Saturday, November 29, 2008

Rolling, Rolling, Rolling

Here are some of the pavements I've biked over lately:

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


"Crunch, crunch."
The satisfying sound of cracking the freshly-torched sugar surface of a crème brûlée. I heard it this morning on my commute to work, not from a spoon, but from my bike. As I may have mentioned, I thoroughly enjoy my morning rides to work, taking a winding route through Genneper Parken, a park with varied forest and farm terrain. Part of this morning's path is traced below:

The map was made with GPS Visualizer using data from my little GPS logger that I tend to take with me most places I go.

Parts of the path through the park are unpaved, and this morning's frosty temperature induced an icy topping on each of the pothole puddles along the way. The first one I zipped over made the same "crunch, crunch" as a crème brûlée being broken with a spoon when my tires sequentially cracked its surface. Smiling, I broke as many more little frozen crème brûlée puddles as I could before I exited the park. What fun.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Dutch? English? Sometimes it's just spelling...

I've been in Holland now for almost six weeks. I still haven't started my Dutch langauge classes, which is disappointing but unfortunately out of my hands... I have, however, been trying to decode what I can of the local language, Nederlands.

Spoken Dutch is, for the most part, unintelligible to me. That being said, a man asked me this evening, "Spreekt je Nederlands?" to which I sheepishly replied, "nee." I suppose that answering negatively, in the tongue in question, is ironic, given that he wanted to know if I spoke Dutch. Well, not enough Dutch for whatever he was going to say next! And, the only reason I know "Spreekt je..." is because I usually say it, followed by "Engels," to find out if people speak English. By and large, they do. Very well, as I've said before.

Written Dutch, or at least parts of it, can be quite readable, given some simple pronunciation hints and familiarity with letter-combinations. Some words look a lot like English, slightly misspelled -- think like a text-messager, and they're clear. For example, melk = milk, nieuw = new, het = the, and seizoen = season.

Once I determined that the letter combination "ui" sounds like "ow," a whole list of words opened up for me... Exit signs here say "UIT," which doesn't follow French rules and rhyme with wheat, but is pronounced exactly like the English "OUT." Very clear! Similarly, huis=house, and throw a little German vocabulary in there and stadhuis is suddenly City Hall.

In Dutch, the letter v sounds like an English f. So, vriend is obviously friend, and vriendlijk, thanks to the letter combination "ij" which sounds like "eye," is friend-like, or, simply, "friendly." People end their emails here with "met vriendlijk groeten," which, knowing the German "mit" is with, means "with friendly greetings." Nice, eh?

The Dutch don't have a sound like the English "th," neither hard like "though," nor soft, like "through." They use a "d" instead, as for example in the name of the nation, Nederland, which we call The Netherlands. I addressed the peculiar article and plural in an earlier post, not that it makes a ton of sense. Anyway, the word "fiets" looks nothing like its English equivalent, "bicycle." Bear with me. I have a nice fiets that I ride to work every day, and doing so is very Dutch, very fun, and very environmentally friendly. I like it. Riding a bike here, you often see a sign that says "fietspad." Remembering d=th, it's a bike path! And, a nice shortcut through the park, to boot. Sweet.

My new favorite Dutch word is one that I found cast into the lids of manhole covers throughout the city. VUILWATER. Reviewing, vuil sounds like foul, and foul-water? Well, that's the sewer, right? Yeah, this took me six weeks to figure out. Give me a break. Just getting a bank account took 2 weeks...

Oh, and did I mention that Google knows I'm in Nederland? All the ads I see are now in Dutch, which makes them even easier to ignore. However, this one I found amusing, and very readable in a mispelled-English sense:

What do you think? Yes? No? Maybe?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ride Between the Raindrops

Tuesday morning was horribly rainy. Well, it was horribly rainy until after I biked to work, got soaked, and got to my desk. Right then, the clouds blew past, and a gorgeous blue sky opened up. Nice, eh? At least my office has a nice window...

While riding in the rain, which, by the way, is not as bad as it sounds thanks to really effective fenders on my bike, I was watching the other cyclists dealing with the weather. I believe there are three types of foul-weather cyclists. The largest group, like me, simply deals with the rain, although we're not happy about it. I have a nice rain jacket, and biked with my hood up, although some others didn't have or bother with a hood. Regardless of our garb, we simply grit our teeth, bow our heads to the wind, and go. We get wet, and we deal with it. The second group, a minority group maybe half the size of the teeth-gritters, is made up of ultra-prepared foul-weather cyclists, with things like fancy rain suits, waterproof shoe-covers, waterproof panniers, etc. These bikers laugh in the face of rain because they are simply impervious to it.

The final group, least in number but not in style, appears to blithely ride between the raindrops. These cyclists, mainly highschool-age girls, by their appearance, were completely unprepared for rain, wearing jeans, cotton jackets, and otherwise normal clothes, and with hair done and streaming behind them, smiling and laughing with their friends on the way to school as if totally unaware of the deluge I was fighting. They didn't appear to even be getting wet -- although I thought I saw one girl unconsciously brush a droplet off of her cheek. Amazing, I tell you. I truly wish I had a photograph, but I was too busy gritting my teeth and trying to ride faster than the water could saturate my pants. Actually, I think that a photo would not be effective, as it would minimize the appearance of the rain and just look like girls biking to school on a normal day. Maybe if I showed a photograph while dowsing the viewer with a glass of water, that would convey what I saw...

Monday, November 10, 2008

Migrant Worker & Amerikaans Burger

I'm officially a migrant worker -- a legal one, too!

I got my residence permit today, one month to the day after touching down in the Netherlands. Not bad, eh? It says VERBLIJFSDOCUMENT, a convenient Dutch single-word for "residence permit." It also says I'm here as a kennismigrant, or knowledge migrant (sometimes translated as highly skilled migrant).

Which reminds me of one of my first days in the Netherlands. Perhaps still bleary-eyed with jetlag, I misread this sign:

Seeing instead "Dead Migrant," I was a little concerned for my future. On second glance, I was much relieved.

As I understand the knowledge migrant designation, most large companies can sponsor kennismigrants. However, certain professions are explicitly not allowed: soccer players, spiritual leaders, and prostitutes. Lucky for me, my skills don't align with any of these! My nationality (nationaliteit) is listed as "Amerikaans Burger." So I'm a burger, too. And yes, burger means citizen.

Dutch immigration policy, like that of most countries, is interesting and inconsistent. From the rest of the EU, of course, things are fairly simple, but for everyone else, it depends both on skill set and on country of citizenship. Coming from USA, Canada, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, immigrants and migrant workers get a big break: they don't need an MVV, or Machtiging tot Voorlopig Verblijf, which is an entrance visa and temporary work permit, before they arrive; and, more importantly, they don't need to pass the Dutch language and culture test once they're here. This test is arguably to help people learn about and assimilate into Dutch culture, although the exception made for a few lucky nations is viewed by some as discriminatory against the many applicants from African and Middle-Eastern countries.

Coming from the United States, a nation of great diversity, where strict political correctness makes taboo anything even remotely discriminatory, I have been keeping my eye out for such things here. Despite the Netherlands' well-known spirit of openness and tolerance, I have several times heard a murmur of prejudice here toward immigrant minorities from Morocco and Turkey. Interestingly, I think the attitude is something like disappointment that these immigrants don't behave more Dutchly: that they are simply not adopting enough Dutch culture to fit in. Toward myself, I have observed nothing like this -- perhaps because I come from a culture that is, relative to the entire world, quite similar, and perhaps also because I have consistently expressed my interest in Dutch language and culture. Whatever the reason, I have felt quite welcome here, and now my shiny new residence permit makes me feel, well, right at home.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Foggy Bike Day

Tuesday was a foggy day. Fog in the morning; fog all day; fog in the evening. From my office window, I could sometimes not see the nearest buildings through the white haze.

In the morning, thanks to this fiasco, I rode the bus to work. As I waited at the bus stop, I took pictures of the happy cycling commuters rolling by. (Click the photos to embiggen)

Biking home in the foggy twilight, I shot a bunch of photos from the saddle. The air looks brighter in the pictures than it did in the drawing twilight, but I overexposed them a bit to show the white fog and to enhance the motion blur.

It was a gorgeous, still evening, and the silence in Genneper Parken was as thick as the misty air. The bike paths (fietspads) were empty.

Looking into the fields beside the path, the distant trees faded to vapor.

Leaving the park, finally, another cyclist appeared, her weak headlamp preceding her squeaking bike.

Back in the hustlebustle of the city streets, this garrulous pair was chatting and hand-waving for blocks. I took pictures instead of ringing my bell to pass.

There was no rain, yet I arrived home feeling wet, my wool coat covered with tiny spheres of water. I was in a cloud.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Not Im-Presta

I had an interesting bicycling adventure yesterday. Let's call it a tire pressure malfunction, otherwise known as a flat tire. Sadly, this particular flat tire wasn't caused by a stray thumbtack or a pinched tube or any other accidental mishap -- this one was pure operator error. I learned something, though!

It turns out there is a third type of tire valve in addition to the two I'm familiar with. American bikes generally have either Schrader valves, which are exactly the same as valves on car tires, with the little spring-loaded pin in the center, or Presta valves, which are a little more minimalistic, without the spring, and with a screw-lock to keep them closed. I Googled up this photo to show these two types (Presta on the left, Schrader on the right):

I've had bikes with both types, and while I have heard that there are major wars between proponents of each, much like Nikon vs. Canon or Ford vs. Chevy, I've never really cared too much one way or the other.

My commuter bike, which I bought used about a week ago, was feeling a little soft on the rear end. Before riding home from work last night, I decided to add a little air to the rear tire. Conveniently, in the wonderful locked, covered bike parking lot at work (!), there's a bike pump chained to the fence for all to use. I rolled my iron steed over to it, unscrewed the presumably-Presta valve, and BAM! the valve shot off and the tire went totally flat. Ack! It looked like this:

An open chimney from my tire tube to the atmosphere -- not a good way to hold in air. I was stuck. It was 6pm, it was dark, and the valve top was nowhere to be found. I searched and searched with my little LED flashlight my Grandma Jean gave me, but nothing. I'm pretty sure it launched right into orbit.

I guess it wasn't a Presta valve after all. Google now tells me (too late, of course) it's a Dunlop valve, aka Dutch valve...

After a bus ride home and a return this morning, I took my broken bike to the bike repair guy who works at the High Tech Campus (isn't that great?), and he replaced the part and pumped it up in about 3 minutes. He charged me nothing (isn't that amazing?). It now looks like this, and I'm back to biking happily:

Monday, November 3, 2008

Happy Election Day, USA!

On the eve of Election Day, I urge all Americans to get out and vote! I don't care whom you vote for -- well, okay, I do, but I'm not going to push -- as long as you put some thought into it and do what you think is right. My wife and I already voted, nearly a month ago, before we left the US to come to the Netherlands. We filled in advance absentee ballots, declaring that we would be out of the country on Election Day, and sealing them into official envelopes to wait for the big day.

I've spoken quite a bit to my Dutch and non-Dutch colleagues about the US election, and it really is amazing how much they know about US politics and the US political and government systems. It is humbling, really, because while I suppose I know the prime ministers of a few nations that are often in the American news, such as the UK, Russia, Italy, Israel, and the Netherlands (and the latter only because I just moved here!), I honestly don't know a whole lot about opposition parties, the various coalition governments, and such. I doubt that many Americans do. Granted, US policy has more effect on the Netherlands than vice-versa, but their awareness still seems humbling, in the same way that everyone's excellent English language skills make me feel both lucky and embarrassed that English is my only language, not counting my classroom-level Spanish.

Currently, there is strong support for Barack Obama here. It is well-documented that the European community has been quite critical of George W. Bush's policies, especially the Iraq war. Remember Freedom Fries, the American response to France's reticence to participate? Now, it is clear that Europeans by and large want change, and it is also clear which of the change-proclaiming candidates they believe. The following table shows the result of one recent survey of sentiments in France, Germany, UK, Italy, Spain, and USA. Coincidentally, lest you fear that this was biased in some way, the poll was done by Harris Interactive, a well-respected market research company from Rochester, NY! The entire poll report can be found here.

Look closely at the numbers. In France, 78% favor of Obama, which sounds pretty impressive, but when you see that only 1% support McCain, that's a serious landslide! France is the most extreme example, but Germany, Italy, and Spain show a similar trend, and even in the UK, where Obama's number falls below 50%, McCain's is merely 11. Unfortunately, the Netherlands was not included in this poll, but I can report that my personal discussions with people gives me the impression that the attitude here is much like that in France: serious support for Obama and the change he promises.

Today at work, I was chatting about Election Day with two colleagues: one Dutch, and one Macedonian. They asked me to explain the basic differences between McCain and Obama, so I listed taxes, health care, and the Iraq war, and tried to put the candidate's platforms (and vague proposals) into the context of what is typical of Republican and Democrat positions. Interestingly, they both see the Republican pro-business, unbridled capitalism as characteristically American, and see the Democratic ideals of tax-funded social programs and regulated economics as less "American," in fact trending more toward Socialism. It seems that the USA is viewed as somewhat of a young, brash, frontier-oriented nation, one that may dig itself a pretty big hole (for example, via financial crisis) if it's not careful. Interesting insight, eh?

So as I said, I already voted, and yes, I'll say it -- I voted for the one who starts with "O" and ends with "bama" -- much to the relief of my Dutch friends! Because of a timing quirk in when I voted in Monroe County, an absentee ballot had already been mailed, so now I have it at work to show to my colleagues. We discussed the sad hilarity of the "hanging chads" fiasco (and this poor guy) and the many different voting machines and methods in use across the United States. In defense of many confused-in-2000 American voters, my workmates did agree that the ballot layout, with candidates in a column and some offices allowing multiple votes across two adjacent columns, pretty un-intuitive. But alas, they won't be voting tomorrow, nor the hordes of Obamaphilic French... So, if you have the right to vote in the USA, get out and do it. Don't let the opportunity pass you by. And really, vote for whomever yOu think is Best, no mAtter which Man it mAy be!