Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Look! I have pictures!

They are here!

Man, you leave for a couple weeks and all this music happens

I just found out that, since I've been gone (sort of), the new Of Montreal, Shins, and Earlies discs came out. Great! I guess I actually have the Shins. But the Earlies and Of Montreal; I am stoked to hear them both.

Meanwhile, I've been listening to Of Montreal's "The Sunlandic Twins" over and over. Man, is it good! It kicks off with the fun "Requiem for o.m.m. 2", rolls along into "I was never young" and "Wraith pinned to the mist and other games" (aka that Outback steakhouse song), two great songs layered over thumpy drum-machine basslines that actually make ME want to dance (!). And THEN you hit the pinnacle of the album, either "The Party's Crashing Us" (featuring the lyric: "We make love like a pair of black wizards/ you free me from the past/ you fuck the suburbs out of me") or the nearly sonically perfect (I don't know if it's acoustically perfect like Peter Gabriel) "So Begins Our Alabee". Then it gets a little dreamy and psychedelic. But when your "worse half" of the record includes hits like "Oslo in the Summertime" and "The Repudiated Immortals", that's a good disc. Everyone's abuzz about Kevin Barnes's songwriting, and rightfully so. This work is a gem, and I can't wait to hear his next.

Also, and less notable: DangerDoom's "The Mouse and the Mask" (an annoying circle jerk between Danger Mouse, MF Doom, and Cartoon Network... if you've heard it, you know what I mean) and Matthew Freidberger's "Holy Ghost Language School" (which, as usual, is interesting, but Hey Matt, layering some noodly piano nonsense over you telling some noodly story in hushed tones isn't ALWAYS actually a song.).
Equally notable, but I don't know how so: Scott Walker's "The Drift." Have any of you listened to it? This guy sounds like an opera singer or something. It's kind of haunting. I can't bring myself to listen to it again, because I need a mental boost right now, not a giant downer. Plus it's slow.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Paris: Better than you might think

I got better! And so I went with the other American students to Paris on Thursday night. It was a very cool city! Something about it seemed sleek, modern, full of neat nooks and crannies, and worth exploring. Why did I think it wouldn't be? I don't know. It's kinda passe. You know, Amsterdam is the new Paris, and Prague is the new Amsterdam (and Kiev is the new Prague). It's so 20 years ago.

That of course doesn't make sense, because really, none of those cities are the new anything else.

The Latin Quarter in particular stands out, maybe because it's the only area we had time to explore. And we saw the Louvre, which is overwhelming of course, but I saw a lot of cool things and promptly forgot most of them. Here's where I pretend to be actually knowledgeable about art or some nonsense, and list a couple favorites, though:
- the Wedding Feast at Cana, by Veronese, which was in the same room as the Mona Lisa, and more interesting in my opinion. (plus it was huge- maybe that had something to do with it- and I hadn't seen pictures of it 100 times before)
- the paintings of the four seasons by Nicolas Poussin, with the seasons depicted as Bible scenes.
- well, the Code of Hammurabi, because it's kind of cool to be looking at the oldest system of law in recorded history.
Saw Versailles too, and wished I had more time to see the gardens, and also wished it was a time when trees had leaves. Also the Hall of Mirrors was being renovated.

Umm... the trip itself was kind of terrible. There were about 15 of us students, and we were ferried around on a bus. We had to stay together for most things. I mean, we'd get to Versailles, and they'd say "go see Versailles, and meet back here before lunch in 2 1/2 hours" and then we'd all go to the same place for lunch, etc. Ever been on a guided bus tour like that? It's pretty much the worst. We ate at a couple mediocre restaurants (didn't even get to try any of the famous French food, beyond a crepe here and a quiche there), and they tried to do stuff like walk through the Latin quarter with 15 people, and someone would stop in a shop, we'd all wait. What?! Please, we're adults! It was killing me. I didn't even get to go to Chez Berthillon! At the same time, I felt so sorry for our two young guides from the CES, so I didn't want to make too much trouble, but I had to just leave a couple times. What's wrong with "meet at ____ at 4:00"? Or even "Have a good day, see you at breakfast tomorrow"?

And finding people to travel with may be difficult. A lot of students here (and I'm just saying; I'm not comparing or disparaging or anything) seem to like to party more than explore. I like partying fine, too, but when I'm visiting a city like Paris, I want to get up kinda early, go see Paris all day, walk a lot through interesting neighborhoods, eat some French food, and try to get some kind of a feel for the city. Probably collapse into bed relatively early, because I will be tired. Drinking, clubbing, partying... I could do those anytime (and they're not my favorite things in the first place!). Not so big a deal when I'm traveling.

I think a good idea is this: pick a spot and say "I'm going to _____. I'm planning on getting up relatively early, walking a lot, speaking as little English as possible, exploring as much of the city as possible, maybe going to museums or whatever sounds interesting, not necessarily staying out late and partying... who's with me?" Everyone will probably say "Yeah! I want to go to ____ too!" and 15 people will want to go. Then I'll have to clarify. Hopefully this will work out.
(note that I'm not saying I don't want to go to bars or drink or whatever; just not in place of what I'm there to do)

So... in general, any Maastrichters who are reading this, anyone want to go to ____ with the above strategy? I'm thinking of starting with Benelux, Germany, France, Switzerland, and Austria (can you tell I just bought a 5-country railpass?).

In the meantime, next week is Amsterdam. Awesome city (or so I hear); don't want to be herded around. We'll see how it goes.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Ik spreek niet vloiend Nederlandse of Duits

See, and I don't even know if the grammar was right there. "I don't speak fluent Dutch or German" and I am really wishing I did! I figured I could just sort of wing it and pick it up along the way, but it is harder than I had thought.

In St. Anton, for some inexplicable reason, almost everyone spoke English as well as German. Well, partially explicable: I guess lots of British skiers go there. It made for awkward starts to conversations- I'd start with a little bit of the only German I knew ("Woher kommen Sie?") and then most English speakers would switch to English, realizing that I am a gringo, and most only-German speakers (all three of them) would rattle off a lot of German things, to which I would mostly smile and say "Ja." I hope they were being polite. ("I am from Germany. Is it okay if I push you off the chairlift?")

The net result is that I ended up speaking a lot of English with other English speakers. Still an interesting group: it included a lot of Germans, some Danes, a couple Israelis, Austrians, and a Texan. But I did manage to have a few meaningful conversations in German. Here are some of my St. Anton 2007 greatest hits:

Me: Ein currywurst, bitte. ("A currywurst, please")
Josef, the snack stand (Imbissstube) owner gets me a currywurst as I look in my wallet and realize that I have only a EU$50 bill.
Me: Kann ich mit funfzig Euro zahlen? ("Can I pay with a $50?")
Josef: Ehhh... ok.
Me: Danke.

Me: Guten morgen!
The lady who made breakfast at the place I stayed, whose name I never actually found out: Guten morgen!
Me: Bin ich der erst? ("Am I the first?")
Her: Ja! Aber, man muss erst sein! ("Yes! But someone must be first!")
Me: Ja, das ist treu. ("Yes, that is honest." In retrospect, I think "richtig" is the word that actually means "true.")
I think she also threw in something like "Haben sie gut geschlaft?" to which I correctly responded "ja" and I think I also asked "Wo kann man die Skibus finden?" (Where can one find the ski bus?) I was feeling really pumped that day.

Me: Ich muss nach Maastricht, die Niederlande, gehen.
Train station guy: (a whole lot of German, and then he hands me two routes, pointing to one and saying "das ist der billiger" ("this is the cheaper one"))
Me: Das ist billiger? Ok.
Him: (A whole lot of German. Probably "Yes, and there is a very scenic view of the Rhine, but it will be crowded, complete with screaming babies, and it takes you so close to Maastricht but yet so very far. Also there is no water unless you pay a lot." All of which was true!)

So it's been a rocky road so far. In the Netherlands, everyone speaks English, but of course they speak Dutch first, so you don't understand a bunch of Dutch people talking. All the signs are in Dutch, too. That makes it partially fascinating (like grocery shopping is cool, and it seems very cheap too, but of course it's in Euros) but partially alienating. I wish I had gone to somewhere that I knew the language. That's not true; if I wanted to do that I could go to South or Central America, Spain, or England, which would all be cool, but not yet I don't think. Rather, I wish I learned a language that is spoken in west-central Europe (like German) and gone to study there. I mean, that's not true either; right now I'm entirely enamored with the Dutch. I'll try to take a language course while I'm here, so hopefully by the time I leave, I'll be able to blend in a little bit.

Well, hey. Tonight or tomorrow I'll be in Paris, so I'll be a complete foreigner, and quite the tourist, and the French people, who are not nearly so friendly as the Dutch, will actively sneer at me. That's life!

I like this city!

I'm in Maastricht now. It's very nice! It is sort of the way I think a city should be: everything pretty close together, a few ancient cathedrals and town squares, lots of restaurants and bars and cafes, and few cars. This is the initial stage of coming to a new place, the sort of euphoria, I guess, which is a great thrill.

However, as much of an upper as that is, here's a downer: I'm pretty sick. Stomach problems yesterday, and now I just feel kinda weak and cold. Actually getting sick (beyond just a cold) is pretty much a bummer. Especially when you're in a new place, you don't actually know anyone, and you're sort of stuck with laying in your bed all day while everyone else is having fun and doing orientation things.

And tomorrow everyone's going to Brussels and Paris! I can't believe it! They have a (expenses-already-paid) trip to those two fantastic cities planned for us, Thursday to Saturday, and I'm going to be sitting at home, sick and bored. Unless I get real much better overnight, which would be quite nice. I'm trying to keep it all in perspective, and it's sort of easy because all I have to do is go lie down and then I feel great, but it's tough because everyone is going to Paris and Brussels tomorrow!

So it goes.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Alp alp alp alp

Here I am, in the Tyrolean Alps. On a train right now actually, but that's only because I haven't had time to write during the last week. Well, that's false; I had plenty of time. If I could trade an hour of time for an hour's worth of energy, I may have done it a couple of times. (Not too many though.)

I was skiing in St. Anton am Arlberg. It is something else. I'd say the best place I've ever skied, but it wasn't, entirely; it was better in a lot of ways than my #2 (Vail, I guess) but when you're comparing your mountain to Vail, it's understandable if you come up short in some respects. I'll just say they're different. This is clearly true, and it doesn't tell you anything. One of the best pieces of advice I got in the last year (from Ram, I think?) was that two things can be different without one being better than another.

Longwinded introductions aside, here's a (longwinded) summary of my adventures:
1. The mountain itself must come first. Because, while I am a traveler second, I think I'm still a skier first. (this is subject to change.) Here's a trail map. That may not tell you anything. I think it's bigger than anywhere else I've ever skied, mainly because St. Anton itself includes the main mountains (Valluga, Galzig, Gampen, and Kapall), another big mountain across the street called the Rendl, and a little area called Stuben. Using the same ticket, you can also ski Lech and Zurs. There's a place on the map called Sonnenkopf, too, and also a little area in Pettneu. A lot of these are accessible by bus, but if you are awesome and/or you have good snow, you can ski from one to the other. For example, if you're about 3 badass levels above me (myself being a sort-of-mediocre ass), you can ski off the top of the Valluga (which requires 3 gondolas to get to) down to Zurs, then ski the "white ring" around Zurs and Lech.

See, in the Alps, there aren't so many trees. It's all above the treeline, so it's a lot more open. If you look at a map of a ski area in the states, you see certain trails, which are naturally created by trees. (and/or logging.) In Europe, they don't have this natural restriction, so they could just let you take a lift up and ski wherever you want. But then a lot of people would fall on rocks (it's so craggy!) or get avalanched, so they create "pistes" by putting up signposts on both sides of a "trail" where they want you to ski. These are groomed, covered by ski patrol, and protected against avalanches. They also make "ski routes" which have just one line of posts. They say "ski near the posts." Ski routes are avalanche-protected, but not groomed or patrolled. And then you can go backcountry if you want, like in the US, but you're on your own, and if you get avalanched, they won't really help you out. Anyway, this makes for a less interesting skiing experience than the US, because there are fewer ski routes, and fewer still good ski routes. Maybe this was because of:

2. The weather. You know, worst in 50 years, etc. That's life! There hasn't been any snow here since early January, so Wednesday was pretty okay. Nicely groomed, kinda thin and icy in some spots. Thursday was okay too. It started raining in the afternoon. On Friday the newspapers read "ORKAN UBER OSTERREICH" ("Hurricane over Austria"). 90kph winds closed almost the entire mountain. I didn't even ski!

Let me tell you something about rain. You'd think rain would help snow. You know, they're on the same team! Come on guys, work together! But it turns out, rain melts snow. Sneaky backstabber. So a driving rain is actually terrible. Plus, all your ski gear is just "water resistant" ("waterproof" stuff doesn't breathe well enough for skiers) so you get soaked. Skiing in the rain is like golf in a desert. It's like poker where the only cards are deuces, fours, and jacks. It's like Trivial Pursuit with some jackass who memorizes all the cards.

On Saturday, however, I found that rain at lower altitudes can make snow at higher altitudes, so there was some fresh stuff. Nice day. "Schindler Kar" on Valluga and "Riffel" at the Rendl were gorgeous.

(and that's another thing: I realized I can't explain to non-skiers why it's so fun to ski on powder, or on bumps, or anything else. I could say skiing powder is like floating, but so is sleeping on a waterbed, and that just sucks and gives you back problems. And skiing bumps is pretty much all about looking good, which sounds so superficial, but it really is, and that doesn't make any goddamn sense until you've done it.)

Okay, so my experience at St. Anton was a little below Vail and probably on par with Copper or Loveland in terms of actual skiing. Given good snow, St. Anton would probably win hands down. But here's why I liked it otherwise:

3. Austrian skiing culture. It is different! The guidebooks will tell you this too. I'll split it up by resort, because it's not fair to say "American skiing is like this or Austrian skiing is like that" because of course it all varies. Skiing is about:
Arapahoe Basin/Vail (back bowls)/Breckenridge (top of mountain)- skiing well on awesome terrain
Loveland/Zurs- being a local and finding the new snow while everyone else goes to the big resorts
Breckenridge/Keystone/Killington- taking the family, standing in line a lot, wondering why the snow isn't better
Vail (front side)/Aspen/Lech- looking good in your fur coat and/or Dior ski suit.
St. Anton- great skiing and having a good time. It's a little different than anything I've skied in the US. There's a lot of emphasis on apres-ski, the lunches are better, and the nightlife is more active. Oh yeah, and I can go to the bars, because they have reasonable drinking ages.

Apres ski was a pretty new concept to me. The lifts close at 4 or so (while the sun's going down anyway) and you're there, so why not hang out and drink? It's a little crazy; I apres-skied at Mooserwirt (a big and popular bar) a couple of days, and it's a big party! Around 3:30, they dim the lights inside, pump up the volume inside and out, start serving a whole lot of beers, and play this shitty, shitty Eurotrash music. (i.e. AC/DC, Bon Jovi, remixes of stuff like "Everybody Dance Now", German and Austrian carnival songs, and some German song that sounded like "Hey! Beware the ice-bear, say! Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh!" over and over again) And everyone drinks a few of these beers, sings along, dances in their ski boots, and semi-drunkenly revels until they get tired or until the bar closes at 9. Then they ski down a couple hundred feet, maybe take a shower or get changed, and keep going in the bars until late! I don't get it! How do they do this? I couldn't stay up past 11. Of course, I'm kinda in the A.Basin/Vail back bowls crowd above: for me, skiing is all about the skiing. This was fun, though, and it'd be more fun to come back with some friends.

Speaking of which, 4. The people you meet. I was a little nervous about traveling alone. What do you do, if you have no friends to hang out with? The answer was provided for me by Drew, a guy I met on Wednesday: Just get used to traveling alone. If you travel with friends, they are your friends; if you travel alone, everyone's your friend.

This guy was like one possible version of me in a few years. Mid-20's, mechanical engineer at Dell in Austin. Making a bunch of money, so he's traveling all over to snowboard. A couple weeks after this trip, he was going to Jackson Hole. Living the dream (or at least my dream). But still free-spirited to realize that he could drop it all if he wanted. He said he loves his job, and if he didn't, he'd quit; sell his Corvette and big-screen TV. Move in with a friend, if need be. He was very friendly and outgoing, something I have to work on, but his existence kinda gives me hope: I can have great friends and a fulfilling job and still ski, travel, and eat nice food. Maybe he's less picky about his food, and that's why he bought an expensive car. Whatever. We skied together at St. Anton and Zurs on Thursday, until it got rainy and I lost him somewhere. Never saw him again. Hope he's all right. That's the life of a "single-serving friend" (to use an overly negative phrase from the disgruntled narrator in Fight Club).

Friday I hung out at Mooserwirt with a few Berliners (people, not donuts). Good-spirited bunch. They introduced me to the difference between asking for a "bier" (for which you get a pilsener) and "weissbier" (for which you get a wheat beer). Also told me that Maastricht is where the Germans go to buy drugs, so "don't do too much drugs. Do some, but not too much." Meant to meet them at Mooserwirt again on Saturday, but instead, I ended up meeting a couple of Danes from the place I was staying. They were very nice too. We discussed football (go Copenhagen!) and Formula One racing, and why the Japanese can't build a good racecar: they have no creativity. If you tell them "this is what we want" they will build it, but if you say "what can you do?" they can't decide. Also why the Microsoft-owned but Toshiba-made Zune is such a flop.

And then there are all the other people I sat next to in a bar or cafe, like Simon, the Israeli from Haifa who claims it's less dangerous than NYC. Or Josef, the guy who owns a snack stand; I bought a Currywurst from him the first day, then ran into him at a bar, and he convinced me to go back and buy one the next day too. A funny guy; doesn't speak English or German very well, but he's friendly. He says "currywurst" with a fantastic accent. It's up there with Viktor Adamchik saying "greedy algorithm." Then there's Teja Thakur, the Indian from near the Himalayas (damn, I forget his village's name). He's in St. Anton for 3 months, training to snowboard in the 2010 Olympics- watch for him! (or he could have been putting me on. if so, I sure got served.)

It's kinda amazing, and also what makes a trip like this (or any trip) so great: the people. When you go on a trip like this, you resign yourself to a lot of really awkward times, when you're the only guy sitting at the bar, quietly sipping your beer, or when the only guy sitting next to you is a strange old guy who's offering you a shot of something that he can't name, from a bottle with a skull and crossbones hand-drawn on it. (Jesus H.M.S. Christ, I drank some! After he did, of course. But still- what the shit?! It's a wonder I'm still alive!)

5. The Food. Always important for a food enthusiast like myself. Really, I didn't have a lot of it, because I was focusing on meeting people, not on the food. But you run into new treats, like it or not. Like the aforementioned Currywurst. This is just a sausage, covered in curry powder and drenched in ketchup. And it's really good! I'm a fan. Breakfasts were tasty (and included in the room price): bread, an assortment of meats and cheese slices, some muesli cereal, and strange things to spread on bread: jams of course, but also cheeses and pates. Like kalbsleber (calf's liver, right?), which was tasty. And once a long time ago, I entered all the things that I usually eat into some website, and it analyzed my eating habits and told me that I was missing only a few key nutrients, and that my diet is sorely lacking in calf's liver. Ta da, solution!

Speaking of calf's liver, I almost met my food-adventurousness match with a Bauernteller ("worker's platter") at a local stube. (not sure how "stube" translates, but a lot of restaurants were "stube"s.) It included leberwurst and blutwurst, both of which were sort of soft sausages. As in, when you cut it, the sausage gooshes out a little bit. I was not ready for that. Also, blutwurst is "blood sausage," and the name alone weirds me out. But hey, mind over matter, charge on with furious gusto, and I'll be eating a lot weirder stuff than that! They were both really not bad, although I'd have to have them a couple more times before I'd call them favorites.

A discussion of food would be incomplete without a discussion of:
6. Drinks! Again, it's a different world. In America, if you drank with lunch and dinner, people would think you're unusual. Here, it's perfectly natural to have a beer with your meal. (and also apres ski!) It makes sense. You can drink beer at age 16. You grow up with it; it's not this wild "forbidden fruit". There's no binge drinking; people know their limits. And the beer is much better! I am not so good at telling the difference between them yet, but I know that I like pilseners, and more than one weissbier fills me up and makes me feel not so good afterwards. I've had Kaiser (slogan: hast ein Kaiser, bist ein Kaiser- have a Kaiser, be a Kaiser!), Fohrenburger, Beck's (from the bottle; apparently it's Germany's best-selling beer), Dinkel Acker, and something like Ergender. And I had a shot called a Flugel- it's red vodka (sweeter; they add sloe berries or something? the brand was Eristoff and apparently it's Dutch) and Red Bull, and it's tasty.

7. Money and Housing are somewhat important. First, housing: I stayed at a place called the Pension Adlerhorst- a little bed-and-breakfast that I found online. It was about 4km from the city center, but there was a bus during the day, and at night it made for a nice walk. And it was deluxe! Nice room, nice breakfast (as I said before), friendly owners, and how much would you pay for all this? 36 Euro/night. You can't get anything in the states for $36 (or even $45-50, or whatever EU$36 is) This place is hardly unique; the village is filled with them! And no chain hotels in sight. (well, one Best Western.) I love it. So that was cheap, lift tickets were cheap (EU$132 for 4 days!) but rentals were expensive (EU$37/day for skis and boots). Seriously, if you find a cheap flight and bring your skis, skiing in Europe can be cheaper than skiing in the Rockies.

The money, though, is tricky to get used to. Like the coins. EU$1 and EU$2 coins are bad for me. They feel like change, you know, so you don't notice them. Until you realize you have $10 in change in your pocket. And the bills feel like funny money, which means I don't feel bad about tossing them at everything. EU$4.40 for a beer? No problem, here's a worthless-looking fiver, and keep the change!

8. Language issues could use another post. This is long enough as it is.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Soll ich in Englisch oder Deutsch sprechen?

That has been the biggest problem so far. I'm not sure which is better, in this crazy resort town: terrible German or fluent English, especially when, for example, someone addresses me in German and I respond in English. Gaaah! I guess in St Anton, English is just as good, because half the people here are Brits anyway, and everyone speaks both languages fluently. I still feel bad about it. I did have at least one meaningful German conversation though:
Me: kann ich mit fünfzig Euros zahlen? (can I pay with €50?)
Bratwurst guy: ehh... ok.
Me: es tut mir leid! (I'm sorry)
Bratwurst guy: it's no problem!
Me: ein currywurst, bitte.
Bratwurst guy: €3.20.

This conversation resulted in me getting a Currywurst, which apparently is a sausage with a bunch of curry powder drenched in ketchup. It's good! This place amazes me.

In other news, all is well, I've been awake for going on about 30 hours, and tomorrow I'm going skiing!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Things I should be ready for in the next few months:

1. Culture shock; supposedly, it happens. Hopefully I'll be able to minimize it, but they say everyone feels a little put off by all the quirks of the place he's visiting, sooner or later.
2. Loneliness; supposedly that happens too. A lot. I can imagine feelings of isolation, of stranger-in-a-strange-land-ing.
3. Feeling awful every time I ask someone "sprechen sie Englisch?" I just had to do it on the phone, and I feel so ugly-American.
4. A giant red-tape mishap will seriously sidetrack at least one excursion, for sure.
5. I'll probably get wildly sick at some point too. Hopefully it won't ruin more than one weekend.
6. I'll probably have to spend more money than I'd like, on at least one occasion.
7. The food! I can't wait to try it. But it seems so heavy and not that healthy, especially in places like Germany. I may get in worse shape. However, pretty much as a rule, Europeans are in better shape than we are, so I may get in better shape. I'm no Lance Armstrong as it is.
8. Biking a long distance. I want to do it at least once. Koln is something like 40km; that'd be a nice warmup.
9. The classes. All this preparation for all the travel; I need to remember that I'm taking classes too! Hopefully, they won't be all too difficult, and hopefully, I'll learn something interesting (especially in the first half-semester)
10. Falling out of touch with people back home. I'll do my best not to!
11. Learning the language not as well as I'd like.
12. Learning the language better than I'd thought.
13. Having some of the best months of my life.
14. Not having some of the best months of my life.
15. Learning to appreciate beer. At least, I hope so. I'll have wasted my time if I come back and I still can't tell a Yuengling from a Pabst. (That's hyperbole, don't worry.)
And finally, 16. Things that I can't possibly be ready for; because I can't imagine what the hell is going to happen these next few months. This has been your inspirational-speech minute; feel free to go about your business now.

T minus 14 hours

You know what? Ram's right. Having two blogs is a waste of time for you and me. My family doesn't want to read a blog anyway- I don't think my parents are quite sure what a blog even is. And forget the extended family. It's postcards for them.

I'll pearoast (that is, repost) bits of the only other post I made, so to get you up to speed:

What's the story here? I'm studying at the Universiteit Maastricht, in Maastricht, the Netherlands this semester. It's here:Here's my schedule:
Jan 16-Jan 22- arrive in Zurich, Switzerland. Take a train to St. Anton and ski in the Austrian Alps!
Jan 22-Feb 4- arrive in Maastricht, orientation
Feb 5-Apr 6- classes ("Logic for AI" and "Intelligent Systems")
Apr 6-Apr 16- break!
Apr 16-Jun 8- classes ("Comparative Philosophy of the Environment" and "Dutch Art History")
Jun 8-Jun 15- travel a bit, then come home.

Why this school? It has classes that I'm interested in (namely, those first two) taught in English. I don't know any other European languages well enough to take classes in them, besides maybe Spanish, and I didn't particularly want to go to Spain. I know a little German and a little Dutch.

Why study abroad at all? Why not? I feel like, if I didn't do it, I'd be missing out on one of the only opportunities I'd get to see another culture firsthand. I mean, not just spending a week touring through it, but actually living somewhere and getting to understand another world. Plus, the whole CMU thing was wearing thin. I need a break from the cement blocks of Wean Hall.

Okay. Now you know all the things you want to know, or at least the first few things you would have asked me. Now: where am I?

I'm mostly packed. I'm getting together the last final things, printing out forms, and where the flock are my sunglasses?! I swear, every time I get a pair that I like, I lose them immediately. Meanwhile, I've got a drawer full of old ones that I don't like. Want any old sunglasses? I will send you a pair. In June when I get back.
See, sunglasses are a very picky thing for me. I'd like some good sunglasses (not $10 drugstore sunglasses) that are polarized, durable, won't fall off my face, and look kind of neat (because, let's face it, if you are wearing cool sunglasses, you are a badass. I mean, even Keanu Reeves looks like he might possibly belong in that super-hip Matrix world when he wears sunglasses.) but I am not willing to pay anything in the $100 range because come on, they're just sunglasses. Look, some people can make these for $10, and you have the nerve to charge $100? What a scam. Anyway, I finally got a neat pair of Oakleys (remember when those were the biggest thing?) off misc.market for cheap (from Lux, no less) and now I go and lose them! This is the worst day of my life!

Anyway, sunglasses aside, I am almost ready to go. That is, of course, assuming I can get on the plane. Long story of red tape ahead, read at your own risk: I have a ticket to Zurich tomorrow, and leaving from Brussels in June. That's 5 months. If you go to Switzerland and stay longer than 3 months without a visa (which is illegal) the Swiss government will, among other things, fine the airline you flew in on. United Airlines (with whom I'm not thrilled, but I'm relatively content, and I'm actually earning a non-trivial amount of frequent flier miles) doesn't like fees, so they require you to have a visa if you're flying into Switzerland for more than 3 months. I am getting a Dutch visa, for which you have to apply in person (in the Netherlands).
This is an actual real life example of a Catch-22! I'm so proud! I thought those were only, you know, in books. However, it's also retarded, because I am leaving Switzerland within three hours. As soon as I arrive in Zurich, I am hopping on a train and going to St. Anton am Arlberg, Austria. I don't have a train ticket to prove that I'm leaving so quickly because you can't buy train tickets online unless it's at least 5 days in advance. I mean, I could have a customs agent escort me to the train station and watch me get on the train, if they really wanted. But the problem's not with Switzerland; it's with United, so the study abroad coordinator from the University of Maastricht and I have compiled a bunch of information to try to convince some clerk tomorrow that I actually am leaving Switzerland and they don't have to fear big Swiss fines.

Another dilemma: overseas flights always have the most perks. Movies, two aisles (I'm in a 767, the airplane with greatest chance of an aisle seat, and lo and behold, I have one), multiple meals, etc. However, this is the flight on which it is critical to sleep, because I'm leaving DC at something like 6PM, and then I will fly for 8 hours and it will be 8AM, and if I want to defeat Jet-lag Joe in a three-round staying-awake cage match, I darn well better sleep. Well. Life is full of dilemmas.

If you'd like another dilemma (or rather, interesting question, I guess), here's one: if a magical spirit came to you and said "You must choose:
A. You get your dream job (you don't even have to know what it is; I, the magical spirit, will find it for you) and you will love it. Every day, you will be thrilled to go to work, and when 5:00 (or 6:00 or whatever) hits, you will be sad to leave. Great co-workers, fulfilling challenges, a good chance to make a difference, the works. However, your salary will be $x, and you will only ever get raises to keep up with inflation.
B. You continue job searching as normal, but you will never find this particular dream job."
How low could you stand $x to be?
I personally don't know. First of all, I have no idea how much things cost. I'm hovering around $40,000. I think, if my future wife had a nice job, we could get a house in an area that isn't crime-ridden (or a condo in the city...), and maybe if we scrimped and saved, I could still ski sometimes. Of course, if I marry someone with a really nice job, then heck, it could be $0. Let's take future family out of the equation- assume that your spouse will make exactly enough that when you marry, your standard of living will not change. It's tricky. For me, I guess it comes down to: would I give up three of my favorite things (skiing, travel, and nice food) for a perfect job? Or do I just say, screw it, I'll find my second-best job eventually, and probably make a nice amount of money doing it?

Enough deep thinking for now; I should do some deep sleeping. Guten nacht, and I'll see you in Europe!

Hey, you know the Columbia clothes and outdoor stuff company...

and you know outsourcing, right, where everyone sends their clothes to be made in poor third-world nations. Well, guess where Columbia outsources their clothing?



Well, I thought it was a funny coincidence, anyway. Hey, I'm leaving tomorrow!

Friday, January 12, 2007

Happy Christmas!

I got this email a while ago from my grandpa, who forwards on jokes and stuff, and I used to find his right-wing jabs funny, and they're still funny sometimes, but sometimes they annoy me a bit. For example, this:

Subject: A seasonal message to my friends on "both sides of the aisle"


Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes
for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low-stress,
non-addictive, gender-neutral celebration of the winter solstice
holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious
persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for
the religious/secular persuasion and/or tradition of others, or their
choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all. I also wish you
a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling and medically uncomplicated
recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2007,
but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures
whose contributions to society have helped make America great. (Not to
imply that America is necessarily greater than any other nation.)

"Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!"

Now, I do agree on the main point: political correctness has been taken too far. People who have started saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" (and who have forbidden people from saying "Merry Christmas", say in a school or workplace or whatever) because they think that someone might get offended are missing the point on a couple of different levels. I mean, who's to say that it's even a holiday season? What about, say, Hindus and Buddhists, who don't have any holidays around now? (they don't, right?) Should we say "Happy Holidays if it's a holiday time for you"? Of course not!

(I would like to know, though, if it is obnoxious to those of you who don't celebrate Christmas. Do you celebrate it anyway, because it's become sort of a national festivity time instead of a Christian holiday? Do you just ignore it? Does it bug you when people just assume you're celebrating Christmas, because, you know, this is a Christian nation? Do you get cheesed off by "Merry Christmas"?)

Also, people think "We better be 'diverse', so we should say 'Happy Hanukkah' and 'Happy Kwanzaa' too" (some people have even thrown in 'Happy Ramadan') as if this: a. makes sense, b. covers everyone, and c. allows them to be insensitive otherwise. You know, Hanukkah isn't the "Jewish Christmas." It's not even a big deal, compared to other Jewish holidays (right?) (although, Christmas wasn't originally a big deal...). Kwanzaa is as fake as Sweetest Day (although with a nobler purpose, and I guess when I say "fake" I mean "recently created", but the guy who created it was kinda nuts, and it's still only celebrated by 13% of African Americans). Ramadan is a month of fasting, resolution, and spiritual growth... which seems to be just about the opposite of feast-month Christmas. (when's the last time someone wished you a "Happy Lent"?)

Umm... this argument is all over the place. Back to the email. Nobody has a problem with "Happy New Year", first of all. I don't think even the most politically-correct Democrats have a problem with the Gregorian calendar. Or the word "happy." Surprise- what we know as Christmas originally WAS the celebration of the Winter Solstice holiday, appropriated by the Christian church. And, by the way, "implied" and "implicit" mean the same thing.

I realize this is just a good-ol'-boys Republican joke, and it's not that offensive. The main problem exists not here, but elsewhere in actual debates, where Republicans have painted Democrats as politically-correct goofballs. (Gerrit can tell you more) It's tough to argue when people automatically assume you're coming from an extreme point of view, or at least act as if you are. You know what I mean:
"Bush's policies on Iraq are not so good."
"Oh, so you want to go back to the days of Clinton, where terrorists attacked us all over the place, and we did nothing. You'd rather we just sat back and let terrorist attacks happen, and said 'oh well.'"
"No, I'm saying Clinton made the right call not to invade a country that was only spuriously linked to terrorist attacks"
"So you're a fan of this moral relativist. Remember Lewinsky?"
I guess the right call is to avoid arguing with these people altogether.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

No Seattle this summer...

Yeah, I got the email that starts with the word "although" from Microsoft today, so I won't be working there. Bummer! Yet, somehow, time... is still marching on! I wasn't really sure if I wanted to do it anyway. (If you're a Microsoft recruiter who googled (ahem, MSN searched) and found my blog after my interviews were over for some reason, I mean, I really wanted to work there, and I will hang my head in shame until September, at which point I will write four "killer apps" (one a month) and then interview with enthusiasm and vigor. But if you're not, I will air my true feelings: )

I don't know what I want to do. I don't know if I want to write software. Part of it seems pretty trivial: after you're done, the world is only maybe a better place. I mean, maybe the box that pops up in Microsoft Word when you click File->Print is a little bit better organized. But who cares? We all know that Windows and Office work pretty well now, and the only reason they keep updating them is to sell more copies. (it's an ingenious scheme.)

However, I don't know that. Who knows, maybe software development, when you get past the grunt work that I've done for two summers, is sort of fun. And I figured, if that's the case, Microsoft is the place to do it. The whole Program Manager (aka PM) thing is a pretty cool thing: I was interviewing for an internship as a PM, so I'd plan things and gather requirements and make feature tradeoffs and so on. Everywhere else I've seen, you just write code a lot.

Also, being at Microsoft is just exciting. If MS doesn't get you pumped about writing software, nobody will.

Well, I just took a couple hours break, reading articles like this one in the meantime. According to that article, I should be a chef. Or a ski patroller. Maybe I should...

It's a confusing life! And the whole job search is just one of the problems you have to figure out before you grow up. Maybe something in Europe will strike a nice chord. (Supposedly you come out of a semester abroad a different person. Well, considering that what I'm doing now isn't working all too well in many of the major areas in life, I'm all for a change.)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Scarlet License Plates

Orange, actually. Just found out that Ohio makes you put orange license plates on your car if you get a DUI. Not sure how I feel about that. Well, actually, I am pretty sure that I don't like it; I was just saying "not sure how I feel about that" to indicate that I didn't like it.

Also, I heard this little exchange on some BBC news program- they had this guy Mark somebody, the director of military something for the Southern US (which evidently includes Guantanamo). I don't have the exact quotes, but this is pretty close:

Interviewer: What would you say about the complaints against conditions in Guantanamo?
Mark: Well, we've worked hard to make improvements, and now the detainees have access to first-rate medical care, TV, radio, a library, and we consider Guantanamo to be an excellent facility.
I: How can you justify detaining people indefinitely without charging them with crimes?
M: This is the war on terror now, and these people are not criminals, they are enemy combatants, and you don't return enemy combatants to their home countries until the war's over.
(note: that's scary. the "end of the war on terror" could be 20, 50, 100 years from now. Or never. Just like the "war on drugs." But anyway:)
I: What about people like this? I have this letter that a 9-year-old British boy wrote, and here's what it says: "Please release my father soon. I don't know why he's in jail. He's a good man. Please let daddy come home" (or something to that effect)
M: I can't comment on individual cases, but again, these are enemy combatants, and we have to treat them as such.
I: But this guy was picked up in the Gambia. That's not a war zone.
M: (something lame about a "global war on terror")
I: Boo-yah! Boo-yah! (pees all over Mark)

Sunday, January 07, 2007

48 hours as The Man

Hey! I just spent a few days in SEATTLE interviewing with MICROSOFT. I am hoping to get a fulfilling job in the world of Software Development. If I cannot get a fulfilling job in the world of Software Development at MICROSOFT, then I cannot get a fulfilling job in the world of Software Development.

Thoughts about the trip:
1. It was deluxe. Microsoft bought me a plane ticket, a rental car, two nights at a Westin, and reimbursement for all meals/parking/other expenses. Wow. That's a $350/night hotel. There was a huge flat screen TV and a giant luxurious bed in the room. The night before I left, the Dallas Cowboys checked in.
There was valet parking. I can't deal with valet parking. I tried not to act all boy-from-the-sticks-in-the-big-city, but there's only so much I can do. I mean, valet parking. Do you tip them when they take your car? When they bring it back? Both? I can't deal with valet parking.

2. The interviews were fine. I met with two people from Assistance Platforms and one from Shared Graphics. Am I not supposed to publish information about interviews on the INTERNETS? Whatever. They went fine, I think. I'll know in a week. Design questions are tougher than I thought! Plus, I've never done anything like that before.

3. Seattle is neat! I love the lots of evergreen trees and the winters that don't go below 40 degrees and raining. Don't get me wrong, I love my winters, but it's mostly because of skiing, and you can get here and here within 2 hours, and HERE within 4 hours. Whistler Blackcomb must be capitalized. The downtown is nice and at least relatively safe, driving over Lake Washington is pretty, and there are Big Ol' Mountains in the distance on clear days.

However... I was not too pleased with the traffic. The rest of this paragraph will be complaints about traffic and reasons that I would reconsider living there on the basis of the traffic alone. You can skip ahead if you want. So they have a lot of highways. For a city with a population of 570,000 and a metro area of 3.9 million, I wouldn't think I'd be on 5- and 6-lane highways all the time, and that said highways would always be pretty crowded. Especially in a city that has a reputation for being a little bit futuristic and a little bit environmentally friendly. After my interviews on Friday, it took me literally (actually literally, not just "literally" as a word to add emphasis) an hour to go 5 miles. Granted, I could find backroads around them. No big deal. Except this: there are only two highways, over a lake, that connect Seattle with the East Side (which includes Redmond). Plus, you sure can't bike over the highways. If I worked at MS, I'd have to live on the East Side, which means I would either have to never go to the city, or get a car. Neither of which are things I really want to do. Also, if I got a car, I'd have to make sure I don't try to drive during rush hour. All in all, I'd expect this from LA, not from Pacific Northwest Seattle.

4. But yeah, Seattle is neat. After my interviews on Friday, I met a guy from Microsoft and CMU, who took me to dinner on Uncle Bill's dime. We ate way too much sushi. That's the first time I've ever gotten full from sushi. Wholly cow. Or actually, wholly fresh seafood. (Probably even fresher than Wholey fresh seafood.) Props to Seattle for being on the ocean. Then I went to an improv show; if you read .improv, you've seen my post about it, and if not, you probably don't care about improv. Props to Seattle for having things to do at night for a youthful lad of but 20 years.

5. Pike Place Market. Let me say that again. Pike Place Market. This place is literally (again, actually literally) one of the top 10 coolest places I've ever been. You can buy any kind of food you want. While you're there, you can pick up a magic trick, a jar of jalapeno jam, a fresh fresh fish, a pin extolling the virtues of Critical Mass, a piroshki, a Barry Bonds rookie card, the best orange cinnamon tea I've ever had, a half-dozen fresh fresh donuts (but not just one, or the guy will look at you condescendingly), a Handmade Craft, an ostrich egg, a hammered dulcimer, a cup of coffee, or a Shel Silverstein book. You can listen to street performers too. And it's all so REAL! Not like Crocker Park, not like Bellevue (the upscale suburb of Seattle where I stayed), not like the Waterfront in Pittsburgh. Just about the only chain store is a Starbucks. And that's because it's the first one. I think I could put up with commuting for 2 hours each day if it meant I got to live near this place and go shopping there on a regular basis.

6. Musics of the trip: I listened to Gnarls Barkley's album finally. I like it a lot! More than the B-52's self-titled album, which is a surprise.

7. I kinda still can't get over how great the Pike Place Market was.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Suppose I ought to clarify...

The extra blog is so that I can tell not only my friends but also my family, associates, colleagues, and other ersatz relations about what I'm doing. For example, I can post this here without having to explain to my parents why that's kinda funny, and what the Beardo is.

(although I did end up explaining Cowboy Face to my friend's parents recently. Unfortunately, we didn't end up playing.)

Anyway, sorry for the obnox, but I think it's a neat idea. ("obnox" being, clearly, the thing that an action might have that would make it obnoxious.) Maybe I'll change my mind. We'll see.