Saturday, December 21, 2013

Adjusting to the difference (again)

DSC02210 (474x636)The bearded figure in the leather coat was unrecognizable.  He sat, holding a book and crowned with satanic horns, in a display of “Christmas Around the World” at Crossroads Mall, east of Seattle.  I checked the descriptive card again.

”Black Peter, the Netherlands”

The descriptive text was broadly correct, but I remember a more child-friendly version filling the stores and shop windows around Maastricht:

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And it fits with the general perception that  “European Christmas can be quite scary”. ‘just like their ‘socialized’ health care system.

There’s always a little dislocation returning to the United States after  long time way.  I have to remember to drive on the right (yes I know that they drive on the right in the Netherlands too, but I always bike or take public transport around Maastricht, and mostly only drive when in the left-handed UK).  Tax will be added at the checkout (at only half the rate of European VATs).  Leave more time for distance and traffic when picking things up at the store (then double that to be on the safe side).

DSC02219 (473x372)I’m busy with my annual Christmas Cookie Bake, a production line of  rugelach, cut-out shapes from a family recipe, and Bourbon chocolate balls.  It’s easier to buy liquor in Washington State than it used to be, state-owned stores giving way to well-stocked spirit-aisles in every grocery. 

DSC02212 (478x638)The new plastic bottle was crowned with a new ‘child-protective’ cap -- or so I thought.  It actually turned out to be an anti-theft device that the clerk forgot to remove.

And, embarrassingly, I proved to be totally inept at manoeuvring a French rolling pin. 

‘With or without prior bourbon.

I worked on dinner for my daughter and her boyfriend as well: a crab linguini main and panna cotta dessert.  The stores had wonderful crabs (I do miss the Northwest’s fresh DSC02215 (480x640)seafoods when I’m in Europe), and the technique for cleaning them came back easily.  Strawberries are available here, so the coulis topping was a hit. We had a tuile competition that yielded some inventive butterflies and snowmen as garnish.

Despite the staggeringly large food selections in local stores, it’s a challenge matching up ingredients with those from Tesco or Jumbo. Gelatine leaves are unknown here, Knox only offers powders, DSC02194 (630x466)and they are much harder to handle than the sheets.  Cheeses were a bit tricky; Belgian beers and chocolates were surprisingly available. Strangely, waxed paper has disappeared from shelves in the US as well as in Europe: parchment paper is the substitute everywhere (no objection except for the cost).

With all of the rushing about and remembering to play by local rules, I managed to lose my Nexus 7 along the way.   I wasn’t sure how to backtrack, but then remembered mapsthat I had left the location-aware services engaged on it.  I logged into Dashboard and, sure enough, it was pinging from a grocer in Bellevue.  A (not-so) quick trip back: I found it waiting in the QFC and was back in business.

Clearly, a Dutch Sinter Klaas was on my side, rather than the locally satanic Black Peter.  And it’s a good reminder to set up the capability to do a remote shutdown and wipe of the device if necessary.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Scenes from the road

DSC02156 (608x434)I’ve started the long journey back to Seattle for Christmas, then on to Colorado for some time with my parents before returning to the Netherlands at New Years.  It’s a nice time of year to be passing through airports: lots of happy people anticipating seeing family and friends, decorations at every stop, shopping opportunities along the way. 

DSC02159 (636x476)I do a fair amount of damage in duty free this time of year: people want Belgian chocolate liqueurs, Christmas sweets, UK puddings and preserves, Dutch cheeses, and exotic tree and window decorations.  And, improbably, Borrel Mix and mini-stroops from the AH at Schiphol.

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DSC02163 (378x419)Decorations generally seem more muted this year: more random strings of lights and giant baubles than recognizable figures and objects.  There are more decorated trees than I remember, and lots more deep discounts in the shops.


DSC02166 (638x478)And I stayed awake for a lovely, middle-of-the night partial sunrise over Greenland.  Totally un-photographable, but a brilliant deep orange half-circle against the white mountains and deep blue twilight of the arctic north.

And finally back: I know I’ve arrived when I pass the surly customs agents protecting the Homeland and pass through the bus station in Seatle’s Westlake Center.

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When I start navigating the wet layer of snow icing the streets, coating the evergreens and cedars. 

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DSC02186 (572x348)…and, definitively, when the pain chocolat are frosted in the bakeries, and columnists are fulminating about Sarah Palin’s new Christmas Book instead of the evils of the EU.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Interrupting life, or imagining it?

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There’s a lot that I like about sharing thoughts and images here: the chance to sort ideas, to post pictures, to keep in touch with family, friends, and colleagues around the globe.  It sharpens my eye for an image (Heathrow 5, right), my ear for a story, and my heart for making the most of life’s opportunities and passions, old and new.

It sometimes drives people a little nuts to be with me, scribbling a note to write about later and holding the group to grab a few pictures.  Then, evenings, I’m on the computer adjusting and cropping, checking references and rewriting passages for an hour, then posting.

But it’s healthy time for reflection, communication, and connection.

Or is it?

Yayoi Kusama - Infinity Mirrored RoomThe Agony of Instagram, fretted the NY Times.  Its about is about unadulterated voyeurism… idealizing every moment…with every last image an “Advertisements for Myself.  There are a lot of awful braggarts whose posts have a vibe of ‘Hey, you’re not invited to my awesome.’   A similar charge is levelled at Facebook, where narrative becomes an aspirational deception.  The effect is only highlighted when the stream consists of images.

Leadership-selfieSherry Turkel, whose wonderful 1995 book Life on the Screen anticipated many of the conflicts between personal identity and online media, added to the debate with another OpEd, The Documented Life.   Her thesis is that we are simply becoming accustomed to putting ourselves and those around us “on pause” in order to document our lives….when people are alone, or feel a moment of boredom, they tend to reach for a device, unable to resist a selfie, unable to sit still alone with our thoughts.

Isolation, preoccupation, distraction, narcissism. ‘ Too much living in the meta: thinking about life instead of simply living it.

Still, I see it differently (as I usually do).

DSC02002 (975x1300)I had a ten minutes wait outside early Saturday, morning sunlight catching the green needles and red trunks of our maritime pines, wisps of cloud drifting beyond.  Bored, a little impatient.  I’d rather be sailing. 

I looked at the trees again, reading the day on the water in them. The shape of the clouds, the sigh of the wind, the blown angle of the trees promised a very good day running downwind to the east, unlikely to rain. 

And if I’d rather be painting?  Then it’s composition and balance; viridian green and cadmium red, lift the clouds and brush the branches. Or photographing?  I took a few contrasting pictures of the trees with different settings,trying to bring out the contrasts, the Dutch glow the Dorset light.

Each perspective is a lens; and each changes the way I see trees and skies.  It places them into a context, adds meaning.

DSC02008 (1300x962)Similarly with words and photos.  Every day is a whirl of experiences and choices.  Mornings may start with a walk along the beach; middays filled with conference calls discussing lab results ; evenings up to the elbows in some recipe, weekends at galleries staring through a sculpture, bedtimes bracketed with bookish essays and punctuated with China podcasts.

But when I sit to write, there’s a perspective in mind and it’s a lens to see the events.  The essay is a way of interpreting the day, of putting events together into some context. Far from narcissism, it’s reporting, exploring.

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Analyst John Dickerson makes a similar point on Facebook: I can think of lots of moments where the picture I took or Tweet I wrote allowed me to capture something and makes the moment richer and more lasting.  He went on to write:

You can live in the moment and capture it…technology  has improved this process of engaging with life through pausing to capture it.  And when you pause to write about something you are engaging with it.

In “Why I Write,” Joan Didion explains, "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means.”

Something within you is inspired and, at the very least, you've got to pick the words and context to convey meaning for your private recollection or, if you make it public, for the larger world.

For me, this gets it exactly right.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Christmas Hunt redux

DSC02067 (1300x975)Its easy to tell when the Tube is approaching London’s Winter Wonderland: the cars fill with children and strollers, mittens and scarves.  When the trains lurch stopped, it all spills out into a spectacular clog at the escalators, another at the exit turnstyles, before running free in a river of squeals and questions flowing into Hyde Park.

The Wonderland is equal measure gift stalls and thrill rides, laced with Bavarian-themed food and drink.  It borders on self-parody in the was that Oktoberfest halls and haunted houses are trimmed for Christmas, but its all good natured fun and easy to enjoy.

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Especially, the barmaids, the ice mountain, and the polar bears.

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