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 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.