Saturday, January 7, 2012

Weekend miscellany

A bit of a windy start to the New Year here in Cambridge.  The weather is warm and wet, but very strong winds rattling the windows and whistling over the roof.  No damage, but an artistic layout of the trash cans in front of the apartment.  I righted them, but they were back in the same arrangement an hour later.  There’s no winning against Nature.

I have a lot of catching up to do in the coming week (I’ve been joking that I’m not even able to keep ahead of organizing my to-do list, much less shrinking it…

  • Clean your appsmypermissions.org is a free website / utility suggested to me by a US-based friend.  It scans your add-ins for Facebook, twitter, Google, etc and brings the permission settings out into the open.  Most settings can be modified through the app, and I’s a great tool for getting some transparency and control over your social networking sites.
  • Wire your money:  I’m paying my business invoices and hit an especially large one from a vendor in the Netherlands that needs to be paid with cash in the US.  I asked the bank to fill in all the wire details and track / verify the transaction, always a good practice since money that goes astray because instructions are mis-typed is not easy to recover.  I checked the exchange rate: the WSJ rate is $1.277 /euro: the bank quotes $1.322/ euro plus a $30 fee.  On a 10K transfer, that is a $450 excess charge.  It doesn’t depend on how fast the money is sent, only on the amount: more than 25K$ must go to get a better differential.
    • Western Union, World First,  and American Express offer somewhat better rates: their service are free, but involve filling in a lot of paperwork and getting interviewed.  I suppose that’s a sign of our political and economic times.
    • Frustratingly, after three days of emailed questions, AMEX rejected my application out of hand, despite a longstanding business card relationship.  Their condescending note refused to give a reason, but their interview questions centered on what a BV is and why my US  company address matched my home address.
    • Anyone have better ideas?
  • Understand your British (or Americans):  It took me a long time to sort out that when you ask Brits whether they want something, “I don’t mind” means yes.  In the US, it’s sort of a grudging acceptance at best (“if you must”, unless you say the whole “Don’t mind if I do”, which means “Yes!”).  Reciprocally, it’s become obvious that their ear is not tuned to the difference between “That’s fine”, which means  ‘yes, I would, please’, and “I’m fine”, which is ‘no more, thank you’. 
    • Only the Dutch is more confusing, in which ‘yes’ sometimes means ‘yes, I don’t want any more’.  I’ve taken to just leaving the plate of cookies in the middle of the table.  I know, very un-Dutch.
  • Catch up on your reading:  Growing up, I read a lot of science fiction.  Over the years, I fell away from it as the genre was overtaken, first by New Wave literature that was nonlinear and unreadable, then by fantasy, and finally by serializations of TV shows and movies.  Classically “Hard SF” is difficult to find,   I subscribe to author David Brin’s twitter stream (and I’m a big fan of Startide Rising and his writings on information privacy), and he recommended Best SF Books, a very nice compilation of SF authors, titles and reviews.  This will leaven my sparse diet of Dutch language, China analysis, and “how to fix the financial system” readings of recent months.

For some reason we’ve been getting some really spectacular sunrises and sunsets lately. With all of the wind and rain, the atmosphere should be pretty well scrubbed, so I’m not sure what’s causing it.  But I am enjoying it.

Disclaimer:  All opinions are my own; I have not been solicited nor compensated for these comments.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Being a long-term expat

DSC00734I’ve lived in Europe for six years now, initially in England, then the Netherlands, now scattered a bit everywhere.  The first years were filled with the newness of the experience, learning how to execute everyday tasks in unfamiliar settings, fitting into a job and a neighborhood, learning the rudiments of the language (whether Dutch or British English: the latter is almost harder because I thought I understood it).

Prior to leaving the security of my corporate expat assignment, I thought that I probably understood about 80% of what I needed to know to live successfully in Dutch communities on my own.  I quickly learned that I understood about 10%.  My subsequent adolescence as an expat was spent mastering everyday processes for establishing a business (in all aspects of legal, accounting, and operations, not just leading a project), moving about without a subsidized car (acquiring passes, cards, and a taste for off-peak services),  re-registering with the Gemeente and IND (a 6 month process, yearly), paying taxes (un-equalized business and personal, in Dutch, UK, and US jurisdictions), and shifting between social communities (disconnect from Corporate; reconnect with neighbors).

A close friend who passed away last year used to define a long term expat as one who’d been away more than five years.  She held that people became noticeably weird after that, going native and adopting unrecognizable political positions and social customs.  I hope I’ve avoided that, but still find that perspectives change after suck a long time.  It has to: the businesses are doing well, I encounter fewer day-to-day surprises, and I’m thinking more about how to fit in rather than just get along.

There are four tasks in this regard on my New Year’s list:

Complete my language training.  I need to take my NT2 exam by year’s end under my learning agreement with the Gemeente, and it would just make everyday life so much easier.

Travel more, take a weekend each month to visit a village or museum, perhaps the countryside for a walk or a sail.  I did that a more during the first two years, but have unfortunately transitioned to running the businesses 24/7 in the past two years.

End the visa renewal cycle.  After 6 years, I’m finally eligible for permanent residency (or dual citizenship). The distinction hinges, in part, on how freely I want to be able to settle elsewhere in Europe and the perceived risk to my US passport: permanent residency is the goal.

Straighten out the housing situation.  As business opportunities multiplied, residences followed.  More than two places to hang my hat is expensive in many ways: I don’t spend enough time anywhere to stay connected with people, it spreads my belongings around, and it consumes many days in travel time every month. ‘pushing towards a USNL solution.

A post-adolescent expat, like a twenty-something, starts to worry about their place in the world, professionally, personally, residence, career, comfort, security.  These turn out to be lonely issues to try to solve. After six years, family and friends worry that “fitting in” means “settling in”.   Nobody’s staging an intervention (yet), but it’s become harder to practice language over the Internet, to suggest a Dutch universal care model in a health reform discussion, or to share weekend photos from Alsace without risking disapproval.  And that, in turn, leads to further compartmentalization at a time that I’m trying to integrate the important ambitions, people, work-life balances, and family connections in my life.

It’s a phase in an evolution along a journey, I know: I do enjoy living here and the opportunities it provides.  And I’m optimistic about assembling the pieces into a wonderful whole this year.  But there aren’t any really good examples or guidance for how to do this after the first few years.  The trick is always to find the path forward without just becoming isolated or discouraged.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Vermeer’s Women

Johannes Vermeer. The Lacemaker. c.1669-1670. Oil on canvas, 23.9 x 20.5 cm. 
Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch painter active in Delft in the mid-1600’s; he captured everyday, domestic scenes characterizing middle-class life of the Golden Age.  Het Meisje met de Parel is probably his most recognized work, but thirty-four authenticated paintings have been catalogued into museums.  Four of those (including The Lacemaker, right), along with two dozen associated works by artists of the same period, are collected in Vermeer’s Women, a free exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (UK).  It’s a short train ride north from London and a worthwhile detour if you are interested in everyday Dutch life as depicted by a variety of painters contemporary with Vermeer.

The paintings center around women at work in the home.  Tradesmen bring their wares to the front hall (voorhuis) for sale; servant girls offer selected items to the wife living in the personal spaces at the back, interrupting her Steen Stockingsewing.  There are scenes of women lost in their reading of books and letters, leaning from windows to talk with friends, attending to morning or evening dressing (left is Jan Steen, Woman at her Toilet).

As with many Dutch paintings, these often seem dark and brooding, dim settings rendered in melancholy blacks and yellows.  I don’t know if that is realism from the time (large wooden rooms lit by candlelight, with few windows), aging of the paints, or the influence of Rembrandt.  The women look luminous within the pictures, porcelain skin and satin clothes, all finely rendered in bright colors as compared to the flat textures of objects in the rooms.  The accompanying text does a good job of describing the Vrel Woman at a Windoiwnarrative symbolism of objects in the rooms, and of the conventions of household layout and management in the 1600’s (right is Jacobus Vrel, Woman at the Window, exchanging glances with a young girl who might be outside or might only be a reflection).

The pictures, to me, suggest a very solitary life.  The rooms have few furnishings apart from plates above the hearth, a chair and a table and lots of empty floors.   The women seem lost in their own work, seldom talking or making eye contact with one another or the viewer, often turned away.  Children are more often seen entreating distant mothers than playing with them.  The technique and use of colour is lovely, though, and there is lots to reflect about Dutch life both then and now.

The exhibition runs through mid-January.  Lines were long leading into the exhibition but they moved quickly.  Once inside, the best strategy to is drift between paintings: the crowd flows in knots and it’s easy to dip into the gaps and see everything without waiting for each work in turn.

For details on Vermeer’s life, works, and upcoming events highlighting his work, I like The Essential Vermeer, a well constructed and actively maintained web resource.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

HNY 2012

DSC078312011 ended quietly, somewhere over Greenland.

It’s hard to say where, even when the calendar rolled over to 2012.  I know that I left Seattle on Saturday afternoon, clear skies, unseasonably warm temperatures, and a lovely view of The Mountain over the hangers.

I dropped into New York City about 9 pm, the city aglow and the skyline shimmering in a faint haze.  Television monitors in the deserted SkyLounge showed massive crowds jamming into Times DSC07844Square: no fireworks dotted the horizon when I left at 10:30 pm.

I would have expected an announcement from the captain, perhaps a bit of champagne instead of wine for the discount-seekers filling his plane on a holiday evening.  A friend told me this afternoon that BA did hold a small celebration aboard his flight.

But ours passed quietly. I landed at Heathrow at 11 am on Jan 1, 2012, to  clear skies, unseasonably warm temperatures, and a lovely view of, well, Hounslow over the hangers.

So, in the absence of alternative New Year’s Celebrations, I publish this year’s “Dad And Daughter” picture: Happy New Year from the random salmon sculpture marking the entrance to metropolitan Woodinville.  I wish you all the very best!

2011 Dave and Laura