Thursday, September 29, 2005


I don't claim to be a linguist -- and I always welcome the perspective of those countless men and women who know Dutch better than I do -- but every now and then, I notice something interesting with the ways that Dutch and English match up (or fail to match up) with each other... Recently, I've been intrigued by the translations of the word schoonheid.

Beauty. Cleanliness. In-laws... As far as I can tell, the Dutch language makes no verbal distinction between these concepts which, to an English-speaker, are so apart.

A woman or a city or a jewel can be noted for its beauty -- its schoonheid. The place where one goes to have her hair styled and nails manicured is often marked by the title schoonheid salon above the door... Simultaneously, a dining establishment or someone's home can be admired for its cleanliness -- its schoonheid. When you spend a lot of time dusting and vacuuming and scrubbing a house, your actions are described as schoonmaken... And well, although it's a bit of a stretch, I guess I can make some sense out of the link between these two concepts -- especially when you've seen how high a cultural value is placed on cleanliness (I know of no other people who clean as thoroughly and as well as the Dutch)...

But "in-laws"? I'm not exactly sure how this usage of the Dutch word matches up with the others. Yet the word for the family into which you marry is schoonfamilie. Your mother-in-law would be your schoonmoeder. Your brother's wife would be called your schoonzus... The prefix is the same, but as far as I'm aware there's no expectation for one's in-laws to be exceptionally clean, or exceptionally beautiful.

I love stumbling across such little quirks of language and social study. Such cultural relics may be meaningless and confusing, but at least they're interesting.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Museum Is Open

Such ingenuity can easily be missed. I certainly failed to notice it for the first hundred times I passed the Rijksmuseum. Almost every day, my eyes happen to glance across the front of this Amsterdam landmark on the route between my home and office. My peripheral vision cannot escape the vast canopies erected over the front side of the building -- reassuring and reminding would-be visitors that the world-famous museum remains open even during the major renovation project currently blocking the front entrance. Even in the midst of such chaos and construction, the museum boldly broadcasts that its greatest and most beloved masterpieces are still on display within. The message is clear for anyone who passes by: "Museum is open!"

It only occurred to me this week that the phrasing on the sign is a bit strange -- almost a sort of pidgin English, if you think about it. If one tries to say it with a fake accent, the effect is comical: "Museum is open!" "Nice painting inside for you to see!" "You can take photo!" I mean, would it really be all that difficult to write a complete sentence instead? Or deliberately do it in a more headline format, like, "Museum Open at Southwest Entrance")? Maybe it's not so spatially appealing to add extra lines, or maybe it costs extra for each letter?

But as I further considered the declaration, I realized that the sign on the front of the Rijksmuseum isn't strange at all -- in fact, it's brilliant. As a native English speaker, I had seen the sign countless times and only recently actually stopped to consider the economy of words... I'd always assumed the sign was just a shorthand way to communicate the message, "The Museum is Still Open for Visitors," and my mind had always filled in the blanks appropriately. However in its subtle ingenuity (without my previous awareness), the sign had simultaneously been communicating a different message to others in the city all along -- namely, "Het Museum is Nog Steeds Open om te Bezoeken." Perhaps I'm not so bright for having failed to consider this earlier (the sign is posted on the Dutch national art museum, after all, in the center of the Netherlands' principle city) -- yet I believe this is precisely why the "Museum Is Open" sign is so clever. The pronunciation on the sign's three-word declaration is significantly different, depending on the reader's native tongue... But this fact is such an afterthought that one typically only considers the message itself and not the medium.

I have much to learn from such an example.

As a person trying to straddle multiple cultural boundaries -- American/Dutch, Married/Single, Christian/Unbeliever, Villager/Urbanite, Privileged/Disadvantaged, Postmodern/Modern -- it is both a science and an art to effectively communicate a single message to a diverse audience. So often I do it poorly, trying to meaningfully articulate a message to two (or more) different constituencies but instead just confusing everyone in the process. Or I choose to make sharp distinctions between a meaning for one person and an alternative rendering of the same meaning for another person -- sounding clumsy, muddled, and awkward in the process (even if I succeed in getting the meaning across). How I long for an ability to communicate with meaning and precision -- transversing all the various cultural boundaries -- while still allowing people to hear the message as if it is only for their particular culture!

I may not often succeed in this ambition... But it's worth the attempt. If the Rijksmuseum can remain open to such possibilities, I can certainly do my best. Hear me now, world: "Eric is open!"

Saturday, September 24, 2005


Without a doubt, 2005 has been a year of exploration and discovery for me... Many new experiences, new places, new people -- I can make it sound very romantic and adventurous... I've drank sparkling New Year's champagne in Tiffin, Ohio; sweet golden Bulmer's Cider in Dublin, Ireland; and rich red Barolo in Torino, Italy... I've eaten bowls of steaming goulash on the shores of Hungary's Lake Balaton; a rich and satisfying Continental breakfast in a forgotten corner of Strasbourg, France; and a sweet creamy piece of Pope John Paul II's favorite dessert in his native Krakow, Poland... I've ridden the train across the sweeping windmill-dotted pasturelands of Holland; driven a station wagon through the Swiss Alps; and watched the clear blue water of the Mediterranean part beneath the bow of a boat cruising off the coast of the Italian Riviera... I've lodged in the charming confines of Oliver St. John Gogarty's Hostel in the heart of Dublin's Temple Bar; stumbled across a last-minute late-night hotel in Cologne, Germany; and deepened my sense of rooting and belonging in Amsterdam, the Netherlands...

But if you want to know the truth, it's not really as glorious as all that.

I am extremely grateful that I've had the opportunity to soak up so many special experiences in so many unique places. It's always been a dream and a joy to travel and discover "new" territory -- especially throughout Europe. Thus in so many ways, 2005 has been a wonderful and fulfilling year of discovery. Yet the more I travel, the more I discover that the world -- in all its superficial variety -- is remarkable in its degree of commonality.

It can be amusing to note the different ways that different people in different parts of the world have figured out how to run electrical appliances, flush toilets, fill bellies, construct homes, and so on -- but honestly, these curiosities are just mild and insubstantial variances in means that are essentially accomplishing the same ends. The fact of the matter is that I've found the varied peoples and places of the world to be much more similar than they are different. Everywhere I've visited (which, granted, is not the widest collection of experiences) is more or less the same. Rivers and bridges... Weddings and babies... Mosquitos and motorcars... Crops and Coca-Cola... Recreation and resilience... Monuments and McDonalds... In all my travels, I've learned that very homestead, village, town, or city is home to someone; and each person is meekly (sometimes even apologetically) proud of their corner of the world... And this is how it should be.

2005 has been a great "year of exploration." And indeed, I've discovered appreciation not just for the exotic and unexpected -- but especially for the subtle nuances in the mundane and predictable... It may not the kind of thing that's going to get me hired as a travel writer for Fodor's or Frommer's, or get me my own travel show on the Discovery Channel or CNN... But when it comes to my own reality and sense of appreciation for everyday life, I'd prefer meaningful Discovery to the Discovery Channel any day.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

One Haiku

I cannot believe
my little girl is one year old.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

first day of school

Do you remember that feeling you'd get in the pit of your stomach on the first day of a new school year? A queasy mix of excitement and anxiety -- a nervous anticipation of the coming months... Will the teacher be kind and interesting? Am I wearing the right clothes? Will I be able to understand everything that's going on in the classroom? Will I fit in? Will the other kids be friendly? Will I be safe? Will I be OK?

Truthfully, I don't know how much Elliot wrestled with these thoughts today, on his first morning of pre-school. Probably not so much. But as his father, I certainly anxiously pondered the whole gamut of these age-old questions -- and that familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach plagued me all the way through breakfast and the preparation routines of the morning.

As it turned out, Elliot was brave and proud even in the last minutes leading up to his school debut. While I was fretting over my clothing emsemble and mentally rehearsing relevant Dutch phrases that might be necessary for the morning's rigors, my son simply got dressed in the clothes picked out for him by his mother, ate his typical breakfast, and smiled in anticipation of the much-heralded "first day of school." I was a nervous wreck pedalling the short distance between our home and the school, nausea and cold sweats sweeping over my body, while Elliot calmly enjoyed the scenery and actually brightened when he started recognizing landmarks that indicated our approach to his school.

It did so happen that Elliot's iron optimism and stern resolve melted a bit when Mommy and Olivia said good-bye, bravely balancing on the verge of tears to convince me that he was ready to go home (just twenty minutes after our arrival). So I ended up staying for the whole three hours (upon the advice of the teachers)... and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I felt better about my own anxieties to know that my three-and-a-half-year-old also felt a bit anxious when it really came down to it.

But we regrouped and revived, like the "Band of Brothers" -- ordinary, mortal men serving as soldiers in the foxholes on the front lines, facing imminent death yet drawing a strange sense of courage and perseverance from their common struggle. It wasn't long before we were learning the foreign clean-up songs and introduction games together. Within an hour or so, Elliot decidedly unclipped himself from the figurative leash and somehow figured out a way to interact with a bunch of Moroccan and Turkish immigrant kids -- none of whom speak the same mother-tongue...

And before long, we had made it through our first day of school.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Arbeit Macht Frei

Walking into the Auschwitz concentration camp, one is greeted by a wrought-iron sign that promises "Arbeit Macht Frei" -- "Work Makes You Free"... Unfortunately, the statement was and is a despicable lie...

Between the years 1940 through 1945, seventy-five percent of the people who were marched into Auschwitz walked beneath this sign, received a brief medical examination, and were immediately escorted to the gas chambers and crematorium where they were quickly and mercilessly disposed of by the Nazi SS. The other twenty-five percent of prisoners at the "work camp" suffered through back-breaking labor and cruel conditions in the shadow of the front gate's promise -- yet freedom stubbornly escaped their grasp. If any of the "workers" attempted escape (even successfully), death was the ten-fold consequence for anyone on whom the SS could get their hands.

Barring accident or miracle, "work" at Auschwitz made no one "free." The Nazis were evil and viscious for making such a false pledge. And the prisoners were foolish if they ever believed such a promise as "Arbeit Macht Frei."

Yet the legacy of Auschwitz and "Arbeit Macht Frei" continue to haunt us. There are still others to perpetuate such a cruel lie -- and worse, there are countless millions who are foolish enough to believe such garbage. The false promise long preceded the Second World War, and we've continued to believe the farce even into the 21st Century. The truth of the matter is that we're all prisoners in a spiritual death camp, and the vast and tragic gullibility of our society leads so many to put faith in an Auschwitz promise of "Arbeit Macht Frei."

But -- no, I will not believe it. I may sweat and toil in a miserable existence, watching my "co-laborers" drop on every side... But I know that my work will not make me free. Instead, I put my hope in a foreign liberator, who promises that "it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Simply put, I have no other choice.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Forests of Poland

I just returned from my first visit to Poland. A pastors’ summit in the vicinity of Kraków provided the opportunity for my initial glimpse into a land of great beauty and great sadness.

As with the majority of my experiences in Eastern Europe, I had (for some reason) gone in expecting drab, gray, over-industrialized, under-maintained landscapes, and lifeless people. Yet—as with the majority of my experiences in Eastern Europe—I was surprised to find such color, aesthetics, natural beauty, and vitality. Not just surprised, but delighted to throw off this artifact of my upbringing in the waning days of the Cold War -- this persistent set of false expectations regarding the “Iron Curtain,” the “Communists,” the “Eastern Bloc,” and all such assumed familiarity with everything and everyone East of Berlin.

During my few short days in Poland, I was struck by the natural beauty of the countryside. Rolling hills, impressionistic fields, majestic forests... I simply felt more alive to be enjoying autumn surrounded by the trees and the sky. One day afforded the opportunity for an extended drive through the countryside West of Kraków, and I was invigorated by the winding roads through tiny villages and massive forests -- kilometers and kilometers of trees filtering the sunlight and breathing their oxygen into the world of freedom and vitality…

Then our drive through the countryside reached its destination. And I encountered another element of Poland’s significance—in the town of Oświęcim, better known by the Germanization of its name: Auschwitz.

It was a powerful and valuable experience to walk past the barbed wire fences and stoic barracks of the former concentration camp, used by Nazi Germany as a point of detainment and death for thousands and thousands and thousands of Poles, Russians, Gypsies, and Jews during the Second World War. I found it almost impossible to fully process the personal experience of a place stained by such suffering and sadness… The infamous wrought-iron sign above the gate mocking, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes You Free)… The central square in which prisoners stood for roll call through hours and hours of dreadful discomfort… The gallows on which hundreds were hung… The wall against which thousands were shot… The crematoriums in which millions were gassed and incinerated like so much common garbage… During the course of touring the grounds of the camp, I was struck by the vivid contrast to the beautiful natural scenery experienced on the drive between Kraków and Oświęcim. Auschwitz is the antithesis of beauty. The antonym of freedom and vitality.

In one of the bunkhouses which had been converted into a museum for the memory of the Polish victims of Auschwitz, I was struck by a quote from a man named Hans Frank. In November of 1940, still years before the end of the War and the Holocaust, he commented: “If I wanted to put up a poster for every seven Poles who were shot, the Polish forests would not be enough to produce the paper for such notices.”

On my drive back toward Kraków through the Polish countryside, I ruminated on these words; and the trees flickering past on either side of the road suddenly became more meaningful. Meaningfully beautiful, and meaningfully sad. And I hope that I will never forget the forests of Poland.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

An Imminent Bankruptcy and a Troubled Janitor

Josh Carson was a good guy. Everyone at the office thought so. Not that there was anything especially noteworthy about him -- just another junior account manager in just another cubicle at the Van Jaren Corporation. Yet he was a hard worker, a kind person, and a good listener. The kind of guy that would bring fresh bagels and donuts to the break room every Friday for everyone to share. The kind of guy who was dependable and trustworthy, even when it came to covering for other people's shortcomings. And, as it just so happened, Josh was a fantastic storyteller -- popular for his stories and jokes that always seemed to make a lunch break go by quickly.

One day over lunch, a particularly large crowd had assembled around Josh as he sat in the back corner of the break room, by the water cooler. The previous day, Josh had handled another high-stress phone call from a notoriously difficult purchaser at Bale Inc. (Van Jaren Corp's biggest client), and he was entertaining the assembled masses with an anecdotal recount of the events. As it so happened, everyone in the break room was so absorbed with Josh's story that they failed to notice the auspicious entrance of none other than Willem van Jaren himself -- founder, CEO, and president of the Van Jaren Corporation -- accompanied by two of the company's top vice presidents. It was only when Mr. van Jaren interrupted Josh's story that everyone noticed the shocking presence of the company figurehead (to this day, the number of occasions in which Mr. van Jaren could be seen mingling with the middle management in the break room can be counted on one hand). And when the room's attention fell upon Mr. van Jaren, open mouths dropped a notch further to see him place his hand on the shoulder of Josh Carson and request his immediate accompaniment to the conference room. It turned out that the Van Jaren board of directors were currently in a meeting with the CEO of mighty Bale Inc., regarding a "serious contract dispute" -- and Josh's "expertise" was needed at once. Obviously, this must have been an unusual situation, to have waranteed the personal appearance of Mr. van Jaren himself. But no further explanation was given; so Josh went with him.

The crowd of office workers spilled out of the break room and into the hallways, past the forest of pre-fabricated cubicles in the direction of the executive wing of the office. No one wanted to miss what was about to happen. People were practically stumbling over each other to get a front-row seat to the spectacle. And in all the hubub, the crowd once again almost failed to notice the addition of an unexpected guest -- this time, a short, balding Middle-eastern man in blue coveralls, quite out of place among the crowd of suits and white collars. In fact, this man was a mainstay at the Van Jaren Corporation, having faithfully served as a part of the janitorial staff at the Van Jaren Corporation for twelve years. But no one knew his name. He was generally recognized by the people at the office -- but only in casual encounters (which were generally avoided) and water cooler gossip regarding suspicions of al-Quaida connections (as if every Iranian immigrant happens to be a card-carrying member of an underground terrorist cell). Of course, it was unusual for the office staff to interact with the janitorial crew; yet it was equally strange for a blue-collar to seek the attention of the white-collars (unless it was pay day). Those working on cleaning and maintenance generally understood that they were to keep out of the way of those working on bookkeeping and account management... but on this day, the janitors were facing a maintenance emergency -- an overflowing toilet, in the front lobby facilities, to be precise. As the janitor had been observing Josh for quite some time, he had noticed that the junior account manager was a kind person with a heart to help people. Thus, as Mr. van Jaren escorted Josh through the office catacombs and past the richly decorated front lobby, the Iranian janitor in blue coveralls skipped protocol in the midst of his crisis, thinking to himself, "If I can just get his attention, perhaps he can help." Quietly but confidently, he reached out his grimy calloused finger and tapped Josh on the shoulder, almost as if he hoped that he wouldn't be noticed as the crowd passed by.

In that instant, as the executives marched toward the executive wing with the middle management yipping at their heels like a pack of beagles, Josh stopped. He turned around in the crowd and asked, "Did someone just tap my shoulder?"

"Oh come on, Carson! You can't be serious!" exclaimed John, head of the sales department. "We're all practically stumbling over you -- so how could you possibly ask something so stupid like 'Did someone just tap my shoulder?'"

But Josh kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the poor Iranian janitor spoke up, trembling with fear, and explained his situation -- words tumbling out in a sort of spontaneous confessional about the backed-up toilet, the rush of water and sewage over the marble floors, the visiting salesmen loudly berating the poor janitor as he stumbled for the keys to the supply closet... Josh listened attentively, trying to size up the situation, and decided to quickly take action, reassuring the janitor "Don't worry, sir. I think I can help." With a general-issue plunger, a limited knowledge of plumbing basics, and a look of confident determination, Josh marched through the mess into the men's room off the front lobby. Nobody saw exactly how he did it, but soon the stupified spectators heard a satisfying flush and Josh emerged from the restroom with a smile. He handed the plunger back to the janitor, shook his hand warmly, and said, "I'm glad that I could be of assistance, sir."

Unfortunately, in this moment, a stodgy group of suits from Bale Inc. stormed past the scene with anger in their eyes and determination in their step. One of the Van Jaren Corporation's senior vice presidents was trailing the Bale Inc. delegation as they marched toward the lobby, trying to get a word in with the angry businessmen, but the spokesman of the Bale delegation practically shouted behind him: "Don't even bother!" The infuriated suits somehow managed to march across the slippery marble in the lobby, but as the elevator doors closed on their hawk-like faces, the spokesman yelled out the classic parting shot -- "We'll see you in court!"

Mr. van Jaren's face fell, and he started to walk away with a poorly-fiegned sense of pride and indignation. Yet almost as if the preceding dialogue hadn't just unfolded in front of them, Josh offered words of reassurance: "Don't worry, sir. I think I can help."

While most of the office crowd stood in shock and disarray, Josh redirected his attention toward the executive wing's conference room with a look of confident determination, accompanied only by Mr. van Jaren, the vice presidents, and a couple of the other junior account managers who worked with Josh on the Bale Inc. acount. When they reached the conference room, several of the company directors were in tears; some of the secretaries had even begun to pack up their desks, as if in preparation for an immediate freeze on all company assets. But Josh went into the oak-paneled conference room and calmly suggested, "It's probably just a little misunderstanding. Let's just take a look at things..."

If nothing else, this statement appeared to have the effect of comic relief, as the dejected executives laughed at the presumed naïveté of this lowly junior account manager. But Josh cleared conference room of all the caterers and secretaries and legal advisors. He instructed Mr. van Jaren and the senior vice presidents to sit down in the high-backed leather chairs on one side of the table, as he and his co-workers sat down on the other side of the table to examine the Bale Inc. dossier. After just a brief moment of examining the files, Josh looked up with a smile and pressed the call button to the front receptionist. "Tina, could you please call Mr. Bale on his mobile phone right away?" he calmly requested. "Tell him to look at line fourteen, on page two of appendix D. He can have his accountants recalculate the figures based on this rate, and if he has any further questions he can give us a call." The executives sitting across the conference table were completely astonished, but besides themselves with glee -- realizing that Josh had just, in effect, saved the company.

Josh laid the files back on the table and stood up to leave. Mr. van Jaren leaned across the table to shake his hand, which Josh received warmly. But he said, "There's no need to make a big deal of this, sir. I'm just glad that I could be of assistance."

[Special thanks to JR, Todd, Michaël, and Mark for their contributions to this story]

Thursday, September 08, 2005

moving forward

Olivia finally figured it out today. A couple of weeks short of her first birthday, she has discovered a new skill that will serve her the rest of her life. She took her first steps.

Tentative and timid, casual and anti-climactic -- she simply wanted to try a faster way to span the meter between the backpack leaning up against the desk and my legs draped from the office chair nearby. So she put one foot in front of the other, in a newly familiar sort of imbalancing act, to discover the phenomenon of walking.

It's interesting to note that the physical act of walking upright requires a child to always be slightly off-balance... A bit counter-intuitive; an oxymoron -- controlled chaos, if you will. It would seem to be a "balancing act" -- yet the fact of the matter is that Olivia has had very little problem balancing herself on two feet for the past couple of months. She just hasn't been able to get anywhere because any movement forward, backward, or sideways results in imbalance and the overriding effects of gravity pulling her back to the ground. Balance is safer. Imbalance is kind of scary. However, when these imbalances and gravitational forces can be harnessed and channeled, one foot in front of the other -- a child finds herself walking. And this is what Olivia discovered early this evening.

Yes, Olivia learned a valuable skill today that will offer opportunities for the rest of her life. She learned how to manage her way through obstacles and pressures that threaten to push her down, moving forward instead of collapsing off to one side. She learned how to try something new, in the face of risk and pain. She learned an element of faith... She learned how to walk.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

aft agley

My Uncle Arlen will be laid to rest today, and I am sad. Almost a week ago, now, Arlen was driving across the prairies of North Dakota's south-east corner when a semi-truck crossed the center line of the highway and hit him head on. He was killed instantly.

Truth be told, I didn't know Arlen all that well. To me, he was just a mildly cantakerous man with a thick northern accent and a wry sense of humor. Husband of my mother's oldest sister. A presumably decent man whom I never really got the opportunity to know... So on this level, the pain of his loss is less than tangible.

Yet I'm sad for my cousins who have now lost both of their parents... Generations left without parents/grandparents to tell stories, offer advice, fill in the missing pieces of childhood memories and family geneologies... I'm also sad to hear that my cousins were not at peace with their father when he died -- having made the unfortunate decision to harbor grudges until some undisclosed point in the future...

I'm sad for my Grandpa Liechty, and sad for the family business... Arlen had become our best hope for the continuation of Liechty Associates and really the only one who knew the business anywhere near the level of Grandpa. I'm sad (and a little bit scared) for the unknown future...

I'm sad to realize how fragile human life really is and how tenuous my plans for the future must be. Perhaps it's a cliché to utter such truisms -- you know, all that crap about the best laid plans of mice and men... But I cannot escape these realizations in the face of death. I am slapped in the face again and again and again by my powerlessness. The bruise is my sadness.

My only response can be the conclusion of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes. My trust and respect must be in something infinite. And my responsibility must be to embrace life as it is, settle grudges, offer compassion, embrace my wife, breathe in the sweet-and-salty smells of Elliot's hair, playfully nibble the flesh beneath Olivia's chin until she giggles and giggles and giggles... And hope for postponement of the "aft agley" for as long as possible.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Indian Sumer

I hesitate to use the term "Indian Summer" for multiple reasons...

For one thing, the words are confusing and meaningless for people who are unfamiliar with the terminology -- such as native-Dutch speakers (and probably a considerable number of native-English speakers as well)... Secondly, I've always wondered if the term is some kind of racist artifact (you know, in the same way that "Indian Giver" is a way to refer to a rude person who takes back a gift that has already been freely given) -- thus, I worry that my use of the phrase "Indian Summer" casts a shadow of bigotry on my language... And finally, well, I don't really know if it's late enough in the year to pull out such a phrase, as it's generally meant to indicate a taste of summer in the midst of deep autumn -- and it is, after all, technically still summer (until 21 September)...

Yet I somehow feel that the term is appropriate for Amsterdam this week. And I feel compelled to acknowledge and bask in the glory of Indian Summer in Holland.

The fact of the matter is that we had already braced ourselves for the worst. Perhaps it was a bit pessimistic, but we had good reason to believe that the spirits of November and January were already posessing the soul of the city in the waning months of "summer." Just a week into August, nature forced us to dig out our jackets and rain gear in opposition to the misty chills and gray skies of Northern Europe (Marci often reminds me that this has been the phenomenon every year since we've lived here). For two or three solid weeks, we endured generally dreary conditions -- and I had basically resigned myself to the fact that it would be March or April until Amsterdam would really experience the joys of sunshine and warm air again (this sounds depressive, but in fact it's pragmatic realism)...

But then, this week... Glory, glory! The sun! The skies! The grass and trees! The joys of summer revisited -- Indian Summer... Over the last week or so, I've ended up stuffing my raincoat into my bag more often than I've been forced to wear it. The sky gleams a warm and brilliant blue, like the sparkles in my wife's eyes. The sun laughs upon my shoulders. Riding bicycle is like growing wings and swooping as a swallow through the streets of Amsterdam. Playing in the park with my children is like medicine for the soul... And I feel happy.

So I don't really know why I should feel fearful of using the term "Indian Summer." There's nothing confusing or derrogatory or misleading about it. Perhaps it's illogical, but in its essence, Indian Summer is an experience of grace -- and grace is necessarily illogical. Pure and unmitigated favor and goodness to an undeserving-yet-appreciative soul. And in this, I cannot escape the use of the term. And I most certainly cannot escape the grace and joy and goodness of an Indian Summer in early September...

Nor do I intend to do so.

Saturday, September 03, 2005


Remember relaxation?
Returning to places natural, wild, and free...
Retreating and rebelling against the daily grind.
Receiving the required rest and renewal...
Relishing the recreation and reinvigoration...
Restoring my soul beside quiet waters and guided paths.
Recalling the reality of who I am and who "I am" is:
Rediscover. Revive. Remain.
Resist the urge to revert.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

this is how it feels...

Have you ever heard the term "culture shock?" Well, let me just start by saying that it's a worthless term.

I understand the idea behind such a label, and I guess that a phrase such as "culture shock" works as well as anything. But it falls short of truly understanding the way that I feel as an American adjusting to life in a different part of the world. To someone unfamiliar with the phenomenon, "culture shock" can sound too dramatic-- like some kind of ill-defined-yet-seriously-impairing psychological effect on a soldier returned from a foreign war... Or, to someone intimately acquainted with "culture shock," these words can seem cheap and simplistic; they don't nearly do justice to the depth of emotional shockwaves that can hit a person in such circumstances... Thus either way, I feel that "culture shock" is a problematic term. We can try to wrap up the concept in the ideas of homesickness, frustration with linguistic differences, or ignorance about cultural nuances...

But I believe the only way to truly understand "culture shock" is to experience it.

Culture shock is my current reality. I find it embarassing to admit, almost three years after moving to the Netherlands, but I believe this is one of the hallmarks of culture shock: self-deprecation and humiliation. Truth be told, at this moment I have a mental list of at least five relatively important tasks that need to be accomplished -- all of which could be "solved" through a "simple" phone call or something of that sort... Yet I am paralyzed. And so I am currently in the process of procrastinating and putting off each and every item until the last possible moment (which I secretly hope will hold out long enough to be eclipsed by the Second Coming of Christ).

I simply cannot bring myself to call tech support to fix some issues with our computer (even though it's relating to a fairly significant issue), because I already feel like an idiot talking about computers in English -- and only doubly so trying to do it in Dutch. And who really wants to spend 80 cents a minute to be patronized like a retarded second-grader by some Dutch computer nerd? ... I know that I absolutely must contact our landlord for a copy of our current rental agreement, since we're currently living on a rental agreement that's over two-and-a-half years old (naming an incorrect address at that). But I've become very suspicious that our landlord actually hates me (on a personal level) and intentionally speaks sloppy Dutch so that I am confused into submission and pseudo-serfdom to the evil building owners ... And of course, until I get a current copy of our rental agreement, I cannot follow up with Nuon (the gas and electrical company) -- even though they've suddenly served us with an exhorbitant eindafrekening (closing statement) to settle accounts for multiple months of overdue payments that were never invoiced to begin with (and in spite of the fact that we're not planning to move out of our apartment anytime soon!). But at least I know next steps on this one (sending a copy of our rental agreement), after having spent approximately an hour-and-a-half over two days, in conversation with no less than seven Nuon customer service representatives ... And it turns out that we missed our daughter's appointment with the consultatie bureau (there's no direct equivalent to this in American culture, although check-ups and immunizations with the family physician accomplish many of the same functions) -- so I'll have to call the GG&GD to set up a new appointment time, even though it was their scheduling snafu that caused the problem in the first place. And, well, who really needs another telephone conversation in Dutch with an annoyed receptionist that breaks all of the rules for what my culture would typically teach to "customer service" professionals? ... Then there's the matter of the 2000 euro bank transfer that seems to be lost somewhere between Europe and North America ... Oh, and that high priority e-mail to the owner of our leased ministry facilities -- who just so happen to harbor a hatred for their tenants equal (if not greater than) the hatred for me as a private renter ... With this paralyzing task list clouding my vision, I can only echo the dialogue of Revelation 22:20 where Jesus pledges, "Yes, I am coming soon." And I plea, "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus" (preferably this weekend).

Of course, I know that I will ultimately persist and survive. This current paralysis certainly isn't the first time I've experienced the adverse effects of cross-cultural existence. Over the last few years, I've become very intimately acquainted with that phenomenon that is most closely represented by the phrase "culture shock." Culture shock is talking to a doctor on the telephone and not being able to come up with the word for "vomit" when your kid is desperately ill, further having to use the word for "speedbumps" to define the small raised bumps across the surface of an inflamed bit of skin, and ultimately being told to let a condition work itself out and call them in another week if nothing has changed ... Culture shock is getting excited about the idea of grilling out -- only to discover that the instructions for the grill you just bought are in sketchy Dutch and French (neither of which are making much sense). And once the grill is assembled, you learn that you don't know where to buy lighter fluid, and you don't understand why the charcoal looks so completely different from the stuff that you're used to ... Culture shock is completely missing the point of an entire conversation or entire newspaper article because of a simple misunderstanding of just a couple of letters or syllables ... Culture shock is facing your deepest personal deficiencies and wandering aimlessly through dark days of depression.

Let's face it: culture shock is hell.