Saturday, December 15, 2007

Christmas shopping in Utrecht

I got up early this morning, avoided the gym, and headed straight to Utrecht to try to close up my Christmas shopping.

I leave for the US on Thursday, and have to be in Cambridge tomorrow through Tuesday morning, so this was about the last chance to sort it all through.  My first tendancy would be to head for a mall, which means driving to Oberhausen and the huge CentrO facility.  My Dutch colleagues roll their eyes when I suggest that, though, claiming that there is always better shopping in the Netherlands than in Germany.  Point taken, but I gave added points to the likelihood that, with the Sinterklaas season past, the Dutch would be out in fewer numbers, leaving the stores with  merry "Korting" signs in their windows.  It should be just like having January sales arrive ahead of Christmas for a change.

(By the way, my Recommended Link of the Day points to Invader-Stu, who has the best "Stalking Sinterklaas" story of the season)

Utrecht Dec 07 29   Utrecht Dec 07 13

So I spent a cold and clear day roaming the streets of the old center with a backpack and my Fortis card, seeking exotic Dutch / European artifacts to take back to my waiting relatives.  The stores really had some nice decorations: I like the Dutch use of small, brilliant variations of Icicle Lights. Utrecht Dec 07 02 The mood was only spoiled a bit when security asked me not to take pictures.  Fortunately, I got away with a picture of this strange Christmas tableaux, reminiscent of late night Dutch television around channel 994: It's a little hard to tell what mood this is supposed to convey.

I found some nice boxes of Christmas Cards on sale: they tend towards simple themes of trees and snowflakes with chirpy "Prettige Kerstdagen en een Gelukkig Nieuwjaar" sentiments.  Not a lot of religious or over-fancy cards on the tables: the Calvinist influence, I suppose, but I like this style better anyway. (For my non-Christian friends, I collected a "Prettige Feestdagen" assortment: it's still the only time of year I reach out to college friends and I hate to leave folks out.).   I couldn't find a good Sinterklaas ornament for the tree with the bishop's Dutch Cardsmitre (and, ideally, his little assistant): the figures all looked very US-style.  There were some cute finger-puppets and other stocking stuffers as a warm-up, then it was on to find the half-dozen gifts that I needed.

The clothes stores don't hold a lot of attraction: styles still look a bit out-of-place for American consumers, and I'm not good at trying to translate between US and European ways to specify sizes.  The sports and outdoors store had a nice selection of ski and snowboard accessories and pullovers, but I stayed away from clothes otherwise.  There are a lot of good jewelry and watch shops, but with prices in the hundreds and thousands of euros it was out of the question (In one shop, the artisans were making rings and necklaces being made at the back, kind of a cross between Santa's elves and having the kitchen open to view at some restaurants.)  The glass shops were stocked with wonderful serving pieces and festive glassware, so I picked up several varieties.  Personal electronics and cameras always seem to be priced about double in Europe, so I put that off until I'm back across the pond.  Handbags and writing accessories are well made and reasonable, so I made a few selections there.

So, as three pm rolled around, I was pretty well through the list.  I am trying to sort out the cumulative size and weight impact on my suitcases, but overall I think I made a good dent and have a practical selection to transport and ship.  No Gluhwijn or Eierpunsch, but a pretty good outing.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Making peace with the Senseo

Well, I've been using the Senseo Coffeemaker for about two weeks now, and we've reached a bit of accommodation. I'm still not sold on it, and certainly don't understand the reverence that the Dutch have for it, but I think I'm starting to warm up to it in the mornings.

On the plus side, it is fast and convenient. Toss some water in the reservoir, and it steams up in about 30 seconds. While that's going, I find the coffee packet in the cupboard and lock it down into the chamber. Add a cup with a bit of milk and it's ready to deliver. It's not disturbingly noisy (lots of comforting whirring and hissing), and it delivers a nice foamy cup of coffee in another 30 seconds. I was a press-coffee person, and the scooping, filling, waiting, and pressing probably takes five minutes. The process is facilitated by the apartment's boiling water tap, a truly marvelous invention: Coffee-making probably would take 15 minutes without it.

Senseo 4

On the minus side, the coffee is weak. I've experimented with the Dark, Extra Dark, Espresso, and Cappuccino packets, and I like the texture and taste of the Cappuccino best, but it isn't strong enough to have a good coffee color, flavor, or aroma. I've fiddled with combinations of the others, using two packets, but that seems excessive just to get one cup: there must be several tablespoons of coffee in there. The use of packets seems wasteful too: I imagine coffee packets spilling over to fill the landfill. Worse, a Senseo only makes a 4 oz (half) cup or 8 oz (full) cup. I like a bit of milk in my coffee, and so have had to find a 10 oz cup to use with the machine.

So, for now, I'll use it for convenience and speed, struggle with the taste and quantities, but "Big Blue" has displaced the toaster on the kitchen counter.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Global Cosmopolitan

Last summer, the INSEAD publication World Business published an article "Workers of the World", about the unique characteristics and problems of global workers. It is based on studies by Linda Brimm, a psychologist specializing in organizational behavior: she describes a "Global Cosmopolitan -- a population of highly educated, usually multilingual people that have lived, worked and studied for extended periods in different cultures". I enjoyed the article a lot; she made a number of points that resonate with my own experiences.

  1. Certainly I've found that exposure to more cultures does help with understanding and adaptation when I encounter new situations. Still, this is as much a developed skill as an acquired one: I recommend Martin Gannon's Understanding Global Cultures (3rd ed) as a thoughtful and very readable framework for reflection.
  2. I've also seen people fail and return home early because they don't reach out and find their place in the local culture. I've listened to how people's apartments are too small, their friends don't match the ones they left, they're careers are falling behind others back home. At the extreme, they eat at McDonalds and disappear into expat-support groups. As a result, they miss out on the chance to immerse in the local culture, to extend and enrich their network of ideas and associates, on the chance to become truly unique.
  3. Her comments on the difficulty of maintaining a sense of personal identity are also spot on. I know that I've struggled with who I am, apart from the things that I surround myself with. Identity is about feeling comfortable with your thoughts and experiences, confident in your opinions and actions. It means being grounded even though I'm surrounded by artifacts that aren't mine and I'm pressured to fit in with my host's customs.

Although she doesn't mention it, a lot of these ideas reduce to how successful we are in maintaining and growing our personal identity. Here, I think of Erik Erikson's work, he defines identity in both individual aspects (our sense of personal continuity and of uniqueness) and social ones (our affiliations, which define us in our own eyes and to others). Successful adjustment requires us to adjust and maintain both identities despite the lack of customary references and new pressures to adapt.

Finally, her recommendations for work are great, and I've made adjustments to my CV as a result:

  • Know your story and value it
  • Know your strengths and let other people know too, such as:
    • Success and experience in managing change and transition
    • Success and experience in managing difference and the creative edge of
      being different
    • Developed observational skill
    • Understanding of different lenses for seeing the world
    • Understanding of different ways of doing things and contributing them
      to creative problem solving.
  • Know your double-edged sword:
    • That your agility and chameleon-like abilities can mean that you don't bring their own ideas to a situation for fear of standing out
    • That you might have successfully adapted by being non-confrontational and adopting a diplomatic role, and therefore have the tendency not to speak up when you disagree
    • That you might have the tendency to see endless new possibilities, but find it hard to focus on a particular project
    • That while you may be fluent in several languages, you may never sound like a native-speaker and miss out on nuances and colloquialisms, and
    • That you may be an excellent observer, but fail to engage.
  • Apply your strengths to personal challenges, such as:
    • Maintaining multiple networks
    • Finding a sense of meaning
    • Recreating a sense of home

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Terrorists and Cheese Wheels

I try to keep family and friends updated about life here by posting pictures into albums on Flickr. When there's a nice afternoon, I enjoy wandering around town taking a few snapshots, then posting images that look pleasingly exotic: the town market, the random road art, the tangle of bike paths and roads at major intersections.

One day, I got an e-mail: someone liked my Cheese Wheel photo from the Arnhem market and wanted to use it (under Creative Commons license) for an article that they were writing.

Arnhem Market 11

...'good picture, not my best, but who am I to judge Art?

"...'and how will you use it? A tourist brochure? A guide to the industry? A gourmand cookbook?"

I'm adding photos to a story one of our members posted about potential "terrorism dry runs" in airports where the terrorist reportedly uses wheels of cheese to simulate the weight and texture of certain types of explosives. I'd like to use your cheese photo to help add context to the story.

My vision becomes one of the future, where steely-eyed border guards endlessly compare my name against the "No-Fly" list, diligently searching me for the stray ball of Gouda, sniffer-dog twitching nearby.

But the attribution would only plug me as a photographer, not a source, so the thrill of attribution won out over the fear of Homeland Security. Read the full article here, and share my pride...

Taking a time out...

One of the nice (or worrisome) things about this journal is that I can see the clouds gathering before the storm breaks (but not sensibly enough to get inside before it does, to stretch the metaphor). In this case, the trip to Koln, the notes on not having enough time, and on trying to be accommodating, were all probably good signals that life was getting overwhelming.

I woke at 4 am this morning with just a sea of worries. What to do to help my son was the big one, but there is a venture capital presentation Monday to be prepared and reviewed, paperwork to be written for two promotions of people working for me, a couple of status reports to write updating people on projects I'm leading, an interview with my replacement as Research Manager, half a dozen students to sort out for supervision back at Cambridge...and I haven't even touched on Christmas or on what to do about extending my expat contract (due to expire in May, and where do I go after that?). There was a full day of meetings ahead and Conversational Dutch this evening, so clearly things would not get any better.

Time for a Time Out.

Honestly, looking at calendar, was there anything so important today that I couldn't step back, take a deep breath, maybe take a bath, dress comfortably, and give things my full attention and best effort in a little space and quiet?

No.

And so I did: 'first sick-day in years.

And it's all getting done, and there will be time left over to unwind a bit. 'gotta work on that 'balance' part of life a bit better, clearly...

PS: I later found that Douglas Welch gave similar sage advice...

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

While you're adjusting to the Dutch...

...remember that the Dutch are also having to adjust to you.

I got this advice during my orientation, and it's always been a good thing for me to remember.  The basics are easy: I take my time, speak clearly, avoid idioms, and check for understanding; fortunately, the Dutch directness ensures that it works both ways.

But it also means that I don't multi-task in meetings that are being conducted in English to accommodate me, and that I try to let people argue in Dutch when they need to among themselves.  (I avoid the temptation to encourage them speak Dutch so that I can multi-task in meetings).

I do wait for them to finish a sentence their own way without jumping in to try to help (I would usually be wrong anyway), although sometimes I suggest a word  when the right one just isn't coming to mind.  And I don't wordsmith slides or documents unless it's destined for a US audience, and even then only in green ink.

More than once, I've found them accommodating the way that I do things, too, so I know we both try.  Sometimes it works easily (entering meetings without a prior written agenda..sorry, I do prepare, but I'm not someone who distributes agendas), and sometimes with difficulty (closing a meeting without posting notes with minutes, action items, and assignments...I'm afraid that we rotate having a scribe).

At least it's made for much shorter e-mails both ways...

Monday, December 10, 2007

Never enough time...

I commented before that time management is a big issue for me as a solo expatriate. The days seem to fill with opportunity and demands, with help or advice asked and commitments made. It's hard to say no, because I want to do a great job, want to make the most of the experience, want to fit in, want to dispel negative stereotypes. At the end of the day, though, it's also important that my life not become a blurred rush of half-finished work, half-seen places, and half-remembered experiences.

What's important? I actually wrote it down: if I don't, I won't.

Every couple of days:

  • Keep things in balance
  • Get some exercise
  • Leave some free time
  • Read a good book or insightful magazine
  • Take time to reflect and listen
  • Appreciate or create some art
  • Learn some Dutch; speak some Dutch
  • Think about what's important and act on it
  • Connect with someone (not something) I love
  • Update the finances
  • Have a laugh and share a story with a friend
  • Eat the right things

An incomplete dozen, in no particular order. 'Fair to ask how it's going, I suppose...

I work too much. Very much too much.

But I've also reconnected with a lot of lost friends and rediscovered the things I enjoy doing. I get my exercise and eat right, but I don't get time for charcoal drawing, watercolors, or pen and wash. I travel, narrowly on weekends and broadly once a quarter and for business. Those times mean a lot for me (and not just for the pins in my TripAdvisor map).

My life is in better balance (I take vacations), but I feel guilty that I'm not there more for my grown children (18 and 20). I get time to think and read, but not enough free time, and never enough time with Dutch. If I don't make the effort to keep engaging with Netherlands life, it just flows around me. I am meticulous about keeping my accounts and filing in order; I need to be as diligent about laughing and loving more.

Koln was really good: the cathedral was breathtaking, the crowds were a study all by themselves. The crafts for sale were too institutionalized, and too many people were there for the Gluhwein alone. Still, it opened my mind and made me think about all of the contrasts I was seeing. I shared pictures with my Dutch colleagues this morning, and they had completely different take-aways than I did ("What !? The Germans have Sinterklaas ?!").

I still feel like I'm finding my way with this journal...sometimes too many pictures, sometimes too shallow a comment. But I still feel like I'm slowly finding myself as well.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Koln Christmas Market

It was an hour and a half drive to Cologne this weekend, on a mission to visit the famous Christmas Markets. I'd heard a lot about the German holiday markets, and had visions of softly lit kiosks, traditional Christmas crafts, regional holiday food, seasonal music. It turns out to have been none of those, but it's a unique and fun time if you have the chance to go.

Cologne (Koln) is a wonderful cosmopolitan city dominated by a breathtaking cathedral. I don't think I've seen anything so large and still so ornate: it towers like a mountain cliff over the Dom Christmas Market below it.

Koln Christmas Market 02 - Catherdral Koln Christmas Market 02a Cathedral

The Christmas Market is split into several plazas across the city, the best one was in the shadow of the cathedral.

Koln Christmas Market 10 - Dom market Koln Christmas Market 09 - Dom market

As you can tell, the first (and dominant) impression of the Christmas Market is of the crowds ! British tourists were everywhere: they fly in on EasyJet flights, some with small children, some in clusters of women on a lark.

Koln Christmas Market 07 - Crowds

Koln Christmas Market 12 - Crowds

Koln Christmas Market 08 - Crowds

The second thing about the Christmas market is that it's mostly about drink, food, and drink. About half the booths serve food, and half of those serve Gluhwein (a hot spiced strong red wine) or Eierpunsch (eggnog, although thinner, more lemon-y, and more alcohol-laden than ours). And every drink comes with a (refundable) souvenir glass. My collection includes:

Koln Christmas Market 27

Koln Christmas Market 22 - Gluhwein and Eierpunsch

I thought that the best food was Speckbrehl, a hot bacon, onion, and potato dish that the Germans were eating by the bowl-full. Sausages were a close second, long ends sticking out of short, fat buns. The apple tart desserts were tempting, but I didn't get to try them (It's a cash economy in the Markets, and euros only stretch so far).

Koln Christmas Market 05 - Spekbrehl Koln Christmas Market 03 - German Food Restaurant

Koln Christmas Market 13 - Sausage Haus Koln Christmas Market 04 - Stirring the potatoes

The third learning was the varieties of the Markets (There was a Market on a boat). They were scattered all over the city, leaving lots of time to see Koln while walking between the venues. The huge pedestrian shopping street connects all of the markets, and it's all open late. Like New York, the department stores fill their windows with Christmas scenes. I was taken by the jungle scenes in which all of the animals wore leopard skins or grass skirts. Curious ecology, and even more curious modesty, on the part of the Germans.

Koln Christmas Market 16 - Christmas Ship Koln Christmas Market 17 - Christmas Ship

Koln Christmas Market 29 - Xmas Beasts

In the end though, It was nice that it was still all about Christmas. The chestnuts were hot, and the lights were beautiful at night. There were lots of children,the churchbells rang every hour. There were decorations and ornaments and gingerbread everywhere. No regrets, except, in retrospect, I wish I'd plunked ten euro on a paper star...

Koln Christmas Market 25 - Nativity

Koln Christmas Market 19 - Christmas Decorations Koln Christmas Market 15 - Lights

Koln Christmas Market 14 - Marionettes Koln Christmas Market 18 - Gingerbread House

Koln Christmas Market 21 - Village Koln Christmas Market 24 - Ornamets

Koln Christmas Market 26 - Stars