Friday, September 28, 2007

Van Gogh and colors

The last post reminded me of Vincent van Gogh, the post-impressionist painter the whole world know. I remember several years ago I have read his biography translated in Chinese. Before that, I knew him only about his famous paintings. It was so sad to know that his life was full of poverty and sickness. His paintings were sold at the most expensive prices after his death, while in his life time once around 1881 he had only six hot meals within eight months since he could not afford.

During the time he painted this, he lived in lodgings, supported by his devoted brother Theo, who regularly sent him money from his own small salary. In keeping with his humanitarian outlook he painted peasants and workers. Of this Potato eaters, he wrote to Theo: `I have tried to emphasize that those people, eating their potatoes in the lamp-light have dug the earth with those very hands they put in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor, and how they have honestly earned their food'. Around this time his painting was full of moralistic flavor of social realism, a reproduction of what was seen. It is very different from his later work in Paris where he was obsessed by the symbolic and expressive values of colors. Paintings were dark and heavy around this time, and few people would like to pay for them.

Most memories about van Gogh's painting are about his boldness in using colors. The van Gogh museum in Amsterdam made his name in big size characters in the bright orange color, the color of his country. I somehow always feel the connection between the bright colors and European culture has its root in van Gogh's painting. You might feel a little bit of this in the Swedish furniture store IKEA. When you are in this piece of land, you will be amazed by the color, the most bright yellow, orange, blue or green, can suddenly jump into your eyes. People told me it might be because of the gloomy weather. The bright colors can bring some excitement when they feel depressed because of the weather. Our internet router is in orange color, with a red color cable line. I had a little while to adjust all these color changes in life. Now I am very happy to wear my orange color fleece jacket which we all felt it was too bright when in US.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Dutch people's daily three meals

Many places I traveled to, I have been very much interested in tasting their local food. It is part of their culture and add some spices to my travel memories. Being in the Netherlands, of course I am also interested a lot in adopting some of their food culture. What do Dutch people eat?

I asked this question to a friend of mine last time when we traveled together to Amsterdam in 2003 summer. Her parents emigrated from the Netherlands to the US. It seemed to be a quite tough question. Heineken or Grolsch? They are beers... then maybe potato, or kroket?

I couldn't complained to her since she only traveled to the Netherlands rather than living here long enough. So I have to explore myself, plus the observation of Mr. Awaara from their daily lunch gathering in the office. The major comment of his is, very simple and cold lunch, some people just eat cheese and bread, some drink milk for lunch... sounds terrible to Chinese and Indians. The picture exactly says our differences: we need all meals warm.

I found part of the answer from a blog writing about Dultch culture Hollandring:
The Dutch generally eat three meals a day. Dinner (around 6 pm) is the main meal for most people, but some rural families and older people retain the tradition of eating the main meal at midday. For them, the evening meal is light and often consists of bread, cold cuts, cheese and salad. It is clearly that urban working class doesn't have enough time to cook and have a warm lunch, so their habit is basically like what is showing in the picture.

My friends' potato statement also turns to be true. Also from the hollandring: As indicated in the famous painting by Vincent van Gogh (the aardappeleters, meaning "potato eaters"), the main ingredient in old-fashioned Dutch dinners is potatoes, usually accompanied by meat and boiled vegetables. The Dutch traditionally don't use very sharp spices and are very fond of pouring gravy onto everything. In the market, you can see all kinds of potato. Peeled potato confused me the first time I saw it. It also has peeled potato in cans.

Our program director in US was a Dutch. I remember every time he stop by the lunch room during the lunch time, he would say 'Bon Appétit'. Next time if I invited him for dinner, I should say 'eet smakelijk'. Here is some more eating manner I learned from the same source. This doesn't seem to be consistent with their talking habit. They are very straightforward in conversation.

Washing hands before eating, being on time to the table, and starting to eat at the same moment is important. It is impolite to begin eating before others. A parent or host often indicates when to eat, usually by saying 'eet smakelijk' (pronounces ATE smahk-A-lick), which literally means 'Eat deliciously' but is used in the same as Bon Appétit (enjoy the meal.) It is proper to keep hands above the table (rather than in the lap) but not to rest elbows on the table. The Dutch use the continental style of eating, with the fork on the left and the knife remaining on the right. Forks are not used to eat dessert; small spoons are provided. One does not leave the table until all have finished eating.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Kinderboerderij and Community gardens

Most kids grown up in urban areas have seen cows, sheep, hens and the alike only in a book or on TV. Yet in most Dutch towns you can find the so called Kinderboerderij where children will be able to see, pat and even feed animals, and it is free.

We heard about this from the couple from US with a two year old girl. We then roamed around the city, and found some animals in a fenced area in a weekend several weeks before. There were no other visitors other than two of us. It was located inside a mental hospital, so we thought that was a place for people with mental problems to relax. Over there, we even saw three kangaroos. That was not the
Kinderboerderij. It shows that a pet really makes psychological benefits to human beings.

Finally last weekend, we found out the place. It was close to the Delft hout, which literally means Delt Wood, a big park around an artificial lake, surrounding by three rings of trails: one for pedestrians, one for horse riders, and one for bikes. The lake is quite big with trees surrounding all around. There was a piece of land covered with sand sand forming a small area of beach. I spotted a couple sun-bathing, and later found out there was a small nudist area around the lake. I have to admit that Dutch people are full of imaginations. They can make everything possible close to their home. That might be the reason why Dutch designers are so popular in the world.

There are also many community gardens close by. It is a little similar to the community gardens in US, but the piece of land you lease is much bigger. Many people built a little one room cabin in their land. However, there was no water electricity or drainage in the land. Only a drinkable water tap shared by many pieces of land. When people come to enjoy their outdoor farming, they can at least have some clean water for their thirsty.

The rest of the place are full of flowers or vegetables. Some are well maintained, and some you could see the owner hasn't come for a while. We have formed the habit to ask, otherwise we couldn't even figure out what it is. One retired couple told us, they owned this at a cost of around 350 euro for a year. They would spend at least one hour every day over there in the garden. In their small green house, they grow some tomatoes and some orange color fruits I have never seen before. We tasted and it might be belong to the same kind as pomegranate but much softer. The guy was consultant now working in helping Indonesia government in water management in the city. We were offered with some apples from their garden. It was for baking and we later made apple juice from it. I can still remember the sourness when I am writing about it now. It is bio-natur (organic)!

I have been wondering why people in the Netherlands rarely grow vegetables in their garden but mostly flowers. I got a not very satisfied answer, touching the point but still not convincing. Half of the land in the Netherlands are mostly claimed from the sea water, and not fertile for vegetations. So farming becomes the most reasonable agriculture when grass is well grown with the help of plenty of rain water. Today
approximately 60% of agricultural land in the Netherlands is used by dairy farmers, and there are around 1.4 million diary cows.

The fun of
Kinderboerderij is all in the pictures. It is interesting for us to find out, goats like to stay close to people, being touched. Sheep were all the time silently eating the grass, mostly staying away from people. Young sheep are very alert and wouldn't let people get close. Mr. Awaarar successfully touched an adult sheep the first time in his life time, and its fur was very thick. We also saw a huge white pig, with a tiny little curly tail at its back.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Weather forcast in the Netherlands

Weather in the Netherlands is temperate; marine; cool summers and mild winters. This past summer since we first came in early June, I don't remember any day that the temperature is over 30 Centigrade. Most of the time I have been trying to wrap myself with almost all available thick clothes I brought before our shipment arrived. Being close to the sea, wind is quite common, and the cold wind, sometimes with rain clouds, can come from any direction. My knowledge of cold air always comes from the northwest, based on experiences living in China and US, is apparently old.

Water is the soul of the Netherlands. The Netherlands history is the history of fighting with the sea water. It is well known that around 50% of the land is below the sea level. The land was maintained through a well established system of 'polders, dikes, and windmills'. There is this expression:
"God created the world with the exception of Holland. This was done by the Dutch themselves".

In the every day life, rain water became also part of the life. In other places, we most of the time just need to check out the weather forecast in the morning and get ready with proper clothes. Here, it is rather by hours. We were soon informed a website , a place you can have a watch on the movement of rain clouds. You can foresee around two hours time whether there is rain clouds coming, or it is totally left this region. Morning and afternoon clouds can be totally different. You'd better check out whenever you need to have a short trip somewhere else. Otherwise, keep an umbrella with you all the time. If you bikes, you might have a rain jacket with you all the time. Mr. Awaara has a rain proof pant in his bag all the time. Rain protection for shoes is also in the store.

People have thought about all kinds of ways to deal with the unpredictable rain falls. Check out the picture in this post. It was in the Oranje street corner, the place we first lived in. The clothes need to get dry, and rain might come. It might be still faster to dry up than staying inside the house even there is the risk of getting wet outside.

However, the rain water is also useful. We saw people set up some container in the garden to collect rain water. I don't think here the garden needs regular watering at all, since the rain is very often. When we moved here, there was a carpet in the living room which was dirty. The landlady spread it in the balcony railing and gave me some liquid detergent to spray on it once in a while. She told me, the rest of the work, the sun and the rain will take care of it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Study abroad in the Netherlands

One of my nephew living in Vlissingen came to visit during the weekend. He has been in the Netherlands for almost four years. We had contacted on phone after we came here. But we have been hesitating in having guests at home since our shipment was kept delaying and we don't even have an extra quilt for the guest. He wanted to come since he was living with a friend without paying now and didn't want to show up in the weekend when the landlord might come. He offered to bring his sleeping bag. Then there is no problem. We have enough space.

Remember the time when we talked on phone, he was so surprised to know that our apartment rent was double the amount that he could have guessed. He himself once lived in a 8 square meter room with around 100 euro rent per month. When he came and see it, it is the size like which four of them share. It is an understandable price then. We rent only an one bedroom one living room apartment. Some part of my heart feels sour when comparing with this young boy. When I first told him that we won't have proper setting for him to sleep on if he came to visit now, he told me that he had never slept on a proper bed in the previous four years in the Netherlands.

He is not from a rich family who can easily support his study here. His parents, my cousin sister and her husband were ordinary working class living in the coastal city of Qingdao. They used up all their savings for their only son after his high school education. They were not confident that he could enter a good college in China. They thought other ordinary colleges were a waste of time. I was totally against the idea of sending an 18 years old abroad to study, a boy never left his parents. His parents were determined as well as he himself. He only went back once one year after he came to the Netherlands. He said that trip he was treated with so much good food and gained more than 30 jin.

I learned quite a lot of things from him, during his visit here. Almost four years experiences in the Netherlands is still a lot more than my three months' experiences. He told me which TV channel has interesting programs. Which grocery store has cheaper groceries and which has better meat. Which place is famous and worth visiting. What is the most amazing part, is I learned a lot of cooking tips from him. He has been working in restaurants to make some money to lower his parents burden. This past summer he went to work in a Chinese restaurant in a northern city and made 1300 euro for one and a half month.

If staying with his parents, I would never imagine he could have worked in a restaurant, washing dishes, and later helping in cooking. I somehow feel Chinese is such a group of people that perform the best in harsh and difficult situations. It reminds me of another nephew of mine, half year older than this nephew. He just found a job in China working as a manager in a restaurant. He will never think of working in the kitchen. Being a college graduate in China, there is still some kind of proud, either from your parents or yourself, will stop you from certain kind of jobs. But here in another country, Chinese restaurants seem to have become the life boats of many Chinese students who would work to make some money. Exploitation is thus common. His first job only paid two euro per hour. True, if you don't want, they can always find someone who would do.

Parents might feel sorry that their kid has to clean dishes in restaurants. It is less embarrassing maybe because many of them are doing the same thing. What my cousin sister feels the most comforting is, their son now knows what he wants in the future. He also told me that from the third year here, he started enjoying so much of his classes. He would like to spend as much as possible time in the school, and found many things interesting. He has learned how to live individually, and more important, think individually. He has made his plan to go on a master program after graduating from here. I am really happy for him, and his parents. Luckily, their investment in their son pays them back not only a degree, but also a grown-up son that they might not expect at the beginning. He told me, some of his friends there do not need to worry about money and do not study hard either. It is again proved to be true, a harsher life at younger age might be better for growing up.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Netherland's customer service experiences

We have briefly experienced the business culture in the Netherlands in the past three months we have lived here. It is a mixed feeling. Part of the story is good: Most of the time they are polite, and most of them can speak English enough. But another part of the story is, you have to chase, chase, and chase behind. Most of our experiences told us, you have to be persistent and then you can get what you want. I am not sure whether it is because of our lack of skills in the dutch language, and thus there were too much miscommunication upfront; or it is because of the limit number of service staff and higher labor cost due to the requirement of dutch speaking in working in these sectors. We might have been spoiled by the good customer service in US using the cheap outsourcing labor in India. Here we have sometimes feel the frustration.

First, most of the services are not free. I have complained in a previous post that the public library here needs a membership fee. This is the same in banks. We set up a bank account in the ABN-Amro, the dutch bank which recently was attempted to be merged by UK's Barclays. The program we are in needs a annual fee of 32 euro. People are far fewer using credit cards than the debit cards. Similarly, if you have a credit card, there is also an annual fee attaching to it. Since credit card companies make money mainly from the higher interest rate applied to the debt, or any mistakes made by the card holders such as late fee. It is possible that dutch people are more cautious about living in debts, and they are less likely to make credit card companies profitable even with an annual fee. As a result, comparing to the fact that average person in US receiving 14 letters from credit card companies offering a pre-approved credit card, in the Netherlands, we have received none.

Phone services was a little messy. There was a phone line connected in our apartment before we moved in. We were thinking of transferring that number to our account, although we have to register as a new user and there is no savings for us in monetary terms. Surprisingly, no one could find that registered number in the system. Until there is a KPN staff member came to our place to do trouble shooting, he was not sure what was the problem. However, that number was receiving bills every month just one month before. At the end, I don't know what happened in the system, but we have to adopt a new number.

Mr. Awaara's colleague has another vivid experience with KPN customer service person in their office.
'What kind of plan do you have?'

"We have this plan of 27.99 euro per month."
'Do you have other plans?'
"No, we just have this 27.99 plan with X free minutes, and .... "
'Isn't there a plan of 10 euro per month?'
"O, yes, we also have this basic plan of ..."

Utilities was a nightmare for us not because of the utility company but with our landlords. (This can be an even long story but I chose not to disclose it here.) Anyway, since I have always lived in apartments with utilities costs covered, I don't have much to compare. Here the utilities are managed in one company ENECO, water, electricity, and gas. The company will estimate the amount you would spend every month and deduct the amount of money from your bank account. When you moved in, you report all the meter readings to them. When you move out, you again need to report the meter readings and they will calculate the total amount you are supposed to pay. You might have to pay more, or they will return the extra charge they made. It is totally based on trust and they charge whatever you report. The meters are all inside the house.

However, this might be the place problems might come up. We moved in with the intention of covering the utility cost ourselves. Later something happened and the landlady took over that cost and we pay her a higher rent. So we provided all the information to ENECO and again later cancel and transfer to the landlady after a month. Surprisingly, we later were charged for more than 1000 euro for the month we stayed! Of course, this cost will be covered by the landlady and we didn't use that much in one month. Then why? The previous tenant must have cheated in the meter reporting. I would say our landlady might also just realized this fact, and the previous tenant also has his reason to cheat in his situation. Here I just want to say there are some loopholes in this service system that our landlady was not very cautious before.

Here, the supermarket doesn't provide shopping bags. I am totally for this because of the environmental concerns. I found it interesting to see how people come up with different ideas when there is no bag available. (Of course you can buy a proper plastic bag at 20 cents.) The packing boxes in the store are widely used. It is like Cotsco in US.

We haven't made any returns in the supermarket. But once I bought a stove lighter in a small shop. It makes sparkles from some kind of stone to light the gas stove. I tried to use it and it was so painful. It succeeded after many many clicks so I decided to return. The shop owner tried to teach me how to use it until he himself failed in lighting up another cigarette lighter. You know what, it is not simple full refund. I was given a handwritten voucher of the amount I spent, and it is valid for one year. I keep reminding myself that I need to go to that store sometime to find something I need over there.

I came across a dutch living in China now writing about Chinese in the Netherlands:

A last striking point about the Chinese in Holland is that I continuously hear them complain about the service at Dutch banks, stores, and government agencies. One Taiwanese friend of mine even told me that an employee at her bank had literally said, "I don't care whether you come back or not. Bye." I smiled when I heard this, because it sounded all too familiar.

And I recall another Chinese friend who wanted to buy a 1000 Euro laptop. When she asked the salesperson if he could show her some special features, whether he could plug it in and switch it on, he bluntly made clear that he'd rather not be bothered by her.

As my Taiwanese friend put it, "Where I am from you would get fired for behavior like this." And I couldn't agree more. This kind of customer "service" is not supposed to be normal.

He said all these sounded "all too familiar". I am glad to know that it was not because of my color, or not speaking Dutch. It is just so common. So the lesson is you just need to be prepared to fight all the time, for your rights. At least, your rights are guarded safely here in this country.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Indian idol - Meiyang Chang

I have been interested in the connections between India and China, because of the special knot tied with Mr. Awaara. This handsome ethnic Chinese boy, Meiyang Chang, in Indian news came into our attention because of his Chinese ethnic origin. He got into the fifth position in the Indian Idol!

His name has become a term in Wikipedia, the third generation Chinese living in India, originated from Hubei, China. He is 24 years old, a dentist. His name clearly shows his Chinese ethnic identity, the same as well as his look. There is a Chinatown in Kolkata, the only one in India. It started forming the community since late 1700s. Their main industry is in restaurants, shoemaking, beauty salon. Mr. Awaara's family dentist is a Chinese origin. The dental clinics are becoming dominated by Chinese in Kolkata. Chinese community has made most of the restaurant in Kolkata has both Indian and Chinese menus.

China in the history has experienced too much turmoils, so its population has continued emigrating to all over the world. I was surprised to find out that
it was not until 1998 that ethnic Chinese were allowed naturalized Indian citizenship. I would imagine that in such a diverse and highly mixed country, living as a foreigner might not be as difficult as living as a minority. Meiyang is definitely a Chinese. There is no traits of India blood in his gene. However, he speaks the perfect Hindi, better than Mr. Awaara (he admitted to me). His soft voice singing Hindi songs, has won him lots of support. However, his not brown color has been highly stressed throughout the competition. And some have made it the reason why he could not go up further.

India Times says:
That fact shows how well the Chang family have assimilated themselves into the fabric of this nation they now call their very own. It is also a great tribute to the neighbors, the community, and the towns and cities that surrounded generations of Chang family without making them feel isolated and left out, and showered them with Indian hospitality. ... Meiyang Chang, an Chinese-Indian citizen, represents the modern India, the global version of Bharat, the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-racial, multiply-talented generation of Indians who, it seems, are out to create a community that one day will make the world a better place.

However, some argue for his winning for other reasons:
... (his) achingly innocent voice and humble demeanor make him sound like a young Kumar Sanu I’m rooting for him to win Indian Idol, and not only because of his voice. Chang winning would throw a fag on the pyre of the idea of India as a nation state. He would throw in the BJP’s face the idea that the cow belt has a monopoly on who’s a true Indian. He would do it in the most patriotic way possible, singing the songs all of northern India knows.

It becomes an interesting debate within Indian communities about the way the media is placing on him, constant reminders on his ethnic Chinese identity (although he doesn't speak Chinese) rather than a brown Indian people. (See this.)

For me, watching his performance on Youtube, the attachment built because of commonly being Chinese crashed slowly. He speaks the language that I have no ideal of! I can't tell how well he was singing, since I don't know who Kumar Sanu is. He is totally an Indian for me.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Jumbo romance

There is an interesting news in India recently, about a huge tusker, a wild elephant, straight out of the jungle, raided a circus, freed a female elephant and eloped with her to make a cozy home by a pond in Raniganj, West Bengal.

It is such a familiar name of the city that many of
Mr. Awaara's relatives living there. When he was little, circus always came to their town. He was once picked up by an elephant using its trunk, and then put him back on the ground. I somehow can picture the scene of a small boy was taken in elephant's big trunk. I still remember when we told this story to Jing and Liang, they were so surprised.

For me, circus was always the scene in the TV. That was changed in our last year's visit to Fort Worth, Texas. We saw many people were waiting in line to entering a stadium for a circus show, and I was very interested.
Mr. Awaara was surprised that I had never been to one, so we bought the ticket. Yiling said maybe that was affordable (12 dollars each) because it was in Texas. Similar show in Boston cost a lot more. So I now know most of the circus programs are similar, and elephant are there important programs. At the end, all elephants, six of them, came to the center, and younger kids could go to the center and take an elephant ride.

Back to the romance story, there was a twist later. There were four female elephants were following the bull to run away, although it seems that he was only interested in the one called
Savitri. Then the circus people managed to bring back three of them. Later, one of the female who were brought back started fasting, showing her grieve for leaving of her friend. The story sounds totally like a bollywood masala script, as the Times of Indian says.

It is the mating season for this male elephant, and he might desperately be looking for a mate.
Savitri determined to leave with him. This might be called the love at first sight. This reminds me of Qiong. She told me once after she went for a matchmaking meeting. "I haven't experienced 'love at first sight', but I really know what is 'no love at first sight'".

An interesting study on fast dating revealed that
men look for beauty, while women go for wealth when it comes to assessing future partners. This study of course doesn't apply to most of the couples in real life. Because the rising of the match making business, when "speed dating" becomes a way to look for a life long partner, it is possible to find out what is the factors people taking into account when they choose their partners. The news says women are more 'choosier' than men.

What do elephants look for when they are looking for partners? Are they sharing some human being's desire for beauty? There is no money in their society, then they should mutually looking for beauty?

Monday, September 3, 2007

Pearl earring and Andy Warhol

We were shopping for gifts to Mr. Awaara's friends in London, and finally bought cups with Jahannes Vermeer's painting in the market, "Girl with a pearl earring". Many might knew about the movie based on the story evolved from this famous painting. Jahannes Vermeer, the painter, was born and lived in Delft for his whole life time. This painting uses a pearl earring as a focal point, and is referred to as "the Mona Lisa of the North" or "the Dutch Mona Lisa". However, it is unclear whether or not this work was commissioned, and if so by whom. It is thought to be painted in 1665.

In the painting, a young woman, adorned in an unusual head wrap and wearing a prominent pearl-drop earring, turns to face the painter over her left shoulder—eyes sympathetic and slightly lowered, mouth demurely parted. The moment captured by the painting is captivating—sexually charged yet undeniably innocent.
(I copied this part of description from here. )

This painting inspired Tracy Chevalier's novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring. The novel both recognizes the painting's historic and artistic intensity and monopolizes on that intensity to create a fascinating story of a young girl in a small city during a unique period of time. Then it came the movie in 2003 directed by Peter Webber based on this novel. The movie has won quite a few awards for its cinematography. I watched the movie long time back, and never expected I could be one day come to live in the place where Vermeer lived before.

Another artist came into my attention is Andy Warhol, due to a program in BBC called 'Visionaries'. There was this debate on "which artist is more visionary, Andy Warhol or Leonardo da Vinci?" Visionary by definition,
means a clear, distinctive and specific (in some details) vision of the future. I would thus vote for Leonardo for his extraordinary visions 500 years ago. He is a man well beyond his time. On the other hand, Andy Warhol also brought my interest in exploring his photo silkscreen: transferring an image to film, then the film was burned onto a screen using a strong light. He is thought to be the leader of American pop art movement. I believe everyone have seen his famous painting of Marilyn Monroe, like the one I made using the painting of Vermeer's girl with a pearl earring. It took quite a while for me to get used to the Linux photo editing program, GIMP. I am glad it works, and I still have a lot more to explore.