Saturday, October 1, 2011

Bank of America and the Failing Economy

The whole Bank of America charging for using debit cards thing bugs me.

It bugs me not so much because it's another $5-a-month-nickel-and-dime-fee, but because of what it ultimately represents: a repetition of the very cycle of greed that ultimately underlies why banks-- and much of the greater corporate world-- fell on its butt, a couple of years back.

Have they learned NOTHING?

Folks, if you have an account with BofA, it's time to close it... and it doesn't matter whether you have deposits above the threshold where you are exempt from the fee.... and here's why: You are being charged for the "Fundamental Cost of Doing Business."

Let me offer some analogies: BofA's debit card fee is like the grocery store charging you 20 cents for running the register, or a house painter charging you $5 because he/she has to use a paint brush, or the utility company charging you $3 a month to read the meter. You wouldn't pout up with that, right?

BofA is a bank. Part of the core of being A Bank includes actions like counting money and having the basic functionality that goes with... well... being a bank.

It reminds me of the 90's when my business bank (BankOne, now Chase) decided it would charge my business (a retail store) $1.50 per $1000 to count cash included in deposits. I closed and moved my accounts (which often had $20,000-$50,000 balances) the next day... even though I was technically above a limit where the fee wouldn't apply to me.

The point being... it wasn't the $1.50 (just like it isn't the debit card fee, itself), but the fact that I was being charged for a bank to perform the core actions of a bank's business.

I'm sorry, if a business-- any business-- is not capable of functioning without charging for its fundamental actions that make that business possible, then it has NO BUSINESS being in business.

To wit, BankOne ceased to exist not long after it started in on a cycle of "fees for everything." By its actions, it would seem BofA is heading into a cycle of its own that may signal the beginning of its end.

The most powerful thing we can do is "vote with our dollars." I have voted with mine: I bank with a regional bank that has been in business-- under the same fundamental ownership-- for 104 years. It doesn't charge me fees, and it even continued to make a profit while all the "Big Corporate" banks were crashing.

Imagine THAT!?!?!

Of course, this bank is very "Un-American" because its management is satisfied with "making a profit" every year, and isn't caught up in the compulsive obsession with "we MUST make more and more profit every year" that drives most of corporate America and the machine of capitalism.

I hope you read this, and agree that this action by BofA (sure to be followed by other large national banks) is simply wrong.

I hope you act, and move your BofA accounts to a local Credit Union (usually fee free) or a regional/local bank that's not "part of the problem" that messed up our financial lives, in the first place. BofA has already been given a second chance, in the form of a bailout with your tax dollars. They (and others) do not deserve a third chance.

But it's not enough to just THINK and SAY "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!" You have to ACT on it. Don't be complacent. Don't leave it up to "others" to make a change. Be the change, as Gandhi once said.

At the very least, if you agree with this, share it on your own pages, tweet it, link to it and spread the word...

Thursday, September 15, 2011

You suck at Craigslist?

No, I'm not talking about the web site by that name.

Although there is one. It's pretty funny, as well:

But that's not what I am writing about. I am thinking more about people on Craigslist who suck... aka, the latest scam going around.

Because we will be moving soon, we have some things listed for sale/free, on Craigslist.

In due course, a perfectly legitimate-- albeit slightly weird-- response to a listing shows up in my email box. In this case, the inquiry is: "This item-- it has been involved in any accidents?"


This, of course, is designed to elicit a response. As in "I'm sorry, I have no idea what you're talking about." But it's a response. Now the sender has my email address.

Next day, there is a very legitimate looking email... ostensibly from Craigslist-- citing bits and pieces about Terms Of Service (TOS) and listing items for sale, and "to please verify your Craigslist account, or your listings will be removed." Unlike many such scams, this one did NOT have typos and spelling errors. It also was more subtle than most, asking the reader "please go to the craiglist web site and log into your account to verify it (scam emails RARELY suggest this), or click on this link to do so."

This, of course is a "phish." But if you're not paying attention, you won't notice that the original sender isn't "," but "" Or something very close like that.

Anyway, you have to be really careful with craigslist... this was just a reminder. Overall, though, I love the site... and have both bought and sold many things there.

Monday, July 4, 2011

July 4th Musings on Potato Salad

It's the 4th of July, and I made potato salad.

I will be the first to admit-- and openly declare-- that I loathe most potato salads. Especially the "bland white" kind found at so many BBQs and picnics... which-- to my way of thinking-- amounts to little more than tasteless, mayo-infused mashed potatoes with a hint of pickle-juice flavoring.

No disrespect to anyone who likes the stuff. I just don't.

In my world, potato salad is supposed to taste of something.

It is supposed to be able to stand alone, and hold its own against spicy, tangy, heavy and deliciously flavorful BBQ.

Don't get me started on flavorless BBQ, either...

I grew up with potato salad in Denmark. My mom's was bland as F%$#!* and I didn't like it. However, my Aunt Ulla's was stellar, robustly flavored and based on a substance known in the family as "Dad's Lobster Sauce."

"Dad," in this case was my grandfather; my aunt's father.

I'm not sure there was ever an official recipe for "Dad's Lobster Sauce;" my impression has always been that it was created through some delicate blend of genetic inheritance and alchemy... my aunt would make fairly large batches of it, bottle it and distribute bottles of it to family members who seemed worthy of possessing the sacred drops. The rest she kept and used for flavoring in a wide range of hot and cold dishes, dressings, sauces and other things.

Oddly enough, my own father didn't much like it. "Tastes too Danish," he'd say, and turn his nose up.

But I digress.

The point is that "Dad's Lobster Sauce" packed an explosion of intense flavor, and I loathe bland potato salad.

Absent "Dad's Lobster Sauce," I spent some 8-10 years coming up with a potato salad that was some reasonable facsimile of what I grew up with. Much of this experimentation took place after I'd left Denmark; at least half of it after I'd moved to Texas.

In spite of occasionally battling performance anxiety, I have made my potato salad in front of dozens of people, for dozens of festive occasions. Dozens of same people have been outraged and baffled by the ingredients I use... and have let me known in no uncertain terms:

"Potato salad isn't supposed to be pink!"

"Where is the celery? Where are the mustard seeds?"

"Eeewww! You can't put YOGURT in potato salad!"

"OMG! You're putting cocktail sauce in it? Curry?"

The exclamations have been many and varied... as have the facial expressions and wrinkling of noses. As a concession to popular demand, I eventually agreed to add eggs... even though there were never eggs in potato salad, when I grew up. Eggs were for egg salad. But I kinda like them in there...

Of course, the point of this story is that 90% of the skeptics have been very surprised, once they tasted the finished product... often inspiring statements such as "Wow... I'm surprised-- this actually tasted REALLY good" and even "Will you make a huge batch of this for my next BBQ party?"

I once made a batch for 150+ people. I thought I'd made a lot. There was not even a tiny scrap left over.

I suppose the bottom line here-- which I also take to heart, myself-- is that just because something is nothing like what you're familiar with doesn't mean you won't like it.

Happy Birthday, America!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Home Thoughts From Abroad, Part X: Reprise

It was raining a little, as we got ready to leave Denmark.

It was also raining when we arrived, and such is the way of the Danish summer. I remember a local joke from when I was little... the Dane who shrugs and tells the tourist who's complaining about the weather "Well... summer fell on a Tuesday, this year."

I came to realize-- during this visit-- why I moved to Western Washington, and why the relative gray coolness and rain of the greater Seattle area doesn't bother me; it is very much like "Denmark with mountains." In some way, this corner of the US feels like "home," at least in the physical sense of the word. The light is the right "color" here. The trees and plants look and smell right. There is water and islands everywhere. There is a (hard to describe) "gentleness" of the land and people here that I have not found elsewhere in the US.

In Denmark, we have a saying that goes "Øst, vest, hjemme bedst."

Literally translated, it means "East, west... home is best," and is ultimately a commentary on travel, and how we find rest in the place we feel is our home.

I am a global nomad-- I was raised and have lived all over the world. As such, I have an easy time settling, wherever I am. Doesn't mean I feel at home there, just that I can easily adapt and fit in. France, Spain, Kenya, Texas...

What is "home," though?

Perhaps it is a state of mind, not a place. Perhaps it is only "a place" to the degree that a series of small vignettes of life; little slices of good times in different places-- make them feel like home. My aunt's house in Denmark (where we stayed) feels like "home," but only to a degree... since she is no longer there; only the memories of her there linger. Denmark feels like "home" when I eat certain foods there. Spain feels like home when I walk on certain beaches and see snow on the coastal mountains.

Port Townsend, Washington is now home. But it's only home to the extent that I choose to embrace it as such... not because I lived there in my youth, nor because I moved there, nor because it's a really cool place, nor because Sarah and I now own house there, together.

"Home," is-- in some way-- a fleeting feeling, or perhaps a series of brief moments in which the chaos of life arranges itself in such a way that we feel like-- in that moment-- we are connected to something, and belong. In my case, I now know that it is deeply a reflection of whom I am sharing those moments with, and the places themselves serve more as a kind of window dressing that makes everything crisper; more in focus; more beautiful.

As I consider that, maybe it could be said that home is Love, and Love is home... if you have found the right person to share your moments with.

In end, perhaps that's the key.

Our quest to find "home" reflects our desire to feel deeply connected to something/someone outside ourselves... someone (or something) that allows-- even if just for a moment-- to feel like we "belong."

I have that sense of belonging, and I feel blessed that she is in my life.

And that... makes me feel home...

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Home Thoughts From Abroad, Part IX: Amsterdam

For a few days, I became more of a tourist, rather than someone visiting "the old country."

We spent three days in Amsterdam which, like Copenhagen, is one of Europe's "old cities."

Like Copenhagen, the streets of Amsterdam are teeming with life at all hours-- "the city" is very compact; hundreds of thousands of people live and work within a few square miles. The most common form of transportation is by bicycle, or you walk-- many of the old cobblestone streets are simply inaccessible to cars... and cars are relatively impractical, anyway, since parking is expensive and in extremely short supply.

We stayed in an apartment (rather than a hotel) in an old house on the Prinsengracht, one of Amsterdam's old canals, dating back to when the Amstel river was originally "tamed." Ancient houses line the canal; more people live in houseboats on the canal.

In the mornings I'd sit with my coffee by the windows overlooking the canal, and I became very aware that we were no longer in Scandinavia, but in Central Europe. The clue? At 9:00am, the city streets were quiet and virtually deserted. In Copenhagen, the streets would already be filled with people, going about life. In part, this is due to the fact that central Amsterdam has relatively

It seems that the further north you go, the "earlier" things are.

When I was a little kid, in Denmark, we'd go to school and lunch break started at 11:45. At home, dinner was promptly at 6:00pm, as it it was for most Danish families.

Many years later (as a teenager), we lived in the south of Spain-- one of Europe's southernmost places. At school, we had lunch break from 1:30 to almost 3:00; and it was not unusual for dinner to arrive at the table at 9:30pm, or even later.

Amsterdam fits somewhere in the middle... although-- to be objective-- it is much like many other larger cities here in Europe, in that it truly never goes completely to sleep.

Amsterdam is far more of an international melting pot than most European cities-- perhaps with the exception of London. As a center of European shipping for hundreds of years, people of all nationalities arrived here, even if just using the city as a jump-off point to other parts of Europe. Today, Amsterdam airport serves that purpose for many, with flights from all corners of the globe, connecting to different parts of Europe. In the old city center, it's not unusual that you'll be addressed in English before Dutch, and quite a few people working there probably know less Dutch (if any, at all) than their native tongues.

Part of what makes Amsterdam so livable and friendly to visitors is that pretty much all industry and commerce has moved out of the old center of the city-- the remaining businesses are mostly those that directly serve local residents and tourists. Thus, there is not a throng of commuters competing for space, and only occupying the city center during daytime hours.

In addition to canals and some excellent museums, Amsterdam also has really excellent food. The city is especially known for its Indonesian food; a result of past Dutch colonization of-- and trade with-- South East Asia. But there are many other kinds of excellent food; Argentinian, Spanish, Mexican, Chinese and much more.

Of course, no mention of Amsterdam would be complete without a few words about its world famous drug culture. The bottom line is that it's "no big deal" except to visitors. Adriaan-- our "host" from the apartment rental company-- said that about 25% of the 4 million-odd visitors to Amsterdam each year "come to smoke." Which is fairly readily done, at any one of the city's 100s of Coffeeshops. And that's an important piece of "linguistics" for the first time visitor to be aware of... a café is where you go for coffee; a coffeshop is where you go for herb.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Home Thoughts From Abroad, Part VIII: Danish Time

Most museums and "places of interest" in Denmark close at 5:00pm. Some close at 4:00pm.

Visiting here from the US-- where everything seems open pretty much all the time-- it can be rather inconvenient, for visitors.

Sarah was commenting on the way everything seems to close so early, and yet there are lots of people on the streets of Copenhagen at 11:00pm. It made me pause and ponder the Denmark of my childhood, as well as the Denmark of now... along with some of the socio-cultural reasons for what I have now come to think of as "Danish time."

I remember the frustrations from my childhood, when I finally would get my mother to agree to go to a place like the Copenhagen Zoo, or perhaps the Natural History Museum. We'd start getting ready, and we'd take aaaaaalll this time to get ready to leave, then it would take aaaallll this time to get there... by which time it would already be almost "closing time," so we'd have only an hour at the zoo, since my mother wanted to leave at least 1/2 hour before official closing, so as not to be caught in the throng of traffic during the final moments.

Now, I am an adult visiting Denmark... trying to "show off" where I grew up, while dealing with places of note that are open from 11:00 to 4:00 or 5:00.

There are many things I appreciate about living in the US, one of which is the fact that things are open during hours that make more "human sense." Let's face it, most people are working, between 11:00 and 5:00. And when you are on vacation, you tend to sleep in and get a late start. Which, in turn, clashes with exhibits closing at 4:00pm.

As I thought more about this, it occurred to me that Denmark-- as a culture-- continues to function under a value set that is centered around "being" with your friends "after hours," rather than "doing" with your friends.

The way I remember Denmark in my teen years and during visits in my 20's, it wasn't that people never socialized, it was that people socialized at each other's houses, rather than "out." "Going out together" might entail sitting at an outdoor coffee shop or local pub for several hours, talking to friends. Don't get me wrong, Danes do go out to the movies, theater or pubs... but the whole idea of "doing an activity together while out" is far less common in Denmark, than in the US... and this tendency continues, today.

It's hard for me to comment on whether this is "good" or "bad;" it is merely "different." I'm not even sure if it's an editorial on core societal values, or the "Danish way" is simply a result of things always having been this way, combined with a resistance to change. Many Danes can be somewhat smug and arrogant about the perceived "superiority" of the Danish Social Democracy... and although I have been guilty of some of that, myself, there are good reasons why I live in the US, rather than in Denmark.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Home Thoughts From Abroad, Part VII: Random Thoughts

After about ten days in Denmark, I start to feel Danish again.

Maybe that sounds a bit cryptic, since I am Danish... but after 30 years in the US, I feel more American than Danish, when I am there. After some time in Denmark, I start feeling more Danish than American. I believe that-- unless you've actually lived back-and-forth between two countries for much of your life-- it's hard for people to conceptualize that a person could move their "center" of values so easily.

My perspective on "what I like most here, and what I like most there" is, of course, uniquely mine. As such, my random musings are mine alone, and not meant as an editorial about "what people feel," in general.

Just saying.

One of things I continue to like about Denmark is that it moves slower, is less aggressive and feels a lot less "type A" than the US. I also like what feels like a sort of "cultural philosophical resignation" to the fact that people and things we get involved in might well be "less-than-convenient" and imperfect. To me, that feels like a sort of "applied realism," rather than apathy.

These cultural differences manifest in many different ways. Back in 1996, I started selling things on eBay... and interacting with large numbers of buyers both in the US, as well as in Denmark, Sweden and Norway. The US buyers (gross generalization, of course!) would have an email in my box 5 minutes after the sale going "I paid! Did you send the item yet? When can I expect it? Did you send it YESTERDAY (before I even bought it)? Did you send it EXPRESS at your expense, so I will get it sooner?" The Danish buyers (gross generalization) might email me three weeks after the sale and go "Ummm.... did I pay you for that, yet?"

Convenience and speed are not central parts of Danish society and culture. I'll be the first to admit that this can be frustrating, if you are trying to get a piece of paper from the government office that's only open from 11:00am to 3:00pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Often, the sense of Danish egalitarianism is to blame (gonna pick on the Danes, for a moment!), centered around the notion that nobody has the "right" to inconvenience anyone else. The argument might be (gross generalization!) that we "don't have the right to make the people in that office be inconvenienced by working late and missing dinner."

Another thing I really like about Denmark is the extent to which its culture has embraced gender equality. To a large degree, Denmark adopted (culturally, if not "officially") a system of "soft values" back in the 1960's and 70's... as a result of which Danish women probably enjoy more equality than women almost anywhere else. But it's not a "harsh" equality, filled with anger and a sense of "entitlement;" Danish women are definitely women, not "pseudo-men."

This arrangement also affects men, in the sense that male relationships are more "cooperative" and less "competitive/territorial" in Denmark, than in the US. I also like that with equality comes the attendant responsibility for equality. It's not "equality" in the sense of lifting bags of cement, as it is equality in the arena of "being a strong person;" far less emphasis is placed on specific acts/roles emerging as a product of gender first.

In the early days, this did lead to certain absurdities. Newspaper advertisements to fill jobs were (at one time) required to state that anyone could apply for the position... leading to headlines such as "Wet nurse sought, male/female."

No system is perfect, of course. And, for that matter, it's hard to say that any one system is "better" than another... I live in the US by choice; nobody held a gun to my head. I visit Denmark by choice, because I like spending time here. In some ways, going back and forth between the two reminds me not only of the strengths of each place, but of the things we really "need to work on." When I sit back and consider the areas needing improvement, I increasingly become aware that in the US we have problems with the negative aspects of a "me/I" society, while in Denmark there are problems with the negative aspects of a "we/us" society.

More, though, what I learn from observing these cultural differences (and there are many, not covered here) is a better sense of who I am, and why I feel inclined to respond in certain ways that seem almost "countercultural" in the US. I was born in Denmark and lived here (on and off) till I was 20... so many of my key early impressions (and "socialization") were based on Danish-- not US-- values and practices.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Home Thoughts From Abroad, Part VI: Cost of Living

I spotted a small sign at the checkout counter of the grocery store, last night.

It read something like "effective as of 2008, we will no longer accept 25 øre coins-- if you have any, you will need to take them to your bank."

The bottom line of this statement is that the smallest coin currently in circulation in Denmark is the 50 øre coin. 50 øre is about 9.6 cents, US. The National Bank of Denmark is also doing away with the 50 kroner bank note, meaning that the lowest denomination bank note in circulation will soon be 100 kroner, or about 19.25 US dollars.

These factoids got me to consider that the denominations of US coins and bills have not changed since I was a little kid. We still have pennies, and dollar bills. By contrast, when I was a little kid, we had 1 øre coins and 10 kroner bank notes in Denmark. Those are long gone.

In some ways, Denmark is a very expensive country. Certain things are-- by US standards-- prohibitively expensive. Things like the cost of eating out or buying a soda from a convenience store (which we take for granted in the US) blows most people's minds, when they visit Denmark. $9.00-a-gallon gas also blows most people's minds.

In other ways, the Danes have a good thing going. If you want a college education (and a good one, at that), it's all but free. If you get sick, health care is pretty much free. Dental care is inexpensive. The huge sums of money we spend in the US to insure ourselves against every eventuality known to man... the Danes either don't have to worry about, or pay low premiums for since Denmark generally is not a litigious society.

On average, it becomes a matter of what it is you're paying money for. If you don't have to spend $5000+ a year on various forms of insurance (for example), you can afford that expensive food.

The US is a society of capitalism and "free enterprise." This leaves us ultimately responsible for everything... on an individual level. Denmark is a social democracy, and although there is a measure of free enterprise here, "the prices of things" are sometimes used to guide societal change. For example, I found myself looking for something like ziplock baggies at the store and had little success... and when I finally did find some, they were incredibly expensive-- part of ongoing social "discouragement" to get the population to not use anything disposable. When we were at Tivoli gardens the other day, there was a 5 kroner deposit for a cup you could carry your beverage around in... the kind of cup 7-Eleven gives away by the millions.

Some differences are startling, in a different way. For example, it's not unusual for the entrance fee to a museum or exhibit in Denmark to be the equivalent of $20 or even $30 a person... the reason being (primarily) that museums are often "for profit" in Denmark... businesses not supported by "patrons of the arts" but by the actual gate money from attendance.

These different approaches to money and the cost of things are just that-- "different," rather than "right" or "wrong."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Home Thoughts From Abroad, Part V: Glaring

When you visit Denmark, you'll probably notice that Danes glare at you, and at each other.

I have to confess that I'd made it all the way to age 50 without noticing. And I didn't start paying attention till both Sarah and Tori questioned it and went "What's the deal with the &%#)(* glaring?"

Cultural differences are both marvelous and mystifying things... and often can be found at the heart of both local and international conflict. The issue? We frame something "foreign" in the context of our "local" body of experience... and then "react" based on incorrect conclusions about the deeper meaning of what we observe and experience.

To the degree that Danes even look directly at a stranger, they will tend to come across as glaring/staring... because the "look" they give you is completely lacking in emotion. In context, they are truly "just looking" at you, not trying to "make a connection." They are not being "unfriendly." Smiles exchanged between strangers is... well... rare... because you are, after all, "strangers" and there is no (perceived) need for familiarity. In the very broadest cultural sense (and there are lots of exceptions, of course), "friendliness" is reserved for "friends."

I am reminded of someone (American) I know who visited Russia a while back, and almost felt hostility for smiling at people on the street. This did not make sense until an explanation was offered that in Russia, smiling at random strangers might even be considered rude, because "it assumes a familiarity with the other person that has not been established." To use a metaphor that might make more sense... it would be a bit like going around pinching random strangers' butt and thinking it were OK.

Historically, Denmark has been a very "formal" country. Until fairly recently, cultural behavior has been heavily governed by a type of "conforming properness;" there's a proper way to say hello, a proper time to call people, a proper time to mow your lawn, a proper time after which you start conversing quietly when sitting outside, etc. Although this is rapidly changing with the younger "Internet generations," ghosts of many of the old formalities linger.

My earliest exposure to the cultural differences between the US and Denmark came when I was just six years old. My late Godfather-- an insurance executive from New York city-- came to Denmark with his family and stayed with us for a week. He was a little distressed by me, and spent quite a lot of time and effort trying to teach me to be more "forceful" when meeting people... "shake their hand, stand tall, look 'em in the eye, and tell 'em what you know!"

At six, I thought he was a terribly rude man.

I had been taught-- at some length-- that the proper way to greet a stranger was to (briefly) make aye contact, bow your head while shaking hands (almost Japanese style, a sign of respect), and respectfully avert your eyes to indicate that you were being "friendly," not "challenging."

The second time "cultural differences" hit me square between the eyes came shortly after I arrived in the US, to go to college. I quickly learned that I was being "very rude" when I didn't introduce everyone I knew, when there was a random meeting of people on the street, or in a class, or at an event.

I had been raised with the rule that you only introduce strangers if either (A) it was relevant and purposeful for them to meet ("This is Hans, he is a plumber; this is Susan, she has a leaky pipe") or (B) you were actively intending to create a friendship between two people. I had never grown up with "casual introductions;" I was used to standing around just waiting when people would casually meet, and I didn't "need to" know them... and never thought it rude that I wasn't introduced to everyone.

When I think about it, I suppose Danes can be perceived to "glare" because the old Danish cultural mores are similar to a watered down version of my friend's experience in Russia. Smiling at someone is regarded more a "signal of familiarity" than a "random gesture of friendliness." It's by no means rude to smile at strangers... but perhaps it sends a subtle "I know you" implication that confuses people. These old values are changing, however.

Cultural differences are often subtle... and not covered in guidebooks and tourist handbooks. What's more, you usually have to experience them firsthand, because the locals often aren't aware that what they are doing "feels strange" to a visitor... at least not beyond broad stereotypes. After all, they have lived with these subtle nuances all their lives.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Home Thoughts From Abroad, Part IV: Food & Drink Culture

Danish people can often be observed to assemble in groups to drink beer.

Truth be known, they also often assemble to drink coffee, but observers don't notice that as much, since most coffee drinking takes place indoors. The drinking of beer pretty much takes place anywhere, for any reason... in public, or in private. "Oh look, the sun came out-- let's sit outside and have a beer!" is not an unusual thing for someone to say.

Of course, this might mean going to a bar, but would more likely mean grabbing a couple of cold ones from the grocery and sitting on a random bench somewhere. Or in your neighbor's garden.

Food and drink culture in Denmark is quite different from food and drink culture in the US.

The average American eats out 4-5 times a week while the average Dane rarely eats out at all. Growing up here, I remember that "going to a restaurant" was something we only did for very special occasions, like someone having a "big" birthday, or somebody's anniversary. And when we did eat out, it was a lengthy affair (often lasting three hours or more), and also very costly. My father-- who could certainly afford to-- chose not to eat out very often, with the reasoning that "it's just not very good."

Denmark is possibly the most expensive country in Western Europe in which to eat out, and similar foods "eaten out" will often cost 3-4 times more than in the US. I have been thinking about this, over the past few days, and recall when a group of family members went out to celebrate one of my Aunt Ulla's "round" birthdays. She rather protested the idea, but we went anyway-- to a "nice" (but by no means "luxury") restaurant, not too far from here. I vaguely remember that the "fixed price" 5-course dinner with wine for eight people ran somewhere in the range of $1400.00. Over a decade ago.

A non-Dane might be given to ask how it can be so expensive. Much of the answer can be found in the exceptionally high taxes in Denmark, and in the fact that waitstaff is paid very highly. Service, however, tends to be very slow and often grumpy.

People in Denmark get together to eat and drink at each other's homes, most of the time. Such visits are not just about food and drink, but a social event... a way to spend time with friends. Much like "going out to eat" is often a several-hour affair, so is going to someone's house for dinner. In the summer, you might start out with a few beers and snacks on the patio before dinner; then a 3-4 course meal with wine (which takes a couple of hours to slowly work through), followed by coffee and brandy/liqueurs and more snacks/chocolate.

The idea of "going out to grab a bite" with a friend, and the whole meal and visit being over and done with in 60 (or maybe 90) minutes is all but an unknown concept in Denmark, although it is becoming more common in cities, especially among affluent younger Danes. Even a company/work lunch tends to be much more elaborate than a "grab it and run" affair... hence "fast food" has never really caught on in Denmark... aside from the ubiquitous sausage and hot dog street vendors, particularly common in cities. "Grill bars" are also increasingly common, and are an "extension" of the hot dog vendor, with a larger selection.

In Denmark, a plate of french fries is often "a meal" for people... or, at least, a substantial snack.

Visitors to Denmark-- especially from the US-- will probably notice certain differences in the food. Often these are most pronounced in the area of condiments-- in Denmark, french fries are often served with mayo or the local equivalent of tartar sauce. And some condiments-- like ketchup-- might look the same, but taste quite different. If you get a pickle with your burger, it will most likely be sweet, not salty. Baked goods, butter and snack foods often seem bland to visitors, as they often contain up to 50% less salt or sugar than we're used to.

"Sandwiches" in Denmark are almost always open-faced... a slice of rather dense heavy bread (wheat or rye), buttered, often with just one kind of meat, or a simple slice of cheese. For most people, not very exciting. Conversely, I remember some Danish friends visiting the US and remarking about US sandwiches that the bread seemed "insubstantial" and the sandwich had "enough meat and cheese to feed a family of four."

Having lived on both sides of the Atlantic, these are all points well taken. I'd be hard pressed to say that I clearly prefer the food-- and the "style" of eating/socializing-- of one country over the other. I'm appreciative of the "slow" nature of food in Denmark, but also know it's set against a cultural backdrop where 37 hours constitutes a full work week... and where what one does with one's leisure time is far more important than what one does for work.

The house in which we are staying here in Denmark was "about food" for me, and for a lot of other people who came here to visit. My aunt Ulla enjoyed feeding her guests very substantial meals... and I always looked forward to the food here, especially the chicken and gravy, as well as some of the pork roasts... not to mention the large lunch spreads that would appear daily.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Home Thoughts From Abroad, Part III: Small Scale

There are things about Denmark I had all but forgotten.

Things are small, here.

The country, itself, is small. At 16,641 square miles, the entire country is only a little bit larger than the state of Maryland. Which ranks 42nd of 50 US states, in terms of area.

Stores are small. Roads are small. Houses are small.

I was cooking bacon this morning, using a standard (well, actually TWO) package of Danish bacon. 140 grams (just under 5oz); 8 thin small slices. Here, probably considered "plenty" for breakfast for a family of four. As I stood there, I considered the three pound packages of bacon we sometimes get from Safeway.

Milk comes in one liter cartons. Period. That's about a quart. A few years ago, you could get two liter containers, but the trend never really caught on.

Cars are small. We rented a "large" car, by Danish standards... and could barely fit four people and their luggage in it.

Of course, gas here is over $9.00 a gallon, so driving a gas hog is a bit out of the question. You don't see a lot of Suburbans or Ford Expeditions here. Or large pick-up trucks.

Oddly enough, a Danish case of beer has 30 bottles, vs. a US case (usually of cans) having 24.

Maybe that says something about priorities. Who knows?

People, also, are not small. The average height of adult men in Denmark 5 feet 11 1/2 inches, vs. 5 feet 9 1/2 inches in the US. For Danish women it is 5 feet 7 1/2 inches, vs. 5 feet 4 1/2 inches in the US.

Makes me chuckle a bit, that... larger people having to use smaller things and live in smaller houses, and vice-versa.

"Making do with less" and "economizing" run as subtle subtexts through much of Danish culture. Having been away from here for seven years, I am perhaps noticing it more, this visit. It's neither good nor bad... just different.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Home Thoughts From Abroad, Part II: Doing Nothing

Today, I have been thinking about the fine art of doing nothing...

I used to come to this place in large part because it afforded me a chance to "do nothing." In fact, I have come to this peaceful house by myself several times... and have stayed here for two weeks (or longer) without choosing see (or call) a single soul-- beyond a weekly trip to the grocery, and perhaps a few trips to the bakery.

In this modern and hectic world, it seems that most people have forgotten how to "do nothing." Or, our perceptions of what constitutes "nothing" have changed to the point where "nothing" looks a lot more like "something," at least to me. Maybe we're simply misidentifying things we WANT to do as "nothing," and things we DON'T want to do as "something."

I am not sure how this all came to happen, although I will lay some of the blame of the door of our tendency to fear that we are-- somehow-- living an inferior life unless every single moment of our existences is filled with "some activity." If we choose to simply sit still and stare into space, we label it as "wasting time" or "laziness," and start worrying that we are "missing" something.

But is time really something we can "waste?"

And what are we so fearful of?

I mean, consider this: Even when we DO take time to sit still, we almost obsessively label it as "meditation," or "relaxation." That way, we can take nothing-- and our (Secret? Hidden?) desires to do nothing-- and somehow name them as "something," thereby putting an acceptably busy face on them.

It was in this place I first learned to do nothing.

My Aunt Ulla and I would eat lunch-- sometimes dinner-- and afterwards she would come out on the brick patio in front of the house... and sit.

I would come along.
I was maybe six or seven.

She called it "sitting and seeing."

We would simply sit in our chairs, not talking, and look at the world (nature) around us. Leaves moving in the wind, butterflies on the lavender blossoms, birds in the trees, clouds passing by; perhaps listen to the distant sounds of cows, birds and an airplane. Just quiet time; just being alive. In some ways, this was like meditation... but at the same time, there was no "objective" and no "time limit." Sometimes we'd sit for less than ten minutes, sometimes for over an hour.

And yes (for you skeptics out there), as a seven-year old I was capable of sitting still and doing nothing for an hour. In fact, I enjoyed it immensely, coming from a home where I was expected to "make myself useful" during every waking moment.

"Sitting and seeing" has remained a part of my life ever since Ulla first spoke the words and showed me what they meant. She was the first person I knew... and possibly the only person I have known... who truly embraced and lived the idea that "doing nothing" was not some form of laziness and, moreover, was good for people. I haste to add that she was a very active person... but she lived a very balanced life that included daily naps and time to simply watch the grass grow, as well as a rigorous work ethic.

I am now in my 50th year, and back in this place where I learned to "sit and see;" to basically "do nothing." As I look back on the 40-some years between then and now... it saddens me slightly that the three most common responses to my recommendation that we all take regular retreats into "doing nothing-ness" have revolved around assertions of my "being lazy," or "being in denial of reality" and even outright fear. Fear (and skepticism), I suppose, of the notion that someone can truly have "absolutely nothing" going on inside their head. I wonder, sometimes, if Ulla faced those same responses.

I know she and my father would occasionally have heated debates about him always being "so busy" and needing to slow down, and he would assert (as I recall) that she was "out of touch" (with reality). She, in turn, would counter his protestations by telling him that we all have choices, and that he didn't "have to" do so much, he "chose to" do so much.

The bottom line, for me, is that even though we may at times feel like we "have to" do a bunch of things in our lives... we ultimately choose to do those things. Sometimes our reasons are good, sometimes they are not, and sometimes we "stay busy" out of habit, rather than need... or out of some kind of fear that (part of?) our reality will somehow collapse if we choose to not-do something. But to say that we "have to" and there is "no choice" is-- in 95% of cases-- a form of self-deception... most likely we are making an unconscious (or conscious) choice to not do something unpopular, even if it's what we most want to do.

And so, I am going to sit and see, for a while...

Friday, June 10, 2011

Home Thoughts From Abroad, Part I

When English poet Robert Browning penned "Home Thoughts from Abroad," he'd become an ex-pat living in Italy, longing for many simple things of his native England.

I'm no Browning, and my longing for "home" has somewhat passed-- but the title of his famous poem seems like an appropriate metaphor to describe a few ramblings from Denmark, where we will be spending the next three weeks.

As we drove from the airport to this house-- which my grandfather had built in 1939-- Sarah remarked as to how much Denmark "looks like Washington" where we now live. Indeed, this is quite true... western Washington is much like "Denmark with mountains;" water... islands... frequent rains... a myriad shades of green... a certain "softness" to everything.


I used to think of going to Denmark as "going home." But what is "home," really? Is it the place you were born, or the place where you settle and find your sense of connectedness to what's around you? Or is it some of both? Perhaps in our youth, home is more of a physical place... but as we age, it becomes more of a feeling; a state of mind. Home ceases to simply exist, and becomes something we create.

This house-- 71 years young-- started as a family retreat, and then became my Aunt Ulla's summer home. Although 14 years my father's senior, she was his youngest sister. As siblings go, they were good friends... connected by an interesting dynamic that often bridged sibling/parental roles. She was one of the few who could tell my father to "calm the f&%# down!" with any measure of success. As I ponder the two of them, I sometimes think the radical differences in their approaches to life-- he: tense, angry, demanding, short tempered, type A; she: calm, patient, philosophical, relaxed-- directly explains why she outlived him by a good 20 years.

The house was named "Tofte" and-- aside from serving as Ulla's favorite place to live-- served as a family retreat of sorts. Set on originally 24 (now 12) acres of wooded land, it became a landing place for people to find peace, young and old alike. Over the years, a steady stream of family members, friends, artists and others would come here for anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks to get away and somehow leave behind whatever ailed them... even if just for a short while.

Although there is now wireless Internet and a flat screen TV in the house, time has pretty much stood still here, since 1939. Time here is... slow. The noisiest thing is the "din" of birdsong... which (at least in summer) starts up around 4:00am and keeps going till 10:30 at night. In the high north, it stays light a long time, in summer...

The presence of Aunt Ulla was central to the healing nature of being here: She was willing to listen sympathetically to anyone's story and woes... after which she'd gently insist that people forget their drama and trauma, perhaps with a suggestion like "Well, I think you should have a beer and go sit in the sun and read a book." It wasn't that she didn't honor that people had difficulties... it was merely that she didn't tolerate anyone wallowing in their troubles. Her particular brand of healing took the form of an invitation to step outside one's troubles... on more than one occasion I can recall her saying things "Well... that'll still be there when you get home, but you can't do anything about it while you're here, and worrying will not help."

"Tofte" is a deeply introspective place. It invites you to look inwards and to "sit in your truth" even if it's rather nasty and unpleasant... the same energy that makes time stand still here also provides a neutral and embracing backdrop against which nothing "new" is piled on top of a person's existing troubles. Which-- of course-- also makes it a deeply healing place, for most people. A few-- and they are very few-- have found the lack of "distractions" and the fact that there is really "nothing to do" here distressing enough that they just want to leave.

I spent a lot of time here, as a child and as an adult. When I was little, we'd come here for family gatherings, and just for weekends. Sometimes-- when my parents were traveling abroad-- I would come and stay here for extended periods of time, becoming part of the place while Ulla looked after me. I would observe the ebb and flow of people, and how they would change as a result of their visits; somehow becoming "lighter" or happier or more balanced. In my late teens and as a young adult, I would spend entire summers here.

I often write, when I am here. Somehow, I seem better able to focus, in these surroundings. In days gone by, other writers... and painters, and artists... found the same to be true, for them. In that spirit, I find myself writing these words.

The seven years that have passed since my last visit is probably the longest I have been away from this place.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

End of an Era, Redux...

Sotogrande, Spain, January 19th, 2011
I went back to my past, today. At least... I tried.

My stepfather died, in mid-December, approximately 16 months after my mother passed. A few weeks ago, I wrote in my journal that it was “the end of an era.” I am not entirely sure what that means… but when I went back to look for the house where we lived when I was a teenager, I was not only trying to recover something “lost,” I was also leaving something no longer needed behind.

I lived my teenage years in the south of Spain, growing up in a huge enclave where retired Europeans would come to live out their lives with sun, sea and golf. No, it was not exactly a "normal" teenagehood. In some ways, it was the death of my chance to be a "normal" teenager.

Moving to Spain, back then, was the end of something. The end of my hope for having some semblance of a "normal" closure to my childhood. We had already done the "global nomad" thing when I was younger, but when my parents separated (when I was about 10) my mom and I started living a somewhat normal life, in a normal neighborhood, with normal kids as my friends while I went to a normal school. I felt a sense of... hope... that I might still experience the life it seemed to me most other kids were experiencing.

Moving to Spain killed that. I remember sitting in my window, in March, watching the snow melt... in suppose, in tune with my dreams of "normalcy" melting. I remember watching the last things getting loaded onto the moving truck in June... with an inner sigh at the sense that my 12-year old soul would never have a resting place.

When I look back on those moments with the benefit of almost 40 years of hindsight, I see now that I "stopped caring" about life at the tender age of 12. Nothing seemed to have meaning, anymore. Some part of me had resigned itself to the idea that life never turns out the way you want, so I started simply "marking time" till my death. Maybe that sounds overly dramatic... but it was really just a reflection of my belief that if anything good comes your way, it will just be taken away from you, so the only "reasonable" approach to life is "not caring." About people, places, activities, interests and whatever.

So a few days ago, Sarah and I drove up the old main road from Sotogrande to Nueva Andalucia—a stretch of some 40 miles along the Spanish Mediterranean coast, near Gibraltar. We traveled what used to be the main highway; these days it largely serves as a “local access” road for various coastal towns now bypassed by a major freeway.

As we went, I looked for signs. Signs of anything familiar; anything that would remind me of times of old… of times that might offer me a sense that—once upon a time—this was “home,” in a way. Part of me wanted to be able to say “Yes, I belonged here…” perhaps to somehow validate the 7+ years I spent in this foreign land where I "lost" my childhood. But almost nothing looked familiar.

A small stretch of beach, in a cove. I recognized it as a place I'd sometimes go fishing, although it is now ringed by endless rows of largely empty condominiums. Like the condos, the beach was empty. A row of tattered flags suggested... neglect; something forgotten.


When I lived here, I felt empty.

35-odd years later, this place feels empty.

The economic crisis and the real estate decline has hit this part of Spain very hard. The unemployment rate hovers around the 20% mark… if you’re under 30, it’s closer to 40%. If you want to put a frame of reference around that, during the depths of the Great Depression, unemployment reached 25%.

Everywhere you look, there are blocks and blocks of condominiums; thousands of houses… and most of them stand empty. Either, they were never sold in the first place, are currently for sale, or they are owned by someone who only uses them only for a month a year. It leaves you with the impression that you are driving through a ghost town; a cemetery; necropolis.
As we drive along, I recognize so little. Where there once were views of the Mediterranean, there are now views of yet more developments. But there are no people there…

I point to a mountain, off to our left.

I used to hike up there, from time to time,” I say, “It was as if the air up there was not as thick and oppressive.

The air here does feel thick and oppressive… these days, it is laden with the scent of desperation and depression. Those who work are grateful they have a job. Luis-- the security guard at my parents' apartment complex-- has been the security guard there for 35 years. He shrugs and tells me that there used to be four of them, now there are only two, then adds "That's life." But there is something else about the air here… it just feels “heavy,” and it makes me feel slow. It did, back then, too.

As we enter the outskirts of the town of Estepona, I point to a hillock I barely recognize… “For a while we went to school here, in some apartments that weren’t being used.” I realize that I only know where I am because I am visualizing the curves in the road, without the buildings...

School was an odd experience, in this “Bubble Land.”

Although we were living in Spain, we really didn’t live IN Spain. A small group of some 100-odd non-Spanish kids gathered from the swank developments built for retired foreigners and were taught under the English school system. Sure, we learned Spanish, but we had little contact with Spain.

As we pass, the site that once was The English School in Estepona, I wonder at the way you no longer can see the sea. More empty apartment buildings. More luxury hotels that show the marks of decline; peeling stucco walls and tattered flags flying out front. And a mostly empty parking lot. Maybe seven guests are staying in the three hundred rooms.

The contours of the mountains look right. Or, at least, familiar.

The bus at a bus stop still has the word "Portillo" on the side... the same company that ran the public bus system, 35 years ago.

“That used to be a really good restaurant;” I point to a building at the side of the highway, trying to remember the rich flavor of their leg of lamb… but I can’t. I also can’t remember the name of the restaurant—just that the proprietors were a flamboyant Belgian chef and his French-Moroccan wife. I played golf with him, from time to time. Now the building is a sales office for yet another development.

It’s only because I am looking for it that I remember the familiar left-right bend in the road—the surroundings are so vastly different from how they looked, in 1975. The exception is a small stretch where the highway crosses the golf course, and the view to the left is much as it used to be, because the land there had already been fully used. Guadalmina was one of the very first large-scale developments on this part of the coast… and that’s where we lived.

Finding the turnoff presents a challenge—you can turn right, but there is no way to turn left. I find it amusing that they were working on the highway by-pass when I visited my parents more than 20 years ago, and certain parts look like they were just barricaded off, back then, and the project appears more or less left stagnant. The people who now live in our old neighborhood must simply put up with the fact that it’s almost impossible to make a left turn to the “mountain” side of the development… and have been putting up with it, for all these years.

Part of me reflects on the fact that this place is where I learned to "put up with" life. I feel sad at the recognition that "putting up with" reflects my primary philosophy for living since 1973.

Eventually, we manage to find the right series of turns…

As I walked to the school bus in the mornings, I would loop around the 4th green of the local golf course and be able to see if anyone else was waiting for the bus. Usually, nobody was; on most days, I was the only person to be picked up from our development. As we drive the 4th green loop 35 years later, all I can see are houses, apartments and a strip mall.

Our house was on the first fairway, facing the golf course. The huge old eucalyptus trees still grow by the first green. I can’t tell where the house is, exactly, but I can see the two palm trees that stood in our back yard. As we drive around towards what was once our driveway, I miss the house, however. It has been painted yellow (instead of the original white), and the current owners have built a tall wall around it. It is not until we back up and I find the number “495” on the wall that I realize where I am. The palm tree that once stood outside my room is now gone.

Nothing is the same. And yet… everything is.

The aging people passing by on the golf course are the same; the sense of quiet heaviness of a place where the houses are only occupied a few months of the year remains as it always was; the black iron burglar bars on the windows of every house remain the same.

This place was “too old” for me when I was 14; it remains “too old” for me, even at 50. For a moment I think to pause and yell at my mother: “What were you THINKING, to bring a teenager to this place to raise???”

We stop. We stand under the eucalyptus trees by the first green. I feel no echoes of the past reaching out to me. There’s a chain link fence at the edge of the golf course, now. A sign reads “Private Golf Club. No Admittance.”

I consider going back to the car to get my camera. To take a picture… but who would I show it to? The people I once knew here were my parents’ age, and they are long gone. So would the photo be for me? For what? What would it show? What would I be trying to record? What would I be trying to "keep," and why? I realize there is nothing here for me… except the chance to say goodbye to a part of my life I don’t have very many fond memories of.

We stand, for a while. I touch the trunk of one of the trees. It was here, when I lived here. But even it doesn’t feel familiar.

And so, we drive away.

35 years ago I had recurring dreams of walking back towards the house, while a group of people would walk away, in the opposite direction. I am not sure who they were—maybe they were my hopes and dreams of having an “ordinary” life, maybe they were merely imaginary friends created by my teenage soul to keep me company in this hauntingly desolate place. But I would always feel a great sense of loss and sadness, as they walked away, leaving me behind.

As we head back towards the highway, I grow aware that I have “retrieved myself,” and in the process left “something” behind that I clung to—for years and years—even though I no longer needed it. The people who "stole" my childhood are dead. The unrealistic possibility that they could somehow "bring it back" to me has gone... forever. The final threads tying me to a way I once believed my life might turn out have been cut.

This time it is finally I who get to walk away, and the “something” that gets to be left behind… and a long unfinished chapter in my personal Book of Life can be closed… and maybe I can find a way to start something new.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

End of an Era

Soon, Sarah and I head off to the south of Spain.

Whereas that may sound like a lovely thing to do, here during a dark and damp northern winter... this will be-- sadly-- not a vacation or joy ride.

I lived in Spain, when I was a kid. Well, when I was a teenager. After my parents divorced (in Denmark), I moved with my mom to the small town of San Pedro de Alcantara on Spain's Costa del Sol, where we went to live with the new man in her life. In some ways, I'd have to say that I "grew up there," although my life from the time we left Denmark through age 20 involved quite a lot of moving around.

On December 16th, the man I came to know as my stepfather died, at age 92. In some ways, it was surprising that he outlived my mother (who passed in August 2009), but in other ways it seemed like a fitting tribute to his determination to "do his duty," which included taking care of my mom during her latter years.

He was a quiet and frugal man who-- as much as anything-- just wanted people and the world to just leave him alone. Mostly, I shall remember him sitting in his chair with the newspaper, or reading a book. Or eternally muttering at the orange and white cat he took care of, even while constantly complaining about what a "nuisance" it was, and how much he disliked cats.

In that strange way the Universe works, the (by then) ancient cat died just two days after my stepdad, almost as if it realized that its mission in this lifetime had been completed...

And so... I shall return to this strange place where I spent my formative years, this time not to "visit the parents," but to empty and close down the apartment in a place called Sotogrande, which he and my mother shared since the early 1980's, when they sold their large villa and started dividing their time between Spain and Phoenix, AZ.

Once upon a time, I lived in that same apartment complex... back in 1979, the apartments were "inexpensive housing," far away from everything, and it was my first place to live away from home. Back then, the development was new, and it was a little like living in a ghost town: only about 5-6 of the 100+ units were occupied. Somehow... it suited me; I sought solitude in a world I felt terribly out-of-step with... I could go for days and even weeks without seeing or talking to another person, aside from at the grocery or market.

Although I have been back for visits many times, I almost don't recognize the area, anymore. I can find little "pockets" here and there-- the beach I used to walk; a certain view of the rock of Gibraltar from a hillside; the sun on the mountains whose contours seem familiar-- but on the whole, the world seems to have become an increasingly homogenous cluster of strip malls and supermarkets. Perhaps it serves as a reminder that we can never "go back" in life, only forwards.

I expect it may be the last time I set foot in this part of the world... there is no reason to return, save for a few ghosts from times I'd rather forget. No relatives, no friends, no connections, nothing familiar or comforting. Maybe that sounds a bit "dark," but I have spent far too much of my life clinging to the pain of difficult times gone by. Sometimes we hang onto old things (memories, places, people, events) for no other reason than they are "familiar," and there's a measure of "comfort" to be found in sitting inside an uncomfortable and painful familiarity, rather than facing the uncertainty of walking through a doorway to an uncertain future and truly closing a chapter behind us.

Helen Keller once wrote (although this is sometimes attributed to Alexander Graham Bell):

“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”

An era has quietly come to a close. In a way, I am going to say my goodbyes to this place I have somehow been "part of." Then I shall quietly walk away and blend back into the crowd... leaving behind whatever ghosts may reside there; it's where they belong...

And if I ever return, it will be as a tourist... not as someone connected to the local scene.

And that's OK.
It's time...