Brian & Ann's European Experience

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Weather

The book I read that said that there are, on average, 23 cloudless days in the netherlands in a YEAR was not joking. Winter is pretty grey, cold, and miserable. Yesterday it snowed for the first time, only an inch of slushy stuff that was gone by noon, but still enough for me to wipe out on my bike on the way to work. (Hey, I'm a true Dutchman now, I ride to work even in the snow.)

Here's an example of the weather forecast for the next few days (temperatures in Farenheit. Hey, I've made that mistake before...)

Gift from the Royal Dutch Post

Ann, as usual, prepared this years Christmas cards. She is always very good about keeping track of everyone's address and sending them each a hand-written Christmas card.

However, since this is a very industrial process involving a long assembly line of card writing, postage stamping, envelope licking and trying to get her husband to just sign his damn name, it's understandable that the odd exception might get through.

The day after we mailed the entire load Ann calls me up and says, "Brian, did you notice if the card to Dan and Chizuko in Japan had postage on it."

"I don't even remember what color they were Ann."

So, Ann, master of detail that she is, followed up with Dan and Chizuko with an email informing them that they may not be receiving a card this year, but that did not mean that we were in any way displeased with their work as our friends.

Dan and Chizuko, coming back from a vacation in Phuket (where they missed the tsunamis by one week!), saw the email, and sent us this.



Looks like both the Dutch and Japanese mail systems decided to give us a Christmas gift this year. Not only did the card get there with no postage... it only took about 7 days.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Christmas 2004

Merry Christmas to all!

Our first Christmas in the Netherlands, our second in Europe (we were in London for Christmas 2000), and only my second Christmas overall away from my family (which, when I say it out loud, makes me feel equal parts mamma's boy and nostalgic).

Neither Ann nor I are religious, but for me Christmas has always been one of the most important holidays of the year. I always love to buy presents for all of my friends because I view it as the one time a year that you get to show someone that they are special to you by getting them something thoughtful. So, sadly, I had to write this year off completely because, besides Ann, and a few small gifts for my family, I did not get a single thing for anyone. I chalked it up to the logistical difficulties of being overseas, but in the end there's no way to escape feeling like a non-participant.

The one tradition that was solidly upheld was Christmas dinners. We had two of them. And a Christmas lunch. We ate so much and so well that it's amazing we didn't gain 10 kilos each. On Friday night we had "gourmet" with Anja and Geert. It was new to me, but apparently "gourmet" in Europe is a specific kind of meal, like fondue, and it's not just a general term you slap on products so you can charge a little more for them.

A true "gourmet" meal consists of a heated plate that has a grill and a cooking stone on the top, places for individual dish-like scoops underneath, and a variety of different uncooked meats, vegetables, cheeses, potatos, toppings, etc. You then decide what section of the device you want to cook each portion of your meal and everyone cooks and eats at their own pace.

It was really a new experience for me, to be so interactive with my food. Food preparation for me either consists of paying for the groceries, or in some way involves a microwave. I was a little worried my complete absence of culinary skills would show through, but when you get down to it, you're just slapping a tiny piece of meat onto a grill and flipping it over when it is obviously done. By the fourth piece I had it down.

Saturday night we had dinner with Ann's father and that side of the family. I have to admit, that being the non-family member at a family gathering can really be a lot of fun. It's kind of like watching those Fox documentaries about highway crashes. You get to see the whole thing unfolding from the safety of your armchair while mass destruction inevitably unfolds frame by frame in front of you.

To understand why this is so entertaining you have to understand the people involved. Ann's grandparents on her father's side, called Bon and Bonpa, are in their 80s. Her grandmother is a little hard of hearing and as a consequence shouts everything. This wouldn't be a problem normally, except for the fact that she generally bides her time while conversation is going, waits until she hears something worth remarking on, and then bursts out with a:

"YES YES, ANNEKE IS RIGHT, YOU CAN'T BUY BREAD ON SUNDAYS."

Everyone has at least one person in the world who has the mystifying ability to irritate them beyond reasonable measure, and for Ann this is her Bonpa (Grandfather). For some reason, every word that comes out of Bonpa's old mouth has an accumulating and exponentially increasing ability to annoy Ann. At the same time, Ann is powerless to extricate herself emotionally from this cycle of destruction and inevitably ends up arguing loudly with her grandfather, attempting to get him to understand that he shouldn't be looking up "megabyte" or "gigabyte" in the dictionary from 1970 because the term didn't even exist then.

"But look here, 'gigantic' is in there, so it should be in there too."

And cue Ann's exploding head.

Ann's father Andre has a girlfriend named Mieke who although is sweet and well-meaning, isn't the brightest bulb, and she inevitably ends up interjecting with a comment from the conversation of half an hour ago (in this case it was "yeah but 'gigabyte', doesn't that mean really big?").

This year the family drama revolved around Mieke's new puppy: Prutske (which sounds like a bad word but isn't). The puppy is a cute little black terrier, but it is six weeks old. Mieke was the impetus behind adding the dog to their already very cramped apartment, and she wanted to bring little Prutske to dinner so that he wouldn't have to be alone for hours. The grandmother, Bon, is terrified of dogs, even little ones, and would not have it. Plus, you have to be a little sensitive, these people are OLD!

Mieke's mature response to the situation was to then refuse to come.

In the end, Mieke came and the dog stayed. I did my part by not mentioning the dog after Ann warned me it would be a sore subject, but Mieke showed me the photos and couldn't resist adding, rather loudly in English, "I want to bring him, but SHE not allow," aimed at poor Bon. I did my best not to giggle.

Anyway, in a meal that extended over three hours we had champagne (again), a wonderful fish soup, and then we had these very soft and light filets of sole in a fantastic cream sauce (Bouilliabaise? Ann? Help.), and an ice cream cake dessert.

Our final meal was a simple and elegant affair prepared by Ann's mother. First there were the best custs of venison steak that were hand delivered by Ann's cousin Kato, whose father's hobby is being a butcher (I know, very strange). This was served in your choice of mushroom sauce or gravy. There were cooked apples filled with hot cranberry sauce, and potato croquettes. For dessert we had special hand-made pastries from the family bakery. Absolutely fantastic.

When I told Sabine that we always had the best food in Belgium she answered: "Natuurlijk." Which translates loosely as: "You offend my honor by assuming there could be a country with better cuisine you ignorant American."

Besides the fact that the Internet had the wrong times for the trains and it took us three and a half hours to get home, we had a very good weekend that Ann will require a week to fully decompress from.

That's okay though, because we are going back next weekend for New Year's.

;-)

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

CNN's Top 10 Stories of 2004

CNN has just published its list of the top 10 events of 2004. Here’s my brief opinion on them:

1. Election 2004 – I still feel like someone ripped out my heart and beat me over the head with it. At the same time I want to say “I’m not surprised” (since I did predict this) and “How the hell could this happen?”
2. War in Iraq – Yep. Still as pissed off about this as before.
3. Terrorism – Same here. Terrorists are scum.
4. (tie) 9/11 Commission – Have to admit: didn’t read it. But glad they wrote it. Bush is a dick.
4. (tie) Hurricane season – My parents had to go through two of these. Hurricanes are dicks.
6. Yasser Arafat dies – The world is a better place for it. Arafat was a dick.
7. Morality split – This is an abysmal failure of the Democrats to counter the marketing of the Republicans (who are dicks)
8. Ronald Reagan dies – I’m sure the Soviets thought he was a dick, but a charismatic one.
9. Sudanese crisis – Can’t decide between anger or sadness over this. Where are the liberations armies on this one Bush, you lying snake. Where’s the intervention of the morally superior UN huh? The UN makes me mad.
10. Red Sox win World Series – The Red Sox are dicks. Still can’t believe the Yankees couldn’t win ONE out of four games to put them in their place. The Yankees let down America and ended a fantastic baseball tradition.

So, to sum things up:

  • The world if full of dicks.
  • Many things make Brian angry.

That’s pretty much it for 2004. I fall back on the fool’s hopeful mantra: “Maybe next year will be better.”

Dutch Fashion Update #1

For those who missed our first post about this topic, here are some more examples that we found at the Kerstmarkt. Now those are some serious boots.


Monday, December 20, 2004

Kerstmarkt



Today was one of the 5 cloudless days in the Netherlands, and Ann and I took a stroll through the Kerstmarkt (Christmas Market) which had been set up on the main shopping street in the middle of town.

 

Every year, for three days they fill up the already congested Main St. with all sorts of stalls, keep most of the shops open all weekend, entertain the masses with live bands at night and roaming bands all dressed up like Santa playing holiday music. It’s a lot of fun actually. AND, it’s some great eating.

To get into the spirit, and do my part to stimulate the Dutch economy, I gladly purchased (and quickly consumed):


 



  • some chicken satay with a fantastic peanut sauce
  • a sandwich of thinly sliced grilled ham off the bone
  • a plate of poffertjes


For those of you ignorant in the culinary traditions of the Netherlands, you aren’t missing out on much. Poffertjes however, are the exception to the rule. Poffertjes are tiny pancakes that are cooked just enough to be soft and stick together, and are covered with butter and powdered sugar. They are about an inch and a half across and delicious. At a fancy poffertje restaurant (of which we have been to two already in the center of town) you can get them with various toppings like warm cherries, vanilla, rum, etc. You get about twelve to fifteen on a regular portion and a cute little three pronged plastic fork to spear them with (which bears a striking resemblance to the plastic implement used by the Dutch to eat their packages of French Fries, which they do not condescend to eat with their fingers). The poffertje chef has a large pan with poffertje dimples into which he pours batter, and after only a minute or two, while the tops of the little pancakes are still liquid, he quickly goes down the columns sticking a small metal knife into each half-cooked reservoir, and flips them over with a tiny flick of his wrist. Truly, a dough artiste.

Ann and I bought our poffertjes from a stand run by the guy who works in our mail room (and apparently moonlights as a poffertje-iste. I said hi to him in Dutch, but threw Ann in front of me like a human translator shield when he started speaking back. He offered to give us a free topping of rum, and Ann had to enter into a tedious explanation that her husband didn’t drink alcohol, which involved far too many hand gestures and I’m sure entertained the other fifteen people in line.

One final note about poffertjes, I have decided to make them the theme for my weekly themed lunch outing. Every week I like to make sure I get out of the office (and away from the cheap but limited work-subsidized cafeteria) and have a nice sit-down lunch. In the states this was called Indian Thursday. Not surprisingly, we had Indian. In the Netherlands, in keeping with the tradition of selecting an ethnic cuisine, I have instituted the new tradition of Poffertjes Thursday.

Sadly, there are simply no Indian restaurants in Dordrecht. Anywhere.

But that is a topic for a different rant.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Early Retirement



I had to go to Rotterdam yesterday to my MBA school to take care of some financial matters. It seems that Sallie Mae, after telling both me AND the school that it would be a cold day in hell before they made out educational checks to a student, sent $30,000 in checks to the Rotterdam School of Management, made payable to the order of Brian Bishop.

At first I thought I could just sign them over. But no. Of couse, that would be too easy.

I now have to deposit them into my own bank, and then wire transfer them over to the school.

Or...

I could take all the money. Hop on the train to Amsterdam. Go to the Holland Casino. And put all the money on black.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Robbed Twice

New back wheel, chain, plus labor involved to put them both on shoddily (so I had to take it back to the shop after riding on it for two seconds): 96 Euros.

New lock because now apparently I need to lock BOTH the front and back tires: 12 Euros.

New clip on lights (because someone stole mine while it was chained outside the bike shop waiting repair: 15 Euros.

Total bill: 122 Euros.

I bought the whole bike originally for 200.

>:(

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Goddamn Immigrants

Some asshole stole the back wheel off my bike yesterday.

I came back from my first indoor frisbee tournament, and when I got to my bike I saw that it was curiously low to the ground in the back. It took me a few seconds, but I eventually realized that the back wheel was gone. I kicked the space where the tire SHOULD have been a few times, just to make sure that it was really gone. It was. I absently kicked it once or twice more, but it didn't magically reappear.

I had locked the front wheel to the body of the bike, and both of these to the bike rack, so I guess that's why I'm only missing one wheel instead of the whole bike. But somehow it's even MORE insulting to have this disfigured, cripple of a bike. It's like instead of someone kidnapping your baby, they just amputated a leg and put him back in the stroller.

Okay, well maybe not like that. But close.

Who would do such a thing? I asked a Dutch colleague of mine, "Who would go through the effort of detaching JUST the back wheel from the gears so that they could have ONE bike wheel?"

"Goddamned immigrants."

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Computer "Exercises"

So, I was speaking with my friend Esther the other day when all of a sudden she was locked out of her computer. This program hijacked her computer, put up pictures of people doing strange things, and wouldn’t let her close it or do anything else.

“What’s that?”

“Oh, that’s my little thingee that tells me it’s time to take a break.”

Interesting. It wasn’t actually malicious spyware… it was a state-mandated plot to further decrease the efficiency of Dutch workers, carefully disguised as a service for poor, overworked office employees. Every few hours or so, this computer program (called WorkPace) pops up and tells you to take a break, stop slaving away for the Man, and instead instructs you to do strange isometric exercises at your desk to avoid becoming fat, near-sighted slobs like the Americans. To ensure compliance, the program actually doesn’t let you do anything else during the time that it runs.

Now, you may have heard stories about the tolerant nature of the Dutch, and their progressive attitudes toward sex and drug use. Well, here is the proof. Here we have some screenshots of the WorkPace program. In the United States, this is the kind of subversive, pornographic sabotage that can get you thrown in jail. Combine that with the sexually explicit nature of the “exercises”, and what you have in “WorkPace” is a de facto Government-sponsored campaign to destroy the very "moral fabric" of "civilization."

Take this for example:



This woman is being instructed, during work hours, not only to masturbate, but exactly how to tilt her head in ecstasy for greatest ergonomic effect.

And this example:



The shoulders of this innocent-looking "office worker" are limbering up in anticipation of an unholy act of self-violation. The instructions, translated from the Dutch, read: "Once you are fully stretched (to reduce risk from Repetitive Stress Injury), commence beating off like a crazed monkey in heat."

And this:



Just what do you think this exercise is to prepare for….?

Sick pervs.

(Oh, by the way, there is a free trial download of WorkPace available from their website, but unfortunately you can't set it to "interrupt" you more than once an hour.)

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Humidity in the Workplace

Just to illustrate the different attitudes between the Netherlands and the US as concerns employee welfare, below is an excerpt from an actual memo sent from the Facilities Manager here in Dordrecht:

"2. Temperature and Humidity in our building
John Q. Dutchman (trainee Facility Management) is measuring the temperature and humidity on a few floors at a regular interval during a period of 4 weeks. Most of you will have seen him on your floor with a small black machine.

"Until now, the outcome of the analysis is that the climate in the building is within the normal standards. However, the feel of temperature and humidity varies from person to person.

"Please let us know if you feel uncomfortable at your workspace, so that we can try to find an individual solution for you."

An individual solution to the temperature discomfort of each and every individual. I'd like to see OSHA try and mandate THAT kind of care in the United States.

Contrast this to our office in New York, where the thermostat for our floor was actually kept in Siberia, and where we often had to keep windows open in the winter to cool the rooms off, the air was drier than many trans-oceanic flights, and a memo from the "facilities manager" might have gone a little something like this:

"Deal with it."

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Maastricht

Saturday – December 4, 2004

Ann booked us a weekend getaway in Maastricht and I am writing this from the bed of the Crown Plaza hotel, which Ann acquired for us at a discount that warms her little Belgian heart.

Maastricht is one of the oldest towns in the Netherlands and has a long history as a strategically important location. Maastricht is on this strange peninsula of the Netherlands which juts out from its bottom right corner into what should be, by all rights, Belgium. This peninsula is surrounded on the south and the west by Belgium, and by Germany on the east. There’s a distinct difference in the way Dutch is spoken here, much softer and without much of the throat-scraping and spittle-inducing consonants. In other words, much more Belgian.

The town has a more Belgian feel to it as well. It’s an old town with small cobblestone streets and quaintly off-kilter house fronts. It also has a preponderance of stores, which might have had something to do with Ann’s desire to come here. Today is the day before Sinterklaas comes to all the good little Dutch (and Belgian) boys and girls, and the costumed Sinterklaas men and their army of Zwarte Pete’s are making the most of it roaming around, giving the children last minute admonishments to be good.

In the Netherlands and Belgium on December 5th, all the good boys and girls are rewarded by the Sint (Dutch for ‘Saint’) with prodigious amounts of gifts which are, for some reason, left in their shoes. There is an entire history to Sinterklaas; he comes from Spain every winter on a steamboat, in a procession which is broadcast on national TV, riding on his white horse, with his army of black slaves in attendance.

Sinterklaas is helped by a number of black servants who all share the same name (Black Pete), and apparently are there to provide the stick (literally) to the Sint’s carrot of shoefuls of gifts. The Black Petes all carry around burlap sacks and wooden switches, which are to beat unruly children and convey them back to Spain respectively. Seriously, the premise of Zwarte Pete’s existence is that he has a mandate from Sinterklaas to kidnap unruly kids and bring them back to Spain, presumably to live out the rest of their existence getting traded for cigarettes in whatever barracks the Zwarte Pete’s live in. It is not an uncommon sight for an especially young child to scream in terror when Zwarte Pete reaches out to them.

Strange country.

Ann and I walked around the city center for a while stopping in and out of stores. Ann forced me to pass up fried dough and candy stores, but eventually I got her to cave in and got a chocolate waffle which I must say had the tastiest, richest chocolate sauce I have ever had.

We then walked around the Maastricht Winterland, a kind of holiday themed fair which is just an excuse to sell all kinds of foods, toys, and expensive rides to kids. Naturally, I loved it. I convinced Ann to ride the ferris wheel, after a glass of gluhewine (warm German wine) to get her courage up. Ann is afraid of heights and I have to give her credit for sticking it out.

On our way back to the hotel we mistakenly wandered into the section of town where you need to be a millionaire to enter any of the shops. Ann checked out the price of a coat, dropped it like it was on fire, and walked out of the store. “520 Euros for that coat. I don’t think so.” It was on this same street that we found this cute little antique map store and decided to stroll through it, which must have been just what the elderly gent in the fine suit wanted… two tourists in jeans trolling through his antique books and maps.

I have to say, the place was amazing. Ann spoke with the owner for a bit and learned that the store didn’t even deal with anything that was made after 1750. There were original maps of Dutch towns like Amsterdam and Maastricht that showed the original city walls and fortifications, the gates and canals, all painstakingly drawn by hand. There were even framed original Mercatur maps on display (only 8,500 Euros! A steal!). Now, I didn’t even know who Mercatur was, but my extremely well educated wife did and made sure that at least one of us looked impressed by something other than the price tags.

It’s just so European, walking into a store that sells things that are four hundred years old. I really felt like I was touching history. It was a nice feeling… until the alarms went off.

Ann picked a very cozy ‘eetcafe’ for dinner which confirmed for us, yet again, that the average quality of meals you get in Europe is far and away much better than in the States. Smoked salmon, venison steak with cranberry demi-glace, and chocolate mousse. Yum.

Sunday – December 5, 2004

Our main goal on getting out of bed on Sunday was to get to the breakfast buffet so we could stuff ourselves. Which we accomplished.

Then we met our friend Blanca and two of her friends from Spain who had come for the day. Unfortunately, all the sunshine and shopping had been used up on Saturday and all that was left on Sunday was closed shops and grey clouds. It really just goes to show you how boring Europe is on Sundays. The only thing open were the churches. (see related picture).

We hit the Winterland one more time to use our coupon for free ice skating. Ann and I spent half an hour trying to avoid collisions with the maniacal Dutch children who were playing tag. Ice skating is fun. But wearing rental skates with pieces of metal sticking into your ankles isn’t. I don’t think we used the whole half hour.

We decided to take a one-hour boat tour to get out of the cold. Let me give you a brief description: The boat leaves. The boat goes down the river about ten minutes. Look, there! A cement factory. And above it: some ruins! On your right: a lock that leads to some canal that goes to some place. The boat turns around. Look! The ruins on top of the cement factory…again. Amazing. Ten more minutes. And we’re back.

A word to the wise: stay away from the one-hour boat tour.

The last memorable thing we did in Maastricht is buy cheese. Not just any cheese. Stinky cheese. And not just ANY stink cheese, but the stinkiest of the stinky, ripest possible, tear inducing, more potent than a public toilet… stinky cheese. The stink was so pungent that even though the cheese was wrapped in paper, and then hermetically sealed in a plastic bag, you could smell it from across the room.

And then, we got on the train home.

Two and a half hours of basking in the stink of our cheese, which, since it was OUR cheese, we were naturally quite proud of. Kind of like smelling your own fart continuously for two and a half hours.

It was revenge really. You give me crappy one-hour boat tour… I give you two and a half hours of unbearable stink.

That’ll teach ‘em.

I’m thinking about exporting some back to the NJ Transit headquarters actually. It’s pretty cheap. I could buy one stinky slice for each floor. Every week.

Nah, it’d probably never make it through customs. Shame really.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Poker Night Reborn!

A grand and noble tradition has now been introduced to the gambling-impoverished masses of Dordrecht: poker night.

First I had to wait two months to get an apartment. Then I had to wait another month to fill it with IKEA furniture and new appliances. Then I had to go through the process of finding likely candidates to participate in this solemn and important event. Of course, in the end I took whoever the hell I could get, but I like to think they represent the best and the brightest that the Netherlands has to offer for this introductory class of 2004 Poker Series.

On Wednesday, December 1st, seven intrepid souls, all employees of the venerable Springer publishing company, were rounded up, herded to our apartment, given plastic chips in exchange for 10 Euro bills, and were promptly initiated into the Brotherhood of Degenerate Gamblers In the Making.

It was my original intent to play a variety of different kinds of poker games, but the newbies (and they were ALL newbies) quickly nixed that idea saying it was tough enough just trying to figure out Texas Hold ‘Em. So we stuck to 20/40 Hold ‘Em… that’s 20 and 40 CENT Texas Hold ‘Em…. mind you.

After covering the basics of the game (the first two cards, the flop, the changing of the betting limits) we got into many of the finer points of the game:

“Why do I have to be the Big Blind?”

“Whose turn is it to bet?”

“Why can’t I just check after he bets? I don’t want to put any more money in.”

Friends, it was a difficult night for your humble narrator. But everyone starts at the beginning, and by the end of the night the group had the basics down pretty well. We even covered some higher level casino-game situations such as:


  • “Why You Have to Post Both Blinds If You Get Up to Smoke a Cigarette and Miss the Blinds You Smelly Nicotine Addicts”
  • “Why You Sometimes Have to Chop the Pot”
  • “Why It Sends Brian Into A Homicidal Rage When You String Bet”

Even my wife, who participated (and will never let me live down the fact that she won 13 Euros while I *lost* 13 Euros) was able to take the training wheels off and stop referring to the print out of the poker hierarchy.

Some memorable points of the evening were:

  • Pete Binfield getting four of a kind: a pair of 3’s in his hand and two on the flop. Nice one Pete.
  • Itsco van der Linden teaching Brian to sit his ass DOWN after beating his well concealed trips with an even BETTER concealed full house. (I believe his exact words were: “BOOYA beotch!”)
  • Pete Binfield winning a huge hand with four 3’s again. This time THREE of them on the board (seriously Pete, cut it out)
  • Esther coming to drop off something from IKEA for us and getting sucked in to buying in for 3 euros. And then 5 more. And then another 5.
  • Ian coaching Esther how to bet all the way through a hand with just the two of them, which she then demolished him on.
  • Ian making up for getting beat by a girl by eating all of the pizza we were saving for Michel.
  • Wouter, who most of the time needed his cheat sheet and had a penchant for staying in on 3,8 unsuited, cleaning up the HOUSE
  • Ann refusing to loan her husband money until she had counted it all first so she could know EXACTLY how much she had won.
  • Listening to Pete Binfield referring to everyone as ‘bitch’.
  • Esther’s shocked/innocent act when she said: “You guys! Why didn’t you tell me my shirt had come unbuttoned.”

We had pizza from Dominos and there was a fair quantity of beer drunk, so in many ways it was just like poker night back home. I’m pretty sure that everyone had a good time, and that poker night will continue. Eventually the youngsters here may even graduate to playing no limit and we can do some 10 Euro tournaments.

My real goal is to find a way to introduce Kings and Little Ones. I will not be satisfied until I start seeing some IOUs on the table.

Baby steps though, baby steps…