Thursday, February 7, 2008

Going through the changes


No deep thoughts today: my head is already in vacation-space and I'm really looking forward to a few days down south. I need to find my way to RyanAir's Dusseldorf hub and on to Malaga on the 5 pm flight. 8 pm arrival, and on the beach (in the dark) by ten.

Thinking more broadly, I'm realizing that since starting the expatriate life a few years back, I haven't spent longer than a year in any one place. Life has just become a sequence of changes, always forward, never back. Riding the wave is an acquired skill, and one that I'm still trying to master.

Even so, this week was a challenge.

The new Research Manager arrived; I departed. The Dutch scientists who've been working for me made the switch smoothly (Dutch adaptability always amazes me). It was nice that a few came up to say how much they enjoyed working together, and I'll probably continue to have the occasional coffee to talk ideas with many of them. The new manager is enjoying his first encounter with a corporate environment (he'd worked in hospitals before). I've tried to drop in a half hour a day to answer questions and to take care of some lingering paperwork rather than pass it all off at once. It makes me aware of the large (and needless?) volume of processes and procedures that we all master, almost unconsciously.

My son called: I've been struggling with getting him launched in life and he recently made a decision to go to full-time work rather than full-time college. Now he's decided to go full-time Air Force. I'm not sure how I feel about that: my first reaction is 'Good idea; Bad timing". I grew up a bit of a 60's eco-peacenik, and long ago decided that I could never work in a military-industrial setting. But I'm not opposed: it may provide the discipline and training that he needs to find himself. At the same time, he stands a good chance of getting shipped to Iraq. The recruiter is giving him the "whatever you want" pitch, reminiscent of the pitch that pulled Bill Murray into the army in the movie Stripes. I've told him to really be aware of why he's doing it and what he expects to get out of it.

It looks like my expatriate contract will renew for another year. My corporate mentor was out for a visit this week: We've agreed that I should stay to finish my project (and my Dutch lessons) on the condition that I start training a successor. I took this posting on the handshake that "If it works, doors will open for you; blow it, and you had your shot.". It's gone well, and it's time to start thinking about next steps by summer. I'm making a list: I like building businesses, new technology, global assignments, and leading creative people. I'm not sure where the sum leads though.

No worries this week, though: a beach in Portugal beckons...

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Long and winding roads 2

I drove up to Nunspeet on Sunday to preview the Spaarenhorst Conference Center, where I'll be leading anDSC03879 off-site brainstorming session with my team next week.  It was a very posh place: lovely woods, restaurant, hotel, and meeting rooms, I'm really looking forward to spending time there.  I also took advantage of the day to drive along the edge of the Veluwe to Elburg, a charming old port town with the original fortifications and city gate, the Vischpoort, still in place.

No sign of Carnivale, though: my Dutch friends tell me not to expect anyone outside on Sunday in the 'bible-belt' of north-Netherlands.

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On the way back south, I found the Ribhouse Texas, an 'authentic cowboy experience' just outside of Epe.  My friends back in the US usually associate wooden shoes and page-boy haircuts with Holland, and this was an equally fanciful recreation of the American Southwest.  Wooden Indians and pueblo blankets were everywhere: the ober wore a sheriff's badge and the rafters were filled with wagon wheels and elk horns.  The food didn't quite rise to "chuckwagon standards": the corn and potato were outstanding, the steaks were small, the ribs lacked bar-b-q sauce, and the beer was, well, Grolsch.

Still it was a fun tour through local hyperreality, to use Eco's characterization (a subject for another day...).


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The long drive gave me time to think about Nick's comments to my last post, reflecting on whether language or cultural differences were a greater challenge to 'fitting in'.  My first reaction was to say that cultural differences were harder, since almost everyone will initiate an English conversation once they've heard my approximation of Dutch.  But I also lived in England for a year (with almost no language differences), and I think that I was also less prone to trip over cultural differences than I do here.

Are the two related?

It could be argued that British culture is closer to American than Netherlanders are, but I think that the actual reason circles back around to language again.  While my direct conversations are based in English, the conversations swirling around me are all in Dutch.  Thus, there is no chance to learn by observation.

For example, the checkout clerk always asks if I'd like to buy stamps when I check out at the grocery.  But I couldn't learn about that by listening to how people ahead of me handled the question.  Instead, I accidentally bought stamps (and handed them to the surprised person behind me once I realized what I'd done).

Along my winding road, I don't make the same mistake twice, but I do have to 'learn by doing' rather than by listening.  It's a slow, error-filled process that will only resolve with time or fluency.  It's certainly more motivation for spending an hour each night on vocabulary drill and doing more conversations in Dutch with my co-workers.