Saturday, August 14, 2010

On getting old as a 28 year old

Recently I have found myself doing a lot of old people stuff.

I first noticed it when I was in Amsterdam. My friends there (who are all a few years older than me) were in a party mood. They went out every night until the sun came up. Not so much E and I. We'd go home at 2am at the latest. 5 hour sleep nights just don't play well with me. Don't get me wrong, I still like to go out, drink and be merry but I also like to be home and in my own bed not too long after midnight.
I couldn't even blame the jet lag - according to the jet lag I should have been able to stay up until the early morning hours with no problem.

On Queensnight - the party-night before Queensday - the day that everybody goes wild and orange - I even got a bit bothered by the crowds that had gotten to an uncomfortable level of drunkenness. Aggressiveness, mixed with touch of horny was buzzing in the air. I was wondering if there ever was a time when I liked that and I am pretty sure there was. Maybe I was just too waisted to notice back then.

I remember the first time I felt like I was no longer a spring chicken. It must have been 3 or 4 years ago. Two of my best friends and I went to Vondelpark with a bottle of wine in hand after dark. I spent every summer in Amsterdam, in my early 20s that way - wine in the park on a blanket. Cheap and romantic. When we tried to find a place to sit on the grass that day we found that wasn't a good idea. The grass was a bit wet and we didn't want to get grass stains on our nice pants. So we were looking for a bench to sit on. We found a bench but after about 5 minutes on the bench, mosquitos started attacking us.
Defeated, we decided to go to a bar instead.

But not only do I find myself not wanting to go out as much, I also have started talking like an old person. And I am realizing - I am not turning into my mom (as the world keeps on telling me I should) - I am turning into my grandma.

It is very odd. I had never been a fan of using sayings but now old Austrian proverbs pop up in my head like mushrooms in a forrest. My favorite one is "The only thing I HAVE TO DO is die!" as an answer to "But you HAVE TO!". Let me tell you one thing though - do not use this proverb on a 3.5 year old. It is apparently a very disturbing thing to say to a toddler.
Another favorite of my grandma, that I have to force back the urge to use: "A soccer player/indian (native American) doesn't know pain" in response to "Ouch!".

Another indicator that I am getting old is the reminiscing. Sometimes my husband and I reminisce back to times when there were no cell phones, no internet. One of my proudest teenager moments was when I aced an essay on evolution in my biology class. I wrote a five page essay on my old typewriter, I cut out pieces, I photocopied pictures of amoebas and monkeys and cut and pasted all of these manually into a, if I may say so, nicely written article on evolution of mankind which I then photocopied again to make it look like a magazine piece. I got the best grade in class and after that on every essay the kids in class (who had actual computers and color printers - but not the internet because people back then didn't have the internet yet) tried to outdo me with their presentations and their cutting and pasting. Today these things are not the same. I see it with my photography - I used to shoot film until only a few years ago and you can't do nearly as much editing with film. Nowadays you can be a mediocre photographer and still have acceptable photos if you know your editing (however I don't believe that you can cancel out bad photography all together by good editing).

I remember a conversation some friends recently had about the internet:
Friend 1: "What did people do when they had an argument about who is right back when they couldn't google it?"
Silence. Thinking.
Friend 2: "I don't know. I guess they went to the library and looked it up in a dictionary?"

Good old times.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Achtung Baby

I have been writing a lot about how it feels like to move to America as a European. There are good things and bad things and I'd say despite the obvious, cultural differences between the US and Western Europe - everybody will have their own experience, their own way of seeing things and experiencing life.

But what I want to write about today is something that is going to be important for everybody who moves to America and lives here for the first time - especially for people, who like me - come here on a spouse visa. I am talking about credit score.

In America if your credit score is bad, you can't get a loan, you can't buy a house or a car. If your credit score is really bad, you can't get a phone either. If your credit score is good, your life is going to be a whole lot easier.
I knew about the whole credit score thing when I first moved here but I didn't know that you have to work on it. In Europe (at least the countries I have lived in) you either have credit or you have bad credit. If you screw up a few time, like pay your bills late or not at all - or worst - get sent to a collection agency - you are being put on file, which means you have less chances of getting a loan or you will be getting a smaller loan. You get the picture. But if you never get in trouble but also never get a credit card - well - that's good. You don't have to have a credit card to have good credit in Europe. 

This is different in America. While I kind of knew the principles of that when I moved here, it took me almost 2 years to fully realize how much I have been impacted by that.

I had my first experience with my credit score not being good enough at Old Navy. I buy most of my clothes at Old Navy and GAP which belong together and share a store card (don't judge - I need comfortable clothes as a nanny). As always, the girl at the check out asked me if I'd be willing to sign up for an Old Navy/GAP store card to save 10% on my purchase that day. And since I had bought a lot that day I said, ok, why not? I put in all my info. We were waiting for credit confirmation and 10 minutes later the shop girl got a call, turned around and faced me with a look of embarrassment "I am sorry but I won't be able to give you the card today. You haven't been rejected but we can't give you a card.". I was very embarrassed but I thought maybe I gave her the wrong social security number. At that point I sometimes still mixed up the numbers in my social security number.

I got home and there was a letter from my bank, asking me to sign up for a credit card that would get me air miles. I had just talked to a friend about that exact kind of credit card and she told me that she had recently been able to get an airplane ticket to Hawaii with her saved up air miles. I though, that would be a good thing for me. Of course - I was rejected. The reason "You recently tried for a store card and were rejected."
Alright, that must have been because of the mix up with the Old Navy store card.

I waited a few months and then again tried to apply for a GAP card. This time - online. A week later, I received a letter. Another rejection. The reason - I didn't have enough credit history in this country. Finally - at least I knew what was going on! 

Fast forward a few more weeks. After almost two years with the crappiest phone in America, I wanted to upgrade to the new iPhone. I stood in line at the Apple store for 4.5 hours - not something I would normally do but I had decided I wanted it and I waited. Finally, I got to fill out my data. A small part of me was afraid that there was going to be a problem with my credit. And - of course there was. AT&T wanted me to pay a $500 deposit to get my phone. 
Now, imagine this - you waited in line for 4.5 hours to be told you have to pay that amount of money. What would you do? I tell you what I did - I agreed. Because before that I shared a phone contract with my husband. In fact EVERYTHING was on my husbands name - the electricity bill, the cable service, the phone, the bank account. For some this might sound like a wonderful, liberating thing to not have to care about anything and be completely taken care off. 

Not for me. This is a woman who took care of a sick mother and grandmother since I was a child. At age thirteen I personally went to social services and got us social help money so we wouldn't be homeless. This is somebody who moved out at 17 years old to be independent from my family and still managed to finish school. I am not somebody who enjoys being a dependent, helpless person. And please - this has nothing to do with me not trusting my husband who is one of the kindest, most caring people I have ever met. This is about me being a grown up who takes care of herself.

So I paid this fee, I got my own phone contract and I made an appointment with my bank to discuss how to improve my credit rating (and how to get a business account - since I am now a business owner). 
And here is the funny thing - it turns out that through a bank error my social security number had never been connected with my bank account (the one I share with my legal, American husband). I find it borderline hilarious that in a country that is so afraid of illegal immigrants, somebody could have and use a bank account, a credit card even - without having a social security number added to it. I was also surprised how the bank clerk acted like this was not a big deal. I lost almost two years on collecting positive credit rating thanks to a bank mistake and it means nothing?

So my advise to everybody who is coming to this country as a legal immigrant - make sure your social security number is entered. Make sure some utilities are on your name. If your bank offers you a credit card, take it and use it. You'll save yourself a lot of grief later.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Chicago photo a day

When was on holidays in the Netherlands I asked my closest friends who live there why none of them had come to visit me in the 1.5 years I have been here. Some of them really can't afford it and I understand that. It was really expensive for me to go to Europe and I didn't just visit one friend when I went.

But some of them took other trips to far away lands which were just as expensive as a ticket to Chicago. So I asked some more questions and I realized that it might have been partly my own fault: I had made Chicago look pretty bad. One friend asked me if there was enough to do in Chicago for a one week stay! 
I must have made Chicago look like one of the worst, most boring places on the planet!

I know I have had a few posts where I was talking about all the stuff I love about Chicago - the lake, the people, the different cultures/neighborhoods, the festivals, the newly emerging foodie culture, the live music! Chicago is a pretty awesome place to live. The problem I had was that I didn't have much of a social circle to enjoy all of these wonderful things with which made me not enjoy Chicago the way I wanted to.

Well, I am slowly starting to build that social circle and I am enjoying Chicago more than ever.

For those friends of mine who for some reason can't come to visit me or for people who would like to know more about Chicago or for people who love Chicago already and want to see as much of it as possible - I created a second blog:

I won't write much on that other blog. This blog is for writing and musing and complaining. The other blog is just to show what I get to see ... to enjoy ... everyday.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Please, please, please ...

A friend of mine had this status update on Facebook the other day:

"Is having a really good week and can't help thinking something extra crap is lurking to compensate for it!"

It initially annoyed me. And then I started wondering why. I believe that often when traits in people annoy you it is because it is a trait that you don't like in yourself. And this was definitely one of these cases.

I used to be really superstitious about these things. I always thought bad things happen to me all the time and if I'd have a good day something bad would have to happen to even out the world. Also - if I had a really bad day and I was wearing a new piece of jewelry I'd brand this necklace or ring or whatever "evil" and I would never wear it again. Needless to say, I now realize that was really stupid.

You know that Smiths song "Please, please, please, let me get what I want"? It goes like this:

Good times for a change
See, the luck I've had
Can make a good man
Turn bad

So please please please
Let me, let me, let me
Let me get what I want
This time

I have been really into the Smiths recently and I especially love this song. I was driving around with E and I played this song for him and he said "That's such a whiney song." and I thought that as much as I love that song - it is quite self-indulgent. And I don't feel that way anymore about myself. I don't feel like only bad things happen to me. In fact - I think my life has been pretty kind to me in recent years.

It's not always been easy though. Living in Amsterdam was fantastic. My social life was out of this world, my friends were my family and to see the beauty of this city every day was breathtaking. But it certainly wasn't easy. I moved houses about 10 times just in Amsterdam because the landlord decided to raise the rent or they tore down the house I was living in or I couldn't stand my roommate. Me and my cat against the world. Working a call center job I often didn't make ends meet. I had one month I was living on nothing but ramen noodles because I couldn't afford anything else. But even then this song wouldn't have applied to me (even though, I probably would have thought it did) because good things did happen to me.

I have been having a few bad days after having months and months of good stuff coming my way and it's been bringing me down (I might or might not write about that later) but I use that Smiths song as a reminder that good things do come to me.

So please, please, please you guys - do me the favor and don't think that you are doomed and don't use the expression "FML" just because you have to work overtime that day or something doesn't work out the way you want it.

Good things will come your way if you let them.

Friday, June 18, 2010

USA vs Europe


This is absolutely not going to be a post about the world cup.

Just to warn you.

Yesterday I had lunch with a new friend that I met through my networking (making new friends who do the same stuff you do is a very welcome side effect of networking). She used to live in New York and has been in Chicago about as long as I have been here. She is originally from the mid-west though, so I expected her to have no problem to get used to the cultural differences.

To my surprise she told me that she experienced some of the same issues I have encountered living in Chicago. People are super nice - I mean really - ever since I have been living here, my standards for good behavior and friendliness have gone way up. So you meet somebody new and you feel like you have a connection and you'd like to hang out with that person more but they are just not interested. You get to know a lot of people but ... not really. People don't open up as much.

I was very surprised to hear that from an American who has lived in the US all her life and even is kind of from the area.

Funnily enough I heard the same thing from my friends in Holland (who are all expats) about Dutch people. And I heard the same thing from my friends who have lived in the US as expats - all over the US.

Which brings up the question - is it just harder to make friends the older you get? I was fortunate to get to experience the whole expat circle for seven years because now I realize that it was a very special community. I met new people almost every week and I stayed in contact with a lot of them.

The day we arrived back in the Netherlands for our trip abroad, we went to a bar to meet up with some of our old friends. We had invited everybody we know in South Holland and to our surprise - most of them showed up. There was a whole bar full of our friends, waiting for us. It was pretty overwhelming (thank you all for coming out, you guys!). I had tears in my eyes walking home that night and I couldn't walk past our old apartment without touching the front door and peeking through the window to see if the new inhabitants made it as homely as we once did.

The following two weeks were a whirlwind of social engagements. My phone rang more in these two weeks than it had in the 19 months I spent living in the US all together. I felt loved and missed and it really was everything I could have hoped for.

One highlight was seeing my old boss again who was now no longer my boss but a friend. She came out for dinner and a drink despite getting her wisdom teeth out that day.

Going out with my girls I felt like the 21 year old I once was, dancing and singing, uninhibited like I haven't been in years. I no longer was somebodies boss or even somebodies employee. I didn't have to behave. I could be myself and it felt so good.

The first week was pure bliss. We had nice weather - which shouldn't really make much of a difference - but it does, especially in Amsterdam. I was still high on happiness from seeing all my friends again.
The second week was still great. I am so thankful for any minute more I got to spend with these people that I love so much but slowly the things that annoyed me when I lived in the Netherlands started seeping through - the bad customer service, the rudeness, the people who cut in line, how stuff just doesn't work.

Part of me thinks I should not have waited a year and a half to go back to Europe, another part thinks that it might have been a good thing because things have been going ok for me recently and I have felt less homesick to Europe then I did in 2009. I am starting to meet people, I am starting to develop a business (by the way, I registered my photography business a few days ago - I am now a business owner!) - I am going were I am meant to go and I am doing things I like.

Since I have been back in America I have been feeling much, much better about living here. I think I am finally ready to settle down. Will we be living in Chicago for the rest of our lives, I don't know - maybe - maybe not. But right now I am ok here.

If you are in an stable financial position (meaning - you don't need any social help and you have a place to live/stable income) - life in the US is worlds easier than it is anywhere else (ok, I can really only speak for Europe here since I have only been to Europe and the US) because everything is catered to your needs. Stores are open all the time, customer service is wonderful, you can pretty much do all your shopping online, if you want to find a restaurant or a hair dresser or a dog groomer or whatever - you can go to any of the websites like Yelp and find the best. Everything seems easier here. And I have to say this is something I have come to value.

Of course it is also summer and even though we've had a lot of rain and scorchingly hot, humid weather here - summer in Chicago is a wonderful thing - festivals and the lake and BBQs and Cubs games and building sandcastles on the beach with the child I am watching instead of playing tea party for hours and farmers markets and ice cold Pabst Blue Ribbon and cycling and streets with canopies of trees and fresh tomatoes and Lollapalooza ...

Enjoy your summer - wherever you are!

Friday, June 11, 2010

No Longer Just Aspiring

So, I went to Europe and then I went to San Francisco and I had two amazing holidays and I am going to need to talk about that more but right now - I want to talk about something else.

I want to talk about dreams and aspirations.

One thing I have learned since living in the US is that you have to have a goal. Something to aspire too. And then you need to make a plan and you need to talk to people and find information on it and then you need to work really hard to get to were you want to get to.

For the first time, maybe in my life, I know exactly what I want.

The last six months I spent taking classes, updating my equipment and taking a million and one photographs. Of everything - my coffee cup, my friends, the cafe in Amsterdam I used to hang out at a lot ... I also went out and talked to people. I forced myself to get out of my shell - and believe me - I am still forcing myself every day. This is not something that comes natural to me - as I have said before. I am not an introvert person - I am just shy. Once I know people a bit more, I am actually quite extrovert but being in a group of 30 people and I not knowing them - it's tough. But it's necessary.

Taking those classes did wonders for my self confidence. Do I think I am all that now? No. I have to work a lot harder to get where I want to get to. What is my ultimate goal? I want to take pictures like Annie Leibovitz. Obviously she has 20 years of experience on me. She has better equipment. She is most likely way more talented than I am but if I am going to aspire to something, I am not going to chose somebody who is just a little bit better than me. Because, whats the point?

The thing I like most about my photography is that it gets better with every shoot. What I can do with lighting after taking several classes on lighting, compared to what I could do in November last year - is WORLDS different. And the mere fact that I am not afraid of taking pictures in low light situations anymore - it opens a whole other world of photography for me.

But as I said - I am still working and learning and taking classes and while I am starting to get some paid work (and hopefully it will be more and more) - I don't think I will ever stop learning and hopefully continue to improve.

Don't get me wrong - it's all a slow process. I have been taking pictures for 15 years. I took my first class when I was 13 or 14 years old. And only now am I getting to a stage where I feel comfortable enough (sort of) to ask people to pay me for my work. And now I am in the process of having the people around me to take my photography serious. I have had a lot of people tell me "So you are taking this whole photography thing serious now, huh?" and to be honest - that bothers me a little bit. Because I have been taking it "serious" for years - I was just not confident enough to point it out. I have called myself an "aspiring photographer" for way to long. I am a PHOTOGRAPHER, dammit.
But at the same time I have gotten so much support from friends and family. It's really overwhelming and I am so thankful to have such great people in my life!

So - the bottom line is - find a goal and find a way to get there! It might take years, it might take me 20 years to get to the stage I want to get to with my photography. But I won't give up.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

One volcano, four countries, three different stories

(Don't try to figure this picture out if you are not caught up on Lost)

Unless you just woke up from a coma, you probably have heard about the whole volcano-out break-flight situation. I mean, even my mom heard about it and she doesn't have TV or radio and she doesn't read newspapers.

On Friday afternoon E and I are scheduled to take a flight from Chicago O'Hare to Amsterdam Schiphol airport. And while it looks pretty promising right now with flights seemingly going back to normal, I am only going to be happy when the plane I am scheduled to board in two days, safely lands on Dutch soil (and I am on it).

Ever since I first heard about the volcano eruption, I wanted to be/stay as updated as possible. I was watching American morning news at that time and I was sure they would report about this. After all, when Michael Jackson died, hell, even when Corey Haim died, they had ample coverage on that. But apart from Al Roker doing his weather forecast from Iceland, there wasn't really anything. Some channels mentioned it but nothing that gave me more info then I already had - that a volcano had erupted in Iceland and that there was restricted air travel in Europe. Clearly most Americans aren't that interested in what is going on over there in Europe (or that's what the news channels think).

Next stop - CNN. I don't really watch CNN that much. Funnily enough I used to watch CNN a lot when I was living in Europe. Towards the end of my time in Europe, I watched a lot more Euronews than CNN but for a long time CNN Europe was one of my favorite news sources. Unfortunately CNN is not what I remember it to be. I am not sure if that is because I have changed and become more critical or if CNN has changed. A bit of both, perhaps. Anyway - CNN didn't only have news they had THE news. According to CNN - Europe was in chaos. And that Eyjafjallajokull wasn't even that much of a problem. But what if the volcano next to it erupts? Because according to CNN that was almost definitely going to happen and then, folks, then we'd really be in trouble. How much trouble, CNN didn't want to say but it would be BAD.

This got me so scared, I decided to forego American news altogether and instead focus on European news. After all, Europe was a bit more personally invested in this whole schlamassel.

Of course this meant I didn't check The New York Times - which I usually consider a good news source.

Next on was the BBC. BBC News, while still having a bit of a sensationalist edge to their news reporting ("Watch interviews with angry, stranded people! Are you stranded and want to tell us your story?"), was a lot more informative.

But still, they didn't give me the info I wanted.

Next on, I went to read the website of the Austrian newspaper Der Standard. I'll be honest with you - I don't really keep up with Austrian news that much, not even the politic news. I decided to leave the country a long time ago and even though I am still homesick for it sometimes, I pretty much decided when I left, that I would probably never go back to live there again and with that I lost most of my interest in their politics. But I still read Der Standard sometimes - because it's a good newspaper. And it didn't disappoint this time either. They were the first to inform me that all Austrian airports had re-opened on Monday. They also kept me updated on the "hight" of the ash and all that without being sensationalist about it.

For good measure I also started reading the Dutch website and of course KLM (the airline which hopefully will fly us to Amsterdam on Friday). Both websites, while not providing you with pages and pages of info, did provide me the most necessary facts.

While I understand that reading about the volcano situation is not as important for Americans as they are not as impacted by it, I still think that it is somewhat condescending of the mainstream, American media to shut out international news as they do. I am not just talking about the case of the volcano - I found out about the earthquake in China by trying to find news about the flight situation on European news websites. I remember about a year ago when that earthquake in Italy happened - I was in New Orleans at the time - without internet connection and I was trying to find out more about what happened through TV and newspapers. But there was nothing about it except the mare mention of the fact that there had been an earthquake! I truly believe that Americans would be interested in what is going on in the world even if it happens on the other side of the planet.

It has been 1.5 years since I left Europe and I NEED to get back, if just to burst my "Europe is so great"-bubble. Because while I often sound anti-American - I am totally aware that nothing is as good as you remember it.
So wish us luck that everything goes alright for us in the next three weeks!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Where I'm at

There are the kind of New Years resolutions you make and you know the moment you make them that you won't be able to stick to them - like "Cut out cheese and alcohol" or "work out every single day" or "call your mother every other day" (obviously those might not be a problem for you but I was never able to stick to any of those). But if you set yourself goals, it's different. I think the difference between a goal and a resolution is that you have to actively plan a goal to make it happen. And in the long run, this is what will enable you to achieve these goals. And of course, you'll need a little bit of discipline as well.

For 2010 I had four main goals:

1. Live a healthy lifestyle - which means learn how to cook better, learn how to use seasonal ingredients, cook organic, work out more - especially get some upper body strengths (as a photographer one has to be able to move quickly and lift heavy equipment)

2. Learn to love myself

3. Make friends - make a conscious effort to stay in contact with new people you meet and you like (this for me is still the most difficult - I have met a lot of interesting people and I have had a much more active social life in the last 4 months than I had all of last year but I am having difficulties to get these new friendships to a deeper level)

4. Become a professional photographer

I have talked about 1. and 2. a lot already and I feel like I am doing ok in these departments.

Both "Make friends" and "Become a professional photographer" kind of go hand in hand I have found. But more about that later.

Three years ago I started to take professional photography classes (via correspondence) at the New York Institute of Photography. I'll be honest with you - the first two years I got hardly anything done. I was still working full time, I had a very active social life and I just couldn't be bothered. If you have a working life - even if it's not the working life you want - it's difficult to motivate yourself to change that.
Last year I made the decision to work as a nanny and to use the time that the kid I am watching is napping, solely as studying time. I was able to make great progress and I am now done with these classes. It took me about 6 months to get the last 5 Units in. I still have to send in my final project but it's all done - I just have to find an envelope pretty much.

Still, I didn't feel nearly confident enough to try and make it as a professional photographer even with this education. I frankly had no idea where to start. But luckily that changed when a friend introduced me to Angie, a professional photographer. Angie invited me to a meeting called "The Fast Track Photographer Chicago Group". It was only their second meet up. The group refers to a book by a guy called Dane Sanders who wrote the book called - you might have guessed - "Fast Track Photographer". This book is being re-written right now and I am on a waiting list for it on Amazon but unfortunately I haven't been able to get my hands on an old version thus I haven't read it. But anyway - one of the main principles of the book is that while the photography business is very competitive, we will still be more successful if we co-operate and network with each other as photographers then if we bad-mouth or ignore each other.

Thus this group formed. The first time I joined I was at their second-ever meet-up in Chicago. There were about 20 people (by the third meet-up the number of people in attendance had doubled), it was at somebodies house. Everybody was extremely welcoming and open and for the first time I just felt like, I can do this. Some of these people had studied photography but a lot of them just started doing it because they like it. They had less photographic education than I had and they had become incredible, professional photographer nonetheless.

I did also realize though that if I wanted to feel completely at ease and comfortable with what I am doing, I would have to take more classes. A correspondence class can give you a lot of knowledge but some things are just easier if somebody shows them to you. So I singed up for two evening classes at the Chicago Photography Center. One was Fundamentals of Lighting - it covered mostly studio work - a topic I knew hardly anything about, the other class was "Lightroom". I have taught myself some Photoshop but for an aspiring portrait and wedding photographer "Adobe Lightroom" is much better and easier to use.

On top of these classes, I took a few more workshops and seminars. I can tell you that the last two months have been super-busy for me. Especially considering that last year I pretty much did nothing at all except occasionally volunteering and my part-time nannying job. I finished my last class last Sunday and I had a seminar last night but this is going to be it for me until after my trip to Europe in a week. I am a little bit relieved to get a break from all this learning since I feel like I can't focus on anything but photography right now but at the same time it feels absolutely amazing to be a step closer to doing professionally what I have always been wanting to do professionally.

One thing you need to know if you want to become a photographer - you will always need to invest - in yourself and your equipment. I am shooting with a Canon 40D right now - an excellent camera and ok for portraits and most weddings but it has it's limitations and I will eventually have to upgrade to a better camera. I also just invested quite a bit of money into a professional lighting kit that I can easily take with me in the car for shoots. I can use it to build a studio pretty much anywhere (except underwater I guess). But keeping yourself educated is just as important. The seminar I was at yesterday was on how to be a good 2nd shooter at a wedding. A second shooter is a not-so-experienced shooter that basically is a mix of a photographers assistant (who does stuff like fetch the primary photographer a sandwich and park the car) and an associate photographer who takes pictures that the main wedding photographer might not be able to get. I was surprised to see a lot of established photographers there who shoot a lot of weddings as "primary photographers" - but as I said - you have to keep yourself educated.
So, I already decided to sign up for another class for when I come back from my trip and I also decided to volunteer as an assistant to the photo teachers at the Chicago Photography Center as this is an excellent learning possibility.

Having done all of this I haven't really had much professional work yet. A big part of getting business is networking and this is one thing I haven't been great at. The photographers I know network all the time. They go to events and parties constantly. They all know each other. For me to go out there and talk to people I have never met is really difficult. I have been forcing myself to do it more but believe me, it's not easy.
I wish it could just be like "Look, I do good work, if you like my style - hire me!" but unfortunately networking is a big part of this game. So I am working hard on that.
I also found that there are two groups of photographers - the "mainly wedding" people - who are all super-outgoing and hug-y and sweet and who smile a lot and the more artistic photographers who usually end up becoming photography teachers to fund their artistic photography. Both kinds seem happy though but I am at a point where I wonder in which group I belong and if I can ever be the hug-y, smiley person that people like to hire as their wedding photographers.

So, sorry for my long rambling here. But this is where I stand. For those of you who read this blog because you are interested in what is going on with me - now you know.

All in all, I have to say my life made a complete turn in 2010. It is so different from last year, it's incredible and I love it, even if it is a lot of work and I have to make myself do things that I am not always comfortable with. But that's what you have to do if you want to get further in life, isn't it? Being comfortable won't get you anywhere.

Monday, April 12, 2010

About organic chicken

Since I have started this blog people have found it a lot of different ways.

1. I read a lot of other blogs and comment there and then people check out my blog.
2. People search for a picture of Genesis on Google - I linked to a Genesis picture in my blog post "Prove Yourself" - how exactly that works, that I get about 3-6 hits a day through this picture, I do not know but if I ever start a blog for my professional photography stuff, I might have to link to that picture on there too.
4. People put me on their blog roll on their own blogs (thank you!)
3. People Google something and find my blog. Those can be all kinds of stuff like:
"How to become a nanny in Italy" (Sorry, no info about this here but I can help you if you ever want to become a nanny in Chicago!)
"Cup of coffee" (I do write about that!)
or weird ones like "bad boy anal beads" (seriously - I don't know how somebody found my blog googling that but the fact that I just wrote this down will probably bring more people googling that term to my website)

But one search term that leads a lot of people to my blog is "Organic chicken" or "Pasture chicken in Chicago" and so I thought it might be a good idea to give you more info on the subject. I have become a lot more knowledgeable since my last post on the subject, so if you are still looking for an organic, pasture chicken (who are allowed to run freely, outside, eat grass and bugs instead of seeds) - here are a few tips:

*Go to farmers markets - they are the easiest way to find pasture chicken - ask the people who sell the meat - they are usually also the people who raise the chicken. If you don't get straight answers, it's probably shifty and not what you are looking for. If they seem like they don't know what "pasture" means, find somebody else to buy your chicken from. If they can show you pictures of how their animals are living or if you have a chance to look up their farm online and you see that the animals are running around freely - you have a winner.
*Go to - this is a website that will show you which farmers in your area sell organic and/or pasture meat, eggs and diary. It will also tell you when the farmer is where, so you can track them down.
*Once you find an organic farmer but you don't live right next to them - find out when and where you can find them, where they have drop-offs - and then stock up. We have a tiny freezer but I could easily fit two whole, big (5 pound) chicken and a pork shoulder in there. And that didn't even fill up half my freezer. If I buy a big thing of bacon, I freeze it in bags of three or four strips which I then defrost when needed.
*If you have a chance - go to local food fairs. I went to one about a month ago and I got a ton of information. I even bought some stuff there (there were about 4 meat vendors).
*Consider joining a CSA - you essentially buy your way into a farm and you get part of whatever they reap - veggies, fruit and often also meat. Just make sure it's a good farm and you can afford it in the long run.
*Be careful and consider what exactly you are looking for. What is important to you? That your family doesn't eat food that contains antibiotics or that the animals you are eating had a good life? For me - both are important and thus I make sure I know both are covered. But if you are mostly concerned about what goes into your body, buying amish chicken or normal organic chicken from the butcher or grocery store will do. Make sure that it says "Has never been fed antibiotics". As I have said before - Amish chicken is NOT pasture chicken! If you buy a chicken in a grocery store and it doesn't say "pasture" or "grass fed" on it - it is not "pasture" or "grass fed" because you can be sure they would want you to know about that and have you pay extra for it if it was. Also - I have never actually seen a pasture chicken in a store in Chicago.

Now - eating pasture diary, eggs and chicken is a lot more expensive than eating normal chicken - I won't lie. But it's a decision you have to make for yourself. I went years saying "Yeah, I am all for animal rights if it wasn't so expensive to eat organic". And then I read Michael Pollans "In Defense of Food" and I thought to myself, I keep on talking about it, why don't I do it? At the same time I was sick of eating the same food and feeling like crap and not knowing what is going into my body, so I changed everything.

You can do it too if you want to. It costs more but it will also make you less wasteful. I use every part of the chicken. I even use the intestines that come with it (I bake them and then put them in with the carcass when I make chicken stock). I get about 8 servings of chicken out of one bird, plus about 8 cups of condensed chicken stock which is better than any store bought stock. I cook big amounts and then freeze for the days that I don't have time to cook. I cook vegetarian a lot. I plan out meals for the week, including lunch and breakfast. In the end, I am not sure it costs us that much more because we waste a lot less. I used to throw tons of stuff away all the time because it went bad and I hardly ever do that anymore.

So if you want to do what I (and a lot of other people) decided to do - give it a go. You can always ask me if you have any questions about it!

Now I am going to go and try to find out more about objects to put up your behind, so I am prepared for any upcoming questions.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

My five favorite blogs

I have around 100 blogs on my Google Reader, so it's safe to say that I spend a lot of time reading them. A lot of them are more "visual" blogs - fashion, interior, design, cooking blogs. What can I say - I like to look at pretty things.

But there are a handful of blogs on my Google Reader which get me all giddy when I see that they have been updated. Here is a list - maybe you'll find a new favorite blog there too:

Post Secret is an ongoing art project in which people send in their secrets on a post card. I have been reading this blog for about six years now and I support it by buying post secret books for friends and family as gifts. It sounds like a silly blog but it does so much - showing people that they are not alone.

I only started reading Jezebel a few months ago but it's already one of my favorites. It is a feminist website which discusses everything from politics to celebrities and fashion. The discussions remind me of the discussions I used to have with my friends out in Amsterdam. The comments are moderated and to be a commenter you have to "prove yourself" by delivering a few funny, interesting, smart comments. If the moderators like your style (which doesn't have to mean that they agree with your opinion), your comments will be approved and you can become a commenter. This is one of the few politically minded websites where I actually read the comments.

Ok, here is a little secret - I am a nail polish fanatic. And there are lots of us out there. There are even blogs where people take pictures of their nails (I might have been known to do that myself sometimes ...) and post them on their blogs. In fact, there are very many blogs like that. And I have a lot of them on my Google Reader. With most of the blogs, I just look at the pictures. If I really like a color, I will read what people wrote about it. But I almost always read the blog posts on Polish or Perish - a blog written by seven PHD/Masters students who are all nail obsessed like me. They write about nail polish but also about how their studies are going and their personal lives. My favorite is "Kittytokaren" - her name is a Cake reference and at least in the beginning a lot of her blog posts had Cake references in them. And Cake happens to be one of my very favorite bands.

I read a lot of cooking blogs - especially since I started cutting out processed foods and eating organic/locally/seasonally. There is just something comforting about reading cooking blogs. There are never any nasty comments on their posts. The pictures look beautiful. And to see what people cook is like getting a peak into their personal life. The Kitchn is a bit different. It is part of Apartment Therapy (which I read long before I discovered The Kitchn). It's written by several people. It is not a very personal blog. Recipes are only a small part of the posts on The Kitchn. There are posts and video tutorials about how to properly cut onions, how to take a whole chicken apart, how to re-finish cast iron skillets, ... I also love the posts where readers ask a question and the commenters answer - I have learned more about cooking from the comments on The Kitchn (which I have only been reading for about two months) than I learned in my 4 years of home ed classes in high school.

Kimberly Miller is a smart, cute, young actress/writer from New York who posts pictures of everything she eats. That is pretty much it in a nutshell but she also writes about her personal life, her life in New York, her fitness challenges, ... I first started reading her when she was one of the writers of "Elastic Waist" - a blog that unfortunately doesn't exist anymore (if it would, it would be on this list). When Elastic Waist folded (they were sponsored by Self magazine and I guess the magazine was making cuts), all the writers posted their personal websites and that's how I came to read The Kim Challenge. Not only is it interesting to see what other people (who have similar food principles to myself) eat every day but I have also come to really like Kim personally. Yes kids, this is 2010 and now we read peoples blogs and feel like they are our friends even though they might know that we exist.

I know the people who read my blog are not really avid commenters but if you'd like to come out of the lurking status, please let me know what your favorite blogs are! Because my Google Reader is always open for new additions!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The life of Special K

I still remember meeting my friend Ketil for the first time. I was sitting in Vondelpark in Amsterdam with my friend A who had just gotten me a job in a call center where she was working as well. It was my first real job. It was a sunny day. I felt excited and happy. Ketil worked at the same company I was about to work for. He was walking his bike through Vondelpark, a friend by his side. He stopped and said "hi" to my friend A who was really good friends with Ketils best friend. I thought: Wow, that man is beautiful. But not in a sexual attraction way - I somehow knew immediately that K was into men, even though he was not the kind of man with who you could just "tell". He was nice and had a British accent even though he was Norwegian (I later found out that he had lived in London and that's how he picked up his nearly perfect British English).
Three months passed and my company had a Christmas party. It was at this design-y place that had areas set up like different rooms in an open space. I immediately noticed the "Scandinavian corner" on the black sofas - everybody was wearing black, everybody was smoking and everybody looked incredibly cool. I wanted to be one of them. Of course, Ketil was one of them.
At the end of the night, before I left, K came to me and said "I heard from A that you are really into photography. I am too! Maybe we should take pictures together sometimes!".
And that was the beginning of a really special friendship.
We spent nearly every weekend together - either in the darkroom printing photos, out taking pictures or at a bar or coffee shop, Saturday or Sunday afternoon, drinking beer and smoking. The summers we'd be sitting at the canals and drinking wine and eating cheese and crackers or in Vondelpark, with some of our other friends. Through Ketil I learned that cheese, crackers, wine, tapenade and pate make the perfect meal. He taught me that all you need to be happy is a blanket, sunshine and good company.
A few years after we first started hanging out, we created a little photography club with two other friends. We'd be meeting up every few weeks in the evening to seriously discuss photography but we just ended up drinking a lot and smoking pot and telling each other how incredibly talented we are.
K always knew how to make me feel great. He was the first man who ever made me feel beautiful. He would compliment me constantly. One time he just looked at me and said "Wow, you look JUST like that girl from Lost in Translation" (he meant Scarlett Johansson - I don't look like her but I used to have long, blond hair and I have blue eyes, so it was at least a little bit believable). And whatever he said, it didn't sound phony. It sounded really genuine.
In all those years that we spent so much time together we never once had an argument.

I hadn't seen Ketil in a few years. He left the Netherlands to move to Spain. I missed him so much and even though we tried to meet up a few times in Spain and the Netherlands, something always came up that prevented us from seeing each other.
When I heard that he had died, I was surprised how much I am grieving and how I just can't stop thinking about him.
I haven't really lost a friend before K. So I am not sure how this is supposed to work. Like tonight I am supposed to go out to two parties. Part of me is afraid that I am going to get drunk and won't be able to stop talking about my friend. Another part of me thinks I really need distraction.

All of a sudden it feels like I can remember ever single conversation I had with Ketil. And I am realizing how often I think about him - even before I learned about his untimely death, I'd think about him every time I say "cool" - because he would never say cool - always "coolio" which was funny because he was not the kind of guy who would ever use slang or say something pretentious. Or every time I go to the dentist I think about when I met up with him right after he had had a root canal and he told me that whenever he goes to the dentist he feels a little bit like he had been "raped in the mouth".

I also remember one evening we spent talking about death and dying and how we think we are going to end up dying. And this is not how he was supposed to die. And when.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Losing a friend is like losing a part of yourself

Rest in peace Ketil.

You were one of the most beautiful people I knew. Inside and out.
You always made me feel like a million bucks. You were smart and funny and creative and inspired people in so many ways.

I will miss you more than words can express.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Woman vs. Chicken

I hate making roast chicken. It just really grosses me out. But I started making my own chicken stock about a year ago and once you have made and used your own chicken stock you can never go back to using bouillon cubes.

So about every three month, I buckle down and make a roast chicken, use the meat for tasty risottos and stews and curries and use the carcass to make stock which I then freeze in one cup portions.
Sure, there are other ways to make chicken stock, some people say better ways. There is Ina Gartens famous chicken stock recipe which is supposed to be fantastic. Or The Amateur Gourmets chicken stock recipe. But wasting that much chicken and not even getting to eat it, I morally just cannot get myself to do.

On top of that I found a new recipe - Jamie Olivers "Chicken in milk" which I have been wanting to make since I first laid eyes on it and since we also just got ourselves a brand new Lodge Dutch Oven (the poor man's Le Creuset) that I had been dying to try - I knew it was time to face the chicken.

Since starting to follow Michael Pollans food principles I found that when it comes to meat - it is relatively easy to find grass fed beef in most grocery stores (I guess it has become somewhat of a foodie staple) but it is nearly impossible to get pastured chicken in Chicago, in the winter. In the summer, a lot of local farmers can be found at the farmers markets but there are only one or two weekly farmers markets which brave the winter. Through the Eat Wild website I found out that there is Farmers Market which sells pastured chicken but that's not happening for another 10 days.

So I made my way down to Chicagos biggest Wholefoods which apparently is the 3rd biggest Wholefoods in the world. There were three different kinds of whole chicken: Amish, "natural" (Wholefoods own brand) and Kosher. I checked all the labels and none of them said "pastured". A Wholefoods employee asked me if I needed help, so I asked him if Wholefoods sold any pastured chicken. His answer:
"Erm, we have the Amish, which are Amish raised and the natural and then we have the Kosher. And erm, yeah, all our chickens are, you know, organic and all pastured and all that stuff."
Clearly he didn't understand what pastured meant because I am pretty sure that if the chicken were pastured it would say so. A lot of people who buy their food at Wholefoods would spend extra to get a pastured chicken, I am sure.

His response reminded me of the response I got from a Trader Joes employee after asking him if any of the beef they were selling was grass-fed. He had to go ask. When he came back he said:
"Yeah, all of our beef is organic which means it is grass-fed." - Again - if the cows were grass-fed, I am pretty sure it would say. In fact, I had seen beef at a bigger Trader Joes that said in big letters "Grass-fed only beef".

Anyway, I ended up grabbing one of the Amish chicken, hoping that this would be the best choice of the three.
When I got home and I checked the recipe, I noticed that it asked for a 3 1/2 pound, organic chicken. I noticed that the chicken I had bought was 4 1/2 pounds. According to Michael Pollan pastured chicken are usually smaller, since they are outside and have to find bugs and grass to eat.

Had I, after all my extensive research, chosen an obese chicken?

After doing some research now, I found out that Amish chicken are
NOT free-range, they are antibiotic free though, at least.

The thing I hate most about preparing a whole chicken is sticking my hand up its behind to get out the insides. In most cases the insides are in a bag but I have had cases where they were just thrown in there loosely.

In the case of this Amish chicken - this is what was inside:

I am not sure if it is visible from the picture but this bag is chicken-head shaped. Now, a headless chicken is disturbing enough for me to look at but the head? I know - it's most likely just the neck which people like to throw in the pot when they are making chicken stock but let's just say I was not brave enough to open the bag. It is in my freezer right now. I don't think I could have eaten the chicken if I would have seen its face.

The headless chicken itself looked like a headless baby. For me - roasting chickens always kind of look like headless babies but this chubby chicken even more so:

I actually ended up apologizing to the chicken and thanking it for giving us its meat. I realize that probably sound somewhat nuts but I mean - look at it:

And this ladies and gentlemen is why I eat mostly vegetarian these days.

(The "Chicken in Milk" was very tasty though and I can highly recommend it - especially if you like lemon - but make sure to read the comments under the recipe, since they give some good tips)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Life changing

I'll be honest. I sometimes wonder if I wasted a year of my life in 2009. Part of me believes I needed it to recover, to get strength and so on but then, I really didn't get anywhere last year. I spent a year mourning losses - the loss of my friends in the Netherlands, the loss of my career (even though I didn't like my career but at least it was something to be proud of), the loss of my independence (since I am not making enough money to be self-sufficient which is something that I am not entirely comfortable with, despite fully trusting my husband), the loss of my social life, ...

I don't know how but with the end of 2009 I could finally stop mourning and start living my new life. I made a few "new years resolutions" but they are really much more than new years resolutions - they are what I need to do to get back on track and to get a life started that I feel is worth living.

I already talked about one of the resolutions - to respect myself. And to give you guys an update on this - it's going great and it has probably been one of the best changes I have ever made in my life.
Respecting myself means a lot more than to stop telling myself I am worthless (even though - just doing that already was a huge improvement to my life). It means respecting my body as much as respecting my mind.
Deciding to eat organically, to only eat animals and animal products like eggs and diary from animals who I know were treated with dignity and got to eat grass, like they were supposed to made a HUGE impact on my life. Seriously guys - if you have never had eggs from a farm where the pastured chickens are allowed to run around freely, eat grass and bugs instead of kernels, you are missing out!

My breakfast most days of the week:
A green smoothie

How to make it:
1 cup of almond milk (or soy or rice or hemp or regular milk but my favorite is unsweetened, vanilla almond milk)
1 banana
frozen fruit of your choice: I either make a "berry" one with frozen cherries, strawberries and blueberries or a "tropical" one with frozen mango, guava and pineapple. Sometimes I add peaches to either
one or two cups of dark green, leafy vegetables like spinach or kale
protein powder of your choice
- put everything in a blender. Blend. Ready. The taste of the greens takes a little bit of getting used to and you can leave it out if you really don't like it but it's so packed full of nutrients that for me it's really worth to add it. I found that chocolate protein powder masks the bitter taste of the greens better than vanilla.

One of the best things I read was "Cheap food might be cheap right now but it is too expensive in the long run" - meaning the effects that cheap, mass-produced food have on the planet and on your body in the long run are just not worth it.
And even though I spend a lot of money on food now, I waste a lot less. Our fridge is only half as full as it was before and I really try to use every morsel of food I buy. This involves a lot more planning but I don't mind. I also freeze a lot of food.

And completely unrelated - we booked our flights to Europe and we'll be in the Netherlands and Austria in less than 10 weeks. I can't wait! But more about that another time!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Tales of Mere Existence

I couldn't have said it better myself:

Thursday, January 14, 2010

In Defense of Food

One of my New Year's resolution is to cook more and especially - cook better. My goal is to use vegetables and spices which I have never used before and make dishes I have never made - or even tried. I also wanted to start cooking with better ingredients and start using local and "in-season" vegetables and fruits.

I have always liked to cook but somehow I lost my cooking-groove since I have moved to the US. Stuff tastes different than it tastes in Europe. I didn't quite understand how all the recipes that I used to make in Europe with great success all the time didn't come out here. I just finished Michael Pollan's book "In Defense of Food" and things are a lot more clear to me now. For example - the butter in America is white - that was one of the first things I noticed in terms of food. In Europe - especially in Austria and Ireland - the butter is yellow, not white. I now know that American butter is white because the cows are corn fed. If cows get to graze on grass the butter will be yellow. There are a lot of reasons why it's better for cows to eat grass than corn but I am not going to go into it all now - if you want to know I recommend you read Pollan's book.

So I realized instead of trying to make my old stand-bys taste like they used to be I should just try new stuff. I decided that nutritionally and taste-wise it would be best to start eating food that is in season where I live. Right now a lot of different greens like Kale and Chard and squashes are in season. To be honest I have never really tried those foods. In Holland you can get whichever food you want whenever you want since most foods are either raised in green houses or imported from warmer places so I never thought about eating seasonally.

Well, let me tell you guys - this New Years resolution was probably the best New Years resolution I have ever made. In the past two weeks I have been in culinary heaven. For the first time since I have moved here I feel like I can cook. I have tried new recipes every night except once - when we went to a restaurant - a restaurant which follows the same food principles which I have been following (thus the food was incredible). I have cooked butternut squash, spaghetti squash (a squash of which the flesh looks like pasta and surprisingly tastes pretty similar too), kale (in many different ways), winter soups and my favorite - oven roasted grape tomatoes with rosemary, garlic and olive oil. I also try to cook mostly vegetarian and if I use meat, I try to use really good quality meat.

But not only have I really enjoyed every bite I have eaten in the last couple of weeks, I have also felt great. I am starting to think that those winter vegetables contain exactly the vitamins and minerals one needs to get through the winter without getting depressed and sick. One of the first dishes we made was a "green" soup with kale and spinach. The next day E and I felt energized and alive like we just got back from a long stay at a spa.

In short - I have been feeling fantastic.

If you are interested - here are Michael Pollan's 7 rules for eating - but please keep in mind that these make a lot more sense if you have read his book which I can very much recommend:

1. Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
2. Avoid foods containing ingredients you can’t pronounce.
3. Don’t eat anything that wouldn’t eventually rot.
4. Avoid food products that carry health claims.
5. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket; stay out of the middle.
6. Better yet, buy food somewhere else: the farmer’s market or CSA.
7. Pay more, eat less.
8. Eat a wide diversity of species.
9. Eat food from animals that eat grass.
10. Cook and, if you can, grow some of your own food.
11. Eat meals and eat them only at tables.
12. Eat deliberately, with other people whenever possible, and always with pleasure.