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.