Travelling in Europe

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We just returned from a trip to Europe; Germany, through Austria to a few days in Northern Italy. I’ve been before; my wife is originally from Germany and I’ve was there 15 years ago and then again 10 years ago. Some things remain the same, like the language, but others change.

Here’s some things that I remembered and that helped me out on the trip.

  1. You’ll need an international driver’s licence to drive in Europe if you’re from North America. I went to the Automobile Association for mine.
  2. Electrical connections are different. To be able to use a laptop/razor/hairdryer you need an adaptor.
  3. Credit cards are still not widely accepted in Europe. Hotels, car rental places will take them, but not most restaurants or stores.
  4. Parking is crazy. The spots are tiny, and people park in all kinds of weird places. Same with the lines for lanes in the city roads; sometimes they are missing, sometimes they are treated as optional.
  5. Traffic lights are not in the middle of intersections or anywhere that you can see them if you are at the front of a line. Instead, they are located right beside the front cars, so if you are already in the middle of the intersection waiting to turn left, you can’t see anything because the lights are behind you.

Here’s some things that I forgot or didn’t think of:

  1. A GPS is brilliant if you rent a car. Could have saved us probably 8 hours of time being lost or inefficient in our driving choices.
  2. Laptop power supplies have a 3 pronged outlet requirement, so to use them a 3 pronged adaptor is required. We had borrowed an adaptor and had taken it with us but had to buy another one when we arrived because our main power usage was for laptops.
  3. Fingernails grow, even in another country. Take nail clippers, but put them in the suitcase in case they are not be allowed in the carryon.
  4. Life without easy internet access is a killer. The first and third places that we stayed we had no internet access and had to carry a laptop around with us in case we happened to end up in a place with free wireless.

Here’s some things I didn’t know:

  1. Europe has new technology for credit cards. These cards are coming here, but here we don’t yet have the new cards with the chips. Some places that do accept credit cards won’t accept the ones without the chip technology.
  2. Europe also has new technology for cell phones. Some of the newer ones here will work there, but none of the ones that our family has could work.
  3. My bank sold me traveller’s checks in US funds so I assumed that this was a reasonable way to go. But don’t do it. The banks in Europe will charge their own service charge on top of a favorable exchange rate (favorable for them) which is on top of the service charge that your own bank would have charged to make the traveller’s checks. It seems that the best way is to go with Euros, in cash, and lots of it.
  4. Tipping is minimal. In Germany we tipped small amounts (like 5%). At our first dinner in Italy we tipped, and the waitress was shocked. Apparently they don’t tip at all in Italy.
  5. Big cities have become more international in their ethnic makeup since my previous trips. In Germany we saw a lot more blacks and Asians than before, and the Asians were not travelling in groups like in previous visits so I think that they are living there rather than just visiting.
  6. In big cities you can make your way around with minimal language skills. Most English pop music is popular there, and many people have a decent ability with English. In smaller cities this may not be the case. We had dinner in a small neighbourhood family-run restaurant in a small Italian city.  There was no menu; the wife came out and started listed the menu options in Italian, and my wife, who speaks English, German, Spanish and some French, was as lost as I was. We relied on the waitress’s advice and had a great meal.

Changing things up in the new year

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It’s 2010, a new year. I’m not one for resolutions, but what I have been doing is trying some new things.

  1. Doing things sooner, rather than trying to remember thoughts that come to my mind for doing them later
  2. Exercising every day for a short bit. No goals of trying to improve or do more each day, just trying to do some arm, some abs, some leg exercise.
  3. Joined an existing band, for the first time in some 5 years or more.
  4. My wife and I have purchased a monthly bus pass. We alternate using the car so someone always takes transit.

Nothing earth shattering or extreme, just a little change up.

Michael Jackson / Glenn Gould

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I was sitting in a restaurant alone with a bowl of clam chowder soup while waiting for winter tires to be put on my car. The widescreen TV in front of me had the sound off, but the heads were obviously talking about Michael Jackson’s glove being up for sale.

And I was stuck again by something that I thought about when he died, and that’s the similarities between Michael Jackson and another musical iconoclast; Glenn Gould.

I did a paper on Gould years ago, not long after he died, so I have some knowledge and some background interest in him. For anyone who’s not familiar with the name, Gould was a pianist noted for his interpretations of the work of J. S. Bach, amongst other things. He died in 1982 at the age of 50 years, like Michael Jackson. But there were a lot of other similarities, such as:

  • Music: performer, composer (even singer if you include Gould’s humming while he performed)
  • Musical prodigy
  • Embracing new technology: Jackson is known for his stamp on the world of music video, Gould was much earlier but was an early adopter of recording technology developments, like re-recording single notes to replace single notes that he had recorded that he felt weren’t ideal, and trying things like recording a 4 part fugue by recording only one line at a time.
  • Going beyond music as a performer: Jackson as a dancer, choreographer; Gould as a radio and television broadcaster.
  • Physical oddities: Jackson with his dance ability, his changing physical appearance; Gould with his adversity to being touched, his adversity to cold, his unusual seating at the piano which was very low and close to the floor
  • A reclusive and odd relationship with the rest of the world: Jackson’s relations are well documented; Gould stopped performing and moved to studio recording only, living a solitary life but known for calling up friends at odd hours when the need struck him.
  • Perfectionists; one of the things I always liked about Michael Jackson’s music is the precision with which every note was placed. Gould was the same, even in live performances. He is noted for “over-articulating”; playing each note with such precision in relation to every other note that critics felt the music to be soul-less and merely an intellectual exercise.

But overall, the element of musical genius, combined with oddities of a both physical and psychological nature and a strange relationship with the rest of the world, plus the fact that they both died at the age of 50, is what makes me connect the two of them together. And in both cases, the world is poorer for having lost them, but much richer for having had them for 50 years.

I wonder what Kevin Bazzana thinks of Michael Jackson?

Goal accomplished! Now what?

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I think that my 12 year old daughter is starting to experience the difficulties of achieving goals and then finding that having achieved them is not a magic solution.

She’s managed a few of them already in a short time. Things like:

  • saving and earning money by changing the litter box for the cat of her pregnant older half-sister to buy a Nintendo DS,
  • saving money to buy an Ipod,
  • saving and earning money plus trading in old DS games to buy a WII,
  • negotiating until we agreed that she could have a cell phone, of which she has to pay half the monthly cost (since she’s a latch-key kid we thought that we get benefit from her having a cell phone as well so we pay half),
  • waiting until she turned 12 to be allowed to get her ears pierced,
  • waiting and being persistent in asking (without being too annoying) to be allowed to get a monitored MSN account,
  • being persistent in asking and finally getting permission to get a dog (delayed achievement as we said that she’ll have to wait until after we return from a trip that we have planned for the spring),
  • has worked hard over lengthy periods of time on various school projects, some of which she got good grades for but others she was disappointed with the grade,
  • worked on her fear of getting hurt and gradually became a more aggressive soccer player,
  • completed the Lady Baden Powell challenge in her last year of Girl Guides,
  • has made it to a yellow-black stripe level of Tae Kwan Do,

plus a host of other smaller things. Not a bad list of accomplishments, I think. And she gets some value out of most of these, including the DS, Ipod and earrings, though not the kind of value that perhaps a boy might get from the DS and WII in particular.

But some, like the cell phone, she barely uses at all after the initial honeymoon period. And there have been some games that she really wanted for the DS and WII that she played once or twice and then never used them again. And the WII itself I use more than she does these days as I’m somewhat regular with the WII Fit and I also got a lot further with Monkey Ball Banana Blitz than she did. (Again with the WII after she raised the basic purchase price we paid for the extra controller and first game for her as our contribution, and I bought the WII Fit Plus myself).


I think we’ve all been through similar situations. We want something, it’s out of our reach, we work toward it, wait for it. Then when we get there it’s a letdown, or we get only a brief satisfaction from it and after that moment of satisfaction we become disappointed. Where’s the lifetime satisfaction guarantee?

It’s actually difficult for me to find a good example in my own past though I’m sure they exist. They’ve largely been smoothed over, by time and by my attitude toward enjoying the process of becoming rather than being focussed on achieving. Once I get there I’m no longer surprised by feeling less fulfilled than I might have hoped or expected, but that’s come with time and experience. But the cost of this attitude is that I don’t experience the fun of anticipation and desire like I might otherwise feel.

Graduating, getting married, starting a new job, buying a house, those are big ones for a lot of adults, and have resulted in disappointments or letdowns for many. Having children might be similar, though that’s more waiting and not a lot of work/saving required to accomplish. That one certainly hasn’t been a disappointment or letdown for me. 🙂


Anyway, I’m kinda wandering off topic; I wanted to explore that situation of want/desire, especially when extended over time, that results in low or short satisfaction which leads to disappointment overall.

  • Is it the fault of the goal?
  • Is it the denial, the waiting, the heightened anticipation that builds too high a level of expectation?
  • Is it the fault of the person putting too much hope into the object of desire?

What about the old adage, “good things come to those who wait”, or the parental goal of teaching a child to set goals and to strive to achieve them? Or more importantly these days, what do I say to my daughter when I see one of these situations arise in her life? What do I say when she struggles with some other goal or project and deems herself a failure?

NaNoWriMo, aborted

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I’ve given up on this year’s NaNoWriMo. I started okay, doing the first two days, but I can’t bring myself to continue. I completed the challenge last year (writing 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November) so the challenge itself is no longer as much of a goal for me. I just didn’t like my storyline.

I had the idea of writing a mystery novel. I was planning on presenting 3 or 4 scenarios where a man goes to meet an escort, and in the final one the escort is killed. I had 3 or 4 different men, all projected to be representations of people with different difficulties within Freud’s psychosexual development theory. I had a hero; a female blogger well connected in local social media who owns the apartment where the escort is killed. Then I wasn’t sure how to get her to investigate/meet all the different suspects and I wasn’t happy with the idea of writing exclusively from the perspective of a blogger/social media person so I added a potential boyfriend who is a property manager.

In the first two days of writing I laid out these two characters and their friendship, which is not quite a relationship yet, in four short chapters but as I prepared to get into the meat of the storyline I wasn’t happy with the framework I had laid out. The reasonablity of having a landlord and property manager meet all the suspects seemed tenuous. Adding more characters was an option, but then the basic framework seemed doomed to disappointment as my plan was to have the ultimate murder be entirely random and without motive. I think to have the story end in that manner I need to either be prepared to present the entire story as an existentialistic posit, or offset it with some particularly interesting interaction between the main characters. I tried reworking the story but by the time I had something that had enough structure to work with, the story was too boring.

When I was a kid I learned to develop magic tricks. The basis is:

  1. Show that an object isn’t there (or is there)
  2. Put the object there without anyone seeing (or take it away)
  3. Show that the object is now there (or isn’t there anymore)

I liked that framework.

In working with my mystery novel I realized that I had a tricky murder scenario, and the rest of the novel should have been all about using the best method to expose that story. A cop would have been the easiest method, maybe a lawyer second, but I don’t feel comfortable writing from either of those perspectives; I just don’t know enough about procedures and how things work.

I can’t put that kind of time and effort into something that I don’t like or I don’t see any value in, and I had been trying to come up with an idea for much of October so I don’t see a replacement happening quickly enough to still do 50,000 words.

So, cya later, NaNoWriMo 2009, catch ya next year.

The Pragmatists

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In the October 26, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, Peter Hessler writes about artists in Lishui, where young Chinese painters are making Western-style paintings by copying photographs and creating paintings for export. The first part of the article is about the painting, the copying, the painters. But the part that I found particularly interesting is the later part where he talks about the pragmatism, not just of the artist and her business, but of the people in the city itself.

With the artist herself,

“… I asked her how she first became interested in oil painting. ‘Because I was terrible student,’ she said. …

‘Did you like to draw when you were little?’


‘But you had natural talent, right?’

‘Absolutely none at all!’

… If a job disappeared or an opportunity dried up, workers didn’t waste time wondering why, and they moved on. … When Chen Meizi had chosen her specialty, she didn’t expect to find a job that matched her abilities; she expected to find new abilities that matched the available jobs. The fact that her vocation was completely removed from her personality and her past was no more disorienting than the scenes she painted …”

Many of the scenes, even the functions of the buildings that she painted, reproduced from photographs, were totally unfamiliar to her. The author explains; in this painting this is a church, in another this is a farm, this is a silo where grain is stored. Chen Meizi had guessed that the silo was used to store chemicals.

This pragmatism is not unique to Chen Meizi.

“There was one outlying community called Shifan, where people seemed to find a different income source every month. … sewing colored beads onto the uppers of children’s shoes; then there was a period during which they attached decorative strips to hair bands. After that, they assembled tiny light bulbs. For a six-week stretch, they made cotton gloves on a makeshift assembly line.”

And, talking about someone else from the area who is making an application to move to Italy. The author notices that the name is spelled incorrectly on the application form. When asked,

” He explained that a clerk had miswritten his given name on an earlier application, so now it was simpler to just use that title.”

This degree of pragmatism is difficult for me, as a Westerner, to comprehend. I read about such levels of acceptance and adaptation in the context of war stories or perhaps poverty, but the environment here is neither. This is a city where industrialization has been encouraged and connection with the global economy and global thinking is available (another person becomes an expert at the Internet game “World of Warcraft” and plays it relentlessly, not because he is a gaming addict but simply to earn gold which he can sell to a middleman for real money). These people may not be at Western expectations in terms of financial well-being but they are making a living. In some cases it’s a number of different ones, one after the other.

And the author touches on it at one point, but it seems to me that a large source for the basis of this strong pragmatism is rooted in the Tao.

I’m no expert in Taoism (though I did take a course about Tao at university and used to have a copy of “The Tao of Pooh”), but that acceptance of the Tao, the river, seems pretty much what these people are living. Accepting, not struggling. I suppose that the Western phrase “going with the flow” would apply, thought I doubt that anyone who uses that phrase means it, at least not to the degree that the people in
Lishui live it.

NaNoWriMo 09

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It’s October, so that means NaNoWriMo is fast approaching.

Weird name, but it’s pretty easy to remember ’cause it’s short for; National Novel Writing Month.

During the month of November there is a challenge out there; to write 50,000 words (the length of a short novel) during the month of November.

No head starts, no writing and just revising. Just write.

You can prepare all you want, like determining your outline, plot, characters, scenes, but no actual writing of your novel until November 1.

If you’re a blogger, you probably like to write. You may have even considered writing fiction. I made a couple of attempts over the years, with particular characters or situations that I thought were interesting, but my participation last year was a great experience. I was forced to write, and to write at a fast, dedicated, diligent pace in order to finish 2 days before the end of the month.


For me, I think the key to successful completion of the challenge was the ideas that I came up with on October 27 for a basis for the novel. I decided to investigate different versions of creativity, and then decided to also look at how children are different combinations of the characteristics of each of their parents. This last is what struck me most with “Brideshead Revisited”, the PBS dramatization of Evelyn Waugh’s novel; Jeremy Irons, Laurence Olivier. My central character would be a slate that interacts with people representing different versions of creativity, including a family with creative parents and children who were combinations of different characteristics of each of the parents. Though I might be a fan of Jane Austen, D.H. Lawrence, Tolstoy, my story turned out to be a modern romance type novel. Not exactly something that I could put up against John Updike or Alice Monroe. 🙂

I’m inclined to use a similar approach this year. Right now I’m looking at either intelligence, or a more recent possibility in anger, and different ways these manifest themselves in people. After some investigation and thought, I’d look at some possible characters, and then how these characters might be connected or might interact. So I think it’s a “build a theme” first, then look for ways in which the theme can be represented, then how these representations might connect to make a believable and interesting story. The fun part is the writing. I like to create a world for my characters to inhabit and then just let them do what they do, and I just write about it.

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