Sunday, June 24, 2007

Blind Dates in Amsterdam

Busy week this week...

Went to Geneva for two days for a meeting and saw Kavita, my colleague from RI. And.... SIMON arrived on Friday! My friend Margo brought him with her on her way here and thanks to an amazing effort by April, Laurie, and Alec....my fat needy Siamese is sitting here next to me on the couch purring up a storm. Since I had to buy a new litter box, cat food, and all the othr things that cats need when he got here, I ended up collapsed and exhausted on the sofa after he arrived and slept all day. While I was worried that he would be traumatized, he was fine. Within five minutes, he was out of the crate, running around the apartment adn gobbling up the "Welcome to Amsterdam" tuna I had set out for him.

As part of my efforts to meet folks, I agreed to go on a blind date with a guy I met on line. The blind date... well.. how to begin. It was an interesting exercise. He is American and IT guy, scifi reader, divorce from the midwest. Now, I tend to like guys who read scifi and are from the midwest, I'm not so sure about IT folks but if they can make me laugh....

On Tuesday night, he was supposed to call me and we were going to go out. He never called and sent me an email after I was already asleep. I agreed to forgive him and go out with him on Thursday since my goal was not to date him but to gather people around that I could go to events with...

On Thursday night, I emailed him to tell him I'd be at this bar called Bloemers at 8pm and I gave him the address and my phone number. At 8:30 he finally called me (the only reason I was waiting around was because I was drinking a beer and reading the International Herald Tribune). I gave him directions and he said he was on his way. I thought to myself that I would wait until 9pm. Nothing is more than 30 minutes walk away in Amsterdam and he was in Leidesplein which is not that far away. At 9:10, I was just about to pay my bill and leave when he showed up. It was raining, he just moved here (he told me) and he had gotten off the tram too early. Since that shit happens to me all the time, I understood.

within five minutes he told me a story about falling in love with a woman who he worked with and writing her love poetry while married to his pregnant wife. He left his wife for woman who turned out not to be as wonderful as he had expected since she smoked pot all the day as an artist. Now he's single...

Then when I was telling him a story, he leaned in and tried to kiss me! It was about 15 minutes into the meeting! I was not turned on by him and did not want to be kissed by this stranger. I told him it was my 'local pub' and I didn't believe in PDA so to chill out.

When the bill came, he didn't even offer to pick up my beers since I had been waiting for him for an hour and 10 mintues. In fact, he said - I only have a 5 or a 50. and put down the five. So I ended up buying one of his beers. Then I tried to shake him off by showing him where the tram stop was and telling I had to ride my bike home and he asked me to walk with him for a while. On every bridge, he tried to kiss me. Ugh. I was REALLY not interested in him. He was nice enough but not kiss worthy.

Finally, I got rid of him in Leideplein and he told me that he wasn't actually living in Amsterdam, he was visiting there for work every six weeks. So now I know he won't even be someone I can go to bars with when I don't feel like going alone. When i got home, there were three messages from him about how much he was going to miss me. How great we got along and how lonely his bed was. Yikes!

So - I'm not going to see him again but its nice to know that I'm still desirable to American IT guys. At least I'm not invisible.

Life is getting better with little Simon here - makes hanging out alone not so terrible. And I'm meeting people slowly and surely. My pilates class starts in July and the Tango starts up soon too.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Some photos of my apartment!

Here's my apartment from the outside... I'm on the third floor with the bay window.


This is my kitchen looking out onto the balcony and the back of the apartment






From the backdoor looking out...


The balcony!

The bedroom (note the boxes)- and the little cupboard hides the water heater which cycles on and off all night long. Not super restful.



The bathtub/sink combo in my bedroom... There are curtains to provide privacy when guests are here, I guess.



The living room with the all to the kitchen on the left...None of those African decorations will be here after tomorrow though ):


Living Room looking out the bay window.


The "Reading Nook"/Guest Room/Dressing Room part of the living room.


View from the bay window...

View from the "Reading Nook" and FINALLY....



My bike... the trusty steed that gets me around.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Airports from Hell

I just read a great article by the "Ask the Pilot" section of salon.com where he invited readers to submit their favorite and least favorite airports in. I wish I had known about it before. It made me think about my own fine experiences hopping around airports throughout the world.

The worst: IAD, Dulles in DC - my former home airport for foreign travel. No internet connection unless you sit on the filthy floor outside the airline clubs, unhealthy, disgusting food (unless you get to the very new terminal which must be situated in Maryland because it takes hours to walk there) and god help you if you take the USAIR regional jet terminal - you walk forever to find the gate, get on a bus, drive around across runways for 40 minutes, arrive in a prefab building attached to nothing with a million people packed in, not enough seats for them all, no signs, and a truly expensive 'deli'. It was more like a bus station than an airport.

Charles De Gaulle, Paris France - spent all their space on long walkways to the plane and then put customs, transit, baggage claim, info and all those long runways emptying into a 6 foot area. Rude employees who smoke in front of you.

But the best has to be my third world experiences:

Monrovia, Liberia - Chaos, bullet holes, outrageous humidity, go through customs and the door doesn't fit into the frame, its leaning next to it. Sells Massengil douche in the 'gift shop'

Lungi in Freetown Sierra Leone - located on an island - you can take the drunken Bulgarian piloted helicopter to the mainland or the decrepit Greek 1940s era ferry that dodges wrecks of ferries that didn't make it before.

Conakry in Guinea- crowds of touts, threatening, heavily armed guards pushing past you and yelling at you, if you don't know your weight in kilos, they make you sit on a scale used to weigh luggage.

Cairo, Egypt - I was herded into a room filled with angry Yemeni youth about to be deported from Egypt and being kept under armed guard. Everytime they rose up as one to demand better treatment, the Egyptian police laughed and slapped a few of them. Frightened US tourists huddled by the metal detector. People take your passports for hours on end. The shuttle bus driver tries to shake you down for money. the gift shops sell the most appalling gaudy faux Egyptian crap I've ever seen.

Let me think - I'll send some more. Add some comments with your faves and least faves!

Fighting the Tyranny of the Morning People

Late risers unite in Denmark
By Chris Morris BBC News, Denmark

If you find it hard to get up in the morning, don't despair - you're not lazy, you're just genetically programmed that way, says the B-Society in Denmark.

I have still got a rather nasty bruise on my shin at the moment after the flawed execution of my latest elaborate plan - to make sure I did not miss the dreaded early morning flight. I was sleeping rather fitfully in the spare room downstairs, trying to avoid waking up the rest of the house, when the time ticked around to 4.30. First the phone alarm on the bedside table chirruped. I soon dealt with that. But then one minute later the alarm clock cunningly hidden on the other side of the room burst into life. The trick is to place an obstacle - in this case my son's rickety wooden rocking horse - in your path, making immediate access difficult. Now I know it is not my fault. I am a B-person

The idea, obviously, is that by the time you find the blasted clock you are awake.
The trouble was, in this case, in my bleary-eyed trance, I forgot about the horse altogether and crashed into it at some speed. Searing pain, followed by muffled obscenities, left me lying in a heap on the floor, the alarm clock still beeping impatiently. I made the flight, the sunrise looked lovely, but boy do I hate mornings. But it is OK. Now I know it is not my fault. I am a B-person.

A B-person - as opposed to an A-person - genetically pre-disposed to operate better and to be more alert later in the day. Denmark it seems is full of B-people. So where better to form the B-society? Six months after it was set up, it already boasts several thousand members. Now it is campaigning hard for businesses to sign up to its B-certification list. The glazed looks on the faces of grumpy commuters are disturbingly familiar "We're calling," the society proclaims in its manifesto, "for an uprising against the tyranny of early rising." Mmm, sounds good.

But how does it work in practice? Rush-hour in Copenhagen seems relatively sedate to me - it is certainly not central London on a wet Monday morning. But the glazed looks on the faces of grumpy commuters are disturbingly familiar. So, time to find some B-pioneers.

Flexible working
One strong cup of coffee later and I was on my way to meet Stephen Alstrup who runs his own B-certified company. By the time he gets to his train station the platform is empty and so are most of the seats on his commuter train. "I'm useless early in the morning," he says cheerfully. "All I can do is drink coffee, and stare into space." "People used to get up early because they had to feed the animals. But I haven't got any cows or chickens, so I can sleep late." And when we get to Stephen's office, that is empty too - apart from one member of staff who has been there most of the night and is just leaving, and the company's only A-person who actually enjoys the early start.

The rest of them arrive when they choose - any time up to 3.30pm or so - each to their own rhythm.

Business benefits
It is a small hi-tech company and Stephen needs brains which are working at full speed.
It used to be called disorganised but not any more "Everybody gains," he says, "they're here when they're fully awake, and the business benefits." More confusing for me is the guy who works to a 25 hour clock. If he is in at 10 today, it will be 11 tomorrow, then 12 - you can get the general idea. I do not know where his cycle had got to when we called at the office but there was certainly no sign of him by midday. It used to be called disorganised, but not any more, not in Denmark. His body clock is just different.

And it is not just businesses which are getting in on the act. Are you a teenager who cannot get out of bed in the morning? Or a parent who never quite gets the kids to school on time? Fear not - the Danes may have the solution: B-classes.

Work-life balance
From next year a school in Copenhagen will offer classes which start later in the day - at 10 instead of eight. It is likely to prove popular. Some people might think you're lazy - but there's more to it than that Danish Minister Carina Christensen Even the government seems to like the idea. Work-life balance is a big political issue in Denmark, Families Minister Carina Christensen tells me. And B-philosophy fits right in with the need for a flexible labour force. When I confess that I think I am a B-person, she gives me a comforting smile. "Don't worry," she says, "some people might think you're lazy - but there's more to it than that."

Well, I hope so. The B-society and its founder Camilla Kring are certainly convinced that they are on to a winner. "It's a 24/7 society," she says, as we sit in a park and watch some swans... swanning around. "Our institutions have got to move with the times." Quite so. Which means the choice should be yours. As one famous Dane once said: "To B or not to B?" In modern life, that really is the question.

Normality?

Things are getting more normal here in Amsterdam. Sorry for the blah blah blah post - it wasn't a comment on how I felt about Jeopardy but was supposed to be a placeholder until I had the inclination to write more. I guess last week was a pretty tough week for me.

I had forgotten how hard it can be to be new in an area. While I have friends here from before, they, of course, have their own lives. Everyone here is super scheduled like in DC or are married with kids so it changes the dynamics. And - after spending 8 hours a day at work talking to strangers, trying to figure out what it is I'm supposed to do and learn all the crazy acronyms that come along with this particular organization, I'm often quite tired, fed up, and cranky when I get home. I want the easy comfort of my DC friendships where we can go to the 'local' and bitch and moan and laugh or I can just say -come on over and lets order Chinese and watch crap tv. I don't really have anyone to do that with here.

But I talked it out with my fellow expat - Mike D (yo! Wat up?)- and realized that I can't just sit on my ass and expect the world to come to me, as nice as that might be. So after a week of feeling like I might be invisible, feeling like I was destined to die alone in this apartment and noone would notice until the smell got too bad and they would break in by my back balcony to find me dead in the tiny closet of the bathroom, I had that day where I cried a bit. Cursed a bit. Had a good pout. Made nasty comments out loud on my balcony hoping that the loving couple that kiss each other on the balcony all the time could hear me. Then I got a grip.

I went online and joined a group - something called Meetin.org that organizes events for a mostly expat crowd. I went onto an online dating site and set up a blind date. I signed up for a pilates class and found a tango class. I got on my bike and explored the city on Saturday afternoon. Shopped in the street market- bought peonies, strawberries, toyed with the idea of buying an antique linen nightie. Sat in a cafe called "The Cat in the Vineyard" reading my latest New Yorker with a bunch of jolly old Dutch women who kept laughing, ordering more drinks, inviting in more jolly old Dutch women and finally just took over my table and sat with me. They didn't speak English but included me in their conversation, nonetheless. after about twenty minutes, I decided to give up my seat for the latest old fat jolly Dutch Woman who was arriving and move on. I rode for a while down to Prinzengracht and as it started to rain, chained up my bike and went into a cafe for a cappucino. Lovely!

Rode around and explored for a while. Almost got pushed into a canal by a guy in a Range Rover (these streets are narrow!). I went into the Blues Record Shop that I've been walking by for the past three years that's never been open. Chatted up the owner who told me of a good concert coming up. Found a CD that I will buy when I get over the shock of paying 20 Euros for a CD. I made the mistake of going down Spui street and almost ran into some tourists and almost fell off my bike. Went to a photo exhibit outside the church near where Anne Frank's house is - amazing photos by Stephen Bloom.

I met three new people at the Botanical Gardens the next day and have events to go to this weekend. Friends are coming to visit in the next few weeks. And work is getting better. I may be headed to Papua New Guinea or Nepal in the next month to look at the issue of gender-based violence. Or to Central African Republic although the recent death of a MSF employee there makes that very doubtful.

So - normality approaches. I keep riding that bike to work every day, getting a little more fit and a little more confident each day.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Morphing slowly into a Dutchwoman?

After a long 4 day weekend in Berlin with my high school friend, Mike, I returned to Amsterdam. I was feeling a little apprehensive... things hadn't been completely hunky dory here - while I had met some people, I had an apartment, and my work was now starting to make sense - the easy laughs and enjoyment one feels when one is with a good friend was going to be hard to forget. To make matters worse, as Mike and his neighbor Kimmo (a very funny Finnish journalist) dropped me at the airport, I found myself with a rowdy drunk group of Dutch people returning home after a party weekend in Berlin. They all laughed uproariously and joked and jostled about as I opened up my book to read - solitary again. As we started our descent into Amsterdam, the atmosphere was oppressively dark and damp. The flat, neat, squares of Dutch farms looked green but the rolling hills, forests, and cityscape of Berlin seemed livelier somehow. When I arrived in my apartment filled with another person's art and belongings, my sense of not belonging increased.

The next day, I went off to work, determined to really try to understand my new job and organization and at least find some satisfaction through my job. I had a long meeting with my soon to be boss about her vision of what I should do. Rather than finding juicy new issues to sink my teeth in, I was shocked to hear that she was particularly interested in my ability to look at health data collection systems and analyze them. In other words, back to the world of MEASURE Evaluation! Now, rather than feeling challenged to do this in a way that includes my interest in gender and gender-based violence, instead I remembered how bored and unappreciated I felt that whole time with my terrible bosses Anne and Erin. How they constantly put me down and held me back from doing anything fulfilling.

I left work that day and headed home on the tram, spying my bus waiting for me at Central Station as the tram pulled in. I ran for the bus and missed it as it pulled off. Since I live in the North West of the town, the buses only run every 30 minutes. Deciding whether or not it would be better to wait for 30 minutes or walk home which would take about 25 minutes (and yes, it was starting to rain), I started to step off a curb, jumped back from a bicycle, twisted my ankle and fell off my Dansko clogs into the path of a tram. Luckily, it was stopped at the light and I picked myself up. Scraped up knee, twisted ankle, and damaged pride seemed to be my only injuries but I cursed the entire city of Amsterdam for my bad luck. DAMN YOU AMSTERDAM!!!!!! I spent the rest of the evening listening to the radio because my cable TV was out and reading the MSF policy on abortion and thinking about the women of Darfur. Not very uplifting. I was inspired that night to look harder for the missing bicycle keys that were stashed in my apartment somewhere. The next day, I got the bicycle out and decided to ride to work. I hadn't ridden a bicycle in at least a year and rush hour bicycling in Amsterdam is not for the faint hearted. I followed an older woman who seemed to know what she was doing and cruised along the highways. Amsterdam has separate bike lanes on the highways and traffic lights just for bikers. A very sane approach. Everything was going pretty well until I got right behind Centraal Station where the ferries from the islands in the North dock. People WHIP off those ferries on their bikes and stream out onto the lanes. I wobbled through them - and made it out alive. I finally arrived at work about 20 minutes later - a little sweaty, a little anxious, but alive!!! I was very proud of myself.

Wednesday was also the first day of our CO-days (which I don't know what it means but I think means Country Officers Days). All of the medical directors from our programs out in the field gather in Holland for a series of presentations on issues and stimulating discussion about solutions. I attended a session on Reproductive Health and watched as our medical directors from Sudan, Ivory Coast, Somalia, and Colombia presented tangible examples of the things I've always studied. It was thrilling. I rode my bike home that night, feeling a little steadier, a little more confident, and a little less unsure of myself. Slowly, I'm morphing into a Dutch woman; I suppose - on my bicycle, by the canals, and over the bridges - not just a lonely expat.