Saturday, November 7, 2009

Sinterklaas arrives in South Limburg


The rain poured down Saturday, making the weekend run to Carrefour a soggy mess. 

But by the afternoon, the showers had moved through leaving clear skies and flat waters.  The Jules Verne sailed into the scene, different than the earlier boats that took tourists up and down the river.  It pulled into the dock and erected a peaked house midships.

It was the arrival of Sinterklaas in Maastricht.

By afternoon. he had set up (Christmas) house in the local store, welcoming the children with Zwarte Piet.  This will continue until the celebration of the Feast of Sinterklaas on December 5.

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And the boat was awash with holiday lights by evening.


Friday, November 6, 2009

Daily Maintenance

Bad weather

The winter weather has settled into the Dutch South with a vengeance.

When the morning satellite map looks like this, you know it’s going to be a soggy, windy day.  The wide-scale shows a huge cyclonic mass over England: this band of rain is just one sweeping arm of it.  We used to call them ‘swirlies’, blowing in from the Pacific back in Seattle.

I see this as a good day to stay inside, make a warm drink, and catch up with work and friends.  The windows rattle, the rain beats on the ceiling, but the journey to work only requires a shuffle from the kitchen to the sitting area, honey tea in hand.

Okay, a bit idealistic: I have to tackle the journey to the Albert Heijn every couple of days, and to exercise each afternoon.  The bicycle generally makes short work of the trip, but this has been a week for mechanical failure.

The brake cable broke on Tuesday, requiring a trip to the shop.  DSC08840No sooner had the bike been returned than a gust of wind blew it over, bending the rear wheel lock.  A bit of hammering and a couple of screw fasteners set it right.  Tonight, an adjacent bike blew over into mine, snapping my gear cable.  The bike now pedals in high-high only.

To be honest, I don’t mind much.  Parts are cheap, and I’m enjoying the experience of diagnosing and fixing the bits.  I feel like a cross between Wilbur Wright, setting the wheels and gears straight, and a Russian auto mechanic, unlocking parts with a well-placed hammer blow.

I figure it’s good to get all of the failures behind me while the temperatures are above freezing.  This will be no fun when ice coats the cobblestones and snow dusts the spokes.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Words and pictures (2)

8 Bergamo 01

Halloween celebrations are  uncommon in Europe, so it was nice to find two little candies tucked into the hotel room in Bergamo.  It was an omen: later, the town square filled with little trick-or-treaters running between shops in the early evening, followed by teenagers with fireworks around midnight.

It reminded me of the many windy, dark, rainy nights that friends and I laughed and told stories while guiding the kids house to house.  It was always a nice ritual, followed by warm drinks and candy-counting back at the house.

Americans tend to put a lot of effort into Halloween costumes, but there wasn’t much creativity in evidence in Bergamo.  Green facepaint and pink ballet skirts were the norm, not nearly the political and cultural commentary that I see at Carnivale.



Utrecht is adopting a new style of bus that I like a lot.  These shuttle passengers between the Centraal Station and the Airport (still, an appalling 4-zone hit to my Strippenkart!).  They are fast and comfortable with a dash of style.  I only wish that the NS rail system would adopt something similar.

I got blocked by a snelbus diversion due to track maintenance again this weekend.   They’re just terrible, everyone leaving the train to drag luggage through the stations, upstairs and down, then out through the rain.  We queue up at lines of waiting busses like refugees escaping darkened wartime cities. Smiling ouders in yellow jackets redistribute passenger loads; politieagenten block streets to let the column of busses glide through intersections. It adds an hour to the Eindhoven / Maastricht travel time, just at the time when I’m already tired and cold.


1 Lugano 20 Every country has it’s minority of rude drivers, aggressors that speed in from behind, flashing lights, hugging bumpers if I don’t get out of their lane fast enough.

My observation is that the species prefers Audis, even though legend says that they favor BMWs and Mercedes.  This level of stress can’t be good for anyone, whatever the make of car they’ve earned.  Hard to tell whether the response to stress will make them an evolutionary cul-de-sac or the next dominant species…

And, yes, this one loved having me take a picture.


7 Florence 01 …and indecency is still not permitted in Florence, whether standing or sitting.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Words and pictures (1)

3 Cinque Terre 52 David Lodge observes that we use pictures to sort out space and narrative to organize time. With the addition of ensemble for describing people, it becomes a story. 

Narrative and images are the yin and yang of memory, really, and I enjoy reflecting on experiences through photographs and essays.  I’ve been gathering memories of last week’s vacation, events along the road and time with people, selecting, cropping, captioning, editing.  Finally, albums get posted to Facebook (for friends) and Flickr (for parents).

Along the way, I occasionally take photos and make notes simply to remind me of things that I want to reflect on when I get back.  In no particular order, two postings with the crop of observations from the Italian road. 


4 Lucca 12

A comic art fair overwhelmed the town of Lucca, tents full of Star Wars and Manga drawings, streets swarming with costumed heroes.  It was hard to tell who were in the  minority: the bewildered tourists or the concentrated fans.

Chris Packham at the BBC recently said that the panda was an evolutionary dead end: big, cute, stupid, hungry, unable to reproduce.  Similar thoughts here: which group is the offshoot and which will inherit the earth?


1 Lugano 19

My Mobile Command Center (laptop computer) is in the shop, so I expected to live off the land, stopping at internet cafe’s to keep up with mail and news. But, like the telephone booth and the corner mailbox, these, too, are vanishing.

It was easy to find HotSpots, but actual computer terminals were few and scattered.  The ones I did find, as in the 4th floor of a department store (above) were pay-by-the-minute.  Interestingly, more people were checking Facebook than email; more auction sites than travel planning.



Cell phone use is now permitted on RyanAir flights.  Fortunately, nobody around me tried it out, but I dread the day that high-altitude chatter becomes widespread.

Its a bit schizophrenic: the pre-flight announcements remind you to leave phones switched off throughout the flight, while the seat backs and overhead lighting encourage in-flight calls.  I’m sure that everyone is making a killing: what Roaming Charges apply at 30,000 ft?


1 Lugano 17

I’m growing quite fond of seeing George Clooney everywhere I go.  There’s something familiar and comfortable in his smile, a bit of a Cary Grant for our age.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Yes, they do check…


One of the requirements of Universal Health Care is that it be truly Universal: everyone in the Netherlands is required to sign up for (at least) basic insurance.  There are few exceptions: an expat with US insurance, working for a multinational corporation, in the Netherlands for a limited time, is one of the few.

So, when I started my own business and needed (redundant)  insurance, I chose a very satisfactory policy from VGZ, a big national insurer.  From a policy standpoint, they’ve been great: a nice array of a la carte service options with my choice of provider, reasonable rates, and no questions asked coverage of my post-surgical care and rehab.

However, their routine check of my residency confirmed that I’ve lived here for three years, yet am only now applying for health insurance.  That’s a potential problem, and I duly received a note asking what I had done for coverage up to this point.

I went down to the local VGZ office and gave them my (still valid) US Blue Cross card, with the explanation of my previous employment, coverage, and exemption.  Copies were made, smiles exchanged.

A follow-up note arrived last week:  We appreciate receiving your card, but it is insufficient.

My (cynical) friends shook their heads darkly.  VGZ could get 3500 euro in back penalties, equivalent to the premiums that I might have paid.  This would not be easy.

My follow-on visit to VGZ was not promising. Did I have a copy of a policy, proof of employment, registration, paperwork to demonstrate my exemption?  I explained that our relationship with insurers is much more indirect in the US than in the Netherlands:  our employer gets the contract and we get a little card.   Further, my expatriate intake was handled by a wonderful group who did the requisite paperwork, but it was out of my sight and is now beyond my grasp.

No, I wasn’t willing to ask Blue Cross for proof of insurance and a copy of the contract that was in force for the past three years. (I can only imagine the pain of even trying to explain this to them.)

We settled on creating a more direct connection between VGZ and my prior employer (one more good reason for never burning bridges).  Forms and paperwork are apparently beginning to move, and I’m assured that I’ll get another letter in a few weeks.

Hopefully, it will tell me that everything is cleared up, but it’s a good lesson that they do check and will follow-up if you put off the task of finding coverage.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Celebrating the recovery

1 Lugano 14

It was a good week; the motivating reason for the trip was a follow-up visit to the clinic where I had the summer ankle surgery.  It was a wonderful time to visit: warm, clear weather, blue skies, and brilliant warm autumn leaves.

The surgeon was pleased with how things had gone.  The calf bone was mated straight onto the ankle and the joint had opened up to give more movement than expected.  Things had healed well and there was good evidence that I was walking flat on the foot.  I managed to break one screw (thank you, Zumba or Power Plate), but that was no big deal.  He said that the main thing was to build strength in the next couple of months.

“I have just the thing,” he said.  “Bathing in salt water and walking in sand for a month would do that foot a world of good.  Do you want a prescription?”

  St. Maartens, please…

I headed over to Cinque Terre for a few days: I’d visited there a year ago but wasn’t able to walk the cliff trails because of the ankle weakness.  I’d hoped to come back after the surgery and hike the route.

The reserve is out of season this time of year, and wet weather can make a mess of the trail.  The route rises from sea level over 250 meters to the bluff tops traveling south from Vernazza, often just a jumble of steep rock steps and narrow walks along sheer drops.  It brushes the village of Corniglia, perched high on a promontory against the sea, before dropping  along the sea again to reach Manarola.

Yes, that is me in the green top and jeans…

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Maybe it’s a silly alpha way to celebrate a recovery, but it was hugely satisfying and a fun experience.

Note: has a good guide to the trails: I did the Blue.

Sunday, November 1, 2009