Work as thanksgiving


A few weeks ago I attended a talk by Prof. Simon Oliver, Canon Theologian at Durham Cathedral. One of the foci of his talk was ‘creation as gift’. As an aside, he mentioned that our work is commodified: we sell our labour. This reminded me of the year when I studied philosophy, when we read a piece by Karl Marx called ‘Die entfremdete Arbeit’. In the excerpt we read, Marx reflects on the commodification of labour and the alienation that ensues as the worker gives up the ownership of his own labour. And the alienation reaches further than that: the worker also experiences alienation from the product of his labour, and from the process of production.

Let me reassure the British and American readers of this blog that reading this excerpt did not make me a communist. However, I did feel there was some truth in this. It is something that I have often thought about, and over recent weeks Oliver’s talk was not the only thing that reminded me of it. I recently got an extension on my fixed-term contract. One of the consequences of this is that I now need to think about when and how many days of holiday I can take over the summer. Turns out it takes a really complicated calculation to work this out, partially because my hours changed from 0.685 (yes, specified to the third decimal) to 0.5 fte. The result of this calculation is an annual leave entitlement detailed to the minute.

One cultural difference I have noticed between the UK and the Netherlands is the attitude towards work. In the UK, the number of hours you work is close to being a status symbol. Although they complain about it, people are often secretly proud of the hours they work over and above the hours they are contracted for. On the flip side, many people do not seem to understand that one might rather work fewer hours and have less stress and more time for family than having more income. I have enough to live on, in fact, more than enough.

In contrast, in the Netherlands, part-time work is much more common. Especially among people (both men and women these days) with young children in well-paid jobs, working fewer hours is often seen as a positive. I realise this is a somewhat privileged position to be in, although another difference between the two countries is the much smaller pay gap between higher and lower-paid jobs in the Netherlands.

In general, I have found it very helpful to draw a fairly strict boundary between my professional life and my home life. You will not see me deal with work e-mails on holiday, or write my next journal article on Saturday afternoon. But I just used the word ‘professional’ on purpose: I do sometimes work when I am not ‘working’: I do the cleaning, the shopping, the gardening, I write this blog, I help organising a conference… But somehow the commodification of labour has separated these things off from ‘real work’ and relegated them to our ‘free time’. And what consequences will the coming AI revolution have for this subdivision?

I suppose what I’m looking for is a more unified way of looking at the diversity of tasks I perform. Coming back to Oliver’s talk, how about seeing our work as a response to God’s gift of creation and in response to his call on our lives? As a form of thanksgiving. I’m not quite sure whether this will directly make a difference in practice, but it is certainly something worth pondering more.


A year in Durham

The title gives it away… Today it is a year ago that we moved to Durham, and next week I will have lived in the UK for 11 years. So it is time to look back and reflect. I am blessed to have lived in two of the most beautiful places of the UK: first York, my first UK home, and now Durham (with a few years on the Wirral in between, which is a good place to live too!).

In fact, apart from York itself and a shopping trip to Manchester, Durham was the first place I visited after my move to the UK. The Overseas Students Association, of which I, as an international student, was a member, organised daytrips to cities nearby, and in February 2007 I visited Durham. I remember it vividly. It was cold and rainy, and I struggled to climb the steep slope towards the cathedral. Once arrived, I fell instantly in love with the cathedral, its massive pillars and its beautiful light. I had lunch there, then went on a tour of the castle. The old chapel there was also very impressive.


Durham Castle in February 2007

And now I find myself living here! I was a bit scared that all the hills would prove to be difficult to deal with, but actually, I now find it difficult to understand why I found it so difficult to climb up to the cathedral, especially since I walked there via the main shopping streets. Nowadays, I take the much steeper shortcut along the river, and it doesn’t feel all that hard anymore! I must admit though that I’ve pretty much given up on cycling, except for getting to my lab at the university, which happens to be located on the same ridge as my house… And given that I walk down a steep hill (and this is definitely a steep one!) and up another one three times a week to the station, and back in reverse when I go home in the afternoon, I don’t need to do any further exercise!

So far, Durham has been a lovely place to live. Do come and visit and discover it for yourself!


Durham Cathedral in March 2016

It’s my anniversary…

…Not the one on which I turn one year older. Or the one where I have been married for another year. Today exactly 10 years ago I arrived from the Netherlands in the UK to live here. For three years, I thought, or maybe three years and a few months. Get my PhD, then return to my home country. Ten years on, I am still here… If you had told me twenty years ago that I would end up living in a foreign country, I wouldn’t have believed you. I am not very adventurous, and like to be close to my family. But the desire to do a PhD was stronger. And I have not regretted my decision. Although I can’t say that I feel British now, from the first week, I have felt at home here. I still miss being close to my family, but we have got used to communicating over the phone and internet. And after all, it isn’t all that far.

Anyway, to celebrate this anniversary, I thought I’d put together a top 5 of things I like most about living here. Here they are:

  1. My husband. He’s British. Although I had already decided to I wouldn’t mind staying longer to do a postdoc here, meeting him was an important factor in making me stay… His family have also been very welcoming, and this has helped me to feel more ‘embedded’ in the community.
  2. It’s OK to be mildly eccentric. A bit of weirdness is not a problem, and can even be appreciated. Or maybe people are just too polite to say that you’re weird in your face? Partly I suppose it’s also got something to do with the fact that I have been around many international students, who are all from weird places where they do weird things, and so have higher tolerance levels for weirdness. Anyhow, I quite like it.
  3. Scones with jam and cream, parsnips, trifle, shepherd’s pie… you get the idea. Although British food isn’t known abroad for its culinary sophistication, I rather like it. I like all the sweet stuff and the hearty winter food. Although we also eat plenty of ‘continental’ dishes!
  4. Old places. Although in American eyes nearly everything in Europe is old, in the Netherlands most things are not older than 16th century, apart from a few (parts of) churches here and there. Here you can go older than that. From Norman cathedrals (I have just moved to Durham), to Medieval guildhalls and quirky cafes in old shop buildings. For an archaeologist like me, there is much to enjoy.
  5. The beautiful landscape. You may gather from this point that I don’t live in London or any of the other big cities. In fact, I have so far only lived in ‘the north’ (and by that I mean north of Nottingham, not just north of the Watford Gap! And ‘the north’ is, apart from a few big cities like Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle, pretty empty. Maybe not quite as empty as Scotland, but there is a lot of space to breathe. I am currently in rural Northumberland for a bit of fieldwork and it’s just stunning. Although I’m not sure I would survive here in winter!

Well, there it is then… Initially I had wanted to include a top 5 of things I least like about living here, but my husband suggested some British people might feel somewhat offended by that so I decided against it. So here’s to the next 10 years! (If I don’t get thrown out before then for not holding a British passport…)

I’m a migrant

I’m a migrant. In October 2006 I moved to Britain to take up a job that I couldn’t find in my own country. At first I wasn’t taking a job away from British people: the grant I was hired on specified that the post should be fulfilled by someone from abroad. But I stayed in Britain after my contract finished, and I took up positions that could also have been filled by British people.

I’m a migrant. Like those people from eastern European countries like Poland and Romania. But because I’m from a western European country, I was accepted into British society without much trouble. I do not need to justify my presence here. I am not, like the Polish people I shared a house with when I was a student, coming from a situation of hopeless unemployment and poverty; I am not exploited, forced to pay extortionate rents and to get up before dawn to work hard for 12 hours on a job the people in this country do not want to do, so I can send money to my family back home, and maybe one day start a little business for myself there.

I’m a migrant. Like those people from countries like Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and Afghanistan who are trying to reach European coasts on leaking boats across the Mediterranean, or who are desperately attempting to get on a train or lorry through the Channel Tunnel. I could have had safety, a well-paying job, good health care and social security in my own country, with the added benefit of being closer to my family. In contrast, they come from places that are dangerous, where there is war, terrorism and persecution, as well as poverty. Not places I would want to live.

I’m a migrant. And so I struggle when I hear these people being vilified. They are not really all that different from me. Why do we fail to understand and respect their motives for trying to come here? I find it especially hard when I hear harsh judgments from Christians. Are we not called to be compassionate and gracious, full of love, like our Lord? Are we not strangers in our own land, called and even commanded to show hospitality to strangers (Hebrews 13:2)? I am not pretending to have the solutions to the current problems, but I would dearly like to see the tone of the debate changing from an us-versus-them to a what-if-I-were-one-of-them discourse. So here you go: I’m a migrant.

The pastel city

Having recently travelled to Geneva, Florence and Venice on holiday, it is interesting how different cities can have such different atmospheres. At the moment I am in Weimar for a research stay of three weeks. This is the fourth time I’m here and I’ve got to know the city centre fairly well. What I like about it is its quiet atmosphere, although it is also very much alive.

It’s a very interesting city, and visited by many German tourists, though it is little known outside Germany. This could be due to the fact that the nearest international airports (Frankfurt and Berlin) are a train journey of several hours away.

There is a lot of history to take in, both great and not so great. When you walk from the station to the city centre, the first grand building you encounter makes you feel as if Hitler could step out on the balcony any moment to give one of his infamous speeches. The Gauforum is one of the few remaining large-scale public buildings from the Nazi period. I think it’s good that it remains as a memory of that terrible time, but it is a bit unnerving. It also reminds you of the fact that in the forests nearby, concentration camp Buchenwald was the location of much suffering (though a labour camp, not an extermination camp). I visited this during my first stay in the city in 2008. Besides famous prisoners like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Elie Wiesel, my father’s uncle Wout was imprisoned there for his role in the Dutch resistance. He survived, but many others did not.253511924_6_9b1-

The Gauforum

The city has had many famous inhabitants. Lucas Cranach the Elder, who painted the famous portrait of Martin Luther, painted the altarpiece of the city’s main church of St. Peter and St. Paul, and is buried in the churchyard of the Jakobskirche, just opposite the Institute that I’m working at. Johann Sebastian Bach started his professional career here, briefly taking up a post as court musician in the chapel of Duke Johan Ernst III in 1703. Later, from 1708 to 1717 he was the organist and director of music at the ducal court. Apparently there were some problems toward the end of his employment, and he spent a month in prison before being unfavourably dismissed!

The city’s glory days were in the Enlightenment and early Romantic period, when the city was home to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), Germany’s equivalent of Shakespeare, and the other founders of ‘Weimar classicism’: the playwright Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) and Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), who was the superintendent of the church of St. Peter and St. Paul from 1776 to 1803. The ducal court played an important role in this, inviting Goethe to come to the city in 1772 after the publication of his famous book Die Leiden des jungen Werthers. Not only is Goethe the literary giant of Germany, he was also a scientist who was interested in botany, anatomy and physics (particularly colour). Some of the first fossils found at one of the sites that I am studying here are part of his collection! His house, as well as a host of other buildings from this period, is a UNESCO world heritage site. Goethe’s house has an impressive library and a lovely garden. The city centre is full of classicistic architecture, with houses in pastel colours and windows decorated with garlands.DSC02784

The back of Goethe’s house and his garden

Weimar continued to attract cultural giants, such as Franz Liszt, who lived here from 1842 to 1861. You can visit his summer house, where he spent his summers between 1869 and 1886 and I have heard his grand piano played by students of the Weimar-based Franz Liszt conservatory! Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) spent the last seven years of his life in Weimar.

Besides classicistic architecture, the city is also known for its contributions to Art Nouveau. Henry van de Velde lived in Weimar between 1899 and 1914, and designed various buildings. From 1919 to 1933, architects Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe led an art school known as Bauhaus, which is still influential in design.

So even though it is hard to be away from home for three weeks, I do enjoy coming here, and having a break from the business of daily life! Oh, and did I mention the ice cream?001

Restaurant-style: sweet potato with blue cheese

I have a sweet tooth. If I have to choose between, say, crisps and sweets, I’ll go for the sweets. Not surprisingly, my favourite vegetables are also somewhat sweet: beetroot, parsnips and sweet potatoes. I didn’t manage to post a recipe every evening over the past week; I went off track on Saturday. I have a good excuse though: we attended a lovely wedding. And I try to avoid switching my computer on on Sundays (bliss!). So to make it up, here is a recipe with a sweet vegetable that has lots of other flavours too. It’s really easy to make but on the plate it looks like a restaurant dish. This recipe is by Ainsley Harriott, but there are many similar recipes around on the web.

If you’ve got a taste of vegetarian food by now, why not try a ‘meat-free Monday’ every week? It’s good for your health, for the environment, and for the animals that are the ultimate source of our meat and dairy.

Warm sweet potato and roast tomato cheese salad

Ingredients (serves 3-4)

500 g sweet potatoes, in cubes

1 garlic bulb, broken into cloves (! It sounds like a lot but it tastes great)

2 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp cumin seeds


4 vines of cherry tomatoes

75 g strong blue cheese, crumbled

1 tbsp red wine vinegar (but balsamic vinegar works too)

  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Mix the sweet potato, garlic, 1 tbsp of olive oil, cumin seeds, basil and salt and pepper together in a roasting tray and bake for 25 minutes.
  2. Add the whole tomato vines, or place on a separate baking sheet, with a bit more oil, and bake for a further 15 minutes.
  3. Serve out the sweet potato mixture and scatter the crumbled blue cheese over it. Place the tomato vines on top and drizzle with red wine vinegar.

Fusion: ginger glazed root vegetables with couscous

It is March, and most of our garden is still asleep, although some plants are showing some signs of green and flowerbuds… Spring will come soon! But whilst the first vegetables have been sown or planted, there is not much to harvest. In past centuries, this would have been the lean time of the year, where people started to really feel the squeeze, with stored vegetables losing their last bit of freshness as temperatures warmed. Thankfully we have a fully stocked supermarket round the corner!

I do like to ‘eat the seasons’ where I can though. Thankfully we no longer need to go through a period of famine in spring time, but it does feel good to eat things that are ‘typical’ for the time of year. Think of the shepherd’s pie in my first post: I don’t normally cook that in summer. And there is something fun about anticipating those few weeks when British asparagus is available. It also means that your food travels fewer miles around the world, and that local people can use local land to produce crops for local people – both here and in those places that produce squash, courgettes, and oranges in March! So here’s a recipe that uses vegetables that are available in the UK in early spring. Strangely enough it goes well with couscous, and a little of the apple chutney that remains from last autumn’s harvest…

Ginger glazed root vegetables with couscous

Ingredients (serves 4)

Enough winter vegetables for 4 people (e.g. carrots, parsnips, swede, turnip, sweet potato, red onion), peeled and cut into smallish chunks

2 tbsp olive oil

60 g butter

2 tbsp caster sugar

1 tbsp finely grated fresh ginger

250 g couscous

  1. Preheat the oven to 210°C (gas 6-7).
  2. Grease a large baking tray and place the vegetable chunks in it. Brush with the oil. Roast for 1 hour or until golden.
  3. Near serving time, melt the butter in a small saucepan. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the ginger and 60 ml of water and simmer for a few minutes.
  4. Pour the glaze over the roast vegetables and roast for 5 minutes. In the meantime, prepare the couscous.

French: animal-free mushroom bourguignon with rosemary potatoes

A few days ago, I mentioned that animal welfare was a reason for us to reconsider our meat intake. Climate and environment was another. It is estimated that food production accounts for a quarter to a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, and a large part of this comes from livestock and meat production. Particularly ruminants (cattle, sheep and goats) are to blame. They require a large amount of calorie intake in plant food compared to what calories end up on your plate, and the bacteria in their digestive system produce a lot of methane, which comes out at the other end. Livestock account for 25% of all methane emissions, and methane is able to trap 20 times more radiation heat than CO2, so this is quite a serious problem. There is a positive side to this too: methane has a residence time in the atmosphere of only 12 years, whereas the residence time of CO2 is potentially up to 200 years! So reducing methane emissions will have a strong effect in the short term.

Raising livestock also requires a lot of water, and of course they need to eat too. At present, 30% of the world’s cereal harvest and 90% of soya is used to feed animals. Imagine how many people this could sustain… Although we must also keep in mind that for many marginal lands, livestock rearing is probably the best use we can make of them, and the manure they produce is used as fertiliser. And I would like to keep on eating my beloved yoghurt…

This recipe inspired by French cuisine is absolutely delicious and does not contain any animal product apart from a bit of butter, which I suppose you could replace with more olive oil… We usually have it with roast potato wedges or cubes sprinkled with rosemary. Bon appetit!

Indian: kitchiri

One of the things to be careful with in a vegetarian diet (and even more so in a vegan diet), is to make sure that you take in all the nutrients you need. Carbohydrates and fibre are not really a problem for us: we love bread, rice and pasta, and a lot of vegetables also contain fibre. Protein and fat are not too hard if you eat dairy, and use vegetable oils for cooking. As for vitamins and minerals, these can be a bit more tricky, but the important thing is to eat a varied diet. And there are some superfoods that, if regularly included in meals, will prevent deficiencies. These include milk, cheese and yoghurt (yay – one of my favourite foods!), lentils, eggs, oats (yum), apricots and spinach. I certainly haven’t lost weight or health over our meat-low diet!

Coming back to protein, you may know that all proteins are made of only 23 different building blocks, or amino acids. Our body can synthesize most of these from scratch using the nutrients in our food. However, there are 8 ‘essential’ amino acids that we cannot make ourselves and must be obtained in their finished form from our food. Animal protein sources contain all 8 of these – so eating dairy and eggs will sort the problem. Most plant foods do not contain the full suite of 8 essential amino acids. But the interesting thing is that if you combine pulses with cereals and/or nuts and seeds, you get them all!

So here’s a recipe following an ancient and still popular Indian tradition to mix rice and lentils. A dish containing such a mix is called ‘kitchiri’, later developed by British colonials into ‘kedgeree’. In Victorian times they ate this for breakfast with smoked haddock and eggs! And unlike many other curries, it doesn’t take hours to cook it, though you may need to buy some spices first!


Ingredients (serves 4)

115 g red or green lentils                               2 cloves

1 onion                                                           2 cardamom pods

1 clove of garlic                                              2 bay leaves

50 g butter                                                     1 tsp ground cinnamon

30 ml sunflower oil                                         1 l vegetable stock

225 g basmati rice                                          2 tbsp tomato puree

2 tsp ground coriander                                   3 tbsp fresh coriander

2 tsp cumin seeds

  1. Cook the lentils for 10-20 minutes until soft.
  2. Heat the butter and oil in a saucepan. Fry the onion and garlic until soft. Add the rice and spices and cook for 1 minute. Add the stock, lentils and tomato puree and season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes.
  3. Add the fresh coriander and serve.

Italian: risotto with leek and goat’s cheese

Yesterday I mentioned that Anthony and I both independently decided we wanted to reduce the amount of meat we ate. Over the next few days I’ll share a couple of reasons. I can’t remember exactly which animal disease was on the news, it seemed each episode followed the previous one closely. I think most of us just close our eyes because we fear what we will see if we look into the way the animals that end up on our plate are treated. If you do feel so inclined, the meat free week website has a lot of information. Not something you should read when you’re already feeling down though!

But closing your eyes does not mean you bear no responsibility. So one reason for eating more vegetarian meals is that it would be good for animal welfare if we all ate less meat. I don’t have a fundamental problem with eating meat, but I would like to think that the meat on my plate came from a happy, healthy animal that was not forced to grow up faster and fatter than it would naturally have. Unfortunately this is difficult to achieve if we all want to eat cheap meat every day.

Missing the flavour? Here’s a recipe that is full of flavour. I picked it up from a Dutch supermarket. And as far as I know goats are not factory farmed…

Risotto with leek and goat’s cheese

Ingredients (serves 4)

2 tbsp olive oil                                     1 tbsp thyme

3 leeks, in rings                                   1 l vegetable stock

1 red pepper                                       200 g soft goat’s cheese, in cubes

300-400 g risotto


  1. Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the leek and pepper until soft. Add the risotto and thyme fry for 1 minute.
  2. Add half of the vegetable stock and stir until this has been absorbed. Keep adding a ladleful of stock until all the stock has been absorbed. This takes about 20 minutes.
  3. Take the pan off the fire and add the goat’s cheese. Season with pepper.

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