Brian & Ann's European Experience

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Sabine and Rik Visit

Ann's mom Sabine and her boyfriend Rik are visiting for the first time! We are very glad to host them, but we have to keep Sabine out of the kitchen because she has a nasty habit of breaking all our stuff.


Friday, February 25, 2005

Third Trip Home

My second whirlwind trip home.

Only this time I didn’t get to spend as much time in Princeton as last time. And I didn’t get to eat ANY Indian food!

I came into Newark on Monday, arriving one day after the snow, just like last time. We haven’t hardly seen any snow at all in the Netherlands, it only got cold enough to flurry twice, and both times it was gone in an hour. This time the news didn't call it a 'blizzard', but in Northeastern terminology, I would call it "a good sized dump". Which sounds worse than I intended...

I had the obligatory contradictory emotions of “god I miss this” and “god I’m so happy I don’t have to do this any more” as I got reacquainted with New Jersey Transit and Metrocard. It’s home, and it’s not at the same time.

Monday night I met my Aunt Bernadette for dinner up near her (upper East side). My Aunt, although she is retired, knows only one pace: busy. Right now she is busy organizing our family reunion, which happens only once every five years. She gave me the low down about the various operations, births, divorces, and other important details of my extended family, most of whom I have met only once in my life, at the first family reunion. Still, I give her much respect for the effort involved in dealing with all that family.

Tuesday night I found heaven. It’s what others know as “Brazilian style steak house” or “chiascurria”. You pay a fixed price, you get access to the appetizer bar, and then you get down to business. The waiters start bringing around skewers and skewers of meat. Just meat, of many different varieties. Five kinds of sirloin, two kinds of lamb, three other kinds of beef, spare ribs, two kinds of pork, and then exotic things like chicken hearts (which I will never forgive myself for actually trying a bite of… poor little chickens, so wrong to eat their hearts). And it keeps coming and coming as long as you have your signal coaster green side up. When you want to take a break, you flip it over so the red side is up, and then flip it back when you are ready for more. I absolutely love this concept. Thank you Brazil, for making plastic surgery a commodity, for your contribution to women’s grooming, and for Churrascaria.

Wednesday night was Princeton night. Met Mark and Katrin and their baby Kira and Guze and Allie (who are also expecting a baby in about six weeks) for Chinese food at Sunny Garden. Hands down the best Chinese food and sushi in Princeton. Good food. Good company. A baby making cute baby noises. Great time.

Thursday was the going away party for my friend Jim Kingsepp. Jim was a delayed victim of the merger of Springer and Kluwer. He was good at his job, a good manager, and could have done a better job of handling our electronic publishing needs than anyone else, so naturally he was let go. Jim and I both started at Kluwer at the same time, back in 2001 when Kluwer decided to make an “Electronic Publishing Services” group and hire handsome (me) and talented (Jim) people to help make the world safe for electronic publishing. It was sad to see him go, one more reminder that given enough time, everything changes.

The highlights of the evening were:

  • Losing at Hold ‘Em to a bunch of amateurs (I lost ten bucks). That’s not a highlight, but I’ll throw it in anyway. Whatever, they’re still amateurs.
  • Beating the pants off of Jim at Galaga to earn pronunciation rights (it’s a long ‘Gala’ as in Galaxy, and a short ‘ga’ at the end. And a high score of 75,000 by yours truly has the final say, BEOTCH!)
  • Seeing old Kluwer peeps like the immensely tall and wookie-like Rob Wheeler, the charming and lovely ladies: Karen Knapstein, Jen Stevens, and Diane Schubach. Even Mike Malone, who was the head of the company that managed our online platform before we decided to switch to a different vendor who charged us twice as much and was half as responsive (naturally) came to say goodbye to Jim.

It’s true that you can never go home, but you can go back to the place that WAS home and see your old friends and feel like there was a place that you once belonged. And I guess that’s good enough.

Going back has made me think a lot about where I want to be, where I want to spend the years of my life, and how important good friends are to your happiness. My parents proved, with their gallivanting all over the globe, that you can make good friends everywhere, and that’s definitely true. But you meet a finite number of truly special people in your time on Earth, and I think it shows the appropriate honor to recognize them for how special they are.

So consider yourself recognized. You know who you are.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Sony Shout-out

I would just like to send a shout-out to Sony, the makers of the Micro Vault USB memory stick. Thank god that they designed that thing to go through a washing machine cycle and still operate. Without corrupting any of the files or damaging the memory stick in any way. Truly, amazing foresight on their part.

Much love to the homeys from Japan.

The Diamond Games

This weekend Ann and I decided to go on a spontaneous trip to Antwerp to go see the women’s finals of the Diamond Games featuring Venus Williams and some French chick I had never heard of (Amelie Mauresmo).

We arrived Saturday night, tired and hungry, and walked to the hotel, which did nothing but inflame our appetites even more (and make Brian even more tired and grumpy because walking in the cold is not on my list of favorite activities). Alright, so I was being a bit of a baby. I admit it. But when Ann suggested we eat at this all too trendy restaurant (this place had barren white walls with large photos of children in poverty on the wall) I balked. “Forget it, we’re leaving.” Call me crazy, but staring at pictures of half naked poor kids doesn’t create a warm dining experience for me.

The problem is, it was now 8pm on a Saturday night in Antwerp. There were no tables available anywhere. After walking around for another ten minutes I just picked the first place with seating that said “Steakhouse.” Let this be a warning to you. If the place is a third full on Saturday in Antwerp… there’s a reason. Bad service. Bad fries (which in Belgium is a capital crime). Bad béarnaise sauce (according to Ann). Note to all you travelers: stay away from the “Argentinian Steakhouse” right by the Cathedral in Antwerp.

The hotel we stayed in (Hotel Theatre), was right next to a very old and famous theater in Antwerp called the Bourla Schouwburg. The place is decorated like a roman amphitheater with statues of famous old dead guys and their names in gold letters surrounding the circular entrance. Believe it or not, Ann had performed on the stage of the Bourla for a performance of “Bacchanten”. I asked her if she played a nymph, but she said her job was to lead out her friend who was playing the blind sage. Apparently, there were no nymphs involved in the production.

Sunday morning was a little better. We slept in. Went to the stadium to buy tickets. We had lunch in this café facing the Town Hall that had great smoked salmon. Then it was time to go to the game. The tournament is known for the prize that can be won if the same person wins the tournament three times in five years: a solid gold, life-sized tennis racquet with a handle encrusted in diamonds and a tennis ball made of diamonds set into the diamond “strings”. A million euros. And Venus Williams was playing for her third win of the tournament.

So, Venus Williams and Amelie Mauresmo start playing, and right from the start it’s a close match. Venus wins the very first game by breaking Mauresmo’s serve. But Mauresmo comes right back and does the same. Venus finally wins the first set 6-4. Both of these women hit the ball with such amazing strength. The TV doesn’t convey the effort that these players are putting into every shot, and simply how amazing it is that they can set up and execute a hit on the ball when it’s moving so fast.

Both women seemed to be ‘power’ players, trying to beat their opponent by ramming the ball down their throat. Mauresmo had a little more finesse and agility than Williams, who had more power and a slightly better serve. Right from the first set though I could see (tennis pro that I am) that Venus was making many more errors than Mauresmo, who was slowly figuring out exactly how to play her. Whenever Venus was on the ropes, she usually ended up losing the point, whereas you could never count out Mauresmo from any point or from any set regardless how many points or games she was down.

The worm turned in the second set. Venus was up 4-2, Mauresmo came back with three straight to make it 5-4. They tied at 5, and Mauresmo won it after two more. In the third set Venus jumped out to take the lead, but when she had a chance to put away Mauresmo and win the game to go up 5-2, she hit too easy of a shot and Mauresmo capitalized, winning the point, then the game (to make it 4-3), then winning the next two games. The last game was the best of the entire match. The longest volleys. The longest game (something like eight or nine deuce points) but finally Mauresmo got the opportunity, with Venus having missed her first serve, she just played the point out until Venus hit it into the net, and the crowd, which was composed of many French-speaking Belgians and French nationals, erupted.

For forty Euros a head, it was some damn good entertainment.

Making the day complete, we were on the first tram back to the Central Station, we caught a train back in fifteen minutes, and so far it hasn’t rained.

I’d like to say a big thank you to my honey baby for putting up with my grumpiness and suggesting this very fun excursion.

See you all next time at Roland Garros (which is the French Open for all you tennis ignoramuses out there).

Monday, February 14, 2005

Ken, Brian, and a Night at Holland Casino

It wasn’t easy at first.

Ken and I got to the Holland Casino at about 8:15. We rushed through the bag check and bounded up the stairs to get on the list for a Hold ‘Em table (correction: THE Hold ‘Em table) only to find the single 10-20 table in all of Amsterdam, full.

In Amsterdam, poker is heavily regulated, and they only allow about twenty people in the entire city to play poker, only after a successfully negotiating the Office of Poker Licesnsing and waiting 6-9 months for their “Degenerate Gambler” permit, and only during very specific hours. Poker started at 8pm and finished at 3am when the casino closes. If you want to play at times other than those designated by the Office of Poker Licensing, then you are just shit out of luck.

Seriously though, Amsterdam is a pretty big city (over 730,000 inhabitants), and for some reason they can’t find more than fifteen people who want to play poker in this entire burg. I don’t get it.

In honor of my friend Ken’s visit from the States, and the fact that he was winding down his whirlwind European tour, we decided a final trip to Amsterdam was in order. With so many vices to spend our time on (coffee shops, the Red Light District, sniffing tulips) it was a tough choice, but we settled on Texas Hold’ Em.

Alright, it wasn’t a tough choice at all.

So there we were, second and third on the list, watching the only table of Texas Hold ‘Em, looking at all the happy people receiving their two cards and paying their blinds, looking a lot like hungry dogs at the kitchen table. There were seven people standing around waiting to play poker, which generally is enough to get a second table going (assuming the authorities from the Office of Poker Licensing wouldn’t intervene), but the problem was that four of these guys were about 20 and they had all pooled their money to give to one Indian kid so that he could represent them at the table.

What the hell, “Can we start a table with four?” I asked the manager.

He verified my “Degenerate Gambler” permit, and then said, “if you want to play with four, I’ll open up a table.”

It was 8:45 when Ken, myself, this beefcake Italian guy, and the head of the Student Government’s Degenerate Gamble Chapter sat down and started playing poker. At first, it sucked. Playing with four people is extremely difficult because two of them (the “blinds”) are already half in every hand (because of their forced bet), and with 4 people you have to realize that nobody has shit, so you have to adjust your normal thinking about what is an acceptable hand to play. It wasn’t rare for a single pair, or a high face card to win a pot with no other help. Plus, Beefcake was playing with a stack of black chips (which were 500 Euros) and would stay in on basically everything and take you all the way to the river (the last card) if he had any chance of pairing EITHER of his two cards.

Here’s how it went. I traded money back and forth with Ken and Beefcake for about half an hour until some new blood showed up and we devoured him. It was kind of sad really, here was the first guy to sit down and we took his initial 200 Euros in about fifteen minutes, he bought in again for 200, and that was gone 15 minutes later. Ken took this guy all in (meaning he had put all the money he had available into a hand) and beat him both times.

Somehow I managed to go down almost 200 Euros, mainly to Ken and Beefcake, in the first forty-five minutes. I never gave any real money to Student Government because he was so obvious about what he had. Ken likewise (didn't contribute to the educational fund). SG made his money completely from Beefcake, who was happy to throw it away chasing flushes (one of which he made, against me, for about 100 Euros, sadly) and straights.

As the night wore on into the tenth hour, we finally got to seven people, and we finally started having some real poker hands. And that is when God came down from Heaven and said, “Brian, I will now make up for cursing you with male pattern baldness.” The cloudy skies parted, and the hands began to fall into my lap like manna from Heaven.

Three of a kind. Which turned into a full house. Flush. Flush. Then four of a kind (three tens on the board and I had one in my hand and realized, “Hey, I don’t think anyone else can have a ten…”). Another full house (sevens full of fours, which beat the nice old Chinese guy next to me, who had sevens full of threes. Sorry pops.) Then another flush caught on the river as I was standing up to leave.

I was a tsunami of unbelievable hands for about fifteen minutes. And then, thanks be to the Father Almighty, it just so happened to be time to leave. I walked out of Holland Casino with almost 600 Euros in profit. Converted into frightfully devalued US dollars, that’s the best poker night I’ve ever had in my life.

So far.

(And the Devil and the man at the Office of Poker Licesning both smile.)

Ken, who was up a little over 300 at his peak, walked away with 100 profit (50% gain in two and a half hours, hey, better than investing in my 401k).

And the two of us rode the train back to Dordrecht happy men. I even found it in my heart to tip the cab driver a whole Euro (karma and all).

When I got home I put all the profit, all in crisp 100 Euro bills, into the money jar that we use to collect our change. Ann honey, that Delvaux handbag is almost in reach.

Happy Valentines Day.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

pre-Superbowl Jitters

So I’m trying to occupy the time until Superbowl XXXIX. Four hours to go. It will be 12:30am here when I start watching, but I started conditioning myself to watch the whole thing by staying up last night until 3am watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. As much as I appreciate brilliant filmmaking, that movie is pretty damn dull. And weird. Actually, I think most Stanley Kubrick movies are like that. Dull, weird, masterpieces.

I am so psyched that my Eagles are finally in the Big Game. Twenty four years baby. I really shouldn’t front though, I’ve only been an Eagles fan since I moved there in 1999. In a strange twist of fate, my father, who lives in a town about an hour south of Jacksonville, has a ticket to see the game. I guess by the time you are 71 you should have a broad enough network that there is SOMEONE who can get you into the Superbowl, but I still view it as a pretty major accomplishment. I know he does too. Keep an eye out for him: section 104. I told him the best way for me to see him will be for him to jump the barrier and streak across the field. Keep your eyes peeled.

The Superbowl also marks the final opportunity for me to tie up my fantasy football duel with Guze. He’s up by one win. Drafting a fantasy football team when you only have two teams to pick players from shouldn’t be so hard, but I found a way to screw it up by letting him have BOTH starting runningbacks because he had the first pick (Corey Dillon) and I wanted to make sure I got Brady (which was a mistake, the difference between the QBs shouldn’t be THAT great), which meant that Guze took Westbrook for his second pick and now I can’t get a single rushing yard. Extremely poor draft strategy, but whatever.

The Superbowl will be broadcast on SBS6, the cable sports channel in the Netherlands. I will have to watch it in Dutch, with Dutch commentators. I am thinking about turning on my internet radio on really loud (it’s downstairs in the computer room), but that might interfere with my wife’s sleeping.

I don’t know what she’s thinking. My weeping if the Eagles lose (which they are predicted to by 6.5 points I think) will achieve the same effect.

Being out of the country for the entire NFL season sucked. I “watched” the play by play on and listened to the Eagles radio show via the internet, but it still sucked. They have an NFL expansion league here, but it has only 6 teams I think. Probably will fold in a year or two, especially with all the anti-Americanism in the air these days.

Speaking of which, I had a bizarre argument with a Russian woman who is in my MBA class at lunch yesterday. Unsurprisingly, she was no fan of American foreign policy, but she got really worked up (which always just makes me get worked up) and we had a bit of an argument about whether more people were killed by Saddam or the US and which was the lesser of two evils. Hard to argue with a woman who thinks that Putin is God and who freely admits that she supported Milosevic. I remember thinking that she probably was really disappointed the poison didn’t work on Yeschenko in the Ukraine. But then I started to get a little freaked out, because I had this amazingly vivid image of HER being the one slipping the poison into his food, which made me subtly slide my plate a little further out of her reach.

Hey, the girl is nuts.

I’ll write a little more about the MBA program later, right now I am going to switch time-wasting tactics and play computer games for a little bit.

Friday, February 04, 2005

The Little Differences 2

The popcorn in the movie theaters here is coated with sugar instead of salt and butter. I have to say, I really like it. It’s a really light coating, just enough to give you the idea and to make you want more. Come to think of it, they may mix heroin in there too…

Also, at the little three screen theater in Dordrecht here they stop the movies halfway through and have “intermission” for fifteen minutes. To be extra cruel, they play this little clip of a beer commercial the whole time, which accomplishes two things: 1) makes the audience want beer (which is available at the concession stand) and 2) makes sure that only the deaf patrons will actually stay in the theater during the intermission.

Brilliant marketing.

PS: Blade Trinity was pretty bad. And for me to give a comic book superhero special effects vampire Wesley Snipes movie a bad review is saying a lot.

After Exams Dinner

I know, I know, this is only my second contribution to our blog…After someone called me a slacker (you know who you are), I decided that it was time to start cranking out another contribution. So I will tell you how the future America specialists celebrated the end of their first exam session.

Our last exam was US History on January 31st. I was not only looking forward to handing in my exam papers, but also to our little “After Exams Dinner” that was to take place that evening. I was looking forward to an opportunity to finally sit down with my fellow (but oh so much younger) students in an environment where I wouldn’t have to feel nervous about Professor Chew calling my name.

Canan, a Belgian student from a Turkish family, invited us all to her mom’s restaurant L’Heure Locale in Koekelberg. We were about 25 people (or was I seeing double?). We had a delicious buffet of Turkish vegetarian dishes (the stuff that makes Brian go green), followed by a main dish of real Turkish French Fries and chicken and meat. It was all very yummy, and I stuffed myself silly, which is not out of the ordinary when I am in a relaxed mood and talking everyone’s ears off.

So what were my highlights of the evening?

- George imitating a cat (I mean really well!!)
- Frederic being a master in making girl’s breasts look bigger when operating a camera
- The girls’ gossiping about good looking men
- Catherine trying to figure out who Ruben was, and then Thomas
- Being the cause of Floris’ hearing problem
- Finding out that the Walloon dictionary has 17 volumes
- Utku being really disappointed about his one meatball (no further comments)
- Tim and Niel contemplating when it was better to dump the girlfriend
- Kasper calling me ZOT (a nut case) for the second time this semester (??)
- Trying to figure out where exactly Clara lived, apparently she wasn’t quite sure herself
- Making my way back to the Central Station with 3 personal bodyguards

Anyway, I would say that we need to organize another social event. This was way too much fun. I am looking forward to the next semester, one without incorporation (if I hear that word one more time…), checks and balances, cash crops, Addison’s disease, the tyranny of the majority, enumerated powers, blablabla…

I rest my case.