Sunday, February 20, 2011

Writing takes a long time. Anyone that has done it would know what I mean. I thought I would write something yesterday but then I just passed out on the couch. It was a tiresome day. Woke up at 5 am and was running around for 18 hours, which is what traveling with babies pretty much means. Nevertheless, if you ask me would I just stay home instead I would scream "no". It was a trip well needed. Like any trip. If you ask me I can justify going anywhere. Travel brings back inspiration into the ordinary. Life in idleness would drive me insane. I can't just sit around and take it easy. According to the Lao people this is a serious disease.
Today I found out that I need a visa for a trip to India that is already booked. The embassy needs 3 weeks and the trip starts in 2 weeks, so we won't go. I was quite mad.
Besides that well-inexpected coincidence, I had great day reconnecting with an old feeling. I was talking to my man at the dinner table and we were going around some boring subject. All of a sudden I felt so much at home. Finally.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Vaderland, Fatherland,
I can write a book on how I feel about the Netherlands. It's a deep, but changeable relationship and I have gone from pretty much despising anything Dutch, to loving it so deeply and being so loyal, nearly forgetting my other, native, homeland. 
Right now I am in a state of euphoria about my Vaderland, the one that has nothing to do with my father. That was the country I chose to belong to, a concept as weird as choosing your own family. Before we left for the USA I felt so tired and bored in here that I never imagined I would feel like that again. But in the last week in here, when sun was shining and life in the back yard of my old house was just as beautiful as I remembered it, I realized that this place has planted deep under my skin. I have caught the virus of Dutchism, but in my own confusingly foreign way. 
I have no desire to become Dutch. The opposite, I want to remain a foreigner in this country. I don't think it's even a choice, but more like a realization. I am never going to be what one would call" fully integrated". I see no point of doing that. The world is globalizing by the minute and yet some people think that we should all come in and blend in like a weird chameleonic plant. No f....way. 
Yet, this is my country. And the more I live abroad, the more I set my record straight. Landing in Schiphol makes me always take a deep breath of relief. I know that in here I will be alright. This is home, because everything works as I expected it to. 
Some things in here annoy me. Like last Monday while shopping I had the unfortunate chance to listen to some small talks which almost caused nausea. I hate small minded people, but that has nothing to do with being here, it can happen in any country. 
For the most though, I feel simply at home, in my random, English-speaking, expatrial ways. I even thing that's encouraged by the society nowadays. When I tried to "fit in", the society gave me a cold shoulder. The moment I gave up and I decided to be the weird, foreign one, everyone is jumping up and down to help. I almost give up speaking Dutch to people. Who wants to be treated as a second category if first class treatment is possible too?
One of the reasons I am proud to hold a Dutch passport:

Thursday, February 17, 2011

 Hotel reviews
A few years back I thought I would never engage in this hideous, mentally retarded or retired people's occupation. But after a few dreadful experiences, I started checking Tripadvisor and what a relief that was. No more 60-style places, dirty, impersonal, 4-star but actual 2, with misanthropic service. Instead I found myself spending a night in a no-star hotel with the off-the-scale hospitality in Greece, the unbelievably spiritual resort in Laos and the the coolest perception-changing airport hotel in Singapore. Since I was reading reviews, I felt I shall contribute too. I like to travel quite a bit, but it's not only about that. Let's face it, we are all consumers of service, even without leaving the boundary of our hometowns. In a way, it's our responsibility as customers to navigate the industry in the direction we want it to go. If we want better, cheaper, friendlier, faster, we just need to state it, and if needed, over and over again. 
I have always believed that good work should be encouraged and celebrated and a lousy job exposed. The problem about that and writing reviews though is that the bad hotels, or restaurants, or even the local dry-cleaner, that the bad ones that even want to hear from you. They know, just as their customers insufferably learned, that what they offer is terrible, a rip off or plain mediocre. And they don't want to hear about it! They avoid eye contact at the hurried check out, they never asked "How was your stay?" for fear that you might actually tell the truth. The same truth that is hanging like a big elephant from the ceiling between you, the "holly" customer, and the unfortunate downhearted hotel clerk, because ain't  chance avoiding suicidal thoughts in a working place like that. 
On the opposite of the spectrum, the good businesses love to send you a survey. Like insecure beauty, they keep on fishing for compliments. How can we improve? What can we add to our services to make you like us even more? And you just know that someone there will read your answers carefully and even implement some of your suggestions to elevate that nearly-perfect place even closer to the Good service heaven. 
Writing reviews has its benefits of which I happily became aware. After complaining about the in-desperate-need- of-refurbishment Red Lion at Port Angeles, WA, the manager sent me a two night free voucher of any of their properties and assured me my comments will be taken into consideration. I used a previous favorable online review ones, as a reason for getting a major discount in a particularly expensive high season. I know I get a table in some popular restaurants while others need to wait an hour or more. People tend to remember you if you compliment their already great job, so they give you even better service next time. Which happens even in the Netherlands, where service is routinely inexplicable. Please write reviews, it's a generous thing to do. It's a way as a consumer to contribute to the society. Just imagine the pain you can save a stranger, or the joy you can cause, by simply sharing your experiences. And let me be the Devil's advocate. You don't have time for that, right :) Come on, 5 minutes of charitable community work instead of wasting time on social media, we all can do that. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I took a trip beyond the obvious
I asked too many questions and I learned too much 
The price was loss of innocence. 
But did I really need that useless charge?
I now exist, weightless of illusions
but covered with the thorns of doubt. 
And there is no more obvious conclusion 
that life is somewhat meaningless
but what a joy to feel alive...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Valentine's day
Valentine's day is like the worse case of PDA (Public Display of Affection) that I really don't want to see. Guys walking around with red roses and slightly embarrassed look on their faces, single ladies glancing at them thinking: "why not me", "is she better than I", "would I date you", "no, of course not". It was the same in Utrecht yesterday, as it was in Portland before and is probably everywhere where the Valentine's plague has spread and created this little social awkwardness between the "taken" and the "single".
I had a very good day and it had nothing to do with St. Valentine. It was great to catch up on sleep, wake up in my favorite hotel, with my favorite guy and enjoy the memory flow while running errands in the city. The joy of running errands. Timeless..
The day ended up with catching up with couple of good friends in a favorite restaurant savoring one of the wonders of "Dutch" cuisine: Indonesian rijsttafel. And as we are having intellectually stimulating conversation lightly spiced by good-odfashioned loving gossip, I couldn't help but notice all the couples that keep on coming in the fairly popular Utrecht'se pad. They are mostly the young professional types, dressed up, made up, buttoned up and flowered-up. And I wonder, how many of them visit this one, or another of all the other hundreds of millions of restaurants around the world, on this particular day, just to be able to have an adequate answer for the chit-chat by the coffee machine. That has nothing to do with how in love, romantically involved or sexually attached they are. Of course not. This is a plain old "keeping up with the Joneses" tune that we play when we are young, naif and foolish, and even worse, when we are older and cynical, but don't know any better.
I am so glad that one of the benefits of not working is that there is no comparing notes by the coffee machine. There are of course other ways to feel the social pressure, like f-book to name one, but those are far easier to avoid.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Urban nomadism for babies
Packing up the babies again. In 8 months of life they have been in six different countries and if I count the connection flights, have flown eighteen times.  I wonder what kind of life would they have, if it started with moving from the USA to Russia, via several trips to the Netherlands, visiting family in Bulgaria and we haven't even started with the holidays as a family yet. What is next? China, Brazil, India, the Moon??
The babies love it. They get to enjoy the full attention of one parent all for themselves, socialize with strangers, receive gifts from the attendants, eat their favorite foods, sleep on parent's laps, all these divine pleasures of life. 
For mom and dad, that's a bit of a different story. I don't wear anything warmer than a t-shirt and water is pouring down from me. No wonder, as I am lifting a good 9 kilos of baby ups and downs and lefts and rights and that's not including the diaper bag that's easily another 10. I haven't been in a better shape since my early twenties. I am popping fish-oil like there is no tomorrow, no less than 4 a day that is, and I despite my utmost determination I can't wear anything but flat, comfortable shoes. 
I used to look picture-perfect when going on a trip before. Make-up, color-coordinated outfit, perfectly coiffed hair. I would finish at least a book and a magazine, write a bit, listen to some music, especially since I got the God-blessed Bose noise canceling headphones. I wish the inventor of that Life-saving creation a happy, rich and successful life, and also to his wife, children and his twice removed aunt, from his step-mother side. Ever since I could switch on the "Quiet comfort"I can actually hear my thoughts in plains, I can ignore snotty teenagers at the beach and I can even get some sleep when hubby is kindly taking over a night feeding. Bless you, bless you, bless you. 
But back to traveling. Now I travel pretty much like that: The night before I neatly fold some decent t-shirt and jeans to wear on the plain. I put them on in the morning. By the time I finish with preparing the babies, diaper bags and my own bags, my t-shirt is already wet. So I change to some ridiculous other t-shirt that I find in the wardrobe because everything else is on the bottom of my bag, of course. By that time my jeans are also falling off my ass because of all the lifting, moving, kneeing etc and because I also refuse to wear a belt since hey make you take it out at security and that's a task too many. 
Make-up? Forget it. After everyone is happily installed in the car I can put some make up, but that usually results a rather strange choice of colors, smeared mascara or some other unpleasant mirror surprise, so I think twice before start applying. And shoes, oh, shoes... I have never wore more Nikes since the twins. I have Nike-boots, white Nikes, brown Nikes, Nike for walking, Nike for walking on ice, Summer Nike, Nike flip-flops etc. And I used to be the sandals girl, the girl that did not squeeze the holly MoMa in a two day visit to NYC, but did go to the Jimmy Choo store and bought a pair. Well, because visiting a store only takes 15 min, but that's another story. 
In the plain, if my dedicated baby falls asleep after her meal, I can read a few pages, from a magazine, since articles demand much shorter attention span. Papers are off-limits as they make a lot of noise. No books. I do manage to read the safety instructions since Marceline loves to chew on them. If I dare to listen to some music, I constantly imagine that I hear the baby crying, so at some point I just give up. 
Having children makes you humbler, I knew that. I just didn't know that this involved some serious  traveling style compromises. I only hope that one day, when they are a bit older they might be able to pack their own bags, pick their own outfits and I might be able to put some lipstick using the comfort of my own bathroom mirror. But then, they might be just old enough to start banging on the door and demand attention on some profoundly serious, life-changing choice of shoes. 
Then? ...Then I can always switch on my Quiet comfort. Ha!

Friday, February 11, 2011

The concierge

In the USA our building had a concierge whose name is Manny. He was a giant of a man, in his mid thirties and spoke with a thick northwestern accent. He always wore a suit, was shaved and well groomed and very polite in an elegant, unpretentious way. In the mornings he would offer a cup of fresh Starbucks coffee with a chocolate or a cookie to go. He knew my name perfectly, so as the names of the other few hundred inhabitants of our new development. He could let out your dog (if you have one), take your dry-cleaning, let the delivery people in, arrange a town car and do everything in such a way, that he would receive the same respect for his work, as I would naturally give to the surgeon that just saved your life.
In Moscow we have a concierge too. She lives in a small 2 by 3 meters room just off the main entrance. And when I mean lives, she pretty much does. She cooks food in there, makes litters of teas, sleeps, watches Russian soap operas, receives guests, gossips and in general does everything a 65-70 years old lady would, in her own home. She is overweight, wears sloppy grandma style cloths, and more often than not, forgets to say Hello. I am sure she is a kind lady in her own world, and she probably also does a very good job as a Moscow concierge. For one, she certainly scares away potential thieves.
Few days ago as I pass by her headquarters I see that there is a renovation going on in there. Painting, tiles, doors being replaced, I am thinking this place will finally look like a real reception. Today I walk by and I see that the renovation is nearly over. The doors are replaced, the tiles are shining, new and polished, the walls are light yellow and crisp. And then I see her grunting as she is hanging back again her favorite floral door curtain: thin, discolored and representing pretty much the biggest possible curtain fashion crime - triple aesthetic murder, with style kidnapping and vogue suicide thrown in the case.
I should totally send Manny a post-card.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Last week I was in an all time low in my Russian journey. Since I have relocated to different countries, continents etc, and that's without counting moving cities several times in my childhood and teen years, I know very well what 6 months into the process means. It's when it "hits" you. The initial excitement of moving is long gone, social environment has not graduated yet to a full-blown friendships and the new place is really the only home you have right now, but it doesn't really feel like home. More like a temporary refugee camp with rather luxurious conditions.
Besides this unfortunate timing, I was drained by lack of sleep and a few other sad circumstances that did not help me develop love for Moscow, or love for anything for that matter.
Several good heart to heart conversations, few good wines and some travel prospects make me nearly back to my true positive self. At the end, what can I complain about. My loved ones are happy and healthy, I have food and shelter, not to mention all the perks like "comfort", "security", "choice" and what not. Yet, I haven't completely managed to get rid of that taste of bitterness about Moscow. Things are just a bit rough here, rougher than anywhere I have been before. It's a large, exciting, aggressive city of semi-European, semi-Asian type. Just like it's people. The average Russian is like a product of a controversial science experiment in mixing the two least likely nationalities in the world: the Fins and the Chinese. That new human race, let's call them the Eurasians, are clan oriented, spiritual but very commercial, socialist, but extreme strong government supporters, hard drinkers but sober decision makers, introvert and passive in public but loud and emotional in private. It's like a very charismatic individual with a severe case of schizophrenia. And you never know which personality you are about to face. It might be that you have a great literary conversation with almost complete stranger, or be yelled at on the street for no particular reason. You might be almost bodychecked by a babushka at the airport, or surprised by the fact that every men always open and even holds the door for you.
And in this confusing place I constantly meet people that came to stay because they really like it. More than their respective Germany, UK, USA, Denmark, South Africa and many other countries, in which millions of other people, from poorer countries, dream living in.  What is so exciting about Moscow? I don't get it. I mean I get it for me, only for now, but I am very clear for myself that this is temporary. One thing I have to say, all those brave adventurers I have met are male. I wonder how much it has to do with the unquestionable beauty (despite occasional tacky fashion style) of the Russian ladies and their own increased bachelor eligibility.
I also wonder how would I feel about Moscow in a year from now. I have loved all the cities I have lived in before, would this one be an exception. And am I not, just a little bit, in love already?