Friday, December 6, 2013

Just an ordinary Friday

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The storm washed the skies clear over Maastricht, leaving a nice sunrise over the river this morning.  I was up early to get the car into the shop for a check-up and windshield repair, then off to Dutch lessons before some last-minute shopping.  Folks in the UK wanted breads, cheeses and seasonal pastries; my extended family in the US likes the city’s liqueurs and chocolates. 
This morning, I just enjoyed a little quiet time browsing the markets and shops, sampling the foods, and floating with the holiday crowds.
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The St. Servatius bridge was blocked with a horse-drawn wagon, a string of Christmas trees, and a dancing Santa at 9 am for a parade to decorate the Bijenkorf,  a local department store.  Across the street from the apartment, workmen began erecting rides, food booths, and decorations; I worked the phones and watched the activities build, then dissipate through the midday.
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I worked it hard, but by 6 pm, the sunset was highlighting the riverside. it was time to stop working.  I rode my bike through the deepening dusk, past the ziekenhuis,to pick up the car.   Balens en grenzen: still time to stop in and share a holiday whisky with a good friend, visit their new grand-babies, and talk with the cleaner about a gift she needs me to find in the US.  
DSC01848 (1090x965)At 9:30 I took a last walk around the city to enjoy the lights and the markets.  Surprisingly for a Friday, everything was closing early.
There’s always a full list waiting to be done these days, but I settled for a nestling in the window with a herfst biertje and a bellen met vriendinjes, watching the bicycles drift past beneath the Christmas lights. 
The light flicker of sleet turned to drifting flakes as I talked. Choice is how you deal with circumstances, goes the advice.  In this case,it means setting the clock another hour ahead to be sure of catching the midday ferry.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

I’m not old; I’m ‘Listed’

DSC01839 (905x1300)This evening is sinterklaasavond (or pakjesavond), when children in the Netherlands receive their Christmas presents.  Traditionally, children put a shoe in front of the fireplace before bed, then find their presents in it come morning.  Every family seems to have it’s own extensions of the event, from “Include a poem about the gift” to “re-gift something of significance from prior years”.  It’s a warm tradition.

I think Piet is still involved when children deserve coal and switches (The Times had a good op-ed on that topic today),

And, in the spirit, I’ll reserve good thoughts for several adults previously consigned to that same “naughty (not nice)” category as well,

sintAnd one more for my landlord who handed me the annual rent increase instead of a gift or card,

And one for NOS/RTL, who showed the Dutch horror movie Sint to unsuspecting children (and to me) last night.

In any case, it’s evening now, and the stores are closed, the Cle is dark, and its a bit of a lonely time. I gave chocolates to a good friend and made some mulled wine, but it’s not the same.

sint 2Christmas lights are blowing sideways in the wind outside as a big storm barrels through from the northwest.  It mashed Scotland last night and KNMI, the Dutch meteorological service, has issued a Code Rode for the northern parts of the country (Maastricht earns a Giel (yellow)).

The warning is:

Een groot risico op omvallende bomen, boomtakken, dakpannen, dakbedekking en gevelplaten, en grote objecten zoals bouwsteigers en hijskranen.

(A high risk of falling trees, tree limbs, roof tiles, roofing and siding, and large objects such as scaffolding and cranes.)

Which pretty much covers all of the possibilities…

So, it’s a good evening to chat on the phone and read the papers.  ‘Several items of interest this evening:

beer- Amsterdam is paying recovering alcoholics to clean the streets…with beer.

Judging from the expressions, they must be getting Bavaria 0%.

- “The NSA is tracking the location and movements of hundreds of millions of cellphones outside the CellPhoneTrackingUnited States in an effort to find suspicious travel patterns or coordinated activities by intelligence targets.“

I’m sure mine was among them.  I remember when my corporation called me in for a security briefing ahead of going on expat assignment.

We will always know where you are, and can get to you if there is trouble.

You follow my Outlook calendar?

No, your mobile phone.  

I was shocked; Now it’s routine.  Snowden is a hero.

- “Being partnered to an entrepreneur is not easy:  Most are obsessed by their company with almost no escape from the demands of work.”  Relationship entrepreneurThe FT notes that “enthusiasm, energy, optimism and determination are wonderful traits, but shouldering responsibilities towards staff, customers and shareholders is a stressful undertaking…”

I struggle with that as well, have sometimes done it well and more often badly.  I’ve learned from bitter mistakes, and teach that start-ups will consume everything you can give and still ask for more.  It’s important to establish vast balans en grenzen, then to be prepared to fight for it many days. 

A strong, loving partner is a huge help. 

And a rare flower.

DSC01830 (1300x971)Finally, a few photos from Amsterdam, where I spent the day on business with various lawyers, accountants, and planners.  The Kerstmis Markt has spread from Dam Square to the Centraal Station, with better (cheaper) krakauer, wijn en bier, lights and gifts…

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…and one very goofy snow globe.

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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Parking tickets and panna cotta

DSC01811 (1300x988)U sliep te laat, observed the parking policeman as I ran up to the car.  I sighed, pulling the ticket free of the wiper.  “Ik heb te lang mijn panna cotta gekookt,”I mumbled, smiling a little. 

‘Not a good start to the week.

In part, I blame working memory: there is just too much going on to keep the morning’s entire sequence of events in mind.  A late night translates to a late morning; a flood of post-Thanksgiving emails meant that I needed a bit of quiet time to organize my thoughts before stating to hammer the phones and keyboards.

What better way to think things through than with a bit of cooking?

DSC01812 (944x1300)I’d been itching to try a panna cotta recipe: an Italian custard made without eggs.  BBC Food had a good basic recipe: sugar, whole milk, cream, vanilla, and gelatine. The latter was a small challenge: gelatine leaves are just blaadjes gelatine, but neither the AH nor the oriental grocer had any.  I finally found a pack of six at Jumbo, thin textured sheets that need a few minutes soaking before use.

DSC01815 (861x1300)While the ingredients warmed, I peeled a dozen Spanish mandarin oranges and started reducing them for the topping.  The sections can have a bitter aftertaste, so I added an extra tablespoon of sugar and, for depth, some sweet wine. The result was grainy even after a good simmer, so I pureed it as though it were a vegetable soup and it settled down nicely to a rich, fruity sauce.

The gelatine folds instantly into the hot milk and the mixture filled four custard cups, ready to set.  As I was wrapping up my list, making notes on “The Most Important Six Things to Finish Today”, the cleaner stopped through for a chat.  The apartment looked good, the plants, I had a few things to bring up from the car still…The Car?!?  10:00: ‘little hope of avoiding a ticket.

And so it was that I trotted across the bridge, just in time to encounter the patrolman.

digital assistantI’m in the middle of reading Clive Thompson’s book, Smarter Than You Think: How technology is changing our minds for the better.  He suggests that three Internet factors are going to enhance our cognitive abilities in the coming years: boundless memory to access facts, associative tools that connect the dots, and dense networks that build audiences.  In the past, he says, we externalized thinking to doodles and diagrams, remembering to our partners who could remind DSC01816 (1152x927)us of important appointments (and expiring parking meters). In the future, digital assistants, an aware and enhanced Google Now, will do that alongside us.

But, not soon enough for this cold morning, I’m afraid…

…at least the panna cotta set nicely, and tasted wonderful.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Magisch Maastricht

DSC01806 (1300x1068)Kerstmis arrived at the Vrijthof, lights aglow and people shopping the gift stalls ahead of Pakjesavond.  The December 5 celebration, St. Nicholas Eve, is for gift-giving, accompanied by clever poems, and separates the commercial celebration from the religious holidays. 

DSC01800 (937x1300)Magical Maastricht 2013 definitely leans to the commercial end of things.  The festival expands and shrinks with the economy: several years ago it sprawled exuberantly across six separate venues with two ice rinks. This year, the post-bubble feest doesn’t quite fill the town square.  Still, it’s brightly lit and colourful:  the Sky Wheel is turning, the sausages are cooking, and the skaters are gliding over the ice.

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andreAnd Andre Rieu’s Advent Calendar, my favourite homage to holiday excess, is open for crackling business.  ‘accompanied by his”Home for Christmas” movie: the trailer is worth a look if your unfamiliar with the Rieu phenomena.

I rolled into town off the 8 am ferry from Dover, far too early to be up and out of bed for the pre-rush hour drive.

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The miles rolled by quickly and I was into town at 2.  By 7, I was enjoying mulled gluhwijn and steaming krakauer, under the big tent, my traditional eerste nacht of the season.

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Magical, indeed…

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Art weekend in London

DSC01698 (1300x972)What’s the best cure for a week of pushing the baubles forward a few inches for the various businesses, joining the cooks for expat Thanksgiving, and restless nights too filled with lonely worries?

A weekend in London, of course.

DSC01689 (976x1300)It was a carefree and delightful break – a good musical, some decent Thai food, a provocative art exhibition:  ‘civilized breakfast, laughter over strolling lunch, and late-night wines.   The decorations were out, fully lit a festive backdrop to the Christmas shopping crowds.  Covent Gardens (above) were particularly good, along with the Parliament display.

DSC01682 (1300x975)The theatre afternoon was Billy Elliot,  telling the story of the son of a Yorkshire coal miner, destined to join the Royal Ballet.  The staging was good, with strong performances in the roles of the parents (especially the father), the gay best friend, Billy Elliot 1and the shadow dancer. 

The politics of the miner’s strike against Thatcher were almost superfluous and the counterpoint to Billy’s rise wasn’t an equal balance of drama. (The Pitman Painters captured the idealism and class struggles better, although from a different period). Nonetheless, it reminds me that, even in societies governed by Rule of Law, an elite gets to make and interpret the Law for themselves and for others.

Politics aside, the scenes of the father coming to terms with his son’s ambitions tugged at me, as did the grandmother’s memories of her husband, a horrible person apart from being redeemed as a lovely dancer.

Barbican-Pop-Art-DesignThe exhibition was Pop, Art, Design at the Barbican, a fascinating exploration of the sculptures, paintings, and found objects of the decade that consumerism merged with art.  I thought that there were two parallel themes.  One was the elevation of advertising and design to the level of art, as in the Braun design of a toaster (Braun was clearly the Apple of it’s time, aspiring to elegant functionality with Richard Hamilton anticipating the role that Jonathan Ive filled decades later). The other was art’s critique of consumerism, playing with the images and slogans of branding and advertising in both admiration an warning. 

Andy Warhol was included, but his works were less imaginative than many of the other works on display.

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Getano Pesce’s Moloch and Up were appealing, as was Gunnar Andersen’s Portrait of my Mother’s Chesterfield Chair.  The show notes were gibberish, there was no Peter Max or moirĂ© art, but the groupings were well chosen and the exhibit made me think (as well as the Guardian).

My favourite part is still to pause at the end, balcony overlooking the gallery, and discuss which works connected with us, and with one another, best.

All in all, a lovely time with shared with the seasonal trimmings, w_wenzen, and the City.  ‘Off to an 8 am ferry in the morning, though, back to Maastricht for work and markets through the coming week.