Saturday, July 24, 2010

Missing the Exotic Vibes of Asia in the Disturbingly Normal Netherlands

Regarding the title to this blog post:
Asia is a different world. No where else that I've been can you just see something absolutely ridiculous happening (elephant walking down a street, street sign preventing bringing Durians into a subway system, bullet holes in bus windows, etc.) and just dismiss it nonchalantly as "well, that's Asia". Everything is abnormal, and your senses simply get overrun by the pandemonium that is everyday life going on in the world's largest continent. After awhile it becomes a bit of a nuisance, but overall it's a pretty beautiful way to live your life, as far as just having absolutely perfectly structured anarchy going on all around you. Europe, as I knew beforehand, is extremely different. It's just normal. Yeah, you'll see some weird things in Amsterdam, but overall, the Netherlands is just incredibly normal. Everyone bikes, which is odd for an American, but that's not shocking or offensive, its just different. Also, pace of life is very much slower than ANYWHERE in Asia. This could be a result of the time of year (Europe goes on holiday in late July-early August. Yes, the continent of Europe. All of it), but in my other experiences in Europe its been much the same. What I'm trying to say here, is that I'm sort of missing the absolute sensory overload and pandemonium that was, and still certainly is, Asia. We'll see how this goes in the next 6 months once I'm back in the states. ANYWAY:

So I've got about three weeks left in the Netherlands. All things considered, it's been a pretty crazy year so far. As both regular readers know, I'm heading to Colombia after this for about 9-ish days, much to the general chagrin of my family, but in fairness, I'm graduating college pretty soon and have few opportunities left to travel recreationally. Plus, cheap airfare is a powerful motivator. This last week here has been pretty good:

Friday of last week, Hunter and I went to a friend's house and hung out for a bit before heading out into The Hague for a night out. Not a bad time at all, except for one of our friends who fell off his bike on the ride into The Hague and was bleeding profusely for the next 3 hours or so. Rookie error, as they say, but eh, pretty hilarious nonetheless.

Saturday we headed to Amsterdam to play tourist. We started the day at the Heineken Brewery around 1:30pm or so. It was a pretty awesome place, for 15 euros you got a tour, 3 free Heinekens, and a wristband similar to the LiveStrong ones, except instead of endorsing cancer research, they endorse alcoholism. Welcome to Holland. After a 2-2.5 hr tour, we headed from there over to Leidseplein (probably misspelled). This was just sort of a square with some restaurants, touristy shops, etc. From there we had dinner at the Hard Rock before going to a pub crawl organized by some company in Amsterdam, and, for 20 euros, offered a free t-shirt, entry+1 drink at 6 clubs, and some "vodka" between bars. The quotations there indicate that it was basically 95% fruit juice and 5% vodka in 2L bottle that they just poured into your mouth. The alcohol content was so pitiful that it could have easily passed in a Madrasah without anyone blinking an eye. The bar crawl was rather disappointing, and the night ended with us jumping into the canals of Amsterdam with some Serbians. Yes, you read that correctly. To my knowledge I do not have any intestinal parasites as a result of said actions, but I'm no doctor...

Sunday we went to Zaanse Schans with Samer and Laura. Basically, imagine the most incredibly stereotypical Dutch town you can think of, and multiply it's Dutchness by about 7. The place was shocking. Just tons of picturesque windmills caressed by canals which extended into fields of tulips and other such things. Cottages where they showed you how Dutch cheese is made, a place where you can see how they've mechanized the creation of Dutch wooden clogs, just really really touristy Dutch. Overall it was a great time, I got some good photos and bought a pair of wooden clogs (which I intend on wearing with disturbingly decent regularity upon my return to the States). We also got some magnificent weather during the day at Zaanse Schans, which made the day all the more excellent. One problem was the fact that the entire town had a whopping one ATM, which was conveniently out of order (those Dutch, can't take them anywhere), so I had to borrow a bit of money from Hunter for about 6 hours.

The work week was interesting. Henning, Simon, and Mr. Sprague were all out of the office, so I had no one to report to. Consequently, Monday consisted of me just putting random variables into graph format to see if I could discover anything meaningful among our European customers. Tuesday I did a fair bit of editing on my final project, as advised by Henning via phone. Wednesday and Thursday I did some editing that was suggested by Regina. Sidenote on Regina: she works in Market Development (I think?). Her comments on my paper were extraordinary. The sharpness (for want of a more existent word) of her critique was literally unbelievable. Absolutely incredible how valuable the critique was. Anyway, Friday Mr. Sprague returned from Singapore. The flight was 13 hours, he arrived at the house at like 7:45am, and was in the office before 9:00am. The phrase "Is THAT all?" got thrown around a lot in Hong Kong, but I feel like that's about the only thing to say here. Hunter's work week was a bit hilarious. Thursday and Friday his 3 immediate bosses were all gone on various excursions, and at one point I went down to his desk to say hello. On his side of the floor there's about 12 desks, and 11 of them were empty. He was literally the only person on his side of the floor. Absolutely hilarious.

This weekend should be pretty quiet, it's been a good, long while since I've just had a day to relax, which will likely be tomorrow. As I'm typing this, Hunter has just woken up, and I think the plan for today is to go to some other town in NL, either Utrecht (home of the Peace of Utrecht in 17?? which ended the War of Spanish Succession, if AP Euro serves me right), Nijmegen (home of Treaty of Nijmegen in 1678? which ended something?), Rotterdam (Europe's largest port), or Delft. We'll see.

As I said at the beginning of this blog post, I've got three weeks left here. It's incredible that I've been here 2 months already, and that I've been away for about 7 months or so. It should be interesting to re-immerse myself in American culture after this whole world tour. Not a whole lot more to say at this point, I'm beginning to get a bit road-weary, if you will, for the fact that I have not seen my closest friends from home since before Christmas (with the exception of Dan, who I obviously saw during the entire trip to Japan in January). Turns out I've travelled to 11 countries on this trip not including Dubai (where I only had a layover). I've flown about 33,000 miles, and I have a fair few more to go in the coming month. And I wonder why I've spend about 60% of my money during the past 7 months...

Missing the exotic vibes of Asia a fair bit in the terribly normal Netherlands

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The World Cup Final, and Other Rants Ranging from Lorenz Curves to Caterpillar Scholarships

It is a rather long blog post, but I feel like I've kept it decently interesting. If nothing else, it's not as though I'm forcing you to read it.

So it’s been a little while since I posted anything, and, while these last 12 days or so have been uneventful relatively speaking, it’s still been 12 days of living in a country that is, despite becoming more and more familiar, still quite foreign. Let’s get the boring stuff out of the way first: work.

Work has gone well lately. Today I finished my complete analysis on our largest European customers. The analysis was like 42 pages of just dense, dry, boring numbers. I tried to liven it up with colorful vocabulary, weird case studies, quips, commentaries, inappropriate or immature jokes, and other such things that might keep the reader out of a mental institution, but it was still a rather tough pill to swallow. At least the graphs were nice. And I got to use “jamboree”. Speaking of not-often used words, the other day (and by that I mean like 3 weeks ago) I was proofreading a friend’s paper when I came across the word “philosophes”. No, that was not “philosophies” with a typo. “Philosophes”, or, (generally) French Enlightenment thinkers. I hadn’t heard that word since literally 2006. Definitely made my day. Now that you’re all questioning whether I belong in a mental institution…

Henning is currently on holiday in Poland with his family. He left last Tuesday, and beforehand I had a meeting with he and Simon to sort of hand over control of me from Henning to Simon. Consequently I’m reporting to Simon now for the time being, which would be nice, if he hadn’t left this morning for the UK. So basically I’m now outsourced labor despite not having been outsourced. But yes, I’m outsourced in that I am working elsewhere from my immediate bosses and will be taking a lot of orders via phone. I want to clarify that I’m not complaining about this, I just find it rather interesting (just like I found it interesting when Henning told me that SES employees get 27 paid vacation days per year. Twenty. Seven. Let’s say the office is open 50 weeks per year times 5 days, that’s 250 days. Over 10% of the days are therefore vacation. In theory you could basically take off from Thanksgiving onwards and not come back until next year and still be paid. I’ll be that’s the very longest thought within a single set of parenthesis that any of the 6 readers of this blog have ever seen. And if it’s not, I’d really like to hear what is. Seriously, email it to me,

ANYWAY… other than that, I showed Ludmila my Russia+CIS analysis (which dealt exclusively with her customers). Brief aside: Ludmila is Bulgarian. She is a phenomenally sweet lady, but, by nature of her Eastern European-ness (if there is such a word), I was expecting her thoughts on my paper to generally be “what can you improve”, rather than “what have you done right”. Again, I’d like to point out that she is one of my favorite people at the office, and I do really enjoy working with her, but I was just expecting a more negative critique. Quite the contrary, the first thing she said was how impressed she was with the writing quality, and that there was significantly more in this paper than she had told me in the interview I had with her, which showed a good bit of initiative and outside research. She also gave me some wonderful pointers on how to improve the paper, and I definitely feel like it is better as a result. Overall a very good chat, and one which really showed that she is a very skillful critique, as she picked up a number of small details that I’d’ve never picked up had I read the thing 10 times (which I’m probably absorbed enough in my own work to do). Other than that, on the work front not a whole lot has been going on. Again, I finished my novel of a European customer analysis (the table of contents was two pages, it contained 14,933 words, it required an industrial-strength stapler, 7 teams of oxen were required to carry it from my desk to Simon’s office (a path now known as the Oregon Trail), the weight alone nearly collapsed the building, a rainforest the size of Ukraine was cut down to produce the paper, and other massive under-statements like that. You read that correctly. Understatements…).

So now to the fun (or… not so fun?) stuff, the World Cup. As many of you probably saw (and as many of you didn’t because I’d assume that about 75% of the readers (i.e. 3 people) are American), the World Cup happened to occur this summer. For those who don’t know, Holland made the final. I already went into detail about the pandemonium surrounding our quarterfinal beheading of Dunga and his joga bonito-ing Brazilian fighting squad, so that’s the end of that. Tuesday of last week we played Uruguay in the semi’s. We went out to a 3-1 lead late in the second half, Uruguay scored a 2nd to make it close, but we held for a 3-2 win. The Netherlands went into pandemonium. There were fireworks, flares, mortars, bazookas, insurgents, Taliban (now we’re getting politically incorrect)… but you get the idea, it was nuts. The next night Spain upset arguably the most German team on the planet, Germany, with a 1-0 win. This made an all-European final of Spain and Netherlands, in a matchup that pitted the stylish, free-flowing Spaniards against the orange, oranje, and anaranjado Dutch.

Hunter and I decided that it would probably be a good choice to go to Amsterdam for the final, because there were allegedly 80,000 people at Museumplein for the semifinal, and therefore it was reasonable to expect at least like 50-100 people there for the final (conservatively speaking, of course). Turned out it was closer to 150,000 people, or roughly the population of Siberia. Crammed into a space the size of a large elevator. This led to an incredible atmosphere that included truly staggering amounts of the following: orange, Dutchmen, Heineken, vuvuzelas, shoes (each person was probably wearing two… so think about it, three hundred thousand shoes!), and did I mention the ORANGE. So much orange it was unbelievable. I bought an orange t-shirt for an outrageously expensive 5 euros. I nearly told the lady m-goi, thinking “I must be back in Asia for prices this cheap”. Anyway, so the match was being broadcast on 3 massive (and my God do I mean massive) televisions perched about 20-25 feet above this sea of orange (or the Orange Sea (not to be confused with the Red Sea), as I christened it just now in a failed attempt at wit). The match atmosphere was intense, though the match was about as exciting as reading my report on our European customers. So it was a positively thrilling affair. Anyway, in a throwback to the 2006 Italy-Germany semifinal, no one scored for like 115 minutes. Then, Andres Iniesta stuck a knife into the hearts of 16 million Dutch and two Americans (I believe their names were Gustovson… Anyone get the reference????) as he scored a goal to put Spain up 1-0, tearing off his kit to reveal the “Dani Jarque siempre con nosotros” t-shirt, an homage to his fallen friend Dani Jarque who died of a heart attack at age 26 last year. Anyway, so afterwards, the closest thing I can compare Amsterdam to (even more so after watching Shaun of the Dead last night) was a zombie apocalypse. Yeah that’s right, I just compared a world cup loss to a zombie apocalypse. Which coffee shop have I been frequenting, you ask? Well basically here is what I mean: the 150,000 or so people that had been watching the match just sort of left Museumplein. They were walking the streets in hordes just sort of walking without purpose. Their faces were full of a combination of sadness, disbelief, horror, and just general lack of comprehension at what had just occurred. They were essentially just walking to avoid standing still. We nearly saw several fights break out due to people being in such a foul mood. Weird, weird stuff.

Work Monday was a bit dead with the exception of Nuria (who is Spanish), as she bounced around the office. She was very graceful in victory, however, refusing to be overly cocky, celebratory, etc., which was good to see (though probably not something I’d ever do). Anyway, so that’s about it for the World Cup, only 47 more months until Brasil 2014. I now have a massive Jabulani shaped void in my life, which will likely be filled by British comedy, a developing case of workoholism, and reading SuperFreakonomics and the Lonely Planet on Colombia (month from tomorrow, should be good provided I don’t get kidnapped by a cartel… and even if that does occur, no one could argue it wouldn’t be a life experience).

ISU came through in flying colors today when I found out, a whopping 36 hours in advance, that the deadline for the Caterpillar Scholarship is tomorrow. This $2,500 scholarship is awarded to 4 College of Business students every year. One of the kids that won it last year was a juggernaut (US Marine veteran, studied abroad in Japan, just a spectacular kid), but this year there’s no one really like that, so my chances are good I think. Got some help from Grammy today on my app essay via Skype (modern technology for the win), so we’ll see. The whole 36 hours in advance thing was even more infuriating because I’d emailed the lady in charge like 6 weeks ago asking about the Caterpillar Scholarship, and she said she didn’t know but she would email me when she did. Suffice to say she did not just find out today about it. But eh, got the application in, that’s all that matters.

Read for a good long while last night about Gini coefficients and Lorenz curves, pretty interesting stuff. I’d previously understood how to interpret individual Gini coefficients, but had never really bothered to learn how they were calculated, etc. Turns out it’s a right-angled graph using a Lorenz curve and taking the area to the left of said curve divided by the total area of the graph. Or, more obviously, area to the left of the curve times 2 (as the area of the total graph is 0.5, as the axes are from 0-1). Really good stuff involving mathematical demography.

The plan for the weekend is to play tourist. Saturday we’re (Hunter and I) going to Amsterdam to see the Heineken Brewery, Amsterdam ArenA, the Hard Rock Café, etc. Sunday we’re going with Samer (another intern) to some really stereotypical Dutch town up north (stereotypical being windmills, wooden clogs, Dutch people, soft “j”s, KLM, etc.). Should be…Dutch? Yeah. Incredible to think I leave 1 month from tomorrow to go to the states for a whole 4 hours before leaving for Bogota. I’ve learned a ton this summer, and even more on my entire world tour, which is really quickly coming to an end. In fairness I’m about ready to head home, and in the words of Alexander the Great, “there are no more worlds to conquer” (aside: I know very well there is much more of the world to see, I’m just ready for a break, so at this point that’s where I’m at.) So yeah, plan is currently to leave Holland the 16th, fly to Miami the 16th, overnight layover before flying to Bogota morning of the 17th, do God knows what in Colombia until the 24th, fly home the 24th before another overnight in Miami, arrive in Chicago the 25th at 9:30am before heading down to ISU that afternoon. Should be a blast. Seriously though, should be a good time.

Note: I’m fairly satisfied with this blog post. I feel like it’s a bit lengthy but it reads reasonably well and I’ve kept it fairly entertaining I feel. If you feel the same way, I’m very glad to hear that. If not, I guess you’ll just have to punch me in the mouth next time you see me.

An enormous thank you if you’ve read my psychotic ravings. And an enormous request to not report my Taliban reference to the authorities. Other than that, good night, good morning, good afternoon, good evening, or good whatever time of day you may be reading this (except noon… who says good…noon?)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

So Just How World Cup-Crazed Is Holland?

As many of you probably saw yesterday, Holland made a Herculean comeback against the mightiest of mighty national soccer teams in Brasil, coming back from a 1-0 halftime deficit to streak past the heavily favored Seleção in a thrilling 2-1 victory. As I've made very clear, the 7 people that read this blog aren't reading it for my World Cup analysis, so that's all I'm going to say about the match itself. More importantly were the activities going on around me before, during, and after the match.

First off, let me just say, thank God this match was on a Friday. I shudder to think what's going to happen Tuesday when the Oranje play Uruguay in the semis. I showed up to work with Hunter, I was wearing the orange NL National Team jacket and had my orange vuvuzela, Hunter had on an orange shirt, orange scarf, and orange Heineken hat. We were not the only ones, to say the least. Basically everyone in the place was wearing some form of orange, with the exception, of course, of Hunter's boss, Gerson, who is very much Brazilian. The day went by quickly, and before we knew it it was 4:00pm, starting time for the match. Hunter and I headed downstairs to the boardroom, where there were about 30 people with bowls of chips, platters of cheeses and meats, a fridge full of soft drinks, wine, and Heinekens, and a guy with an airhorn. Yeah, he had an airhorn. Like a foghorn. Anyway, so NL went down real quickly (10th minute or thereabouts) and the place sort of died as Brazil appeared to be in complete control. Early on in the 2nd half, though, Netherlands equalized, and out came the cheers, air horn, vuvuzelas, etc. The office went nuts. About 20 minutes later, Netherlands scored the go-ahead goal, and, once again, it was pandemonium. Yelling, cheering, air-horning, vuvuzela-ing, other verbs followed by -ing, etc. Absolutely huge.

Here's where it gets interesting. By this time it was around 6:00pm, so we left the office. And we basically went out into another world. There were cars honking. People yelling. Kids on motorcycles flying Dutch flags. The only thing I can really compare it to was being in Italy during Euro 2008 when Italy beat France in the final group stage match to advance to the knockouts and I was on Isola d'Ischia, which was a pretty crazy scene. But that really isn't comparable, as this is the World Cup Semifinals that Netherlands now find themselves in. The entire ride home, we encountered cars honking and people just celebrating in the streets. So as to not give away the fact that I'm in no way Dutch, any time someone honked/yelled in our direction, I'd just blow the vuvuzela rather than say anything. Fair call, I think. Anyway, we got home and immediately began planning for the evening. We were going to head into The Hague with some friends of Hunter's which we ended up doing. It was a solid atmosphere in The Hague, with people in a generally celebratory mood. We watched the extra time and PK's of the Uruguay-Ghana match in some bar in The Hague, then headed elsewhere. We went back home relatively early because it started drizzling a bit, and we wanted to get back before it started raining badly, as we were biking home. Tonight the one and only Iain McMahon is going to be in Amsterdam, should be a good one.

Work update: it's been going very well lately. Booked my airfare to Colombia the other day, so I'll be going there. Found out I need to do a write-up for ISU for this internship, unfortunate but you've got to do what you've got to do, as they say.

More later, and many thanks for reading this far.