Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve

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A gray and rainy day in Seattle, contrasting with the snowy landscapes in Maastricht.  For once I’m on the right side of the weather, enabling me to finish the shopping, the tree-trimming, the cooking, and the schmoozing.  There was even time for three consecutive days of long-overdue exercise.

I hope that all of you have a warm and happy Christmas holiday with family and friends, a chance to remember good times together and to create new traditions and memories that last for many years to come.

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And many thanks to Marlou for the loan of her Maastricht pix.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Traveling with Gauguin

Gauguin - Thatched Hut under Palm TreesPlaces look the way that people who see them feel.  -- Ian Frazier, Travels in Siberia

Despite the technical limitations of his day, symbolist painter Paul Gauguin was a man on the move.  First living in France, then Denmark, and finally living as an expatriate in Tahiti. he was outspoken, insightful, and chronically short of money.  But he found, among the natives, the primitive subjects and colorful inspiration that stimulated many of his best works.

For the first time in 50 years, these works are gathered at the Tate Modern in London in a retrospective exhibition that captures the moods and passions of this unique artist.

The exhibit contains many of his best works, gathered into eleven themed rooms including Rural Narrative and Eternal Feminine.  A couple of my favorite works (below)  are missing, unfortunately, including “Young Girl with Fox” ( a meditation on virginity) and “Where do we come from?” ( a reflection on feminine life).

Gauguin - Young Girl With Fox Gauguin - Where Do We Come From

But most of his other well-known works are present, along with carvings and the entrance to his longhouse.  Letters and photographs from the period are included to give context, and the exhibit gives a very complete picture of his life and works. 

Unlike Munch, Gauguin painted in much the same style throughout his life.  The works don’t show as much technical finesse, but his primitive themes are evocative (and show a much more comfortable relationship with women), while the colors are much more vivid when seeing the actual paintings up close.

We spent a couple of hours walking the gallery, then retired to Roast, a restaurant in nearby Borough Market, to sort out impressions.  I’ve long enjoyed his style and backstory, and this is a unique chance to get a comprehensive view of the artist.

Gauguin - Spirit of the Dead Watching Gauguin - Arearea

More works are available in my Paul Gauguin library or on Wikipedia.

Gauguin: Maker of Myth is on exhibit at the Tate Modern through January 16 2011.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Reflecting on ancestry

I arrived back in the US over the weekend, dropping in through Vancouver and avoiding all of the storms blowing in across California.  My daughter and I immediately headed to Denver for a visit with my parents, a chance to catch up on, and to share,  events and rumors throughout the extended family.

When I was in my 20’s, I dropped through my grandparent’s home outside Cleveland each time I flew over on business, probably twice a year.  My grandfather was a lifelong railroader, working his way up from track worker to ‘assistant to the president (Personnel Training)’ of the Erie Lackawanna railroad.  I’ve always been glad that I’d made time to sit and talk with them: as time spent can never be taken away, I didn’t find myself wishing I’d done more once they were gone.  I’ve got lots of good memories.

2I put his name into the browser search engine on a whim while typing this, and the Internet popped up a news article from a company magazine, circa 1944.  He must have been in his 40’s at the time, much younger than I am now.  It’s so strange to see him young and hustling: he was distinguished and in-charge years later, as I first remember him.

Our social memory is clearly lengthening as more and more archival material moves online.  Its fascinating what random bits of personal history wash up as a result.  I can forsee social maps being automatically extended into the past, without the need to laborously reconstructing family trees  through public records. And future generations will benefit from the myriad tracks that we leave through the literature, blogs, and facebook postings, almost a daily record of our evolving thoughts and lives.

How will this affect family identity?  Today, family traditions are stories, handed down from grandmother to granddaughter.  We build our backstories through yellow photographs and personal narratives, tailored to matriarchal perspective. How will this change with direct access to the reality of published history?  Will we feel more or less connected to ancestors who speak for themselves? 

I think the blend of fact and legend will make our familial context more vivid, both inspiring and cautionary, than it is today.

And what of these essays?   I write for my own reflection and in dialog with today’s readers, but I’m aware that it also becomes part of the publicly accessible record.  Sometimes, I self-censure slightly for that.  No so, looking to my descendants: I’m happy to be leaving a trail for them to discover, if they are so inclined.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Schiphol queues and expat success

I like Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam a lot: it’s bright and cheerful, and people flow through the facility from door to gate with reasonable efficiency. The departure areas on the upper level are arranged like a chevron: two glass terminal blocks at an angle to one another, connected by a long, curving tunnel.

Now imagine a lone extending from one end of that departure area to the other: ten people abreast, a hundred in your vicinity, more than a thousand waiting patiently  It roughly follows the red line across the bottom the picture below.

schiphol 2

Now, imagiene that hour by hour, the massive queue inches forward, but the clocks are moving much, much faster.

I arrived back at the airport about 2:30 to check in for my 5:30 flight: usually this is a pretty quick process through the frequent flier queues.  The KLM area was walled off from the rest of the airport – that happens occasionally when there are crowds or security alerts, and usually means that the police are admitting people slowly through the front doors.

This time however, all the front doors were blocked, and airport police were waving people to the other terminal.  Even there, only one entrance was open.  Through the windows, I could see a wall of people the entire length of the airport.

Everyone was directed to the end of the line, and then we stood.  The departure board showed delays all over, all flights to Heathrow and a few to Frankfurt cancelled.  A sudden snowstorm had buried the airport and the nearby M25: it seemed likely that the system was disrupted as a result.  My flight to Vancouver was already delayed by an hour to 6:30, so I settled in to wait.

By 5:00, I had only moved the length of that first terminal. 

John Dickerson wrote a piece in Slate about how people respond to airport delays. In his taxonomy, I am an ‘Outside Flight Ninja’, one who immediately starts calling and plotting routes around the problem. These people walk away from other travelers so their solution won't be copied. They know the tricks of the major airports and departure times of alternate flights by heart.

First goal: get out of the line.  KLM had sent a few agents, flanked by police, to try to round up folks whose flight was departing within an hour.  I found a harried one who didn’t realize my 5:30 flight had been bumped to 6:30 and got waved through the tunnel.  A long line of sullen travelers glared on the left; airport officials and police dotted the corridor opened for those with a chance of escape.

The KLM desks were clogged: understaffed and crowded.  Half the desks had agents, and half of them were trying to rebook people who had already missed flights.  This cascaded to causing the rest of the line to miss flights.  I hopped between a few queues, gauging progress.  A quick call to the airline: the flight was now delayed until 7:00.  If I could get to the desk by 6, I would make it.

5:45; six people ahead of me.

Time to start negotiating: Are you all together?  What time are your flights leaving?  Except for one fellow whose fliht was leaving in ten minutes and was already doomed, I had the earliest.  I worked my way up the queue, the person at the desk who I’d thought was one-bag / ready-to-go turned out to need a rebooking. The agent picked up the phone, the line groaned.

She cleared the desk at 5:55 and I was in….and out in two minutes.  I thanked people warmly, and scooted to the gate.  No lines at immigration;  a short jog down the concourse.  The flight left early; I boarded with 5 minutes until closing.

Schiphol33000 people were stranded at Schiphol on Saturday night.  The brought out camp beds and maybe 500 stayed over in the airport itself.  I feel a little guilty at Ninja’ing my way out, but nobody would have been helped if I hadn’t.

KLM could have helped with just a few changes to procedure:

  • Anticipate.  It’s the busiest travel day of the year: wouldn’t you add a few personnel at Departures?
  • Communicate.  No airport or airline people could explain what was going on, so nobody could make reasonable plans.
  • Keep promises.  The agents kept saying there would be desk help within 10 minutes.  It never came;  people stopped believing.
  • Prioritize.  Holding up people who could have made their flight while agents rebooked people who already missed theirs just worsened the problem.
  • Use technology.  Rebook people using call centers; issue boarding passes to their mobile phones.  The problem was entirely at the desks.
  • No exceptions.  A manager allowed a family to jump the queue to get processed ahead of others.  This just encourages bad behaviour all around.

On the plus side, the Dutch crowd was astonishingly well behaved, quiet, orderly, patient.  The police kept a low presence mainly aimed at being reassuring and stopping people from cutting in line.  And the gate people managed late arrivals onto the planes very efficiently.

I’m reading Clutch, how to get things right under pressure:  Author Paul Sullivan claims that success depends on having five key personality attributes: Focus, Discipline, Adaptability, Being present (and blocking out everything else), and Using fear and desire to drive for success.

In hindsight, my experience seems to ratify these principles.

But they also contrast interestingly with Cligiuri’s “Big Five” personality traits that determine expat success: Extroversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, and Openness or Intellect.

I know several expats who have the Big Five, but who failed to cope with the occasional challenges of pressure situations and ultimately quit their overseas assignments. I’ll have to think on whether expat success requires both sets of competencies aspects in your repertoire, rather than just one.