Monday, 19 January 2009

Icy cold start to 2009

Growing up we were very privileged to do the amount of travelling we did. With Mom we frequently went back to England to visit family. If memory serves, I think we went back every 2-3 years on average. And on one of those occasions, it spawned a side-trip over the channel (by ferry) to Paris.

With Dad we went to Disneyland, on a Caribbean cruise and to Israel. I am sure there are more trips I am forgetting, but for the first 18 years of my life, that equalled a pretty decent tally of vacations.

The following 16 years didn’t yield much travel at all with a few memorable exceptions: in 1997 Andrew and I went to England, in 2000 Shawn, Monty and I went to Hawaii for New Year’s and that same year Shawn and I went to Desolation Sound on his dad’s boat and on a road trip through Washington and Oregon. And, of course, going to Las Vegas for Andrew’s stag party in 2001 was memorable.

In 2006 Shawn and I went on another road trip to celebrate his 30th birthday that took us through Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and Nevada. That was the same year I got the travel bug that took me back to Hawaii for New Year’s 2007 where I met Nina and my travel schedule really ignited.

I have spent the past 2.5 years making up for lost time, seeing parts of the world that have intrigued me and experiencing as many new things as I can. It’s addictive. And this brings me to my point, after taking 2 weeks off over Christmas I have found it increasingly difficult to get back into the swing of work. To a smaller degree I felt this way after my travels with Shawn in the fall. But even then I had the next trip, only 2.5 months away, to look forward to.

I do have another trip looming in the future, but this one will be different from any trip I have been on before: I will be returning to my previous home. I have no idea what that will feel like because I have only ever lived in one place (excluding England which I was too young to remember). I assume going back to Vancouver will be akin to walking down memory lane; like being conscious during a dream. Everything will be familiar, in a distant sort of way, yet be completely foreign to what I have now become used to; Amsterdam.

And even though I don’t consider Vancouver home anymore, on some level I take comfort from knowing everything I own (that couldn’t fit into my two suitcases) is stored there in a locker. But part of my trip will be eliminating all those things, literally giving away everything I own and officially leaving Vancouver as ‘home’.

So that brings me back to why I have been having a hard time working; I don’t have a trip on the horizon to look forward to. Actually, that’s not totally accurate as Nina and I will be moving somewhere in 2009. But it’s hard to get excited about living somewhere new when you don’t know where that will be. The idea of it is exciting, but it’s not something I can look forward to just yet. Until we have a location that I can research and discover interesting things about, it’s just an abstract idea.

Work has been slow, which is to be expected for the first month of the year during a massive global recession. However my company is changing their focus for 2009 as a way of adapting to the crisis. Last year we were candidate focused, trying to find jobs for star people we could easily promote. This year we are client focused, working for a dozen key clients and looking for specific candidates to fill the positions within these companies.

As 2008 wound down we lost a few of our recruiters, leaving us with two plus Stefan. He is apprehensive about bringing anyone else on until he has a better idea of how this year will go. So in order to fill my hours and also the lack of manpower in the office, he has started training me to take on some recruitment duties.

I will be working from the office one of two days a week screening new candidates over the phone. It’s an interview process where we try to assess them and delve much deeper than what they have told us on their resumes. It usually takes an hour per candidate after which we write a detailed report which helps guide the direction we move with that candidate.

I am very excited about this as it will achieve a few important objectives; I will get out of the apartment and work from the office a bit more, I will get to interact with my colleagues and with candidates and it will boost my hours.

When I left Herzogenrath in the first week of January there was 10cm of fresh snow on the ground and the night temperatures were going as low as -17.
When I had arrived in Germany before Christmas I noticed an automobile carrier parked on the tracks at the station full of Ford cars. When I left Germany a few weeks later it was in the exact same position; idle and covered in a thick blanket of snow. Nina told me these cars had been there for a while, caught in limbo as the factory had made them, but no one wanted to buy them. This was the first I had seen of the American automobile manufacturer’s crisis on this continent.

As I took the train North through the Southern half of Holland the snow finally disappeared, but only 45 minutes before arriving in Amsterdam. The whole bottom-half of the country was white.

Amsterdam was suffering from the same frigid temperatures as Germany and stayed in the -4 to -10 range day and night for the following week and a half. The canals and small lakes in the parks were frozen and as the cold days passed from one to the next, the layer of ice got thicker and stronger.

Soon the skaters started to emerge. First they were on the park lakes, then the canals. It amazed me how many Dutch people own their own skates! The days were cold, but for the better part of a week the skies were blue and the sun was shining. There were days when the parks were almost as full as on a sunny day in August. The main difference being, in August everyone was on the grass and in January, everyone was on the lake.

Before going on the Christmas trip Nina had warned me she intended to do a fair bit of reading, so she urged me to head over to the English bookstore to find something I would enjoy reading. I am not much of a reader, I never have been. I enjoy reading newspapers and magazines more than books. But I found one that I absolutely fell in love with; The Ridiculous Race. It was written by two American friends, Steve and Vali, who were both Harvard educated and both now write for TV shows in LA. During the break in production they decided to race each other around the world. They found a publisher who agreed to finance the trip in exchange for a book on the other end. The premise was simple; Steve went West, Vali went East and the first guy to circumnavigate the globe, ending up back up in LA, won. The only rule: no airplanes, helicopters or hot air balloons allowed. I devoured this 300 page account of their adventures in 3 weeks. OK, so to most avid readers that may sound more like a slow nibble, but for me, that was a rapid pace. I already have my next book (it was loaned to me) and will start it this weekend; The Recruiter’s Almanac of Scripts, Rebuttals and Closes. I am not expecting this one to be nearly as gripping.

With the year ending, I decided to compile all my blog entries from 2008 into a single document. I don’t know if I will ever go back and reread it. I did the same thing with my travel blog from 2007 and haven’t looked at it once since then. Maybe it’s still too fresh in my mind. While compiling my recent blog I did a word count and found that in 9 months I had written 41,666 words which is equivalent to a 102 page novel.

The weekend of January 11 Nina and I celebrated our 2 year anniversary. She thought it might be nice to go on a dinner canal cruise; something I thought was primarily reserved for tourists. I did some reading on the Internet and discovered comments from Dutch people regarding their experiences on these cruises paying fairly high praise. I was pleasantly surprised at how nice it was. They serve a 4 course dinner over the 2 hour cruise and considering the food was prepared on land and brought onboard, it was quite good. They turn the lights down low so you are dining by candlelight which also allows the lights of the buildings and bridges to shine in through the glass roof. Along the way the captain gave commentary in English and Dutch on relevant sights. It was a great experience and one I recommend for anyone visiting Amsterdam in the fall or winter (the mood would be different in the summer when it’s still light out).

The only slightly frightening aspect was when we floated down some lesser-used canals and the hull of the fibreglass boat was breaking through ice 3-4 cm thick. The noise was surprisingly loud and you could feel the boat being pushed from side to side by the strength of the ice. Amsterdam only sees these temperatures every 10 years, so I consider myself lucky to have been able to see the canals frozen.

Now the temperatures are hovering around +5 and the ice is slowly disappearing. The remaining ice is thin, like sections of plate glass floating on the water. The lake outside my window in Rembrandt Park is still frozen, but with a layer of water on top of the ice which gives the illusions birds are walking on water.

Wednesday I returned to the Concert-Gebouw for the lunchtime concert series. I have the schedule for the year which tells me which hall it will be performed in (large or small), who will be performing and the name of the conductor. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way to find out what it is I am hearing. Sometimes the conductor announces it, sometimes he doesn’t.

This week it was back in the large hall so I positioned myself in the seats behind the orchestra on the left hand side. It was a great vantage point as I was facing the conductor, was able to look down on the orchestra as they performed as well as see the faces of the crowd watching. It added a new element to the experience as I am sure this building in unique in having seating in such a non-traditional place.

The concerts are half an hour and in the previous two I had attended, the conductor had chosen two movements to play. This week it was a little different. They started off with (what I assume) was the beginning of a symphony as it was a long and gradual build into a theme. Then, they suddenly stopped. The conductor announced a page number, everyone thumbed through their music, and they abruptly resumed playing in a different section. About 5 minutes later it happened again, then again and again. It was a little jarring for the audience as the flow was being interrupted and some people were quite put off by this as they left the second time it happened. I had to keep reminding myself that as much as this is a free concert, it is primarily a rehearsal for the orchestra. It just happens to be open to the public. Every member of the orchestra, including the conductor, was dressed in their street clothes. They were clearly working on specific sections of a larger piece of a music they were preparing to perform in full at some point. From the faces I could see in the audience, they didn’t seem too pleased with this.

I really enjoyed what I heard and next time endeavour to find someone who can tell me the name of the piece and composer. The music was dramatic and utilizing the whole orchestra beautifully. Soft sections highlighted the violins and were accented by darker sections with the double basses, horns and timpani’s. I was sitting parallel to the 5 member percussion section: 2 timpanis, 1 bass, 1 crash cymbal and 1 gong.

Thursday night Kent organized another poker games at his apartment. It was a different mix of guys this time and included an Italian, South African, German, American (Kent) and 2 Canadians. We were all of a similar talent level which made the game more fun and not quite as serious as the previous time. I won the night and netted €30 in profits which was a nice surprise.

This past weekend I spent with Nina at her place and we kept it low key and relaxing. We went out for dinner in Aachen on Saturday to a pleasant Mediterranean restaurant in an old mansion. We also went to a costume store to buy our costume for Carnival in February. In Germany this is a very big deal and I don’t fully understand what it is about yet. But you have to have a costume, the more colourful the better and a lot of the events over the week-long festival revolve around parties, singing and drinking. Nina and I bought matching musketeer costumes; mine in red and hers in blue. I am sure embarrassing photos will be posted in late February after Carnival is over.

The local grocery store in Herzogenrath is massive, like a small Costco. It’s primarily a grocery store, but they sell everything from clothes to hardware to gardening supplies to sports equipment to electronics. The alcohol section alone is the size of a small BC liquor store. As Christmas is over, they had a sale on Gl├╝hwein and I bought a few bottles to keep me going through the winter. With 10% alcohol, I think the 2 litres I bought should keep me warm until the temperatures climb back into the (+) double digits.