Brian & Ann's European Experience

Monday, January 24, 2005

Welcoming arms of NJ Transit

I am so goddamned happy I don’t have to take New Jersey transit any more.

I will never do it again in my life. Ever.

After a hectic entry into New York, brief stop by the office, then the hotel to check in and drop off my bag, I took a cab to Penn Station to catch a train to Princeton for dinner with my friends Ryan and Guze.

That’s when the trouble started.

See, yesterday New York, and the whole Northeast, was hit by a large snow storm. It wasn’t really a ‘blizzard’ in New York, but newspapers cannot be sold and TV stations will lose viewers if any amount of snowfall is NOT termed a ‘blizzard’, so I guess I am sitting in the middle of “the blizzard of ’05.” Keep in mind an entire 18 inches of snow fell.

First problem: the express train is cancelled. Sigh. Fine. It is a blizzard I guess.

Second problem: the people who run the trains are (still) idiots.

It takes half an hour to go about seven miles, which normally takes less than ten minutes. Then these idiots get on the intercom and start yelling at each other, “let’s go crew, close the end doors. Check your end doors, let’s lock ‘em up!”

Let me give the management of the NJ Transit some free advice: if you can’t do simple operational activities such as CLOSING THE DOORS, you are in deep shit.

Luckily for management however, the customers have no alternative. So, I, and about three hundred other packed-in, weary commutes sit in brown vinyl chairs and listen to conductors bicker and watch the scenery crawl by while contemplating how hard it would be to bomb the headquarters of New Jersey Transit.

Third problem: I am starving. I skipped the complimentary in-flight food service because I couldn’t tell the difference between the microwaved plastic wrapping and the (presumably) organic material contained within it. Now I am starting to regret that decision.

I’m sure dinner will be great (mmm, Masala Grill in Princeton, best Indian around) and it will be great to see my friends again, but it’s impossible to fully enjoy yourself when you know that, at some point, you are going to have to get back on the New Jersey Transit.

Like I said. Never again.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

My Hometown

Talk about surreal.

I’m riding my bike home from the train station in Dordrecht at 5:30pm on a Sunday night. As it is a Sunday, all the residents of Dordrecht are required by martial law to shut themselves in their homes and remove all traces of life from the town.

It’s dark, and I’m gliding through the empty wet streets (winter isn’t snowy here, it’s just wet) when I swear I hear the chorus of Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown”.

My frist thought is, “oh my god, I made one too many joke about the voices in my head, and now they are really there…” But as I pass onto the ghost-town-ish main shopping street, I slow down and take a second look around.

There under the awning of one of the stores is the Minstrel. The Minstrel is a Dutch man of African descent who can be found every day in a three block radius of the town square, standing in his green rubber galoshes, strumming a very worn-in looking acoustic guitar, and belting out classic tunes from the Beatles, Dylan, Tom Petty, Neill Young, and various unknown Dutch folk singers. He’s not a bad singer. He’s not great either, but he can carry a tune. He’s also probably fifty and always looks like he just got out of bed.

I give him a wave as I pass by and think to myself how weird it is to be a foreigner in this town, expecting to be a stranger in a strange land, and to hear a song that makes you think of college, your best friends, Americana, and New Jersey’s favored son.

“My hometown. My. Home. Town. My hometown. Myyyyy… home… town….”

Just one of those weird things. He was playing Bruce in the middle of a deserted street in Dordrecht at the exact moment that a foreigner from New Jersey was riding by on his bike. There was no reason for him to be out. It was cold. It was wet. It was Sunday. There was no reason for him to be playing Bruce. I had never heard him play a Bruce song before.

But he was there. And he did play it. And I rode by just then. And thought of home.


A Quick Update

The blog posts have gotten a little infrequent since I started my MBA, and I’d like to take this chance to explain why:


  • From the 10th to the 15th of January I was basically in school or going to school from 7:00am until 6:00pm.
  • The next week I was catching up on work (really)
  • Then I went to my second Dutch lesson, came back, wrote a beautiful piece about the problem in the Netherlands of integrating Muslim immigrants from Turkey, and then when I tried to post it the system crashed and I lost the whole damn thing.
  • Then I was so infuriated for having written such a great piece and losing it that I simply couldn’t sit down in front of a keyboard without getting insanely angry.

But I’m much better now. All the doctors say so.

So let me fill you all in on some Brian current events.

Dutch classes are proceeding. I continue to sit mystified in front of the computer for the first hour, listening to Dutch people converse in their unintelligible language, and then punching buttons until I get enough right answers on the quizzes (thank god for multiple choice).

I had my first regular weekend of MBA class. I am in a group of six people and we meet before the class each Friday and Saturday and stare at each other and say, “did YOU do the homework” a lot. The small group structure is really necessary for working stiffs because it allows us to break up the work and use each other as resources. I have a head of a sales department, a product manager, two consultants, and a banker in my group. They have me. Personally, I think they are getting the better deal.

I had a Frisbee tournament today. I actually thought I had this Frisbee tournament NEXT Sunday, but I got a phone call from the captain at 9:45am asking me where I was. “I’m in Dordrecht…” duh. Where do you think I am. “Oh, well are you coming to the tournament?”

Shit.

Jumped into some clothes, bike like crazy to the station, two trains, one cab, and about two hours later I walk into the Sporthal Vlinder in Wageningen just as their second game starts. We had a good time. The standings don’t show it, but we had fun. We lost three and tied one game (they play timed games here, so it is possible to tie, wacky). Yeah, the score says we sucked balls, but two of the games we lost by one point and remember, we tied one…

Now I am listening to the audio of 94WYSP over the internet so I can hear Merrill Reese and Mike Quick call the Conference Championship, where McNabb and the Eagles are handing Atlanta their ass 14-3 so far in the first half.

Tomorrow I am off to NY for a short business trip, then back to Amsterdam, where I travel by train to Heidelberg for a one day meeting on Friday, and then on Saturday I hope to meet up with Nieves, a friend of ours from “the good old au pair days” (as I like to call them) who I haven’t seen in about four years.

All I have to do is make sure I wake up on time.

Keep your fingers crossed sports fans.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

MBA Start Week

I just finished my MBA “Start Week”. I’m pretty sure the model for start week is Boot Camp. Just a quick recap: a little over a year ago I decided that an MBA would not only be a useful career tool, but would actually teach me a lot of things about business. In the parlance of that great orator Donald Rumsfeld, the known unknowns. And with that, an end to the military metaphors.

I was lucky enough to be accepted into the Executive MBA program at the Rotterdam School of Management. I have a great story to tell about the two GMAT tests I took so I could get in, but we’ll save that for later.

The RSM alternates within Europe as the fifth or sixth best business school, depending on the year and who’s doing the rankings. And while I am very happy that the school is very prestigious, that was really secondary for me. It was within commuting distance of Dordrecht, and it was in the Netherlands (so I could get a chance to learn Dutch). Oh, and it was the only school I applied to. I later found out there is a term for that actually: suicide school. Scary.

Anyway, things worked out (kind of, I still am not having anything contributed into my 401k plan) and on Monday January 10 I started school again after a sabbatical of seven years. I expected the Executive class to be small (which it was), mainly male (something like 85%), largely Dutch (also true, 56%) and full of smart people who probably were in high-powered careers and jobs to begin with. When starting an MBA, it is at least good to know that you are smart enough to know that you really have no place being there. Thank god no one told admissions.

The average age of the class is 32.9, so our birthday is coming up soon (in case any of you want to send gifts…). There is a predominance of engineers and people who work in some financial capacity, a few IT-oriented people, and maybe four or five Marketing-based people… including me. There is no one in publishing or any media field that I am aware of, and I am one of about four Americans.

Immediately, after all the introductions and speeches from people like the Dean and the head of the program and such (who you see exactly twice at any school ever: your first day and your last), we immediately got down to business. First thing’s first, we were split into two groups. These groups stay static for an entire year. Then we were split up into groups of six. This is the group we will stay in for the first semester. Mine has four Dutch people and me. We were supposed to have a sixth, but he’s Brazilian and his visa didn’t get cleared until the third day of class.

My three classes this semester are Managerial Accounting, Management Science, and Management Information Systems. As you can see, there is a heavy focus on management.

And now I must digress for a second.

One of the first things I realized from our first workshops and classes, was that I had not been thinking about management the right way. The first description of a manager that really stuck with me was given to me by a guy named Ryan Lafferty, the CFO of the start-up I worked in right out of college. Ryan was a consultant at Andersen or some such, and he knew his shit. He once told me that “a manager’s job is to remove obstacles.” At the time I was in a very operational unit (Production) and most of the issues I dealt with were simply small problems that needed a decision on, or fairly non-intensive personnel issues.

I slowly learned that a manager was also distinguished by a degree of responsibility. Being a manager means you’re responsible for things. You need to meet certain targets and you need other people to do all the work needed to realize those targets. Took me a long time, since I generally preferred to just do things myself, but I slowly developed the “a manager is a coach” philosophy, where the performance of the team was the critical success factor.

Now I am at the point where I believe that a true manager, the one that you would trust with a really big and important job, has a few other important dimensions that I had always associated as good traits, but now have a more concrete definition for. A manager requires judgment, because a manager is someone who is paid to make tough decisions, often under uncertainty, and often with heavy potential impacts. A good manager is also a leader, inspiring people and communicating a vision that people can feel comfortable following. And finally, I now also add to the list a strong sense of ethics. It is impossible to be a leader, to inspire people and gain their confidence, without being able to consistently demonstrate ethical behavior.

I’m sure I will continue to learn, and redefine these concepts, but the first few days when you start something, before you get sucked into the details, are like the impressionable first years of life. There is a brief window where a space is created for something new to be internalized, or for something to be altered or redefined in you.

Now, I certainly hope to also get a lot of exposure, experience, skills, and education also for my 38,000 Euros, but right now I am fairly happy to start here.

As this is my first night free for six days. The first night that I have not stayed up until 1am just trying to get through all the reading, never mind the homework, I am going to take my leave and sleep for about fifty-four hours.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

My First Dutch Lesson

I had my first state-sponsored Dutch lesson last night. Right after my first day of MBA school. I was pretty tired, but I managed to show up at the right place at the right time. I was directed to my classroom, met my teacher (very nice lady with an unfortunate overbite), who told me that I had to join the class that was already half a year in. However, while they all did the homework from lessons 18 and beyond, I could do the homework from lesson 1.

So, if I get this right, then I sit in a class and listen to a lesson I’m not prepared for, then go back and do the homework for another lesson which I haven’t taken. Okaaaaay.

But I digress. The first part of the lesson I was sent upstairs to the library for a CD-ROM lesson. I was given a CD, pointed at a computer, and told to go through as far as possible. I started this thing up and, unsurprisingly, it was all in Dutch. I mean from Disc 1 Lesson 1, they just show a picture of two people, run an audio track with a conversation, and then start asking you to do exercises and answer questions.

The problem with this approach is… it’s ALL IN DUTCH. Not only can I not understand the recorded conversation, I can’t understand the questions they are asking, and I have no idea what the hell I am supposed to be doing. The first couple of times I asked the teacher to help me by explaining what I was supposed to be doing, but I soon tired of being the problem child and eventually just tried to figure out what I was supposed to be doing in each exercise. But I got tired of THAT pretty quick, and then just started punching buttons.

Most of the questions only had two or three answers, and the program let you go back whenever you wanted. So, I’d hit a button, if the green light when on, I continued, if the red light went on, I continued. When I got to the end with a score of 50% and the program forced me to take that section over again, I just kept hitting buttons until I got all the right answers. Wash, rinse, repeat.

I’d like to take a moment to make an appeal, just in case the designers of the “Listen and Learn Dutch” software are reading this blog. I would like to ask you: who the hell designed your fucking icons!? I compliment you on hitting upon the amazing insight that many of your users would not be able to navigate a piece of software with text prompts, and that you should use icons, but in the name of all “Listen and Learn Dutch” users, I have to ask you if you are fucking crazy. Are you?

Why in the world would I interpret the visual clue of a single footstep, in what looks to be a field of snow, as meaning “next”. How about just a simple arrow, eh pals? Arrows cut across cultural boundaries don’t they?

And on your main exercise screen, when I click on “intro”, and your extremely helpful software just reads back to me the lesson number, I can only assume that you ran out of billable development hours and needed something to meet your revenue target.

And finally, if you were sitting down to a learning package, and you saw an icon of a tree and a hand holding a shovel, would you really interpret that to mean “begin the exercise”? Would you really? Be honest. Acceptance is the first step on the path to recovery.

After the wonderfully useful computer lesson, I had two hours of actual in class learning. There were about fourteen people in the class, which was actually two groups who had to be taught by the same teacher in the same classroom. So we had our class first for an hour while the other half did their homework, then we switched formats.

Now, you may be interested about the characters who take the beginning year of state-mandated Dutch lessons. In my group there were two Turkish men, a Yugoslavian woman, a Phillipino-Dutch woman who had lived in the Nehterlands for seven years but never learned the language, and a surly Polish guy who shaved his head and wore an immaculate tracksuit. The surly Pole, Peter, spoke English and wanted to talk my ear off about how sucky the classes were. Which, unbelievably, did not improve the class experience.

The highlight of the evening was when the teacher made us listen to a CD with a three way conversation and then we broke into groups of three and played out all the roles. There was the role of the tourist asking for directions, the eldery confused lady, and the sultry woman who shows the way with the map. I don’t know who was funnier as the sultry map-wielding CD voice, Ismail the Turk, or Peter the surly Pole. I really got into the old lady voice. I briefly considered telling Ismail that he did a great sultry map voice, but then decided against it. I have a general policy about not antagonizing men with moustaches who come from Muslim countries.

More after my next class.

Higher Education

I have had two days of MBA classes at the Erasmus Universiteit, the biggest university in Rotterdam.

Among the differences between American and European educational systems: they sell cans of Heineken and little bottles of wine in the school cafeteria.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Degenerates

Starting bankroll:
Guze: $22152
Brian: $1116
End: Brian +13 ($1129)

Saturday, January 01, 2005

New Year's 2005

New Year’s Eve – 2004

It’s 2:30pm on the first of January, 2005, and I am just starting to feel awake. Last night Ann and I accompanied Anja and Geert to the fabulous “Sporthal Pollepel” (The Ladle), a gymnasium about three basketball courts wide and deep, where 350 of Duffel’s finest citizens came to ring in the new year.

For a mere 75 Euros a person could gain entrance to the biggest party in town, which included hot and cold buffet, open bar, a stage with flashing lights, fog machine, DJ, and enough interesting characters to keep you entertained all night. And since the festivities commenced at 7:30, that was a tall order indeed.



At first, there was the usual posed pictures, the furtive glances around for sources of alcohol, and clumps of people all examining each other over the rims of their first drink. Most people were in a state of semi-dressiness, with the usual teenager or two who just couldn’t break away from their blue jeans, or the odd table of white trash for whom a black pair of jeans and knockoff Italian-designer shirt WAS “dressed up”.

Every now and then Ann and Anja would mutually gasp in horror and embarrassment as some poor fashion victim walked by in a blue leopard print jacket, or a belly-revealing get-up that accentuated the amount of tummy overbite. It was during these episodes that I was especially happy to be 1.) male and 2.) completely oblivious. Ann says she saved me from my own fashion faux pas by not allowing me to wear the red tie that I had selected for the evening. I believe her exact words were: “You look like a clown.”



Our table was strategically located between a corner of the dance floor, and the entrance of the food area. When they started calling tables to begin the buffet, ours was the fourth (of fifty) called, and we were among the first to raid the various tables. It truly was an enormous buffet. There were round folding-tables that could normally seat eight or ten, completely covered with all manner of consumables. There was the fish table, the lobster table, the meatballs and cherry sauce table, the cold cuts table, the tomatoes filled with mini-shrimp table, bread baskets, venison stew, fried fish table, it went on and on, over half the length of the gym. I was once again convinced that the Belgians eat better than any of their neighbors.





After dinner the real entertainment began. The DJ turned on the flashing stage lights, cranked up the fog machine, and deftly maneuvered his hands over the controls of the CD player. By this time it was almost 10:00pm and people were well into their fifth and sixth drinks of the evening. The dance floor quickly filled up and Geert and I rearranged our chairs so we would have a good view of the entertainment portion of the evening’s events.

Now, before we go into details about the dancing, let me give you a good understanding of the demographic. Duffel is home to 15,000 Belgian souls. It is what you would call, a small town. While it is only fifteen minutes from larger cities like Mechelen and Antwerp, it has a distinctly provincial feel to it and an abundance of green fields with roaming sheep and goats. Duffel is one of those places where a significant portion of the population may never live outside of the town limits.

Not surprisingly, many of this type of Duffelite could be found at the Pollepel on New Year’s Eve, instead of at some trendy club in Antwerp. The average age of the participants was between 30 and 50, and there were only a few “kids tables” where even the kids were teenagers, looking self-consciously bored as teenagers are wont to do.

About 15-20% of the people there were around Ann’s age, and I expected a lot more of the “running into people you hadn’t seen since high school and never really liked even then but feel obligated to give the recap of your life story to,” but Ann and Anja both only ran into one old acquaintance.

The dancing started, and the DJ demonstrated an understanding of his audience by sprinkling in a few trance and hip-hop songs among a majority of classic 70s dance hits, pop radio fare, and (strangely enough) remixed kids songs, each of which came with their own choreographed dance that is normally only seen performed by children just out of diapers.

However, since fully half of the audience had children (or grandchildren) of this age, the adults relished this opportunity to show off their choreographed dancing abilities without the usual distraction of the kids around, and it was truly a sight to see. An entire dance floor full of adults all waving their arms in the air and then getting down on their haunches as the singer instructs them “Now, walk like a goose!”



There were no less than seven of these choreographed songs played throughout the night and it led me to ponder the underlying psychology of coordinated group behavior. Anywhere but a dimly lit and fake-fog filled gymnasium, and these people would never dream of getting up in front of a crowd and hobbling around like a goose. These are the same people who don’t even sing the national anthem before sports events because it’s too corny.



But get a few drinks in them, give them one non-repeating yearly event, subtract their children and all self-consciousness, and the result is a dance floor full of middle-aged people all enjoying the fact that they are part of that special group: those who know the dance. And they love it. You can tell by the way that people stream to the dance floor whenever one of these begins, and the confident bearing of their heads after they have figured out the “turn turn, step, turn, kick,” routine.




Over the course of the evening we had ample time to gaze over the audience and pick out the most entertaining people to watch. These included:

-----Stick woman-----
This was the poor soul who wore the black dress with the unevenly cut bottom covered by a blue leopard print jacket. She looked like she was going to an extremely posh event: in Bedrock. With Barney Rubble. She was also, as you might have guessed, skinnier than a stick, and every time she moved a limb she gave off the optical illusion that she was dividing her mass in half. Especially entertaining while dancing.

-----Belly mama-----
A woman in her mid forties who obviously spent a lot of time at the gym and the tanning salon and wanted everyone to know it. She wore black pants, and a turquoise top that stopped an inch short of where her pants began. The amount of exposed belly when her arms were down was minimal, but she rarely danced with her arms down, as that would have defeated the purpose of displaying those orange-tinged ab muscles. She was a bit like Frankenstein, with the belly of a twenty year old, and the crow’s feet of a fifty year old.

-----“Pay My Bills”-----
This girl was a riot. She had a grey plaid skirt that she liked to grab fistfuls of and swing around and she danced around, like a can can dancer without a lot to work with though. Geert and I both came to the conclusion that she rode the little bus to school because she was more hyperactive than a Ritalin kid, had only one expression (a huge smile), and she loved to come up to all the sitting men at her table and run into them and pester them to try and get them to dance. She had a sleeveless t-shirt on that said “Pay My Bills” in very large letters, and she was built like a tank. When dancing in her proximity you had to keep her in your peripheral vision or you might end up knocked flat on your ass. Ann says she fell down on the dance floor right in front of her, but I missed this. I am sure however, that the smile never faltered.

-----Moustache Man-----
Anja loved this guy. He wore black jeans, and a black long-sleeve t-shirt with random bits of white on it that made him look like someone had very carefully spilled white paint on him. He was tall and skinny, had perfectly coiffed short hair, and a thin little mustache. But what made this guy so interesting was that he took the entire dancing affair very very seriously. The entire time he was out there shaking his tailfeather he kept this look of intense concentration. You get the impression that if he had let even one smile out it would have completely destroyed his careful rhythm.

-----Mullet Man-----
If the NFL were to recruit from Duffel, this guy would be their number one draft pick. He was at least six foot three or four, and built like a linebacker. You could see this clearly once he took his sport jacket off and was just dancing in his black sleeveless tee. What really gave this guy character though, besides the fact that he really came alive during the Nirvana and U2 songs, was his mullet. A gorgeous specimen of mullet beauty that extended past his shoulder muscles (which is saying a lot). He also resembled Meatloaf facially, which kind of made him scary when he really got into mouthing the words to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

-----Jerky girl-----
Some people just love to dance their own way. Jerky Girl was one of these. A thin girl of about 25 with hair just down to her chin, Jerky Girl loved to get on the dance floor and jerk spasmodically around a particular area of it. She had on pants and a tight, aqua colored, halter-ish top. Her pale arms made it easy to pick her out in the crowd.

-----Butt Woman-----
I save the best for last. Butt Woman. She started out as just an interesting anatomical study, a woman with solid arms and torso which connected to an incredibly round butt. She had on an embroidered top that had no straps, and she started off with a tight silver skirt that gave her posterior a look of brushed steel, but as this was too restrictive, she later emerged wearing tight white pants. Once she got out in her new duds she quickly out-danced every single person on the dance floor. She was such a good dancer that invariably wherever she went people would accord her generous amounts of space just to see what she would do. She had extreme balance and grace (considering her butt must have been affecting her center of gravity), and she could dance in a variety of different styles, the best of which was the entire complicated dance routine from a Detiny’s Child song that she performed with a friend. Ann refused to believe that the sole reason I was riveted was the fact that she moved such a stout frame around so gracefully, but I swear that was the truly incredible thing, and therefore Butt Woman wins my award for MVP of the Sporthal Pollepel 2005 New Year Bash.







Around 3:00am the ladies eventually ran out of power and it was time to go home. As usual for this time of year in Belgium, it was cold and drizzly, but we were so satisfied both gastronomically and spiritually from having had such a full New Year’s Eve, that we hardly noticed.