Sunday, February 21, 2010

Rotterdam has no soul

There are times when I love my job. Not only do I get to play with really cool toys all the time, but sometimes I even get almost-free, all-expenses-paid trips thrown in. Case in point: Last Thursday kicked off a three-day meeting in Rotterdam. The hotel, meeting, and meals were paid for, although I still had to buy my own train ticket to Rotterdam, and good coffee had to be bought at the train station.

Aside: The best coffee is not to be found in the coffee shops (the ones that actually sell coffee), but in the train stations. Fresh grounds for each cup--nothing better.

Rotterdam is probably the poorest city of the Randstad, despite its enormous size. I'm not entirely sure which one is larger, Rotterdam or Amsterdam, but it's definitely bigger than Utrecht and the Hague. Kind of fitting, if you think about it--the soccer teams Ajax (Amsterdam) and Feyenoord (Rotterdam) have had a rivalry older than many of their fans for a while, so much that it's hard to tell who's better.

I dislike Amsterdam. It's too commercial for me. The whole city feels like a tourist trap--until you wander into the Parts Where Non-Muslims Dare Not Go. To be quite honest these parts are substantially less scary than, say, North Philly, where I spent a fair portion during my time in Philadelphia. Nevertheless, there are parts of Amsterdam where people just don't go to, and the parts of Amsterdam where people do go are fitted out with the latest in Dutch marketing strategies to convince people to part with their euros.

But if cities have souls, Amsterdam at least has one. It's not an entirely pleasant one, especially if you compare it to the neat prim one that pervades Nijmegen or the hustle-bustle of New York, but at least it's there.

But Rotterdam--Rotterdam reminds me of Washington DC. Which is not to say that Rotterdam is pristine and glistening, or that DC is...well, Dutch. Because neither is true. Rotterdam reminds me of DC because DC has no soul. Whatever soul DC has is glitzed out by shiny new buildings and too many cars and fat boulevards. Rotterdam doesn't have shiny new buildings, although it does have too many cars. But both cities have one thing in common--the basis for their existence is money. In DC the problem is a surfeit of money and no way to spend it all, so all you see is one sparkly building after another (I'm talking about the area around the capitol, of course, and not the glaring povery on the wrong side of the tracks, as it were). In Rotterdam the problem is not enough money, so you see lots of stores trying to undercut each other, buildings built without any sense of style (a very Dutch trait, but one more prominent in Rotterdam than anywhere else), and no sense of cohesion into a whole.

The history of Rotterdam explains a lot about it: Rotterdam was one of the most heavily-bombed Dutch cities in World War II. After World War II the Dutch government didn't have much money to rebuild, so their criteria was, essentially, "anything that will stand". It was also a period where the right-wing Christians had a lot of power (read: Puritans), so the gaudy scrollwork that bedecks the houses in Amsterdam were frowned upon.

No, I can't say that I like Rotterdam much.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Stay-at-home moms creep me out

I have nothing against SAHM. Really. I swear. My own mother is a SAHM, and a good mom at that.

All the same, it is weird to go to say, the Albert Heijn and see nothing but these women buying food like bread and cheese and frozen pizzas for their families. After the first few times I avoided them by not going to the AH or the city center until after noon, when all of the kids start playing hooky.

Now that I've been gainfully employed for almost 2 years, the weirdness of SAHM has only hit me that much stronger. After having not seen them for eons, and then going into town yesterday (I have two days off thanks to the Carnival in Maastricht), was like entering the twilight zone again.

I suppose it's because I'm used to working. I don't have children. I don't want to be a SAHM, even after having kids. Being able to have a home life separate from a work life is comforting--I don't want my home life to be another job.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

To Dyson, or not to Dyson?

We've been thinking about getting a new vacuum cleaner for a little while, now. Translation: for a few years.

The problem is less with the vacuum iteslf, which still sucks and is quite adequate in the perpetual war against dust bunnies and Leto-fur. The problem is with the attachments. They are quite literally being held together with packaging tape.

So now, you might be thinking, "Well, just get new attachments, then!" The issue, though, is less with finding the attachments, which can be bought during the Saturday markt, than it is with the price of the attachments, which is quite literally more than the vacuum itself is worth. My boyfriend paid all of €40 for the vacuum and everything with it a few years back; I can sort of understand why he'd balk at paying €50 for a bunch of plastic pipes.

The more globally-oriented reader will know that although Europe lags behind the US in terms of what's available, nevertheless things from the US eventually filter across the pond and thus standards of living and what's available in the stores remain more or less constant. You may have to go to seven different stores rather than one Wal-Mart, but if you want it, it can be found.

Which brings us to the Dyson.

Dyson commercials first popped up here the year before last. I'm sure Dyson would have made it here earlier, given the Dutch penchant for cleanliness, but for the fact that developing the canister-type vacuum took a little longer. Uprights, for some reason, are not popular here at all--indeed, they're almost as rare as a dog without fleas. Of course Dyson charges an insane amount of money for their product, even here: €400 for the canister model, but it promises to pick up everything!

My boyfriend and I went into town today to look over what was available. It was interesting: most vacuums could be had for around €150. And then there was the Dyson, which was €400--a little less if the store had a sale. At the heart of the difficult was whether or not it was worth the insane amount of money to buy the damn thing.

We still haven't managed to answer that question yet.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Mijn Nederlands Taalessen

Mijn Nederlands taalessen gaan wel. De klas gebeurd vroeg om maandag en woensday 's ochtends. Er zit 10-12 mensen in de klas.

It's funny. In my three years here I haven't manged to figure out the grammar, and while my understanding of the language is pretty decent, I still bungle speaking and all but the simplest writing. The vocab isn't that hard. I still do get words mixed up, but that's because, I think, I pay attention to stems and prefixes and suffixes, and so words that look similar get assigned similar meanings and then I get confused. Dutch grammar, on the other hand, is one huge-ass long rule list of rules and an even longer list of exceptions. But construction-wise, it's not that different from English (at least, compared to Spanish), so my lack of language is more from lack of practice than anything else. I work in an academic setting, so most people around me speak English, and I know enough simple Dutch to get around the ones that don't.

From what I understand, there is a panel of linguists that convene every few years to discuss what's "real" Dutch and what's not. I would imagine that these people make their living scanning the newspapers with a red pen in their hand, circling words that they didn't know existed, checking up with Van Dale (the dictionary of the Dutch language, complete with "het" and "de" in front of their nouns) and then making a list of noncompliant text examples. Then they convene and "tsk" over how much of other languages are polluting the purity of their beloved Nederlands but go about deciding which words get added to the language anyway.

Watching languages evolve is, I think, one of the more fascinating non-scientific pursuits--one that is a good deal more satisfying than, say, elaborating on the Bhuddist influence on Chaucer. You have to take into account the history, the influences, the ideas that wanted expression. Bill Bryson does a cursory job in Made in America but the English language practically begs to be abused, and if you're an American, you don't (according to Bryson's depiction of the fussy British) have the reverence for the sanctity of the language.

I wouldn't say that the Dutch are worried about the proliferation of English congnates in their language. The Dutch are very pragmatic people: a computer is a computer, and to call it by any other name would be a waste of breath. But they do want people who live in the country to know how to speak Dutch, and the individual steden (new vocab word, woohoo!) arrange language courses for newcomers that are free of charge, if you can prove that you have residence and can't pay for it. Many of the universities also give language lessons, and you can arrange for private tutoring if that suits you better, as well.

I do not understand people who pack their bags, move halfway around the world, and expect to continue living as if they were still back home. Who refuse to learn the language (or, in the case of Pakistani men in England, to let their wives learn the language, the better beat them into submission), refuse to learn about the culture, refuse to integrate--and then they wonder WHY they are so unhappy? I don't understand why people think it's society's job to integrate people who clearly want to spend their lives wallowing in misery. If they want to drown in their own despair, then let them! But for the ones who do want to learn the language, learn enough about their adopted culture to get along, at least, to get a job and work and earn a living and be happy--then they shouldn't be prevented from doing so.

This is actually a fairly big issue in the Netherlands. There are a fair number of immigrants living in the Netherlands--I think at last count some 10% of the populace was foreign-born. Who's responsible for integrating all of these noobs to the country, etc, and how can we make sure that none of these are suicide bombers, and so on. There aren't any easy answers--there never are, to these kinds of questions.