Saturday, December 6, 2008

Are you really somewhere remote?

Dsc02145 One of the small pleasures of travel is the chance to compare notes with other travelers by reading their books.  I had the recent good fortune to read Richard Guise’s From the Mull to the Cape (“A gentle bike ride on the edge of the wilderness”).  The author recounts his 600-mile bike ride through the Scottish Highlands, discussing history, geography, and various adventures, all with good humor amidst the bad weather.

Along the way, he develops a method for gauging whether you are really remote in your travels: it was a compact enough yardstick to be worth passing along (and to recommend the the book as a read, or his interview on  BBC4’s Excess Baggage travel show / podcast last August as a listen).

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Are you really somewhere remote?

Start off with ten points and then lose one each time you answer ‘Yes’ to one of the following questions:

  • Could you walk to somewhere that sells hot food by the next mealtime?
  • Can you see a surfaced road?
  • If you can, would you bother to look both ways before crossing it?
  • Does any form of public transport pass here at least once a week?
  • Can you hear people talking about the same subjects that you do?
  • Is the nearest real coffee less than five miles away as the coffee bean flies?
  • Can you hear any non-natural sounds?
  • Are you confident that the newspaper you’d buy at the nearest newsagent is today’s?
  • Do you see any locals with mobile phones?
  • If you collapsed from exhaustion, or indeed from extreme remotitis, would the emergency vehicle that picks you up arrive by land?

  By this method, the author then scores Guise’s Scale of Remoteness:

0     Home                                  You can drift in and out of sleep with no one noticing.

1     Round the corner        Slippers are still okay.

2     Down the road               You see someone you don’t know.

3     Over there                        You might take a different route home.

4     Away                                     The nearest newsagent may not stock The New Statesman.

5     In the sticks                     Signs of remotitis become evident among the local population, e.g. staring at strangers or talking to trees.

6     Far away                             The nearest newsagent has not heard of The New Statesman.

7     Off the beaten track    Signs of remotitis are rife among the local population.

8     Up shit creek                    You develop remotitis and wonder how long it will be before your bones are discovered.

9     Way out yonder             You discover someone’s bones.

10  Officially remote            Bones?  You mean another human has actually passed this way?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Hang time around Rome

DSC03524  The conference center’s across town from the apartment’s neighborhood, which made for good opportunities to criss-cross the city a couple of times each day.  Since the traffic is uniformly terrible, there’s always time for looking and thinking…

I was surprised by the near total lack of Christmas decorations.  The apartment agent said that the Italians don’t do a lot of displays anyway, and the financial meltdown had taken away the shoppers. ‘hard to believe, but from St. Peters to the Coliseum, Rome was largely dark.

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Rome does, however, have an amazing sense of style, everywhere, and on everyone.

DSC03690 Rome is filled with scooters.  They snake between the cars, bunch ahead at lights, and demand lanes between cars where they can stream ahead.  It’s probably the most efficient way to get around the city, and it seems like a great opportunity for electric or hybrid models that would minimize pollution.  I never saw one, though.

DSC03673 There is a sense of history everywhere, stone structures and crumbling walls that always remind me of the days of empire.  I wonder about the everyday Italian’s perspective on their history: is it just a bit of overlooked background, a source of pride, a golden age to feel wistful about.  Many European countries had their century in the sun, long ago passed.  Rome’s was particularly strong and influential, though: do they feel inspired or intimidated by the constant reminders?

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The food in Rome is absolutely outstanding at every turn.  From little corner spots where you get a fresh-cut slice of pizza to upscale venues filled with pictures of the owner posed with rich and famous visitors, every meal is adventure and delight.  I’m convinced that the Italians don’t send the best stuff out of the country: the wines and pastas are wonderful.  I asked for a recommendation of Grappa at a wine bar one night, and they pulled a 20-year old bottle out for us to try.  It was like velvet: a totally unique experience.

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The flight back to Einhoven on Friday via Ryanair was packed with Italian students.  Every row, every seat, as though it were spring break.  It looked like a football or festival crowd, but I didn’t know of any events happening in the vicinity.  The Dutch border agents told me that this was the normal type and flow of tourists coming up for a party weekend in Amsterdam.  It’s the first time that I’d really encountered the ‘trade washing north: I understand why the Dutch city fathers are trying to think of practical ways to dampen it down.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Starling roost at sunset (video)

I wanted to get some good pictures back onto the city of Rome from the Ponte Sant' Angelo bridge on Thursday evening after the conference.  A huge flock of starlings gathered east of the bridge, over the trees, and started executing a “Starling roost”, forming fluid patterns of shadow and shape against the evening sky.  It’s an amazing sight, and played out over the river until the light had gone.

The pictures can’t do it justice, but the video (now posted on YouTube and linked, below) does.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Hanging out in Rome

icd The XIII International Symposium on Progress in Clinical Pacing is meeting in Rome this week, a gathering of cardiologists and researchers interested in electrical dysfunction and therapy in the heart.  The general public sees pacemakers as “old technology”, but there are a surprising number open clinical questions and new research findings that keep the proceedings lively.  From my perspective, it’s also a good chance to catch up on new devices and technologies, both well-understood ones like implanted defibrillators and resynchronization generators, but also monitoring devices for acute myocardial infarction (my specialty).

And, its a nice chance to visit a wonderful city.  I tried a different approach this visit, taking an apartment for four days instead of a hotel room. It was simple: I met the agent, got a quick orientation, gave her cash, received the keys, and I was flying solo.  It’s been a really good change: the apartment is beautiful, very stylish and modern.  No wifi connection, but an Internet cafe around the corner, next to a delightful pastry shoppe that’s kept my breakfasts happy.  The heating is a bit intense, and it’s hard to find a cab in the morning, but those are really minor issues.  The place runs about 2/3 the cost of a hotel,and is really worth considering (thanks, FriendlyRentals!)

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I’m living in the Trastavere, a neighborhood along the west bank of the Tiber towards the south part of the city.  It’s a warren of narrow cobbled streets filled with little restaurants and bars, a bit rough around the edges and totally un-drivable, but a real slice of life.  I am starting to take a deep liking to places with lively street life, little cafe’s, eclectic residents.  The best restaurants are scarcely noticeable from the street, but are warm and filled with locals.  The food is everywhere outstanding and relatively cheap: paper on the tables and kitchen just a doorway away from the patrons with the owner’s daughter serving.  It’s empty until 8:30, when the crowds suddenly flow in, greeting, kissing, gossiping, moving tables to accommodate groups.  The plates of food and bottles of drink fly back and forth without much glance at a menu, and payment is a cash affair at the end.  Totally great.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A month of daily blogs

Newsstand For the month of November, I accepted the challenge to make daily blog entries.

The NaBloPoMo initiative was brought to my attention through Amsterdam Asp, who used the opportunity to post daily observations on the topic of “Joy in Amsterdam”. Asp did a great job meeting his goal of daily, high-quality, themed postings; I missed three of the 30 days, but found it to be a generally good experience.

On the positive side, writing became more of a habit than an afterthought. Some portion of my mind was mulling over a topic to write about, and it was nice to take a half hour out for personal reflection each day. The regular posting helped me to develop a better rhythm and voice in my writing, and to be more constructively critical of what I have written. Daily posting forced more continuity to my narrative: I've discovered that my life, and my perspective of it, evolve at more of a daily pace. Weekly personal postings tended to be a bit jumpy; more regular entries certainly capture the changes in my life more coherently.

And it’s been fun taking new photos each day to illustrate each entry.

Tracker

Finally, while the daily posting had little impact on comments, the hits and visits tracked at Icerocket showed that readership increased about 50%. I’m not sure whether people respond to seeing more posts being indexed (or whether I was just tracking my own activity in posting), but it’s interesting that regularity has an effect.

On the negative side, there is a tyranny to daily posting that pressures other activities in life: some things must be pushed aside to make room for writing. (Unfortunately, “going to lunch” was usually the victim.) Some days, admittedly, the blog had to give, and I would have to carry the notes forward and back-date a day. Maintaining content quality was also a bit concern. There was always a temptation to cut corners by posting some pictures or an interesting link of the day, fortunately resisted. I don’t like the idea of becoming a “Daily Dish” compilation of tweets; I always want to try to be reflective, insightful, and varied (the same qualities I strive for as an individual).

There has also been a tendency for the blog to evolve towards more of a personal journal than the series of personal essays that I usually want. About half of my entries relate experiences, concerns, observations, and small joys in my life. It’s probably due, in part, to the whirlwind of activity involved with changing jobs and residence this month. Still, I have mixed feelings about that. Self absorption can easily get boring and repetitive, echos of naval-gazing have no wider purpose in print. On the other hand, if simple observations and perceptions can relate to questions or experiences shared by other expatriates, then I think it it was worth publishing. I’ve learned to apply that test to my journal-ish writing.

I will, in all likelihood, stay dedicated (but not slavish) to near-daily posting for the near future. I do, as always, thank you for looking in and for leaving comments. I read many of your blogs each morning over coffee, and enjoy your thoughts and experiences. They open my perspectives and give me good things to think about as I head into the day: thanks for your writings, on any frequency.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Dutch mysteries (some of many…)

morning drive 1- When I tell Dutch friends that I live in Maastricht, they all wax rapturous about the city. They say it’s a wonderful place to live, I’m lucky to be there. Waarom is de stad zo leuk? (Why is the city so nice?)

When pressed, the Dutch may talk about the culture, the architecture, and the proximity to Belgium and France before shrugging and simply saying it’s gezellig (~comfortable). A few folks said that it nice for not being particularly Dutch; at least one referred to its history and Dutch pride for having added Maastricht to the country in 1839.

I haven’t been able to think of a rapturous United States city that people would speak about as the Dutch do about Maastricht. The closest is the way that ex-New Yorker’s talk. Somehow, though, it’s captured the collective Dutch heart.

DSC03454 2- When I say that I’ve been going to Ikea to find furniture and household items, the Dutch are quick to recommend that I be sure to eat there. Umm, Ikea? Waarom zou ik eet om IKEA? (Why should I eat at Ikea?)

Although the idea never appealed to me, I found myself at the outskirts of Eindhoven one recent morning, looking for coffee, and I spotted the full Ikea parking lot. So, why not?

It turns out that Ikea serves a 1 euro breakfast with a roll, cheese, egg, and coffee. Adding a bit of ham and condiments, juice, brought the tab to 1.95 euro. And there is unlimited free coffee until the store opens at 10:30.

Needless to say, the Ikea cafe is packed. There is a play area for small children (who are distressingly gathered around Disney videos rather than the many toys scattered around), lots of small groups of friends having coffee together on the way back from exercise or on the way to the day’s errands. It’s the closest thing to a community gathering center that I’ve seen.

DSC03459 3- When standing in line for flights, I often see small groups of people frantically packing their bags near the counter. Others will be stuffing purses under coats. Everyone is biting their lip as they present their bag at check-in (or don’t). Waarom doet iedereen op het vliegveld pakken? (Why does everyone pack at the airport?)

This is all caused by the ever-tightening carry-on and baggage rules for RyanAir, in particular. There is a 15 kg limit for checked baggage, a one carry-on rule, and a limit of 10 kg and 55cm x 40cm x 20cm dimensions for cabin bags. They check all of these qualities religiously, and there is always frantic redistribution of goods when someone breaks a boundary. I’m forever having to slip my shoulder pouch into my computer bag just to get past the ticket counter.

DSC03452 4- Gasoline choices are becoming ever more numerous. The stations offer benzene (gasoline) and diesel, both in low- and high-octane grades. There is also a blue biofuel spout at many stations that seems to be a specialty fuel. Lately, there is an LPG (natural gas) spout as well, with a unique nozzle that clamps onto the alternative vehicles. Waarom zijn er zo veel brandstofoliepompen? (Why are there so many fuel pumps?)

Dutch enthusiasm and EU mandates. No sign of recharging stations yet, but I really like the easy availability of alternative fuels across the country. I haven’t been able to find any statistics that show the relative consumption rates of the various fuel types, but the EU generally and the Dutch in particular seem to be making good progress on establishing infrastructure that should pay off in the long run.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Closing out in Arnhem

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Everything is wrapping up in Arnhem this weekend: the closing party at the old division was held yesterday. It was pretty light: virtually everyone came back and it was more of a reunion than a wake. There was good food and music, a bit of entertainment, closing remarks from the senior managers. We had a thought that the best closing entertainment would be to do it ‘Vegas-style: a few fireworks and implode the building. Alas, it wasn’t to be. But it was all very nicely done, and left everyone with a good feeling about the people and their ex-roles in the organization.

I’ll also close out with the relocation folks tonight: we’re having a farewell dinner at the Watermolen to say thanks for all of the support they gave me. This was especially important in the vexing early months when I was trying to orient to living among the Dutch (while simultaneously getting my projects going at work – just my style, even then…). We’ve had quarterly get-togethers ever since to share experiences and tips. They’ve been good friends and reliable support throughout my stay: I’ll miss them.

Finally, the apartment closes tomorrow. Everything is clean and tidy, ready for the next tenant. I feel little attachment to it now: all of my things are gone and I’m feeling more comfortable about Maastricht, so there’s not the same sense of ‘home’. (I did mention that I’ve found a Quiz Night venue around the corner from the new digs?)

Random art -- Doetinchem 1And there was a really bizarre piece of Random Road Art in the village of Doetinchem last night, slowing traffic as I went through on the way to the party. These still make me smile every time I find one…