Saturday, July 13, 2013

Summer along the River Cam

Cambridge paintingIt’s finally a beautiful and sunny day in Cambridge, not unlike the one captured in this painting created by Turner in 1793.  Now, as then, summer was an occasion for walking, punting, flirting, and drinking along the grassy banks and in the cool waters.


Friday, July 12, 2013

On expatriate identity

Each time I fly into England , I have to fill out a Landing Card.  Name, address, passport, family, occupation: my identity.  I usually put “Scientist”, not strictly true, I suppose, but it does describe how I think of myself and who I want to be known as.

I also define myself as I’m seen by others, a job title, personal relationship, or hometown,   But, more deeply, I have  a personal identity, persistent qualities that describe and define me, that set me apart from other  people as unique and exceptional.

“I am an expatriate” is one of those qualities.  I am someone who has chosen to leave home to live in another culture, to experience life and form lasting relationships away.  It’s different than living an identity in my home community: I’m creating one in someone else’s.  It’s not ‘fitting in’;  it’s purposeful.  I am discovering who I am and building who I want to become. 

The heart of the paradox is that I also have to be tolerant and adaptable.  The Big 5 Traits of Expat Success stress the importance of extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability.  Very few long-term expats write about it, and little research has been done.   But balancing conviction and change to preserve who I am is the most difficult and stressful part of the expatriate experience. 

The long-term expats who I know, by definition successful ones, are curious, confident, optimistic, and committed to making a complete life within their adopted culture.  But, to an even greater degree, I would characterize them by their rootlessness: the absence of strong ties to people, places, community, or jobs in both their adopted and their home countries. 

And that leads to key questions about personal identity.

  • Can expats define themselves by the absence of things?
  • Can expats maintain themselves with a shipping container of personal effects and long-distance relationships over Skype?

I’ve taken on this challenge of building a new facsimile from the objects, tasks, routines, events, language, and  history around me.  I’ve sought out and committed to connections with local people.  I became whole in my adopted home, with an image and a narrative that describes a vision and a future.

But it’s situational, fragile, too easily lost when an apartment ends or a connection fails.

‘just that simply.

The paradox, and the existential stress, is that expatriates are the most likely to need a strong personal identity yet least likely to have the means to sustain one.  And that rootless search may be the signature characteristic, and the defining problem, of expatriate life.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Short nights, long days

Willem I Locket

Although it looks like a watch, this is actually a locket, created by the second wife of Willem I in the 1800’s and containing a lock of his blond hair.  It was recently auctioned in Middelburg, reported in Spits, and is the only known remnant of the king.  I used it for my ‘three-sentence’ Dutch assignment today,  a rare break from a busy and stressful period, one that hopefully leaves more than a lock of my ash-blond hair  at the end of it.

I’m determinedly moving forward to solve issues that have plagued me since last November, personal and professional, planning and coordinating discussions and events between the UK, Netherlands, and US.  Resolution will be welcome, but the process is taxing.

After the end of the week I’ll be doing fewer things better, but right now I’m struggling with mental restlessness, overthinking events and filling imaginary holes.  I haven’t gone to bed until well past 1, up again at 5, for too many days.  Things remain fragile.

I the late hours, I‘m reading The Expats,  a cat-and-mouse thriller about expatriates with pasts, none of whom are who they seem.  The little touches describing ordinary life overseas are true: how unfamiliar cobblestones can feel beneath shoes, the distinctive flavor of expat conversations, and the difficulty of finishing simple shopping errands.  I can relate…

My phone has taken to dialing itself, flipping through my address book and calling interesting people.  O2 said that they would re-image the phone, but would lose data, people, and messages.  We tried to back up the contacts, but the automated cloud service blocked, the phone couldn’t write to the SIM, the computer couldn’t connect.  I finally solved it with an app that e-mails a .CSV of my contacts.  The phone went off for a 14-day repair, I got a loaner with half my contacts pre-loaded,  and two hours vanished from my afternoon

The story would likely be the same at any phone store in any country.  But living locally, success further depends on reaching a psychological accommodation with the people and setting, matching my attitudes and behaviors to fit their culture.  Researchers cite the Big Five Traits  (Extroversion, Emotional stability, Agreeableness, Openness, and Conscientiousness) as necessary for the everyday adjustments.

I think that the principles are similarly true for bigger situations (global business transactions like the ones we’ll be doing in the next few days), and for smaller ones (casual conversation like I’ll be having at the village supper this Saturday). 

The difficulty, on weeks like this one, days when I’m tired and stressed,  is in applying them.  I can be my own worst enemy at navigating unfamiliar words and procedures, finding local alternatives, and just having patience with the process.  It’s a matter of ‘step and check’ to get things right.

And I know, too, that I’m not necessarily my own best judge of whether I’m succeeding.  So every day I consult a trusted friend, just to look at the what, why, and how, making sure that I’m not veering off.

(Note: This is a rewrite of  previous draft, posted in ill-considered haste. ‘sorry for the error.)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Dutch light, thinking and reading

When I’m 80:  Oliver Sacks wrote a marvelous essay in the Times last weekend reflecting on how it feels to become old.  I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over, he reflects, but he also finds the freedom to explore, to take stock of one’s own life and those of others; to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.

His most charming passage had real resonance with me:

I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at 80 as I was at 20; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done.

At the end of my Journey, I know that I will look around me, look back, and value less the things I have than I will value the things I’ve done.  Good and bad, my experiences and actions define me, for myself and for others.

And I’ll have done what Oliver Sacks wishes he had.

The Stronger Sex:  I’m a soft touch for any article citing bonobos, but this review from the Guardian goes in some surprising directions.  ‘not sure what to believe, but it should make for interesting conversations over fruit beers along the river.

The Hiding Hand:  A friend passed me a piece from the New Yorker about economist Albert Hirschman,  who postulated that creativity is stimulated by stress.

Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.

In other words, people don’t really seek out challenging tasks. Rather, ”they take on and plunge into new tasks because of the erroneously presumed absence of a challenge—because the task looks easier and more manageable than it will turn out to be.”  So, an entrepreneur takes risks but does not see himself as a risk-taker, because he operates under the useful delusion that what he’s attempting is not risky.”

Then discovering the truth, and because it is too late to turn back, they’re forced to finish the job.  Creatively.

I really like this thought: it certainly fits the opportunism and optimism that I have when I take on goals and options.  It’s cautionary as well: consider what happens when things go wrong, as they always will.  And then, from that crisis, I am forced into finding creative solutions, ultimately (ideally) building something more valuable and successful.

Hirschman’s corollary recognizes that there are two strategies for dealing with stress: Exit (voting with your feet) and Voice (staying put and speaking up).  My bias is towards the latter, and Hirschman argues that keeping critics enhances creativity.  Some days I cast myself as Will Smith facing the oncoming zombie hoards, palms out, yelling “I can fix this!"

Still, he died in the end. Courage requires the willingness to always be on guard against oneself. (Gladwell, Colorni)

Tablets in Bed:  Since getting the Nexus, I’ve become much more of an e-reader.  On the good side, I am reading more; but PCWorld points out that tablets also have knock-on effects.  The screen hues and brightness are not restful and it becomes too easy to check e-mail and social sites on a whim.  It chirps sympathetically when Skype gets a text message, irresistible to check.

There are apps that purport to adjust the device’s sounds, luminance, and spectrum to match the time of day.  But these apps, or simply closing the lid, still leaves it too easy to fiddle when I’m sleepless at 2 m.

Instead, I’ve gotten into the habit of overnight power-downs.  A rest and reboot is good for everyone for a few hours each day.

Narrative stress:  The Guardian published an essay about the increasing (and irritating) use of “we” instead of “I” among personal bloggers.  I have to confess to falling into the trap: I’m writing a thought and want to generalize the point or reach out to the reader.  So, National Rail never gets us to London on schedule instead of …gets me… 

I regularly root out the error, and I take the point about good writing.  It would probably be even better to say National Rail is always late.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Dinner with Andre

DSC09247The gates to the Vrijthof close at 5:30 sharp, so I arrived early to watch the rehearsals.  A friend from college commented that “People make fun of Rieu. But he has introduced a new generation to (some of) the classical repertoire, and as another classically trained showman once famously remarked, he laughs all the way to the bank...”

I replied that  He loves what he does and he does it consistently, well, and on a huge scale. Maastricht is a homecoming for him ever summer and his local audience adores him.”

That means three weekends of sold-out weekend concerts this summer.

DSC09266 DSC09258

The restaurants along the Square offer drie gangen menus for 60-80 euros per heat.  This is exclusive of wine, so the evening bill for a small group could easily approach 500 euro over a five-hour evening.  ‘maybe next year…

DSC09249But what an evening.  The perfect summer night, the lavish stage sets and performances, the cafĂ©’s going all out to provide a gourmet experience.  I turned over menus: heavy on truffles and Carpaccio for the appetizer, on beef and cod for the mains, on soft cakes and ice’s for dessert. 

DSC09254  DSC09239

Even the ‘cheap seats’ with good views of the television at Vrouwplein and Sint Amorsplein were going for 40 euro a head, similar menu but only an indirect experience.


I ended up with a beer and a book along the Maas, at the Le Cle beneden mijn appartement.  There were a half dozen of us there, but the owner said the crowds would come.  The fireworks went off at midnight, crowds swelled across the Stone Bridge, and the Cle filled with people jostling for chairs.  ‘Everyone in buoyant spirits.

 DSC09231 DSC09235

‘Just as Andre intended.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

My annual evening with Andre

Andre Rieu returned to the Vrijthof this week for his traditional summer concerts.  It’s the violinist’s vintage fare: bottled in gigantic sets, lavish costumes, and orchestral waltz music.  Local folk can’t get enough of him: You can get a taste here.  The series is lasting twice as long as usual and I hear that tickets are being discounted, but it looks like a packed house to me every night.


The warm, clear summer evening is perfect for sitting out and listening to music. Venues are set up around town with speakers so that people can dine and listen.   A big-screen television is set up in Sint Amorsplein with a live feed from the concert.  Every seat is packed. 


The crowd drank and swayed and sang along with their favorites.  Andre mugged for the camera; a singer belted out Don’t Cry For Me against a backdrop of Argentina-born Princess Maxima.  It’s all good fun.


During a break, I wandered down to the river and had a biertje, tried to engage a book, as the evening glow faded from the midsummer skies.  There’s so much to be thinking about, ‘better to just get a bit of peace against the distant music and the quiet hum of conversation.