Saturday, June 26, 2010

It's deliberate

Ah, the odes that Americans sing to the "European way of life"! Can you believe those French work only 35 hours a week? Can you believe that I get up to two months of PAID vacation time? And that's to say nothing about the way life is in Portugal, where a good friend of ours is doing a postdoc; he occasionally drops by for a visit and waxes eloquent about spending hours cooking with his buddies on a random Tuesday night and stuffing themselves until the wee hours of the morning. I've been taking advantage of the long days to take pictures. At home, in Nijmegen, I usually read a good book or update this blog or write in my journal or clean the apartment in between loads of laundry.

I don't think Europeans actually get that much free time: nobody I know has actually ever used their 41 days of paid vacation. Sure, there are some folks who take a month or a few weeks off, but I don't think anybody has ever gone missing for the full 41 days. The biggest difference, I think, is that Europeans use their free time more effectively than most Americans. For most Americans, for instance an hour-long commute by car isn't abnormal. In Europe, it's considered almost unholy. To say nothing of two hours--which is a stretch for Americans, but most of my former lab in Leiden would just shake their heads in disbelief: "Why not just rent an apartment?" they'd ask. At that time, I hadn't yet saved up enough, but moreover my contract was only being extended piecemeal.

Anyway, that's one major difference--that Europeans tend to look upon commuting as something to be avoided if at all possible, rather than a fact of life. The other major difference is that the shops all close at 6 pm, which gives you a damn good incentive to finish up before 5 if you want to pick up, say, more deodorant or a new book on the way home. Albert Heijn does stay open until 10 pm, but most supermarkets close at 8, and in any case you still want to try to beat the rush because they're liable to run out of popular things like bread and milk.

But what this all means is that the delineation between working and leisure is a very nice, clear line (most of the time--editing tasks always seem to lend themselves to eating up my Saturday mornings). You go to work, work, and then you go home and do Fun Stuff. It could be going out with friends, waiting for the sun to hit that perfect sweet spot, cooking something tasty, browsing the local thrift store if it's koopavond, or working at your second job. One guy I know of does an awesome webcomic. I alternate between finding cool things to photograph and painting.

And what's even more telling is that people are simply NOT IMPRESSED if you tell them you spent 60 hours in lab last week. They'll look at you quizically and ask, "What for?" Last time I pulled those kinds of hours, I also wondered "what for?" I couldn't answer the question then, and I still can't answer it now. Especially since I've gotten some really nice photos.

I don't quite know when the whole idea of living deliberately became so deeply internalized, but I know that it didn't come naturally to me. I'd like to place it as happening at some point two years ago, when I started working in Leiden: commuting for four hours per day really really SUCKED, and the only way I'd ever be able to do things that I wanted was to either hope I wasn't too exhausted by the time I got home, or plan them into my weekends. It means that I almost always get to do what I want, just not necessarily when I want.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Pet Peeves, Editing Edition

I get asked to edit a lot of stuff. Being a native English speaker has its perks, I suppose--for my boss--but it'd be a lot perkier for me if I got a bonus for everything I edit. Nevertheless, since part of my job--hehe, my job, period--is to make my boss look good, I'm a good little minion and edit away.

I'm not going to kvetch about stupid English, because a) my Dutch is just as bad and b) I've seen worse English coming from English-speakers. By and large Europeans have a pretty good command of the English language, and even those who do not know enough to make themselves understood. To me, at least--but then again, I have an almost telepathic ability to understand what people are trying to say. Oh, the benefits of growing up with ESL parents!

No, the bitch-fest this time centers around a whole other aspect of writing: namely, construction and composition. I probably have higher standards than most, since I took so many writing classes in college--well, all of 2. But there were several history and pre-law courses that I took that also required a ton of writing, too. Thanks also goes to somehow never managing to get above a C+ on my lab reports in spite of arduously adhering to everything my "how to write a lab report" guide said. Things that have become second-nature to me--summarizing, careful usage, and making sure things "evolve" in a sensible manner--are apparently not so second-nature to most people.

I don't think it's the language barrier--I really believe that, if things could be written in Dutch, I'd have just as many issues with things showing up in the wrong place, or even worse: again. That's my first pet peeve--repetition. One does not get brownie points for repeating the same thing over and over again. This could be avoided by, say, planning an outline of what you're going to write beforehand.

And that leads to pet peeve number two: said outline, if someone has one, usually has no structure whatsoever. At least, that's the only explanation I can think of when I try to explain why the writers put a particular section "here" as opposed to "there". A good structure allows you to build up a story--it gives your ideas a direction to "evolve" in, without repeating yourself.

It also helps avoid my third pet peeve, which is non sequiturs. That which does not follow. The things which I am asked to edit are often rife with them. And the thing is, I can usually understand why the writer chose to put a paragraph about A next to a paragraph about B, but there's no link between the two, nothing to tie them together.

The last pet peeve of mine is the following: a string of citations does not a coherent point make. Very often, especially in reviews, you'll find that the author strings together a list of one-sentence article summaries, and...that's it. Not even an attempt to say "And what this means is..." See above about non sequiturs.

These problems, again, are not endemic to Dutch scientists. After all, I've read some pretty craptastic shit in the US, too. I guess it's safe to say that I just really, really, spectacularly, hate bad writing.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Only the Dutch

I'm pretty laissez-faire about sharing stuff with roomies. I don't really mind people using my coffee maker when I'm not around, provided that they clean the machine afterwards. And I don't really mind buying toilet paper. As long as someone else takes care of these things from time to time, I'm cool.

But of course, if things were that simple then I wouldn't have a post: I technically live with my boyfriend (as in, his place is my address) but I keep an apartment in Maastricht, the better to not commute for 4 hours a day with. In May, I moved to my current setup, which is a house in a very snazzy neighborhood (Sint Pieters, or the Hill), owned by a lovely old couple who get rich off of renting the individual bedrooms of the house out to poor students. Well, okay, they can't possibly be getting rich at the prices they charge. But you get the point.

There's room in the house for 5 girls, but whoever lives in the huge space on the ground floor (what Americans--but not Pennsylvanians--call the first floor) has her own bathroom. The rest of us, 4 girls, have to share a bathroom, and everybody shares the kitchen. We've all sort of come to an unspoken agreement that we will not share food and that the Internet/TV gets split 4 ways regardless of how many tenants there are (currently just 3). A little harder to split evenly, in a manner that could be construed as "fair", is paying for trash bags and toilet paper.

Now, I'm not talking about the €1 trash can liners. Here in the Netherlands, the cities have special vuilniszakken (vile-ness sacks?) that you must place your trash in if it's to be collected. Said bags cost a pretty penny, too: in Nijmegen they're €5 for 10, but in Maastricht, they're €11.70 for the same number. If that sounds outrageous, consider that at least you don't have to pay a separate bill for garbage removal.

What makes this a tricky matter to negotiate is that I produce a comparatively huge quantity of waste: I eat ramen, buy things that come in plastic boxes, eat yogurt, and drink coffee, all of which generates a fair amount of trash that must be disposed of. My soon-to-be-former housemate (who's just finished her final exams and is now in Germany, and presumably celebrating) generates...well, I don't know how she does it, but I don't think I've ever seen her make a single speck of trash. So you begin to see why this matter can be a rather delicate calculus. Fortunately, my new housemate also cooks, cleans, eats, and all sorts of things that human beings do, and has said that she's perfectly happy to split the fee for the trash bags. The toilet-paper issue is a little less contentious--I consider €2.65 a cheap price for a non-stinky house.

And here is the point: yesterday my housemate introduced me to Wie Betaalt Wat, a website that tracks all of your common consumables in a shared household, and automatically divides by the people who share it, to show who owes how much. Quite a clever little site--it's not something that only the Dutch would think of (after all, roommates and roomie drama happen all over the world) but it is something that has a very nette feel to it. That last word, according to Google's Translator, means "neat", but like gezellig, there is an element of, well, Dutch-ness, to it that renders the site completely foreign even if you understood the language perfectly. Which is a rather long-winded way of saying that the site is very, indescribably, Dutch.