Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year’s Eve

I’ve landed back in the Netherlands, and am now gliding due south across the snow-covered plain towards Eindhoven.  New Year’s Eve, 2010.  The flight was uneventful: I did some work and chatted occasionally with the woman in the next seat: Stacey Cook an Olympic skier competing in Alpine events in Austria this winter.  It’s always fun to run into someone both noteworthy and accomplished, and to get a glimpse into the routine behind the breathless moments of racing that flash by every few years.

The US trip was a welcome chance to re-connect and a good break from the  bustle of expat-company-building.  I thoroughly stepped back from the business- and home- routines that consume life ‘26/8’ here, slowing the pace and taking time to enjoy family, friends, and traditions.  It’s nice to pick up familiar threads of activity and culture, each still vibrating with their long-practiced melodies.  It does bring home the fragmentation of living expat life in three places:  How many half-lives do I accumulate while trying to make a whole?

I left the movies off as Delta 232 traversed the Great Circle over the darkness of the High Arctic darkness.  It was a good chance to reflect on the year past and coming:  my ABC’s (Ambitions, Balance, Connections),  the corresponding negatives (Nagging Doubts, Bad Habits, and Naysayers), and aspirations to brighten the New Year (reading, travel, or painting).

And are these the right north stars to be following?  This is traditionally the time of year when I would sit with a supervisor at work and discuss the the good, the bad, the opportunities, and the pitfalls of the coming year.  Without the yearly grind of a performance review there isn’t a mandate to take stock nor the insight of an independent reviewer.

I suspect that my energy and industry would still be praised, but that I need to work on delivering better completion of fewer goals.  My connections likely feel neglected without timely and responsive conversation, plans need to be paired with execution.  And my wide ranging geographic and community contacts need to start resonating as a network, not just frequent flier miles. Better work-life balance is clearly a priority, with less rushing about and sprawl of work activity, and more time spent on personal growth and close relationships.

This will all come.  Meanwhile, there are many solid and tangible accomplishments to look back on for 2010; many wonderful times shared with valued people.  But I know I can do better in many ways.

But, for tonight, it’s champagne, friends, fireworks, and good memories of the year gone by.  ‘May you all have the same tonight.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Biggest Loser

Dilbert 12-27-10

Christmas week is always a busy one: lights to be strung, a tree to trim, gifts to be wrapped, cards to write.  By evening, I just want to set the list aside, pour a glass of wine, and sink into a chair where I can bathe in the warm glow of the television.

Reality shows have become much more numerous than I remember.  Many, though, seem less of a competition than a showcase for the loud, foolish, and strange.  America’s funniest…dumbest…The Biggest Loser…World’s worst chef.  I know that Britain is not all University Challenge and Masterchef, but I don’t remember this density of ‘Big Brother’-style fare either.

Reality shows of any sort seem relatively rare on Dutch television: a cooking competition and a good-natured version of Survivor are the two I regularly encounter.

So I sip my wine and nurse the simple question of whether Europeans prefer aspirational shows while Americans seek out contestants who they can feel superior to.

Coincidently, Slate magazine published a piece the next day that explored the nature of American narcissism: are we self absorbed because we believe we are exceptional, or because we lack self-confidence?  In the reflected glow of reality television, I think it’s the latter.  No matter how wobbly our own competence, it’s better than the women sleeping with their sister’s boyfriends or the men racing supercharged lawnmowers.

A friend suggested that it may have begun with the quiz show scandals,unmasking intellectuals as cheats.  Or perhaps it has to do with the current wave of populism, where elites are giving way to Everyman on every level.

Or maybe it’s just that, after a hard day’s work, nobody really wants to be challenged that they don’t know enough or their dinner presentation was inadequate.  Escapism, pure and simple. 

Even if it is a date with The Biggest Losers.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Happy Boxing Day

Boxing Day 1  I hope that everyone has a merry and bright Christmas, a warm and serene  family holiday, or just a nice break from the daily grind, wherever you find yourself this season.

  ‘wishing you all the very best, Dave

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve


A gray and rainy day in Seattle, contrasting with the snowy landscapes in Maastricht.  For once I’m on the right side of the weather, enabling me to finish the shopping, the tree-trimming, the cooking, and the schmoozing.  There was even time for three consecutive days of long-overdue exercise.

I hope that all of you have a warm and happy Christmas holiday with family and friends, a chance to remember good times together and to create new traditions and memories that last for many years to come.


And many thanks to Marlou for the loan of her Maastricht pix.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Traveling with Gauguin

Gauguin - Thatched Hut under Palm TreesPlaces look the way that people who see them feel.  -- Ian Frazier, Travels in Siberia

Despite the technical limitations of his day, symbolist painter Paul Gauguin was a man on the move.  First living in France, then Denmark, and finally living as an expatriate in Tahiti. he was outspoken, insightful, and chronically short of money.  But he found, among the natives, the primitive subjects and colorful inspiration that stimulated many of his best works.

For the first time in 50 years, these works are gathered at the Tate Modern in London in a retrospective exhibition that captures the moods and passions of this unique artist.

The exhibit contains many of his best works, gathered into eleven themed rooms including Rural Narrative and Eternal Feminine.  A couple of my favorite works (below)  are missing, unfortunately, including “Young Girl with Fox” ( a meditation on virginity) and “Where do we come from?” ( a reflection on feminine life).

Gauguin - Young Girl With Fox Gauguin - Where Do We Come From

But most of his other well-known works are present, along with carvings and the entrance to his longhouse.  Letters and photographs from the period are included to give context, and the exhibit gives a very complete picture of his life and works. 

Unlike Munch, Gauguin painted in much the same style throughout his life.  The works don’t show as much technical finesse, but his primitive themes are evocative (and show a much more comfortable relationship with women), while the colors are much more vivid when seeing the actual paintings up close.

We spent a couple of hours walking the gallery, then retired to Roast, a restaurant in nearby Borough Market, to sort out impressions.  I’ve long enjoyed his style and backstory, and this is a unique chance to get a comprehensive view of the artist.

Gauguin - Spirit of the Dead Watching Gauguin - Arearea

More works are available in my Paul Gauguin library or on Wikipedia.

Gauguin: Maker of Myth is on exhibit at the Tate Modern through January 16 2011.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Reflecting on ancestry

I arrived back in the US over the weekend, dropping in through Vancouver and avoiding all of the storms blowing in across California.  My daughter and I immediately headed to Denver for a visit with my parents, a chance to catch up on, and to share,  events and rumors throughout the extended family.

When I was in my 20’s, I dropped through my grandparent’s home outside Cleveland each time I flew over on business, probably twice a year.  My grandfather was a lifelong railroader, working his way up from track worker to ‘assistant to the president (Personnel Training)’ of the Erie Lackawanna railroad.  I’ve always been glad that I’d made time to sit and talk with them: as time spent can never be taken away, I didn’t find myself wishing I’d done more once they were gone.  I’ve got lots of good memories.

2I put his name into the browser search engine on a whim while typing this, and the Internet popped up a news article from a company magazine, circa 1944.  He must have been in his 40’s at the time, much younger than I am now.  It’s so strange to see him young and hustling: he was distinguished and in-charge years later, as I first remember him.

Our social memory is clearly lengthening as more and more archival material moves online.  Its fascinating what random bits of personal history wash up as a result.  I can forsee social maps being automatically extended into the past, without the need to laborously reconstructing family trees  through public records. And future generations will benefit from the myriad tracks that we leave through the literature, blogs, and facebook postings, almost a daily record of our evolving thoughts and lives.

How will this affect family identity?  Today, family traditions are stories, handed down from grandmother to granddaughter.  We build our backstories through yellow photographs and personal narratives, tailored to matriarchal perspective. How will this change with direct access to the reality of published history?  Will we feel more or less connected to ancestors who speak for themselves? 

I think the blend of fact and legend will make our familial context more vivid, both inspiring and cautionary, than it is today.

And what of these essays?   I write for my own reflection and in dialog with today’s readers, but I’m aware that it also becomes part of the publicly accessible record.  Sometimes, I self-censure slightly for that.  No so, looking to my descendants: I’m happy to be leaving a trail for them to discover, if they are so inclined.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Schiphol queues and expat success

I like Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam a lot: it’s bright and cheerful, and people flow through the facility from door to gate with reasonable efficiency. The departure areas on the upper level are arranged like a chevron: two glass terminal blocks at an angle to one another, connected by a long, curving tunnel.

Now imagine a lone extending from one end of that departure area to the other: ten people abreast, a hundred in your vicinity, more than a thousand waiting patiently  It roughly follows the red line across the bottom the picture below.

schiphol 2

Now, imagiene that hour by hour, the massive queue inches forward, but the clocks are moving much, much faster.

I arrived back at the airport about 2:30 to check in for my 5:30 flight: usually this is a pretty quick process through the frequent flier queues.  The KLM area was walled off from the rest of the airport – that happens occasionally when there are crowds or security alerts, and usually means that the police are admitting people slowly through the front doors.

This time however, all the front doors were blocked, and airport police were waving people to the other terminal.  Even there, only one entrance was open.  Through the windows, I could see a wall of people the entire length of the airport.

Everyone was directed to the end of the line, and then we stood.  The departure board showed delays all over, all flights to Heathrow and a few to Frankfurt cancelled.  A sudden snowstorm had buried the airport and the nearby M25: it seemed likely that the system was disrupted as a result.  My flight to Vancouver was already delayed by an hour to 6:30, so I settled in to wait.

By 5:00, I had only moved the length of that first terminal. 

John Dickerson wrote a piece in Slate about how people respond to airport delays. In his taxonomy, I am an ‘Outside Flight Ninja’, one who immediately starts calling and plotting routes around the problem. These people walk away from other travelers so their solution won't be copied. They know the tricks of the major airports and departure times of alternate flights by heart.

First goal: get out of the line.  KLM had sent a few agents, flanked by police, to try to round up folks whose flight was departing within an hour.  I found a harried one who didn’t realize my 5:30 flight had been bumped to 6:30 and got waved through the tunnel.  A long line of sullen travelers glared on the left; airport officials and police dotted the corridor opened for those with a chance of escape.

The KLM desks were clogged: understaffed and crowded.  Half the desks had agents, and half of them were trying to rebook people who had already missed flights.  This cascaded to causing the rest of the line to miss flights.  I hopped between a few queues, gauging progress.  A quick call to the airline: the flight was now delayed until 7:00.  If I could get to the desk by 6, I would make it.

5:45; six people ahead of me.

Time to start negotiating: Are you all together?  What time are your flights leaving?  Except for one fellow whose fliht was leaving in ten minutes and was already doomed, I had the earliest.  I worked my way up the queue, the person at the desk who I’d thought was one-bag / ready-to-go turned out to need a rebooking. The agent picked up the phone, the line groaned.

She cleared the desk at 5:55 and I was in….and out in two minutes.  I thanked people warmly, and scooted to the gate.  No lines at immigration;  a short jog down the concourse.  The flight left early; I boarded with 5 minutes until closing.

Schiphol33000 people were stranded at Schiphol on Saturday night.  The brought out camp beds and maybe 500 stayed over in the airport itself.  I feel a little guilty at Ninja’ing my way out, but nobody would have been helped if I hadn’t.

KLM could have helped with just a few changes to procedure:

  • Anticipate.  It’s the busiest travel day of the year: wouldn’t you add a few personnel at Departures?
  • Communicate.  No airport or airline people could explain what was going on, so nobody could make reasonable plans.
  • Keep promises.  The agents kept saying there would be desk help within 10 minutes.  It never came;  people stopped believing.
  • Prioritize.  Holding up people who could have made their flight while agents rebooked people who already missed theirs just worsened the problem.
  • Use technology.  Rebook people using call centers; issue boarding passes to their mobile phones.  The problem was entirely at the desks.
  • No exceptions.  A manager allowed a family to jump the queue to get processed ahead of others.  This just encourages bad behaviour all around.

On the plus side, the Dutch crowd was astonishingly well behaved, quiet, orderly, patient.  The police kept a low presence mainly aimed at being reassuring and stopping people from cutting in line.  And the gate people managed late arrivals onto the planes very efficiently.

I’m reading Clutch, how to get things right under pressure:  Author Paul Sullivan claims that success depends on having five key personality attributes: Focus, Discipline, Adaptability, Being present (and blocking out everything else), and Using fear and desire to drive for success.

In hindsight, my experience seems to ratify these principles.

But they also contrast interestingly with Cligiuri’s “Big Five” personality traits that determine expat success: Extroversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, and Openness or Intellect.

I know several expats who have the Big Five, but who failed to cope with the occasional challenges of pressure situations and ultimately quit their overseas assignments. I’ll have to think on whether expat success requires both sets of competencies aspects in your repertoire, rather than just one.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Snow along the canals

Facebook has a new app that analyses your status messages for 2010 and tells you what your most-used words are.  Mine turn out to be Dutch, Cambridge, headed (to), enjoying, –, pitch, (a) bit, snow, London, and weather.

I conclude that in 2010, I was a nomad with a good attitude and bad weather.

I had a full day between flights today; EasyJet from Stansted to make a 5:30 to Vancouver from Schiphol.  I weighed the alternative of camping in the KLM Lounge catching up on work against the adventure of exploring Amsterdam with a few inches of new fluff on it.  Amsterdam won.

The best part is walking the Singelgracht  in fresh powder: a few pictures along the stroll.




But, as nice as it was, it was nicer yet to step into a warm, paneled café for some warming soup and a brown beer.

I’m looking ahead to 2011 as well.

And by the end of the year, I’d love to see my status words include success, happy, more, and relationship.  At the very least, I’ll resolve not to whinge about the weather so much.  It’s starting to make people doubt that I ever lived in Chicago.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sorting the mail

I’ve had to be out of the Netherlands for weeks at a time this fall while we pitch for funds to angel groups across the UK.  The round is finally closing successfully for a half-million dollars (very little of it aimed for my pocket, sorry), so it’s been a productive (and instructive) exercise.

As a result, mail is always piled high on my kitchen table when I return, collected by my neighbor whilst she periodically waters my olive tree.  (The picture is, of course, my expat Christmas tree, standing in for my olive bush. The top is weighed over by a metal tree-topper from Aachen, sadly far beyond what the sapling can tolerate.)

Because the front entryway is under construction (there’s a Tapas restaurant going in on the ground floor), the sign advising merchants not to leave junk mail is missing.  Trash-mail piles up as a result, all of which must be sorted and shaken to recover the real mail mixed in with it.

Junk mail

The distilled (real) mail always contains amazing volume from the Belastingdienst (the tax authorities).  These come in various colors: grey for routine messages, the occasional pink, purple, or green.  I used to scan the purple ones to send to my accountant, thinking the were important directives.  In reality, they were simply the lesser receipts.

VGZ and Centraal Beheer have sent me my end of year insurance policy updates.  Health insurance costs have gone up 10% for 2011, a full 10 euro per month for me.  My neighbors are all grumbling about it; as an American, I’m gleeful.

ANWB sent a renewal notice for my roadside auto assistance.  I enrolled with them three years ago, and have been trying to cancel the service ever since.  Last year, I ignored the renewal notices, thinking they’d go away. They turned me over to a collection agency.  This year, I was prepared to cancel the policy at the first hint of a bill.  However, it turns out that they sent the annual bill after the policy renewed, so I’m again on the hook. They would, however, let me pre-cancel for 2010.   Maddening: this is worse than trying to quit Amazon Prime.

ABN CalculatorBank reform rolled through the Netherlands in November.  My Fortis account changed to ABN Amro.  As a result, my ‘calculator’, the personal keypad used to access online account information, was physically changed.  As a security measure, they sent the new password separately, then flipped the web site while I was out of the country.  No access to personal banking for any reason until I returned to collect the mail: my landlords were not amused.

ING Bank merged with Postbank to become ING: they also changed access methods, from a ‘calculator’ to a password.  Unfortunately, they also mailed the change information, then flipped the web site, locking me out of my business accounts as well.  The first day back in Maastricht was a scramble to regain access to on-line bill payment.

Along the way, I checked the electronic funds transfer codes (SWIFT and BIC) for the new banks.  Fortis has changed completely; ING is the same but codes changed fro Postbank customers.  If you do international transfers, it’s important to get updated codes from your bank or wired funds will start going astray this month.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Munch in the Kunsthal

Munch - The scream

This instantly recognizable painting by Norwegian symbolist painter Edvard Munch is not on view through February 20 at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam.

It does, however, capture a lot of the qualities of Munch’s work that I admire: the swirling colors, intense emotions, and haunted figures.  Sometimes his portraits express difficult feelings so very clearly, other times they depict lonely, desperate people in dark stories.

I’ve found them fascinating: Munch was an obsessive painter who would do a major work over and over, as if trying to get the tension and balance just right.  The opportunity to see a large exhibition of his works is rare, and the Dutch exhibition is both exceptional and disappointing.

The most recognizable works (and others among my favorites) are not included in this collection.  The Scream, above, is missing, and lesser versions of Madonna and The Kiss, below, are shown.

Munch - Madonna 2Munch - The Kiss Woodcut

A wider selection of Munch’s works can be found in my online gallery; here are four that are among the missing:

Munch - Comfort Munch - In Mans BrainMunch - Sick girl (study)  Munch - Salome

Munch - OmegaHowever, the gallery delightfully expands on drawings of the little girl ‘Alpha’, right, displaying a wonderful full wall of drawings including variations on that theme.

Alpha wall



This was my favorite part of the exhibition, it’s a great chance to see his strokes and the way he composes the pictures.

The other nice thing about the exhibition is that it shows a range of works done throughout Munch’s life, showing surprising technical skill and less of his obsessive brooding.  I hadn’t realized that the works that attracted me were only a short phase of his total output, and that he did very accomplished landscapes and portraits as well.


It’s a thoughtful exhibition that traces the chronology of Munch’s works, accompanies by quotes and photographs of the artist and his models that gives a much more balanced picture of his evolution and motivations.

Although I remain convinced that he had a very difficult relationship with women throughout his life.


‘just too many intensely sad faces, repeated.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hanging around Amsterdam

I closed the apartment in Maastricht for the holidays and headed north, market lights behind and city lights ahead. A family friend discovered a free day between business appointments and we planned a day to see the Amsterdam; now the snow and rain ended leaving the happy prospect of sunshine for walking the city.  The flat green landscape blurred past the train windows, while Rick Steves reviewed highlights of the Netherlands through my earbuds.

It makes me smile: My everyday life still needs so much explaining and justifying to his audience.  And not even the politics and coffee-houses (with a ‘C’).  It’s the junk bicycles, the pronunciation of Keukenhof, the different culture in the south compare to the north of the Netherlands, the reason why calling the country ‘Holland’ is like calling the US ‘Texas’.  He never does get his lips around the keurken sound to the Gardens.

I slip between trains at Utrecht and on to the meeting at Schiphol.

There are still mysteries, of course: The Ovi ChipKaart for one.  When do I swipe the card?

Whenever you get on or off the train.

But, suppose I go from Maastricht to Eindhoven to pick up an immigration document, then return, swiping as I get on and off the train.  I’ve found that the short stay in Eindhoven prevents the card from registering two swipes, resulting in an excess 10 euro charge (refunded after the proper form is filled in and mailed to NS).

Or, today, I go from Maastricht to Amsterdam via Schiphol, to drop my bag in a locker, with a train change at Utrecht.  When do I swipe?  I assume Maastricht, twice at Schiphol (on and off), and again at Amsterdam.  But this gets me a red Error as I exit at the Central Station.

The information office initially advises that I don’t swipe if I’m getting off for less than an hour: that counts as a train change  Then a supervisor steps in and says that one must swipe on and off anytime you step off the most direct route. Otherwise, the conductor will see you are joyriding around the countryside and invoke a fine.

So, not at Utrecht; yes, twice, at Schiphol.

One way or another, I arrive in Amsterdam without incurring a 35 euro penalty and we’re off.  Rijsttafel isn’t available for lunch, so we dive into a very traditional Dutch restaurant, the Haesje Claes.  Excellent erwetensoep on a cold day, and abundant smoked salmon on the salad.  The stomppot was huge: I had the hotchpotch variant which doesn’t seem to be prevalent in the south.  Overall, very traditional and reasonably priced.

Then the Anne Frank house, difficult as always.  I struggle with the presence of the family that still pervades the dark little rooms, the tragic end to the desperate war years, her father’s dedication to publishing the diary and establishing the museum.  “Never destroy what you cannot create”, physicist Leo Szilard once admonished.  It is so easy for thuggish regimes to thoughtlessly extinguish fragile insight and creativity.

We took a long roundabout walk through the gathering twilight to enjoy the canals, stopping at the Houseboat Museum.  This was a new one for me, not a huge attraction, but a nice little exploration tucked in along the way.  The interior was surprisingly roomy, I expected something more like a British narrowboat, but this was wide and low, with generous center space and fixtures and furnishing gathered along the walls.  I had offered to rent a houseboat when corporate first moved me over, but my relocation agent was horrified that I should find better digs, so I never pursued it.  Now I can see that it might have worked.

Amsterdam has it’s own mini-Market in place, tiny compared to the ones in the south but with a good sausage pavilion and an ice rink.  We sampled an oliebollen and looked for gluhwijn (not to be found) before walking back to the station.

It was the sort of casual exploration that (I think) gives a better sense of the city and some chance to encounter it’s people and history.  And hearing US perspectives on my everyday things leads easily to an anecdote about daily life in the Netherlands or to an insight about how life differs between the cultures.

Rick Steves may have had a better tour to recommend, but this was a fine afternoon’s break for us both.

…and I’ve probably figured out the train passes before him.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Aachen Market

Each Christmas, I take home a selection of seasonal pastries and crafts from the local markets.  My mother’s side of the family is German, my father’s is British, so I end up making stops on both sides of the Channel for traditional fare.

The Aachen Christmas Market, just across the border from Maastricht, is a good one.  It surrounds the church and city hall in the center of town, filled with booths selling ornaments, carvings, pastries, and, well, frites.

I visit to pick up a fruit breakfast bread with powdered suger, stollen, that my grandfather used to serve.  They weigh between one and two kilos (that’s nearly five pounds for a US-football-sized one), and are delightful, even if they challenge the Ryanair weight limits.

I’m also charmed by the lebkuchen, sort of a soft, lightly frosted spiced gingerbread cookie, a nice gift for friends.

But my bookkeeper and business partners get handmade chocolates: I have a bit of a holiday hierarchy going on here, I confess.


A raging snowstorm moved in on the Market as I was shopping, blurring the cathedral spires and frosting the food pavilions.  I looked like a snowman in minutes, drifts on each shoulder and a soft white mound on my normally birch-bark blond hair.

I didn’t really notice though: since I was trying to get a picture of the best creepy-Santa so far this year, along with several of his helpers…