Saturday, July 28, 2007

A bookworm's lament in a foreign country

So I'm living in a foreign country where English language books are extremely expensive, which means I am spending the summer with someone else's books - books bought on the cheap from the used bookstores and markets.

Whenever I enter a bookstore or stay at someone's house with an entirely new collection of books, I make a vow that I will branch out and read the kinds of things I don't usually read - intellectual books, memoirs, non-fiction. But I crave fiction - vast sweeping plot lines. My book club would describe these as "bawdy thrillers". But I love narrative - I get totally lost in a different world and I love it. As a child, I read memoirs written for young girls - my specialty was famous women. Amelia Earhadt, Florence Nightengale, Catherine the Great, Little House on the Prairie, Jane Addams, Clara Barton, Molly Pitcher, Dorothy Day, and Joan of Arc. They did inspire me and probably shaped me into what I am today but memoirs don't interest me that much anymore - I don't know why because I've loved "Don't lets go to the dogs tonight" and "The Liar's Club" and other memoirs that I've stumbled upon.

I read about an essay by a neurobiologist where he describes the phenomenon of going to a favorite restaurant and wanting to branch out from ordering the same dish on the menu each time--but, at the last minute, finding oneself unable to do so. The favorite dish always wins in the end--and this, he says, may be a kind of low-level epilepsy taking place in the brain. That seizing-up at the last minute is perhaps pathological, though very, very mildly so... Is the same thing true of books?

I try to read Stendahl's The Red and the Black, but wind up with Ian MacEwan and Graham Greene all over again, just the way I would do if I were at home. Maybe the point is that we use books to create model-homes for ourselves wherever we go. I remember traveling through Sri Lanka in 2005 by myself for a week before starting a mission. No matter how alien the environment, or how faraway I felt, my assortment of English novels in my backpack gave me a sense of being grounded, and of being home. This is when I grabbed Evelyn Waugh and the Forsyte Saga.

So what do I have on my bookshelf culled from the cheap used bookstores of Amsterdam? Check out the link on the left of this blog that leads you to a website called Good Reads... I met a woman who turned me onto it last night and its a great site. If you guys sign up for it and put your books up there, it'll be like book club never ended for me....

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Dutch continue to suck at customer service

I have to go to London today for a meeting. My colleague in Brussels thought it would be productive if we both took the train and did some work on the way there. So I blithely go to book my tickets through our travel agency.

  • It takes longer to take the train from Amsterdam to Brussels than from Brussels to London because there is no real high speed train service here.
  • There is only 20 minutes to switch trains in Brussels and the Amsterdam train is "Usually late" according to the travel agent so she recommended I take the 4:42 am train (!!)
  • The website would not allow me to use my credit card.
  • I cycled in the rain at 8pm to pick up my tickets that had been purchased and ordered on line by the travel agency.
  • Upon arriving at the overcrowded train ticket office, I was informed I would have to wait for 1 and 1/2 hours to pick up my tickets. No - you cannot pick them up directly. No it doesn't matter that I ordered them on line. No - there is no machine I can pick them up at. I have to arrive at 6am to hope to god that there is no line so I don't miss my 6:26am train to make my 1pm meeting in London
  • I came back an hour later and there were still about 40 people ahead of me. The surly bitch who I asked if it was truly necessary to wait another hour JUST TO PICK UP SOME TICKETS told me she had no idea of how long the wait would be because that was not her job.

Once again - Dutch - famous for tolerance; Continue to suck at Customer service.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Lake Woebegon ie Amsterdam on a rainy day

It's a rainy Sunday afternoon in Amsterdam. Because of the way my apartment is designed, I get a lot of light even if it is raining. And I love having the windows open to smell the rain and the garden so I just bundle up in sweatshirts and socks and try to keep the house fresh smelling. Although I HATE riding into a headwind in this windy, seablown country - I am grateful that I am not hermetically sealed inside my apartment in Adams Morgan where if I opened the window, a blast of hot city air that smelled like Popeye's fried chicken or the thai restaurant downstairs would get me.

Yesterday, I went with some friends from work to the Hague. I'd never been there before and it was a cute little town. We rode a barge around the small canal that they have and received a historical lecture about the differences between the "people of the mud" vs "the people of the sand" - the two types of people in the Hague. I wonder what they call all the many expats who live there? The people of the sea? the air? Anyway, it was a sunny day which was nice and we spent from 10am to 3pm cruising the canal, eating a leisurely lunch in the Hague's historical center which is much more on the European "grand plaza" design than Amsterdam with its thousands of canals. It felt more open and the Palace there was lovely. While Amsterdam does have "the Dam" - the big central square, its my least favorite place in town. IT always seems grimy and the tacky strip of tourist shops that lead up from Central Station plus all the construction that is underway for the metro line make it not a nice place to leisurely linger. I much prefer the narrow canal streets with their sidewalk cafes and barges.

I got back around 4pm and made it to the last hour of the Noordmarkt, my favorite market near my house. I hit the Moroccan olive merchant for some juicy black kalamatas, the herb lady who makes her own pesto sauce and sells pre-bundled fresh bouquet garni, the fruit stand where I bought some cherries, and three of the flower stands where I bought gentian, freesia, and lilies for a grand total of 13 euros (the flowers that is). After gathering up my goodies, I had a beer in one of the many outdoor cafes and watched a very fluffy persian cat sleep in the broad window sill of a beautiful little narrow house in the Jordaan. I must get Simon a pillow to sleep in the window. Its the coziest sweetest sight and makes me feel content when I see it. After cycling home, I put on some music and sat on the balcony to read for a while before making dinner. The few people I know here were out of town or had plans for Saturday night so I concocted a dish while downloading French 60s pop on my computer.

I cooked fresh ginger, garlic, hot thai peppers in coconut milk and chicken broth and then add tons of cilantro and lemongrass to it. I used it to poach some monkfish with sweet red peppers and green onions and then used the remaining sauce to cook up with basmati rice. Delicious! I had a strong desire to go out dancing last night but I'm just not bold enough to go to a disco alone. I wish I were. Instead, I chatted via skype with a friend and watched a movie.

Today - it's rainy altough I see a small patch of blue sky on the horizon. I dont' have any plans (which is the ideal way to spend a Sunday, I think). So I'm going to read, relax, try not to worry about all the things I have to do this weeks (deal with the foreclosure of my apartment by the bank, get my residency permit, write a paper on Ethiopia, go to London to design a study, fly to berlin for a confrontation with my operational managers who are ignoring me, find a way to go shopping, and not think about my upcoming 40th birthday). I wish the markets were open on Sundays like they are in DC because the cupboard is bare. I have some left over rice from last night and a zucchini in there along with a can of tuna and some pasta in the pantry. And that's all the news there is to report in Amsterdam today. --

Things to do in Amsterdam when it rains

  • Toast a baguette and eat it with butter and cherry jam purchased at the Noordmarket
  • Do a load of laundry in the amazingly efficient European washing machines.
  • Read the New York Times on line.
  • Listen to John Coltrane and Django Reinhardt
  • Make an omelet with zucchini and basil and eat it while watching the rain.
  • Pet the cat and keep him from climbing on your computer as you try to blog.
  • Wash the dishes from last nights Monkfish in cilantro-coconut sauce that you made on a whim.
  • Rearrange the lilies that you bought at Noordmarkt yesterday
  • Finish reading "Eat Pray Love" and hope you won't get jealous at the descriptions of falling in love in Bali.
  • Iron linen skirts
  • Read US weekly to make sure you don't lose your American edge.
  • Listen to "This American Life" on the Ipod podcast.
  • Wonder why you didn't buy rain paints for cycling in the rain on Saturday when the store was open.
  • Take a nap.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Working for the Weekend

I had forgotten how hard it is to start a new job. And it becomes doubly hard when you're starting over a new life too. But for some reason, I suspect that starting a new job at my new organization is harder than most, for a number of reasons

1. The cliquishness: Everyone has to go through a 10day orientation session when they join and go to the field. They spend the days together and the nights together and get drunk and argue and share their fears about heading into the conflict zones. It's like boot camp for humanitarian workers. But headquarters staff do not need to do this. Add that missing experience to the fact that while you've been in the field - you haven't been in the field with them. There is an automatic forged bond that most have that I'm missing with them.

2. the Machisom: Everyone who works there is macho. From the women operational managers who stomp down the halls in their heavy boots, tight jeans, chunky jewelry, and wizened cigarette stained faces to the men in their casual "REI" fleece jackets, jeans, long sleeve tees, tevas, and their unshaven, rumpled style. All the women complain that noone cares about gender-based violence and the men parade their knowledge of the different armed groups. Hard drinking, hard smoking types. An emergency "bombardment" box of supplies contains a box of Marlboro lights and a bottle of Jack Daniels because noone under siege would want to have to deal with the others undergoing nicotine and alcohol withdrawal. And I work in the 'soft' girly section so I have strike two for being not macho.

3. the Dutch attitude: Very blunt. Outspokenness. argumentative even. Yet not really appreciative if you don't agree with them. Friendly enough but not outgoing. Curious but a bit aloof. Content to allow strangers to sit alone. Probably allowing them to have their own space in this overcrowded country where privacy is at a premium. So, if you are feeling tired or shy or intimidated by the macho cliquishness, don't expect any sympathy from them.

4. the Weather: overcast. a bit cool. Tendency to burst into thunderstorms at a moments notice. Yet when the sun comes out - everyone is transformed. But in general, you keep your head down. you do your work. And you dream of your warm cozy home where you can get away from work. So no need to linger for chats with new people. No long DC happy hours every week. the weather conspires to make you long for home.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

One Perfect Weekend

It's amazing how having the sun peek out and banish the clouds from Amsterdam turns a bad mood into a fantastic mood. One of the joys, I guess, of this cloudy rainy country is to really be able to enjoy the sun when it decides to shine. The entire country turns out onto the streets, parks, and canals to bask in the warmth. And because its so green here, thanks to the rain, the contrast of the "carolina blue" sky, the pink, purple, red, and yellow flowers that are everywhere, and the green grass and canal water is stunning.

Yesterday, the sun made its first appearance in about 2 months (I think). I opened up the balcony and Simon the cat and I ate breakfast outside, read books, and listened to music until it was time to go over to a friend's house for a birthday party. My dutch friend from DC who is in town let me know that the 'non family' members were appearing around 5pm. The other joy of a sunny day in the summer in Holland is that it lasts until 11pm! So I cycled to Central Station and locked up my bike in the floating bike parking garage next to the station. I hopped on the tram and rode down South to the party. As I walked down the street, eveyrone was sitting on their stoops, riding their bikes, or just sitting on a patch of grass with a cold beer and a glass of wine. The party had moved out front of the house and I joined about 15 Dutch people and their kids in a glass of white wine and some birthday cake. I was the only 'expat' which was nice. It was so relaxed and fun that my only regret was that I didn't speak Dutch so I couldn't quite join in on all the laughing and joking. Soon, Ihope. I got home around midnight.

This morning, Simon got me up around 6:30am as he raced around the house playing with his little stuffed mouse. That's the down side of sunny weather, the sun comes up EARLY (around 4:30am) and Simon - like me- has not yet adjusted his internal clock to this fact. I woke up at 9 finally and dressed quickly and hopped on my bike to meet a new friend for coffee. Cycling through the streets of Amsterdam at 9:30am on a Sunday morning was lovely. The sun was out, the city was quiet, not many people on the streets. (This is a late night kind of place). I rode through the Jordaan - my favorite neighborhood and up the Prinsengracht over to Leidesplein where she met me at Cafe Americain. Fitting, I suppose since we are both Americains...

We sat in the sun and drank cappuccinos and sparkling water until the sun became too hot and then moved into the shade. After chatting and laughing for a few hours, we went to this expat food shop I had heard about where I bought some proper British tea. The dutch tea sucks! I got some Twinings and some PG Tips. I noted that they sell oreos, mountain dew, salt and vinegar potato chips, and Milky way bars for future needs. She invited me to join her and another friend for a concert in Vondelpark.

Vondelpark is the "Central Park" of Amsterdam. It's a long green leafy park filled with Chestnut trees, weeping willows, and lakes. It has great biking paths running throughout it and several tea houses and cafes where you can drink a beer, get a bite to eat, or just laze around in the sun. It also has a concert hall right in the middle where they have a summer series of free concerts. We went over to the concert hall and got some sorbet. I had Strawberry and Habanero chili sorbet which while odd sounding, was delicious. And probably the spiciest thing I've eaten in this land of non-spicy food. The music was interesting. The first guy played african/country/blues sounding music on guitars/banjos that he had made. it reminded me of Haitian music that they play on the gourd banjo precursor. Then a jazz combo with a woman singer came on... but her music was a little too "10,000 Maniacs" and she looked a little too "Edie Brickell" for me. Te songs were monotonous and I fell into a reverie about an old boyfriend, Dave Doerring, from South Carolina while listeing to the music. Not necessarily the most pleasant memories but interesting how things can transport you back to 1991 just because the lead singer is wearing a baby doll dress with black tights and doc martens!

We left the show and then went to the tea house for a drink where we met up with her German friend. We had a pleasant conversation about skiing and snowboarding. Does anyone but me ever remember that American Express commercial where the snooty French snowbunny in the Alps says "Snowboarding will never be as popular as skiing" ? Anyway, my first skiing story where I became a human snowball got a good laugh. We agreed to meet up the next week to see another free show. Everyone else was going to see Bjork tonight at the park y my house (not free - 40 Euros) so I left. I can hear the concert from my balcony so I guess I'll drink a glass of wine and listen tonight for free.

I jumped on my bike and rode around in the park for a while - looking at the lovers, the groups of friends, and the families all lounging about in the sun - a country united with pasty skin and a desire to break down our vitamin D! I have progressed to the point now where I can bike while listening to my iPod so I put on my "Sunday in the Vondelpark" mix which consists of Crowded House, Kate Bush, The Clientele, Belle and Sebastian, and Stereolab and weaved my way through the crowds. I was biking in a skirt which is fun - I felt like I was a girl in a french movie about World War II.

I rode down to the East (Oost) part of town to return my dvd and then rode back across town through the canals and the quaint part of town - proud at my ability to make it through crowds of tourists without running them over, losing my balance, or my temper. I have also found a favorite way through the jordaan that avoids the long lines near the Anne Frank museum but allows me to see the small canals, the houseboats, and the church steeples and goes past the Noord square with all the locals out drinking beer at the cafes. The Jordaan is my favorite neighborhood in Amsterdam. I love seeing the old Dutch women with their glasses of wine and the old Dutch men on their bicycles. Young beautiful families with their gorgeous blonde children bask in the sun and tourists stop to take photos. Every house seems slanted and narrow and filled with flower boxes.

I returned home and sat down on the balcony to eat a late lunch and plan my dinner. It's 6pm - five more hours of sunlight available. Thank god for the sunshine!

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Dutch: Good at Tolerance, Crappy at Customer Service

The latest battle in my war to integrate into the Netherlands was waged today at a site called ABN-AMRO, otherwise known as my bank.

I arrived in Holland on April 28th.
I registered with the Municipality to get a residency permit on May 2nd.
I went to the Dutch Social Security Org to get a tax id number on May 12th.

Everything went pretty easily in all of these interactions – things that in the US might take months and months and mind deadening interactions with public servants were handled gracefully and quickly and efficiently by the Dutch government agencies.

I chose ABN-AMRO to be my bank here in Holland because it’s the bank MSF uses (which usually makes payroll swifter) and because ABN-AMRO trumpets its “Expat service” and bilingual website and expertise in helping expats handle their money. I thought if anything would go smoothly in Holland, it would be my banking account since the Dutch are famously tight with their money and take it quite seriously. I couldn’t bring myself to believe that these people would allow their major bank to be anything less than customer oriented when it came to money.

I opened a bank account with ABN-AMRO on May 15th. The initial interview appointment went quite well. An affable, handsome man walked me through all the steps and filled out all the paper work with me. I applied for internet banking, a debit card, a credit card, and a savings account. We discussed how I could transfer money to the US via my internet banking so as to pay off my bills there.

The only problem was I had to present proof of residency. MSF had thought of that and provided me a letter as my landlord using a residency that they maintain in the center of Amsterdam for travelers. They assured me that they regularly passed by and picked up the mail so it shouldn’t be a problem.

On May 26th , I still had not received my debit card (which I had to use to access the internet banking or the ATM machines). I called the telephone service center. I was told “I’m sorry ma’am – we have run out of plastic cards. Sorry.” I went to the branch office to find out what was going on. “I have no idea why they told you that, we mailed it May 22nd!” I asked them to change my address to my current residency and send me new ones. I returned to the office, and there sitting in my mail box were the now canceled debit card and pin numbers.

In the meantime, I have to access my money by going by the branch office and withdrawing it. I needed to pay my rent. Here in Holland, they don’t use paper checks like we do in the US. They expect everyone to do everything over the internet and of course, since I don’t have my debit card, I can’t access the internet. A short note about the internet banking – when you get your debit card, they also give you a device that looks like a calculator. You insert your card into it and it reads your chip. You enter your pin number, it gives you a code to enter into the internet site. Then the internet site gives you another code that you have to enter into your calculator who gives you yet another number to enter. A bit frustrating when you’ve only got 100€ that you are trying to access…

Finally, I get my debit card. I’m happily paying my bills and withdrawing money. I still haven’t received my credit card yet. You can’t use the debit cards here in place of a credit card – but you can use them in most places that accept pin cards. My student loan officer has been calling me to scream at me about my June payment. I have no money left in my US accounts. I attempted to transfer money from my Dutch account into my US account so he could use my debit card number. In order to transfer money from my bank account in the Netherlands to the bank account in the US requires a swift code. My Credit Union in the US does not have a swift code.

I called the telephone services yesterday to find out what happened to my credit card so I could just give the raving lunatic at the Credit Union my credit card number. “Sorry madam, we have no record of you even applying for a credit card.” So, today, I stopped by the bank today to find out what happened with all my letters and papers written in Dutch. After undergoing a grilling about why I was using the bank branch close to my home rather than the initial branch since they didn’t make the error they don’t want to have to fix it, I finally discovered that indeed the credit card had been approved and mailed. To the old mailing address. I asked her (since its now July 6) if she could send me a new one since I obviously hadn’t received it. She said, “I’m sorry madam, you’ll have to call the telephone credit center in a few hours and have them fill out a new application.” “Why can’t I do that with you?” “I don’t work for the credit card section.”

So then I asked about transferring money to my bank account without a SWIFT code. “I’m sorry madam, I don’t know about that. I don’t work in overseas transfers.” I gritted my teeth and left. As I got on the bike to ride to work, it began to rain. I cycled through the cold rain on July 6 and listened to Sex Pistols over and over again until my rage warmed me up and I arrived at work where I found waiting in my mailbox, my original credit card and pin number which had been delivered sometime around June 21st and placed in our company mailbox which our useless assistant never bothered to tell me had mail in it for me.

On my way home from work, I’m going to listen to Gloria Gaynor “I will survive” over and over again.