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.

The Netherlands, one year on

It has been a while since my last post. When I was tidying up this blog a while back I happened to notice that over 200 people are now subscribed to my posts by e-mail, which managed to fill me with enough fear to delay writing another post for… over a year.

I have no idea who these people are or why they subscribed. Are they supporters of Camp Quest? Friends? Family? Random people on the internet? I began to feel hounded by hundreds of imaginary people, angry that I’d be cluttering up their inboxes with cat videos or pictures of the latest dress I sewed, instead of SERIOUS ATHEIST TALK ABOUT ATHEISM.

Well, I guess I’ll be disappointing someone no matter what I end up writing about, so I may as well talk about my experiences after just over a year living in the Netherlands. We have both adapted so well that living here just feels so… normal. I don’t think either of us have ever even thought “Hey, I wish I’d never left London”, let alone expressed it. It doesn’t really occur to me on a day to day basis that what we are doing is actually relatively unusual – living in a country where you don’t speak the language, just because one day you decided you wanted to.

What’s good

Living a car-free existence, and being able to get to most places by foot, bike or public transport.

Haarlem is a small enough city that you can have a network of friends rather than individual friends dotted around, and that you can bump into people you know on the street.

Haarlem is large enough that you don’t have the small-town syndrome of everybody being all up in everyone’s business.

The intellectual stimulation of learning a language keeps my mind active every day.

Dutch people are happy, especially kids. It’s not uncommon to see a women cycling with 4 young kids on the front of her baksfiets and everyone is beaming at you. This sort of happiness is infectious.

Despite trying to shake off the stigma of being labelled an “expat”, I’ve come to terms with the fact that expats are a rather wonderful and unique community. You meet people from all sorts of countries, who tend to be open to new experiences and making new friends.

Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I’ve found it far less stressful than expected to deal with going to the doctor, dentist, vet, optician or even the gemeente (council). The people I’ve come across in professional positions have been helpful, courteous and friendly – but actually friendly, not the American “Have A Nice Day” brand of faux-friendliness.

What’s less good

Food. This is probably due to living in the city centre, but the range of food available in supermarkets is pretty restricted compared to London. Also as most vegetables are grown hydroponically, things like tomatoes just taste like crunchy water. Gluten-free food still hasn’t quite reached the mainstream yet either, so my eating out choices are pretty limited too.

Clothes. The stylish Dutch women you see tend to be aged 18-30. At some point, whether it’s after having kids or just generally not giving a shit about what others think, Dutch women’s style devolves into some sort of perverse pseudo-practicality. They give the illusion of being practically dressed, and I admire the intention (if it is such an intention), but you know what’s not practical? White trousers. Also, jumpers/cardigans/capes with strange tassles hanging off in every direction, when you have to cycle. Maybe I’m just bitter about having to get every single pair of trousers I buy here hemmed by at least 20cm, but Dutch fashion sucks.

Tiny packaging for things that you want to buy in bulk. See: detergent, fabric softener, deodorant, cat food. It’s such a little thing and yet so infuriating.

There seem to be fewer restrictions here about how charities can raise money, so I have noticed more and more people accosting me on the street trying to get me to give them money, whether the “chugger” variety, or the good old “shake your money box and shout at them” sort. I’ve also noticed some charities engaging in a form of “flirty fishing” – using attractive (probably not Dutch) guys to approach and try to flirt with young women as they leave the station.

Forgetting how to speak your native language. I may write in more detail about language learning at some point, but all I will say is when you lose the ability to speak both your native language AND the language you’re learning, that’s when you’re actually learning the most.

But enough of this silly listicle disguised as a blog post

After a year, I can more easily see myself living here for another 30 years than I can ever see myself returning to London. My mother always used to say “horses for courses” (as a non-native English speaker she would pride herself on absolutely correct usage of English grammar and extensive knowledge of obscure idioms and sayings). Well, for now at least, this horse has finally found a course to run around.

Why move to the Netherlands?

It’s been a long time since I last updated this blog, mostly because I’ve been working my ass off at The Happy Coeliac and my own personal ramblings seemed a little pointless. More than 6 months after we decided to make a move to the Netherlands, we are now here in Haarlem, and I think that my life might have got sufficiently interesting to start writing about it again.

A surprising amount of people have asked me this, as if it is a random and unexpected decision. It was actually rather carefully considered. Our conversations went something like this:

Me: We need to get out of London/the UK.

Alex: Yes.

Me: What about USA?

Alex: Cars, pollution, ignorance, religion, healthcare costs, violence.

Me: Canada?

Alex: Maybe. Quite far away though. Might be tricky to move there permanently, not sure if there is work out there.

Me: Germany? France? Denmark? Italy? Australia? New Zealand?

Alex: Too many rules, too socialist, too cold, too difficult to get anything done, too far away, too slow internets.

[Some time later]

Me: What about the Netherlands?

Alex: …

Me: …

Alex: I really enjoyed my time there before.

Me: I like the cycling and the laid-back culture.

Alex: They have a good work-life balance.

Me: It’s pretty, with good air quality.

Alex: It’s not too far away from our families.

Me: The quality of housing is better.

Alex: They have superfast broadband.

Me: I can start a line of gluten-free hash brownies and become a squillionnaire!

Alex: Are there any downsides?

Me: …

Alex: …

Me: We don’t speak Dutch?

That was actually the only downside we could think of, aside from moving away from our families. Everything else just seemed like a positive. Now that I’ve had a good 3 days experience of the life here, I am pleased to report that my expectations seem largely grounded in reality. Our landlord is friendly and helpful. People smile at you. Bikes and pedestrians rule the roads. The air is wonderfully clean, and my chronic sinus inflammation has gone down (after flaring up in 2009, when I moved to London).

That’s not to say things won’t be difficult as we learn the language, make friends and start a new life here. I’ve been feeling an unexpected culture shock, as I am tongue tied whenever a shop assistant asks me a question. I feel I have to apologise for not speaking the language. I am not used to the fact that cars will slow down for pedestrians, so I have developed a kind of twitchy walk.

But overall I feel that this has been a positive step for Alex and I. London never really suited either of us, so I hope we’ve found a place that we will one day, without hesitation, call home.

Round up from the 6th World Skeptics Congress: See me, hear me, read me

Last weekend A month ago I had the honour of being invited to speak at the 6th World Skeptics Congress in Berlin. For those of you who missed it, here is a round up of my talk. I had a wonderful time, and was delighted with the positive response to my talk.

Watch

Listen

Listen to the Token Skeptic podcast where I was interviewed by Kylie Sturgess.

Read

Read the JREF Swift article by Kylie Sturgess.

Gearing up for the World Skeptics Congress

It’s been a crazy few months, and I’m trying to get back into the swing of being an atheist rockstar. Luckily, the World Skeptics Congress is right around the corner (May 18-20th, Berlin), where I shall be speaking on the subject of “Engaging Children in Science”:

Children and young people are becoming increasingly disengaged with science, and in the UK in particular we are suffering a dearth of engineers and scientists. Twice as many A-levels (the school leaver’s exam) were taken in humanities subjects than science subjects in 2011. What can be done to reignite the natural curiosity of the world around them – that is seemingly innate in young children – to ensure that scientific literacy is not lost to the next generation?

I think you’ll agree that this is a hugely important topic and I am very honoured to be invited to the Congress. Other speakers include Chris French, James Randi, Eugenie Scott, Simon Singh and Rebecca Watson, so I’m in very good (and intimidating) company.

Tickets are selling out fast and I need some more fanboys and fangirls to complete my entourage. So book now! 🙂

I’m on a list!

Alex Gabriel has compiled a list of 100 atheists (mainly UK based) who aren’t old, white, privileged, straight men.

I am honoured to be included! My next business cards will definitely say: “Samantha Stein, interesting”

And no, I haven’t forgotten this blog. The combination of working full time, learning to drive, commuting, and (supposedly) working on my upcoming e-book combined with absolutely CRIPPLING writer’s block has left very little time to post here. However, progress is being made, however slowly. I have commissioned a cover for my e-book which is very exciting, and makes it all a bit more real!

Now I just need to get round to finishing it!