Thursday, July 24, 2014


The following is a fictional short story.
Good evening fellow toastmasters.  Tonight, I’d like to tell you about this past summer. By the time the succulent month of April had passed, we had all realized that what we needed was some down time, and a lot of cocktails. Mojitos, after all we’d been given a few extra days in April, Magical Easter Monday, and, of course, The King’s Birthday, we all dreamed about getting on a boat and cruising the canals completely plastered more often. Thank God May provides such Ascension. May rolls by, we’re going towards the summer, shaking out the white linen shirts we all hate to iron. Do you know every time I buy a new summer shirt I long to be seen in it, looking calm and tanned, but I don’t envy the upkeep of the garment. Standing in the store, listening to the sales girl tell me I’d look like a God in the off white Indian cut tunic, I always calculate a number of dry cleaning runs into the price. If, during the course of the eight weeks of summer, the dry cleaning of the shirt is more than three times the price, I don’t buy it. It’s a good rule and I’d recommend it, in case any of you are wondering about sales tactics on the high street.
But now of course we are in September and the weather is cooling. You might want to look into buying a lambs wool sweater soon, and I can recommend that you take your cigarette lighter to test the quality of the wool. You’ll get a quick discount if you look like you’re ready to scorch the corner. But in between last spring and this fall what happened?  Summer! Who could forget such a summer, sultry, long legged nights and perspicacious boating shoes? Summer is the best season to look sharp. Winter, I admit, gets a little stuffy in those heavy sweaters.
The down side to summer is that it’s as the Dutch say “cucumber time” – not much going on in terms of noteworthy discussion topics while pouring the white wine into the glass of a woman wearing “Flower Bomb” in the nape of her 100% natural St. Tropez tan. Hmmm, yes going past the nape, your eyes travel to the deft cut of a soft breast in a yellow bikini. Yellow was a trendy color this year and it does have its charms, especially in a string bikini. It’s newsworthy fortunate, or rather I should say mortally unfortunate for the passengers, that Ukrainian rebels blew up a plane.  Now that was news that rocked coffee tables. All those innocent Dutch people blasted out of the sky on their way to a harmless vacation. Peaceful, law abiding citizens nosing their way through Rough Travel Books suddenly made lifeless pawns in the arms of the Ex Soviet Union, the hussy. Scandalous how the bodies lay in the fields, being picked over for gold by the peasants. I suppose we shouldn’t say peasants these days. Poultry professionals maybe, I gather that the nearest buildings were chicken farms. They had iphones, they filmed the plumes of smoke.
The episode reminds me of the death of JFK Jr. Of course that happened the year I was still in university. But the case is very similar, as a matter of fact. Off for a wedding, okay the AIDS specialist was due at a conference in Melbourne, but nonetheless, an inconspicuous jaunt in the air to mix business with pleasure and a loss of horizon and kaboom, grounded. Or rather sunk in an ocean. Anyway we all perked up at the news of the crash and a few of my friends even bought De Telegraaf. Normally none of us would be seen dead with de Telegraaf not even under an elbow. Or the dog's ass. We discussed the names of the victims. The Netherlands is a small country and so and so knows so and so whose nephew visits the nail salon of the unlucky proprietors who were going back to Kuala Lumpur to visit some relatives.  Everyone spent hours making the connections.

Facebook (connections to Facebook, what a transition heh?) was The Place to be when it came to gleaning information that you could use to make an important point in the discussions. When you need to impress your friends with an esoteric bit of information, the heart breaking soul searching type, what you need to do is gather a round number of odd ball friends on Facebook, who go places you’ll never dream of setting foot in, and then tell you all about it. Information my friends it what advances a career. Just be sure not to like anything, because then people see what you’re up to, and then they see the item too. It’s much more satisfying to learn that your friends have learned things months after you encountered the same items on Facebook. In the case of the MH17, everything went around and around, over and over and even an odd new word here or there snapped your brain to attention. Of course not everything was new, no not really.  A lot of stories were made up, and became reality after everyone had repeated them to each other.  At last the Dutch prime minister showed his mettle when he called for a day of national mourning, and that made everyone respectful which is the way it should be for God’s sake, a little dignity doesn’t hurt. Even the King got down to Eindhoven to greet the bodies. You see, it’s all about wording. Finding the right words to express the grief of the Dutch nation, and punish the wrong doers.
During the five minutes of silence, when church bells all over our country tolled to megaphone our solidarity with the families of those who had died, I mainly prayed for salvation from myself. The Netherlands was pretty big, at one time, on the thought of predestination. Maybe I should have said that I prayed for salvation for myself, but I don’t mean this, I mean from myself. I’m not always proud of myself. Yes, I can buy expensive shirts, and loll about in the Cote d’Azur ogling my friends’ girlfriends, but damn it, life should mean something. I’m not sure I’ve found it, and maybe I am doomed to never know the meaning of life. What I am aiming at is Why Are We Here? Do you ever wonder that? Quantitatively I think less like this after an aerial disaster, happy that it wasn’t me in the plane headed for an early arrival at the river Styx. I become a hero by default.

Heroes! We all want to be one.  Yes I see the red light, Taco. To sum it up, this summer was exciting in a mournful thankful to be alive manner, and makes the coming Christmas holidays bearable for some and unbearable for others.  Thank you. Where did Marcel go? I am supposed to shake his hand now.
Amsterdam 2014 Copyright Persephone Abbott

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Lemons Are Sweet

My new job in the corporate world signifies that I need to take a keen interest in capitalism. Granted, the world I’ve witnessed in the last few months has not shocked me, but my eyes have widened. To facilitate my communication capacities in this realm of business and legal talk, I’ve begun to watch Yale YouTube videos again.  By again, I mean that I used to watch the things that I was personally interested in such as philosophy or the history of the Old Testament, but now I’m watching the course on capitalism and will be shortly starting one of the various series on finance.

Quite obviously I didn’t attend Yale or Harvard when I was a student. Yale was not an option for me either as dream or an ideal, educationally or socially speaking.  A few problems strike me as I’m watching the course on capitalism. Firstly, the manner in which business minds work, and the adaption of information to facilitate and redeem such thought processes. Take, for instance, a chart on birth and death rates and the integration of curves on a graph to pan-label the world, or nations, cities, neighborhoods, etc. The reasons for the changes in rates are not completely exploited, it’s the overall chart that is of use to the business mind. The information could be historically correct or, more importantly, it will be made historically correct perhaps by a collection of business plans. I know, I know, history is also made up, molded and reformed as it goes along its merry way. Secondly, the instruction as to where exactly the ethical lines could be drawn because of significant business failures (enter facts sometimes backed up by guest speakers in polo shirts). The series sprinkles morals here and there and heralds more potential triumphs of capitalism.  The lecture series is all very American. It even smells American, as I sit behind the computer screen in Amsterdam, I’m inhaling the scent of Back-to-School-Stateside. I know it’s real and I know it’s not reality, yet it is a time slot to be mined and abandoned. It’s also the official world of the esteemed Professor.
I have devised a fantasy lately that when Europeans ask me, “Why can’t the USA enforce gun control?” or “Why can’t the USA provide health care for all its citizens?” that I can point at their iPhone and say, “Listen to Prof. R.’s lecture number 14, please.” Lecture number 14 was the positive message about that incredibly stable political giant, the USA government.

Simply put I cannot relate to the enthusiasm for business as found in the Yale classroom. Part of the problem is that I remember an American saying to me: “So when I heard she had cancer, I went to the bank put all of our savings into a check and mailed it to her.” Or: “I filed for bankruptcy – it turns out I won’t be a real estate mogul.” Or: “My brother was shot on his doorstep. The police refuse to use the video surveillance material to try to catch the killers because it’s not in their jurisdiction.”
 So is there a way to beat the open institution of unethical behavior (whether it involves a lawsuit or not) and make big money so that you can send your children to Ivy League schools? Depends on what you think is unethical.  I mean if the person you are negotiating with is not aware of an alternative or the detriments, there’s no problem with the deal. Right? What is more fascinating to think about than the lectures are the students in the class room, notably the foreign students who may already know some of the alternatives and anti-detriments, and are picking up the way of the American Club. Culturally speaking, what happens to them?  Profit or nonprofit? Aside from this I gather business is business across the globe.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

Have I Actually Learned Dutch?

Back in an office environment, a Dutch one, I quickly realized, thank God, that my Dutch was going to improve. I brought to work my old Dutch grammar book, the one I bought twenty years ago, planning to review it when I had a quiet moment in between tasks.

“You can tell,” a student of mine remarked about my emails, “When your attention is elsewhere.  The Dutch is quite funny.”
It’s a pet peeve of mine, especially when I witness other foreigners totally integrated with fairly immaculate Dutch snapping out of their fingertips in brilliant strings of emails. I might have started out on the right track, but admittedly part of the problem about my lack of progression was that the native person I lived with for the last twenty years was not highly charismatic with his Dutch or his reading habits. This did not encourage my wavering tenacity to master Dutch. “What do you speak at home?” People asked me. The answer: Dutch when in the Netherlands and English when abroad.  I now have highly educated colleagues at work whose conversations go far beyond the parsimonious level of discussions that I previously endured at home. (Note to self: I must remember to read the NRC in the weekends to join Monday’s discussions.)

In the office I cracked open my Dutch grammar book. It’s not rocket science.  “Het” it said of the grammatical article is “onzijdig” and I can already hear my Dutch colleague’s voice in a discussion about food.  “Hèt-dt Bróoo-ooodh,” she says relishing the “het” (the) as much as the ”brood” (bread), “is delicious.” I get it, the importance of articles.  I used to love them when I lived in France; the utter delight of placing the correct gender of article before the noun. Why hadn’t the pleasure ever occurred to me when it came to Dutch?
Maybe because Dutch is not a very nice sounding language. “It’s Low German.” A German friend said recently to me over dinner. As much as foreigners truly foreign to the Netherlands want to believe this, it’s not Low German, it’s Dutch. Try applying German grammar to Dutch grammar and you’ll find this out. Besides culturally words form different associations in different languages, sliding hither and thither with emotive vowel mooing.

I looked through the grammar book.  “Do I,” I thought slowly, “Need to know the plural of  bovine?” I gazed at the more formal plural of cow or cattle than the colloquial "koeien." It made sense; it wouldn’t come to my mind to say “runds” or even “rundjes.” Obviously I had possibly read and heard the word several times. I doubt that in the twenty years I’ve lived in the Netherlands that I had ever spoken the word, “runderen.”

Still it was nice to come to this realization and I also finally spotted that I had not even noticed the fact that the grammar book itself was explained in Dutch. “What is ‘lidwoord’ in English,” I wondered mildly looking into the book. 

“Lidwoord.” It said, matter of fact.

Hmmmm…. Must be “het lidwoord” – feels like a “het” there and definitely not a “de.”

“’Het’ completes the pot,” I thought dreamily of the article.