Friday, April 11, 2008

What are the common differences across Europe?

TextualHealing observed in a comment the other day:

To a European there's a huge difference in the way that, say French and Dutch people live (with of course different languages - though no longer currencies). Are there common aspects of European culture that North Americans see that we don't because we are so close to them ourselves?

Although I'm sort of between the two worlds, I know things that struck me as I traveled before moving here, and things that visitors always seem to comment on.

AmericanInParis.jpgCommon elements of Europe that Americans are generally see as different include:

- The prevalence of charming, old, pedestrian town centers.
- Having a coffee at a small table in front of the restaurant.
- Eating dinner at 9 pm rather than 6 pm, and then spending hours at it.
- The stunning size of medieval churches.
- How formal the waiters look in aprons.
- Wide, flat, glassed-in boats used for river cruises.
- That everyone drives small, simple, rounded cars.
- That work begins at 9, not 7, am, and ends at 5, not 7, pm.
- Not adding tax to the purchase price at checkout.
- Being able to drink at 16, but not being able to drive until 21 (just the opposite of the US)
- Pulling the door to exit a building, rather than pushing it (Fire safety regulation in the US).
- How long the daylight is in spring (Americans don't realize how far north Europe is).
- Lots and lots of vacation days (and everyone leaving for the entire month of August to take them).
- The much heavier reliance on trains for transport (and how well it works).
- Advertising signs where the paper rolls up and down every few seconds.
- Paying 20p to someone at the door of a restroom.
- Having to ask for the toilet instead of the restroom (a bit coarse in the US).
- How small (and expensive) a typical house is.
- How close (and visible) the neighbors are.
- The diversity of nationalities on city streets (foreign languages or a headscarf on the street are still rare in most of the US).
- Staying on the paths and off the grass.
- Cappuccino must be in the morning and espresso must be in the evening, and never have a latte or a tea that isn't Earl Grey.
- Converting measures (especially translating distances in kilometers and temperatures in celsius)
- Having a glass of wine with lunch.
- The widespread and immediate presence of toilet brushes in bathrooms.
- Paying for parking by buying a piece of paper for the dashboard.
- Starting, rather than stopping, when a traffic light turns yellow.
- Keeping out of the passing lane except when passing.
- Being able to get a cheese sandwich or a ham sandwich, but not a ham and cheese sandwich.
- The lack of automatic transmissions in cars.
- Using 112 for emergencies instead of 911.
- The whole enthusiasm and culture of European football.[Dufy2.JPG]
- Having to use a PIN code with a VISA card (US only uses one with debit cards).
- 'Duty-free' shopping (when to use it, why to use it, why is it still around).
- The difficulty in getting tap water with a meal (or paying for water).
- Having the waiter come to the table with the wireless card reader.
- Leaving the room key at the desk when leaving a hotel.
- Not getting free refills of coffee.
- What the + means in a phone number, and when to add a 0 when dialing.
- The absence of speed traps; the prevalence of speed cameras (the first flash in the mirror is a revelation).
- The long lines of boxed-in drinking / sunning establishments lining the beaches.
- Roundabouts (and the random road art in the roundabouts).
- The emphasis on 'dressing correctly' for an outing (Americans use jeans and polo-shirt for any activity).
- Putting mayonnaise on French Fries (chips) and carrying them around in paper cones.

Photo credits The Gene Scene

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Building clarity

DSC06078The girls decided that they wanted to go into Amsterdam themselves yesterday.

We had spent the prior day orienting to the city, walking the streets near Central Station so that they knew how to get to the Dam Square shops.  We had a quick orientation to how to read a train schedule and find a platform (this is not a typical American skill).

'good to go.

They walked over to the station at 10:30 am, validated their ticket, found the platform, then debated whether the train in front of them was the right one until the doors closed and it left without them.

Then they waited for the next train, which left from the platform behind them.

So, they caught the third train, but almost hopped the wrong train at Utrecht ("the announcements for Rotterdam sound so similar...").

But their day was fun, the ride home was smoother, and they wanted another try at Amsterdam today  They bubbled on about their growing mastery of the situation and the need for another chance to do it right.

I know the feeling (assuming, of course, that it wasn't the coffee houses that drew them back...)

More than just perspective derived from experience, though, clarity also drives thought and speech.  And the Dutch experience, beyond expanding my perspectives, has also helped me to think and to communicate more clearly.

The language difference has forced me to become much more careful about how I choose words.  It's not just a matter of choosing the right word, I also need to avoid unusual words, colloquialisms, and long rambling discourses while my mind is still sorting things out.

D_Hampton_2General management debates have taught me to be more precise in how I communicate ideas.  I need to be able to communicate  immediately, clearly, and crisply, avoiding jargon and technical arguments.  I've learned to keep to a single point, to stay within a few sentences, and to be aware of whether the HR and Marketing leads are understanding my point.

My best points are made from complete and relevant data: it cuts through every argument. Some people can use personal stories just as effectively, but it's not (yet) my strength.

The Dutch experience brings perspective: helping me to see things more clearly, to understand what is important and unimportant, to know what is missing. It's forced me to keep my language simple, my point clear, and my examples strong.  It's fun to see the girls find enthusiasm for some of the same benefits.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Building Confidence (2)

DSC06104  What did girls do before there were digital cameras?

Some days I feel like the world is simply a backdrop for them to take pictures of one another.  They are constantly posing, clicking, arranging, directing one another, then huddling and giggling over the results.

At first, I thought it was simply youthful narcissism: today's version of preening in the mirror.  But, beyond that, there is an element of encouraging one another: look where we are, see how good we look, don't we own the street?

Confidence, again.

It reminded me of how many times I pushed my own limits because I had a friend to share it with.  My best friends in life have been people who I could trust, talk, and laugh with; kindred souls who I shared experiences with and who challenged me when I became a bit stuffy.

We built stories and told tales, a library filled with anecdotes of close times happily shared with friends over the years.

A good friend keeps me from taking myself or life too seriously, and gives me the ideas and encouragement to stray out of the box and into new fields of experience.  And, classically, friendship-induced bravado is central to approaching a girl I'd never consider as being in my league otherwise (no matter how tall).

So, on the road to becoming confident adults, we not only need mentors to show the way, we need our friends along for the journey.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Building confidence

DSC06085It's been a good birthday today: I took the requisite box of pastries in to work and   introduced my daughter around to everyone.  Then we went in to Amsterdam for the afternoon: the girls wanted to do the Anne Frank house and cruise the shopping areas. Jamie Oliver's "Fifteen" restaurant told me, when I called at three to confirm, that all reservations had been canceled because they rented the place out for a corporate function: could they make me an alternate reservation at another fine restaurant in the area?  F*You very much, Jamie.  Instead, we had Rice Table at one of the Indonesian restaurants and enjoyed it a lot instead.

The girls liked Amsterdam enough that they want to take the train in to spend the afternoon tomorrow (51 euros for two second class, day return tickets...yike...).  It's a good sign: they are gaining confidence to tackle things despite language differences, unfamiliar transportation, and a new city.  In turn, I'm gaining confidence in their independence and maturity.

And that's what it all has to evolve to.  I've always said that, as a parent, the goal is to help them to become happy, successful, independent adults.  In so many ways, that is the dual process of instilling confidence in both of us.

We used to laugh about confidence-builder's when we were on outings together and the kids were younger.  How far could you tip a sailboat together without fearing it would fall over?  How steep a ski run could we take leaning out over the tips where it belongs?  And, on their own: did they trust their judgement in choosing pictures for a class photography portfolio, did they look forward to your turn at bat in baseball?  With each try, they learned and sometimes they succeeded, and their confidence grew.

DSC06075I think that's important, because life brings progressively bigger decisions: driving, dating, choosing what college to attend, deciding to join the service.  I don't want to make (or monitor) these decisions for them; I want confidence that they will (confidently) make good choices.

It's been a fun week so far: I haven't lived home with the kids for much of the past 2 1/2 years, and this is very concentrated time together for Laura and I.  I've kept things light and undemanding, and she's been engaged and upbeat.  And what better present could I ask for on my birthday?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Wearing your travel well

DSC05829 We're wrapping up a few days in Paris: 'did the major sights that a first-time visitor wants to do (Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame) and the major shopping that girls want to try (Galeries Lafayette, St. Germaine). Along the way, they've learned how to pay for a Metro ride, count change in Euros, order still or gas water, and all of the countless other bits of everyday life.

And there is a lot of it. When I handed over the department to a new research director, I set up an hour a day that I could answer questions. So many were procedural: the countless bits of arcane process knowledge about what form to use, who to call, what to report, when, how... It was a bit embarrassing, 'so much worthless knowledge thoughtlessly accumulated about how things get done in a company. But it's simply how everyday life happens.

DSC05785 Similarly, reflecting on the girls, in becoming part of a new culture.

Some travelers prepare for a trip by reading a guidebook, others prefer to see things fresh and not do any background preparation at all. The "sophisticated" traveler reads history and journals, perhaps talks with expatriates or natives, before going: they are the (tiring) ones who can tell you the origin and meaning of the exact shade of blue in a Moorish mosaic.

Then there are travelers who've lived in a different culture until it just all becomes background. No less wonderful or exciting, but as an expatriate, it just becomes everyday-normal.

And I don't realize it until I share the experiences of life here with friends or family back 'home'.

It's a bit like having a coat from Galeries Lafayette. The naive person thinks about appeal and price; the 'sophisticate' can talk about style and craftsmanship. But an expatriate has wears the coat and ceases to notice it.

As I tour with the girls, I realize how much I've become accustomed to the culture here, assimilating the everyday practices and signposts that allow me to live in my adopted country. Sure, along the way, I learn the history and customs, know something, finally, of the food and art.

But its knowing 'not to add tax and avoid stamps at the checkout', 'how to cook with witlof', and 'how to use a chipknip' that says to me that I've really grown into a culture, rather than simply traveling through it.