All things Dutch and wonderful

When I first visited a local supermarket in the Netherlands, I complained that the only soy sauce was the wrong kind. The bottle was too small, and the soya sauce was Indonesian. I honestly thought I would starve. 

Thirteen years later, I walk or cycle to the local Nettorama or Aldi supermarkets and marvel at the variety of goodies I will miss when I make my final departure from this country. I should say that it’s not just the content but also the convenience of shopping for affordable goods. 

I don’t need to drive or travel far to find the basic groceries for a meal. Besides the usual chain supermarkets, exotic fresh grocers line the nearby street of Kanaalstraat, where side streets are named after former Dutch colonies in Indonesia. The cheapest Sauvignon Blanc is euro 2.69 from Chile. I have tried enough low-priced wines to know that quality is not correlated with price. A liter of milk is 49 euro cents. I can get 30 large eggs for euro 2.99. 

Over the years, I have taken a liking to Dutch herbal teas, old farmer’s cheese, sunflower seed bread, and licorice candy.

Dutch teas and sandwiches

In my first year at Utrecht Conservatory, I not only had to adjust to becoming a non-traditional student and learning a new language but also living in a house under constant renovation. Noticing I was struggling to contain my cold and cough, a Dutch gentleman asked if I’d like to try sterrenmunt thee. The herbal tea soothed my throat and I’ve pined after it everytime I was sick. However, I have not seen it sold abroad.

In fact, I was sick 50% of the time in 2004. The dust from indoor renovations, cigarette smoke from other passengers waiting for the train or bus, and the changing weather all contributed to my ill health. Although I looked forward to studying music full-time at a conservatory, I didn’t expect it would be vastly different from other degrees I had pursued previously. Neither had I expected the Netherlands to be the most foreign country I would ever live in.   

And so it’s a wonder that I made it through not one but three house renovations, all the while pursuing my music degree: the corner house in Bussum, the monument house in Utrecht, and garden house with two tatami mats and floor-heated terracotta tiles. I learned enough Dutch to shop for a house, join group fitness classes at the local sports club, and carry on every day activity as a local resident. Once or twice a week, I cycle to the central market to sample old farmer’s cheese that’s hard and pungent, buy a loaf of freshly baked bread, and indulge in a portion of piping hot kibbeling (deep fried fish). On Saturday afternoons I would attend a free concert at the dome church near the market. 

Yesterday, I turned on the heating for the first time for it had fallen to 9 degrees Celsius. As I type this, I am sitting under direct sun grateful that no clouds have interrupted my train of thought. 

My favourite place under the Dutch sun

I will miss cycling on these well-marked cycle paths on predictable flat surfaces. Traveling within the Netherlands is easy. There are many options for public transport as well as free transportation. The other day, I cycled to the central station to catch a train at the next station for a local bus to a small village where a string trio was to perform in a large church. After the concert, my friends and I caught a bus to a train station and changed to a metro and then a tram in Amsterdam. There is no need for a car.

Below is a preliminary list of things to take with me:

  • Sterrenmunt thee
  • Zoutout thee
  • HEMA dropjes
  • Oud Boeren kaas
  • Fig jam and other exotic fruit jam

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Moving out, moving over, and moving on

During the pressure-cooker months of May and June,  I often wanted to wave a magic wand and make everything disappear. My tendency to collect, accept what others give me, organize, make good, and keep meant that I didn’t like throwing things away.  Yet at the same time, I was reluctant to pay for shipping and extra baggage fees to transport all my belongings from Maui.

Sheet music, my pride and joy

If such relocation expenses were tax-deductible, I would have conceded to pay at whatever cost to keep and take everything. If someone else were to pay for moving expenses, I would happily concur. However, I was not moving to start a new job, I was moving to start a new life.

Unlike my previous moves from Okinawa to Durham, North Carolina, from London to Singapore, and from Houston to London and back, this was no corporate relocation. No professional mover would appear at my doorstep to pack everything as is. I had to find sturdy grocery boxes, weigh everything, and pack it myself. In the process, I had to shed and find homes for all that I could not keep. [This would fill another blogpost: how to get rid of your stuff.]

And so I made short trips to the supermarket and befriended the young man who promised me that tomato boxes were best for holding and shipping books. They were small and light enough to carry. They came with lids.

How do I minimize the cost of transport? The US Post Office offers a media rate equivalent to $1 per two pounds. Media includes sheet music, books, CDs, and video but not personal documents. A manageable 50-pound box would cost $25, similar to what Virgin America charged for extra check-in bags. It’s the only airline that had a generous allowance of 10 check-in bags. 

What I was willing to let go of – but not all found a home

With considerable help, I managed to ship ten boxes weighing 25 to 70 pounds each via media rate with an expectation that they would arrive each at different times in 6 weeks or more. At the airport, I checked in ten suitcases and bags and carried a Samsonite roll-on, back-pack, and a new food container. I wore extra clothing on my $400 one-way flight to Boston. That’s how I spent about a thousand dollars to move a thousand pounds of my stuff and myself six time zones away. Surprisingly the post office delivered all ten boxes the same day I landed. 

I should have been pleased that everything I owned and kept from those five-and-a-half years on Maui had made their way across the Pacific Ocean and the North American continent. On time and unscathed. Yet in the 950 square foot studio apartment in Boston, I felt overwhelmed. I tried to unpack but got stopped. What good is unpacking my dresses without hangers or space in the closets? What good is unpacking my sheet music and personal documents without binders to hold them and shelf space to store them? 

When I tried to cook in the new kitchen, I regret not taking everything from my Maui cottage. I had brought the wrong items. There was already a can opener and chopping board. But there was no colander. I left perfectly good food in the fridge and cabinets. Similarly, in the bathroom I missed my shampoo and conditioner, both bottles still unfinished but left behind. 

Why buy new when there’s nothing wrong with the old except it’s no longer with you? 

Surrounded by my unpacked boxes and suitcases, I lamented that it would take me days to find and organize my things. I tried stuffing all my underwear in the top drawer of a dresser, only to discover it inconvenient to pick and choose. The open plan layout afforded more space at the expense of visibility. Seeing all my possessions in different states of unpacking was an eyesore.

Once again I wanted to wave a magic wand and make it all disappear.

A clean and empty attic, once packed to the rim

The magic wand came in the form of a plane ticket to Amsterdam. From Schiphol Airport it was a mere 30-minute train ride and 15-minute walk. In the monument house and garden house in Utrecht, there was nothing. No wine or beer in the basement. No furniture in the four bedrooms, living room, piano room, and kitchen. The attic was barren except for the boiler and water tank. The garden house and shed stocked the only items I asked to preserve: my bicycle and two adjustable piano benches. Everything else had been emptied out four summers earlier. 

I have returned to live a minimalist existence, the subject of another blogpost.

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Like-minded souls and their passion to collect sheet music

“If Bart were still here, he would never let me go through his sheet music and take what I want,” I said to his widow after spending hours looking through the densely packed shelves downstairs and upstairs.


Bart’s Steinway

I might have gone up to his room once the entire time I knew him. Or maybe not at all. 

Whenever I visited him in his 19th century house in The Hague, he would have already prepared a pile of sheet music to sightread with me either on his black Steinway grand or also on his light brown Bluthner upright. Our breaks for a drink, a snack, or a delicious meal cooked by his industrious wife were considered unwanted interruptions to our flow.

There was simply too much music to play.

When I learned in July of his passing, I was struck by how little I knew of his other life. I knew he spoke many languages fluently, for it was in Paris that I first met him. I knew he travelled for his work. And he was a naturist.

Collecting sheet music and sightreading it with others was his passion. When he travelled, he would stop at a music shop to get sheet music. When he spotted a piece he knew someone else was looking for, he’d call that person and ask, “Just tell me yes or no, do you want me to get it?”

I was the same way, except I collected music for myself. 

A tiny subset of Bart’s entire collection

By the time I visited his home in early September, nearly a year after his passing, most of his sheet music had already been designated and taken by the Quatre Mains Club and various instrumentalist-friends of his. Still, it took me an entire afternoon and the subsequent morning to extract music to completely fill two boxes. 

I was surprised that his collection overlapped mine only in the mainstream repertoire. But a few composers were visibly missing. Where was Elgar? Les Six? Mompou? Solo transcriptions of famous piano concerti? Perhaps these were already claimed. 

When most of my sheet music had to be reduced four summers ago, I took solace that maybe I’d compensate the void through the collection of my friends. I was reluctant to give away or sell even one piece of music, for every single one was purchased or obtained with intent. I treated myself to such sheet music expeditions everywhere I went. These shopping sprees were more satisfying than Boxing Day sales at Laura Ashley’s in London.

Little did I expect that Bart would leave so soon. I regret not moving my Steinway to his house as we had originally planned. He made space for it the summer of 2012 when everything in the monument house had to be emptied. He would have been able to sightread music for three pianos. Had I followed through, I’d learn much earlier that he was seriously not well. My Steinway would probably still be here, rather in some unknown place.

Such is my loss. I would have been able to say good-bye.

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A rolling stone gathers no moss but eventually will meet others

I can count the number of friends who visited me during  my five-and-a-half years on Maui. The first to visit was a couple who flew from California and stayed for a long weekend in my first apartment while attending a wedding in Wailea. I invited my long-time friend from Denver for Christmas, and she stayed in my cottage while we house sat my colleague’s home nearby in Wailuku. My friend from Taipei and another from Honolulu also visited and stayed with me. The last visit culminated in a concert in an autoshop.

Now that I’m back in Utrecht, it’s clear why not more friends could visit though they wanted to. Airfares were not cheap but that’s not the only reason. Flying time was long. From Europe, you fly across two oceans and a continent, crossing 12 time zones. This means two to three days of your journey is spent traveling to Maui and back, not to mention jetlag. My invitation to paradise was not an easy one to accept.

New kitchen through old stained glass door – Utrecht

There are other ways to see old friends besides the invitation and planned travel to a destination. 

I managed to “catch” two of my conservatory classmates on Facebook — that they were in Hawaii. I lured one of them to spend a day on Maui, visiting my home, having lunch at a golf course, visiting the beaches. On another occasion, I drove to Lahaina to have lunch with the other former classmate who was cruising the world with his piano duo partner. Our table was literally next to the ocean.

This manner of “catching” my friends’ whereabouts on Facebook was how I managed to enjoy a tasty dinner with my cellist friend from Missouri in Boston’s Chinatown. It’s also how I’m going to see my German friend from Shanghai in his hometown Braunschweig.  I hope I’ll see my friend from Baltimore who is hard to track down as she blazes through Europe with her entourage: London, Utrecht, Paris, Malta, ….

Meanwhile, some of my friends have “caught” on that I’m in Europe. 

“Will you be here when I return from Vegas?” 

“When are you in London? I’ll be attending a wedding in Tuscany.”

“We’ll be on holiday in Mallorca. Let’s meet after we’re back.”

All rooms upstairs have roof windows, giving plenty of natural light and privacy – Utrecht

Before Maui, my life in Utrecht and London sizzled with visitors. 

The five years I lived with Robert in the monument house were filled with what-seemed-like constant renovations, shopping for food and home-improvement material, cleaning, cooking, and entertaining. We lived and worked here. We gave piano and guitar lessons. We practiced. We rehearsed. We recorded. We hosted house concerts.

Our friends visited from afar. Students, scholars, commuters, and other independent travelers stayed with us, supporting our quest to restore the monument house to its original splendor and get our duo off the ground. 

We called it “reverse travel” because all the work with the house and our performance schedule kept us in the Netherlands. Instead we “travelled” the world through their cultures. 

Initially, in the monument house, we had three bedrooms and the attic to accommodate ourselves, housemates, and guests. The upstairs had its own kitchenette. After the garden house was finished, we lived horizontally instead of vertically. Not having to share the bathroom and toilet was a bonus.

When we eventually could travel, we thought we could rent out the entire monument house and keep the garden house for ourselves when we returned. It made sense, but we did not foresee a change in regulations.

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The monument house: piano room

I didn’t get to say goodbye to my Steinway A, for I didn’t know when I would return to see it.

Born in New York in 1908 – 1909, this 188 cm long instrument made its way to Rotterdam. After a long search for a grand piano, I found it in Bilthoven, near Utrecht — a black coffin untouched in the Dutch widow’s home.  

Through the recommendation of piano technicians in London, I e-mailed Andre, a Dutch piano technician to inspect it and give me an appraisal. After returning to Taiwan, I received his invitation to visit his atelier north of Amsterdam to understand how he was going to replace all the strings, give it a thorough French polish, and make it like a new instrument. 

To welcome the Steinway to my home in Bussum, I invited pianists and friends to the Steinway to Heaven welcome party. My pianist friends from Amsterdam, Helsinki, and Muenster came to  try it out. 

Two years later,  it got moved together with the rest of the furniture to the monument house in Utrecht.

I daresay we had a short time together, for I only played it from June 2004 to October 2010 and again from May to August 2011.

Many other pianists have played and given concerts here, the last being Brendan Kinsella’s solo concert on July 2, 2011. I had a few student recitals here. The last recording was made in July 2011.

In summer 2012, I nearly moved it to my friend’s home in the Hague. Bart already had a grand piano and an upright and a room full of sheet music. But he was willing to make space for a third piano, for he, like me loved to sightread music and play with other pianists and instrumentalists.

At the very last minute, I decided to move it to a shop in Zeist to sell it on consignment. Little did I know it would stay there for the next three years. In the mean time I tried to sell it myself through my blog

The shop owner went bankrupt this year. Thankfully the piano is somewhere in Germany with its new owner who prefers to remain anonymous.

All that was left in the monument house is the piano bench which I can’t take with me to Boston.

The piano room with Czech oak parquet floor

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Planning travel: Maui to Boston, Utrecht to London

Nearly six years after flying to Maui and getting a job there, I booked a one-way ticket to Boston and started planning my exit from paradise.

Miraculously my ten boxes of “media mail” sent via the US Post Office arrived the same day (five weeks early) as myself. The dollar per two pound ratio was equivalent to that of Virgin America’s $25 per checked-in luggage with maximum 50 pounds and 62 linear dimensions per checked item. They were the only airlines allowing passengers to check-in up to 10 baggage items. They offered the lowest fees and most generous allowance. Is there an equivalent “airline” from Europe to the US?

The garden house behind the monument house in Utrecht

Barely three days after I and a thousand pounds of my “stuff” landed in Boston, I flew to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. It felt like winter. Although I had put on every layer possible, I was still cold. The next day, I got drenched in the rain while cycling on a rented bicycle.

Thus I find myself, five years after my last summer in continental Europe, living (or rather, camping) in the monument house next to the canal. Except for the fickle weather, I sometimes feel as though I had never left. I cycle everywhere in Utrecht, I hop on the train to Amsterdam, I walk to the shops for groceries, and I rendezvous with old friends. I work out at the sports club on the other side of the canal. 

The only thing missing is my grand piano. Not true. A lot more is missing. Furniture. Books. Clothes. Utensils. 

Everything is missing except two adjustable piano benches and my lavender bicycle.

After spending an entire month shedding my stuff in Maui, I am desperate to hold onto what little remains.

My next task is to plan travel to Germany and England. It shouldn’t be difficult, but I am resisting the urge to travel after constant movement for the past month: Kahului – Boston – Amsterdam – Vienna – Naples – Rome – Amsterdam – Utrecht

Eight years ago I wrote a four-part blog about traveling between Utrecht and London. I don’t think the options have changed but it should be much easier to book online or via a mobile app. You can fly, drive, take the coach, take the train, or take the ferry. Between Maui and everywhere else, however, you can only fly.

Organizing my sheet music took up much time in my papaya fig cottage on Maui

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What you’re also learning when you take a piano class

Rough draft for a future article or blog post

  • Time management
  • Multi-tasking
  • Planning
  • Listening
  • Public speaking
  • Presenting
  • Overcoming stage fright
  • Timing, rhythm
  • Body coordination
  • Focus
  • Concentration
  • Real time crisis management
  • Problem solving
  • Interpretation
  • Individual self expression
  • Accompanying
  • Improvising
  • Collaboration
  • New vocabulary
  • Italian
  • Motivation
  • Music theory
  • Pattern recognition
  • Sight reading
  • Audience engagement
  • Self management and regulation
  • Stress management
  • Discipline
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Most commonly used chords for ʻukulele

The common chord progression assignment I gave to my beginning music theory class caused an uproar. It was the secret formula that explained the Pareto Rule of Pop Music: 80% of pop music used only 20% of the chords.

“You mean, I only need to know a handful of chords and I can play what I want?” one student cried.

This revelation also gives confidence to the beginning ʻukulele player. No longer do you have to memorize chord charts. Just master the most common chords and you’re good to go.

Continue reading

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Chord shape thinking from guitar to ukulele

In my forthcoming paper on teaching yourself to play the ʻukulele, I venture into similarities between guitar and ʻukulele chords. If you already play the guitar, thinking in intervals and chord shapes will give you a head start to playing the ʻukulele. Continue reading

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How to remember music intervals and why

Anyone who wants to sing a song by reading music notes will need to be able to identify the intervals (i.e. distance between notes) and how they should sound. Unless you have perfect, a.k.a. absolute, pitch, you will need to reference the sound of the second note from the first pitch (sound of the first note).

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