Saturday, November 24, 2007

Cross country driving

At a reunion today for my father's 80th birthday. We're holding it in Colorado Springs, so I flew into Denver International Airport and drove down. I forgot to pick up a map, but the signs put me right onto I-25, and I steered south.

Hours passed, the country opened up into rolling, arid Colorado farmland. The last main town had been Castle Rock, and the farther I went, the more it seemed like I must have missed Colorado Springs. I finally jumped off and backtracked to where I could find a map in a rest stop.

I was actually on-track, it's just much farther than I'm used to driving. It's almost a three hour drive to ColoSprings: in the Netherlands, that would span the country top to bottom. After a year of driving an environment where towns are separated by a few kilometers and there are no large open spaces, my perspective has changed more than I realize.

More generally, living in Seattle, I accept that skiing is an hour away, Vancouver two hours, Portland four. In Europe, an hour brings me to Amsterdam, Antwerp is two hours away, Paris is four. Its all a very different scale, but one that few people in the US can relate to. For them, a trip to Paris is a once-in-a-lifetime experience: for me, it's a convenient weekend trip.

I have to admit that it makes me sound pretentious when I talk about life here: "Oh, I was in Luxumberg last weekend" Yeah, sure... "No, really, it's only a couple of hours drive..." but by then they've written you off as a snob. Now, I just avoid it.

Even here, it's hard, because the Dutch don't drive distances at all (except on summer holiday, when they go far and fast: 20 hours straight through to Austria seems typical). Anything over an hour will meet with raised eyebrows and confusion. "Oh, I was in Leeuwarden last weekend" Yeah, sure... "No, really, it's only a couple of hours drive..."

Just different outlooks all around: I've found that definitions of "Local" are very....local...

Friday, November 23, 2007

Sitting on the sidelines?

I was at our family's Thanskgiving dinner party last night, lovely ornate setting, good company, fine wine. Conversation turned to politics and my brother, otherwise intelligent, started holding forth about how leadership was the real issue. "America needs to regain it's global role", asserting the leadership that the world expects from it as the global model of democracy, guarantor of the peace, and engine of economic growth and innovation.

Living in both Europe and the US, I just don't find much substance in these sorts of talk-radio assertions. I said that, from what I'd seen, Europe, at least, wasn't looking to the US for leadership, and that the global discourse had really moved on. I was ready with some evidence of their weariness of foreign adventures, economic engineering, cultural provincialism, and faith-based leadership, but never got that engagement.

Instead, my brother accused me of simply contributing to America's decline by sitting on the sidelines in Europe.  In his view, I had no legitimate standing to comment on America's role, and shouldn't comment or criticize until I was prepared to come back and vote, teach in a classroom, and become part of the solution. Never mind that my chosen field of biotechnology was driven offshore by our own government, that I do supervise university students, or that I am on global assignment for a US company. I sort of laughed it off, reminding him that at least I do absentee vote.

But it's disquieting; I think it's the first time that I've been challenged as 'Un-American" simply for living in Europe...

Summer reflection

Happy Thanksgiving! The weather is cold here, so it's a good day to reflect on lazy summer evenings...

A big plus of living in Europe is the opportunities for travel. This is a boat that we chartered, at our mooring in Findhamn, in the Swedish Archipelago.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

12 Gadgets for Expatriate Travel

I recently came across a list of "killer gadgets" that you should have when you hit the road. It was a bit too flashy to be practical, though, and missed the necessities. But it did lead me to think of the dozen things that I carry in my "Widget wallet": most are small, universal, and USB-based so that I don't need to carry more plugs or cables than necessary.

w80_front_silver A Sony W80 7.2 MPixel camera

Point and shoot with image stabilization, it takes sharp pictures. Zeiss optics and a bright screen on the reverse side: the low-light pictures have been very good, and the pocket size is great.

800i phone An Ericsson K800i global cell phone with local SIM cards.

I carry a UK card, a Dutch card, and a US card in my wallet. I unlocked the phone for 10 gbp down at the market in Cambridge.

jabra-bluetooth-headset A Jabra 250 Bluetooth Headset

Stylish and light, good sound quality, and simple and reliable pairing.

worldadapterplug A Fujifilm universal plug adapter and a spare fuse for it.

It works for US, UK, and European plugs, and for small loads such as camera chargers and laptop computers. A small power inverter with universal plugs for the cigarette lighter in a vehicle is almost as good.

ImmersionCoil An immersion heater

Great for heating water, soup, coffee, or nighttime cold medicine.

Tomtom910 A TomTom 910

Pricy but indispensible in Europe. You simply can't translate street signs, read a map, shift, and watch traffic, all at the same time on winding city streets. The "Map Lady" seldom fails to point out the route, estimate times, find gasoline and restaurants, and warn of speed traps.

sansa_express A Sansa Express 2 GB Music Player

Holds hours of music or podcasts, doubles as a memory stick, charges and transfers through the USB connection, accepts any earbuds or headset. Includes an FM radio and voice recorder.

LASPTR4-001 A combination LED Penlight and Laser Pointer

The combination unit is nice, although I'd prefer a green pointer to a red one.

Ativa Media Card reader An Ativa 24-in-1 USB media card reader

Good for transferring photos out of the camera or exchanging them with others. It also handles SIM cards.

wd_passport_1 A Western Digital Passport 250 GB USB Harddrive

About as big as your hand but holds an amazing amount of data. I use it for caching pictures and archived files, as well as DVD movies that I've ripped to it for viewing in hotels on rainy night.

Kensigntonwifinder A Kensington WiFinder

A sniffer that tells you when you are in range of a WiFi hotspot: I've used it to find sweet spots in hotels, and open ports along residential streets late at night when I have to have a connection in an unfamiliar town.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Amazing Race

'Back from Pullman, the snow and fog closed the small airport there so we drove to Lewiston to find an open airport.

WSU 071 WSU 045 WSU 063

These days always remind me of the reality show "The Amazing Race", one of my favorites....

  1. I've been there: It's always fun to see the racers tear through someplace that I've been, whether a town, an airport, or a bit of the countryside. I remember one dash to the finish where the street, then the canal, finally the castle looked increasingly familiar. Muiden outside of Amsterdam, is a town where I have lunch in summer and have personal connections to, and suddenly there it was on TV.
  2. I've done that: The stitching together of point-to-point flights, the countryside rushing past the windows of lurching trains, the perils of assuming that medieval cities have street grids, all make up daily delights of living and working in Europe. I always smile watching them trip over the same cultural blind spots that I have.
    And who hasn't put unleaded in a diesel once while hurrying...
  3. I keep clam: Breaking down with anger and frustration when confronted with a intractable aspect of foreign culture never solves anything. My blocks don't involve animals or eating challenges (usually), but patience, good-humor, and perspective will, in fact, have seen me through most apparent dead ends (stories I need to tell ). You can't deal with the many hoops of getting a residency permit without those qualities.
    Oh, and "Keep clam" is a Seattle saying, not a misprint...
  4. I want to be there...: Every week, I think I see a new place that I jot into my notebook for someplace I want to go next. Morocco, Berlin, and Shanghai are high on my list at the moment.
  5. I win by trying: Best of all, people typically win by thinking, trying, overcoming their fears and prejudices, and working hard, not be being loud and stupid. What more could you ask...

Links to show commentary can be found at Edward Hasbrouk's "Practical Nomad" blog
and "Television without Pity" (hosted by the excellent Miss Alli)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Reflecting from Pullman

It's a snowy morning in Pullman WA, I'm bringing my daughter to tour Washington State (one of the colleges that she wants to apply to). It's 4 am (jet lag takes its toll) and I'm typing from the lobby of the Holiday Inn. The first snow of the season has dusted the Palouse hills, wet and shining across the blacktop. The local rental agency gave me a Hummer, their only car, and I'm looking at an e-mail from a friend asking if I can join her in Israel for a week.

I've found that life is filled with juxtapositions like this. On the one hand, I've gone 'global': pretty comfortable everywhere, moving easily between cultures. I've almost mastered the art of making the mental shifts between driving left or right, speaking Dutch or English, waking to windy rain in pancake-flat Holland or quiet snow in the Colorado mountains.

But I perform the trick differently than I expected. There's no heightened sense of center or self, nor a perspective that transcends culture. Rather, I simply lose my sense of being rooted in place embrace life in a very immediate way. Wherever I am, I set aside where I was yesterday or will be tomorrow,. Worryingly, I also set aside where I came from years ago, or hope to be some day.

That feels rootless, like I've over-adapted in a way that loses life's temporal connections. I enjoy the lateral mash-ups of places and people, learning from the contrasts and differences. The experience of filling the Hummer with $3.40 gas alongside the Corsa and $10 gas in Europe invites reflection. But, without sense of place, it's superficial: the judgemental aspect never surfaces. Only the practical one.