Monday, June 20, 2011

Hell on Wheels

In movies, when someone takes a pregnancy test, it is a scene of excruciating waiting, of squinting at the stick, struggling to decipher the result. In reality, the bright blue “+” sign appears while you are still midstream. It could be made clearer only if a small mallet was released to whack you between the eyes.

For me, while the physical changes of pregnancy came slowly, the mental shift from non-pregnant woman to host body was made just as quickly as the + turned blue. Psychologically transitioning back to normalcy post-pregnancy, however, has been a far more gradual process.

For a while after my son was born I still carried myself as though I had a big bump, giving myself unnecessary clearance when moving through narrow spaces. And long after the actual post-natal period was up—it officially lasts from birth to six weeks—I caught myself wondering why people no longer offered me their seat on the bus. Could they not tell I had just had a baby?

Pregnancy comes with many discomforts and restrictions, and after the baby is born there are even more physical, hormonal, and emotional changes to face. I got used to being in this state of adjustment. Unconsciously, I used it as a sort of qualifier: I was in pretty good shape, for someone who had just had a baby. My house was pretty tidy, for someone who had just had a baby. And so on.

But now as my eight-month old son crawls around the floor and flashes me his one-tooth smile, it’s pretty clear that I didn’t “just” do anything. It is time to let go of my post-natal mindset, to be a little bit more demanding of myself, to reclaim my body. To that end, in part, I decided to join a gym.

I reviewed the fitness classes offered. One promised me the hindquarters of Jennifer Lopez, but its name – “ass blast” – sounded far too much like a colon cleansing. I opted for spinning. The spinning room is the VIP lounge of my gym. Its glass walls allow you a tantalizing glimpse of what goes on in there: it’s dark, with flashing, disco-like lights, and there’s a DJ station. My first mistake was thinking spinning looked fun.

On a Sunday morning, I met the spunky, upbeat instructor – Pepper, from Texas – while walking to the class. Pepper was initially delighted when I said I would be joining the class, but she expressed concern on hearing it was my first time. ‘Are you cardiovascularly fit?’ she enquired, furling her brow. ‘I run every day,’ I said, because this used to be true, and for a minute I felt like my old, marathon-running self. Cardiovascularly fit? Absolutely.

There were about ten of us in the class, men and women, mid-20s to early 50s. Pepper helped me adjust my bike seat. She strapped my feet to the pedals, and explained the basics: turn the small knob between my knees left to get more resistance, right for less. We were ready to go.

My own bike is my main mode of transport, aside from my feet, but the spinning bike was different. I’m not used to my seat being higher—way higher—than my handlebars. I felt I was being hung from the ceiling by my back belt loop. I gripped my talons on the handlebars like an anxiously perched bird.

We began with what is called sprinting, which means sitting on the narrow, hard seat and holding the closest of two sets of handlebars, pedaling fast with relatively low resistance. Immediately I understood why the others wore padded pants—rookie mistake. But I was optimistic. From her front and center bike, Pepper cranked up the music and smiled at me.

Then Pepper changed. ‘I will work you hard,’ she charged, and began staring individuals down, reprimanding them by name, accusing them of partial effort, reminding us that she was watching. Then she yelled ‘climb’ and it all began to go wrong. Climbing means turning up the resistance, lunging forward to a farther away set of handlebars, and biking in a standing position.

The pain that shot up my thighs was the wailing of muscles long dormant, and my heart felt ready to fly out of my chest. The sweat from my forehead was blinding. I tried to picture my baby’s face. Was it so long ago? I looked at the clock and we were only ten minutes into the hour-long class.

I clenched the handlebars, staring down at my white knuckles and feeling all my weight in my arms, shoulders and neck. This apparently is not good form. Pepper dismounted her bike and walked over to me. She insisted that my impossibly raised tailbone was my center of gravity. ‘The force is coming from your thighs and abs,’ she instructed, grabbing me in both places.

And suddenly my left leg came free from its pedal vice, but the flywheel's momentum kept the pedal spinning at dangerous speed while I held my free leg out of its reach. Meanwhile, my right leg, its foot still firmly attached to its pedal – piston to crankshaft – cycled on madly against its will. Panic-stricken, I looked to Pepper, who shook her head and offered, matter of factly: ‘If you had enough resistance, that wouldn’t happen.'

Far more than actual ability, I rely on pride to pull me through situations in which I really ought not be. But here, I had to submit to failure. Not even the music could inspire. The songs I heard during that hour are ruined for me forever (Gwen Stefani? You’re dead to me.) I didn't leave--I really didn't think she'd let me--but I gave up, pedaling away at my own slow pace, avoiding Pepper’s eye contact and ignoring her commands, until at last the class was over.

With my face held up to the showerhead, I closed my eyes and let the humiliation wash away. And then I heard someone say my name. Standing beside me was a soapy Pepper. She was smiling again. ‘Did you have a little trouble?’ she asked. ‘I recently had a baby,’ I said, hoping that it would exonerate me, but instead she said she’d see me next week. ‘The class is a little treat I give myself every Sunday,’ she said.

Spinning that morning had been one of the worst times I’ve ever had doing anything. Clearly I have a long way to go in regaining my former fitness level, but the first step is letting go of the post-natal excuse. The second I knew I was pregnant, my body belonged to someone else, and I looked forward to getting it back--and now, at last, I have. Except on Sunday mornings, when I surrender it to Pepper.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Shirley temple

(c) Time Out Amsterdam, June 2011. Photos by Marie-Charlotte Peze.

After climbing onto her barstool, Emma Jelinkova, 10, waved her hand slowly in front of her 8-year old sister’s face. ‘Josefina? Can you see me?’ As their eyes adjusted to the dearth of natural light, my six companions, aged 8 to 13, took in the swanky, art deco style of Door 74, where I’d brought them for a cocktail-mixing workshop.

The children rested their elbows on the bar like mini-regulars. The sight was like, say, a dog in a turtleneck. It didn’t seem right, but it was irresistibly cute. ‘What is this place?’ asked 8-year-old Olivia Carey, large green eyes gazing at the array of bottles and fruits and other mixing agents before her.

Behind the bar, award-winning cocktail maker Timo Janse, offered a diplomatic answer: ‘This is somewhere people come when they want to meet their friends, to relax. While they do, I make them some drinks.’ Put that way, a cocktail bar seemed a perfectly appropriate place to bring children.

Janse, author of ‘Shake-It’, a cocktail recipe book for kids, explained to my shakers-in-the-making that they would each be creating their own drinks. Although he started by saying ‘there are no rules’ to bartending, he offered a pointer: ‘You have to have a little bit of sour taste and a little bit of sweet, and you find the right balance for yourself.’ He encouraged the group to be imaginative. ‘If you really like a sweet drink, you can make it with bubble gum or chocolate sprinkles.’ Then he blew their minds by adding that they could even make drinks with pure gold.

'I would just put all the fruits in the whole world in a bowl and squish them all up together with ice cream and yogurt!’ cried Olivia, her high-pitch English accent soaring over the other voices. The other kids loved this idea but Janse counseled, ‘If it tastes like everything, it tastes like nothing.’

Janse invited Freya Lowe, 9, to join him behind the bar (‘a magic place,’ he said). Wearing a green hoodie and sporting a ponytail, Freya was a sharp visual contrast to the tall, dark, impeccably dressed bartender. He taught her how to measure with a jigger and to use a muddle to create her strawberry, lime and mineral water cocktail. ‘I dare you to drink it!’ the others called out as Freya carefully carried her overflowing creation back to her barstool.

Next up was 9-year old Lola-Sophia Goldman-Webb, who stepped up to the bar wearing a white shawl. Janse suggested she remove it before vigorously shaking Ernest, the penguin-shaped shaker, to create her mixture of blueberries, red currants, strawberries, lemons and cranberry juice.

Emma confessed that she prefers sour flavours to sweet, so she juiced a lemon with a Mexican elbow to create her lemon, lime, orange and ginger beer cocktail while her sister Josefina learned to use a pestle and mortar to grind lime and sugar for her watermelon-based concoction.

Saul-Patrick Goldman-Webb, 13, was feeling bold and spicy, combining hot chilies with vanilla, lemon and cranberry juice. Fruit fanatic Olivia used a strainer to pour her mixture of blueberries, strawberries, oranges, mint and pineapple. The end result was the same bright ginger colour as her hair, and her appreciation for its taste could not be contained. ‘So good!’ she called out, before quickly returning her straw to her mouth.

A variety of glassware was used – some of it more than 50 years old – from delicate champagne flutes to silver-plated lowball glasses to a chunky goblet with a face. Janse stressed the importance garnishing – ‘Pretty drinks taste better’ – offering the likes of ginger, chili peppers and edible flowers as options.

When everyone had downed their potions, Janse gave each participant his business card, ‘in case you want to email me a good recipe.’ High on natural sugar and with berry-stained grins, my budding mixologists reluctantly dismounted their barstools. As they prepared to face the bright, busy street outside, part of me wondered if this early introduction to cocktail culture would encourage them to become drinkers, the way chocolate cigarettes make kids think smoking might be cool. Could kiddie cocktails be a gateway drug?

‘People think a cocktail is about alcohol,’ Janse answered, ‘but it’s really about the balance of tastes.’ He encourages kids to experiment with different flavours, from passion fruit to peanut butter, from basil to chocolate and to explore with all their senses. I’ll definitely drink to that.

To organise a workshop for kids, contact Timo Janse at His book, in Dutch only, is available on

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