Saturday, January 26, 2008
The World Database of Happiness (in Rotterdam, of all places: logo right) compiles results drawn from happiness surveys taken around the world. Their current summary puts Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Iceland, and Finland at the top ranks (the Netherlands is 15th and stable; Belgium 18th and dropping). The Economist credits this to being "married, extroverted, optimistic, Republican, religious, sexually active, and a college graduate with a short commute to work."
Happily, I qualify for less than half of these.
There may be another factor to consider. Leopold Kohr, in his 1957 book The Breakdown of Nations, argued that popular misery was strongly correlated with the physical size of the nation. He believed that as countries became larger, governments were less able to connect with constituent members, leading to policies that marginalize individuals. Powerful politicians become arrogant and aggressive, expanding borders and claiming resources from smaller neighbors. Larger nations enclose culturally diverse, sometimes antagonistic groups leading to social stresses.
Kohr's answer was to limit nations to the size of "tribal" units, able to develop local, socially cohesive ways of defining and maintaining culture, law, and economies. As an example, he redrew the map of Europe to show how this might look in practice (50 years later, Eastern Europe has actually evolved this way).
Interestingly, the Netherlands was already optimally sized in this regard: I think this might help to explain it's overall happiness?
Kohr's ideas were later echoed by Schumacher's Small is Beautiful and Callenbach's Ecotopia, and I admit to having a romantic affinity for the overall notion of limited national size, human-scale development, and sustainable economics. I've observed that when political, corporate, or religious organizations become large, their scale enables leaders and their subordinates to pursue their ambitions without challenge. Bad results follow: Simple human concerns are reduced to statistics; social progress falls prey to ever more political and economic growth.
But I've seen it go the other way, too. In Seattle in the 80's, downtown redevelopment interests and civic boosters pressed for Seattle to grow and take it's rightful place as a world stage. Emmett Watson, a columnist for the Seattle Times newspaper, appealingly advocated for Lesser Seattle, a place of neighborhoods and mountain views and Northwest heritage. He prevailed, saving the Pike Street Farmer's Market and the Pioneer Square Historic District. But his battle continues (SeattleWeekly credit, left).
The Dutch are fond of reminding me that the Netherlands is a small country, and also an influential one. I agree. But therein lies the tension: can it be both? If not, then what choice will the country make, why, and how? It's been a great table-topic, with well-advocated opinions on both sides. I think that the Dutch happiness derives from the human scale of the country and the social cohesiveness of the people. So long as they are content to wield influence by example, rather than through growth, I believe that they can continue to have individual happiness as an overall result.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
I've been a fitness club member in the US since I was 20, going over to ride a bike, attend a class, or play some raquetball about four times a week. It was only natural to want to continue the habit here in the Netherlands. Fortunately, a Fitness Club membership was included for all employees, the center was close to the offices, and the facilities seemed shiny and clean. I did a quick comparison with other clubs around Arnhem: one turned out to be shuttered, another was under extensive reconstruction, and the third was older than I am and included a mixed-gender, clothing-optional locker room.
I happily settled for the corporate alternative, and made an appointment for an Entry Interview. This, in itself, was a change: in the US, fitness salespeople are as aggressive and annoying as those selling vacation time-shares. Here, I had to fill in a four-page questioneer, in Dutch, with questions like 'Which day of the week would you like to exercise?'
"Day?" Yes, Dutch standard membership provides for one day per week.
"And if I'd like to do more?" Furrowed brow: Silver membership: you can come twice.
"Keep going, please?"
Panicked look: Gold membership -- unlimited? Perfect, and only a 75% membership premium. Clearly the Bicycle Culture frowns on stationary exercise.
The next hurdle was the Fitness Test, a week later, involving all manner of weighing, measuring, pinching, riding, stretching, pulling, and sweating. While I cooled down, the consultant shook his head over a clipboard. "Your weight is slightly above Dutch standards", he admonished. "Your aerobic capacity does not meet Dutch averages; your body fat ratio does not match Dutch norms...". I stopped him wearily: the direction of the conversation was clear enough. I did my best Schwarzenegger, promising "I'll be back...to pass...in a month". But I felt like "MacDonalds Patron" had probably been scribbled in the margins of my report (although I swear I never go near the place).
Another week, and it was time for the Orientation (I was surprised that I was allowed in without medical supervision). We took each machine in turn: bikes, stair-climbers, rowing machines, and some novel systems for cranking and skating. Unusually, I was not allowed to spend more that ten minutes on any single machine, it was like cross-training on speed. All of the machines are deceptively simple at the outset, but somehow become progressively harder. Of course, I'm trying to look relaxed, in control, while secretly fiddling the Level button down. MacDonalds...
The first month flying solo was a challenge: the club's members police the exercise floor with all the vigor of neighbors policing the trash pickup. I was variously lectured on shoe etiquette, the ten-minute cycle limit, towel etiquette, rules against carrying book bags, and where to properly place my car keys.
However, I persisted, and eventually persevered. The turning point came when the owner asked if I could proofread his daughter's english resume: after that I've been allowed thirty continuous minutes on the bike, permission to leave my keys and reading glasses in the corner rather than upstairs in my locker, and spontaneous Dutch Language practice with the fitness guy each evening on the bike. I'm almost ready (after a year) to tackle the Spinning class. It looks terrifying: a roomful of super-fit Netherlanders peddling full tilt to deafening rock music and a screaming drill instructor. 'can't wait :)
Spinning picture credit: Crossroads Web Magazine for Expatriats in Maastricht
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
When Dutch men gather, talk often turns to diet and health. Travel, home repairs, and politics are also popular (sports and finance are almost never mentioned), but I'm consistently surprised at how often healthy eating dominates the conversation.
The South Beach low carbohydrate diet is their favorite, where bread, rice, potatoes, and corn are avoided in favor of meat, eggs, vegetables, and nuts. Usually there is a bit of associated head-shaking about German, Belgian, British, and French food and body shapes, and tips are swapped about what to eat, what effect it has, and how good we look after dropping a couple of kilos. An expatriate colleague speculates that this is because Dutch men are more open and self-confident; I think that they are just competitive at the waist instead of the wallet.
This interest was elevated to obsession after one of the bikers in our office got a Tanita body composition scale. These high-end monitors measure weight and detailed body composition, then calculate overall fitness and physical age indexes. It's taken the Dutch diet and fitness wars to a whole new level. The scale estimated my physical age at four years less than my real age, where a colleague was ten years older: the office ranged from 5 years under to 20 years older. Soon, results appeared in PowerPoint presentations as well as lunch conversation.
This led to a spasm of bike riding and healthy eating as everyone drove their stats down over the next month. Cookies at the conference table were replaced by fruit; salads replaced sandwiches. Eventually, everyone happily stabilized a couple of years below their chronologic age, and conversation returned to comparisons of whole grains and biking gears.
Business travel is my worst threat to healthy living: from airplane food and conference table snacks to business drinks and dinners, the temptation to eat more and exercise less is ever present. I had just licked the holiday kilos before leaving for the US, and I'm sure it's going to be back when I return tomorrow. I hope for good weather to work it back down over the weekend...
(Appended observation: Why can't the Dutch put cheese and meat together between two slices of bread? It's always one or the other, never both. I admit to lagging in the lunch line so that I can quickly re-engineer the contents, escaping with a true sandwich and leaving two bread bits behind.)
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
I moved on from Boston to Minneapolis last night, and from the refrigerator to the deep freeze. The landscape is buried in snow and ice here, and there is a hard freeze on that has even the natives warning me about roads and exposed skin. The drive up from the airport took over an hour at 10 pm: snow was falling, roads weren't plowed, traffic was crawling, the windshield kept icing up. 'Nothing to do but persevere and hope that a restaurant would still be open when I got to the hotel.
I think I'm (almost) missing the dark and drizzle that defines January days back in the Netherlands: weather here is a cruel and primal force. Reflecting back, I have been trying to figure out why the Netherlands is so rainy. In my source-city of Seattle, it's all about topography: moisture from the Pacific drops when clouds meet mountains east of the city. In Cambridge, the British claimed that the clear, dry, cold weather in East Anglia was caused by the rain shadow of some hills to the west.
But the Dutch landscape is just a flat hollow, seamlessly mated to the Channel, and in the rain shadow of Britain. I'm left to speculate that perhaps low pressure areas are simply attracted to the Netherlands because it's a below-sea-level dimple in the European landscape?
Still, on a frozen prairie morning like this one, the warm Dutch damp sounds wonderful. It puts the spurs to trying to get my expatriate contract renewed, for sure...
Monday, January 21, 2008
Arrived in Boston: The cold and snow isn't too serious, just a bit of crunching ice underfoot and a bite to the air waiting for the taxi. The Courtyard clearly saves money by turning the heat down at night, though: I was huddled in a pile of covers all night. Fodder for TripAdvisor (interestingly, though, the only time I ever get a "This Review was Not Helpful" rating is when I say something negative about a place.) Boston is completely obsessed with last night's win of the Patriots over the Chargers; I'd forgotten how consuming (American) football gets for people this time of year.
I've been increasingly worried about losing data on my computer, pictures, music, data, documents. I use SyncBack to backup to a Passport drive weekly, but it feels like that can easily get lost or broken. I've also been intrigued by Microsoft's SkyDrive, where you upload to a secure server and have access to the data from anywhere. Both Windows Live and my company limit storage to a few gigs, though, so it seemed like I needed a better solution. I settled on MozyHome based on some discussion at Mike Tech's forum. It's $5 per month for unlimited storage, and has a good utility for synchronizing and transferring files. But it is s...l...o...w (I think this holds for all online solutions). It reminds me of the 300 baud modem days of transferring files to BBS systems. I think it will likely take a couple of weeks to transfer 75 GB of files to the server. Still, I'll have a good backup (although, if it takes weeks to get things back...)
Anyway, on to a few hours work in the quiet over a bad cup of room coffee, sitting on a phone book (non-adjustable work chair a foot too short for the desk: note to TripAdvisor), then out to the frozen streets of Boston.