Archive for February, 2008

regaining history

Monday, February 18th, 2008

When you move to a new country, you have no history there, and without history you have no accurate judgement. One of the nice things about traveling to the US was that as soon as we stepped off the plane we had instant history. On the drive from the airport, we knew how far above the speed limit we could drive safely, without getting pulled over, and what other drivers expected of us. We knew what to expect everywhere, and how to talk to people, and what things should cost, and how to behave with good manners.

We spent the first several days with my family, so of course there were all the old stories about relatives and all the usual shared references families have. But even when we had dinner with my online friend Melissa, whom I’ve never met in the flesh before, we could talk about shared acquaintances and how sad we were that our mutual friend Doug has cancer, her good wishes for my uncle and our shared feeling that far too many people we know have been attacked by cancer lately, and also about current US politics, and all the other things people can discuss who have been reading about each other’s lives and viewpoints for years. It was even better when we visited our old friends Ted and Lorry. We got to meet their youngest kids and see their older onesas kids, not just babies. We got to share several years’ worth of rowing stories that have grown in the years since we all rowed together; I could walk into their house, look at some wooden panels hung on the wall and instantly say, “Oh, you took that old screen apart, the panels look great hanging up like that.” I could point at a montage of rowing pictures in the den and tell the kids, “Look, there’s me! And there’s Ted! And I took the other two pictures of your mommy and daddy!”

It’s not just about people; we could choose restaurants and say, “well, there’s not a lot of choice in this town, but if we don’t want something fancy we can go to Appleby’s – it won’t be great but it will be good and filling.” In the case of Oak Ridge, we also knew the meal would taste all the better for the memories of the time we had the best meal ever at that very same Appleby’s, simply because we’d been racing all day and we were starving. But we were also able to choose among restaurants we hadn’t been to before and have a pretty good guess at which one we’d like, or even to look at a town and figure out something of what it would be like to live in. We’re probably less accurate there than on restaurants, but we may well end up relying on that judgement enough to buy land that comes up for sale after we’ve left, based on pictures and real-estate data and our experience of the area.

Here in Taiwan, every day is new. We can’t reliably judge whether we’ll like food until we taste it, or what people’s intentions are because of the language and culture differences. It’s a grand adventure, but every oncein a while it’s a refreshing change not to have been born yesterday.

hey, it’s good (to be back home again)

Friday, February 8th, 2008

We’re about halfway through our visit home to the US. The things we are enjoying most about being here are language, weather, and food. The first is self-explanatory. The weather has been glorious for the past couple of days, with cloudless blue mornings and temperatures that defy winter. It’s been a rare treat after Taiwan’s constant hazes and greys. We’ve enjoyed the food for different reasons. Ted says that his digestion is much happier with American food. Mine certainly isn’t. I think part of the problem is that I eat much more beef here, but another part may be butter. Tonight we went to the Flatwater Grill, which has a wonderful location in Oak Ridge TN, right by the start of the course where we raced Master’s Nationals a few years ago. The food was tasty,, but my meal consisted of bread and butter, Caesar salad with creamy dressing, grilled salmon rubbed with pesto and with a literal scoop of herb butter on top, scalloped potatoes, and grilled asparagus which for some odd reason was also dripping butter. It was good but I found myself getting nostalgic for Boston’s Naked Fish restaurant chain, or even our own old grill where we could let the taste of grill and fish and asparagus stand on their own. I feel like I’m still wiping butter off my chin.

Since we’ve seen all we need to in Oak Ridge, tomorrow we’ll go to Asheville and visit the Biltmore Estate, then have dinner with a longtime online acquaintance of mine. After that we’ll go back to NC, and spend a few days with our old rowing friends who have settled there. We haven’t met their younger kids, and the older ones have probably doubled in size since we last saw them, so that will be fun.

Then it’s back to DC and a couple more days with my uncle. after which I get to spend less than a week at home before shipping out to the Netherlands for at least three weeks. It might be more, but that’s fine because otherwise Ted gets there just as I leave, which would be not good at all.

flat light

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

There is something about living in Taiwan that was affecting me that I just could not define. When trying to describe it words like boring, stagnant, stale, and monotonous all came to mind, but none of these give the proper sense of the place. Taipei is not really any of these; it is a very lively, active, dynamic, and slightly chaotic place.

So I continued to be baffled by this nagging feeling. That is, until I landed in the Netherlands on a recent business trip. As I walked out the airport into the crisp air, with the stars fading into the dawn, the source of my nagging feeling in Taiwan became much clearer. In Taiwan most of the global environmental factors do not change throughout a 24 hour day. This is a little hard to explain but I will give it a try.

Starting with sunrise, there is no real sunrise, or for that matter a sunset. The change from night to day, and visa versa, is very digital just like a light switch on/off. No pre-dawn glow, or fading twilight in the evening. I had read about this phenomenon in the tropics and I have a basic scientific understanding of it, but I never expected it to be so noticeable. I also had never contemplated how this extra time during a day with flat light would noticeably dull the scenery. This light switch effect is in contrast with the Netherlands and the long predawn and post sunset light casting long shadows setting the landscape aglow with color. In addition the switch is turned off/on at nearly the same time every day. I never realized that the subtle day to day change in daylight becomes noticeable when you do not have it.

Then there is the sky. The sky here is a uniform color that only varies from dark gray to light blue depending on the weather. Typically it is an opaque pearl gray that is constant day after day. Then when it does change it only changes to a different shade of gray. Unlike the Netherlands, there are not billowing puffy clouds, no partly sunny days with clouds racing across the sky being pushed by the wind, or wild changes in the cloud patterns throughout a day.

Unfortunately this uniform opaque sky continues into the darkness, hiding the night sky. We walk to our car after work in the darkness and only twice have we seen the faint glow of a few stars. It also seems that the grayness is strong enough to block out the moon.

Finally there is the temperature, which does not change throughout the day. The temperature everywhere else I have ever lived is the lowest in the early morning with a normal increase in the temperature during the day. The constant temperature in Taiwan has become our norm, and in some ways it is nice since you can dress for 1 temperature. However, the concept of a constant temperature is absolutely bizarre concept in the Netherlands.

I really miss variation in color, light intensity, and sky texture.

back in the USA, again

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

After some deliberation I decided to bring the sweater I was currently knitting instead of starting a smaller project like a sock. This backfired, as I promptly left the nearly-finished sweater body on the plane. (“Promptly” is the wrong word, actually, given the intervening 16 hours of travel.) Other than that, which I didn’t discover until that evening, we got from Taipei to Washington DC without incident. We spent some time in the afternoon with my uncle and my parents, who had come down to see us, and left just after dinner to get some sleep and begin catching up from jetlag. We slept in the next morning, then spent some time cleaning up my uncle’s apartment. (Right before he went into the hospital for his surgery, the water heater was leaking, and the plumbers apparently ripped the shelves out of that closet, literally, and threw all of its contents on the spare room floor.) Then we went out for brunch to Clyde’s in Chevy Chase with a travel theme: model airplanes hanging from the ceiling and a Jaguar and a Morgan downstairs in the car room.

Afterwards, we dropped off the relatives, and Ted read for a bit while I walked down to a bead store and a bookstore in Dupont circle. Beadazzled is a nice store; I was able to get almost everything I wanted, but prices are high. Unfortunately they were sold out of cup burrs (used to round the end of a wire) which was the one thing I wanted that sould have saved me money, by letting me make instead of buying earwires.

There’s an odd rolling cab strike going on in DC: they’re striking on Monday this week, Tuesday next week, and so on. We’d been planning to go to the Udvar-Hazy extension of the Air & Space Museum, out at Dulles Airport, but changed our plans because we wouldn’t have gotten back in time to give my parents a ride to their train. Taking a bus to the station would have involved a but too much walking for Dad. Once again, virtue was its own reward; our Plan B for the day was to go up the Washington Monument, because Ted hadn’t been, and to the new Museum of the American Indian. The Monument was completely free of crowds and there was no waiting, for once, and the Museum was wonderful. It’s a bit out of place, in a way; I understand why it’s on the Mall and I sympathize with the desire to show how central and important the American Indian experience is to America overall. But just in terms of the museum itself, it would have been more at home on a grassy plain overlooking trees and water. We weren’t impressed with the building at a distance; it looked brown and industrial when viewed from the other end of the Mall. As we got closer, though, we could see the curves of the building and the layering meant to evoke a sandstone cliff. There’s landscaping around it, and the inside is shaped around a central courtyard, all very reminiscent of the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. The exhibits are extremely well-done, and throughout the museum it’s stressed that this is intended to redress the histories that have all been written from an outside perspective.

Today has been a significant day all around, with Chinese New year, Mardi Gras / Carnival, and Super Tesday in the American primary elections all coinciding, but we didn’t do much but drive. We visited Uncle Larry again to say goodbye (and take out another load of trash) then hit the road. We stopped first at the airport to see if my knitting had been found. No luck. The drive south was longer than Ted had expected, about six hours, but very easy to navigate. Our first stop is Mooresville, where there’s a small airport right by a large lake There doesn’t seem to be rowing on this lake yet, but there is some nearby and they’re trying to get access to row on the lake. We’d thought mooresville would be a small town, but it turns out to be the home of the North Carolina Auro Racing Museum, along with lots of racing shops. There are six or eight hotels right at the highway exit, but it took us four tries to find a room for two nights. We knew we were really in the south because the woman at the hotel desk had only one upper tooth. (My theory is that people loose just as many teeth in the Northern states, but are more likely to have false ones put in o it’s not obvious. The corollary is that this may be why barbeque, where meat is cooked forever until it’s very soft, and pulled pork, which is served pre-shredded, are popular around here.)

As much as I enjoy being able to walk to shops and restaurants, I did enjoy getting to drive up to one this evening, with a wide variety of American foods: steaks, dinner salads with meat, chili, and so on. I think my ideal would be to live in the center of a town where I could walk to the basics, but to be on the edge of that center where driving out to the big-box stores would also be convenient. With, of course, rowing and an airpark nearby.

complex logistics

Friday, February 1st, 2008

Sorry I haven’t updated in a while. We’re in the midst of a game of Musical Countries. First Ted was in the Netherlands for a week and a half. He got back Wednesday night and we leave tomorrow for the US, where we’ll be spending some time with relatives in DC, then doing some driving through NC and TN. We’ll be there for two weeks, then we get back and a week later I leave for the Netherlands. That trip is planned for three weeks but will probably extend longer. I hope so, because otherwise I leave Eindhoven just as Ted gets there!

Yesterday we got our Taiwanese drivers’ licenses. It went fairly smoothly; someone came to our apartment to pick us up and shepherd us through the process. The biggest delay was because their book of international identifications was apparently out of date and didn’t quite match the Dutch drivers’ licenses we acquired last year. (We couldn’t just pull out our US ones because the Dutch ones were authenticated and translated before we left, just for this purpose.) They had to put our Chinese names on the licenses because the US versions had too many letters to fit, but they had some trouble with Ted’s name. Our HR here didn’t bother to come up with a new translation for it and just kept using the one someone translated when he frst started coming here on business a decade ago. It’s a literal conversion of the syllables to Chinese phonemes; “Ted” comes out “Tai-duh” and with his last name the whole thing is about 7 Chinese characters – the usual is three. So they had to just put part of it on the license. Our helper said it didn’t matter anyway because they just look at the ARC number.

We spent a chunk of today at the bank. I got my account last week, but since Ted was out of the country he didn’t get to open his until today. The bank person made an office visit again, but then we had to go to the bank branch to deposit all that cash they gave me for our November and December paychecks. We also transferred money to our US accounts, took out some US cash, Ted changed his bank card passwords and his internet passwords, and they issued us each yet another password to allow us to transfer money to each other’s accounts. (Actually, we think they allow us to transfer money to anyone else’s account, for instance to pay bills online.) I reckon we each have seven different passwords and strings of characters to do business with that bank: ARC, nickname and password to log on online, transfer password, bankcard password for domestic use and a different one for using it in other countries, and a password for bankbook transactions. All told, we were there for about an hour and a half, even though everyone was very helpful and the person helping us spoke fairly good English.

If anyone needs to reach us while we’re in the US for the next two weeks, our mobile phones should work there.