Saturday, January 1, 2011

Onze Lieve Vrouwebasiliek Nativity

P1030621The fireworks finally fell silent about one in the morning.

The display had been as noisy as ever, but low-hanging fog obscured the delicate tendrils of the myriad explosions against the night sky. Instead, intermittent red and white glows silhouetted the buildings while smoke enshrouded the bridges.  In a neighbor’s garage, we sipped champagne and apple slices cooked in poffertje batter, plotting the delights of the coming year.


I poked a nose out from under the covers at 11 this morning, a victim of equal parts indulgence and jet lag.

The weather, warming, had dissipated the fog and was melting the snow.  The streets were largely empty and stores were shuttered; the bars served coffee while the vendors pushed oliebollen. I’m not sure that koffie-bollen offers any palliative hope, more likely it only accentuated my need to spend serious time in the gym starting Monday.

A sign in Vrouweplein pointed to an open exhibit in the basilica, a life-sized nativity winding around the stone corridors.  It’s very impressive: the Driekoningenstoet holds life-sized dioramas of everyday Bethlehem highlighting bits of the Christmas story.  In contrast to the nativity scenes filling churches in the US, this one had 1) figures with Middle-eastern appearance, rather than bearded and Anglicized ones, 2) a conspicuous lack of heralding angels, and 3) a complete absence of motorized embellishment.  The result is very pleasing, and, although it ends in Maastricht tomorrow, it’s certainly a worthwhile family outing at future Christmas’s.


This anticipates celebrations culminating in a street parade on January 2, in which kings, shepherds, sheep, horses (and a camel) hold the Epiphany Procession.  This ends at back at the Onze Lieve Vrouwebasiliek (Basilica of Our Lady), where the kings (and children dressed as kings) offer gifts to Mary and Jesus.

Firework photo credit: D. Baddeley

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