Brian & Ann's European Experience

Thursday, May 19, 2005

London Trip

Ann and I took the Eurostar high-speed train to London last weekend. Sadly, there were no more seats available in coach, so we had to go first class. I have to say, it was pretty damn cool. On the way there we had breakfast, which I slept through, but which Ann tells me was great. All I can contribute is that the seats are comfy.

Ann and I lived in London for a grand total of four months, from November 2000 to February 2001. We were part of the aborted European expansion of Xlibris. We both loved London and were really bummed to leave. Besides the fact that we had the worst four months of weather ever, London is such a great town that it’s impossible not to have a good time there.

Unfortunately, the weather report for our weekend started off “grey/cloudy” and deteriorated to “going to rain the whole damn time” as we got closer to our departure date. It turned out alright though...

Here are a few highlights:

Saturday

I planned this whole itinerary on the train, down to the hour. It involved a lot of traveling around London by tube and seeing old places. We started off at the hotel (tube stop: High Street Kensington), then went to have lunch at the shoarma place we used to eat lunch at where I worked in Mayfair (tube stop: Marble Arch).

We got out of the subway and it was like nothing had changed. Oxford street when you come out. The big arch to your right, at the corner of Hyde Park. Park Lane ahead of you, one of the ritziest streets in London. Oh, and I don’t know what crack the weather guys were smoking, but it was sunny with puffy white clouds and in the high sixties.

I used to cross the street and pass by the Aston Martin and Jaguar dealerships before taking a left onto Grosvenor street. Our office was a single large room in an old stone mansion that used to be an embassy. We rented the dining room. It had fantastic floor to ceiling windows that looked out onto the garden.

Damn I had a good time back then.

But the best thing about our office was lunch. Two to three times a week we’d walk a few blocks up Edgeware road to this Lebanese shoarma place. They made the most fantastic shoarmas. The chicken and lamb are the best quality, roasted on this spit with lemons, limes, bell peppers and tomatos dripping juices down the side of them as they cook. The tastiest lamb I’ve ever had, no contest.

After lunch we walked down Oxford street a little. It’s one of the most famous shopping streets in London and home of some of the largest departments stores. Ann and I bought a bottle of vanilla flavored liqueur at Selfridges because we’re suckers for jars full of pretty colors.

We went then went to Chiswick (pronounced Chiz-ick, tube stop: Turnham Green) to see our old apartment. 37 Esmond Gardens. We had the best apartment of all the Xlibrians I must say. We walked around the High Street, shopped a little in the Waterstones (the British equivalent of Barnes and Nobles) since the books were cheaper in London than the Netherlands (weird).

By this time my feet hurt and the schedule was shot to hell. We went back to High Street Ken (oh, to speak like the locals speak) did a little shopping (Ann pouted because I bought a suit jacket and she hates being outspent by her husband).

We had dinner at an Indian place called Utsav right on High Street Kensington. Great food. We had this appetizer shaped like a little pot of thin crispy bread. It had this spicy chickpea paste inside, but the coolest thing about it was that it had a hole in the top and you filled it with a cold soup, put the whole thing in your mouth, and when you bit down it exploded like a juicy bomb in your mouth. I love food you play with.

We had a talkative Pakistani waiter who said he would want George Bush as his President. Since I was on vacation I held back from saying, “Take him, please! He’s all yours.”

Sunday

All the people we knew who lived in London are all gone. But I called up a guy I know from work, Skip, to see if he wanted to get together. Skip actually works for a company that provides email services to my company, but we’ve gotten really close in the six months that it’s taken my company to figure out they want to renew their contract.

Skip did something really nice: on one day’s notice he agreed to make time for Ann and I to have breakfast with him and his wife on Sunday. I called him and he said: “My wife, who is very proactive, booked us a table for breakfast at a hotel called the Dorchester.”

Sounded great. It was just right across the park. It was another beautiful sunny, cool day, and Ann and I walked all the way across Hyde Park to work up an appetite. The parking lot of the Dorchester, which is on Park Lane, was filled with a Ferrari, a Porsche, a stretch Mercedes limo, and a Bentley.

Okaaay. So the Dorchester ain’t a dump.

The inside was appointed in a style that can only be called ‘palatial’. A waiter in a waistcoat with tails offered to take my coat. Skip and his wife Christie (who was seven months pregnant) moved to London on a temporary assignment. That was four and a half years ago. Skip and Christie were both great. They were even greater for picking up the check. I didn’t look, but I think the bill was about thirty pounds a head. With the exchange rate being almost two dollars to a pound, that’s $240. For breakfast. Without tip.

I can safely say, that was the most expensive breakfast of my life.

Skip said he would expense it, and I truly thank him for that. I sure wouldn’t want to explain a $240 breakfast to my accounting department. But without Skip’s graciousness, I never would have had a $32 bagel with lox.

But it didn’t stop there. We mentioned that we were going to visit Windsor castle after breakfast and Skip said, “Oh, we live right in the next town, we’ll drive you!” Now THAT’S service. I asked this old guy with advanced Parkinsons to take this picture of us. Then his wife offered to take another, and after checking around numerous times for the imaginary tree branches and strands of hair that were in the way, we eventually did get this nice shot. Thanks again Skip and Christie.

So it’s simply a beautiful day. We’re walking around this quaint little English town, and right smack in the middle of it, overlooking the Thames river, on top of a little hill, is a huge freaking castle!

See, that’s why I love Europe. Castles. You just don’t get that in the States.

We took the whole castle tour, passing through the appropriately luxurious rooms of the “oldest continuously inhabited castle in the world.” Forty-two consecutive sovereigns have lived in Windsor Castle. Don’t you feel sorry royalty. Always so limited in their career and housing options.

Then we saw the Queen. She was there for the weekend, as is her habit, and she came outside to inspect some horses that were there for the yearly Windsor horse show. I’m sure it’s a big to-do, but Ann and I had more important things to do. Like inspect old suits of armor and swords.



Ann made me walk all the way across the river to Eton to check out the famous college. Another quaint little town whose main street has shops right out of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. There were tailors providing school uniforms, antique book and map shops, Qwik-E-Marts, all of whom had been in business for longer than America has been in existence. Just reminds you that you’re in a different world.

When we finally got there they wanted us to pay six pounds for admission. Eton has got to be the most exclusive and expensive private school in all of the United Kingdom. What the hell do they need my six pounds for!?

No way was I going to give money to the richest kids in the land. Little brats.

So, guess what we had for dinner Sunday. If you guessed “Indian food”, you get the magic prize. Ironically, London has been colonized by the Indians and the Pakistanis, and as a result has the best Indian food in the world.

Okay, I have to admit, I made one terrible mistake on this trip. I convinced myself that there might be a chance in hell that Ann would like the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Well, the penalty for denying reality is that it smacks you in the face every now and then. Ann was a trooper, but if there’s any type of movie she hates, it’s one where weird fantastical stuff happens. And I took her to a movie where it started off weird and just kept getting weirder and weirder. Smart move.

The really funny thing is, that was the second movie we saw that weekend. The night before we went to see Sahara (which was actually really good). And BOTH times, in DIFFERENT theaters in Leicester Square, who should come and sit in the seats DIRECTLY behind us?

Dutch people.

Weird.

Monday

Monday we went to the British Museum, which, as I describe in another post, is my favorite museum in the world. It doesn’t have the Mona Lisa, but it has items of even greater historical significance and beauty. The Rosetta Stone. The Elgin Marbles. The Reading Room. It’s an amazing place.

Finally, after some last minute shopping at Marks and Spencer, it was time to board the Eurostar back home. Three hours to Brussels. A three course dinner with champagne. The best chocolate truffles (which the steward gave us a bag of). In the words of Adam Sandler, not too shabby.

And then it was back to life, back to reality. Dordrecht and the tall, cheese-eating Dutch awaited us. Ann asked the cab driver on the way back to the apartment how the weather was over the weekend.

“Terrible. Cold and rainy all weekend.”

Friday, May 13, 2005

Little Differences 5

The bathrooms here in the Netherlands always have full floor to celing doors. All of them. Even the public ones (which you have to pay fifty cents or so to use).

I don’t get how on the one hand you can have a sophisticated quality-of-life improvement like fully-contained toilets, but at the same time the same liberal, socialist-leaning European citizens are fine with charging for the fulfillment of bodily functions. I find that kind of weird. You think that along with the “free health care for everyone” and “free education for everyone” that logically “free toilet use for everyone” would follow.

Just another example of the social complexities of “the Continent”.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Blogger sucks

After many frustrating crashes right in the middle of posting for no apparent reason I have decided that Blogger.com, quite simply. Sucks balls.

Looking for a replacement, but it's hard to find good free services. I am hoping my buddy Mark Lorenc will hook me up and install some blog software on the server that hosts mochasteak.com.

Thank you Mark. You're the best. I'd mow your lawn or something but a) I don't know how to mow a lawn and b) you live on a different continent.

But I still love you.

I am the PHP MASTER!

I'm feeling pretty good about myself. For the longest time I was trying to get the headlines from my blog to show up automatically on my website. I started by figuring out that Blogger.com had a setting that allowed you to publish an RSS feed for your blog.

Then I got stuck.

I have a news ticker Java application on my website, and I emailed the developers asking if there was a way to fit the RSS feed right into the news ticker. I got the typical developer answer: "Yes. But no."

Meaning, "yes, of course it is technically possible, IF you are a web programmer familiar with certain technologies like PHP and if you were you wouldn't be asking me so for YOU the answer is 'no'."

Well I decided to show that guy what was what. I started reading up on PHP. Now I don't know shit about web development languages. I barely understand HTML. But PHP sounded like it could do some pretty cool stuff... if you were a web programmer. Which I wasn't.

So I foundered for a few weeks. Then I got my courage back up, got back on the Internet, and started scrounging for answers. I found a great utility that some great people had written and put up on the internet for free (don't you just love the world we live in) that did exactly what I needed: it took an RSS feed and turned it into PHP.

Great. But I still didn't know what to do with the PHP.

A few hours more digging, some reading on some 'tutorial'-type pages, and I thought I had it. I started copying and pasting other people's code (hey, that's how the Internet works man, don't look at me like that...).

To make a long story short, I got it to work.

And there was much rejoicing.

But then I decided that I didn't like the way the dates were displaying. I mean, who wants to read "2005-05-08T13:45:32Z" right?

And then I got stuck. Apparently that's the format for date the Blogger.com uses. So to change it I would need to know how to manipulate the data in PHP arrays.

And cue exploding head.

So I found a developer's forum, signed up for their discussion board, and posted a message. Within an hour I got two replies. One guy pointed me to an article about how to ask questions on discussion forums and made a cryptic remark about "check out the date() function". Fucking know-it-all developers.

But the second guy, Alan Levine, wrote me a very succinct email telling me what the general theory was, and then (thank God) giving me a suggested piece of code to copy and paste into my existing code.

And therefore, Alan Levine is now my new hero. Thank you Mr. Levine, you are a savior on the order of the Messiah and Maxim magazine.

And now I want everyone to go to Mochasteak.com and ooh and aah over the fact that yours truly figured out how to get the headlines from his Blog to appear in BOTH the main page AND the Javascript news applet on the right.

BOOYA! I AM THE PHP MASTER!!!

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Tom's Tourney 2005 - Part 2

Tom's Tourney 2005 - Part 2

So we left off with me at the Brugge train station trying to get to the fields. It’s 10:15am. The tournament started at 9:30. I hopped a cab and the driver luckily knew the sportpark. I get to the fields and they are just swamped with ultimate teams. There are at least seven fields, with fourteen teams playing, and at least that many waiting on the sidelines. I start wandering around, looking for my team of giant-sized Dutch men, and can’t find them. This is slightly worrying. They should be easy to spot, they are all eight feet tall! But after ten minutes of lugging my duffel bag around, I have checked out every field and there is no sign of them.

Strange.

I mean, this HAS to be the place right? There’s no way that they’re at the OTHER huge Ultimate tournament in Brugge this weekend right…?

I finally head to the registration tent and find an arial map of the sportpark. There are three more fields which are hidden completely out of sight, and wouldn’t you know it, my team just finished playing their first game on one of them.

Eventually I meet up with my UFO teammates to find out that they stomped all over the first team they played by a score of 12-1. With only 35 minute games scoring twelve points is quite a lot. I lace up my cleats and get ready for the next game.

There are 32 open teams (meaning they can be all-male or they can be co-ed) at the tournament. They are in pools of 4. You play everyone in your pool, and then the top two teams advance to a higher bracket and the lower two teams go to a lower bracket.

There are also eight women’s teams playing a round robin against each other. One of these is the national women’s team from the Netherlands, which has a few Utrecht players on it.

So, we have two more pool games to play. The second game is against the “D” team from the Brugge area called the Wanna Beezz. They have an average age of thirteen and are about half as tall as us.

We stomp them too, but in the last few minutes of the game one of my teammates throws a pass to me and I slow down just a little and the twelve year old kid who is guarding me runs in and knocks down the pass. They then get two very good passes off and score their only point of the game. My teammates make fun of me for being beaten by a twelve-year-old, but the Wanna Beezz played their hearts out, knowing the whole time they were hopelessly outgunned, and they deserved at least one point. Final score: 12-1.

Our last pool game is against a team of old British guys called “Violently Happy.” They are there really to have a weekend of fun away from their wives eating Belgian fries and drinking beer. They are a fun group and have some experienced players, but we crush them 10-3.

So we advance to the upper bracket. We are now in another pool of four, this time with teams which are a lot better. Our first game is against a team from Paris called “Les Invalides”. They are better than anyone we have played so far, but they are still not at our level. Plus they are French, which annoys me. Final: 11-5

Our final game of the day is against the best team in the pool, also from France, called “Ultimate Vibration.” It starts off as a very good game. We actually score first. But these guys are all fast, athletic, and very experienced. They pull away toward the end of the game and we just can’t match them. We play our best game of ultimate that day, but lose 9-5.

Saturday night there’s a barbecue, and I learn that the team is actually NOT staying in a hostel as I thought I read in the emails, but they are sleeping in a gym. On the floor. For which everyone else has brought foam mats and sleeping bags. Of which I have neither.

Okaaaay.

I briefly consider trying to get a hotel room, but it’s just too late and the logistics are too annoying. I borrow the keys to someone’s car and spend a fitful night trying to arrange myself comfortably in a tiny European two-door with no blanket. I get about three hours of sleep if you string all the fifteen-minute pieces together.

I really need to pay more attention to the emails.

Sunday comes and we have three games to play. The first is the final game of our second pool, against a British team called “Blue Arse Flies.” They are a co-ed team and they usually play three women on the field at a time. They are fairly good, but you just can’t put 5’6” women up against 6’2” men and expect to win. They really turn up the play on their last two points, hoping to score at least one point, but being the nice Dutch team that we are, we stomp them 12-0. The funniest thing about this game is the huddle with both teams at the end, where both teams make a little speech about the game. Our captain told them that they would be a good co-ed team.

They ARE a co-ed team.

So, the good news is that we finish second in our pool. That means we get to play two more games, and we will be playing for 5th to 8th place.

The bad news is, we have finally run into the very good teams.

We play a great game against a team from London called “Fire of London”, we are leading almost the whole way, but they pull it out in the end, winning four straight points to go from 3-5 to 7-5. We are just morons and can neither get our offense to work nor stop them, so they deserved to win, but it was frustrating.

Our final game was against our sister team from the Netherlands, a team called IcyDykes. They have a lot of players who are on our UFO team, along with some of the best players from Amsterdam. Their problem is that they came light to the tournament, and then suffered two injuries, and have been playing with only two subs all day.

I have to say, although the level of play remains high, this turns out to be the worst-spirited game we play the entire tournament. There are more fouls called than in all our other games combined, some of them really bad calls. We are down 5-2 in this game until we take a time out, cool off mentally, then come back in and start concentrating on playing our best.

They are tired and after we score the next two points in a row we start to feel the momentum. We win the ‘second half’ 5-1 for a final score of 7-6, taking 7th place.

It was an awesome weekend of Ultimate and we got to play some very good teams. The weather was beautiful, sunny and cool, the food was great, they had Belgian waffles for sale in the tent, and we finished 7th out of 32 mens teams. Not bad I would say.

I burned the back of my neck and the top of my head (damn bald spot), but it was well worth it. I can’t wait for our next tournament.

I hope I can get a ride next time though…

Saturday, May 07, 2005

More on TV

It's uncanny. The courts must have read my blog.

http://news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/ap/20050507/ap_on_hi_te/digital_tv_piracy

Friday, May 06, 2005

Deadwood - The Best Show Ever

Oh, and before I lay my head down on the keys and go to sleep, I have to share with the world what a freaking AWESOME show "Deadwood" is.

It's on HBO (and also available illegally through the wonders of BitTorrent) and it is quite simply the best TV show ever made.

There. I got that off my chest.

G'Night.

Blind Date

All this talk about TV, and the hour being so late, reminded me of the fact that it's been months since I've seen an episode of "Blind Date", my late night, eyes half-closed, staple.

:(

Thougths on Downloading TV

I miss American TV. I miss the shows. I miss the networks and cable. I even miss the commercials. It's hard to explain the "minor league" feel to the TV ads that you see in Europe. I guess small TV markets are a disincentive for people to spend a lot on TV ads, especially when it's tough to reuse the same content in different markets because of the language barriers.

So what I generally do is steal my TV.

Actually, I don't even know if it's stealing anyway, at least not for the stuff that you get off of the broadcast networks. See, since I downloaded the awesomest BitTorrent client in the world (Azureus) and since I found my torrent treasure trove (isohunt.com), I have been able to download TV episodes and movies at will. Okay, it can take hours for a full TV episode (which usually runs about 350 megs) or even days for a movie to download, but I still get it.

And is it wrong?

For movies, CD tracks, and shows from cable TV channels, yes. It is wrong. You are supposed to pay for that product. For broadcast TV shows though (like "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives"), I'm not so sure.

The fee you pay to watch network TV shows is that you have to watch them when the networks want you to, and you have to sit through the commercials. But other than that, the content is freely distributed through the air (although I doubt most people use antenna anymore).

THe point is, if you are willing to "time shift", and watch shows at times other than their scheduled "air" date, then what's wrong with that? The shows were publicly distributed, how can re-distribution via the Internet be wrong?

For shows on cable, the argument is different. You're supposed to pay a subscription rate to get access to the content, and if you download the shows you deprive the cable companies from the revenue, who then deprive the cable channels, who then can't pay the producers of the show, who then can't make the show in the first place. And I think we can all agree that's bad.

Does the same argument apply to watching the commercials on a broadcast TV show? Am I obligated to watch the commercials? Are they part of the show? If I videotape the show and watch it later and fast forward the commercials, am I breaking the law?

I was one of the early adopters of Tivo, and I can tell you that besides the value of pausing live TV, of automatically recording and cataloging shows I like to watch at my leisure, one of the big value adds was the ability to skip through the commercials. You start watching a show fifteen minutes after its start time, you hit the "fast forward" button through the commercials, and by the end, you catch up to 'real time' and you finish watching the show with everyone else, but without watching the commercials.

It's technology baby.

Content providers need to understand that consumers don't want what content providers want, they want the content. And in today's world, they want it on their temrs: the want it on their schedule and without having to sit through ads. And today's technology allows them to do that.

If the networks and cable operators were really smart they'd initiate Video On Demand immediately and figure out the licensing deals with the content owners as they do it.

The real value of ABC, CBS, or NBC is the fact that they are the gateway to the consumers. They are a distribution channel. In the past, their distribution was linear and meant that only one product could be served to many customers at any one time. Technology now makes it possible for them to provide a HUGE value for their customers: any product they want to watch, when THEY want to watch it.

All they have to do is figure out how to charge for it.

People already buy an entire season of a show they like on DVD, but they have to wait months after the initial air date. Why? Just let them watch it online!

Besides the obvious business benefit of being able to make money repeatedly from the same piece of content (as opposed to a single airing of a TV series episode for which they only make money on it the one time that it airs), there is also the ability to differentiate and sell product at different price points.

Here's a potential model: It's free to watch it the moment it comes out (but in exchange you have to watch ads). But you could also watch it online, any time after the original 'air' time, for say ten bucks an episode (which is roughly the price of a movie ticket plus a premium for the convenience of not having to leave your home), or you could wait three months after the ENTIRE SEASON is done and buy all the episodes for sixty bucks, which works out to about $4 an episode for a fifteen episode show, less for a 22 episode show... but you have to wait a LONG time from the initial air date.

It's so simple! What are they all morons!?

Obviously, it's not so simple. But the fact you can't ignore is that the technology is there, and it will be used, and you can either be a part of it (think iTunes) or you can fight it (think RIAA suing college kids).

Sure, it will cost to develop and implement, but like all new services, there will be someone with the know-how and infrastructure to serve content via the Internet who will provide the infrastructure in exchange for a piece of the action, and everyone wins because specialization is the key to economic growth (as I'm learning in my economics class).

But the networks then need to rethink their role in the world. Watching NBC starts to mean less, and recognizing that NBC.com is the place you go to get your filmed entertainment, any time you want it, starts to become more important. The networks still have a role to play in terms of marketing product to viewers, but now they don't have to be restricted to marketing what they can show in the 24 hours of a day. Now they can market as many shows as they can effectively find consumers for, because they aren't restricted to 24 one-hour time slots. THey could sell a thousand shows, and they should. Because for every episode that ever aired, there is someone in the world right now who wants to see it, right now, and would be willing to pay for the privilege.

Think what you could do if you had enough capital that you could buy the syndication rights for all of the best TV shows and sell them, Pay per View, exlcusively from your website. Or if you could make exclusive licensing deals with all the studios so taht none of your competitors could offer the same product.

Of course you can't, it's too much up-front capital. But for sure certain 'networks' will specialize in certain kinds of content. (WB will buy all the cheesy teen shows like Dawson's creek and One Tree Hill and UPN will buy every African American TV series ever made, probably at a discount...).

It's a brave new world once the distribution method for TV switches to the Internet.

Or at least, it WILL be a brave new world.

But who will take the first step?

Hollywood tried it (somewhat) with Movielink.com. Fox did something novel when they cancelled one of their 'reality' game shows halfway through, but put the last five episodes on their website (Pay per View of course).

We'll see what happens, but my bet is that it will take some newcomer who starts with cheap, old, syndicated shows and starts to prove the concept before the big boys will move.

I wonder if I could do it. Just so I could then sell myself as a consultant to all these big evil corporations to help them with the transition...

;-)

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Tom's Tourney 2005 - Part 1

I should be studying for my MBA class. Or sleeping. Or learning a new song on the guitar. Or sleeping. But in an attempt to make myself fall asleep at the keys, I will instead tell you the story of my tournament this weekend in Brugge, Belgium.

So I’m on this Frisbee team, UFO 2 (as I’ve said before). But, and this may come as a surprise to you, the Netherlands is not a big country. Therefore the ultimate culture is pretty incestuous. The best team in the Netherlands is a fairly new creation called Icy Dykes. The team is comprised of top level talent from mainly the Amsterdam and Utrecht areas, and a few ringers. In last year’s outdoor season the Amsterdam team (Red Lights) finished first, followed closely by UFO 1, the A team from Utrecht.

Well, for some scheduling reason, Icy Dykes had two bids to a tournament last weekend in Brugge, Belgium. See, this is why I love ultimate in Europe. All these teams get together in these exotic places like Copenhagen, Brugge, Paganello (Italy). It’s so awesome when you play another team and while marking you (Ultimate term: look it up) they count in French, or German, or Spanish.

So, for a month now I’ve known about this tournament. Of course, I didn’t tell Ann until like a week ago, just to maximize her poutiness (I’m gifted that way), and just to make it worse, I was away for the entire week in Heidelberg for work.

But anyway, Friday night rolls around, and I still haven’t connected with anyone from the team to get a ride to Brugge, which is about two hours away by car. I’m starting to get a little worried. I sent numerous emails to the email list with increasing levels of pleading (“Um, PLEASE can someone pick me up in Dordrecht…?”). No response.

I call all the numbers I can find on the website, searching for someone who will have an empty space in their car. Well, to make a long story short, no one has space.

Fine. I’ll take the train.

Only there’s one little problem: Koninginnensdag. Queen’s Day.

This weekend happens to be the 25th jubileum for the reign of Queen Beatrix over the kingdom of the Netherlands. I know, I’m thinking the same thing, big whoopee. Well, apparently it IS big whoopee. The entire fucking country is going nuts with orange.

Someone has to explain this to me one day, the flag of the Netherlands is three red, white, and blue stripes horizontally layered. Take the French flag, turn it ninety degrees, and that’s the Dutch flag. There isn’t any orange anywhere on it. But that’s the color they wear when they want to be all patriotic. I think a long time ago the king was called the prince of Orange, which is stupid as all get out because if there’s one fruit that you could NOT grow in this country it’s oranges.

But anyway, the point is, everyone in the entire country went out Friday night and partied until their heads exploded.

And then they all decided to take the train home. All still drunk.

I get to the train station at 7am on Saturday and I’m greeted by two Dutch guys who look like they are eighteen years old, have been up all night, and are still drunk. In fact, that’s exactly what they were.

These two idiots are yelling unintelligibly at everything they see, which apparently is really amusing to them. Then they get the bright idea of taking all the Metros (the free newspaper that’s distributed on the public transportation) out of the box they are laying in and start giving them out to everyone in sight. Unfortunately, besides me and the chick behind the glass window who is opening up the croissant shop, there aren’t many customers.

There’s a tall skinny one and a shorter one. The smaller, thicker one come up shoving a paper at me and saying something in some language, maybe Dutch, I can’t really tell. This is where I go into my “stupid American” act (which is a stretch) and say things like, “oh, I’m sorry, I don’t speak Dutch. Thanks anyway. Really, you’re too kind.”

But in the Netherlands, everyone speaks English anyway. So he just switches into his best drunken English and says, “Oh, you don’t speak Dutch? Well that’s no problem, here, I read the news to you.”

Great.

The guy wraps his arm around me while his partner bangs on the glass door of the croissant trying to get the attention of the girl fiddling with the croissant-making apparatus, who is trying very hard to ignore the idiot pounding on the glass and making lewd gestures.

“Uh…. lemme see… okay, this guy, he did something bad….” the short guy says to me. “And this weekend is Koninginnensdag, you know Koninginnensdag?”

No. Never heard of it. Stop touching me.

“Yeah, the party for the queen right—“

At this point the guy banging on the window has worked through the likely scenarios and decided the woman behind the glass is not going to engage in sexual acts with him at that time, so he gives the window a final bang and then let’s out a long, loud, “Pussyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy.”

It was actually quite funny. It wasn’t a mean or angry shout, just enthusiastic, the kind you would shout after a huddle in a football game.

I’m trying to understand the motivation behind that (Accusation? Statement? Request?) when his partner realizes he’s (barely) reading the headlines to some foreign guy when he should be off doing more important things. He takes him arm off me and then says, “I love fucking bitches man.”

Not knowing how to respond (“Me too”? “Nah, I prefer ho’s”?), I just smile and nod and say, “Well good luck with that.”

Then I’m on the platform waiting for my train. The train before my train comes in. And doesn’t open its doors. It just sits there, with the door closed. And occupying the track that my train is supposed to come in on. It’s surreal. I can see the passengers on the inside of the train, all standing there, all acting like they want to get off the train, but nothing’s happening. I begin to think that it could all just be a very elaborate joke, but that would be stupid. Or would it...?

Fifteen minutes go by. The status marker on my train switches to “15 minutes delay”. Then two cops finally walk up to the platform and the doors open. They pull out this Morrocan or Turkish looking gentleman and start talking to him. He can’t make up his mind between being really snide and condescending (you can do that to the cops in Yurup and not get the shit beat out of you, it’s weird), or being nice and cooperative, while the other passengers disembark around them throwing nasty looks.

Apparently, the guy wouldn’t pay his train ticket. In the Netherlands, if you’re on the train and you don’t have any money you have to show your ID, and then they write down your address and send you a bill in the mail. And if you don’t pay it within a few weeks they start adding fines. I know, I’ve gotten them. But I digress.

This guy apparently didn’t want to pay and didn’t want to give any address. I guess he simply didn’t recognize the authority of the Netherlands Train Service to collect revenues from his person in general. Well, that fucker fucked up the entire train service headed south from Dordrecht. The cops finally had enough of his lip and cuffed him and escorted him off to experience the legendary horrors of the Dutch prison system.

I hope they give him the chair and fry his ass. But they don’t have the death penalty here. Big softies. He’ll probably be sipping tea with Milosevic in the Hague in a day.

My train does finally come, twenty minutes late, but I guess the Lord heard the generous praise I gave to all the chanting that was done when that dude Joey Ratz (aka the new Pope) was inaugurated, because somehow I make my connection in Antwerp and get to Brugge only 15 minutes later than expected.

My next test is finding my way to the fields.

But I will leave that, and the story of the actual tournament, for Part II as I am now concentrating on hitting the right keys and keeping my eyes open.


To be continued.

Monday, May 02, 2005

The Road to Heidelberg

Last week my company had its Global Marketing Meeting. About 100 employees from at least five different offices in four different countries were gathered in Heidelberg, Germany.

The Dordrecht marketing staff rented cars and drove. The meeting where the travel arrangements were planned was held in English for about five minutes until I mentioned that I neither have a valid license to operate a motor vehicle in Europe, nor know how to drive a stick shift. After that the meeting carried on in some unintelligible language (Dutch) and I sat patiently waiting for someone to give me the recap. At the end I was told when and where to be on the day we left and that was enough for me.

My brain usually drops out much of the detailed data it finds uninteresting (like when taxes are due, how long it’s been between oil changes, how to cook food, what my Social Security Number is, and what medications I am allergic to), so whenever possible I like to reduce my action items to just showing up. Like someone (probably in the Army) said, life is decided by those who show up... and advance preparation is highly overrated.

So Monday morning I fulfill my obligation, lugging my suit bag the one kilometer (half a mile) to the office on foot, where I find out two things: 1) my brain did its job again by forgetting that the dress code was ‘business casual’ and I only packed suits, 2) I am going to spend the next six hours packed into a European rental car with four Dutch women.

Now, in case the severity of the situation escapes you, let me remind you that the height of the average Dutch woman is 5’8”, and at least two of the women in our car were 5’10”. The average European car on the other hand is only three feet wide. Okay, maybe three and a half.

But honestly, the Dutch in general are very outgoing and forward people, so you can have some pretty interesting conversations when you’re stuck in a car with them for six hours. I got the low down on the biggest domestic problems facing the Netherlands today: the aging population, environmental pollution, and Suzanne (who I know think is crazy) said that we weren’t treating the disabled with the right amount of special care they need – now THAT’S Dutch for you.

We had a group discussion sparked by an article in my Businessweek magazine about the use of blogs as community-building devices for our scientific journals. I will probably put it all down in a memo to my boss and claim complete credit for all the good ideas.

I also had a very interesting discussion with Dianna about the cyclical nature of economic improvement vis a vis the rise of China’s economy and its inevitable fall to the same outsourcing pressures now affecting America and Europe.

On the way there we stopped at a gas station to pick up some porn. I mean gas. To pick up some gas.

Just so you know, filling up a gas tank in Europe will generally cost you on the order of 50 Euros. That’s about $65. Think about that next time you fill up your Taurus or Camry at your local Exxon or Mobil station for $2 a gallon.

Overall it was a very nice trip. Other than the fact that they made me listen to Annie Lennox and Suzanne (the crazy one) said she doesn’t like U2 (further proof that she’s nuts).

I have to say thank you to Christel who drove the whole way. I took a plane back, but that was only because I was staying an extra day. I wouldn’t have missed being sandwiched in between all those Dutch women for any other reason.

;-)