Saturday, December 29, 2007

Flight and Escape

"How many houses are there on the hill?", she asked soon after her arrival, and Carlos said, "Eight. They are owned four by North Americans, two by English, one by a French, and one by Danes."

"Why have these people come here?"

"Consider this," Carlos said. And from the edge of the terrace where they stood, he embraced the landscape. Consider the sun, the pure air, and the view. Consider the tranquility. These people have abandoned their other lives. Now they have this." He lifted his hand toward scenery in general.

Morgan listened while Carlos, in these words, described flight…

Harriett Doerr, Tiger in the Grass, "The Seasons"

santorini_2

Locate the position of a line that separates escapism and escape,

then describe the meaning of 'flight' in each context...

Friday, December 28, 2007

Heading back to the Netherlands

'nothing deep or reflective today, just up at 5 am and packing to get ready for a noon flight back from Seattle to Amsterdam.

It's been a good visit, but full of events and short of sleep. I'm in the peculiar circumstance of living overseas while my family remained in the US: the kids are older and didn't want to leave their friends, and my wife didn't want to move when the opportunity came. There's a lot of strain between us, and we're progressively going separate ways. Time together feels wistful and sad.

My daughter graduates high school this year and has been accepted to colleges, so things are great with her. She gave me a whimsical picture of the two of us on the road looking at schools, and then came home with nostalgic stories about going down to the docks and remembering all the sailing we did when she was growing up. Time with her has been easy and fun.

My son bounced off college two years ago and has been working nights in the warehouse at UPS while he sorts things out. He wants to make a try at some classes; my wife wants him out of the house. It's hard to solve that size problem in a week, but I think we worked through to a solution for the next few months. Time with him has been a struggle and frustrating.

I try to catch up the house when I'm back: 'cleaned the garage, moved things to the attic, made a run of trash to the dump, did a lot of shopping and cleaning, worked through a lot of paperwork. We raised a family here, so it feels familiar but not so much home any more. My wife has new friends who only know me from stories (and I think that most doubted that I existed). The neighbors are always surprised to see me.

It's always an odd departure: I feel like there isn't really time to solve much, only to skim or disrupt things. I always get choked up at leaving the kids again: 'still looking for ways to get them over for a visit sometime soon. Europe is just not on their radar from Seattle. Spring, for sure...

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Reverse ExPatriate-ism

Amanda published a very nice summary of the perils of Reverse Culture Shock at Vagabondish over the holiday. She writes about the types of disconnections that open between expatriates and their friends back home, and makes some good recommendations for how to adapt (and, yes, it still falls on us to do the adapting...).

It's a bit like Gauguin living in Tahiti: Gauguin - Street in Tahiti his family and friends never really understood why he moved or what he was experiencing or creating. Trips home to Denmark were invariably difficult for him.

Amanda's good advice includes:

* Don’t take it personally when people have no idea what you’ve been doing.

* Until someone asks, keep your experiences to yourself.

* Don't lose patience with everyday life.

* Don't assume that others share or want to hear your new opinions.

* Don't drop your travel tales into too many conversations.

* Anticipate that getting away to see something different became much more difficult, and a whole lot more expensive.

Taking it to dinner

I was reflecting on this advice last night when I went to dinner with some good friends at a local Italian restaurant. There is a conscious effort involved in fitting in, because I see everything through a different lens. It's tempting to pick the Montepulciano wine off the list because I've been there and know it (and can tell a little story about the town). The faux sculptures and hangings scattered around to resemble Italy have a tissue-paper feel. caprese3 I opted for Caprese for an appetizer, and was given tablespoon-sized mozzarella balls on halves of caprese2cherry tomatoes (left): not as hearty as the slices I'm used to (right). The tiramisu was, by sad consensus, terrible (but the domestic berry cobbler was excellent). Conversation focused on skiing in the Cascade mountains, the difficulties of their kids college applicaitons, and speculation on what their upcoming "empty-nest" life will be like.

These are good friends and I enjoyed our evening together thoroughly. But Amanda is right, that there are things that I have to suppress, and an effort that I have to make to engage locally. But, hey, isn't that the same rule I follow in the Netherlands?

The gaps that I've experienced:

  • The 9 hour time difference is huge. I'm never at my best when making phone calls at (their) reasonable hours. 'Nor participating in evening activities when it feels like 6 am.
  • Distances are different. Since European countries are the size of US states, it's easy to drive a few hours to Paris, Berlin, or to hop an hour's flight to England or Italy. People don't understand that Brussels is no further than Portland, and think I'm showing off if I say I drove down for the weekend.
  • My sense of navigation has changed. Living in a country with no wide open spaces and many twisted lanes, I've come to rely on the TomTom and to use a different set of navigational cues than I used to. As a result, my instincts for driving American cars across straight-line US grids has deteriorated.
  • My ear is warped by trying to speak and understand Dutch. This has three effects. First, I am used to not understanding people, so it's always a bit of a shock when I do understand what a waitress is saying. Second, I do tend to accidentally chirp "dank u wel" or "goedemorgen" without thinking. Third, I've found that I have a new role as after-dinner entertainment: when conversation lags, people can always ask me to "say something in Dutch" .
  • I pull out the wrong ID. There's nothing like a baby-girl pink driver's license to re-assure store clerks, banks, and Homeland Security that I am who I say I am.
  • I'm off the Amazing Race. If I live outside the US, I'm no longer eligible.
  • Everyday life in Europe is different. I've been conditioned to have cappuccino in the morning and espresso in the evening. I have to go the bakery and the fish store for bread and meats because they don't sell it at the Albert Heijn. I start work at 8:30 and I take vacations because everyone else is gone too. It all sounds very exotic and pretentious even when it's not.
  • I'm used to taking city breaks. But my casual weekend trip is someone's else's lifetime dream: they plan for a year for something I am lucky enough to have at my doorstep, and I agree that can raise some jealousy.
  • I'm not used to Political Provincialism. I've been told that I've abandoned my country and that I've lost the right to criticize US policies because I live in Europe. At the same time, I have experiences and perspectives that convince me that the Bush administration and his right-wing minions are destructively wrong. I see a continuing erosion of civil liberty, privacy, free speech, humanistic vision, and critical thought in the US. But it's become harder to participate in the debate because I'm not part of the society.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas (and the movie mirror...)

First, warm and happy Christmas wishes to each of you. I hope you have close and fun times with family and friends, and I hope for true peace on earth during these troubled times.

The holiday movie season is also around us, leading to today's pop question:

Kate Winslet or Keira Knightley

The_Holiday-6-Kate_Winslet Love Actually Knightley

I'm less of a fan of The Holiday than of Love Actually, their respective Christmas movies, and have to admit that I would rather share Eierpunsch by the fire with Knightley.

And that, of course, leads in to my totally idiosyncratic ranking of the holiday movies:

Four Christmas Movies I gladly rent:

  1. Love Actually An intertwined set of holiday vignettes, with Prime Minister Hugh Grant memorably facing down the US President and wooing winsome Martine McCutcheon. Great soundtrack, and wonderful comic relief from Bill Nighy.
  2. A Christmas Story I grew up in Cleveland, and this absolutely captures every aspect of it. From snowsuits to Santa at Higbee's, this really takes me back.
  3. White Christmas Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye find love and nostalgia while waiting for snow in Vermont. Vera-Ellen never looked better, and I'm a sucker for the happy ending.
  4. A Christmas Carol The 1938 classic version (or, as a guilty pleasure, the 1962 Magoo version that I grew up with.)

Three Christmas Movies that I'll watch if someone else is:

  1. The Holiday (Not bad if you ignore Jack Black)
  2. A Charlie Brown Christmas (I once played Charlie Brown in our school play of this show, even though I wanted to be Linus)
  3. Miracle on 34th Street (Doesn't wear it's age well, but its heart is in the right place)

Christmas Movies that drive me to read a good book:

  1. The Polar Express (Creepy and cloying)
  2. It's a Wonderful Life (Overrated and depressing)
  3. Home Alone (Any of the many: no wonder Macaulay turned out bad)
  4. Most Christmas comedies (eg: National Lampoon Christmas; Elf; Bad Santa )
  5. Any Christmas Movie horror show
  6. Any Christmas Movie created as a merchandising vehicle (eg: Very Merry Muppet Christmas; A SpongeBob Christmas)
  7. Any Christmas Movie with Tim Allen (eg: "Santa Clause" 1 through 1000)

(Your thoughts welcome: the web is full of opposing views. See, for example, Reel Reviews)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Disconnecting / Reconnecting

I found out last night that the company has found a new Research Manager to replace me. I had taken the interim assignment to fill a hole in the organization last summer, and have been leading the search, so this was expected.  It is a good thing: I've been holding down three full-time jobs at work and have literally been spending Research80% of my time managing the Research group, 20% on general management, and nights and weekends on my primary startup business within the business.

At the same time, I've enjoyed the assignment and the people, and I'm going to miss working with them.   Research is all about vision, entrepreneurship, networking, creativity, and change: it's a fun mix and attracts a lot of sharp people.  I think I'm a good facilitator, mentor, and communicator, and we accomplished a lot and did well for six months.

It's made me realize how hard it's going to be to move on in six months, a year, when my overall assignment here ends.  Disconnecting is not my strength: I'd have made a lousy contractor.

On the flip side, I've been reconnecting with some people from way past: I've stuck up correspondence with a few high school andMurray - Broken  Flowers college 'best friends" and a first girl-friend who surfaced through "25-year reunion" gatherings.  People's lives turn out differently, no doubt, but there has been a welcome continuity to revisiting my life's passages.  It won't devolve to "Broken Flowers" (which, together with "Lost in Translation" makes Bill Murray my archetype for "middle-age emptiness"), but it has helped me to think about how my life has been shaped by others, about the paths not taken, and to put a few demons forever to rest.

Last week, BBC's "Digital Planet" suggested that our physical lives would be displaced by our Socialnetworkingvisualisationon-line lives within 10 years.  Avatars have more room for social exploration, take less physical effort, are more controllable and less expensive ways to deal with life.  While some folks might leap to refuge or escape, I don't believe that most people's physical lives are so dull, troubled, or boring that this makes sense.  Mine certainly hasn't been, especially since breaking the envelope two years ago. (And, besides, as LJNet's Social Activity graphs suggest, right, VR networks grow just as tangled as RL.)

My remaining worries relate, instead, to the developing implications of my footloose existence.   Every year, I am finding that I have to answer two questions What do I do next?, and How do I let go of now?

Three signs that Christmas is here

The Christmas tree is decorated and lit...


...the Malley's chocolates have arrived from Cleveland...



...And there's a huge poinsettia in the living room.


Saturday, December 22, 2007

What the Netherlands can't provide...

When I visit the US, I always have a shopping list of things that I can't find or do in the Netherlands. The list surprises me: there isn't really any consistency or logic to it that says something deeper about the two cultures (or even about me). Nonetheless, here's my "scavenger hunt" list of things to do and buy when I'm staying 'left of the pond'.

  • Batteries: For some reason, batteries and all small electronics are half the price in the US (don't be fooled by duty-free shops).
  • Reading Glasses: If you go to the optical shops in Holland, they open a drawer of plastic glasses, their version of stylish reading assistance.
  • Over the counter meds: First aid cream, mouthwash, cold remedies, ear products, vitamins. And, of course, the herbal Melatonin: unavailable in Europe, to cushion the effects of nine-hour time differences the first two nights.
  • Comfort food: Microwave popcorn. Salty and buttered. Not sugared. Not caramel. Popcorn the way it was meant to be.
  • Movies: I run a selection of DVD's through DVD Shrink 3.2, collecting the current hits and classic flicks for personal viewing on cold, quiet evenings. Streaming movie and TV sites don't work outside of the US, but a Blockbuster card works nationwide.
  • Shoes: Sizes in Europe can just be strange, especially for odd-angled feet like mine.
  • Package Mailing: Having paid 25 euro to ship candy or small gifts home, I've learned the wisdom of simply saving things up and making a Kinko's run when I land.
  • Books: Sure, there are English language books in Britain, but, again, they are hugely expensive compared to the US. I'll sometimes just check out a couple of library books to carry back if I'm returning within six weeks.
  • Housewares: Sponges, fabric softener, spray stain remover, saran wrap, and carpet cleaner.
  • Investments: Since the advent of anti-terrorism money-laundering laws, all investment services like Schwab have closed their overseas offices. The reporting requirements mean that banks and investment houses in Europe won't open brokerage accounts for Americans. Wiring money can cost several percent (and a 50 euro fee if the transmission fails). So, I end up carrying a few thousand euros for direct deposit into my US accounts.
  • Haircut: It's hard to explain what I want ("Not above the ears but still off the collar") without getting something shaggy in the middle: a classic Dutch "Page-Boy" look. Or they go for something "playful"... vs., say, "professional".
  • Doctors and Dentists: Without language fluency or medical records, it's hard to have a productive visit with Dutch doctors. Dentists can be downright frightening. And reimbursement is drawn-out, if it happens at all.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Finishing the Christmas Cards

I flew back to Seattle last night: it was an 11 hour flight, the perfect time to write the Christmas cards. Quiet and undisturbed, alone in the rumbling darkness over the north Atlantic, I could reflect on people that are important and events of the past year.

I always sign each card, put in a short personal message, but my handwriting is too poor to try to write anything long or important. I still need to supplement with a printed "update" to say that everyone is doing okay, where everyone is, how the kids have grown. 'Never detail about vacations, promotions, illnesses, or deaths, although those seem to be prevalent themes among the cards I get. I always put in the current contact information: I always feel badly when people move without notice, because after a year, they are lost.

So, this year's short overview, tucked in with the card, was:

Warm greetings from the Low Countries!

The mysterious language on the card is Dutch: I’ve lived the past year in Arnhem, in the eastern part of the Netherlands, working with the implanted diagnostics division of Medtronic. I’m slowly learning the language and am enjoying the culture and the opportunity to travel in Europe. I will be living here for another year; Flickr pix are updated often.

The rest of the family stayed in Seattle (I'm really booking the air miles this year). Laura is finishing high school and graduates this year, so she's making college decisions. William is working locally, and Karen is teaching in the local schools.

We all send our very best wishes for a warm holiday season !

I think I sent out about 50 cards, a typical year. Some relatives did pass away; my parent's generation is sadly thinning year to year. Too many friends my age (their 50's) are going through a divorce, loss of a child, or end of a career, really painful to hear about and I'll send a follow-on note back.

Overall, though, it feels like my list is slowly falling out of sync and out of date. The Christmas card is the way that I keep in contact with people who were once daily parts of my life, and who do make me smile when I think of them and wonder how they are doing. I've made a note that this is the year to cull and update the address list.

I wonder, too, if we are the last generation who will support this ritual. The next generation has their own ways of keeping in touch, and they exchange pictures and news more frequently and casually than my generation does. I can't imagine that they will address and mail traditional cards; even thank-you notes are rare any more.

Still, for me, it means a lot to spend a moment with each person and each memory. Identity is continuity and affiliation, and in a footloose world, the Christmas Card still matters.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Slouching towards Schiphol

The Christmas holidays can be the worst time to travel: crowds, bad weather, delayed flights, heavy loads, short tempers. A friend also once advised me that, once a day starts badly, you become a 'poo-magnet' for life's debris.

Thus, it was a bad omen to wake to find an ice storm had hit Arnhem the day that I was leaving for the US.

A quick check of the timing...plane at 1:15; arrive 1 1/2 hours before the plane, one-half hour wandering in from long-term parking, a one hour drive to Amsterdam...out of Arnhem no later than 10? I dragged two suitcases, a shoulderbag, a business bag, the garbage bag, and my shopping bag to the base of the stairs, making a pile like a refugee about to board the Titanic.

I stopped at work for a brief huddle with my project group, a Christmas handshake with each member of the Research team, and a laugh with our staff secretary (it turns out I was missing being part of the tradition of parading the staff at the Christmas Party dressed in lederhosen...too bad :) ).

Then to the road...it didn't look good...

Schiphol Xmas Out 02 Schiphol Xmas Out 01

Still, the navigation system wasn't suggesting alternate routes and the overhead traffic control signs still flashed "Filevrij", So, onward. And, truth be told, everyone drove reasonably, nobody spun or stalled, and I arrived at Long-Term parking at a very reasonable 11 am.

"Lang Parkeren", also known as "P3", is a vast field of automobiles located about ten minutes bus ride from Schiphol. At the best of times, it is a frustrating exercise in driving up and down rows, getting further and further from the bus stop, until I am left pinned against the runway fence fifteen minutes walking distance (appropriately marked "Row 502"). In holiday seasons, I expect to get turned away to the dread "P4", another ten minutes away by a second, sequential shuttle bus (euphemistically called "P3 Extra").

But today the crowds were light, the spaces plentiful, the walk short.

And the happy pattern continued. Short lines at check-in. Fast lines at Passport Control. An accordion player in the shopping plaza.

Schiphol Xmas Out 07 Schiphol Xmas Out 06

There was even time to buy a bottle of jenever for a friend, and still make it to E concourse at noon. The monitors said that the plane to Seattle was not yet boarding, although the agent had said that 11:30 was the deadline, and the situation outside looked pretty encouraging...still a bit of fog, but nothing serious. I could make it to the Lounge.

Schiphol Xmas Out 09

Most times, I sit at the gate, feet on my bags, ticket clutched in my hand. Occasionally, though, I get bumped up to business class, which allows access to the upstairs lounges. It's a wholly different world: food, drink, computer connections, quiet. Okay, it's a slice of Gouda and lunch meat on a cracker washed down with a glass of red wine, but it's still an oasis. If you haven't seen it, here's the view:

Schiphol Xmas Out 08

So, three for three for Christmas... It almost prepares me for the ten hour flight and the Christmas Card addressing that lay ahead. Maybe the universe will grant a stay on life's fallout as a gift to us this year. If so, I hope that your travels are similarly easy, and that they presage a warm, safe, and happy holiday for everyone.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Handling a bad day

Today was just rotten.

I got to bed too late last night, and had to be up too early this morning. The weather has plunged to a permanent sub-zero (Celsius) and days now start with scraping ice off the car, creeping to work through slick streets, and a long walk in from employee parking. In the dark (and ice). I've spent the past month or so sorting out end of year raises for some members on my group: today someone who got an 11% raise blistered me about why it wasn't 15%. Seriously. Dutch directness at it's worst.

Bad Day

I'm leaving for the US in the morning: that pressured me to wrap lots of things up before I leave. A half-day meeting ran over by two hours. Attempts to find a restaurant to join a New Year's celebration produced the predictable result that everywhere is closed so the Dutch can be home with their families. Problems continue to simmer in Seattle over my son's schooling. Since I had to work late, I got out past the start of my Dutch Conversational course. I have to pack gifts and clothes tonight, and scramble to the airport in the morning for a 10 hour flight home, writing Christmas cards on the way.

Sure, it's normal, it's what I do to myself: blah de blah. It was still a bad day.

But that wasn't what I wanted to write about tonight.

It's what I have to do when days go south. There isn't a chance to vent, to get some comfort, to talk it out, to get perspective, or to let it go with someone when there's nobody around. It becomes easy for the apartment to become a vast echo chamber that only amplifies feelings, and end up having a glass of wine or losing myself online or some other means of suppressing the feelings.

My first rule is to recognize that I'm slipping and to take a time-out. Usually I can catch that I'm getting wound up or ground down: it's more sensitivity and self awareness than the situation allows, but I've learned to listen to the warning nag and stop.

Next is a bit of self-control. People who have meetings with me or questions to ask need my ear and attention, not my tale of woe or a canceled appointment. I set things aside and probably concentrate more than usual on things going on.

There are a few people that I can cautiously talk things out with. If there's time, I do try to drop by and either 'ask advice' (if I need to gently complain) or 'take the blame' (if I want a bit of sympathy). Usually the airing makes it a bit less intense on me, and the dispassionate management conversation helps me to gain a little perspective.

I do make time for a more intense workout: crank the bike up a bit and pedal a half hour while losing myself in an unrelated book or magazine. The change of scenery and people usually takes away the proximate source of the problem. Leave the phone in the car and no forwarding address for a few hours.Swedish Archipelago Day 3 Findhamn 19

Finally, plan a weekend off and go to bed early. I love to travel, and thinking about a drive into Germany or a weekend in Morocco is restorative (even if I don't finally go). There's always the summer sailing in Sweden or trip to Stresa to look back on, and lots more good things to come.

Okay, that wasn't what I was going to write about, but I feel better. 'Off to pack. Tomorrow will be better...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Back from Engeland

It been a good couple of days: I flew over to England Sunday morning to pitch a start-up business to a venture group in Cambridge, 'just arrived back in the Netherlands this morning (the usual EasyJet delays from Stansted, and ice in Amsterdam on arrival <sigh>).

Nonetheless, it was nice to be back in Cambridge: it's a unique place that genuinely changed my life during the year that I spent there earning a Master's degree in 2005. An 800 year old institution, steeped in tradition and history, the University is also doing the most cutting-edge and intellectually demanding work in the world. It's filled with wonderful professors, engaging guest lecturers, is a major European hub for biotechnology and seed investment, and always an inspirational place for me to visit and to engage with.

Here's the main court at King's College, and the Mathematical Bridge at Queens, from the weekend.

DSC03126 DSC03165

This visit had two purposes. The main one was to seek seed funding from a group of venture capitalists. I've been through good sessions and bad with funding pitches, and this one felt very positive. We hit our marks and worked well as a team, and the slides played well. They were interested, asked lots of good questions, were not intimidated by the funding amount, and promised to get back in touch with us once we answered a few detailed questions. 'Finger's crossed...

I was also asked to do a supervision of a student doing a Master's degree, and gave an introductory presentation to the class and met with potential candidates. About half the class showed up to talk, much more interest than I expected, and I've had a few good responses from people interested in working together.

For the record (and to give some idea of the traditions of the place), here's my class (I'm the distinguished ash-blond fellow center left) and my matriculation photo:

Class Picture Convocation

Still, the best moments was sitting in the college commons room in the evening with a book, a Guinness, some music, and the students drifting through to argue their ideas and share some time together.

DSC03189

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Christmas shopping in Utrecht

I got up early this morning, avoided the gym, and headed straight to Utrecht to try to close up my Christmas shopping.

I leave for the US on Thursday, and have to be in Cambridge tomorrow through Tuesday morning, so this was about the last chance to sort it all through.  My first tendancy would be to head for a mall, which means driving to Oberhausen and the huge CentrO facility.  My Dutch colleagues roll their eyes when I suggest that, though, claiming that there is always better shopping in the Netherlands than in Germany.  Point taken, but I gave added points to the likelihood that, with the Sinterklaas season past, the Dutch would be out in fewer numbers, leaving the stores with  merry "Korting" signs in their windows.  It should be just like having January sales arrive ahead of Christmas for a change.

(By the way, my Recommended Link of the Day points to Invader-Stu, who has the best "Stalking Sinterklaas" story of the season)

Utrecht Dec 07 29   Utrecht Dec 07 13

So I spent a cold and clear day roaming the streets of the old center with a backpack and my Fortis card, seeking exotic Dutch / European artifacts to take back to my waiting relatives.  The stores really had some nice decorations: I like the Dutch use of small, brilliant variations of Icicle Lights. Utrecht Dec 07 02 The mood was only spoiled a bit when security asked me not to take pictures.  Fortunately, I got away with a picture of this strange Christmas tableaux, reminiscent of late night Dutch television around channel 994: It's a little hard to tell what mood this is supposed to convey.

I found some nice boxes of Christmas Cards on sale: they tend towards simple themes of trees and snowflakes with chirpy "Prettige Kerstdagen en een Gelukkig Nieuwjaar" sentiments.  Not a lot of religious or over-fancy cards on the tables: the Calvinist influence, I suppose, but I like this style better anyway. (For my non-Christian friends, I collected a "Prettige Feestdagen" assortment: it's still the only time of year I reach out to college friends and I hate to leave folks out.).   I couldn't find a good Sinterklaas ornament for the tree with the bishop's Dutch Cardsmitre (and, ideally, his little assistant): the figures all looked very US-style.  There were some cute finger-puppets and other stocking stuffers as a warm-up, then it was on to find the half-dozen gifts that I needed.

The clothes stores don't hold a lot of attraction: styles still look a bit out-of-place for American consumers, and I'm not good at trying to translate between US and European ways to specify sizes.  The sports and outdoors store had a nice selection of ski and snowboard accessories and pullovers, but I stayed away from clothes otherwise.  There are a lot of good jewelry and watch shops, but with prices in the hundreds and thousands of euros it was out of the question (In one shop, the artisans were making rings and necklaces being made at the back, kind of a cross between Santa's elves and having the kitchen open to view at some restaurants.)  The glass shops were stocked with wonderful serving pieces and festive glassware, so I picked up several varieties.  Personal electronics and cameras always seem to be priced about double in Europe, so I put that off until I'm back across the pond.  Handbags and writing accessories are well made and reasonable, so I made a few selections there.

So, as three pm rolled around, I was pretty well through the list.  I am trying to sort out the cumulative size and weight impact on my suitcases, but overall I think I made a good dent and have a practical selection to transport and ship.  No Gluhwijn or Eierpunsch, but a pretty good outing.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Making peace with the Senseo

Well, I've been using the Senseo Coffeemaker for about two weeks now, and we've reached a bit of accommodation. I'm still not sold on it, and certainly don't understand the reverence that the Dutch have for it, but I think I'm starting to warm up to it in the mornings.

On the plus side, it is fast and convenient. Toss some water in the reservoir, and it steams up in about 30 seconds. While that's going, I find the coffee packet in the cupboard and lock it down into the chamber. Add a cup with a bit of milk and it's ready to deliver. It's not disturbingly noisy (lots of comforting whirring and hissing), and it delivers a nice foamy cup of coffee in another 30 seconds. I was a press-coffee person, and the scooping, filling, waiting, and pressing probably takes five minutes. The process is facilitated by the apartment's boiling water tap, a truly marvelous invention: Coffee-making probably would take 15 minutes without it.

Senseo 4

On the minus side, the coffee is weak. I've experimented with the Dark, Extra Dark, Espresso, and Cappuccino packets, and I like the texture and taste of the Cappuccino best, but it isn't strong enough to have a good coffee color, flavor, or aroma. I've fiddled with combinations of the others, using two packets, but that seems excessive just to get one cup: there must be several tablespoons of coffee in there. The use of packets seems wasteful too: I imagine coffee packets spilling over to fill the landfill. Worse, a Senseo only makes a 4 oz (half) cup or 8 oz (full) cup. I like a bit of milk in my coffee, and so have had to find a 10 oz cup to use with the machine.

So, for now, I'll use it for convenience and speed, struggle with the taste and quantities, but "Big Blue" has displaced the toaster on the kitchen counter.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Global Cosmopolitan

Last summer, the INSEAD publication World Business published an article "Workers of the World", about the unique characteristics and problems of global workers. It is based on studies by Linda Brimm, a psychologist specializing in organizational behavior: she describes a "Global Cosmopolitan -- a population of highly educated, usually multilingual people that have lived, worked and studied for extended periods in different cultures". I enjoyed the article a lot; she made a number of points that resonate with my own experiences.

  1. Certainly I've found that exposure to more cultures does help with understanding and adaptation when I encounter new situations. Still, this is as much a developed skill as an acquired one: I recommend Martin Gannon's Understanding Global Cultures (3rd ed) as a thoughtful and very readable framework for reflection.
  2. I've also seen people fail and return home early because they don't reach out and find their place in the local culture. I've listened to how people's apartments are too small, their friends don't match the ones they left, they're careers are falling behind others back home. At the extreme, they eat at McDonalds and disappear into expat-support groups. As a result, they miss out on the chance to immerse in the local culture, to extend and enrich their network of ideas and associates, on the chance to become truly unique.
  3. Her comments on the difficulty of maintaining a sense of personal identity are also spot on. I know that I've struggled with who I am, apart from the things that I surround myself with. Identity is about feeling comfortable with your thoughts and experiences, confident in your opinions and actions. It means being grounded even though I'm surrounded by artifacts that aren't mine and I'm pressured to fit in with my host's customs.

Although she doesn't mention it, a lot of these ideas reduce to how successful we are in maintaining and growing our personal identity. Here, I think of Erik Erikson's work, he defines identity in both individual aspects (our sense of personal continuity and of uniqueness) and social ones (our affiliations, which define us in our own eyes and to others). Successful adjustment requires us to adjust and maintain both identities despite the lack of customary references and new pressures to adapt.

Finally, her recommendations for work are great, and I've made adjustments to my CV as a result:

  • Know your story and value it
  • Know your strengths and let other people know too, such as:
    • Success and experience in managing change and transition
    • Success and experience in managing difference and the creative edge of
      being different
    • Developed observational skill
    • Understanding of different lenses for seeing the world
    • Understanding of different ways of doing things and contributing them
      to creative problem solving.
  • Know your double-edged sword:
    • That your agility and chameleon-like abilities can mean that you don't bring their own ideas to a situation for fear of standing out
    • That you might have successfully adapted by being non-confrontational and adopting a diplomatic role, and therefore have the tendency not to speak up when you disagree
    • That you might have the tendency to see endless new possibilities, but find it hard to focus on a particular project
    • That while you may be fluent in several languages, you may never sound like a native-speaker and miss out on nuances and colloquialisms, and
    • That you may be an excellent observer, but fail to engage.
  • Apply your strengths to personal challenges, such as:
    • Maintaining multiple networks
    • Finding a sense of meaning
    • Recreating a sense of home

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Terrorists and Cheese Wheels

I try to keep family and friends updated about life here by posting pictures into albums on Flickr. When there's a nice afternoon, I enjoy wandering around town taking a few snapshots, then posting images that look pleasingly exotic: the town market, the random road art, the tangle of bike paths and roads at major intersections.

One day, I got an e-mail: someone liked my Cheese Wheel photo from the Arnhem market and wanted to use it (under Creative Commons license) for an article that they were writing.

Arnhem Market 11

...'good picture, not my best, but who am I to judge Art?

"...'and how will you use it? A tourist brochure? A guide to the industry? A gourmand cookbook?"

I'm adding photos to a story one of our members posted about potential "terrorism dry runs" in airports where the terrorist reportedly uses wheels of cheese to simulate the weight and texture of certain types of explosives. I'd like to use your cheese photo to help add context to the story.

My vision becomes one of the future, where steely-eyed border guards endlessly compare my name against the "No-Fly" list, diligently searching me for the stray ball of Gouda, sniffer-dog twitching nearby.

But the attribution would only plug me as a photographer, not a source, so the thrill of attribution won out over the fear of Homeland Security. Read the full article here, and share my pride...

Taking a time out...

One of the nice (or worrisome) things about this journal is that I can see the clouds gathering before the storm breaks (but not sensibly enough to get inside before it does, to stretch the metaphor). In this case, the trip to Koln, the notes on not having enough time, and on trying to be accommodating, were all probably good signals that life was getting overwhelming.

I woke at 4 am this morning with just a sea of worries. What to do to help my son was the big one, but there is a venture capital presentation Monday to be prepared and reviewed, paperwork to be written for two promotions of people working for me, a couple of status reports to write updating people on projects I'm leading, an interview with my replacement as Research Manager, half a dozen students to sort out for supervision back at Cambridge...and I haven't even touched on Christmas or on what to do about extending my expat contract (due to expire in May, and where do I go after that?). There was a full day of meetings ahead and Conversational Dutch this evening, so clearly things would not get any better.

Time for a Time Out.

Honestly, looking at calendar, was there anything so important today that I couldn't step back, take a deep breath, maybe take a bath, dress comfortably, and give things my full attention and best effort in a little space and quiet?

No.

And so I did: 'first sick-day in years.

And it's all getting done, and there will be time left over to unwind a bit. 'gotta work on that 'balance' part of life a bit better, clearly...

PS: I later found that Douglas Welch gave similar sage advice...

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

While you're adjusting to the Dutch...

...remember that the Dutch are also having to adjust to you.

I got this advice during my orientation, and it's always been a good thing for me to remember.  The basics are easy: I take my time, speak clearly, avoid idioms, and check for understanding; fortunately, the Dutch directness ensures that it works both ways.

But it also means that I don't multi-task in meetings that are being conducted in English to accommodate me, and that I try to let people argue in Dutch when they need to among themselves.  (I avoid the temptation to encourage them speak Dutch so that I can multi-task in meetings).

I do wait for them to finish a sentence their own way without jumping in to try to help (I would usually be wrong anyway), although sometimes I suggest a word  when the right one just isn't coming to mind.  And I don't wordsmith slides or documents unless it's destined for a US audience, and even then only in green ink.

More than once, I've found them accommodating the way that I do things, too, so I know we both try.  Sometimes it works easily (entering meetings without a prior written agenda..sorry, I do prepare, but I'm not someone who distributes agendas), and sometimes with difficulty (closing a meeting without posting notes with minutes, action items, and assignments...I'm afraid that we rotate having a scribe).

At least it's made for much shorter e-mails both ways...

Monday, December 10, 2007

Never enough time...

I commented before that time management is a big issue for me as a solo expatriate. The days seem to fill with opportunity and demands, with help or advice asked and commitments made. It's hard to say no, because I want to do a great job, want to make the most of the experience, want to fit in, want to dispel negative stereotypes. At the end of the day, though, it's also important that my life not become a blurred rush of half-finished work, half-seen places, and half-remembered experiences.

What's important? I actually wrote it down: if I don't, I won't.

Every couple of days:

  • Keep things in balance
  • Get some exercise
  • Leave some free time
  • Read a good book or insightful magazine
  • Take time to reflect and listen
  • Appreciate or create some art
  • Learn some Dutch; speak some Dutch
  • Think about what's important and act on it
  • Connect with someone (not something) I love
  • Update the finances
  • Have a laugh and share a story with a friend
  • Eat the right things

An incomplete dozen, in no particular order. 'Fair to ask how it's going, I suppose...

I work too much. Very much too much.

But I've also reconnected with a lot of lost friends and rediscovered the things I enjoy doing. I get my exercise and eat right, but I don't get time for charcoal drawing, watercolors, or pen and wash. I travel, narrowly on weekends and broadly once a quarter and for business. Those times mean a lot for me (and not just for the pins in my TripAdvisor map).

My life is in better balance (I take vacations), but I feel guilty that I'm not there more for my grown children (18 and 20). I get time to think and read, but not enough free time, and never enough time with Dutch. If I don't make the effort to keep engaging with Netherlands life, it just flows around me. I am meticulous about keeping my accounts and filing in order; I need to be as diligent about laughing and loving more.

Koln was really good: the cathedral was breathtaking, the crowds were a study all by themselves. The crafts for sale were too institutionalized, and too many people were there for the Gluhwein alone. Still, it opened my mind and made me think about all of the contrasts I was seeing. I shared pictures with my Dutch colleagues this morning, and they had completely different take-aways than I did ("What !? The Germans have Sinterklaas ?!").

I still feel like I'm finding my way with this journal...sometimes too many pictures, sometimes too shallow a comment. But I still feel like I'm slowly finding myself as well.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Koln Christmas Market

It was an hour and a half drive to Cologne this weekend, on a mission to visit the famous Christmas Markets. I'd heard a lot about the German holiday markets, and had visions of softly lit kiosks, traditional Christmas crafts, regional holiday food, seasonal music. It turns out to have been none of those, but it's a unique and fun time if you have the chance to go.

Cologne (Koln) is a wonderful cosmopolitan city dominated by a breathtaking cathedral. I don't think I've seen anything so large and still so ornate: it towers like a mountain cliff over the Dom Christmas Market below it.

Koln Christmas Market 02 - Catherdral Koln Christmas Market 02a Cathedral

The Christmas Market is split into several plazas across the city, the best one was in the shadow of the cathedral.

Koln Christmas Market 10 - Dom market Koln Christmas Market 09 - Dom market

As you can tell, the first (and dominant) impression of the Christmas Market is of the crowds ! British tourists were everywhere: they fly in on EasyJet flights, some with small children, some in clusters of women on a lark.

Koln Christmas Market 07 - Crowds

Koln Christmas Market 12 - Crowds

Koln Christmas Market 08 - Crowds

The second thing about the Christmas market is that it's mostly about drink, food, and drink. About half the booths serve food, and half of those serve Gluhwein (a hot spiced strong red wine) or Eierpunsch (eggnog, although thinner, more lemon-y, and more alcohol-laden than ours). And every drink comes with a (refundable) souvenir glass. My collection includes:

Koln Christmas Market 27

Koln Christmas Market 22 - Gluhwein and Eierpunsch

I thought that the best food was Speckbrehl, a hot bacon, onion, and potato dish that the Germans were eating by the bowl-full. Sausages were a close second, long ends sticking out of short, fat buns. The apple tart desserts were tempting, but I didn't get to try them (It's a cash economy in the Markets, and euros only stretch so far).

Koln Christmas Market 05 - Spekbrehl Koln Christmas Market 03 - German Food Restaurant

Koln Christmas Market 13 - Sausage Haus Koln Christmas Market 04 - Stirring the potatoes

The third learning was the varieties of the Markets (There was a Market on a boat). They were scattered all over the city, leaving lots of time to see Koln while walking between the venues. The huge pedestrian shopping street connects all of the markets, and it's all open late. Like New York, the department stores fill their windows with Christmas scenes. I was taken by the jungle scenes in which all of the animals wore leopard skins or grass skirts. Curious ecology, and even more curious modesty, on the part of the Germans.

Koln Christmas Market 16 - Christmas Ship Koln Christmas Market 17 - Christmas Ship

Koln Christmas Market 29 - Xmas Beasts

In the end though, It was nice that it was still all about Christmas. The chestnuts were hot, and the lights were beautiful at night. There were lots of children,the churchbells rang every hour. There were decorations and ornaments and gingerbread everywhere. No regrets, except, in retrospect, I wish I'd plunked ten euro on a paper star...

Koln Christmas Market 25 - Nativity

Koln Christmas Market 19 - Christmas Decorations Koln Christmas Market 15 - Lights

Koln Christmas Market 14 - Marionettes Koln Christmas Market 18 - Gingerbread House

Koln Christmas Market 21 - Village Koln Christmas Market 24 - Ornamets

Koln Christmas Market 26 - Stars