Brian & Ann's European Experience

Thursday, October 28, 2004

IKEA & karma

So we went to IKEA last night and dropped 1,100 Euros on furniture for our new pad. Couches. Dining room table. End table. Rug. Bed. Mattress. Bathroom rack. Entertainment center. Our place is goign to be an IKEA model home.

The thing is, we were supposed to eat at the restaurant, then go shopping and take our restaurant receipts with us, and they would deduct it from the bill. Cool right? Free Swedish meatballs and ligonberry sauce, hooray.

Except that half the Netherlands was also there waiting in line for their free meal. So we decided to shop first and try and get the discount second. Ehhhhh. Thanks for playing. Buh-bye.

It took two and a half hours to get everything, and then enter in each of our four pallets worth of stuff item by item into the system to schedule the delivery. The place closed at 9:00 and we finished at about 8:50.

Plus, we missed the last bus back to the train station and we didn't have any way of calling a taxi. So, Ann put on her best 'lost child' face and asked at customer service if there was any way to find a taxi service, and the woman standing in line next to her offers to drive us to a train station!

Deciding to keep the good karma going I took my receipts from dinner and handed them to some appropriately tall Dutch guy telling him that they would take 12 Euros off his bill if he gave them to the cashier.

The good karma keeps on rolling.

So, I'd just like to say a warm thank you to Fred and Marysa, who dropped us off at the Zuidplein subway stop. Even though Marysa told us that the place was always in the news because of the murders, we got to the Central Station unmolested and got home much quicker than if we had been waiting in Barendrecht for a local train.

Let it never be said that the Dutch are unfriendly or insensitive to those in need.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

The Death of America

The election is coming.

It is less than a week away. It dominates every newspaper headline, it is on every newscast of every Dutch, German, and Belgian TV channel that we get. There are more articles about who's leading in the polls than any other topic. Even an ocean away the election for the next President of the United States is the biggest story going. The story is so strong, the passions are so inflamed, that people on both sides of the ocean, believing that their very lives are at stake, have engaged in disgraceful acts that in almost any other era those same people would probably not even be able to contemplate without revulsion.

In the UK a newspaper bought a mailing list of US voter names in a swing state and urged their readers to write them letters and urge them to vote. Ostensibly it was just an effort to promote turnout in the US, but since the overwhelming opinion of Europeans is anti-Bush the "we're just promoting the exercising of democracy" defense doesn't hold spit. That kind of international tampering is reprehensible, and the fact that a media outlet has compromised it's integrity by engaging in such a partisan activity fills me with sadness.

Unlike the right wing media in my own country, which distorts the truth on a daily basis to tens of millions of viewers. That just makes me mad. It enrages me that a propaganda machine like Fox News is allowed to exist in a country who sacrificed 400,000 of its citizens to defeat facist countries whose leaders employed those very same tactics to justify the very same ends.

For some reason, instead of earning the outright contempt of the American public for lying to them, and so blatantly trying to manipulate them, the average middle American is likely to call you un-patriotic, or imply that you don't support the troops, if you disparage Bill O'Rielly or Brit Hume. Unbelievable. Somewhere in Washington a Republican is lighting the incense sticks on his shrine to the right wing media and cackling with glee that they can still somehow seem to portray the media as 'liberal' whenever it suits their needs.

Anger. That's what the outlets for my country's political discourse inspire in me.

And it's not just the media that has this effect on me.

I'm angry that spin is more important than substance. I'm angry that anyone can get in front of a podium and portray the situation in Iraq as "improving" and not have their head explode. I'm angry that over a thousand US soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi people, human beings with lives just as valuable as any American's, have been killed in what has to be the biggest fraud that has ever been perpetrated on the American people.

I'm angry that the marketers of the right wing are so adept, and the average intelligence of my countrymen so low, that they aren't demanding that the President be impeached for causing the needless deaths of tens of thousands of people and then getting on TV during a debate and saying he was fighting "the enemy".

0 of 19 hijackers were from Iraq.

There were 0 operational anti-US terrorist camps in Iraq before we went in there and turned the entire country into one.

We are the Muslim extremists wet dream. We created a terrorist training facility the size of California, where even your average run-of-the-mill jihadist, who before the war would likely have never even SEEN an American citizen, now has the opportunity to blow one up wiht an Improvised Explosive Device. We achieved the miracle of uniting the Shiites and the Sunnis: in hatred against us.

I'm angry that I was lied to about weapons of mass destruction, a very real and credible threat that will now never be taken seriously ever again. Here's how I envision the next intelligence briefing on WMD:

Intelligence Chief: "Mr. President, we have satellite photos of Country X putting the nuke on the warhead and programming in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave!"
President: "Oh really. Like in Iraq?"

The sad part is that due to the proliferation of these weapons I'm sure there will come a time when we ARE attacked with some form of WMD, and it will be from some place that we never bothered to shine a light on because there was no chance that there would be a pool of oil there to shine back on us.

I'm angry that I believed Colin Powell's fabulous PowerPoint presentation to the UN. Thank you Colin Powell, for removing the illusion from me that my elected government would never lie to me about something as serious as a threat to our national security.

I believed. Up until the moment I realized that CNN and Fox and all the others were so desperate to capture the footage of the first discovered stockpile of WMDs that they were interrupting regular programming EVERY TIME A SENSOR WENT OFF, only to have to fill the dead air time after time when all that was ever found were some gas masks and one artillery shell with some mustard gas residue. It took until about the second or third false alarm before it really hit me.

There never were any weapons.

It was all a lie.

A lie Saddam told to instill fear, or to impress a girl. Who knows. I don't know why he lied. But Saddam Hussein didn't lie to me. Saddam Hussein didn't take over 100 billion of my country's tax money and spend it on creating the largest terrorist camp the world has ever seen, while smiling and telling me he was making me safer. Saddam Hussein didn't give the order for 135,000 US troops to walk into an Arab country and beg them to hate us.

George W. Bush did that.

And that's why I'm angry. Because the Great Liar (as I have come to call him) has lied so well, and so effectively, that he is now up by 5 points in the latest polls of likely voters.

I am sad. And angry. At America.

Because we believe the emporer when he tells us he has clothes on, even when our eyes are staring at the ugly truth every night on the evening news.

It's like reverse David Copperfied. He pulls the curtain off the Statue of Liberty and it's still there... and we all pretend not to see it. Because for some reason we'd rather believe that terrorists took it away. We'd rather trade what it means to be America for the right to go and blow the shit out of some other country to feel better about getting sucker-punched in the face by Osama bin Laden.

Osama bin Laden: Mastermind behind the deaths of almost 3,000 Americans who were killed on their own soil. We sent 5,000 troops after him and Mullah Omar. Both are still at large.

Saddam Hussein: Never responsible for the death of any American on American soil. We sent 135,000 troops after him and pulled him out of a hole after six months.

Hello, priorities!? Where's the anger! Where's the outrage?

I never had Watergate. I never had Vietnam. I never had those experiences that shake the very trust that is the foundation of any democracy's legitimacy. Until now.

I have Iraq.

I have something now that helps me understand what it does to your soul to find out that your country doesn't mean what you thought it meant. That your President lied to you. And that people, a lot of them, died as a result. Most of them innocent.

I am angry that more people aren't angry. They cannot, or worse, they do not want to see, that their country's very meaning has been corrupted. What used to be the land of freedom and the place where hard working people could achieve success, has revealed itself to be nothing more than one, gigantic, superpower of a con artist.

I have never been one to say that a country should act according to what the rest of the world thinks of it. I am not that "multilateral". But I also do not believe that any country, even the world's only superpower, cannot afford to pretend that it lives in a vacuum where the opinion of the rest of the world has no bearing on our own security.

It's called *International* terrorism for a reason.The terrorists who attacked our country on September 11 operated out of Europe and the Middle east while they were planning their heinous crimes. And now the lesson we have shown the world is that we will not listen to them at all. So why should they?

I'm angry that the real threat, terrorism, has been hijacked. I'm angry that so many Americans link Iraq and September 11th even though the two had nothing to do with each other.

I'm angry that we want to believe the lie. And that we will look at the iceberg in our path and instead tell ourselves that what we are looking at is the promised land of a safe and secure America. Oh, and that must be Lady Liberty there behind it, we've been missing her!

Jesus. Seven more days of this incessant coverage of people saying nothing.

And then, sadly, barring a minor miracle at the polls, four more years of watching the meaning of the word America slowly die until it is a synonym for 'lie'.

It used to be that the American Dream was something to aspire to. Now it means the capability of seeing the bodies of 48 unarmed Iraqi National Guard troops who were executed while they were lying on the ground, and telling the world that the situation is improving.

I guess I am most angry at the fact that America does not mean what I thought it did. Not anymore.


Sunday, October 24, 2004

Dutch Fashion

Ever since moving here Ann and I have noticed a certain distinct and pervasive sense of Dutch 'style'. Simply put: the Dutch wear things that in almost all other cultures would surpass acceptable fashion limits.

When put into the larger context of their country's historically inclusive and tolerant culture it may be easier to understand this seeming meltdown of conventional fashion norms. The Dutch have always been a little... different, from the other European countries.

When you walk down the shopping streets in the Netherlands you will be confronted with a series of stores bearing names that rival their American counterparts in trendiness. Stores such as Cool Cat, Miss Sixty, The Sting, and Etam would blend in quite well with American establishments such as Wet Seal, Hot Topic, and Torrid.

The clothes come from such famous labels as G-Star Raw, Diesel, Von Dutch (natually), Cool Cat (they have their own clothes), and Indian Rose. These designers of men and women's fashions have tailored their offerings to appeal to the unique Dutch sense of style. Bold, mismatched colors are only the tip of the iceberg. Many Dutch fashionistas also have a penchant for contrasting styles of clothing even within one ensemble. There is the popular "poofy colorful skirt over black spandex leggings tucked into white boots" flavor of contrast. There is also the "long colorful wool scarf over brown suede coat and black pants" look. I personally enjoyed the girl with the orange camo hat and the puffy green North Face jacket over a black skirt and boots, sporting the straw handbag with fashionable skull and crossed bones (see montage below). There are also the traditional style staples like Lacoste, Tommy Hilfiger, Polo, Scapa, Zara... but no one cool is wearing THOSE.

And for some unfathomable reason it has become very popular to wear high suede boots into which jeans are tucked. Several examples of this are included in the montage above. These are REAL people wearing this stuff. I took those pictures myself as we were touring around. And before you dismiss this as perhaps the style of only one particular city, I should mention that the shots above were taken in Amsterdam, Dordrecht, Den Haag, and Rotterdam.

Ann's general reaction to the sight of these brave pioneers of contra-fashion is a look of disbelief (you know, the look that says, "Am I really seeing this?") followed by either a "I feel really old," or a, "Can we move to Belgium?" My general reaction is to wonder how much effort must have gone in to finding the exact combination of colors and styles that would NOT match. It must take them a fair amount of time, but as you can see for yourself, the results are obviously well worth the effort.

Can't wait to see what will be in by summertime. All two weeks of it.

click for larger images







Friday, October 22, 2004

Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa... and Brian

Our friend Mark Lorenc will love this.

Ann called up the IND, the bureau responsible for processing our application for a residence permit, to check up on the status.

The woman said it was still processing, but that she didn't think it would be a problem since her husband was Polish and therefore an EU citizen.

Come again?

Yes, apparently "USA" and "Poland" are very easy to mix up in Dutch. One is abbreviated "VS" (for Verenig Staten) and one is "PL" (for Polen).

Please, no "ejector seats in helicopters" jokes.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

A Taste of Bureaucracy

Just to give you a typical example:

I called up the local school a few weeks ago to see what it would cost to take Dutch lessons. Immediately the receptionist said: "Do you have an inbeurgeringskontract?" To which I replied: "God bless you."

Apparently, if you have this unpronounceable piece of paper from the government, then THEY pay for your Dutch lessons. This is a service to help newcomers learn how to speak Dutch so they can integrate into Dutch society better. Okay... get paper... free school. Got it.

This morning I met with a representative of the WIN, the Dutch agency responsible for handling the 'intake' of foreigners. To get this meeting I had to call them, explain what I wanted, answer a few questions correctly, and then wait for them to send me a letter with an appointment time. The letter did come in timely fashion (three days after my call), and the appointment was only a week after my call. So far so good.

I show up at the meeting. The woman is very polite. She immediately tells me that she looked into my 'file' at the town hall, and (of course), I do not yet have the necessary paperwork completed: I don't have my official residence permit.

The residence permit is, of course, handled by another department, so there really is nothing she can do. When I mentioned to her that the residence permit may take six months to get, she immediately knew the answer to that one: "Yes, but usually before the actual permit comes they send you a letter saying that the permit is coming."

Rube Goldberg would be proud.

It's good to know that so long as the Dutch bureaucracies remain standing the Dutch Post Office will remain solvent.

Ah, but we are not yet done. It IS possible for me to get started learning Dutch. If my wife, who is an EU citizen and legal resident, writes a 'garandstelling' (Bless you again) letter stating that she will pay the costs for the school if for some reason the residence permit is denied, then they will go ahead and send the inbeurgeringskontract (You really should get that checked out) to the school which will result in...

...another interview!

See, you can't just start taking classes, silly! You have to have an interview to determine what kind of classes are best, what your schedule is, yadda yadda yadda. I seriously contemplated showing up at this interview and putting on my best retard act. ("Hahv you theen my weiner?")

But let's get back to this 'garandstelling' letter where my spouse promises to pay if for some reason I should be denied residency (keep in mind that it's only ME that needs the fucking permit):

Brian: "So what do you need in the letter?"
Bureaucrat: "Her name and address, that she will pay, and your name and address."
Brian: "Do you need her SOFI [Social security] number?"
Bureaucrat:"No."
Brian:"Do you need a bank account or credit card number?"
Bureaucrat:"No."
Brian:"Should she include a copy of her passport?'
Bureaucrat:"No."

If the Dutch Government denies my residency I wish them the best of luck collecting from Catherine Zeta Jones-Bishop, 123 Flurneygurney St., Dordrecht.

Also, by signing up for the inbrughrugrufkontract I automatically enroll with YET ANOTHER government agency, the VIZO, whose purpose is to provide support to people moving to the Netherlands. They will be contacting me to make sure I am fully supported, that I am getting by fine in the Netherlands, and that I am not roaming around the streets with pneumatic bolt cutters stealing bikes. I envision this as kind of like my Dutch parole officer.

Naturally, the VIZO will send me a letter.
To set up an appointment.
To have an interview.
Where the first thing they will tell me is, of course:

"You don't have the right paperwork."

Monday, October 18, 2004

An Update on My Dinner

Dinner tonight: rice cakes, smoked gouda cheese, a Coke.

Just so no one got the impression that the Netherlands has changed me.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Blanca's Visit

For those of you who don't know, Blanca is one of the founding members of Smelly Pig, the world-famous two guitar, four singer, one plastic tambourine band whose appeareances at the Bucks County Coffee House are legendary.

Blanca is originally from San Esteban de Gormaz, a small village in Soria, an hour and a half north of Madrid. We met originally in Princeton when she was working as an au pair. Nowadays Blanca is living in Brussels while she completes a five month internship at the European Parliament.

Blanca made the mistake of letting us know that she was close by, so we invited her to come and visit us at her earliest convenience. Of course, we marketed all the positive points of the Netherlands in an attempt to secure her visit: legalized marijuana, legalized prostitution, little towns with cute canals, tulips, cheese, etc. What we left out was the fact that it would probably be cold, grey, and rainy the entire time she was here.

And it was.

Friday I picked her up at the train station and we walked back to the apartment with me pointing out the important sights of Dordrecht: "that's the apartment we thought we had, but we didn't get. Oh, that's the apartment that we told them we would sign the papers for, but we didn't. Above this restaurant is an apartment we looked at, but we didn't like. Oh, that's the town square with a statue of some guy."

Saturday, we went to Den Haag. This is where many of the government offices are, and is a historically important town because many international events and treaties took place in Den Haag. The International Court of Justice is located there now, as well as the Queen's 'working palace', and a lot of expensive stores who cater to the indiginous population of lawyers and bureaucrats.

It's cute town. The center of the city has this large rectangular pond around which the houses of parliament are located. There are many museums and we visited the Mauritshuis museum, which was the first public museum in the Netherlands, a gift of Prince William the 5th of Orange, who amassed quite a few Rembrandts, Vermeers, and other works from Dutch and Continental Masterpieces. Ann and I finally got to see the famous painting "Girl with a Pearl Earring" (which was the subject of a great movie, Scarlett Johanssen is in it). It is truly striking with its black background, subtle use of light and contrast, and the fantastic way the girl's expression is captured. It's definitely worth seeing.

While we were there we also took a tram ride to the beach. That area is called Scheveningen (don't even try to pronouce it correctly), and during the one week in summer when it is sunny and warm, all Dutch people are required to put on their speedos and lay on the beach. We hope not to miss it next summer (as the liberal-minded Dutch women are usually also well-endowed). Okay, well *I* am looking forward to it.

Sunday we got up bright and early (11:30am), and after another painful "Well I don't know, where do YOU want to go?" we settled on Rotterdam. The sky was (unsurprisingly) threatening rain, but we lucked out, and it just remained overcast for all our trip. We got out at the Rotterdam Blaak station, which is right were a famous Rotterdam landmark is located: the Kubis apartments. This is a post-post-modern apartment complex made up of what look to be large yellow cubes suspended on concrete stalks and set at an angle. Really trippy. But that's what you get when you mix architecture and legalized recreational drug use.

We walked (forever) to the harbor front, passed up the Maritime Museum, and settled on the World Museum. This was an interesting collection of largely religious artifacts from all continents. There was a very tasteful exhibition on the legacy of slavery, but there was also an exaggeratedly tasteless egotistical exhibit from a Dutch artist who simply loved being shocking. Ugh. Art. Gotta take the bad with the good.

We hope that this account won't discourage any of our other friends from making the trip. I promise, it's much better in the spring and summer. Eventually the weather will be good enough that Blanca will come back and we will make the trip to Amsterdam (which is an hour and twenty minutes away) and we will take her to all the smoke shops, hookers, and casinos that she could every want. And I will extend that same generosity to any of our other friends who want to come.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Bicycle Story



So let me tell you about bicycles.

The bicycle is the main mode of transportation in the Netherlands. Bikes are so prevalent that most city streets have separate lanes just for bikes (adding to the confusion from the already numerous painted lines on the road). The Dutch bike in all weather conditions, at all times of the year. I asked a friend of mine who biked to work: “What do you do when it rains?’ He replied: “Wear your rain coat.”

As the entire country is one flat expanse (it’s topographical map looks like a blank sheet of paper), the Netherlands is well suited to this mode of transportation. And, over the course of Dutch evolution, they have developed a plethora of related bike technologies adapted particularly to their needs. There is, of course, the usual bike bags to go on the back and carry your groceries, the multiple configurations of child seats for your bike, flashing lights, bells, speedometers, pant cuff clips for the business professional who doesn’t want to risk getting his pants caught in the gears, rods that connect two bikes together, etc.

Unfortunately, bicycle theft is rampant in the Netherlands. And we’re not just talking about your run of the mill “stayed-out-too-late-in-the-red-light-district-and-was-too-drunk-to-recognize-my-own-bike-so-took-the-first-one-available” theft here. We are talking about gangs of street thieves who come prepared with pneumatic bolt cutters, pull up in front of a train station, liberate an entire row of bikes from their chains, throw them in the back of a truck, and speed off. Leaving the owners with the sad prospect of filling out their bicycle insurance claim forms. The very fact that every bike shop sells bike insurance should tell you something.

In order to combat this abuse the Dutch have come up with a very clever defense mechanism: enforced decrepitude. This is the process by which all bicycles are developed in the Netherlands to look like they were put into circulation just after World War II. This way, no single bike stands out. Everyone’s bike is equally ugly and provides only the bare necessity of functionality (i.e., two wheels). Even new bikes are carefully engineered so that when they leave the factory they blend in to the herd of old, rusty, ass-breaking, iron behemoths that constitute the average Dutch bike. Those who flaunt this collective defense do so at their own risk.

When I got to the Netherlands, and realized I would be spending at least two months in the company apartment, I immediately set upon finding a bike. As luck would have it a colleague in the Dordrecht office was just about to move to the New York office, and offered me his bike. I asked him how much he wanted for it and, in very un-Dutch style, he said, “Nothing.”

I soon found out why. This bike is actually the prototype that all bikes in the Netherlands are based on. It has no gears. It is at least thirty years old. You have to push back on the pedals to brake. The entire thing is rusty. It is made of lead or some other ridiculously dense metal used only in the manufacture of tanks. And it has a seat whose main goal in life is to prepare you for the horrors of prison life.

At first I took this as a challenge to my integration into Dutch culture. If I was going to make it here in the Netherlands I was going to need to get used to the customs of the Dutch people, and that meant taming this beast.

Well, after two weeks I was done. She would not be tamed, that Fongers bicycle of mine. Perhaps it was the height of the seat (which could not be adjusted) which required a running jump to mount, or the difficulty in keeping the bike on course while it shook like a rocket ship on re-entry at speeds greater than five miles an hour. Perhaps it was the fact that my sensitive areas were being abused worse than inmates at Abu Ghraib, I don’t know. But I needed a new bike. One with gears. And brakes.

Enter Eynseberg’s bike shop. A fairly large establishment. When I found a mountain bike that I liked there the owner was more than pleased to sell it to me, but would not take my credit card. I went after work one day to purchase the bike. It was 5:15 on Friday. His shop closed at 5:30. The owner said that his registers were closed and that he was having a beer. If I wanted the bike I could run to the ATM and come back with cash, but it had to be within the next 15 minutes. Of course. How rude of me to try and cut into his weekend time BY TRYING TO BUY A FUCKING BICYCLE.

Anyway, I got the bike, and it was like heaven. This bike was a Lexus compared to the Chevette I had been riding. This bike had gears. And brakes. And no rust! Immediately the bike made an improvement in the quality of my life. Okay, so it was purple, and I would not normally purchase a purple bike… but YOU try sitting on that ass-destroying Fongers and then tell me how picky you are about color!

So now, every day, rain or shine, I get on my new Montana bike by KH (race proven in the USA), settle my behind onto the gel seat (with its own shock absorber), zoom down the historic streets of Dordrecht, changing gears at will and giving off a maniacal scream of joy each time, and make the 1.25km trip to work in about 6 minutes.


Six minutes baby.

I’d like to give a special shout-out to my peeps on the platform at Princeton Junction, waiting for the wretched New Jersey Transit and their wretched staff. Especially to my homeys waiting on the end doors between the third and fourth cars...

Peace out.

Suckers.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Mark and Katrin's Baby -- Kira!

I can't believe I forgot to put a post up about the beautiful baby girl that our friends Mark and Katrin brought into the world.



full name: Kira Alexis Lorenc
DOB: Sept. 29, 2004; 11:53pm
weight: 8 lbs. 1 oz.
length: 21 inches
pictures: http://www.undertone.org/gallery/kirabirth

Katrin told us some horror story about a three day delivery, but I'm sure she was just exaggerating to get sympathy (and to freak Ann out so that she never has a kid!)

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Our New Apartment

We have found a place to live.

After four weeks of looking, and two previous unsuccessful attempts, Brian and Ann have now signed the papers and put down the deposit to rent an apartment in Dordrecht. After having done this once already, only to have the rental company call up and tell us they rented us an apartment that they actually, legally could not rent us, I am not going to feel safe until I am sitting on my bed in the new place.

At first our difficulty was in finding a place that was both in the center of Dordrecht, and also nice enough to live in for three years. Neither of us was keen on the idea of moving again, so we wanted to choose a place once that we could stay in for a while.

We looked at quite a few quaint apratments right on the main shopping street of Dordrecht (the Voorstraat), but everything we looked at there was extremely old, and looked it. Then we saw a newer apartment that had four floors worth of space (palatial in terms of European apartment size), but it just had no character at all. Finally, we found a nice split level apartment right on the water, within walking distance to work and the train station (which is very important, as we don't have a car).

Our new place has two bedrooms and an office, plus the living room, kitchen, and bathroom. It's a split level place, so it feels large on the inside. The place is right on the water and has a great view of the Maas river. The kitchen and bathroom are being renovated as we speak, so that will be nice. The only drawback (besides the price) is that it comes 'unfurnished'. Let me explain to you what the Dutch mean by 'unfurnished': if it has the remotest potential for having value, and it can be removed... it is. We're talking everything. Blinds, light fixtures, appliances, everything. There are wires hanging from the ceiling instead of lights. the real estate agent had to bring a flashlight with her to show us the bathroom because it doesn't have a window. THAT is how cheap these people are.

But that's alrgiht. New bathroom and kitchen. New furniture. New appliances. It will be like a brand new place. Ann is the one who favors the rustic look. Me, I want my apartment to look like a page out of an IKEA catalog. I want gleaming appliances that whir and beep and have flashing lights and look like they came from a spaceship. I want smooth floors and white walls and the house equivalent of 'new car smell'.

Plus, the place has a garage. Which is half the battle toward getting a car. Especially in downtown Dordrecht, where the waiting list to get a parking permit is measures in years.

I hope that we will be able to entertain some of our friends from the states in our new digs. All you freeloaders, you now have a place to crash. You just get here, we'll give you a place to stay.

Move in day is Nov. 1. We expect you all to be there. And I'm buying an extra-heavy couch so that this time when I drop it on Jimmy's legs it does the job right.

;-)

American Studies in Brussels

After a long absence, I find myself contributing my two (euro)cents to the Belgian educational system once again. It was almost literally two cents, because the entire program cost only about 500 euros, which is "peanuts" compared to the heaps of cash I had to dig out for my American undergrad degree.

The students at the Center for American Studies in Brussels are an interesting bunch. There are about 50 of us, half of them are fellow Flemish, half are students from all around the world. Although most of us have very concrete plans for our Masters degree in American Studies, others just feel like they needed to learn more about their "enemy". Some just didn't really know what else to do with their precious young lives...I am sure that this global mix of people will produce interesting perspectives on everything Americana.

Although the first semester courses seem manageable, my little backpack is always bulging with books and other student paraphernalia. I am always very grateful when Brian comes to pick me up at the Dordrecht train station and graciously releases me from this heavy burden (the backpack just looks so much better on him, I always look like I'm on a back-breaking backpacking tour through Europe).

But so far so good. I have been very studious and have kept up with my reading. I even started thinking about a thesis topic and have done some research for a presentation on women voters that is due at the end of October. All this prep work would be a little easier if students could actually check out books from the library, but instead we find ourselves married to the copy machine that spits out free copies of every bit of useful information that we can put our hands on. Hopefully, the center has a nice supply of toner.

The only thing that is not going so smoothly is the train that takes me from Dordrecht to Brussels and back. In one week time there were 2 accidents which delayed me for hours and took a toll on my tolerance for stress. The first time two trains collided with each other, the second time around a van was caught under a train. This all happened in the same town, Essen, which I now consider a health risk.
Last Thursday it took me 3,5 hours to get to Brussels...I am trying to ban this event from my memory...

That's all for now. Stay tuned for more.
--Ann

Monday, October 11, 2004

Last Call for the Airbreakers

First of all, we had to drive two hours to Venlo to play two games.

For those of you keeping track at home, this is the last outdoor tournament of the 2004 season, and I had to play it with the Airbreakers (click here to find out why).

Final results:

Game 1: Airbreakers 9 : 7 Rest of Holland
Game 2: WAF 15 : 4 Airbreakers

We just came apart from the very beginning of game two. Can't really explain it. Other than that a cosmic wormhole of suckiness opened up right above our team before we started the second game and we were bombarded with sucky rays.

I now know why they made such a stink and forced me to play with them. They only had 7 without me.

--Brian

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Quiz Night in Duffel

Ann promised me, "This is Belgium at its most provincial Brian." And she was right.

Quiz night at the local bar/second home for Duffel's finest. Ann had signed us up with Katja and Roeland to participate in the monthly quiz night. 30 teams of 4 people congregated in the back meeting hall of "de Kroon" (the Crown) to drink beer, heatedly argue over correct answers to trivia questions, and smoke many many many cigarettes.

My god. It was like the entire room was smoking. There was absolutely no ventilation and apparently Belgians like to smoke extra-smoky cigarettes. I am using that as the excuse as to why I did not contribute too much to the answers. The real reason I didn't contribute is because most of the time the questions were local (who are these people you see on TV? What are these famous commercials for?). That, and the fact that, astonishingly enough, the event was conducted in Dutch (with a heavy Duffel dialect [or so I am told]). I did know the first year that the modern olympics started though (1896) and a few other pop-culture answers, but most of the time I just sat there looking pretty and trying not to think about how bad my eyes were stinging and how much I would stink the next day (damn I should have brought a change of clothes).

We finished 6th out of 30. Not bad considering they really only had two and a half players (Katja, Roeland, and Ann, who could at least understand the questions but who was also as out of the loop as I was).

They sold raffle tickets and Katja won a 'gourmet' thingee dingee for two that includes a little grill with two little pots to cook stuff in. I'm sure Ann could tell you what it's for, but as it relates to food preparation I am completely in the dark.

Everyone who attended got to pick prized from a room full of them (most of them gift certificates to local businesses for ten Euros), and we picked two certificates for fries and a restaurant in another town. Katja and Roeland decided they wanted the 72 bounds of chocolate milk and juice-boxes and other assorted sundries that their baby, Lander, would appreciate. (see attached picture).

We are signed up for another quiz in 3 weeks. I have two assignments until then: 1) learn Dutch, 2) study everything.

Being the competitive guy that I am, I did get into the spirit of things, so I hope to make more of a contribution to "the Golden Four" (our team name) next time. We were originally going to be called "Flippy Dippy", but apparently the name was to ridiculous to be accepted.

We'll let you know. Next time we might even break into the top 5.

;-)

--Brian

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Breaking Up with the Airbreakers

The Airbreakers. Sounds like a club for the flatulent-prone. In fact it is the name of the ultimate frisbee team from Rotterdam. Months before I actually stepped foot in the Netherlands I had checked out the ultimate scene to make sure that I was going to be living in a civilized country. What I found was the Nederlands Frisbee Bond (or Netherlands Frisbee Association).

This year ultimate was organized a little differently. Five divisions were made, each with five teams in them. Over the course of six "competition days" you play everyone in your division a few times. At the end of the period (which I think is about 6 months) the divisions are ranked and the top team in the division gets promoted to the next division up, and the bottom team gets demoted to the next level down. This is similar to how soccer clubs are organized and is designed to make sure that teams are playing teams that are around their level.

The Airbreakers are in Division 4. The team is about 50% beginners, and 50% crotchety old men who are keepers of the oral histories about the glory days of the Airbreakers when they were one of the Netherlands top teams. I emailed them before I moved, and they invited me to join them for their fifth "competition day". So, I showed up at the Rotterdam Centraal station, having no idea who I was looking for, wondering what I would find, and there sitting on the corner, smoking a cigarette and looking none too happy about being awake at 9:00am on Sunday, was undoubtedly an ultimate player. I introduced myself and got right to work trying to get an understanding of what kind of club they were.
"So, do you guys have practices?"
"Well, we all work. It's hard to get everyone together."
"Do you guys have a standard offense you like to run?"
"Uh, not with as many new players as we have."
"Do you play any zone defense?"
"Well, sometimes our opponents play zone against US..."

But for all of their lack of experience or organization, the Airbreakers loved to play ultimate. They wear black shirts, and they don't bring a light-colored shirt as a backup. They wear black. Period. They are passionate about ultimate. So passionate in fact that at both of the tournaments I went to with them there was a confrontation that resulted in ending the day with fewer players than we started with.

The first time, one guy started yelling at another guy (I wasn't aware of their names or relationship) and then before I knew it, the yelling guy walked off the field, got in his car, and drove home. Then, in the next game, the exact same thing happened. They just got upset, and went home. Interesting.

At the second tournament we had two guys who just didn't want to get up and play for our first game the second day. At this tournament we had a total of eleven players. Two of those were not in the best physical shape and so they generally traded being on and off. Seven people have to be on the field. Then, one of our players got injured. So, if you're keeping track at home, that means that we had one sub. The entire game. The two guys eventually got up, failed to apologize, asked if anyone wanted to play a pickup game of basketball during our second-round bye, and were then promptly asked to leave and not come back. We played out last game with only seven functioning players. Savage seven, in ultimate terminology.

Now, I love to play ultimate. And I love to play it with people that I can have a good time with. As fun and entertaining as the Airbreakers are, they are just not that committed to playing ultimate. It's a hobby for them. It's soemthing they get together and do every now and then when the competition days are scheduled. And I was looking for more than that.


So, after the second tournament, I started looking around. The problem is that there is jut not a lot of choice. There are only about 25 teams total in the country, and many of those are located in one place (for instance Amsterdam has 5 teams). But one of the opponents we played, UFO (pronounce 'ooh-foh' in Dutch) from Utrecht, seemed like a good candidate. They were only about an hour away by train and they had enough players to field 3 full teams at the tournament, so that seemed like a good sign. I asked them if they would let me come to a few practices, and that's when they made their first mistake.

A month later I had been to six practices, three of those in the freezing rain, and they had agreed to let me play on their Division 1 team for the final competition day. Needless to say, I was psyched.

Then I told the Airbreakers. Three days later I got the news.

According to the rules of the NFB, if you play as a guest player on a team, then you cannot play for any other team during that competition period. Even if that team is three divisions higher. Even if you are a stupid American and did not know this, and your team never told you that you were marrying them by stepping on the field. Even if you spent hours getting to and from practice in fucking Utrecht so you could play on a team at your level.

Stupid rules.

Actually, the rule is for a good reason. The goal is to have teams that are consistent, and consistently play other teams at their level. The purpose of not allowing players to move around is to keep that consistency. Makes sense. Wish I had known that from the beginning though, I might have been less excited about risking pneumonia and sitting in my soaking ultimate clothes on the train for an hour on the way home.

This weekend is the final competition day for this period though, and my choices are to play with the Airbreakers, or not play at all. The Airbreakers are good guys, and they were very generous to me as a newcomer to Netherlands frisbee. I hope we will have a good time and possibly do well enough to get the team into the next level. They are tied for third place in the pool right now, so I don't know if it's realistic, but we'll soon see.

I'll write back when it's over.

Until then sportsfans, the moral of the story is: ask for full discolsure from your new frisbee team before you lace up your cleats.

--Brian

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Gouda

Okay. So Gouda is actually pronounced with a soft 'g', like "how-da". Bet you didn't know that (unless you are Dutch. Or Belgian. Or unless you DID know it). Ann and I just got back from a (brief) day-trip to this city famous for it's cheese and it's stained-glass windows.

We did buy some cheese (after multiple samples of everything on display), but the church was closed (unsurprisingly, since it is Sunday, and almost everything in the Netherlands is closed on Sunday, I mean... why, of all things, would the CHURCH be open on SUNDAY right?). Even the bakeries are closed. Which is unbelievable to Ann, who hails from a long line of bakers in Belgium, where the standard of service is apparently much higher, and the most bread is sold on Sunday morning.

Neither of us can understand the business practices of these strange people: the Dutch. All businesses are open Monday through Friday from 9:00 until 6:00 (many of them actually CLOSE for an hour during lunch), and only restaurants are open later. Many of the stores are closed Monday mornings as well. Everything follows this rule. Everything.

Imagine looking for an apartment. You have to do it between 5pm and 6pm.

Think about going grocery shopping. Better get it done before 6.

Oh, and if you are out of food on Sunday. Tough luck pal. You can eat at a restaurant when they open.

Want to rent a video? Better decide what and get it from the store before 6 buddy.

Need some condoms? Well my friend, you shoulda planned ahead. Now your options are abstinence or pull 'n pray. All because the culture here apparently convulses at the thought of keeping shops open during times when people might actually be able to BUY SOMETHING!

(Editor's Note: we bought batteries in a convenience store today. The "Family Planning" section, with the flavored condoms and the spermicide, was--naturally--right next to the candy section.)

Well. Enough bitching and moaning for one day. We returned from Gouda with two pounds of cheese, a baguette, a can of coke (because we ran out and, you guessed it, the grocery stores were closed), and some chocolates. So it was a fairly successful trip from a purely American consumer point of view.

More later. It's time to watch "Robinson Expedition 2004: Netherlands vs. Belgium". This is like "Survivor" except the teams are from competing nations. It's a little worrisome how much Ann delights in seeing the Belgian team win all the challenges, but this is what you do on Sunday nights in the Netherlands.

Signing off.