Friday, November 19, 2010

Traveling among the Dutch

travelI headed back to the US this week, business meetings, my daughter’s 21st birthday, the run-up to Thanksgiving.  For the most part, it went smoothly: neither the holiday nor the terror alerts in Germany caused a noticeable increase in crowds or delays at security.

I was hearing a lot of concerns about the new TSA screening procedures: either get cooked in the body scanner or groped in the body search. In my experience, the scanner is time consuming and embarrassing – I’ve found that being singled out and ‘assuming the position’  attracts a lot of curious stares (and I have been asked to complete a brief survey about the experience after the scan).  So, I planned to ‘opt out’ of the scanner and take my chances with the pat-down, but the opportunity never came.

Sorry, back to the Dutch.

I was taking a break in Detroit, a family chattering away next to me while I worked.  One leaned over to ask me a question, and the accent had a homey familiarity.  Turns out they were, indeed, from the Hague, headed to Las Vegas.

What surprised me was that I hadn’t noticed all of the Dutch being spoken prior to that moment: either I’m just wholly accustomed to it or I’ve grown way too good at tuning out people around me.  Once I knew they were Dutch, though, I was surprised how much easier they were to understand than people from Maastricht.  I hadn’t realized the difference, or how my ear was still more tuned to the Northern ‘Queen’s Dutch”. Blame the Nuns.

The next day, taking a taxi into the city, the driver’s card had a familiar ring as well.  Another Dutchman, this time from Roermond.  He had an interesting story: came from the Netherlands 15 years ago and became naturalized, but had to give up his Dutch passport in the process.  Now he wanted to re-activate his Dutch citizenship and re-emigrate.

We had a good conversation about the IND and various immigration attorneys, whether a step-parent conferred natural citizenship, whether he could retain his US naturalization.

It been unusual to meet a lot of Dutch along the road: they’ve been nice enough to compliment my accent and to speak slowly when I’m parsing their vocabulary.  Good practice for the return trip (we’ll see if I hit a scanner…).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The cost of connecting

Taxi1Business travel is expensive.  My goals are to be on scene, on time, and not to inconvenience my clients. As a result,  there’s often little choice of dates, my hotel must be convenient to the site, and meals tend to be either very fast or very expensive.

So I’m always looking for ways to better anticipate and control my expenses.

I can generally keep airfares down by getting a general fix on dates and times with a big travel site, then call the airline to see what an agent can find.  For my present trip (LON-CHI-SEA-LON) Orbitz showed a $1200 fare, rising towards $1500 if I jiggled dates a day either way.: Delta’s agent got the cost down to $900 (via LHR-DTI-ORD-SLC-SEA-MSP-LHR…that’s my life in a nutshell).

A similar approach often works for hotels, checking the big sites for value priced rooms, then calling the hotel directly for deals.  If it’s not a chain, then I make a further check of Tripadvisor to make sure that there aren’t any terrible negatives.

Taxi2So far, so good, but I discovered a tradeoff between hotel costs and transport costs that really hit home this week.

The St. Giles Hotel is dramatically lower priced than others near Heathrow, and has reasonable traveller reviews.  It is six miles from the airport, close enough.  The problem I didn’t anticipate  is that Heathrow is gigantic, so the hotel is actually around the far end of the airport, 12 miles from the terminals.  The Hotel Hoppa doesn’t run out there, so it was a £25 fare to catch a taxi, almost exactly erasing the savings on the hotel.

I asked the clerk how to get back to Heathrow more cheaply, and she suggested the bus, stopping just across the street and running every 15 minute.  It worked great: just slap the Oyster card and go.

OHareA similar thing happened in Chicago.  O’Hare is also gigantic, and the Marriott Courtyard Wood Dale, while a dozen miles from the airport, is a long drive around the perimeter, adding up to a $37 taxi fare. (Irritatingly, that was half again as much as the $22 metered fare because Wood Dale is considered a ‘suburban’ destination).  The clerk suggested a cab with a fixed $23 fare at to get back to the airport, but it still cost $65 (each way!) to get into the city for my meetings.

These are astronomic cab fares, approaching $150 per round-trip. And, no, thee were no trains or alternatives: the airport is a huge object object cutting  me off from Chicago.

And when I added things up, the excess fares almost exactly balanced my $150 savings on the hotel.  I think that owners must take this into account, pricing the rooms to take account of the location .

In this case, the only sensible alternative would be to rent a car, although the savings are probably minimal.since the car+gas is probably also just over $100.

Overall, the cost of connecting is probably the biggest hidden cost in travel,, and one of the least predictable or controllable. It crops up when going from airports to cruise-ship docks, from convention hall to dinner spot, and from the RyanAir’s budget airfield to the city center.

So my suggestion is to realize that (particularly with airport hotels), overall cost is likely the same no matter where you stay: room cost is balanced by transport costs.  ‘Best idea may be to call the clerk and ask for the best connecting alternatives.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why are Dutch women happy?

Happy‘An intriguing post over on Slate today: What Makes Dutch Women so Happy?  The answer would seem to be ‘Part-time work’, which contributes to their overall balance and quality of life.   This contrasts with the New York Times article on the same topic back in 2007, concluding that the secret was ‘Personal Freedom’.

I’m not sure that this is a gender issue at all: part-time work is a perfectly agreeable state for anyone who can afford it, and men also seemed able to drift into that status when the mood (or the season) was right.

I think that the next-most agreeable state is being able to choose tasks and timing to suit your energy and inclination (yes, Personal Freedom).  One of the big benefits of working for myself has been in choosing when (and for whom) to work.  I don’t work any less, but I do feel like I’ve got much better balance in the day,

The comments are also interesting to read. My favorite counterpoint from someone claiming to be a long-term expat here is:

I suspect the key to happiness is not knowing any better. Not knowing it is possible for stores to be open at night and in the weekends. Not knowing it's possible for a family to own a home with a yard and a garage. Not knowing it is possible to drive for more than 10 miles without getting stuck in traffic. Not knowing you can see the sun almost every day, not just on vacation abroad. Not knowing you can have a good meal every time, not just on special occasions. Not knowing that people can be polite and friendly just for the sake of being nice, not just to trick you into parting with your money. Here in the Netherlands, where everyone and every place is oppressively similar, people are not confronted day in day out with others who have it better than they do.

It’s actually never that bad, although I do smile at some of the shards of everyday life buried in that rant.

And, the Dutch Statistical Manual (2010) concludes that happiness has actually scarcely changed in 40 years, but notes, optimistically, that “Dutch people are relatively happy.”

Kind of.


After Tweeting that BT had let my Internet go down (to let people know that I wouldn’t be online), BT tweeted back with an e-mail address to write if I needed help.

On the one hand, it’s gratifying that they monitor the Twittersphere for customer issues, and remarkable that they found mine (I never used a #hashtag).

On the other hand, it would have been good to get a way to contact someone in RL about my problem.  E-mail won’t work because, well, the internet is down…

Note: The whole village apparently lost phone and DSL when someone cut a section out of the line and stole it Sunday night.  BT had everyone back up this afternoon, two days ahead of schedule.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Internationaal Realisme

r-richard-estesFranz Radziwill

Bernd Schwerig

Sigurd Kuschnerus…

I sighed, the corner of my notebook filling up with names.  There would be hours on the internet looking these folks up.  But the works are just amazing: the subjects, the detail, the patience.

Although I went to Rotterdam’s Kunsthal for the Munch exhibit (about which, more later), I really was fascinated by the International Realism collection, on exhibit through mid January.  The works are grouped into eight theme areas, including interiors and nudes, each filled with a diverse collection of artists and media.

Vermeer_-_The_MilkmaidRealism generally refers to creating works based accurately on real life people and settings.  Think of the Dutch painters of the 17th century, including Vermeer, Steen, and Cuyp, who rendered interiors, landscapes, and everyday scenes with small details and realistic light effects.

This isn’t really what is being shown at the Kunsthal, though.

The exhibit is filled with hyperrealistic works: paintings and sculptures that are photographic in their detail, but often distorted in size or perspective.  I find them both amusing and disturbing: the precision of the works are amazing but the dissonance with life gives me something to think about.

John deAndrea creates sculptures of nudes: a blond woman lies casually on a sheet in the first exhibit room.  She is absolutely lifelike: it takes some study to convince yourself that she’s not a model. Indeed, children bend down and stare into her eyes trying to make up their mind.


An adjacent room holds a paired painting and sculpture of the event and aftermath of 9/11. The picture is poignant, remembering how the day unfolded and how it intersected with everyday life at the time, but the sculpture just makes me sad. I don’t think we really understood how subsequent events would damage our moral standing in the world (especially juxtaposed with Bush’s recent defense of the actions).

The landscapes (examples below: Radziwill, left, and Schwerig, right) are more fanciful, but full of detail.

r-Franz Radziwill floodgate r-Bernd Schwerig

Interiors and street scenes include a Hopper, of course, but also a variety of works by others (Orosz, left, and Goings, right) that are almost trompe l'oeil in the way that they play with space and perspective.  And one movie plays with time: a still-life bowl of fruit decays beneath a fluffy coat of mould in gruesome evolution.

r-andreus-orosz r-ralph-goings

It’s all remarkable and fun and well worth a couple of hours to explore.  My only complaint was the complete ban on taking photographs: The associated catalog is reasonably priced, and a lot of the works are reproduced on-line (if you take time to write all of the names).

Clive Head,

Mike Francis,

Heiner Altmeppen…

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Is this window offensive?

A local clothing store in the center of the Old City in Maastricht posted this window t highlight their selection of winter clothing.  It’s aroused a lot of comment, some think it’s a harmless bit of humor, others that its an offensive bit of public graffiti

Coming off of a reflection on tolerance last week, and with plans to write about realism in art tomorrow, this is a good bridge piece.  How does it make you feel?

Catching up around the neighborhood

A misty grey morning in East Anglia – thick dampness rolls out of the fens and across the fields, diffusing the morning sunlight and coating the fields with droplets.  The birds and bunnies hide, huddled against the chill; a light frost whitens the roof of the car.

The coffee’s brewed, but the apartment’s quiet and I’m not quite ready to start slinging pans for breakfast.  E-mail and social networks are quiet, family are winners at casino-breaks and photographing dinners in Alaska,  friends are performing in plays and shoveling snows.  A new episode of Sherlock has downloaded overnight; an upgrade is confirmed for an upcoming flight.  It’s a funny world

2 StitchThe RSS feed (left) signals that the twenty-some expat blogs I follow have accumulated a hundred new posts; I start to page through them.  I enjoy reading what everyone writes.  Some folks create postcards: pictures of trips to Prague and of city life in Utrecht, a recipe to try, a story of how their car fell into the canal, sightings of SinterKlaas (can it be Christmas already?).

Others hold advice for travel, for wine, for Christmas Markets, for museum nights. There was a time that this was all so new; now it’s become a familiar melody of shared discoveries, reminding me how far we’ve come.  Some editorialize, sighing about the election, the changing seasons, drug policies, work and neighbors.  The Netherlands look less picturesque this time of year, and I think a lot of folks get the blahs when it’s cold and dark.

A surprising number are signed up for Novel Writing Month, over 1000 words a day.  It’s an unimaginable task to me, that level of plotting characters, perfecting dialog.  I struggle with just crafting  closing paragraphs in blog essays (I need to be more like the BBC correspondents, who always seem to be able to come full circle).

I always hold that any day that survives the first 15 minutes of catching up with what happened back in the US is bound to go along okay.  Bad things happen overnight. 

On Sundays, though, the threshold is higher.  Like scattering a paper across the room while listening to Charles Osgood, time spent catching up around the neighborhood with expat writers is familiar and insightful.

Keep writing; we’re reading.