Thursday, June 30, 2011

Things I see on my way to work

Just a quick collection of photos and videos I (mostly) took while walking to work a couple of days ago. After yesterday's heavy topic, I thought something lighter might be more pleasant. Sadly, these are all taken with my phone, so the quality isn't great. As usual, you can click on them to see larger versions.

Lovely little bridge on the north side of Vondelpark

Gorgeous building along the north edge of Vondelpark

Wish I had a better camera to get this bird with

Not really Vondelpark
A houseboat I sometimes see while walking home

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Illegal Immigration

America wants cheap fruits and vegetables, but isn't willing to pay the price for them.

Moving to other countries can be complex, rewarding, challenging, and sometimes illegal. Along with much of the anti-immigrant furor which crops up in countries from time to time — it's cropping up here in the Netherlands and was very common when I lived in the UK¹ — there's also an occasional backlash against illegals.

What always frustrates me about this backlash is that there's often very little rational discussion about the issue. In US President George Bush's 2007 State of the Union Address, he declared a need for a "guest worker" program (he had tried to push it before that). The idea was to allow workers to come to the US, pick the crops and go home. The theory is that since we need laborers willing to work for little money on some of the most difficult and low-paying jobs we need done, why not temporarily allow people in the country who will do those jobs. Republicans are stereotypically anti-immigration and they objected to their own President's proposal, though I will give Bush credit for trying to solve a thorny problem.

Well, the state of Georgia recently tried to solve this problem by passing HB 87, a complicated and expensive "punish the hell out of everyone" law which aimed to stop people from applying for jobs illegally, stop employers from hiring illegals, stop people from transporting illegals, stop illegals from using false documentation, etc. It aimed to gut illegal immigration and at first glance, it appears that it's already achieved one of its major goals: stopping illegal immigrants from taking work.

Though I believe people should have the opportunity to live and work wherever in the world they want to (and I know it's an unrealistic dream), I rather welcome Georgia's law because in accomplishing what it set out to do, it's showing America what's really going on with immigration issues. Just over a month after it was passed, in a state where agriculture is their number one industry, crops are rotting in the field. From that article:

Barely a month ago, you might recall, Gov. Nathan Deal welcomed the TV cameras into his office as he proudly signed HB 87 into law. Two weeks later, with farmers howling, a scrambling Deal ordered a hasty investigation into the impact of the law he had just signed, as if all this had come as quite a surprise to him.
Did you catch the "two weeks later" bit? That's how serious these issues are. They have an immediate and deep impact on us and naïvely pretending that kicking out illegal immigrants and getting worked up over them allegedly stealing jobs doesn't help the situation. Georgia knew very well that they were heavily dependent on illegal immigrants taking up work, but because the Republican legislature valued slogans over reality, Georgia faces having their farm industry crumbling at a time when the economy is already doing very poorly.

The governor is scrambling to fix the mess he's made and he's encouraging farmers to hire "criminal probationers" to replace the illegal aliens. There are plenty of problems with this, not the least of which is that there are only about 2,000 inexperienced workers to replace the estimated 11,000 person shortfall.  And for anyone who says Americans are simply too lazy for this work needs to apply for one of these jobs and try to keep it for a week. It's back-breakingly hard labor under a hot sun, for very little pay. I've read of some encouraging the farms to pay more money for workers (and some have already tried bonuses with little success), but if the farms pay out too much money, their produce will be too expensive relative to other US states who have been a bit more pragmatic about this issue.

It's entirely possible that the courts may shut down this law, or at least put a stay on it, but I hope they don't. Though painful, I want Georgia to see firsthand how complicated immigration issues really are and perhaps the rest of the USA can get an idea that maybe they should think about these issues rather than simply pontificate.

1. One abhorrent woman in the UK kept ranting about needing to keep immigrants out and rather than me bluntly pointing out that she immigrated from Austria, I simply pointed out that I was from the US. She told me I was the "right" kind of immigrant and made it quite clear she wasn't talking about "highly skilled migrant". Sadly, Austria has quite a bad reputation in this area.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

How to move to Europe, the long version

Generally when I encounter good information for people about how to emigrate, I summarize it here and then provide you with links so you can go digging for more information. This has two benefits:

Beggar Cat
A cat in Corsica who kept coming by
a villa I rented and begging for food.
  1. You can judge from the quick overview if the information is pertinent to you
  2. I'm not sending you away

That last point sounds rather cheeky, but many Web sites try to employ strategies to keep you on their Web site and frankly, I want people to keep reading through a lot of the articles here.

Except today. Go read Europe for Non-EU Citizens. Not only is it a huge, comprehensive explanation of various strategies about how you can move to Europe, but the author, Sharon de Hinojosa, updates it regularly with new information, so you should bookmark it too.

I'm pretty sure that much of the information won't be applicable to you, but you'll probably find a few things that you never knew about — I certainly did.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Haarlem versus Amsterdam

Next month we'll be moving to another flat here in Amsterdam, in addition to taking a trip to Nice, France for the christening of a friend's child and later I'll be in Portland, Oregon, for OSCON, the world's largest open source software convention. In short, we'll be busy, busy, busy, though I hope to get some photos for you.

Yesterday we took a break from packing (my wife is so efficient at this that she's already packed the novel I was reading ... grr!), to visit Haarlem, a lovely city near Amsterdam. Haarlem, as one of my friends described it, is "Amsterdam without the bullshit". Now I know why. It's gorgeous and not nearly so packed with tourists. Americans often have a preconception of what Europe is supposed to be, but then they visit Paris, London and other major cities and don't see the Europe that is. Haarlem is a lovely example of Europe (though I should be careful not to generalize Haarlem to all of Europe, of course).

Canal in Haarlem, Netherlands
This was a lovely boat in the canal

Canal in Haarlem, Netherlands
People were taking advantage of the lovely weather

Canal in Haarlem, Netherlands
Another canal

Grote Markt, Haarlem, Netherlands
Grote Markt, Haarlem, Netherlands

Cafes near the Grote Markt, Haarlem, Netherlands
Dutch cafes on the Grote Markt

Me and my daughter
Our daughter loves "flying"

... and watching everything around her.

Haarlem, Netherlands
The view from the cafe we were relaxing at.

Canal in Haarlem, Netherlands
Another canal in Haarlem

My niece in Haarlem, Netherlands
My niece, enjoying her trip to Europe

All in all, Haarlem seems to have a slower, more relaxed pace than Amsterdam and I find that to be humorous because my wife and I found that Amsterdam had a slower, more relaxed pace than London.

After having lived in and explored small town Europe versus the "grand cities", I strongly urge anyone thinking of living here to check out the smaller towns. London is not England. Amsterdam is not the Netherlands. Paris is not France. People from the outside often don't recognize this, but you're missing out on so much of the culture if you limit yourself to the tourist destinations.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Teaching English in Thailand

By now, if you're reading regularly, you should probably have a good idea of where you can look to find job opportunities, but I'm still going to post direct possibilities here just to keep you motivated and may to help you stumble across an opportunity you would have otherwise missed.

Thailand Christmas 2005 004
Do you want to live here or be a tourist?
Photo by Steph and Adam Kahtava
If you're not highly skilled but you are a native English speaker, teaching English is still an easy way out (even for married couples!). As I've mentioned previously, though, you need to get certified. It's harder to get an English teaching job without it and it will open up many avenues you previously hadn't had — not to mention the fact that it pays better.

Case in point, the AUA Language Center, with 18 campuses across Thailand, lists the following in their job requirements for English teachers:
  • native-like command of English
  • bachelor's degree
  • 120 Hour TEFL certificate (SIT, CELTA or equivalent)
  • teaching experience preferred (not required!)
  • one-year commitment
Note that in another advert of theirs, they point out that this 120 hour TEFL certificate must be face-to-face. No dodgy Web sites promising certification allowed. Not every company who might hire you will require a bachelor's degree and some will have less stringent certification requirements, but the less they ask of you, the more likely you're going to hit a school you'd rather avoid.

So why aren't you enrolled in TEFL classes yet?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Volunteers for Peace (short-stay abroad)

If you're interested in but don't qualify for the Peace Corps or are not in a position to make a commitment that long, consider the Volunteers for Peace. Their mission, as they describe it:
Volunteers For Peace promotes International Voluntary Service as an effective means of intercultural education, service learning and community development. We provide projects where people from diverse backgrounds can work together to help overcome the need, violence and environmental challenges facing our planet. We organize and promote projects where nations join together to improve life on our planet and volunteers experience a microcosm of our world ... read more
Most of their projects are in the summer months and last 2 to three weeks, but a few longer-term projects last up to a year. For most people, their registration fee is only $300 (a low cost for many volunteer opportunities) and you have to arrange your own transportation.

Check out their Facebook page and here's a sample of some of the work they do in Ireland, but they have opportunities around the world.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Overseas Medication

Burlington, Vermont
Burlington, Vermont, home of no allergies!
Photo by Doug Kerr
I was in Vermont a few years ago, working on a contract and was pleasantly surprised to discover that my perpetual summer hay fever was gone. Sadly, it's the only place on the planet I've found which allows me to escape my annual three months of summer hell.

My niece is now here and she and I went to an apotheek (pharmacy) so I could get a nasal steroid spray for my sniffling, but no luck. Unlike the US (and I believe the UK), you have to have a prescription for them, so I need to go to a doctor. Apparently they're worried that I'd be lifting weights with my nose or something.

In the UK, by comparison, you can't buy asthma inhalers over the counter, something you could do in the US for as long as I can remember. Again, you have to go to a doctor. So this is a top travel tip: don't take over the counter medicine for granted. If you need some medication, take it with you or find out if your target country requires a prescription for it.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Working abroad for your company

KPMG, a global tax, audit and advisory firm, does an annual survey of "Global Assignment Policies and Practices". Their 2010 survey results reveal that companies who send employees abroad are still struggling to do so. They're finding more ways of cutting the costs of those employees, including cutting benefits and finding creative ways of cutting their cost of living allowances.

That's the bad news. The good news is that corporations are sending even more people abroad as international competition requires them to do so. Which, incidentally, pretty much matches what KPMG's 2009 Global Assignment Policies and Practices survey said. More of the world is getting interconnected every day and it appears you have a greater chance than even of finding a company willing to send you overseas, but with the extreme costs involved and the global economic struggles, I think countries are going to have to reconsider the legal hurdles they put in the way of people moving abroad if they want to continue to be attractive in the international marketplace.

Friday, June 17, 2011


On Wednesday I was at an all-day training even for IT staff for our company and afterwards they took all of us out to dinner (with free beer) at the Kaap Kot restaurant in Amsterdam. It has a lovely dock out back and the sun was out, allowing us to sit and enjoy our beer on a patio overlooking the water while waiting for dinner. What's really interesting about this restaurant is that Kaap Kot is temporary. They temporarily set up the restaurant in a building that's easy to set up and tear down and then when that area gets built up, they tear it down and move it.  Currently situation overlooking a lovely bend on the Amstel River, it's a lovely venue. I can't comment on the food quality as we had a buffet and those are never as nice, but the buffet was pleasant, though hardly extraordinary.

While sitting there, a new colleague who we've just brought over from California (his first time in Europe was when we flew him over for the interview), found out I used to live in Portland and asked me if I was a fan of Portlandia.


I stopped watching TV about 26 years ago (though there have been periods I've watched it a bit) and I have no idea about it any more. I hear about lovely shows like Firefly only because someone mentions them or I incidentally read about them. So I was delighted to hear about Portlandia, where young people go to retire.

Yeah, that's homesickness talking. I don't want to move back to the US, but I miss Portland :)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Cooking with "ingredients"

One dish that I particularly enjoy eating is chicken parisienne (a dish my French wife, who lived for many years in Paris, had never heard of). Here's a typical list of ingredients for this (and pretty close to how I made it):

"Condense soup, not books" - Project 366 2008 - August 10, 2008~
The are not ingredients!
Photo by turtlemom4bacon
  • 6 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • paprika to taste
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 (10.75 ounce) can condensed cream of mushroom soup
  • 1 (4.5 ounce) can sliced mushrooms, drained
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
My wife is mystified by this and doesn't understand why "can of soup" would be listed in a recipe, but to me that sort of ingredient list was natural. In the US, it was common to see recipes listing "1 cup of Brand X goo", "box of vaguely edible things" or "can o' soup".

Me? I make a pretty mean fried chicken involving marinating the chicken overnight in buttermilk, a proper cast iron skillet, some flour, beer, and a package of Hidden Valley Ranch seasoning powder.

I was so used to the brand-driven consumer culture in the US that I didn't think about this too much. Sure, I told myself that I'd learn how to duplicate that seasoning mix myself ... but I never did. I got so used to eating things out of boxes and cans and pouches that I plain forgot what food was. So when I made fajitas for friends from France, my wife set out snacks before the BBQ and the children were happily eating salad and cherry tomatoes and not just the wasabi peanuts and other less healthy things. It was simply natural for them to eat food.

I'm still getting used to cooking over here, but I'm also spoiled by having a wife who's an excellent cook.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Flights to Amsterdam (Airlines suck)

This morning at 4AM, I got out of bed, had breakfast, walked to Amsterdam Centraal Station because the trams weren't running yet, bought a return ticket to Schiphol airport to pick up my niece and texted her father, letting him know that I was heading to the airport to get her. His reply was, and I quote "Kidding? She hasn't even left here yet."

Why, oh, why are airlines so insistent upon providing such hateful, user unfriendly itineraries? Here's the one she sent me.
  Tue 14JUN DELTA XXXX    OK   T   LV PORTLAND      635A     F     29A
                                   AR NYC-KENNEDY   255P          COACH

  Tue 14JUN DELTA XXXX    OK   T   LV NYC-KENNEDY   415P     D     30C
                                   AR AMSTERDAM     600A#         COACH
Of course, had I stopped for even a moment to think about this, I would have realized that she was arriving tomorrow, but I saw "14JUN 600A". I travel internationally quite a bit so I should know better, but I didn't.

I took a day off today to go pick her up. Now I have to try and switch that around at work.

This isn't the first time I've been upset with airlines (warning, foul language in that). For most industries, this level of awful customer customer service would be a disaster, but airlines don't seem to really care that much. I've never quite understood that.

And yes, I know this is ultimately my fault instead of the airlines, but my god they could do a better job of presenting itinerary details. That crap above is practically hostile.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mexican Food in Europe

We had more friends from France stop by Amsterdam to visit us. That is one of the things I love about Europe. Want to visit a different country/culture? Just hop in your car. Frankly, it still amazes me that people wouldn't jump at an opportunity to live here. Not only is the lifestyle more focused on living than working (hello, five weeks vacation!), but the history and breadth of experience here is breathtaking. In fact, one of the few things missing here is Tex-Mex cooking.

Friends from France
More friends from France visiting us

We had a BBQ to welcome them and I decided to give them a taste of what it would have been like in Texas. I made a potato salad with bacon (something I'm not used to seeing outside of the southern US, though that could be coincidence), but I really went all out in making fajitas. They take a bit of work to make properly, so I marinated some meat overnight in lime juice, tequila, cumin, cilantro and a few other things. It came out fairly well (my wife says they were better than any she's made), but I already have ideas on how to improve them more. Still, serving the fajitas on tortillas with pico de gallo, grilled onions and sour cream was a pleasant treat.

Perhaps it should be my mission to convince Europeans that Mexican/Tex-Mex food isn't the awful crap that you get in restaurants over here. I've had "salsa" which tastes like peppered ketchup and I've had waitresses in "Mexican" restaurants tell me they didn't know what tacos were. And that time I had enchiladas wrapped in cold, unsteamed corn tortillas. Yuck!

No wonder Mexican food isn't popular over here. And you can't imagine what a pain the rear it is finding ingredients. You have to know that "cilantro" is "koriander" and even if the butcher understands English, there's a good chance he/she won't understand the names for cuts of meat. Skirt steak? What's that? You can also make fajitas with flank steak and apparently the term is flankensteak, but I didn't know that. Sigh. And where can I find the delicious green chiles which are ubiquitous in the US? There are American stores here, so I'm going to have to go hunting, but I don't hold out much hope.

And let's not talk about how I walked into a halal butcher looking for bacon.

Friday, June 10, 2011

International Recruiting

Note: if you if a company willing to sponsor work permits and recruit people from overseas and would like to be written up in this blog, get in touch. I'll happily write something up.

Update: I got into work this morning to see their conference banners. While their flyers were uninteresting, one of their banners has a lovely picture of an Amsterdam canal. Much nicer.

I'll be in Portland, Oregon, for the 2011 OSCON conference. My employer,, is sending me and I'll be spending part of my time down in the vendor area, trying to recruit people to move to Amsterdam. I actually enjoy recruiting and I love trying to help people move to other countries, so it's a win-win for me. Actually, it's a win-win-win because I lived in Portland for many years and have a lot of friends there.

Since I recruit I went ahead and let my employers know I would blog about our positions and I asked what I can and cannot talk about in regards to the job. They gave me the go ahead, with few restrictions. This is where their idea of recruiting and my idea of recruiting diverge. I looked at our recruiting flyers and they were, um, rather dull. They explained who were were and what we did and they had nothing interesting or unusual, except down near the bottom (if you read that far) there was a passing mention of Amsterdam. This is disappointing because we're really a great place to work and have a fun work culture, but that's awfully hard to convey.

You've all seen flyers like that. You've been around the block and you know darn well that no one is going to recruit you and tell you the job sucks. Flyers like that are begging you to yawn.

Here's a proof of concept of what I would do for a flyer:

Amsterdam Canal
Amsterdam. We'll pay you to move here.
(Photo by pumicehead)

That's what it's about, baby.

So for people living outside of Europe, there are roughly two types:
  • People who don't want to move to Europe.
  • People who do want to move to Europe.
For the "don'ts", the job doesn't matter. For the "do's", the job doesn't matter. Sure, I know some of you will protest "of course it matters!" and for many of you, it will. However, I've been studying expat issues for a long time and I guarantee that for the majority of people who are clamoring to move to Europe, they'll consider shoveling latrines if they saw it as a stepping stone to staying here.

What? Still don't believe me? In fulfilling my recruiting role, I went to Reddit's /r/IWantOut community and talked up the job. I got a ton of resumes to forward along and some of them seem fantastic. If you read that post, you only see the comments. You don't see the ton of private messages I received. And you know what? With only a couple of exceptions, no one asked me what the job was like. Sure, a couple asked if the pay was reasonable and some asked me if I thought they were qualified to work for us, but honestly, no one gave a damn. They were sending in resumes left and right and I had to go back to them ask them to send me a link to the specific job they wanted to apply for. Yes, that's a community of people who specifically announce that they want to live in another country, but I see this everywhere, not just there.

By the way, we're still hiring loads of IT people from network admins up to various types of front end (html+css+javascript) to back end (mostly Perl) developers. And yes, we'll pay you to relocate to Amsterdam.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Transportation Strike

Note: I welcome corrections on this from any Dutch people. Naturally my knowledge of the local politics and economy is hampered by my inability to read Dutch.

Back when I lived in London, I was frustrated because the Tube drivers went on strike so often I started referring to them as Le Tube (a reference to the famous French tendency to strike at the drop of a hat). The leader of the Transport for London Union, Bob Crow, is a thoroughly despised man to many people in London, calling multiple strikes to protect pay and working conditions for transport drivers that many feel are unacceptable (new Tube drivers, who can be hired with no qualifications and start after a few weeks of training, make more money than my brother Greg, who's been a nurse with the NHS for 13 years).

Even more seldom.
Dutch Tram
Photo by Generaal Gibson
In moving to the Netherlands, I wasn't sad to leave Bob Crow's transportion system behind me. We had strikes yesterday, but unlike the Bob Crow strikes, these seem reasonable. The Dutch transport minister, Melanie Schultz van Haegen, has decided that we're spending too much money on transportation. Currently Amsterdam spends €122 million on transportation, but she wants this by by a whopping €75 million (article in Dutch and I may have misunderstood bits after translation). However, I note that her political party, the VVD, is apparently very concerned that the private market rule supreme. Even if cutting Amsterdam transportation spending by 60% were feasible, doing it practically overnight is a disaster. I thought anyone with even basic economic knowledge would be smart enough to know that you transition from one system to another, not just gut the current workings and move on.

Of course, the current government is also trying to get rid of marijuana and is doing that by not allowing tourists in Dutch coffee shops. I can only presume this is a cunning plan to halt the shutting of prisons for lack of criminals.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Great BBQ

I took a few days off last week, taking advantage of the fact that I enjoy five weeks holiday here in the Netherlands. Last Thursday, my wife and I threw an impromptu BBQ with our neighbors. Two grills, plenty of beer and wine and fantastic company (who asked that I not post photos of them).

Leïla and the BBQ
My wife overlooking the table out back.

And here's our cat Arthur, trying to figure out how to get out of a neighbor's tree.

Our cat, Arthur, stuck in a tree
He's a lovely cat, but not the brightest.

Sadly, the owner's wife is pregnant and they're returning to the Netherlands, so we've decided to vacate the house early so she doesn't have to move twice upon her return (Leïla, naturally, is rather sympathetic to the plight of pregnant women). House hunting has begun again, but with us traveling to Nice, France for a week next month and then me traveling to the US for a week after that, we have far less free time than we thought. So it's not only house hunting, it's house hunting under pressure in a country we don't know well. Fun!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Explaining US politics to foreigners

At our last BBQ, I was talking about how strange things seemed to be in my original country, the US. I mentioned that the entire idea of middle-class people marching in the street, demanding tax cuts for the rich and the right to be denied health care was a bit mind-boggling to me and my neighbor asked "are these people stupid?"

Tea Party Express at the Minnesota capitol

Photo by Fibonacci Blue

My flippant response would be "well, duh!", but I couldn't actually do that here. In the US, when many people discuss politics, they're often talking to friends or people with similar cultural backgrounds and it's easy to be dismissive of other people's points of view. Since I've moved to Europe, I have found myself, in the past few years, trying to paint a more balanced view, albeit one which is naturally colored by my personal perceptions.

This isn't always an easy thing to do and it forces a reevaluation of many things. Most importantly, it's done a great job of reinforcing my view that the Democrats are just as bad for the US as the Republicans. When you have a country run by a "tax and spend" party versus a "tax cut and spend" party, things are pretty seriously messed up.

I didn't need to explain basic economics to my neighbor, but I did have to explain how the US corporate-driven media, manages to have a significant filtering effect on what information people are likely to be exposed to and few people (not just Americans!) are interested in digging down beyond their own personal beliefs into the data. If they do, they often don't get beyond confirmation bias. As a result, it's hard to call people "stupid" when they are spoonfed a particular point of view for years on end.

The book Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media, is published before the days of the dominance of Fox News, but the clear, understandable way the authors (both journalists) explain how media is distorted go a long way to explaining many of the current political woes in the US. I strongly recommend that you buy this book, check it out of your local library or borrow it from a friend. You'll never look at media the same way again.

Update: and don't even get me started on our gun laws. I support the second amendment, generally, which shocks the hell out of a lot of Europeans. Trying to explain the culture behind it and the controversy behind the "well-regulated militia" part is a nightmare.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Spanish Foreign Legion

There's really not a Spanish Foreign Legion in the way there's a French Foreign Legion, but joining the Spanish Legion another way to another country. However, most Americans will not qualify. It's only open to the citizens of the following former Spanish colonies in Central and South America:
  • Argentina
  • Bolivia
  • Costa Rica
  • Colombia
  • Chile
  • Ecuador
  • El Salvador
  • Guatemala
  • Equatorial Guinea
  • Honduras
  • Mexico
  • Nicaragua
  • Panama
  • Paraguay
  • Peru
  • Dominican Republic
  • Uruguay
  • Venezuela
Since Spain stopped requiring military service of their citizens, it turns out their citizens weren't keen to serve in the military. To make up for the shortfall, the Legion began opening its doors to foreigners. However, a valid residence permit in Spain is required. You can read more information (in Spanish) here.