Saturday, June 23, 2012

Through Dutch eyes

I had our lead engineer / project manager along from Maastricht throughout the visits to Detroit and Chicago last week, and it was an opportunity (for us both) to see how our preconceived notions of the US and our cross-language experiences compare.  It was really interesting, we had long talks over meals and car transfers to talk about perceptions and, as always, overseas travel is broadening for everyone involved.

On the Trivial But Expected side, the low price of gasoline (and of  purchasing a car), the over-size of meals (Chicago-style deep dish pizza), the length of the baking aisle in a grocery, the crumbling infrastructure in Detroit, the baffling question “soup or salad?”, the tendency of US drivers to choose any lane (and stay there) on the highway, and the weakness of US koffie, all matched expectations.

Among the Trivial but Unexpected aspects, the harmless (but lethal-looking) road claws that protect rental car exits are still a gut-clench for the Dutch as I sail over them.   The general lack of road signage, the prowling radar traps, and the separated houses, each on their own lot rather than joined in a row, all provoked comment (and all the drawn curtains).

Significant but Expected:  Language is the big one.  My colleague is fluent in English, studied in Britain, but Americans talk fast and monotone to her ear.  The words tend to run together, and when multiple conversations start around a table or someone starts interrupting someone else, it get’s impossible to follow.

I have the same complaint about trying to follow the Dutch: I think that when conversational patterns devolve into multiple interacting streams, it’s very hard for non-native’s to parse.  And trying to keep up can be really tiring.

Finally, Significant and Unexpected, Americans seem rude.  To the Dutch!

We always claim that the simple directness widespread in the Netherlands has no counterpart in the US.  But the issue seemed to have two sides for her.  One was that the tendency of Americans to interrupt, complete one another’s thoughts, veer into sidebar conversations, and turn attention rapidly away from one person and towards another mid-discussion borders on disrespect.

Good friends also tease one another when they disagree, probably to lighten the mood and indicate that the topic  isn’t jeopardizing their friendship.  But to Dutch ears, “You know where you can put that!” is pretty adversarial (Our Dutch colleague asked one of the group if they were still genuinely friends with the other after a couple of exchanges).  I’m used to the British requiring a lot of social grease in order to fit in, but was surprised that the Dutch had some of the same concerns.

The other issue was politics.  I want to touch on how the US politicians are using Europe as a scapegoat tomorrow, but the Conservative / Liberal divide is the focus today.

In our group of four, we have two people very right wing and two very left.  We generally avoid political discussions because we recognize that no two will ever change the minds of the others.  But, inevitably, there would be an insult about Obama, a nod to liberals being soft-headed, a disagreement about the banks and taxes.

Over breakfast, we ended up talking about health insurance, and they advocated the Rynd-ian opinion that people should only have access to the health insurance that they were willing to pay for.  What about disabled, elderly, children?  It’s the responsibility of the disabled, the children, the parents to take care of family and friends, not the rest of society.  If a few people without insurance died because they didn’t buy insurance, the rest would buy soon enough.

Needless to say, this doesn’t fit the Dutch social model (and I thought it was embarrassing; she commented that politics is not something discussed with acquaintances), but it’s a mirror of the debates that polarize American society today.  The extreme positions and heated rhetoric, the personal and visceral way that opinions are expressed, has gotten more and more prevalent.  Now, I think it’s  also coming to define American attitudes and characteristics for others.

Regretfully.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Back from the travels

…and with a hacking cough.  The combination of airplanes, jet lag, long days, and shifty weather will do it every time.

It was a good visit to the US: a lot of work on the technical and clinical aspects of the T4 project and the first meeting of the whole team in six months.  We had the agendas and prototypes tee’d up and forced decisions on major issues, so there’s consensus and a clear path ahead.  Fundraising should close in the next couple of weeks and that will bring some more people alongside the project, easing the administrative load.

Both Detroit and Chicago were very hot, 95F (35C) under sunny skies.  The UK, in contrast, is still cold, wet, rainy – I suspect that the Netherlands will be similar next week when I get back to Amsterdam and Maastricht.

It feels like everyone’s circumstances have soured with the weather.  People seem to be having a lot of relationship problems, work problems, health problems, life problems.  Most of the time I find out about it on social network status lines:

Life: unexpected things, tough to deal with. The only thing one can do is pray that the lord reveals the path I must take.

I feel badly for friends running into problems of this magnitude, but have no idea of the circumstances or what would help.  Then, too, I think that people forget they have an audience.

TSB-security went psycho on me in Detroit.  I opted out of the full-body scan and was struggling to keep track of my equipment as it went through x-ray belt.  Before getting frisked, I asked to inventory my things: the security guard took offense, challenging whether I was accusing him of stealing.  I make 50,000 a year: ‘you think I need to be stealin’ your stuff??  I tried to wave it off, he took further offense, and finally another guard had to came over to intervene.

Maybe it’s the heat, but people forget they have an audience.

The UK internet connection is, once again, broken.  BT says that it’s an “exchange problem (we regret the inconvenience)”.  They expected it to be solved by Wednesday, then Friday, now Sunday. I tweeted displeasure and BTCare picked up on it quickly (unfortunately, their solution was to ask how many blue lights on my modem).

Meanwhile, I’m slurping internet off the coffee shops while ordering double-mocha-frappa-somethings.  ‘Hard to run a business from the mall.

It seems part of a larger trend of Things Not Working.  Three of my Delta flights were delayed due to maintenance (3 hours coming back from Detroit because of a clogged sink).  The trains are still having problems with overhead wires.  The rental car agency had to check us in by hand because the computers went off line.  Even the Cambridge Library is having to post what services are up and which are down.

There’s lot’s to catch up on in the coming days – in between midsummer weekend celebrations, now coming into full swing on the outskirts of Cambridge.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Father’s day memories

Fathers day 1Father’s day is always a bit wistful: everyone far away, it’s a bit of a scramble to catch people by phone, and lots of folks my age have lost their’s.  I’m fortunate, still with mine to talk to about life events and when the road get’s rough.  So, I do my shopping and shipping weeks in advance (a bottle of 16-year Single Malt in a mailer marked FRAGILE: Lava Lamp).

 Graduation 07 Punting the Cam 06

My own children, in contrast, can be …well…a bit last-minute.

However, this year, my daughter is using a Fathers day 2portion of her convalescence to organize and scan decades of old family photos.  These treasures have been languishing in a very crowded bedroom drawer, lovingly added to after every vacation and holiday, year after sedimentary year.  There are lots of good memories there, and I’m hopeful that we’ll get them into some sort of chronologic (or at least subject) order soon.

So Father’s Day was a Fathers day 3good opportunity for her to post a few memorable shots on Facebook.  I woke to find my younger self (with real  blond, rather than birch-bark blond hair) and my much younger offspring decorating my Wall.  Cute.

‘hard to believe we were all that cute…once.

A very happy Father’s Day to all!