I mean, what sort of segregation is this? If the hat is merely sorting people into Slytherin based on how cunning they are, then are pure blood wizards simply more cunning than half-blood/muggle-born wizards? Is the wizarding gene inherently evil?

Also, if Voldemort was a half-blood, why are all the Slytherins obsessed with purity of ancestry? Do they only make concessions for Voldemort because he’s the most formidable wizard of the last hundred years?

Wait a minute, Hermione turned herself into a cat. HOW CAN SHE NOT TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HUMAN AND CAT HAIR?

Speaking of weird, why did they cast a 37 year old in the role of Moaning Myrtle in the movie?

So Draco is not the heir of Slytherin, and he’s also really dumb about bragging about his dad’s underground vaults hidden with illegal Muggle items.

Harry finds Tom Riddle’s blank diary and starts writing in it, as you do. Tom Riddle is just like Harry! What a coincidink! He shows him a memory that is almost definitely fake, and Harry is all like “Hmm, ok, seems legit”. He goes as far as to ask “Do you really think Hagrid did it?”, showing just the slightest bit of doubt but not a morsel of scepticism. Even asking questions like “Who is this dude talking to me from a diary and what does he want with me?” is too much for Harry. HE KNOWS WHAT HE SAW!

Meanwhile, everyone is agonising over which subjects to choose for next year and Harry chooses the same subjects as Ron just in case he is rubbish at them and needs help. Great life choices, Harry.

Seriously, this school needs some sort of guidance counsellor. Especially as Harry keeps hearing voices telling him to kill/rip/tear.

Hermione has been petrified, but she still manages to be the only useful sleuth in the school. I’ve lost count of the number of petrified students, but it must be 6 or 7? Plus the cat/ghost? Either way, Hogwart’s is now starting to panic.

Harry and Ron go to see/confront Hagrid but have to hide when Dumbledore and Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, come to arrest Hagrid instead.

I really think one of Rowling’s absolute greatest strengths is in the naming of her characters. The names she chose for even the smaller characters just manage to describe them all so well. I wonder whether she has synaesthesia? The names seem to bring the whole Harry Potter universe to life.

Anyhoos, now Dumbledore has been suspended by Lucius Malfoy and the Board! I mean, I assume that Malfoy somehow forced them into this, but what exactly is their plan for running Hogwart’s without a headmaster and with basically no staff other than McGonagall and Snape?

Even in the face of being absolutely furious at Malfoy, Dumbledore remains calm:

“You will find that I will only truly have left this school when none here are loyal to me. You will also find that help will always be given at Hogwart’s to those who ask for it”

See, Harry, stop trying to solve everything by yourself and just ask for help once in a while.

Hagrid is taken to an excessively high-security prison but manages to tell Ron and Harry to follow the spiders.

Now there’s a massive interlude with lots of little spiders in the forest and then more giant spiders. They find Ron’s parents’ car (“the forest’s turned it wild…”) which then helps to save them from the spiders who are loyal to Hagrid, but less loyal to his friends.

It took that whole ordeal for them to realise Hagrid is in fact innocent, and yet they still don’t think “hey, maybe that Tom Riddle guy is dodgy after all”. Because after all, Tom is just like Harry, and you never suspect that people who are like you could do awful things.

Chapter 16–18: The Chamber of Secrets

They are finally able to de-petrify the students, but Harry still wants to go and talk to Moaning Myrtle. Despite the fact that teachers are now chaperoning students everywhere, when Harry and Ron sneak away from Lockhart, McGonagall is right there.

As usual, Hermione has all the answers. She figured out the entire thing, the basilisk, the reflections, the pipes. But since Harry and Ron were busy dicking about instead of checking Hermione’s hands for clues, it’s too late and now Ginny Weasley has been taken by the monster.

LOLS @ Lockhart being “volunteered” to go into the Chamber of Secrets. But why do Harry and Ron need to force him to come with them when he seems intent on running away?

Can wizards do any magic without wands?

Their plan for avoiding death against the basilisk is to close their eyes.

Sounds like they need the Sensory Deprivator 5000.

sensory_deprivator

Ermahgerd Tom Riddle is the bad guy! Luckily he is a fictitious bad guy which means he only almost kills his victims. But Harry’s still pretty dense and doesn’t get that TOM RIDDLE IS THE BAD GUY.

This is like the “HE’S BEHIND YOU” of the book world.

“Harry stared at him. There was something very funny going on here.”

He has to literally spell out the entire thing before Harry even twigs that something isn’t right:

Riddle: I’ve been stealing bits of Ginny’s soul and replacing them with my evilness for like, 6 months.

Harry: Tom, stop kidding around here. We gotta go!

Riddle: Yeah, because of me Ginny committed all these atrocities and then blamed herself and thought she was going mad.

Harry: The basilisk is going to eat us if we don’t hurry! Wait… what?

harrypotter huh

So Riddle leaves himself behind in memory form to one day lead another person to open the Chamber of Secrets. This is an excessively complicated and involved plan.

And now since Harry still hasn’t got a clue what is going on, Riddle has to literally spell out his name in the air and rearrange the letters to read “I AM LORD VOLDEMORT”.

obviously

So Voldemort/Riddle had a Muggle father but descends from Salazar Slytherin on his mother’s side. That’s almost as bad as being an Aryan Jew. But his Muggle father abandoned him, so basically the reason he turned evil is because he has unresolved Daddy issues? But what about his Mother? Surely the love of a pure-blood is enough to… oh, I don’t know. Do something magical? Even if she died when he was young?

Conveniently, Dumbledore’s phoenix and the sorting hat come to Harry’s rescue just in time, because he’s going to get himself killed sass-talking Riddle/Voldemort the way he’s doing.

“But I know why you couldn’t kill me. Because my mother died to save me. My common, Muggle-born mother”

So he’s taunting him because his mother loved him enough to die for him. Classy move, Potter.

Is calling someone Muggle-born a bit like accusing someone of being nouveau riche?

Fawkes the Phoenix does most of the difficult work by stabbing the Basilisk in the eyes. Then the Basilisk sweeps the sorting hat into Harry’s arms and he pulls out the Sword of Convenient Plot Points. This silver sword has rubies “the size of eggs” but Harry can somehow lift it. He stabs the snake but gets bitten anyway, but don’t worry because the Phoenix is crying on him and that will heal him.

And then all that remains is to stabby stab the diary with the fang and the big fight is over. Ginny’s alive! Lockhart has lost his memory. Hooray!

And even Dobby gets set free!

Happy endings all round! The good guys win and the bad guys lose.

And – most importantly – Dumbledore awards some extra points right at the end so Gryffindor win the House Cup! Again!

Which is important because Harry is a True Gryffindor as it turns out it was Godric Gryffindor’s sword he pulled out of the Sorting Hat.

So Harry is a hero now, and probably going to get significantly more insufferable as the books go on.

Sam’s verdict

By the end of this book I found myself actually looking forward to future books when good characters die and suffer and bad characters win (at least temporarily). To me, this read more like a kids book than the Philosopher’s Stone, and it was a bit less enjoyable, simply because Harry and Ron were so useless throughout, and the plot twists were so predictable.

And I missed Hermione’s character while she was in a wizard-coma. Without her, there was very little sense from any of the characters. It just seemed like most of this book was Ron and Harry bumbling around, trying not to get caught/expelled.

Still, it’s a rather addictive series and I’ve already made it a third of the way through Prisoner of Azkaban…

 

Reading Harry Potter for the first time: Part 1 (Philosopher’s Stone)

Warning: Spoilers for all 7 books throughout! Long post! Much snark!

After finishing a massive dense non-fiction book about nutrition, I was in desperate need of something light-hearted and fun to read next. I’d been thinking about finally reading the Harry Potter series for a while, and it seemed like the best time to start: winter is still here, and I want to sit inside and read, but nothing too strenuous. So I decided to take the plunge.

I’ve seen the movies except the last, and pretty much know all the spoilers by now. But I was still curious to read the books after seeing passages and quotes from the books and finding them a great deal more substantial than the movies. Rowling has a reputation for being a master storyteller, so I thought it was about time I read them.

I also thought it was about time I let go my original reasons for avoiding the books; that Rowling shamelessly ripped off – I mean borrowed – elements from my favourite childhood book, The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson. Ibbotson may want to forgive her and shake her hand or whatever, but it took me a while before I could. (I will say I think Platform 13 will always be the superior book simply because of the mistmakers and the Margaret Thatcher harpies)

mistmaker

When they are happy they go “aaaaah” and create mist. Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it, Rowling.

But, OK, I realise it’s been almost two decades and I am a grown-ass woman and I need to let it go and just read the Harry Potter Books with an open mind. Lots of people I love and respect absolutely adore them, so there must be some value I can find in them to warrant getting through all 7 books.

Note: I have a feeling I did read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone a while ago, but I think I was jet lagged at the time and have very little recollection.

Chapters 1 – 5: Yer a wizard Harry!

Setting up a series of books like this must be quite some task, and I’m impressed at how many characters are woven into the story so early on. Hey, Hagrid mentioned Sirius Black! Wasn’t he a wolf? And all the Weasley family – she must have really known where she was going with this from the beginning.

I’m a bit confused about the concept of Muggles though. How can there be mixed families? Is it genetic? Can two wizards produce a Muggle offspring? That would be really shitty if your whole family has super powers and you don’t. And how can Hermione come from a family of non-Muggles? Was she adopted? Or do wizards get chosen, like the Slayer?

There’s clearly some muggle/wizard tension which I totally understand, having wanted to be a witch throughout my childhood, I would be really jealous of anyone who actually was a witch. And I guess if you have superpowers you would look down on those who don’t. It’s human nature. Or wizard nature.

Harry isn’t half so annoying as I had expected. He’s actually quite a sweet boy. I like the descriptions of Diagon Alley. I like that you have loads of different shops for different things. That’s what I like about Haarlem actually. You can go to the cheese shop, and the fish monger and it’s all nice and old-timey feeling. Imagine if Diagon Alley was Diagon Superstore, where you could get all your wizarding goods under one roof.

Good choice, Rowling.

Chapters 6 – 10 Off to Hogwarts

Obviously, Harry meets Ron on the train and they become BFFs immediately. I feel like there should be a note at this point: “This does not happen in real life. Remember this when you start your first term at uni”. I like that Hermione is weird and bossy. Maybe I could have played her part in an alternate reality where I wasn’t too old to audition.

It’s nice that Harry is so excited about going to boarding school. I’m glad he finally gets money and nice things and an owl. I wonder why boarding schools use trunks though? We had them at school (at least in the early years). Is the advantage that they are more easily stackable compared to suitcases?

Sorting incoming first years into houses based on their characteristics at 11 years old seems like a really bad idea and a great way to perpetuate the terrible people coming out of Slytherin. Can the school really hold no responsibility for creating these evil wizards?

Also, is Hufflepuff really ever going to win the House Cup when all the clever and sporty and ruthless ones go to the other houses? There is NO WAY Hermione is a Gryffindor and not a Ravenclaw. I really hope this is explained later on, and not just because she is slightly more brave than she is smart. Because she’s a massive nerd.

What are the fees like for this school?? Golden plates and goblets? I went to a British boarding school and we had to drink out of plastic cups. And… these 11 year old kids get four-poster beds with velvet curtains!!! Way to make the rest of us feel bad about our lives, Rowling! #lifegoals

There’s a lot of very British slang in here. Was this changed for the US versions? I remember reading that the title was changed from Philosopher’s Stone to Sorcerer’s Stone because American audiences didn’t know what a philosopher was. So was this referred to as the Sorcerer’s Stone throughout?

So apparently lots of Harry’s classmates had come from Muggle families and had had no idea that they were witches and wizards. Is a witch just a female wizard? There’s definitely a kind of patriarchy in this world.

Why is there no sort of Witchcraft & Wizardry elementary school? Why do they need to wait until they are 11? Might make the whole process much less stressful if they could have built up some knowledge from a young age. They seem to get a lot of homework. Or maybe they just like to complain about it?

Oh Snape. I can’t imagine Snape as anyone other than Alan Rickman. 😦

Snape is really mean though. I’m sure he has his reasons, but bullying a little kid isn’t cool. Meanness aside, that potions class sounds excellent. Unlike Quidditch, which sounds boring and reminds me of people at school who went on and on about lacrosse like it was the most important thing in the world. If I could ride brooms, I would have invented more than one sodding sport – like broom racing, synchronised brooming, broom acrobatics, underwater brooming, and gladiator style broom fighting.

So Harry’s a natural at Quidditch. Snooze. I hate sports. And now Draco’s challenging him to a wizard’s duel. Ffs boys, calm down. Do we ever find out why Draco is such an unnecessarily massive dick to Harry? Other than he and his family are supposed to be the bad guys?

Bludgers. BLUDGERS. Quidditch sounds violent and dangerous. But I guess if you can magically heal broken bones, that must take some of the danger away. Did someone really create magical balls that only serve to hit people in the face though? I bet they were in Slytherin.

Seekers and the Golden Snitch seem to have nothing to do with the actual game of Quidditch. And yet the game only finishes when one of the seekers catches it? Are we supposed to believe that this world of magic is just so wacky that people are ok with Quidditch matches lasting months?

Awarding points to houses seems rather arbitrary and at the whim of the teachers. How do they keep track of it all? Do they have little slips they fill in? And do your house points count towards a personal total at the end of the year? If not, seems a bit pointless to take 5 points off Hermione for going after the troll but 10 points to Ron and Harry for saving her. Also, it must have been so obvious that Hermione was covering their asses. McGonagall isn’t an idiot.

“But from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them”.

TRUE FACT.

Chapters 11 – 15 Sleuthing around

Oh god, this chapter is titled Quidditch. Kill me now.

Hermione keeps being painted as a bossy know-it-all who hates to break the rules, but it seems to me that it’s a relatively dangerous school to attend and these rules might actually be a good idea? I know she’s a bit naive in putting her trust in somewhat sketchy authority figures, but why are Harry and Ron’s characters flaws not brought up constantly? Can’t tell if it’s sexist, or pointing out sexism. The ratio of male to female characters also seems strikingly off right now. I don’t think this book has even passed the Bechdel test yet.

“Wood cleared his throat for silence.
‘OK men,’ he said.
‘And women,’ said Chaser Angelina Johnson”

Fine, maybe Rowling is aware of it.

The Christmas holidays at Hogwarts sounds totally delightful. I hope there’s a Hogwart’s themed hotel somewhere.

There IS! Well kinda.

I love how the teachers get drunk and merry too. I wish I’d gone to Hogwart’s.

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that”

Good advice from Dumbledore. I think there’ll be more of this to come.

The three of them are running around like the Famous Five but accomplishing absolutely nothing, instead of studying. Listen to Hermione! You do actually need to pass the exams. And now the dragon has bitten Ron on his quill-holding hand.

So Draco gets 20 points taken off him for being out of bed, but Harry, Ron, and Hermione get 50 points each for the same crime? This points system, man. So unfair. Seems like Hogwart’s has a bit of a toxic culture amongst the staff, lots of power tripping going on. And then they get ostracised by the whole school for all the points they lost. This is a pretty barbaric system. Detention taking place at 11 o’clock at night in a dangerous forest? BARBARIC.

Are there actually any pastoral staff in this entire school? Aside from Dumbledore, all the professors seem to exist just to dole out punishments, rather than doing any teaching, or acting in loco parentis. When they are out of class they seem to just be left to their own devices to manage their own time, and punished if they leave certain areas. Why not give these 11-12 year olds some help or guidance with their revision? Or some after school activities to stop them wandering off?

Chapters 16 – 17 Exciting climax

Wherever Hogwart’s is, it seems to have a lovely climate with snowy winters and properly hot summers. I miss that. Summers and winters here seem to blend right into each other.

These three kids have an overinflated sense of their own importance and seemingly a very poor understanding of the Philosopher’s Stone situation. Good job they’re so plucky.

But why aren’t the grown ups doing anything???

Oh right, it’s a kids book.

“It’s only dying a bit later than I would have done, because I’m never going over to the Dark Side!”

Wait, the Dark Side? Isn’t that Star Wars? Who said anything about Harry going over to the Dark Side? Harry sounds like he’s having a bit of a meltdown.

“Voldemort killed my parents, remember?”

Yes, we remember. It’s literally the point of the entire book series.

Since when is booby-trapping the place with a series of cute tests the best way to protect a valuable and dangerous object? I mean, chess, really? If three little kids who have been studying wizardry for less than a year can get past it, perhaps they need to re evaluate their security strategy. Oh wait, I forgot, Harry is the Chosen One.

Having said that, Hogwart’s doesn’t seem to teach conventional subjects at all, so maybe Hermione’s right about the logic puzzle preventing some of the greatest wizards from getting past, although it does seem absurdly easy.

OMG it’s Quirrell! He’s the bad guy! And he’s doing the Bond villain thing where he explains the situation to the hero… “and I’d have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddling kids”.

And now Quirrell is gloating before he’s actually won. This is why you gloat after you’ve killed your nemesis, people.

Voldemort has got to be under that turban. I think I remember that from the movies.

Why did mirror Harry put the Stone in real Harry’s pocket when he’s standing right by Quirrell/Voldemort? That seems… risky?

Oh right, having the Stone in your pocket burns human flesh. Neato.

So the Stone’s been destroyed and Harry’s woken up with a shit load of presents. And questions for Dumbledore. But Dumbledore’s not telling us why Voldemort wanted to kill Harry in the first place. My money’s on a prophecy of some sort that Harry would overthrow him.

“to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection for ever”

Right in the feels!

So let me get this straight – Dumbledore kind of figured they were going to go after Quirrell, so left them a bunch of cryptics clues in the hopes that they would do so, and hope that they would just be lucky enough not to get killed? That sounds like a very responsible headmaster. Using little kids to fight your battles for you when you’re one of the more powerful wizards AND Voldemort is actually afraid of you. Dick move, Dumbledore.

And then he cheats with some “last minute” points so that Gryffindor win the House Cup. Not only that, but Harry only gets 60 points for literally saving the whole school?

If everyone hates Slytherin so much – even the headmaster, why do they let them in to Hogwart’s? And why do they put them in a house together?

Sam’s verdict

All in all, a really fun read, and I’m definitely excited to read the Chamber of Secrets. I think that the books are going to get more complex and more grown-up as the story progresses. But a solid start for sure.

Finnish book cover

Creepy Finnish book cover

Up next: Part 2 – The Chamber of Secrets

Things I read in 2015

When I was a teenager, I was a committed diary writer. I got out of the habit somewhat once I left home and discovered the Real World, but the thing I’d still do every year was make New Year’s resolutions. Aged 13-15 these “resolutions” would be more like attacks on myself: things I needed to change in order to be acceptable. I don’t have these diaries to hand, but I’m pretty sure 13 year-old me thought that “Stop being so fat and ugly” was a decent, achievable resolution for 1999.

As I grew up, I recognised that the compulsive need to change oneself was not healthy, and certainly not something I should be fuelling. Yet I couldn’t resist the urge to tinker, to track, to evaluate. I started spreadsheets (no, I’m not kidding). I divided my life into categories and decided what I wanted to achieve in each over the coming year. It didn’t help me feel any better about my life.

Over the last five years, illness, anxiety and depression have forced me to rethink my strategy. I have had to be much kinder to myself. I’ve grudgingly given myself permission to do things for fun (like start knitting and dressmaking) without the expectation that I will somehow excel at it and become the most renowned knitter-dressmaker in the world.

And part of that fun has been reading things for pleasure, rather than for the intellectual kudos. I joined Goodreads (add me if you want) so I could track what I read and get some good recommendations. I set myself the overly ambitious goal of reading 26 books this year (one every two weeks), and appear to have read just nine. Ah well, life happens. However, I really enjoyed writing last year’s post about the books I read in 2014, so I thought I’d do it again this year, if nothing more than to look back at what I’ve read and just acknowledge it as an achievement.

Without further ado, here is what I’ve finished this year. Links are Amazon affiliate links.

The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz

The book I suggest to everyone who is interested in a low-carb, high-fat diet, this non-fiction book reads like a thriller. It could have so easily been a dry account of how the diet-heart hypothesis (the idea that dietary saturated fat and cholesterol causes heart disease) came to be considered gospel, but it is so well written that it becomes quite the page turner. Teicholz leaves you in no doubt that some very Bad Science has been done, and that the conventional wisdom that “everybody knows” to be true, might in fact be the reverse.

What about Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market-based Society by Paul Verhaeghe

This is the sort of book that I have struggled to explain to others, but I ended up highlighting large sections of it on my Kindle. There’s an interesting link between psychology, economics and politics, and while his thesis might not be based in solid science (Verhaeghe is a clinical psychologist but an advocate of psychoanalysis) there are some really interesting ideas brought up. I think this book works as a criticism of our increasingly neo-liberal society by covering a wide variety of topics: education, Big Pharma, scientism, and the DSM, but at the same time the breadth of topics discussed make the overall thesis a little confused, and each topic raised could have been discussed in its own right as a book. Still, I would heartily recommend it to anyone, as it’s crammed with interesting ideas.

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

A very “journalism lite” approach to the subject of why the Danes consistently report being the happiest nation in the world. There is very little criticism here, but it’s an entertaining read for those who know nothing/a little about Denmark. For me it was a little eye-rollingly gushing at times, as well as being rather blind to problems of race and privilege.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

The familiar “white woman rediscovers herself by going on a solo trip” trope is in full swing here, but this was a good read (at least compared to the vomit-fest that was Eat, Pray, Love). Based on her own life, Strayed tells the story of how she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail as a young twenty-something, grieving from her mother’s sudden death and recovering from a heroin addiction.

The Martian by Andy Weir

Probably my favourite fiction book of the year, The Martian is about a mission to Mars that goes wrong, leaving one of the crew stranded there. Luckily for him, he’s a massively talented engineer (with a good deal of knowledge about farming, apparently), and the book chronicles his survival on Mars. I can’t remember the last time I rooted for a fictional character to be rescued this much. It does somewhat stretch the limits of believability at times, but it’s so damn enjoyable that I totally forgive the author.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

After rereading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (Judith Kerr), which was a childhood favourite of mine, this popped up as a recommendation. The two are very similar in a lot of ways, with the primary difference being that the protagonist is Danish, not Jewish, and she has to come to terms with the fact that others around her are being persecuted. Although the subject risks being rather depressing for young readers (and older readers, for that matter), both books have great charm and optimism, focussing on the actions of good people against the Nazis. The similarities are many: young girl with wise, kind, father. Girl has to come to terms with war & the upheaval in her life.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

This is actually one of my favourite films, and I find reading books far less enjoyable after I’ve seen the film because I’m trying to compare the two in my head. However, Stardust is simply a fantastic fantasy story, both in print and on screen. Plus points for the book: it’s quite a bit darker than the movie. Plus points for the movie: they do a great job of bringing the world to life way better than my imagination.

Zombie Titanic by Joel Snape

A self-published mini-novel by a blogger that I follow. Rather enjoyable. It’s zombies on the titanic – what more could you want?

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

A close second for my favourite fiction book of the year. Superficially it’s about a man whose wife suddenly disappears. Really it’s about relationships, manipulation, psychopathy, and hubris. I don’t want to spoil it at all, as there are quite a few twists, and this one is certainly worth a reread.

And here’s what I’ve started but not yet finished:

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Matilda by Roald Dahl (in Dutch)

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein (this is rather heavy and quite depressing, I might try and give it another go in 2016)

The Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes (currently reading, it’s a massive slog but worth it)

The Paleo Approach by Sarah Ballantyne

So there you go! I’ve read some good things this year and I hope 2016 will bring me some great new reads. Any recommendations for me?

Come ride with me

This post is a call to action to join me on a 1000km bike ride (approx) from Amsterdam up to the tip of Denmark this summer. I’d ideally like a group of 3 – 5.

I will be raising funds for Coeliac UK and I’m looking for a couple of people to join me, and also help with the fundraising effort (through JustGiving)

We will be largely using the North Sea Cycle Route, which has the advantage of being flat and away from traffic.

I would like to go in either July or August – I am reasonably flexible on dates at the moment. I estimate it will take around 10 days (based on 100km a day) but that’s a rather optimistic estimate and it may be closer to 2 weeks. I cycle on a very casual basis so I will have to train up a little for this trip too.

We’ll be couchsurfing or staying in hostels and keeping costs to a minimum. I’ll be video blogging my efforts to find somewhere to eat.

If it sounds like something you’d be interested in, get in touch. I’d like to start planning as soon as possible.

My top reads of 2014

As the very happy recipient of a Kindle for my birthday last year, 2014 became one of my most productive reading years ever. This list doesn’t include books that I’ve slogged through and given up on, and also doesn’t include a variety of “how to organise your life, stop procrastination and get things done” books.

1. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

Some of the most gripping accounts of war are written from the perspective of children. I remember being profoundly affected by reading Zlata’s Diary when I was young, and although this is a fictional account of the second world war in a small German town, the characters are so vivid and well-written that you are easily immersed in their world. Which is what fiction ought to do.

If you want a more historical account of events, look somewhere else. This novel is not about the war – it’s about people, friendship, community and loss.

I made the mistake of reading the second half of the book on a train. I don’t know anyone who has read this and not cried buckets. Give yourself an afternoon by yourself to cry your eyes out. Don’t read it in public.

2. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

This is a difficult book to talk about as it contains a plot twist early on in the story, which I will not reveal as I found it quite unexpected and rather wonderful. Essentially, it’s a book about family and relationships, even the unconventional sorts. The protagonist is simultaneously rather unlikeable but also charismatic, and her description of having a secret, having a family unlike any other is of course relatable… until you get to the plot twist. Then you realise that, actually her family really was unlike any other.

Yeah, basically impossible to talk about this one without ruining it. Read it.

3. Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes

Hitler wakes up in 2011 Berlin. He becomes a YouTube sensation.

That’s really all you need to know about this book. I found it laugh-out-loud funny in parts and I’m not usually one to chuckle through my books.

Read it if you’re interested in how modern Germany would react to Hitler, or if you like sharp satires on the media. Some of the references might be a bit confusing if you don’t know much about Germany (or Hitler), but there is a section explaining all of them.

4. Sane New World: Taming The Mind by Ruby Wax

Ruby Wax is a comedian turned mental health activist, who has had some very public struggles with depression. In 2013 she completed a Master’s degree from Oxford University in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, so this is far from another sleb book.

This book is a very practical guide to mindfulness, written in an honest, funny and sensitive way. Some mindfulness books can focus on one sort of meditation to the point where you feel like you are doing it wrong, failing, or not good enough. The approaches outlined in this book are no-nonsense, varied, and do not excessively focus on your breathing (which can be a trigger for some who have had panic attacks).

Wax’s writing style is humorous, self-deprecating, but above all incredibly warm, understanding and knowledgeable. One of the best self-help books I’ve read – if you could really call it a “self-help” book.

5. How to be a Heroine: Or what I’ve learned from reading too much by Samantha Ellis

This book is utterly charming: part-memoir about an Iraqi-Jewish playwright growing up in London, part-nostalgic recap of the best heroines of (mostly) British and American literature. Her love of reading is so infectious, and looking back on childhood favourites from an adult’s perspective is a weird but wonderful exercise. If you love the classics, you’ll love this.

6. The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

This one took me a while to get into but it’s well worth it. It’s translated from the Swedish, and the writing style doesn’t flow in quite the same way it would in English, but eventually you get used to it and the humour gets through.

It’s about a man who, on his 100th birthday, decides to leave his care home and climbs out the window while they are preparing his birthday festivities. The book follows his rather slapstick adventures from there, interspersed with many flashbacks about his life. Which it turns out was rather full and interesting.

It reminded me a little of Forrest Gump, with a smarter protagonist, and Allan’s life is very cleverly woven in with historical events. As an explosives expert, he is in high demand throughout the twentieth century, and while the plot gets ridiculous at points (I’m talking about the elephant, mostly), it’s really a wonderful read.

Other 2014 reads:

The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

I read this because the film got rave reviews and in general I like to try and read the book before I see the film. I found this one a drag, to be honest. It’s an account of recovery from mental illness, and reintegration into society, which should be a fascinating topic to write about but I found little to relate to in this book. The bro sports stuff bored me to the extent I can’t even remember which sport they were supporting (baseball? football?) and to be honest it didn’t seem like there was much to like about any of the characters. I would have guessed that maybe that was the point if it weren’t for all the rave reviews online.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

I was curious to read the books which the TV series were based on. What can I say, the TV show stayed quite true to the books, at least this first one. I didn’t bother with the rest of the books as I felt they didn’t add much – plus, Michael C Hall’s portrayal of Dexter is so wonderful that I think I’d really rather watch the series.

The Psychology of Dexter by Leah Wilson

As a psychology nerd, I was curious as to how much of the characters portrayed on TV were based on real accounts of psychopaths. This is a collection of essays on the topic of Dexter and psychopathy, some of which are much better than others. Definitely a book to dip in and out of.

Bumpology by Linda Geddes

A no-nonsense guide to what scientific research says about all aspects of pregnancy, childbirth and beyond. From what I’ve heard, pregnancy is when total strangers give you unsolicited advice about your life, your health and your child, and I hope that when the time comes for me I’ll be able to bitchslap them with science. Or if I’m too tired, I’m sure I could hit them with my Kindle.

The Self Illusion by Bruce Hood

For days when you want the ground to swallow you up, take heart in the fact that there is really no “you” to swallow up in the first place, more like a collection of everything you have ever experienced – internally and externally – processed by your brain into a coherent narrative. It’s not a book you can breeze through but the information is presented in a way that’s accessible to non-psychologists as well.

Dutch attitudes to Dutch learners

I’m in my final week of my Dutch B1 course, which I will blog about another time. Today I want to talk about what it’s like being a foreigner trying to learn (and speak) Dutch in Holland.

A lot of people assume that everyone speaks English – and that’s true to a certain extent – but it’s really no way to live in a country if you are planning on staying. Also, although about 95% of people CAN speak English here, you will find a very large proportion of Dutchies who are very reluctant or embarrassed to use their English.

At level B1, my Dutch is at that funny in-between level. In class, I can talk pretty well with my teacher and my classmates. We can chat about almost anything, actually. When I talk with my Dutch friends, I’m quite a bit more shy about it, but I can still have a basic conversation without too much hassle. Yes, there are definitely many words I don’t know, but hey, sometimes even the Dutch replace words with their English counterparts.

Yet sometimes the ability to say anything totally eludes me, I’m either left tongue-tied or I descend into some barbaric mixture of English, Dutch and German. Today I took care of several errands that I’d put off for months because I knew they would involve some level of human interaction more than “Tasje erbij?” “Ja, graag”.

Attitude #1 “Please stop murdering our language”

The first stop was the dentist. When I came in, he and the assistant waved me through and sat me down before I had much of a chance to warm up my Dutch. He started saying something and I kind of got what he was saying so I replied “Yes please, a check-up and a clean”. In Dutch. At least, it must have been in Dutch – horrible horrible Dutch – because they both looked at me like I’d just declared a jihad on Zwarte Piet.

Awkward silence. Me: “Sorry, mijn Nederlands is niet goed…” This is pretty much my standard response to when I get this look from people. He switched into English immediately as if to say “Stop! Please stop butchering our language”.

He was much happier speaking English to me, and also seemed pleased that once my mouth was open I couldn’t attempt any more Dutch.

Side note about my dentist: his check-ups are ridiculously time efficient. In the UK, they spend a good while poking around, scraping, scratching and generally making you miserable. This guy checked my teeth, told me it was all good except for a bit of tartar, which he mercilessly attacked and then told me to rinse. I was in there for – I shit you not – 4 minutes. I’ve now seen him twice and he seems confused when I try to pay. Apparently this is all sorted out automagically with your insurance. Who knew?

Attitude #2 “It is amazing and wonderful that you even speak a little Dutch” (rare)

Next up was the clothing repair shop. I know for a fact that this woman speaks very little English because I had to get a zip repaired before, and it mostly involved me gesturing wildly at the zip. I had to wait to be seen, so I had some time to think of what I was going to say.

“Ik heb vier broeken, die te lang zijn”

There was a bit of stuttering, so I quickly added “Sorry mijn Nederlands is niet goed…” before she could say anything and give me judgey dentist eyes.

Her response was rather nice. I didn’t quite catch the whole thing, but she either said my Dutch was “lekker” or that it was “lekker” that I am speaking Dutch. Either way, she was utterly thrilled that she didn’t have to speak English. I was in there a while getting all my trousers pinned up, and we made casual chit chat in Dutch about the ridiculous length of trousers (she’s about my height).

As I was walking out the door, she actually thanked me for making the effort to speak Dutch and gave me a smile that made me think maybe I’m not so bad at this language after all.

Attitude #3 “I can clearly hear you are not from here, so let me help you out by switching to English”

At the stationers. I needed a Parker pen refill and there were none out so I had to go and talk to the woman. I started talking in Dutch and we had a whole conversation, but by the end of it I realised we were now speaking English. This is actually a pretty common occurrence for me – and as I improve my Dutch I have very little recollection of when exactly the language changes. Sometimes this is far earlier than I thought.

At the horlogerie (conceding defeat)

I went in to get my watch fixed and a queue built up behind me of about 6 people. I thought, “There’s no way I’m embarrassing myself in front of all these people”, so I played the dumb foreigner card and after “Spreekt u engels?” managed to explain what the problem was. Of course the ironic thing was that the woman’s English was not quite good enough for me to fully understand what she was saying, so I had to ask her repeatedly, and thus the attempt to save myself from further embarrassment totally failed.

Baby steps, eh?

Dutch really is easier than German, and here’s why

A lot of expats living in the Netherlands don’t make the effort to learn Dutch. It is understandable; almost everyone speaks English to a high standard, and Amsterdam is as close as you can get to a truly international city (I remember hearing somewhere that less than 40% of Amsterdammers are Dutch).

However, Dutch has got a bit of a reputation for being a difficult language to learn, and having studied German for many years, I can’t personally see where this comes from. Compared to many languages, Dutch has relatively little grammar to fuss over. Not to mention the Dutch having a very relaxed attitude to grammatical correctness (not helped, presumably, by the official language changing so frequently, that no one really knows what is correct any more).

But the thing is, the more languages you learn, the better you get at learning languages – particularly languages with the same common ancestor. So if you know French, picking up Spanish and Italian becomes easier, and if you know German and English, picking up Dutch is just a question of getting drunk and alternating words between languages 😉

There is certainly an element of talent needed, and an “ear” for languages helps a great deal, but there are undoubtedly languages which sit at very different levels on the easy-hard spectrum. This list gives an indication of the difficulty of different languages for English speakers (as measured by number of weeks it takes to get to a good level of general proficiency. German is under “other” and fits somewhere between category I and II). Notice how Dutch is classed as one of the easiest languages?

Now I’m not saying that learning any foreign language is easy. According to that list even the easiest foreign languages take around 600 hours of class time to achieve a good proficiency, and that’s for educated, Foreign Service Institute students who already have an aptitude for languages, and most likely know a few other foreign languages already. And my belief that Dutch is an easy language (as languages go) is of course influenced by the fact that I studied German and French for many years at school, plus a year or so of Latin, Ancient Greek and Spanish, and some non-formal exposure to Danish. So of course, I am more linguistically inclined then most.

But my current argument is that Dutch is just “simple German” (ha, I bet I just pissed off a lot of people with that statement), and for that we’re going to need some tables. Learning German grammar tables was the bane of my school existence, and when I got to learn Dutch I was delighted to know that no such torture awaited me. Let me illustrate.

The definite article – “THE”

German

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nom der die das die
Akk den die das die
Dat dem der dem den
Gen des der des der

Dutch

de-nouns het-nouns
singular de
de man
(the man)
het
het huis
(the house)
plural de
de mannen
(the men)
de
de huizen
(the houses)

The indefinite article – “A/AN”

German

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nom ein eine ein keine*
Akk einen eine ein keine*
Dat einem einer einem keinen*
Gen eines einer eines keiner*

*Note: keine is the negative of eine, which has no plural form. But keine (no/none) can be used in the plural: “Er hat keine Bücher.” (He has no books.) – “In Venedig gibt es keine Autos.” (In Venice there are no cars.) Source: german.about.com

Dutch

All cases Negative
Een Geen

I’m not even kidding.

I could continue along these lines (look up German adjective endings if you want a chuckle), but I think you get the picture. Even saying “the” or “a” in German is fraught with potential errors, and it really takes a lot of study and discipline to learn German to the point where you get these simple things right most of the time. Dutch doesn’t have this barrier, which I think makes it far more accessible than people believe.

Dutch is undoubtedly grammatically simpler than German, but as a Dutch student I can’t say that it’s easy without looking like a total dick. The hardest part, for me, is understanding the Dutch when they talk. It’s not that they speak quickly, as in Spanish, but rather that they seem to think actually saying all of the words in the sentence is just far too much hassle. So letters, syllables and words are dropped and run together, much like in Yorkshire (‘t is actually an accepted way of saying “het”). Then on top of that you have to deal with the multitude of accents and dialects that exist in such a small country, some of which really sound nothing like the Dutch I learn in class.

My knowledge of German may help me write to a higher level of Dutch, but it’s not going to help me talk to the average Dutch person. For to truly excel in a language, you need frequent and prolonged exposure, practice, and dedication. I hope one day I can get there.