Brian & Ann's European Experience

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Proof

If you read my last post about moving, I talked about how beautiful the day was when I came back from dropping Ann off at the airport. Here's some proof.

Dordrecht's Scheffer's plein (1.8MB .asf file)

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

A Philosophical Post on Moving

Ann left two days ago. Guess how long it’s been since I left the apartment. You guessed it. Two days.

Actually, today I went to Utrecht with my bike to go to a pickup game of ultimate. Utrecht is an hour away by train, and I hadn’t been to the new sports park where the team started having its practices, but what the hell. I had a general idea of where it was and no shame about asking multiple pedestrians where the “Kanalstraat” and the “Marco van Basten sportpark” was. I found my way, but there were only eight people there to play ultimate. At least I was around people again.

Now, I’m not a stranger to international living experiences. My family moved to Paris, Seoul, and Hong Kong when I was growing up, and I know how it goes. But the truth is, it’s different each time. The places and the cultures are different each time. Where you are in your life is different each time. That said, there are some general trends that you can count on.

The beginning is always tough. And it’s even tougher when you don’t have an immediate support network you can latch on to (like an expatriate club, which, surprisingly, does not have a Dordrecht chapter), or where the culture is extremely different from your own (like Asia), or where there is a language barrier.

In terms of difficulty, this move has been about a 6. The culture is different in some ways, but shares many of the same fundamental traits that American culture shares. That, plus the fact that Ann at least speaks the language (so we can read all the forms), and that the majority of people you run into will speak English, have helped. On the other hand, we knew no one here, and that is the main reason that I have not showered in two days.

In general, you move someplace, and you spend the first few months just getting oriented. Doing your paperwork to get legal. Dealing with the various bureaucracies. Setting up your utility bills. Buying appliances.

You spend the first year really completing your settling in process. Learning the ins and outs of where you live. Where to shop. What the fastest way from here to there is. How much things cost. The names of the streets. The good places to eat.

Then after about a year you have made the place your own somehow. Now you don’t think twice about calling it home. The boxes are all unpacked. All your stuff is around you. You feel more confident about being there. And you start to look for your people.

Everywhere you go, you look for your people. Or as close to them as you can get. You look for people who share the same world view, who are into the same sports. Who have the same general background and the same general goals. The people who laugh at your jokes. The people whose numbers you memorize. (Well, at least you used to, in the days before cell phones.)

In the five times that I moved with my family before I was fifteen, I found that wherever I was, it usually took between one and two years to really find your friends. That usually gave me about one year of easy living before the movers showed up again with their supply of brown cardboard boxes.

Right now, I haven’t found my people yet. And I think it gets tougher as you get older. People have other commitments. People have priorities. The Dutch especially are fond of planning everything ahead in their little agenda books, which makes it tough to just call someone up and say, “Hey, want to go shoot some pool?” The likely Dutch response is, “Sure, let me see, [sound of small pages being riffled] how about next Thursday.”

So while I have no people, and no real time to dedicate to finding some (in between my six hours a week of Dutch classes and my MBA program), I have to face facts. When Ann goes away my options become very limited.

Here’s what I have done over the past two days.


  • Played on my friend Ian’s Xbox that he thoughtfully left at my place.

  • Finished the new Crichton book (State of Fear, not bad)

  • Watched mindless TV programs

  • Unloaded the dishwasher

  • Slept

  • Read my Economics textbook (in ten page chunks because it is THAT boring and dense)

  • Prepared sustenance for myself (usually in the form of sandwiches of bread, meat, and cheese)


Contributing to this general malaise is the fact that it’s Easter, there’s no one I can call to do anything with, and the weather is crappy, grey and cold all the time. It would be easy to sit on my slightly stiff Ikea couches and pontificate on how lonely and pathetic I am.

But even though I am still wandering around looking for my people, and have to endure the occasional house confinement, the truth is, I know what the deal is. I’ve been here before. I know what the process is, how long it takes, and how much effort it requires. So it’s hard to really sulk, I knew it was all coming. And I can do better things with my time than wallow.

So let me tell you about something that happened to me on the day my wife left me (for her trip to the States, just for ten days). I was coming back from the airport where I had said my goodbyes. I got to Dordrecht and it was just a beautiful day. The sun was shining, it was in the high sixties, the people were all out and about because it was the last day before everything closed for the Easter holiday. It was hard to not take a deep breath and just be happy to be alive.

I went to the grocery store because just before she left Ann admonished me to get some food in the house since there would be nothing open for two days. I shopped, alone, but surrounded by Dutch people who had no idea about the American in their midst. Well, at least until I got to the cash register and spoke Dutch in my American accent.

I walked out onto the street and my first thought was, “This is exactly what I hoped for when I said I wanted to live in a quaint European town.”

Here I am, walking down the market street with throngs of Dutch people just going about their business. And I’m one of them. I’ve got my ridiculously thin plastic bags from the grocery store. I’m on my way to my apartment. The sun is shining. The weather is warm. Spring is coming. Life is good.

How many people get to do this? How many Americans are walking down the street on this sunny Saturday with their little plastic bags full of groceries from the local tiny market? And here I am.

I can understand now about a fifth of what I hear (thanks to my ever-patient Dutch teacher Corrie). I can get by at the grocery store and on the train. I have my bike. I am in that phase. I’m starting to make it my own.

And I know I’ll find my people. Might take a little longer than usual since I have so many constraints on my time. But they are here. They are everywhere you go. And knowing that takes away a lot of the fear and anxiety that is always close by when you completely change your environment.

I miss my life in the states. But I know that my life now is just as rewarding, just in different ways.

I checked on Weather.com to see when this succession of grey, cold, rainy days will end, but the five week forecast shows nothing but the same.

But I know the sun is coming.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Our 5th Anniversary

Thank you for everything honey baby.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Know when to hold 'em...

There’s good news about poker night, and there’s bad news.

The good news is that we have finally migrated to “no limit”, and we have moved into that phase of gambling degeneracy. We have moved into the phase where the adrenaline shoots into your veins as you calmly look across the table at your opponents and say, “I’m all in.”

Previous poker nights were all low-limit affairs where people would come, buy in for five Euros, perhaps buy in for another five if everything disappeared too quickly, and your entire exposure for any given hand of poker was a whopping two Euros.

But lately we have brought in the X-factors, Constantine and Dominic, our two German interns, into the game. The good thing about interns who are only there for three months is: they don’t give a damn. They’re willing to give anything a try. And, like the degenerate pusher that I am, I brought out the hard stuff: no-limit.

No-limit poker simply means that at any point in the game, you can decide to wager your entire stack of chips. Anyone who has enough chips to cover the bet can match you, and usually in those situations, after all the cards are out, one person doubles their money and one person is then out for the rest of the hand. It’s like the playoffs: win or go home.

In no-limit poker you play until one person has all the chips. The chips themselves don’t have any intrinsic value, they’re just indicators of who’s got the advantage (and the biggest cojones). At the beginning of the round everyone “buys in” for a pre-determined amount, and the person who wins all the chips walks away with the money. If you have a large enough group it’s usual to split the money between first and second place, or even first, second and third place, but you need at least six or seven players to make that worthwhile.

No-limit is intoxicating. It brings a whole other dimension to the game. You aren’t bound by the normal rules of strategy, and the swings can be immense. You can go from being almost out to the chip leader (the guy with the most chips) in two or three consecutive hands (as I did last night). It’s like walking the edge of a skyscraper when you declare “all in”. And you will either crash and burn and have to watch your friends play the rest of the time without you, or you will be catapulted to an even higher level of chips, which you will also eventually have to put on the line again in order to knock the next players out. You can’t win at no-limit by just waiting it out, gaining a little on this hand, a little on that hand. In order to win… you have to risk it all.

Last night we had five players, one of whom was my wife. She didn’t take to no-limit. The traits that make her successful at regular Hold ‘Em, patience and risk-aversion, are liabilities in no-limit. The new guy, Marco, who hadn’t played even regular Hold ‘Em before, actually was a very fast learner and did very well. The German interns were the German interns. Unpredictable, staying in on hands they clearly had no chance and, and every now and then pulling out something that would just make you shake your head in disbelief.

We played four rounds of no-limit. I won them all. I have to admit, I got really lucky on one of them. In the last round there were 3 players left, and I was down to about fifteen chips. My opponents had about 80 and 120. I do the only thing I can in that situation, where just covering the big blind would take out a quarter of my stack, and I go all in before the flop. Thankfully, Constantine goes with me. I guess he figures it’s less than ten percent of his stack for the opportunity to knock me out. But I win that one. Go all in on the next hand, win that one too, and all of a sudden the chips are evenly distributed again.

Now, while it IS true that I was pulling stuff out of my ass all night (getting two pairs on hands like Queen, 10, and getting full houses and the like), the truth is: I’m just nasty. I am a NASTY no-limit player! I’M THE GREATE—I better quiet down before Ken and Guze decide to fly over one night just to remind me what’s what.

It saddens me that this was the last poker night for the German interns. They will be going back to the Fatherland at the end of the weekend, and I will have to go back to five Euro buy-ins and playing hands for forty cents and losing to hands like 3,9 unsuited. Sigh.

Well, it was great while it lasted, and I’d like to thank Constantine and Dominic for contributing to the “Brian’s Next Trip to the Casino In Amsterdam” fund.

Take care guys.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Bearded Brian

So while I was on the 2nd Annual Guys Snowboarding Trip I decided to see what it would look like if I grew a beard. While my swarthy half-Turkish genes were certainly up to the task, there's just so much facial hair you can grow in 9 days.

I came back and was greeted by my wife with three reactions:

1. "Ow. It prickles. Get off."
2. "You look like Mark. I feel like I'm kissing your brother. Ew."
3. "It makes your lip look funny. Go shave."

How about a little reaction on the "Comments" on this one, eh folks? What do you think of the manly facial hair. Sure it may look like a George-Michael-before-he-admitted-he-was-a-queer wanna-be right now, but try and see past that and recognize the sheer exotic sensuality of a Brian covered in facial hair.

Come on. You know you love it. SAY IT. SAY YOU LOVE IT!

Monday, March 14, 2005

2nd Annual Guys Snowboarding Trip


Go to pictures and videos.

For the tenth time in two months I’m on a plane. I’m somewhere above America, flying from Salt Lake City to Newark on my way back to the Netherlands. It’s going to take me two days to make the complete trip because for some crazy reason the airline companies didn’t consider that someone might want to wake up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, fly twelve hours and across eight time zones so they could go to sleep in Dordrecht. The best I could manage was getting to Newark airport at 11:00pm on Saturday, and then taking a Sunday night flight back to the Netherlands, which arrives at 8am of the following day.

I am going to write a strongly worded letter to Continental, KLM, and Delta about this serious lack of sensitivity to their customer’s needs.

Why am I doing this you may ask? Because I love pain. I love strapping myself into a four foot high piece of composite materials with wax on the bottom and throwing myself down the steep side of a snow covered mountain, and then repeating the process until all body parts are sore and/or bruised.

You may know this phenomenon by its more common name: snowboarding.

I’m on my annual Guys Snowboarding Trip. This is the second installment in what I hope will be a yearly tradition from now until I am too old and arthritic to tighten my boot straps. The “Guys” in this case are my friends Ken and Jimmy and my brother Mark. This year we decided to spend a week snowboarding in that perennial snow paradise, “the West”.

When you grow up skiing in such places as the Adirondacks, the Poconos, Vermont and New Hampshire, you say “the West” with the appropriate amount of reverence. In the East we get small mountains with short runs which are more suited to ice skates than skis. But you take what you can get and you love it. Well, you love it until you go someplace that nature truly intended humans to ski or snowboard. These places include Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Vancouver, and Lake Tahoe (which is where the first annual Guys Snowboarding Trip was held).

It is only when you see the sheer size of the mountains in the West, when you carve a tight turn on a bed of soft snow with the sun shining on your face while you’re wearing only a sweater, that you truly understand what a cruel joke Northeastern skiing is.

That said, the locals told us that we picked one of the worst seasons in memory to go to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. This year they only got half of their usual amount of snowfall due to strange weather systems with Hispanic names which pushed most of the snowstorms either north or south of the Tetons.

It’s still freaking fantastic. The first day was a little tough because the sky was overcast, so the snow stayed hard all day. I got a rude awakening to the fact that Jackson Hole is not a mountain for beginners as I repeatedly fell on my ass and got pushed around by the moguls. The second day was cloudless and sunny, and the temperature reached into the high forties, the snow softened into a heavy, slushy consistency which allowed us to push IT around… and there was much rejoicing.

We ate our lunches outside almost every day with the sun on our faces and our coats off. We took various pictures of ourselves in front of vast panoramas of mountains. We played poker at night with the four of us. We made fun of Mark to the appropriate level as he is our token whipping boy, a role which he excels at.

Mark is on the Guys Snowboarding Trip thanks to the generosity of his investors, Mom and Dad, who believe that having something to look forward to is a good incentive for Mark’s performance at the Florida State University in Talahassee. If Mark keeps the grades up he can probably milk the Rents for at least one more free ski trip.

Sadly I had to take a whole day off to finish a final for my Managerial Accounting class, but beyond that it was a fantastic trip. Here are some of the highlights:


  • Reviving the liberal use of the word “punani”

  • Mark slashing Ken’s chin open with the edge of his snowboard on the very first day so that he needed sixteen stitches. Ken is no punani though. He got stitched up, then got back to the mountain for a few more hours of boarding. In the words of Ali G, “respec!”

  • Mark coining the phrase of the trip: spicy. He first used it in the story he told about the barber who trimmed his moustache so that it was pencil thin, which he then complimented the barber on by saying, “yeah, that’s spicy!” Little did Mark know the versatility of this accolade. For example: “Did you like that run? Yeah, it was spicy!” and “Nice shot on the 8 ball Ken, spicy.” “The stock market has been really spicy lately.” Give it a try. (By the way, Mark, pencil thin staches only work for John Waters and certain sexually ambiguous boy bands. And maybe Buscemi. Maybe.)

  • Losing my entire stack within the first five minutes in two consecutive no-limit Hold ‘Em tournaments. What can I say, I know how to pick ‘em.

  • Beating Ken on our last night in two consecutive heads-up Hold Em tourneys. Spicy.

  • The guy at the Board Room, a local snowboard store where apparently the staff are not allowed to show up to work unless they are stoned or just naturally slow.

  • Finding a beer called “Bitch Creek”

  • The “Nut Sack.” A bag of snowboard screws, nuts, and washers sold in one of those little plastic netted sacks that they sell Hanakkuh candy in. The packaging sports a picture of a squirrel with a huge nut sack hanging between his legs. Spicy.

  • Finding a replacement for the “Awful Awful” from Reno on our last trip: Billy’s Burgers. Cheap, greasy fare that tastes great as long as you don’t watch how it’s made. Still, you either eat it or you’re a punani.

  • Finding the one table at the Rancher pool hall with felt so bad that it ended up correcting for my inherent suckiness at pool long enough for me to beat Ken (who owns a pool table and is a truly spicy pool player) once. I also counted at least seven cowboy hats there.

  • Buying a new snowboard. (Ann if you’re reading this, they were practically giving them away. 230 including tax. That’s really not even fair to the board shop. Plus, I’ve had my old one for seven seasons now. Ann, it was just too spicy NOT to buy. Honey? Don’t hurt me. I’m a punani.)

  • Ken, Jimmy, and Mark snowboarding after drinking two pitchers at lunch one day.

  • Listening to Mark make these cute squaling sounds every time he took his boots off because of the coaster-sized blister he developed after the first day. Talk about being a punani.

Well, I’m just past Cleveland now. The captain said the tailwinds are spicy and we should be in a half hour earlier than anticipated. I’ll have a few hours on Sunday to meet with Princeton friends and then it’s another cramped economy seat across the ocean.

Catch you all later.
Go to pictures and videos








Videos

Friday, March 04, 2005

Blizzard!



I take back what I said about it never snowing in the Netherlands.

I take it back because I am sitting on a train instead of a plane. My flight from Frankfurt back to Amsterdam was cancelled because of a snowstorm that was working its way across “the Continent”.

I luckily got onto an ICE (InterCity Express for those of you unfamiliar with European train services) from Frankfurt to Amsterdam. That’s three and a half hours, and then I have to get from Amsterdam home, because I have to go to my Dutch class since I missed it on Monday and I’m missing the next three classes due to my ski trip to Jackson Hole.

* * *
I missed my class though. The train got in at around 8:40 and thanks to Murphy's law, there were no taxis. I trudged through the snow, dragging my suitcase, looking around at the (mostly) deserted snow-covered streets and trying to keep my balance in my treadless work shoes.

Dordrecht is fairly pretty when covered under a blanket of snow. I just wish I had remembered to wear two pairs of socks.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Nieves


The last time I saw Nieves was almost four years ago. She came for the US wedding of our friends Ken and Sole, which was in the summer of 2001.

Nieves was one of the au pair crop that Ken and I, and various other Princeton locals hit on. I ended up with Ann, and Ken ended up with Sole, so there were no suitable suitors left in all of Princeton and sadly Nieves left at the end of her au pair term in 1999.

Nieves moved to Germany to live with her boyfriend at the time, Manuel, without knowing a lick of German (well, strictly speaking that’s not true…). I remember thinking what a huge leap of faith that was for her. Nieves is as Spanish as you can get, close with her large sized family, talks at a mile a minute when she gets excited, often gets excited. Loves life and art. She was part of our band (Smelly Pig), has a great singing voice, and a few other great physical assets. I’m speaking about her eyes of course. Big and green. ;-)

So Nieves moved to Germany, got a job in Stuttgart working for Mercedes, and is now speaking fluent German and climbing the corporate ladder, leading a busy and fulfilling life. I caught up with her over Italian in Stuttgart while I was in Heidelberg on business. I was immediately reminded what a warm and caring person she is, and how sad it was that after she left I didn’t keep in touch. I’m lazy that way, and the cost was evident to me while I listened to the brief version of the last four years.

I got to see her apartment and her DVD of her performances on various German TV shows (she’s an actress too, and plays a very convincing Venezuelan mother). I even got to see her naked. Well, sort of. Apparently Nieves and a few other women were somehow convinced to get naked, cover themselves with white and black body paint, and then pose in artistic positions against a white screen while a projector shone images onto their bodies.

I know, it sounds very weird, but the effect it created was really cool. First of all, not all of their bodies are painted white, so the images projected on them only come through partially. In many of the pictures you could kind of make out body parts and outlines of female forms, but their bodies blend into the screen, and the images being projected on them act as their clothing. The different angles and positions give the eye so much to look at that it’s often very hard to really focus on the people, and you get this very interesting effect of seeing pieces of human shape embedded in these very colorful pictures of other things. I was very impressed, there are some very cool shots. In fact, I am thinking about becoming an ‘artistic’ photographer myself. All I need is a camera, a projector, a few gallons of body paint, and I’m in business.