Friday, January 20, 2012

Crossings, classes, quizzes, and saffron quests.


I packed up and headed out of Maastricht late Wednesday.  It wasn’t really late in the “darkness falls” sense, but late to be getting to a 4 pm ferry.  There was lots to wrap up, issues with the banks, a couple of utility questions to settle, and a component to drop off with the design engineers.  By 1 pm, though, I was aimed east with a full tank of gas and didn’t stop until I pulled into the Dunkirk docks at 3:30, minutes ahead of the 4 pm loading.  They’d put a nicer boat onto the line and it was a much more pleasant voyage, filled with waves and spray but warm and well-lit.


The second of my four Cambridge class presentations was on Thursday morning, describing the process of medical device creation.  There is a template, both an engineering best practice and a directive from regulatory bodies, so it’s a pretty cut and dried topic.  I try to get everyone engaged and thinking by using some case examples for discussion: these are drawn from real life and, again, the class has lots of good suggestions that would enhance the actual design effort.  I really hope that some will take the plunge and start something exciting on their own.


Our Cambridgeshire village held their annual Quiz Night on Friday evening.  It’s one of several big community events, and a good proportion of the residents come to the Village Hall to compete, mercilessly.  There’s a dessert buffet (what we’d call a PotLuck in the US where people contribute a dish) and the inevitable charity raffle.  Topics ranged from local history (How many acres in the Village Green?) to culture (Richard Dreyfus’ character’s name in Jaws?) to literature and sports.  Most of it was pretty Brit-centric, so I wasn’t much help to my table (even with the Dutch question: How many languages has Anne Frank’s diary been tranlated to?).  The one I did know, the most common element on earth (Iron) was wrongly corrected by the QuizMaster to Hydrogen.

But it was lots of fun, especially since we *won* at the end of the night.

Saffron  Saffron threads

I’m finding a lot of shortages on shelves lately, odd sorts of things.  Light bulbs, cashews, hard disk drives, and, most recently, saffron.  The stores say that they are being left empty by suppliers, and some of the flooding and earthquakes in Asia may be to fault for the computer parts.  But it would be worrisome if the global supply chains were generally so delicate. Saffron turned up, finally, at the local garden store, but cost several pounds for only a few threads. ‘barely enough to cook with.

That seems like a price where supplier substitution should kick in – I know it’s usually a ‘hot / arid’ sort of plant, but I’m almost willing to give it a try at $1000 / pound, commercially.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Snow, Dutch, and the IB

BBC Seattle snow

I saw the first word on the US news services, then the BBC picked up the story.  Seattle, a maritime city that usually gets a dusting of snow for a day before it gets washed off in rain the next day, was in for a storm.  It’s been over 20 years since the last snowfall like this: it always meant toppled rhodies, downed power lines, and cancelled school and work schedules.  This year was no exception.  The good news is that the 7KW gas generator we installed after the 2007 storms forges through the worst weather, and there are no kids in school any more (although Karen still teaches) .

snow2012As predicted, six to 14 inches fell, depending on wind patterns, and the city ground to a halt.  The best story came from my neighbor, Mike: Today, as I was snowboarding, my dog was chasing me. We collided. We rushed him to the vet. Now he's in a cast. That's right. My dog is in a cast due to a snowboarding accident.

We haven’t seen any snow in either Maastricht or Cambridge so far this season.  The Alps are buried, having a wonderful ski season this year and burying the higher villages, but it hasn’t drifted north through the low countries at all.  So, rather than skidding through the streets as I was last year at this time, I’ve been gradually wrapping up engineering and in-town activities, catching up with friends in the evenings.  There have been several new arrivals over the holidays and it’s delightful to get to meet the new family members – hard to believe that mine were ever this small.

I’ve also taken inspiration from the IamExpat post Yes! 2012 can bring fluent Dutch!  The core of the article is that you have to build and keep momentum.  That means daily practice, not weekly, and sustaining it over months.  I have the materials at hand, I have to pass by the end of the year to keep my promise to the Gemeente who is paying for my lessons and the opportunity to nail the permanent residency.  (Side story –happy ending: After 7 months, IND has finally sent me the letter to come to Eindhoven and pick up the new card from my 2011 visa renewal). 

So I’m spending an hour or so a day streaking through the end of the Rosetta course that I was given three months to finish.  It’s hard to learn vocabulary and grammar only by example, but with a word book and grammar book at my side, Dutch clauseI’m deeply enmeshed with subordinate clauses, word order, and tenses this week.

I’ve also found a great set of podcasts on the RNW (Radio Nederland Wereldomroep) site.  Klare Taal is particularly good; I access it through the exercise bike (which has web access built in) or download it to my music player each day.

And the Welkom in Nederland book arrived, the vocabulary is pretty basic, so there’s no problem with reading and picking up the ideas. They match a lot of my experiences anyway (except for taking kids to “zit op” basisschool and middelbare school - they don’t “studeert aan” school until they get to the University).

So, it’s moving ahead well.  The only issue is that an hour or two spend on Dutch is an hour or two away from something else: the day is a zero-sum schedule.  “Prioritize” doesn’t mean “Finding what to do first”, it means “Letting go of what I won’t have time to do.”  I used to hate it when our corporate VP told me “Dave,Strategic Planning is deciding what not to do.”, but I’m finding that there’s some truth in it after all.


IB_hexagonSeparately, while thumbing the news, I found that the International Baccalaureate program is the latest institution to come under conservative attack in the US.  The IB program, available to qualified students in many public districts, intended to “develop the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world.”  No less a newsmagazine than US News and World Report has determined that critic al thinking and cultural awareness “Undermines US Founding Principles”.

A curriculum crafted in Europe, with a decidedly non-American and non-Judeo-Christian outlook on the world…not merely to impart knowledge or teach thinking skills, but rather to develop "citizens of the world" with "universal human values."… —presumably including activities not endorsed by the United States.

I think I need to stick with the weather pages.  Or MasterChef.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Morning and evening over the Maas

This time of year the sun rises late and sets early.  My apartment looks east over the river, so I really have a good seat for the changes in the sky during the course of a day.  And even with the way that my days go, there’s time for coffee and to marvel at the variety of shades and colors.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

New Year’s renewal

Around Thanksgiving, I start working on Christmas lists.  It cuts both ways: what things do I need to watch for in Europe for family and friends, how do I respond when they ask what I want and need.  I joke that a father should change hobbies every few years just so that their children have things to get them at Christmas and birthdays.

This year’s list was heavy on replacement items though: a couple of years of hard entrepreneurial work and diminished startup salary had left threadbare gaps.  The battle-suit was frayed from many pitches, trains, and cleaners; my watch had gone missing after a quick dash through Schiphol security last summer.  My shoulder bag was scuffed, my shoes lopsided. threadbareMy camera has shadows on the LCD, my music player is scratched, my netbook cracked.  Like field ribbons, each tells a story, but together they feel tired when I’m not.

So, rather than making resolutions, I think this New Year’s should be a renewal, maybe even start a jubilee year (the biblical seventh-year tradition of canceling debts, applied to my seventh expat year).

I started at the Nordstrom Half Yearly sale, suits and accessories half-off after Christmas.  I need a suit that looks successful, but like I still need the money I’m raising, I told my sales assistant, Reece, probably not quite 25.  “Modern, but not flashy; European and tasteful,” he mused, opting for subtle stripes and a bit of lapel trim.  I sucked in my cookie-inflated waist for the measure; my daughter came over from handbags to offer advice (I made sure to introduce her to Reece – no harm in her getting to know young men who know how to dress).  She chipped in a very nice tie; I resisted the upsell to a new shirt.

New Me

The new me was, of course, fabulous.

I took it for a spin last week, it got good initial reviews and we closed a couple of deals.  I sent my daughter thanks.

I picked up a watch, swapped the player, loaded up with new podcasts.   The camera will have to wait (Costco ran out of the HX9V I’ve had my eye on).  Inspired, I swept through a series of lingering jobs in the home and apartment, crossing off repairs and replacements.  A cracked chambord coffee press, a flaking saucepan, a peeping smoke alarm, a broken refrigerator magnet: large and small, they came and were healed.

I confess that the progress does wonders for my mental attitude as well as my environment.  No longer surrounded by visible reminders of wear and tear and things to be done, now there’s ‘change for the better’.

‘beats making resolutions.