Saturday, November 29, 2008

‘tis the season for Christmas Markets

Christmas market 2The Maastricht city Christmas market opened today, a collection of huts filling the main square.  The best part will be the big Ferris Wheel that can be seen from all over town.

Christmas Markets are a tradition in many cities across northern Europe, and well worth taking a day to visit. I’ve been to the big markets in Koln and Brussels, and wish that there was time to drive to some of the more distant ones in Nurnberg or Prague.  Markets generally feature lots of food and drink stalls, an assortment of crafts and small gifts for sale, holiday trimmings, and entertainment (ice rinks, carousels, and sky wheels).

Each has it’s own personality. The Koln Market, for example, is scattered over a half-dozen venues around the city, and focuses  on crafts.  The Brussels market follows a long, winding path through the streets across the old city center, featuring more food and gluhwijn.  There is also a spectacular light show splashed across the city hall and synchronized to opera.

Christmas market 1 The Markets get into full swing in the coming days: here are a couple of pointers to a good index of locations, dates, and attractions at Christmasmarkets.com, and to a ‘Top-10’ review that matches my own experiences at travelintelligence.  And the Maastricht Market runs through New Year’s.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Assimilating / accommodating

Maastricht 07

The psychologist Jean Piaget studied how people develop  knowledge, the ways that we explore our environment to gain better understanding of the world and to acquire more sophisticated  skills.  He identified two types of learning, assimilation, in which we learn how new experiences fit into our existing understanding, and accommodation, in which we adapt our mental models to fit new experiences.  In effect, one’s grip accommodates a stone, while clay is assimilated into our grip.  Assimilation and accommodation work in synergy with one another, like pendulum swings that, over time, advance our understanding of the world and our competency in it. (Boeree)

Maastricht 14 The first week in a new location is a learning adventure in exactly this way.  Knowledge from Arnhem is certainly relevant to finding my way around Maastricht.  For example, the train station works the same old way, and only the geography changes.  There are familiar names (with familiar functions) everywhere: the Albert Heijn (groceries) and Blokker (housewares), the neighborly Tom Mullins (pub) and the gargantuan Ikea Woonboulevard (furniture).

Maastricht 15 But there are also unique finds in Maastricht that will change how I live.  There is an amazing bookstore, Selexyz dominicanen, fit inside of a cathedral nave. Finally I won’t have to go to the UK or US for books: a welcome change to my habits.  My new gym, the Il Fiore healthcenter, features a computer system that automatically keeps track of my cumulative Maastricht 17activity on every cardio- and weight-machine.  I’m not used to monitoring my progress that way; its a bit like using the casino cards that dispense comps when I’ve lost enough money.

And there are the many changes when learning to live in a new apartment.

Most are just simple adaptations: fitting my morning routine to the new kitchen layout, or boiling hot water instead of getting it from a tap (okay, Arnhem spoiled me on that one), or having to walk to the car parked a quarter mile from the apartment.  Others take some learning: I still stub my toes on things that are out of place in the bathroom, fumble for light switches in unfamiliar locations, struggle to balance heat from radiators absent a central thermostat.

Maastricht 13  Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn is a classic text that shows how buildings evolve in sympathy with their occupants.  We, in turn are equally shaped by the neighborhoods and services that surround us.  It really is a pendulum swing between the ways we live and the ways we grow.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving reflections

Copy of DSC03350 …And a happy Thanksgiving-feest to all the folks stateside!

It’s been hard to find a Thanksgiving dinner venue here in the Netherlands. I’m a bit surprised: I would have expected a larger (or more organized) expatriate community in a university town like Maastricht. 

The Hard Rock is serving all day in Amsterdam and all weekend in Cologne (‘traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings in a great atmosphere), and the American Amsterdam Business Club is offering  “a full selection of Thanksgiving food favorites and live entertainment to make this a Thanksgiving to remember” for 85 euro a head.  The Netherlands Fulbright Alumni Association offers dinner and a lecture for 50 euro (“Dutch Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Maxime Verhagen, will speak on the topic of transatlantic relations after the US elections.”), and the Cafe Shamrock is offering Thanksgiving for an inexplicable 8 euro (“turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries, a beer, and a good time”).

And that seems to be about it, really not much.  Maybe I should look outward to Belgium for traditional frites, moules, and beer on tap...

Or maybe not, because Thanksgiving was always a family holiday.

When I was young, we’d head over to my grandparents early to prepare the turkey.  I remember my grandfather creating dressing with a traditional grinder that he fed with an amazing assortment of meats, eggs, breads, and herbs to create the dressing.  I still have the recipe but I haven’t been able to make it successfully in years (it’s funny how some recipes just start to reliably fail…I have a fruitcake and a brownie recipe that have suffered the same fate).

As a teen, the pleasure was in joining a flawlessly choreographed creation of a dozen dishes.  Tradition was having a marshmallow crust on the sweet potatoes, almond in the green beans, little red candied apples. The pumpkin pies were a big tradition, and there was always a few slices of favored mince pie for me.  We always toasted the turkey with a round of wine at noon to celebrate getting dinner launched on time, then were off to the ski slopes for the afternoon.

Early with my wife, it was an occasion for travel from the deserts of eastern Washington to the Oregon coast for a few days of civilization.  We would go for a city dinner in Portland, some beach time near Newport, and a jump on Christmas shopping at Washington Square.

After the children arrived, we replicated our family celebrations, creating traditions around people’s favorite dishes.  It was an evening for sometimes having friends and family over to share dinner, and always an occasion to use the formal dishes in the dining room.  I remember the hours of getting the meat off the turkey, cleaning up the glassware by hand, calling it a night with the last of the wine around midnight.

Thanksgiving Lunch sign Thanksgiving Lunch - Venue 4

During my year at Cambridge, a Thanksgiving celebration was held in mid-afternoon sponsored for all of the expatriates by the Boston alumni of the University.  There was turkey sausage in bacon, lots of wine, abundant 4th of July flag decorations.  The vice chancellor gave a toast, acknowledging that the British didn’t understand Thanksgiving ,weren’t sure that they approved of it, recognized that we were all sad to be away from home.  However, she encouraged each of us to try to have a happy Thanksgiving.  Our table passed around another bottle of wine to toast that sentiment and hoped that there wouldn’t be dancing.

Family is scattered this Thanksgiving, more than any other I remember, but thoughts will remain close.  We’ll make calls and send good wishes, laugh about stories of soggy pies and dry turkeys and dressing that never gelled (although my cranberries are infallible). And we’ll remember all of the things we have to be thankful for, my parent’s health a special joy this year.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Moving Day: 3 / 3

Apt 12The realtor and landlady had moved on, leaving a few hours of quiet before the movers arrived.  My strategy is always to take a quick ‘daily living’ inventory: as I go through my imagined, typical day, what would I reach for that is missing?  The “Ikea List” starts to take form: a worktable for an empty corner, some drawers for the bedroom, a laundry hamper and a bit of shelving for  the bathroom.  Rearrange things in the cupboards to make space for food; move all of the bedding and towels out of the bedroom to make room for clothes.

Apt 11 Apt 13

At sunset the movers arrived, squeezed into the bikepath, and started dragging everything upstairs.  A chaos of boxes quickly accumulated…

Apt 16

I always start by finding who’s in charge and getting things organized.  In this case, the strategy was to get boxes into the appropriate rooms, get things out of them, and get the packing material out of the apartment.  Order emerged.

Apt 17 Apt 18

The guys did a great job, and, after they left, the real work of finding places for everything continued long into the night.  By morning, recognizable outlines of a new home had begun to emerge.

Apt 20 Apt 22

Apt 19This will take time to complete, but I think I’m going to enjoy the new environment.  The river was misted over this morning, steaming placid and cold…its going to be a whole personality to learn, along with the rhythms of the streets and the habits of the new neighbors.

But it’s so good to be moved ahead in life, finally.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Moving Day: 2 / 3

Apt 2

The snow has largely melted off of the cobbled streets of my new neighborhood; the sun was out as the city was waking.

The river makes a nice backdrop for the people and the buildings, I think I’m going to like having it nearby. When I first came to Arnhem, I had negotiated for an apartment at the Rijnkade, but ended up at Sonsbeek instead. This feels like a “do-over” in that regard.

Apt 1

My neighborhood, the Wyck (pronounced like ‘bike’) lies directly along the Maas river, across from the old city center. It’s filled with shops and restaurants, bustling with pedestrians and bicyclists, and charming in its close Dutch village architecture. It’s made even better by the Christmas lights that have been hung along the streets and the soft orange glow of clocks from the many churchtowers.

Apt 4 Apt 3

The apartment closing went well: the agent walks through long checklists detailing every furnishing and the condition of every element: there are pages of inventory and comments to agree to. There was a quick orientation for the procedures for unlocking the doors (Green key, followed by blue, on exiting; red key, followed by green on entry) and for disposing of garbage (a whole new mystery, beginning with “Go to the Albert Heijn and get Red Bags…”)

I’ll get it right, eventually…but in the meantime, it’s lovely to enjoy the new view of the old town across the river.

Apt 8

Monday, November 24, 2008

Moving Day: 1 / 3

Work 3

‘easier moving into a new workplace than a new apartment.

A lot is provided, and there is a lot less to arrange.  Office is there, fitted with a desk, chair, and shelves, so there are only a few boxes of books and desk items to bring up.  Plants and computer connections are in place, and I’ve got to say that the views south from Maastricht across the rolling countryside are really nice.  Quite a change from the flat prairies north of Arnhem.

So, importantly, are the people: I’ve got a great floor of research and clinical scientists to get to know.

Work 1 Work 2

Work 7

Work 4 Work 5

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Capitalism’s winter

Dutch central bank president Wellink (left) , prime minister Balkenende and finance minister Bos (right) announce the nationalisation of Fortis on Friday, 3 October 2008.   Photo Roel Rozenburg

Sunday has become the day for governments to make their big announcements as they try to stabilize the world’s financial markets.

In the Netherlands, the Dutch government announced its plan to nationalize and merge Fortis and ABN, injecting 16.8 billion euros to stabilize it’s operations. (The country’s GDP is 400 billion euros, so this is a big commitment).

Aside, It’s been a good opportunity to learn who’s who in the Dutch government: did you correctly identify Dutch central bank president Wellink (left) , prime minister Balkenende (center) and finance minister Bos (right)?

In the United States, Secretary Paulson announced support for auto, credit card, and student loans in addition to mortgages.  It’s not surprising: all sorts of debt were pumped, packaged, and sold off as collateralized securities.

In both the Dutch and American actions, the rationale for government intervention is to reduce the systemic risk and to restore confidence and liquidity by guaranteeing operations of institutions, banks, insurers, and others who have become ‘too big to fail’.

DSC03257 That phrase, ‘too big to fail’, stuck with me.  The Wall Street Journal interprets it to mean that an “institution's failure must be avoided because of its potential impact on the economy or financial system”.  Business and consumers can’t buy without access to cash and credit; goods can’t be exchanged without transfers and insurance; product can’t be transported without vehicles, energy, and infrastructure.  Over time, all of these critical pieces have become dominated by a few large companies, now deemed ‘too big to fail’.

I agree that the capacity to deliver these goods and services is critical to the economy, but are the individual companies?

At the turn of the century, the Robber Barons controlled railroads, energy, and commodities.  Their trusts were broken up to encourage a competitive environment free from monopoly.  The nation’s telecommunications infrastructure was run by a single company, AT&T, until it was broken up. In all cases, new competitors entered, products and services multiplied, and prices dropped. Although arguably ‘too big to fail’, the abolition of the trusts didn’t cripple the economy. Instead, economic need pulled new, smaller, innovative firms into the market, creating a vigorous and competitive industry in place of self-protective and static institutions.

We reward “growth” as a singular goal of companies, and that philosophy creates large businesses within industries.  To a point, it promotes standardization, economy of scale, and organizational efficiency that benefits society at large.  But it also creates institutions with ossification, hubris, and entitlement, whether it’s the automaker’s sense that they should be bailed out to protect jobs rather than to create product, or the insurance company assertions that private jets and lavish parties are necessary costs to doing business.

Economies and industries necessarily evolve.  As technologists recognize in the Innovator’s Dilemma, better new companies should, and will, supersede failing old ones. I would rather see governments use this period of upheaval to encourage new entrants than to prop up the old ones; to open up the markets rather than to consolidate them.  The social and economic need for the industries is very real, but I think that we can do without some of the companies that claim to be essential by right of size or longevity.

DSC03266 Capitalism’s winter should be followed by a thousand new flowers blooming in the spring, restoring vigor and creativity to the world economy.