Tuesday, September 23, 2008

New Look

For the past year, I have subscribe to a friend's pictures and paintings. She is the wife of fellow ex-pat Chris, who works in the office with me. First, let me show you some of the awesome pictures that the two of them paint. Yes, I said PAINT. ...with Brushes... and actual water-color. Even an easel!

Chris and Miz K both subscribe to something called Illustration Friday, where a website they subscribe to asks its patrons to paint something for the subject of the week. Miz K, the artist whose paintings I so thoroughly enjoy, has this strange fascination with squids. To the right, you will find her most recent painting, although not an Illustration Friday submission, a picture of two birds in a tree.

Miz K pointed me out to her father's blog, where she was commissioned to make a painting for her father's website header. I liked the look of it so much, I had to have one for myself!

I commissioned her for a painting, with no price set, "But you can now call yourself a professional artist.", I promised. So in case you are unable to correctly interpret the art, let me help you out. To the left, you will find the perfect representation of me, always away from the family, and off flying. Although I don't fly planes with engines, it is kind of hard to draw a glider and have people not respond with something dumb like "Where's the engine on this plane?"

The next snippet shows Jake (who is now much taller in real life -- he is taller than Stacy now. Anyway, you will find Jake and Cecilia rough-housing with Joshie, who is airborne. If you have ever been over to our house in the evening, you will know that rough-housing is a very important part of our bonding. Each of the kids had their favorite rough-housing game, usually involving throwing the kids onto the bed in one way or another. (This was all a really good work-out for me, too).

Finally, you will find Joey clinging to Mommy's side for attention. Doubtless, there are many days when this is really a perfect description of Stacy's life. Joey is growing up a bit, and not quite as clingy as the last year. However, when he is sick, the clingy-tendencies come back.

You may be wondering, "Why rabbits?", well I suppose Miz K found it appropriate, seeing as we have two pet rabbits who live outside our front door, Buck and Sunny. I think I also remember saying, "I don't like crabs so much, so please don't paint something with crabs. "

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Gondola at Stockhorn

Aug 3, 2008

Right after getting back from the US, and before the kids started the new school year, we took a nice Sunday trip to the mountains. I decided to drag the family to Stockhorn.

The Stockhorn is one of the mountains we can see from our patio, shown here:

This is one of Stacy's favorite mountains to look at, so this seemed to be an excellent opportunity for us to go out and see what it looks like from the top.
We were originally going to set out on the train, but with the collection of water bottles, snack, stroller, food, kids, clothes, shoes, socks, WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON'T HAVE YOUR SHOES ON YET?! WE'RE LEAVING IN 2 MINUTES! We always seem to drive instead. I don't think the inertia of the family allows us to leave for anything on time.

The car ride takes us south, toward Thun, then Spiez. We turn East, and go behind the mountains that we can see from our patio, under a tunnel, and down a narrow road with no way to pass if we get stuck behind a tour bus. Eventually, we stop in Erlenbach, and are guided to the last parking space in the whole town.

Within a few minutes, and 40 francs later, we are on the gondola climbing the mountain. I take some nice shots going up the hill:

We arrive at the first stop named "Chrindi" In case you are not familiar with Swiss German pronunciation of things, that "Ch" is not pronounced like "Chicken" or "Church", but as a voiceless uvular fricative -- or maybe it's a voiceless velar fricative, more like the ch in "Lochness Monster", as said by a true Scotsman. I'm not exactly sure, but it is one of those throaty phonemes that is lacking in the English language.

Anyway, once at Chrindi, we stop for an expensive lunch that the kid's didn't enjoy much. Stacy got the "Fitness Teller", and I got some sort of something that involved a lot of gravy and a schnitzel of some sort. It was awesome, but I think was probably too high in something tasty like cholesterol or fat. The kids ate mostly french fries. (They are impossible to feed). The restaurant had a nice view, at least.
Also at the Chrindi statin, there is a small playground with a big rocking horse that the kids enjoyed for a bit. I would rock that thing as hard as I could while they were on-board, and they would slide around screaming from fear [Video].

Between Chrindi and the mountain top, there is a lovely lake where lots of fishermen cast lines, and don't catch much. I never have really understood the point of fishing, but it looks like the people there who were fishing were enjoying themselves with a campfire, beer, and a cooler containing more beer. We set off for a walk around the lake. There were really cool rock patterns that look like they were carved from glaciers, some of the smallest frogs you've ever seen, zillions of little fish in a small pond, We came across a lady whose dog loved to play fetch into the lake, and as he emerged, looked like the Lochness Monster.

Of course, the kids complained of the exercise, and none would pose for pictures. What is a very annoying behavior that the kids have picked up, is to run away from the camera, or to cover their faces as they flee. They think it is funny, but it is grating on my nerves. They also enjoy blocking the camera as the shots are being made of the scenery. It was rather hot on this day, so they enjoyed splashing in a horse watering trough. I think we drank that water too, which looks worse than it was.

We circled around and came back to the gondola station Chrindi, and set out to the second leg of the climb. The second leg goes form Chrindi to the top of the mountain. At the top, there of course are spectacular views, a nice restaurant where we enjoyed the view and some ice cream. We walked up a small zig-zag path to the top of the mountain to soak in the view from all directions.

To the North, we could see nothing but clouds. The clouds did not penetrate into the valley to the South, where it was a pretty clear view to the rest of the Alps to the South. To the East, we could see Interlaken and Thun, when the clouds cleared out just enough. There was very obvious uplift along the mountain faces on both sides, as evidenced by the clouds being blown upward, and the birds soaring effortlessly along the ridge tops. There were no gliders to be seen, but I was definitely looking out for them. A Cessna flew by the restaurant at idle, as not to disturb the restaurant-goers.

The view to the North occasionally allowed us to see "Glory", an optical phenomenon when your shadow is cast upon a cloud. It is like a little mini-rainbow with the shadow of your head at the center of the rainbow. The pictures I took did not come out so well, and I could not really get the colors enhanced enough to artificially enhance what was more obvious with the naked eye. Here is a false-color image of that glory, with the hues enhanced, maybe it will help you find it more easily. The clouds were pretty far down below us, making it harder to see. I have experience with glory as a glider pilot. Occasionally, I can fly above the clouds, and the shadow of the glider is highlighted by this beautiful rainbow halo.

At the top, I tried to get a picture with all four kids. I think I took about 25 shots in total, each time, there was a problem with at least one of the kids. many times, the shot would not come out because a kid was squinting in the sun, or there was a kid looking at his feet. Another time a kid was making a silly face.

Gnaargh! I need to do more kid picture training practice with the kids. Maybe I should get them to be goofy and playing for the first few pictures, to get it all out of their system, and then get the serious picture taking. Well the joy of digital cameras is you can make up for a lack in quality with an abundance of quantity. I took so many pictures, that some of them were bound to come out.

As the day was getting later, the number of people trying to cram into the gondola increased. We got one of the last few gondolas down, and the humanity was packed much like those crowded Tokyo subways. On the car ride home, it was difficult keeping the kids from falling asleep.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Backlog of Updates

Well, so I see it has been a while since I have written anything. A few people have been nice enough to notice, and even nicer to kindly remind me that they enjoy reading what I have to write. So thanks!

And some of them were even Swiss and didn't take the line about how I sometimes feel like it is a nation of noise-sensitive accountants. I am sorry about that. I was very frustrated when I wrote that. But you should know that some Swiss even agreed with me.

America! Heck Ya!
It has been a year since I have been to the land of WalMart and Cheeseburgers... I mean the land of the free and the home of the brave. I arrived in Dulles airport, and was greeted with a wave of unpleasant humidity and heat, as I exited the aircraft. The moist wall of oven heat smacked me in the face haunting me with the unwelcome reminder of why one should never book travel to the nation's Capital during the summer.

When I first sat in my seat on the way to America, I soon found that the window seat next to me was to be occupied by a college girl headed back home to Virginia. She was one of these sorts of people who like to have the window shade closed (these people should not be wasted on window seats), and was also the sort of person to go to the bathroom every 30 minutes (strike two! You should not be gifted with a window seat), and was, in her words , "Very Prone To Air Sickness!"


Now that I look back, my first experience with the heat of landing in America was the nausea that my seat-neighbor suddenly felt as she was nearly ready to return her meal to her lap. An approach into Dulles on a very good soaring day, with lots of turbulence from 9000 feet down to the surface. I wanted to look out the window and look for good soaring clouds. She could not tolerate that. With the turbulence, along with her closed window, along with the sudden rush of heat as we touched down, this was nearly all that she could tolerate. Of course, I had the air sickness bag ready to deploy in hair-trigger mode. Thankfully, there was no spewage.

Always in the Wrong Line
This was a full flight. And half of the flight has someplace else to be; Dulles was not their final destination. There were other flights also arriving at the same time. And they must have all been Jumbo Jets packed with weary stinky international travelers. Dulles International Airport was very clearly designed before the 9/11 revisions of security policy.

As these two jet-loads of passengers off-loaded, they were shoved into a very narrow hallway. There was barely enough room for two people to walk shoulder-to-shoulder. We moved along like cattle. I was reminded of the expression, "Unless you're the lead Husky at the Iditarod, the view never changes."

I had no need to rush, but I could see the frustration of the faces of those who were making connecting flights. They were bumping into me from behind, nearly stepping on my heels. It was crowded, and the pressure of making the connection was pushing me from behind. There was a fork in the path; some people went that way, I went to the left. I could not see the sign past the sea of people, and I could not go that way even if I wanted to; for fear of getting trampled.

We go down a flight of stairs, and I we are all funneled into a room. I stand in a large room with two lines. One for MURICANS! and one for dirty foreigners[*], who are all treated like suspected terrorists. These suspected terrorists, also known politely as "foreign nationals visiting the United States" get to stand in a much longer line with much fewer homeland security personnel, carefully scrutinizing all foreigners who wish to enter the country. Their biometrics are carefully recorded, including a hand-scan. Our country is safe, I know it. I am glad that I am in the line of people with their proud US passports.

I am bringing food into the United States. Going through customs is going to be fun. I declare it. When asked, I answered "Seven jars of preserves."

"Preserves? Like life preservers"

"No, like Jelly. You know. Jam." The border patrol guy doesn't seem to care much, and stamps my paper, and I'm on my way to baggage claim.

My old luggage used to have this big yellow stripe painted through the middle. It was a really crappy paint job too. I did it with a can of furniture spray paint, and it leaked, dripped. It looked rather like the white stripe on the back of a skunk. Clearly, no luggage thief would ever think of stealing this "skunk bag" And not even a blind man would mistake this horribly clashy ugly piece of luggage as his. This time there was no skunk bag. I did not have much time to even look at the luggage I was packing, much less paint a stripe on it. The original skunk bag got smooshed too many times, and had to be retired. This new monster bag is as easy to identify in a sea of identical luggage bags.

With the skunk bag, finding my baggage is usually pretty easy. I normally have a horrible track record with having my luggage sucked out from the luggage compartment and lost at sea somewhere over the Atlantic. Maybe the jet liner flies into a mini black hole, and my bag is the only thing sucked into it. I do not know. But I do know that nobody has as bad a luck with luggage as I do. With the skunk bag, if that bag is showing up on this carousel, I will surely find it. I will not ever confuse it with the zillion other bags circling around, unclaimed.

I stand a bit back from the luggage carousel. Everybody else stands right next to it, and when somebody else needs to get their luggage off in a hurry, the person standing directly next to the conveyor belt doesn't move, and gives a dirty look when the luggage being removed hits them in the knee.

I stand.

I wait.

I watch all the people I saw on my flight show up.

They get their bags.

They leave.

I wait some more.

The conveyor stops.

I wish I had the skunk bag.

I rummage through the several hundred other bags just to make sure that my bag is not among them. Without the powers of skunk-bag, this is not as easy as the task usually is. I finally give up, and am resigned to another episode of wearing the same clothes for several days while my luggage's contents are gathered from the bottom of the Atlantic.

I stand in the long line of lost luggage-ers, one Indian family with a screamy baby, one family headed off to Atlanta. One adult among a large group of children who were all traveling together with some sort of cheer-leading camp or band camp or some sort of school event overseas. I show my baggage claim check, and the lady behind the counter doesn't even type the number into the computer.

"Are you a connecting to another flight?" Wow. It is really nice of her to figure out that I might have a short connection and that she might rush a bit more.

"Why, no. This is where I am stopping" I reply.

"Sir, you got in the wrong line. You need to take a shuttle bus to the other terminal, then go through the other Customs line"

Oh. That is what that other line that I couldn't fork off to was going. I do a facepalm so hard, you might have heard the smacking sound from wherever you were at the time. She escorted me back through customs, where I sneered at the dirty foreigners[*] trying to enter my country. (ok, not really). Back up the flight of stairs, past even more people waiting in line. I finally get to the fork in the path on the too-narrow hallway, and find myself waiting for a shuttle bus. The last shuttle just left, and I am forced to wait another 20 minutes for the next one. It was an uncomfortable wait, considering that there was no air conditioning in this part of Dulles, or at the very least inadequate air conditioning.

I get to the "correct" line at Customs, and present my already stamped customs form, which immediately raised suspicions with the customs guard. I had to admit, again, that "stupid me got into the wrong line and came here once I realized my baggage was coming to this terminal." Facepalm again. He actually was a customs agent with a sense of humor. There was nobody behind me, so there was no pressure for him to get me through the line as quickly as possible. When he asked me about the "bringing drugs in the country", he quickly rattled off the list of all of the nicknames for any drug you had ever imagined.

"No Weed? No smack? No Crack? No Strips? No blips? No needles? No vines? No snuff-snuff? No Puff-Puff?" He said these all in rapid succession that I was rather stunned.

"Nope I'm clean!" He let me on, and stamped my customs form AGAIN. That is the funniest guy in customs I have ever seen. I thought these guys were not supposed to have a sense of humor. Maybe it was some sort of mind game they played trying to get me off guard to admit to something un-American. A clever strategy! I would not be fooled!

I am sure some customs agent reviewing all the submitted forms wondered how one of these could get two stamps. It could only take an idiot....

Driving Adventures

I have no idea what happened to my Virginia Drivers License. Good thing I have my Swiss license. I got my rental car at Hertz, and started the drive to my hotel in Sterling. The first thing I noticed was a three way stop sign just before exiting to the north of the airport. I realized then why traffic circles were so excellent. If there was a traffic circle here, nobody would have to stop. Since nobody is coming from the right side (EVER), all parties just swoop around the traffic circle, and are on their way, without an expensive stop. Do you realize how much gas is wasted by just stopping and starting a car? Clearly the US could use more traffic circles. Maybe I shook my fist in anger at this traffic engineer.

I get on to Route 28 to find myself in a traffic jam. This is typical. In Northern Virginia, this area west of the Capital Beltway expanded very rapidly in the late 1990s and early 2000's, and is still expanding. Of course, the Representative government of Virginia loves the extra income of the explosion of population. And they love taking that tax revenue and sharing it with the rest of the state. This means that there is a disproportionate amount of wealth put into the rest of the much less affluent state; and it shows in the choked traffic patterns of Northern Virginia. It is enough of an issue for some people to propose seceding Northern Virginia from the rest of the state. I, for one, am all for it. For one, I am tired of living in a state that always votes Republican in the Presidential elections. If you were witness to this traffic, you might even vote with me.

The List of Nine
While sitting on the plane, next to the easily-stricken with airsickness college girl, I wrote down a list of all the places I needed to eat while I was in Virginia. This list would have come so easily while I was in Switzerland around October of last year, when I was feeling kind of homesick. But now that I have gotten rather used to life in Europe, I don't miss those things so much any more. Here was my list, to the best of my recollection, in no particular order:
I had a coworker take me out to "anything on my list", a friend from the company drove me to Los Tol Tecos, where we enjoyed an excellent Mexican food dinner. Switzerland does not have many Mexicans, so the Mexican food there is.. well ... very French, and not very Mexican.

I found a way to get to everything else on the list, with the exception of the Main Street Mill, in Front Royal. I went to the gliderport to meet everybody and do some flying. Some friends suggested we meet at the Mill after flying, and they left early. By the time I had gotten there, they all had left. So no Mill for me. For the most part, people were so happy to see me, that they paid for my meals for me. So even though I was travelling on the company's bill, I still did not have many items to place on my expense report.

The food at all of these places was not as wonderful as I remember it. The nostalgia was more important than the actual lunch quality. I did really enjoy the Mexican food at Los Tol Tecos, and the burger at 5 guys was pretty good; but I could do just fine without these for another year.

Wandering Around the Office
As I arrived to work, my main focus was to meet up with the people I haven't seen in a year. I went floor-by-floor, office by office, meeting people that I really like, and having the same conversation over and over again.

"Hi! Are you back for good? Or just visiting?"

"Just visiting"

"I heard you were coming back [permanently]. "

"It's complicated. But for now, I'll be back in August 2009. "

"How is it over there? "

"(Sigh) Have you read my blog?"

"You have a blog?"

"Yes. "

"What is the name of the blog? "

"I am the only Piet Barber in the world, it's not that hard to find. " (There are some advantages to having that weird Dutch name).

"How is the family doing?"

"It's a pendulum. They hate it one week, and the next week they love it. Jake never has loved it though. "

Imagine this conversation about 30 times over a week. I should have just brought along queue card for the script. Or maybe a FAQ for the person before we have to talk.

Other Adventures and Notes in America
I'll just list these in brief:
  • The family and I took a day trip to King's Dominion
  • The family got taken out to dinner to Red Robin by my father (on the last possible day)
  • The family got invited to my sister's house, but only I went, since some of the family was sick.
  • I worked a lot, there was about 4 weeks of work that everybody tried to cram into my 6 days at the office. Not to mention all the personal time I needed with the various co-workers with whom I never see, and don't get to talk to.
  • Five Guys Burgers are as awesome as I remember them.
  • Virginia is hot in July and August.
  • Driving sucks in Virginia
  • Being forced to drive everywhere sucks. No wonder kids always want a driver's license immediately when they are 16.
  • Traffic circles would be a really excellent enhancement to traffic management in Virginia, but nobody in America knows the rules of the traffic circle, and there would be driving fatalities for the first few years, at least.

* I don't really feel that way about foreigners, it just seems that the Homeland Security Parade looks at the visitors to America in this way.