Brian & Ann's European Experience

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Our First Trip Home - Part II

It was a little weird being ‘home’. First of all, it’s hard to call a place home when you don’t live there, even if all your friends are there and you’ve spent a significant chunk of your life there. When you’re driving around in a rental car, and you have to sleep in someone else’s bed, calling it ‘home’ just doesn’t feel right. But it was good to be back regardless.

I want to say a big thank you to all our friends who made time to see us during the five days that we were back. Even Katie proved how strong her secret love for me is by flying all the way from Germany just so she could see me again. Mark and Katrin hosted us for a bit while we cooed over Kira. Guze and Allie came and saw us at least three times, and Guze and I did our first Fantasy Football draft in person while our wives attempted to hide their “there they go again with that silly game” looks.

The other major accomplishment of our first trip home was that we spent a lot of money. Between buying DVDs to take back with us, clothes, and eating out, we spent over a grand. And while it was unabashedly decadent, it felt (and tasted) fantastic. I was in Best Buy going through the downward spiral of a compulsive consumer. First I would take one or two $20 movies off the ‘new releases’ shelf and say, “I really need these.” Then I would see one or two $15 movies and say, “Oh, these were really great movies too, and they’re discounted,” and then I found the $5.99 rack and I just disintegrated into a mindless buying machine. A second copy of “Rounders”? Sure, why not. A widescreen version of “the 13th Warrior”? How could I say no?

Even Ann, who I depend on to be the responsible one, went a little crazy. I was in Banana Republic, fretting over an $80 pair of pants, and this long sleeve shirt that went well with them. I showed the combo to Ann. She said: “That’s nice. Why don’t you get it in brown too?”

That’s right. Why don’t I?

With the Euro gaining 30% in the good ole USofA it’s like everything is at a 25% discount to start with. Ann and I already transferred a lot of money from our savings account here in Europe simply because we can instantly make 30% on it without having to pay taxes. I wouldn’t mind eating ramen noodles for a few months and saving every penny I can to transfer over.

Well. Maybe ramen noodles and chicken fingers.

Monday, November 22, 2004

The Little Differences

Let’s say you get a new debit card in the mail and have to activate it, how would you normally expect that to be done? You call the number on the back, punch in your card number, maybe punch in some personal info, and voila, done right?

See, this is where those “little differences” that Travolta talked about in Pulp Fiction come in. Here in Yurup they don’t trust such important things as activating your credit card to the phone system. They make you come into the branch, during bank hours (which are, incredibly, even shorter than regular work hours), and bring an acceptable form of ID to do it in person.

So I’m at the bank, during lunch. Everything is going fine until I say, “oh, the card had my wife’s name on it, I hope that won’t be a problem.”

Duh!!! Give any person a chance to say no and chances are good they’ll take you up on it. Give a Dutch person that chance, and fuhgeddaboutit. You’re history.

“Oh, actually, that WILL be a problem. If it has her name on it then only she can activate it.”

“But it’s my card, it was sent to me. See here, the letter from your bank, addressed to me.”

“Sorry, if it says her name, then she has to activate it. You can order another one, it will take 4-5 business days.”

Funny. THAT’S WHAT I THOUGHT I JUST DID!

I swipe the card back and hop onto my ever-present bike and take my card and my passport to another bank branch to see if I just keep my mouth shut if they will activate the dam card so I can finally have a means of getting money that doesn’t involve begging my wife for my allowance.

I get to the second bank branch, wait in line, and present my credentials for authentication. I even show her two bills I have to pay with my name on them, to try and distract her. Turns out she doesn’t need any help from me. She wanders over to a drawer. Wanders back with a binder. Leisurely flips through it. It’s a binder full of examples of passports from all different countries. She’s checking my passport for authenticity. Can you freaking believe this!

So this ditzy bitch is flipping through the entire book looking for examples of passports from the United States. She goes over “Ukraine” like seven times, riffling the pages with her fingers to make sure she hasn’t missed any. She tries “America”, then “United States”, then “Verenig Staten” (‘United States’ in Dutch), and she can’t find anything.

Give me a fucking break! We have to be the largest issuer of passports in the world and she can’t figure out where in the stupid book the U.S. is?!

Finally, she shows the book to her manager, who spends a few minutes staring at it dumbfounded, WITHOUT looking through it, and then she comes back to the counter.

“Did you know this card has your wife’s name on it? She has to be the one to activate it.”

Cue exploding head.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Our First Trip Home - Part I

I’m sitting in Hartsfield airport in Atlanta. I’m halfway through my trip home. It’s my first official trip home as an expat. At first this was just going to be an extended business trip, I needed to go through Newark to get to New Orleans for a business meeting. I did the rational thing and scheduled it so I would have a weekend in Princeton and could do some important things such as attending Friday poker night, getting a round of Frisbee golf in, seeing Mark and Katrin’s beautiful baby girl, and eating some good Indian food. You know, the basics.

Then Ann found out that her school schedule had a gap during exactly the same week, so she booked a ticket and the two of us got to have the enjoyment of watching “Dodgeball” three times on the interminable flight over.

So, the brief recap so far is: won $40 at poker, ate pancakes at PJs, saw “The Incredibles” (two thumbs way up), crashed Murray’s housewarming party, won Frisbee golf by one stroke, won a lot at poker in New Orleans, got cocky and gave most of it back, walked away today (Tuesday) with a small profit and still can’t decide if I’m happy to be up overall, or pissed off that I lost so much of my profit chasing straights and flushes.

I absolutely love poker. I would go so far to say that if poker were a woman, I would practice polygamy and marry her. She and Ann and I would create a non-traditional family unit of blissful possibilities, and at night—

Sorry. Jet lag.

But seriously, I love poker. I played from 9:30pm until 2:00am the first night, played four hours on Monday night, and played for two hours today before rushing out to make my shuttle to the airport. So, with this in mind, you may be able to appreciate the cruelty of what happened to me at my so-called ‘friendly’ poker game on Friday night.

Allow me to set the scene: Imagine you love poker. Imagine that between getting to and from airports, flying to the states, waiting in line in fucking customs, and driving, you have spent eleven and a half hours traveling and your body is telling you that it is 3:00am as you sit down to BEGIN playing poker. Now, imagine further that you sit down with eight of your close friends to enjoy some quality time with your second love, and the first hand you get is a pocket pair of queens (a very good hand, for all you poker ignoramuses).

Imagine your pleasure at the obvious sign of a divine mandate to win. Imagine your further pleasure as the flop includes is king of spades, queen of spades, and queen of hearts. Imagine your glee as you realize you have four of a kind, a hand you might see once in a thousand hours of playing poker. Imagine keeping it all inside as you wisely check, allowing other players to bet up the pot, and waiting for your chance to strike some poor sucker with an “I’m all in.”

Now imagine your satisfaction as that poor sucker turns out to be Hoagie (aka Paul), who has a history of staying in on hands he shouldn’t, and whose presence as your sole competition is likely to immediately double your bankroll.

Imagine that, as you had hoped, Hoagie calls your “all in”. Putting all his chips, and all your chips into the pot, so that both of you are fully committed to this one hand. Win or go home. And you have four of a kind.

Now, dear friends, comes the truly terrible part.

Imagine that you flip up your pocket queens, proudly showing four of a kind already, with the hand not even finished yet. And imagine that Hoagie flips over the jack and ten of spades. Imagine the terrible thought that surfaces, as much as your fatigue and poker haze try to suppress it, that there is a possibility that this inferior hand might just beat you. That’s right sports fans, the only hand that could possibly beat four of a kind… a straight flush. Something that you might play ten thousand hours of poker and not see. And it’s possible that this grinning fool next to you, who has bet all his money without even a pair, might just beat you if the ace of spades is the last card to come out.

“Hoagie. If you beat me… I’m going to have to kill you.”

Hoagie just watches the board with his hand over his mouth.

The final card is dealt.

The table erupts.

Ace of spades.

“Holy Shit!”

“Oh snap!”

“He did not just pull a straight flush!”

For a few seconds I do nothing, make no reaction, just clench my jaw and attempt to furiously find a way to be okay with the fact that I just lost with four of a kind. And then I notice it. The laughter. There’s just a little too much of it. Then Ken lets me in on a little secret.

“We rigged the deck. Welcome back.”

Assholes.

I went on to lose sixty bucks over the next hour, borrow $40 from Ken, win one tournament and finish second in another, to end the night at 3:00am (9:00am Brian’s body time) up by about $40.

But nothing that happened that night will really stay with me other than that hand.


Sunday, November 07, 2004

IKEA Overload

For those of you who ever wondered, the maximum amount of times that one can safely shop at IKEA without experiencing IKEA Overload, is twice a month.

Yesterday Ann and I took our fourth trip in as many weeks to freaking IKEA. We rented a car from Avis in Dordrecht and drove there. To say that Ann was nervous about driving a stick shift (it had been six years) in Europe again is the understatement of the year. I have to commend her though, we only stalled three times the entire day and not once on the highway.

Since we had the car, we decided to go shopping at the Aldi, a cheap supermarket that is a bit of a hike on foot. It's hard to describe this supermarket. The business model is that all costs are stipped out of the operation to offer the cheapest product possible. To do this they simply drop pallets of produce and such in somewhat aligned rows, they sell only no-name brands, and they have one register open on Saturday... the only day that most of the Netherlands has to shop. But, since you can get two liters of attractively boxed wine for about three Euros, naturally, the frugal Dutch love the place.

The Dutch don't pinch pennies. They flatten them into wafer-thin discs to stretch their buying power.

Anyway, the funny thing is, as Ann was pulling into the parking spot, she didn't get all the way in, and had to back out to re-adjust. Unfortunately, the car didn't seem to want to go into reverse. The little picture on the knob clearly showed that there indeed was a gear called 'R', but for some reason the stick didn't want to go there. So there we were, blocking up the lane, Ann getting increasingly frustrated/infuriated, and me trying to calm her by letting her know "you can do this". Note to self: that shit just does not work.

Finally I asked a guy who was standing around for help. He was a little bewildered. He probably thought it was an elaborate scheme to get him behind the wheel so we could blame him for something wrong with the car. He didn't want to get in the driver's seat. He wanted to push the car back into the lane a little bit to get us some more room. I cannot tell you how idiotic two men pushing a little European car that refuses to budge looks. For some reason we simply could not coordinate with Ann to be pushing at the same time that she put the car in neutral. Every time she put it in neutral, and we weren't ready, the car inched forward again, closer and closer to the car that we were trying to AVOID hitting, so she'd put the brakes on, and that would be the moment that this random Dutch guy and I were throwing our backs out trying to move the car back.

Very frustrating.

Finally this couple who were coming back to the car next to us offered to get in and drive it. Unbeknownst to us, since Ann had left the Continent, there had been amazing advances in stick-shift technology to improve the safety of cars. In order to go into reverse, you first had to pull UP on the stick, THEN change gears.

The woman backed out, then pulled into the parking spot, in two seconds.

Ann and I stood there silently and attempted to keep our heads from exploding.

After the pressure in our heads reduced, we drove to IKEA to pick up what we hoped were the final pieces of furniture we would ever need in our lives.

We zoomed through the showroom, skipped the traditional Swedish meatballs and ligonberry sauce, argued over the bookcase (Ann won, of course), got into the warehouse, and found out that the closet we were getting weighed 86lbs., in the box. The other closet weighed in at a measly 71lbs., and the book case was a feather-light 55lbs. When we got home Ann drank her super-woman potion and the two of us manhandled the beastly boxes up into our apartment.

That is the last time we plan to go to IKEA until 2005. Maybe 2006.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Geriatric Ward

Ann and I have met five neighbors so far. All of them had to be over 65. A few of them were in the 70s I think. I think Ann and I brought the average age of that apartment block down about 20 years when we stepped in.

At least they won't make a lot of noise. And presumably, they won't be able to tell if WE are making a lot of noise.

;-)

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Election

Our new TV has CNN International. Stayed up until 6:00am watching election coverage, hoping to see a trend in Ohio that would allow me to go to sleep with the knowledge that we would have a new president.

Instead went to bed angry and frustrated and woke up to find out that four million more people thought it was a good idea to re-elect George Bush.

Like I said before... anger and sadness.

God I hope this feeling ends soon. I don't want to feel like I've been punched in the gut for four straight years.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Moving Into Merwekade

This weekend we moved into our new apartment. Here are some of the highlights:


  • Four appliances came Friday morning. I succeeded in getting them out of the packaging, but after that I reached the limits of my usefulness.

  • Ann’s dad and Mieke came about around 11:00am to help us out. Since Ann’s dad actually knows all the appropriate names for the tools and their uses this was a decidedly large help.

  • Four pallets of IKEA furniture came Satruday too. The delivery guys climbed six steps to get into the building, five steps to get to our door, came in, and then refused to carry the stuff the remaining seven steps to the living room (our apartment is split level). They said I only paid for ground floor delivery. I was equal parts incredulous and disgusted. I carried the damn sofas, carpet, entertainment center, dinner table and end tables up the seven steps myself. Counting loudly as I did so.

  • Andre drove us to IKEA to purchase even more stuff. We spent an hour in the lighting department alone. I won on the halogen lights for the kitchen but had to concede the hallway, office, and guest bedroom lamps. Since the kitchen has the most electoral college votes though I am declaring victory.

  • The Swedish meatballs and ligonberry sauce were yummy for a third time in ten days.

  • We lost Mieke in the parking lot of IKEA. We found her though. Still not sure if Andre was serious when he said, “Don’t worry, she’ll find her way back.” (IKEA is 20 minutes away by car.)

  • While forcing apart the pieces of a pre-IKEA cheapo closet left in our apartment that was just too ugly to bear, the sides fell apart and three heavy shelves fell almost directly on top of Andre’s head. Thankfully only one of them grazed his hand. That event signaled our move into the dinner portion of the event.

  • Monday the 1st our shipment from the states came. Ann was sick all day and as a result I let the delivery guys off the hook. They were supposed to unpack all the boxes, but I didn’t want to disturb Ann, who was sleeping, so I told them we would do it later.

  • You’d be amazed how much time it takes to unwrap boxes and boxes of plate ware and kitchen stuff.

  • We found our rice cooker and coffee machine. Neither of which work on 220 voltage. Apparently, “Don’t pack anything electrical” was too hard to understand.

  • Even the TV was uncooperative. It auto-detected about eight channels. Only half of them with sound. All of them different from the channels that we had in the company apartment. After reprogramming it eventually got all 30 channels it was supposed to.

So now we are more or less installed in the new place. We slept for the first time in our own bed last night (which is amazingly large and soft, just as we remembered it). We, of course, need more stuff from IKEA (you’d think that place sold heroin instead of furniture).

But things are moving along and Ann and I are looking forward to having a place to call ‘home’ for a little while that has such a great view and is in the old part of town. The bathroom and the kitchen look great after the renovations, and the place will look even better after we dig out from under all the cardboard boxes and packing paper.