The failure of GroenLinks to join the new coalition government

Jesse Klaver, political leader of GroenLinks, is blamed by VVD, CDA and D66 for the failure of the formation of a new Dutch coalition government. Negotiations failed because GroenLinks doesn’t want to make any “Turkey-deals” in the future to restrict streams of refugees from Africa. The VVD notes that governing leftist political parties elsewhere in Europe, like in Greece and Portugal, do agree with this policy. The CDA considers these deals a new European reality and thinks the desire of GroenLinks is impossible to satisfy with the rest of Europe being in favor of it.

The refugee deal with Turkey entailed that refugees ask for asylum in Turkey and are prevented from travelling to Europe to do so. Refugees (including those which reach Europe) are received by Turkey, for which the EU pays. Eventually, those who receive a refugee status (primarily Syrians) get divided over the EU member states. Klaver thinks that Turkey is not a safe country for refugees, based on the reports written by Amnesty International. He does not think Tunesia is safe, either.

Based on a reconstruction of the Volkskrant and the other parties, GroenLinks agreed to potential refugee deals on Thursday 8 June. This happened after a top diplomat explained that refugee deals can be compliant with international law. According to GroenLinks all parties should have known that Klaver would bring in new discussion points the day after. Klaver added a demand that the Netherlands should take in 5 to 25 thousand refugees a year after committing to refugee deals. This demand was later shelved, but Klaver maintained his objection to sending back refugees to African countries. When the impasse continued on Monday 12 June, the negotiations ended.

In an interview with the Volkskrant on Thursday 15 June, Jesse Klaver said negotiations could have failed over plenty of other issues. Examples he gives are the failure to meet the goals of Paris climate treaty, or the desire of the other parties to ease the bonus regulations for bankers. That last wish was apparently dropped by the others after Klaver stated he didn’t agree with it, but imagine how different the news headlines would have been if negotiations broke down over either of these two issues. Klaver wouldn’t have been blamed for ending the negotiations. Compliance with the Paris treaty would have been considered a much more legitimate policy goal than a more lenient asylum policy.

I’m very disappointed with Klaver. He gained a historical election victory and could have made GroenLinks participate in the governing coalition for the first time in our party’s history. But he squandered it. He bowed his head to the pro-refugee camp in GroenLinks and refused to compromise on the refugee deals. We know that there is huge support for such deals among other EU-member states and among the general Dutch population. Actually, given the seats the right wing parties have won and the general sentiment, there is precisely that support for containing the refugee influx.

By now the VVD, CDA and D66 parties have formed a coalition government with the ChristenUnie, a Chistian political party. At least the sound environmental policy of the ChristenUnie comes second to only GroenLinks itself. It pains me to write this, but environmentalists might have been better off voting for the ChristenUnie because that party does have courage to make compromises. GroenLinks doesn’t want to compromise or take responsibility.

Stopped as secretary of GroenLinks Zuid-Holland

In April this year I ended my tenure as the secretary of the board of GroenLinks Zuid-Holland. That is the local chapter of the Dutch Green party in South Holland province. I could have opted for another two year tenure, but I felt I had no longer had the motivation for the job.

Mostly, it was simply the desire to do something different after two years of working for the board of the provincial chapter. That’s why I’ve solicited to become a candidate for the GroenLinks branch in The Hague for the municipal council elections of 2018. Another reason is that the nature of work done by the secretary is not satisfying. It became frustrating and inefficient too often. I’ll explain this in detail here.

As the secretary I often communicated with local chapters and party members in our province. Contact data of party members, including members of local chapter boards and local politicians is all stored in the Customer Relations Management (CRM) system of GroenLinks. The secretary is the only one who has access to the CRM system.

I had to export the data on party members from the CRM to MailChimp, which is used by our chapter to send our members newsletters. Because there are constant mutations in membership, you have to perform a new export from the CRM every time you send a newsletter. If you send newsletters often, this can be quite a hassle. MailChimp is also expensive (around € 60 per month if I remember correctly) because the South Holland chapter has several thousand members who receive newsletters. If you consider that there are many more local branches in the country who use MailChimp to send newsletters, the costs start adding up. But the party bureau never considered a cheaper alternative for MailChimp for all local chapters, or at least some integration of the CRM with MailChimp.

Another issue with MailChimp is that a good template which local branches can use for their newsletters is missing. If every local chapter makes its own inferior template it doesn’t look like professional communication. At the very least the party bureau should design such a template. I’ve asked, but the answer was that everyone was busy with the election for the House of Representatives this year. But nothing happened after that election either.

It isn’t possible to filter on certain job titles in the CRM system. I can’t make a selection of municipal councillors or aldermen, or a selection of campaign leaders, and only export data on those persons. Because our campaigners need that contact data I had to maintain separate spreadsheets with those contact persons and manually update them when changes occur. Very dull work and inefficient. Giving every chapter distribution lists such as board.rotterdam@groenlinks.nl or campaignleaders.southholland@groenlinks.nl and synchronizing these with the CRM to catch mutations in the members of the list could solve this.

The content management system (CMS) behind the websites is no good either. Drupal is used to power the websites. I don’t know if it’s inherent to Drupal or not, but it’s not user friendly at all, even for an IT guy like me. That’s why it’s even more frustrating to read that the web team of the GroenLinks party bureau simply denies that there are usability issues. This was especially frustrating for me, certainly after helping webmasters of local chapters in our province with issues several times.

A disadvantage of the CMS and CRM combined is that there is no feature to keep track of registrations for events. Advance registration is necessary in my opinion if you organize a meeting and have a voting procedure on the agenda. You want to know if attending people have voting rights, which are granted to party members who have paid their contribution. The best thing you can do in the CMS is enabling a registration form, which buries you in registration e-mails if a lot of people want to attend. You then manually need to verify if those people have voting rights. This is another very labour intensive and demotivating job. I suspect the party bureau does have some way to automate their registration forms for their own much larger events. Yet they never considered to develop a registration form for the CMS which is integrated with the CRM for local branches.

To conclude, the secretary plays an important role on the board. But if the secretary is not supported by the party bureau with the right tools, the job becomes very unattractive. You find yourself wasting too much time on work which doesn’t demand your skill and intelligence, work which should be automated.

Of course being the secretary also taught me a lot about organization and teamwork skills. I had the benefit to work with many good people. Even though I’m quite critical of the IT facilities provided by the party bureau, there are two employees I’d like to thank: Marieke Schep and Folko de Haan. Both work tirelessly for local chapters.

CETA is dangerous and should not be ratified

On 15 February 2017 the European Parliament approved the Canada-EU Trade Agreement (CETA). Now the treaty will need to be ratified by individual member states before it comes into effect. Let’s hope that CETA is either adequately modified before it’s ratified or rejected. I’m not principally against free trade agreements, but CETA is a bad treaty. As you might already know, CETA contains many nasty provisions favouring big business over the small citizen.

The Stop TTIP campaign (which also wants to stop CETA) covered these issues very comprehensively. There are too many to discuss in a single post so let’s single out one which worries me most: the investment court system (ICS), also known as investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). This is not unique to CETA, but included in many other free trade agreements as well.

The problem with ICS is that it gives foreign investors acces to special courts for investment disputes with states. I can imagine this is justified in case the state in question doesn’t have an impartial legal system, but the EU and Canada have high-quality legal systems. ICS is only accessible for foreign investors, which creates inequality for domestic investors and other actors in society. The rights for foreign investors to have their investments protected are vague and can interfere with the democratic process of lawmaking. And even after modification, judges aren’t employed on a tenured full time basis and a fixed salary, which gives a potential for conflict of interest. These objections, and more, are voiced by 101 European law professors.

Recently South Africa decided to withdraw from treaties with ISDS, Indonesia won’t renew them. India will remodel its treaties to nerf ISDS. Brazil never signed an investment treaty with ISDS at all and doesn’t have difficulty to attract foreign investment. Why do the EU and its member states not notice that? Do we really have to wait for ridiculous claims from foreign investors before we realize that ICS was a terrible idea? Unsurprisingly, my own political party GroenLinks voted against provisional application of CETA for this and other reasons. Another left-wing party, the Dutch Labour Party, thought that ICS was okay after it had been softened (but still subject to the above criticism). D66, slightly less left-wing, maintained that CETA shouldn’t interfere with the rule of law, but voted in favor anyway. They didn’t explain at all why a separate court for foreign investors is necessary.

Fortunately, the regional government of Wallonia resisted CETA fiercely before it reached a compromise with the Belgian federal government to approve the treaty on 27 October 2016. The compromise consisted of an addendum to the treaty which is analyzed in detail here. The most important succes of the compromise is that it requires a review of ICS for compatibility with European law by the European Court of Justice. It also states that the Wallonian region may veto the treaty if the chapter on investment protection is not improved by the time of ratification. We will have to see what their effort is worth by the time they make the decision to ratify the treaty or not.

Even though he couldn’t stop CETA, I’m grateful to Paul Magnette, the minister-president of Wallonia, for his efforts. In an opinion piece on CETA he not only discusses the danger of corporate privilege, but also the environmental consequences of international trade. International trade accelerates climate change through transportation of goods with fossil fuels and should therefore not expand any further. We have to produce more of our goods locally to counter climate change.

Making our home more sustainable proved too costly for now

When we bought our current home over a year ago, I was in love with it. Affordable, in a nice and quiet neighbourhood, lots trees and plants, a decently sized garden. The only caveat was the air heating system, because I wanted my home to be sustainable. Because there weren’t much alternatives, we decided to buy our home and figure out ways to make it more sustainable later.

For sustainability advice I contacted Hoom, a non-profit organization which provides advice on sustainability measures for homes. They send an expert to inspect your home and determine which improvements can be made. This is free of charge, they only charge a small fee for the rest of the process. This starts when you actually want to proceed with making the improvements and ask them to gather and advise you on bids from construction companies. Afterwards they also evaluate the results of the improvement measures.

In November 2016 I had made an appointment with their expert to inspect our house. He was a nice and knowledgeable man who was honest in his advice: I shouldn’t do anything because I wasn’t going to break even on any of the measures I could take. To make our home seriously sustainable, the recipe would be underfloor heating at low temperatures, which in turn requires good insulation. Solar panels on our roof would reduce the electricity bill and a heat pump could replace gas used for heating.

Underfloor heating would require breaking up the floor, a costly measure. The insulation is still decent for a home from the 1980’s, further improvements would have a minor effect but cost lots of money. We couldn’t inspect the insulation of the floor because I couldn’t (and still can’t) locate an entrance to the crawl space. We can’t have solar panels placed on the sunniest southern half of our roof because the large flat roof dormer there can’t carry weight. The remaining free space there just isn’t enough to accomodate a decent surface area of solar panels. And a heat pump is still very expensive and possibly not sufficient to abandon gas completely.

After evaluating our electricity and gas bills I concluded that, even with our relatively inefficient air heating system, we don’t use much gas for our house type (a house at the corner of the block). No more than 1000 m3 compared to 1570 on average. Surprisingly it’s the other way around for electricity, more than 3600 kWh compared to 2930 on average. I don’t have the idea we use devices demanding much electricity often though and most of our lighting uses LED’s.

Sustainability is an ideal for me. I’d also appreciate the comfort of underfloor heating very much, because the air heating system does a very poor job at heating our attic in the winter. However, I’m also motivated financially and don’t want to spend a large percentage of my modest savings. I’ve heeded the advice of the expert and won’t perform any home improvements for now. I’ll focus on figuring out how we can reduce our electricity consumption, that would definitely be the low-hanging fruit now. At the same time, it’s disappointing that I can’t take serious measures. I’ll probably ask Hoom or another organization for a new opinion in a few years.

Make high-speed rail travel more efficient

Last year I wrote that I had stopped using aircraft because of their excessive use of fossil fuels. The consequence was that from then on I would only use other forms of transport to travel for holidays. In fact mostly trains for their speed. Last year we practiced what I preached and used the train to travel to Puglia.

The journey went well. The French TGV and the Italian FrecciaRossa high-speed trains can reach speeds of 300 km/h, shortening travel times significantly compared to ordinary trains and buses. On the railroad from The Hague in the Netherlands to Foggia in Italy, you’ll experience these speeds between Paris and Lyon as well as Milan and Bologna for example. It’s awesome to see the surroundings next to the train flash by in the blink of an eye. The problem is that you won’t be travelling so fast for most of the time.

Take the part from Rotterdam to Paris, Lyon and then Milan for example. Coincidentally, according to Google Maps the distance covered by all three legs of this journey is very close at approximately 450 kilometers each. Travel times are also close, at 4:30 hours each. This doesn’t take into account possible congestion, but the route is a worst case scenario which passes through the center of each city. For the train journey with Thalys (from Rotterdam) and TGV (from Paris onwards), the three legs take 2:46, 1:51 and 5:11 (!) hours respectively.

Much of this is to blame on the route through the Alps where the TGV can’t go fast and stops at every provincial backwater. This will be solved with the Turin–Lyon high-speed railway, but that is expected to be finished by 2028 due to the construction of the 57 km long Mont d’Ambin Base Tunnel. Another big issue is that the Thalys arrives in Paris at Gare du Nord and that the TGV to Milan departs from Gare de Lyon two hours later. There is a good subway connection between both stations, but you lose a lot of time which could have been spent in the train.

Such important tunnels as the Mont d’Ambin Base Tunnel should already have been constructed in the past if there had been foresight of the future. Paris should have one huge TGV station on the outskirts of the city. Give it a good connection to the center with a subway line so the TGV’s can be focused on serious long distance travel and short transfers between trains (which also means more trains). When that’s done, high-speed trains will be able to compete much better with aircraft.

In other places the story is the same. Milan also has two stations for high speed trains, requiring you to make a transfer. When you travel from Milan to Foggia, there simply is no high speed rail on Italy’s eastern coast. The intercity on that route wasn’t slow, but I’m looking forward to the new high-speed line from Napoli to Bari which is due to finish in 2022. When I explored options for a trip to Spain (which also has a decent high-speed rail network) I noticed that there is still no high-speed railway between Montpellier and Perpignan (in France) and that there is no high-speed railway from Madrid to Lisbon (even the ordinary railway connections to Lisbon are scarce).

I can deal with such limitations by spending the night in a city half way through the journey. But others will just take a flight. If we want to make long distance train travel attractive, we have to do a lot more.

Visited Puglia in September 2016

Apparently I’m failing to catch up with my backlog of blog posts, but here is another belated post on our holiday in Puglia. We traveled there in September 2016.

The schedule was as follows, with times and prices for train (and one bus) tickets mentioned for one person:

  • Thu 08th: Rotterdam Centraal 14:58 → Paris Gare du Nord 17:35 (€ 35)
  • Fri 09th: Paris Gare de Lyon 06:28 → Milano Porta Garibaldi 13:50 (€ 39), Milano Porta Garibaldi 14:18 → Foggia 21:35 (€ 35)
  • Sat 10th: Bari, Grotte di Castellana, Polignano a Mare
  • Sun 11th: Polignano a Mare, Monopoli, Egnazia, Fasano
  • Mon 12th: Alborobello, Locorotondo, Martina Franca, Ceglie Messapica
  • Tue 13th: Ostuni, Cisternino, Ceglie Messapica
  • Wed 14th: Oria, Torre Guaceto (beach), Brindisi, Lecce
  • Thu 15th: Lecce
  • Fri 16th: Acaya, Roca Vecchia, Baia dei Turchi (beach), Galatina, Alezio
  • Sat 17th: Otranto, Castro, Grotta Zinzulusa, Specchia, Corigliano d’Otranto, Alezio
  • Sun 18th: Punta Pizzo (beach), Ugento, Gallipoli, Alezio
  • Mon 19th: Manduria, Punta Prosciutto (beach), Manduria
  • Tue 20th: Taranto, Massafra
  • Wed 21st: Massafra, Matera
  • Thu 22nd: Matera, Altamura
  • Fri 23rd: Altamura, Gravina in Puglia, Bari, Bari Centrale 21:00 → Milano Lampugnano bus station 08:45 (Flixbus € 29)
  • Sat 24th: Milano Porta Garibaldi 14:40 → Paris Gare de Lyon 22:38 (€ 39)
  • Sun 25th: Paris Gare du Nord 12:25 → Rotterdam Centraal 15:02 (€ 49)

The train journey was okay, but it’s frustrating that the journey takes relatively long due to parts with low-speed track and transfers. The railway from Lyon to Turin may pass through gorgeous landscapes in the Alps, but it turns that TGV into a snail. The route from Bologna to Foggia wasn’t fast either but featured a lot of scenic views. At some places it’s track runs at a distances of less than 50 meters from the coast. More about railway efficiency later in a different post.

I decided to focus this trip on the Salento peninsula, the southern part of Puglia. The northern part I saved for another trip. I revisited many places which I had already seen in 2013 but which Stephanie had not. While I did see all the highlights, I still have the feeling I missed a lot of things. In particular, I wish I had seen more of the natural environment, beaches, coasts and sea. In hindsight, I would have reduced the distances traveled and the relative share of city sightseeing a bit more. I wouldn’t have missed some iconic beaches such as Torre dell’Orso and Torre Sant’Andrea.

A big disappointment was the uncooperative weather, which was quite bad on several days with lots of clouds and rain. This is very unusual for September in Puglia. Even more unusual was the large amount of snowfall and freezing temperatures in the winter of 2016 to 2017. Climate change I guess.

But don’t get the wrong idea: we greatly enjoyed our holiday. We visited many beautiful cities, ate delicious food (too bad I didn’t take notes so I could replicate everything at home) and relaxed at some marvelous beaches. Meeting again with one of my former CouchSurfing hosts, Michele, was one of the best moments.

One word of warning to other travelers: beware of opening hours of museums, archeological sites and other places of interest and study them carefully! I knew from experience that opening hours are fishy in southern Italy, but I allowed myself to be unpleasantly surprised during this holiday far too frequently.

Beach of Polignano al Mare
Via Traiana in Egnatia

Now, let’s walk down the schedule and evaluate it. In Bari we hired a car to visit the Castellana Caves. Highly recommended indeed, I don’t remember visiting such a large and beautiful show cave before. Polignano a Mare is a bit touristy, but is a nice village perched on top of a cliff on the coast nevertheless. We didn’t have time to hang out on it’s beach in the first photo here though. Monopoli has a nice historic center, but several places of interest such as the castle were closed. The archeological site of Egnatia and it’s museum show the relatively well preserved remains of an ancient Roman city. Recommended.

Alborobello is busy with tourists who mainly come for the trulli, traditional houses in Puglia’s countryside. It was interesting, but apart from the small museum I felt I missed a tourist guide to understand where to look and what I was seeing. Locorotondo and Martina Franca offer nice historic centers. The same goes for Ostuni and Cisternino, which we visited during the following day.

Oria lures you in with a stimulating view of it’s historic center overlooked by a castle on a hill. When we got there we disappointed to discover that the castle wasn’t open for visitors. The beach of Torre Guaceto easily compensated for this, because of it’s clear waters and remote location near a nature reserve. Brindisi and Lecce are a must for everyone visiting the Salento, especially the latter has the most exquisite historic center of the region with awesome architecture. Do visit the Museo Archeologico Provinciale Francesco Ribezzo in Brindisi and the Museo Provinciale Sigismondo Castromediano in Lecce if you like archeology.

Castle of Acaya
Baia dei Turchi

Acaya is a small, quiet village with a lovely castle. Unlike Lecce’s castle (also worth a visit) almost all rooms and the roof are accessible. As icing on the cake, it had an exhibition about archeology while we visited there. Roca Vecchia is worth a visit for its archeological site (closed when we were there) and the Grotta della Poesia, a sinkhole near the coast. We continued to Baia dei Turchi, a beach further south sheltered by a forest. We saw Galatina for a few interesting church buildings.

Harbor and old center of Otranto

Otranto has a nicely preserved walled historic center next to a picturesque beach and harbor. We went further south to Castro in the hope to catch a boat and see the coast from the sea, but the weather prevented us from doing so. The Grotta Zinzulusa is a cave nearby which provided an alternative activity. Specchia was supposed to have an interesting historic center, but there wasn’t much to see. Do visit Corigliano d’Otranto to see its castle. We were given a guided visit there by an entertaining older Italian man who spoke surprisingly good English.

Punta Pizzo is a nice beach south of Gallipoli, even though the clouded weather worked against us again. I wanted to see the museum in Ugento, but that was closed in the afternoon. Gallipoli, which has an historic center on an island, took the rest of our time for that day. Unfortunately it was a bit too busy with tourists for my liking.

I had been looking forward to visit the archeological park of Manduria and was disappointed to see it was closed. We entertained ourselves with a wine tasting at the Consorzio Produttori Vini close to the site and then went to beach of Punta Prosciutto (yes, a beach called after a ham…). The weather shoved clouds in our faces, but on a sunny day you will agree that the nickname “Maldives of the Salento” is justified for this lovely beach.

Taranto’s historic center has an extraordinary position on a small island flanked by the sea and an inlet, connected to the mainland by short bridges. It absolutely shouldn’t be missed for it’s magnificent archeological museum. The fact that this museum was actually open (it was under renovation in 2013) compensated all my disappointments with stuff that was unexpectedly closed.

Castle of Gravina in Puglia
Chiesa di Santa Maria de Idris in Matera

Massafra is worth a visit for its center which curiously split in half by a ravine. It has a castle, but it turned out access is quite restricted there without the ability to go to the roof. Matera is just over the border with Basilicata and has much more to see. It features a lot of rock-cut architecture, visiting it is recommended.

In Altamura I hoped to learn more about how they make their famous Altamura bread, but I didn’t manage to find a cooking course there. The cathedral alone is worth a visit though. Gravina in Puglia has an interesting archeological museum and a scenic view of a ravine to the west of its historic center, but just like Altamura I think we missed some things because we didn’t know where to look. We ended our journey in Bari’s historic center, another must see. We had to take a Flixbus to Milan though, because the TrenItalia train was cancelled. The Flixbus actually had WiFi, something the trains don’t have.

Finally, a word about Puglia’s official tourism website. It’s hard to navigate this website, the quality of its information varies and isn’t always up to date. Most annoyingly, some information isn’t available in English and you frequently find dead links to non-existent pages. It’s an embarrassment. Dutch city marketing websites such as the one of The Hague are miles better. They should get their act together and design a better website.

New amplifier and speakers

Last August I decided I wanted a better solution for music in my living room. Previously I used the Audioengine A2 speakers and my TV for this, but that setup was less than ideal. The speakers were connected to the TV through the headphone jack and I used the Deezer app on the TV to stream music. As a consequence I had to turn the TV on even if I only wanted to listen to music. I couldn’t control the volume of headphone jack volume with the remote. The Deezer app was the most frustrating because it crashed all the time.

So I started looking for a good amplifier which could stream music without the need for an extra device. That amplifier had to be controlled remotely through a smartphone. Streaming the music should be done by the amplifier itself through a WiFi connection. The TV had to profit from the better sound as well and had to be connected to the amplifier. Because the Audioengine A2 speakers are too small for a living room and are active (integrated amplifier) rather than passive speakers I decided to look for new speakers as well.

These criteria quickly excluded many solutions. Many music streaming devices do not include an amplifier, so they have to be connected to active speakers or an amplifier. Some of these only allow you to stream through Bluetooth from a smartphone. The disadvantage of Bluetooth is that the battery of that smartphone will be drained more quickly. The audio quality might also be compromised when it’s transferred through Bluetooth, depending on the compression. And usually they also require an extra app, separate from the app of the streaming service.

Then I discovered Spotify Connect. This feature of Spotify allows you to pair with a supported device in the Spotify app and then command that device to stream music. Because the device establishes its own WiFi connection to Spotify, your phone only acts as a remote. This way the audio quality is untainted and my phone’s battery life barely takes a hit. Previously I didn’t want to use Spotify because a credit card was required to pay for a subscription, but they solved that by offering iDEAL. As the name suggests, Spotify Connect is a proprietary standard used only by Spotify. I don’t like this and would prefer that all the streaming services create a shared standard, but so far I haven’t seen any alternative.

After evaluating amplifiers which support Spotify Connect, I started reading the reviews by What Hi-Fi?. The availability of products in physical stores close by further restricted the choices. Stephanie and I wanted to listen to our amplifier and speakers of choice before we were going to decide what to buy. We ended up going to Audiohuis Delft because they had both the amplifier and speakers available for a test.

We decided to buy the Cambridge Audio Minx Xi amplifier (actually called a music streamer) for € 650 and the Q Acoustics Concept 20 speakers for € 500. This is the price for two speakers, but apparently stores have a convention to list the price for just one speaker. The review by What HiFi? mentioned that the speakers perform best with the pricey stands for this particular model, so we decided to get those as well. This added another € 300 to the bill.

I believe the reviewer’s claim that these stands improve the sound quality, but I question if I my ears are good enough to notice the difference. Maybe I could notice the difference in a good listening test, but I doubt I would during daily use. I figured out later that the Q Acoustics 3050 floorstanding speakers would have been an alternative. These don’t need stands of course. I see two of these can be bought for prices between € 800 and € 1000. Had I known about these before, I would have probably bought these instead. Even so, I’m very satisfied with the Concept 20 speakers.

I’m equally satisfied with the Minx Xi. It has a good combination of sound quality with usability. It looks very stylish and is relatively small compared to the traditional bulky amplifiers. It doesn’t feature a huge amount of connections which I don’t use anyway. There are only two minor disadvantages I’ve noticed. It takes twenty seconds to start up and connect to my WiFi network, I’d like to see faster startup. A HDMI input or two might have been useful next to the optical, coaxial and analog inputs.

Finally a word of warning about the cables. Audiohuis Delft advised me to get cables from QED. For two pairs of QED XT40 2,5 meter analog speaker cables we paid € 139. For the QED Performance Audio Optical and QED Performance Audio Coaxial 1 meter cables we paid € 55 each. That was a hefty price tag for just cables! I didn’t investigate quality and normal prices for audio equipment cables so we went along with the advice. Advertising on the packages touting very positive reviews by What HiFi? contributed to that. When I asked around after the purchase, I was confirmed in my suspicion that such very expensive cables were unnecessary. You’re not going to hear a difference, especially over short distances.

The sound quality delivered by the Minx Xi in conjunction with the Q Acoustics Concept 20 is great. I don’t have much more to say about it, I’m not an audiophile and don’t have a point of reference to compare it to. I do want to emphasize the experience and the great usability of this solution. Turn it on, open Spotify on my phone and stream. With Spotify, the choice of music is almost endless for € 10 a month. Even though it’s normal now, it still amazes me how easy it is. Not too long ago we were still working with much more expensive CD’s which are now comparatively cumbersome.

Our new house in The Hague

Earlier I had written about the mortgage for our new home in The Hague, but now I shall write about the house itself. I think we got lucky in our search for a new home. The house had just been placed on Funda (the most popular Dutch website for advertising real estate) for a few days when we visited it. We had to hurry because others were about to visit and place bids as well. Shortly after our inspection we were convinced and placed our bid. After a short negotiation we reached an agreement on the same day. In June we moved in.

Because I consider it important that no one can determine my address from my blog, I won’t be very specific in my description of our home. It’s a single family home from the eighties with two floors. It’s located in the district of Loosduinen, a former village in the southwest of the municipality of The Hague. Dit is the good part of the city, which is further away from the center. It doesn’t feature much dense construction with high-rise buildings. It’s relatively green, opposite our front door there are no other homes but a nice row of tall trees. A great location if you consider that it’s an urban environment.

The house has a very small front garden and back garden which measures 70 square meters. The previous inhabitants filled it with tasteless pavers, except for two borders with plants near the fence. They probably thought that an actual garden would take too much work or cost to much (hint: neither are true). We do appreciate the beauty of nature. That’s why we removed most of the pavers from the front garden near the end of the summer. After we dug out a large amount of sand we filled it with garden earth and planted a row of boxes and a rhododendron, both evergreens. The back garden will be done in the spring of 2017. We will replace half of the pavers with grass.

The interior of the house had already been improved by the last inhabitants. We didn’t need to do anything, except for a small paint job. The kitchen is just a year or two old and looks good, same for the bathroom. The only thing I’d like to add are reproductions of paintings and photos to decorate the walls.

There are also some disadvantages. We have an air heating system instead of water heating. Good thing that we don’t see radiators, but it’s less efficient than water heating. I knew so at the moment we decided to buy the house, but it was not a critical issue for me. I will discuss the sustainability of our house in a later post.

Another problem is that it’s not easy to get a UTP-cable to the attic, where I placed my PC. Now I’m using a power-line adapter, but it’s unable to utilize the full bandwidth of the cable Internet access. It also gives me a lot of interruptions in the connection, something the Spotify web app can’t cope with. WiFi is not an option either with my current router, the signal from the ground floor is too weak. I want to investigate if there is a possibility to push a UTP-cable to the attic through an existing electricity cable tube.

Then the environment. During the summer our home seemed like a permanent vacation home, with the beach at 15 minutes distance with a bicycle. The beach at Kijkduin is busy and has too much construction for my taste. The beach between Kijkduin and Scheveningen is less developed and more beautiful. The market of The Hague is the largest market of the Netherlands is nice. There is plenty of choice in Surinamese and Indonesian restaurants. A tram stop lies at a distance of five minutes by foot from my front door. Unfortunately the tram is quite slow, I wish The Hague had a metro like Rotterdam.

My favorite places to eat in Rotterdam

As I wrote before, Stephanie and I moved to the Hague in June. Now I know that the Hague has plenty of good options to go eating out. The Hague is home to a large number of people with Indonesian, Indo and Surinamese heritage, which gives us a lot of choice in restaurants which serve these good cuisines. But I don’t think Rotterdam is inferior to the Hague in this regard.

Now that I’ve left Rotterdam, I want to document for others what my restaurant recommendations are for this city. I’ve become dissatisfied lately with restaurant review websites, such as Iens in the Netherlands. That’s why I give you a summary of good restaurants in this post, with metro stops in parentheses behind the names of the restaurants.

First the Indonesian restaurants. My favorites are Anugerah (Blaak), Ap Halen (Delfshaven) en Toko Toorop (Blijdorp). Toko Heezen (Slinge) is good too, but only offers take out. Ap Halen and to a lesser degree Toko Toorop have a limited menu which changes daily. Difficult if you want to eat vegan, but quite good for a reasonable price. Ap Halen has just two or three tables, Toko Toorop has more, but both businesses are cozy. Anugerah offers a more completele menu with more choice, but they could do with a better interior design.

The Surinamese restaurants which I like are Toko Asha (Rotterdam Centraal) en Warung Mirosso (Dijkzigt). Toko Ashes is more focused on Hindustani Surinamese dishes and makes great roti, I always take the vegetarian one. If people say they make the best roti in Rotterdam, I believe them immediately. De interior of this business looks very plain and uninspired, but I’ve been told that Surinamese people don’t care as long as the food is good. I can’t disagree with that. Warung Mirosso is a Javanese Surinamese restaurant, which is quite different. Logically the dishes are quite similar to Indonesian dishes, but often with a Surinamese twist. I would have liked to add Warung Sidodadi (Rotterdam Centraal) here, but they have apparently closed recently.

The Italian restaurants in Rotterdam are better than those in the Hague, as far as I can judge now. In the Hague I see too much Italian restaurants with unimaginative menus. When I see vitello tonnato on a menu, I usually take that as a sign that the restaurant is no good. In Rotterdam however, you have Da Adriano (Coolhaven) en L’Arancino (Stadhuis). Both mainly serve pizza, but they also have some extra Sicilian dishes which make these restaurants special. You won’t see dishes like caponata, arancini and pasta alla Norma on the menus of other restaurants often. Da Adriano has the best looking business of the two, L’Arancino caters more to take out and is slightly cheaper. La Pizza (Leuvehaven) misses the special dishes but has a larger establisment with a more well decorated interior. De Pizzabakkerij (far outside the centre in Overschie) is good too, but has little else but pizza on the menu. Finally, there is Burro e Salvia (Maashaven), remarkable for their home made pasta, even if their business hours are a bit restrictive and their prices a bit higher than the other three.

For vegans and vegetarians Gare du Nord (Rotterdam Centraal) en Spirit (Blaak) are recommendations. Gare du Nord has a changing menu with often original vegan dishes. The restaurant is located in a train wagon, which is very original. It’s not really practical and not so easy to heat in the winter. Spirit is a buffet restaurant and also serves vegetarian dishes. Its food might not be as good as Gare dy Nord, but it does have a lot more space and has a more modern interior.

Then the other cuisines. La Taqueria (Oostplein) is the best Mexican restaurant of Rotterdam because it has a more authentic menu than the other Mexican restaurants in the center. These have a more vulgar interpretation of the Mexican cuisine. For Spanish cuisine I can recommend Camarón (Delfshaven), it has a strong menu, even if choice for vegans is limited. Burgertrut (Beurs) is a nice hamburger joint which will please both the carnivores and the vegans. If you want something more exotic, you can try the Ethiopian restaurant Sallina’s (Coolhaven). Their restaurant’s interior looks dated, but the menu is good and has plenty of choice for vegans. The Ethiopian cuisine is reminiscent of the Indian cuisine. Indian cuisine is my greatest favorite, for which I haven’t been able to discover a remarkable restaurants in Rotterdam.

What I miss most from Rotterdam is the bread of Jordy’s Bakery (Eendrachtsplein). Without blinking I can say that their bread is the best I’ve ever eaten. They only make sourdough bread, which is a bit more expensive than the best bread from the Albert Heijn supermarket, but it’s worth the extra without a doubt. I used to go there at least once in a week on the day when I worked from home to get a fresh bread. It’s also possible to eat in their establishment instead of just buying bread. SUE (Beurs) doesn’t bake bread, but does sell sugar free sweets. Completely responsible, if not somewhat pricey.

Finally, I must mention what is perhaps the most fun and unique place to eat in Rotterdam: Fenix Food Factory (Rijnhaven). This is a food court filled with local entrepreneurs selling all kinds of things to eat, directly or for take out. There’s just about everything: bread (Jordy’s Bakery is here too!), Moroccan food, good cheeses, locally brewn beer and applecider. All of it is located in a big, cozy warehouse near the water in Katendrecht. Every food lover will feel like a kid in a candy store here. It’s a shame the Hague doesn’t have such a food court.

Eden kitchen knives and knife sharpening

After I started living on my own in Rotterdam in 2013, I spent much more time in the kitchen. Soon I realized that kitchen knives are very important tools. Cheap knives are often blunt or get blunt quickly. This makes cutting work slower and more frustrating. It also makes it less safe, because blunt knives are prone to slide off certain vegetables, which is dangerous for your fingers. In my search for better kitchen knives which were not expensive, I found the knives of Eden, the house brand of Knives and Tools. This is a web shop based in the Netherlands which also has websites to serve customers in France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

I bought their Eden Classic VG10 chef’s knife and paring knife, which are respectively 20 cm and 9 cm long. VG10 is a designation for the type of steel, diverse steel types give knives subtly different properties. The chef’s knife is the most flexible knife, best used to cut up large pieces of food quickly. The paring knife is used for finer cutting work. I think these are the only two knives which are essential, but you could add a bread knife.

The chef’s knife features a design similar to more expensive knives, for the price of about € 50. It also has good ergonomics. The sole problem was that this knife, just like the paring knife, was quite blunt out of the box. This was evident in the relatively difficulty it had with cutting tomatoes and how it launched pieces of onion. This surprised me, but fortunately I could sharpen the knives with the Japanese waterstones, which I purchased together with the knives for approximately € 50.

Knives and Tools was so helpful to create elaborate instructions (only in Dutch for now) with good videos to explain how knives can be sharpened with waterstones. At first I did not succeed with this, my knives stayed blunt even after grinding them over the stones for many minutes. I remember that I discussed the subject with someone who had trained to become a chef. He told me that he and many others simply had no affinity with sharpening on stones, which is why some cooks outsource sharpening to professional knife sharpeners.

I was discouraged, but I kept trying. Only in the first half of this year I figured out that I had used a fine waterstone too soon; the coarser waterstone with 200 and 800 grid should be used first to remove more material from the knife. Initially I had not done so because I understood that this coarser stone is only necessary for knives with a damaged edge. After doing so I finally started to notice results. Ideally the knife should be able to shave off the hair on my arms like in the videos. I can’t sharpen my knife to such an extent yet, but I’ve gotten the hang of it.

I concluded that I now have two good knives and waterstones which can last me several decades for a bit more than € 100. The alternative, buying low quality knives more often or sending them to a professional knife sharpener for maintenance, is more expensive. Sharpening knives yourself has a learning curve, but I can recommend most people to learn this and spend some money on good knives and water stones.

Unfortunately the Eden Classic VG10 series is no longer produced and mostly sold out in the web shop of Knives and Tools. That’s why I’d recommend to buy the Eden Classic Damast series now that it’s discounted. It’s practically identical to the VG10 series, only the looks are slightly different because of the pattern welded steel. The Eden Essentials which is supposed to replace the Classic VG10 series does not compare to the quality of its predecessor. It looks cheap because it doesn’t have a recessed bolster to separate the plastic of the handle from the blade of the knife. The plastic handle abruptly ends where the blade begins, while the VG10 and Classic Damast knives have a wider piece of steel between the handle and the blade.

I fear the Classic Damast series won’t be replaced when it’s sold out, either. In that case you would have to look at knives from other brands, which are generally more expensive. If you do, make sure they also feature a recessed bolster rather than an extended one. An extended bolster has a thicker piece of steel extending all the way to the heel of the blade, this is a pain if you want to sharpen the knife on a stone. Because you can’t grind off the material of the thick heel on a stone, it will eventually lose pace with the rest of the blade’s edge. Then you’ll have to ask a professional sharpener to remove that part of the heel, because the knife will become unusable otherwise.