Monthly Archives: September 2010

Bye-bye opa

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My grandpa, “opa”, is about to die. And – and please don’t be shocked – I hope he does soon.

Opa was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease almost 10 years ago, and while he kept in relatively good health for the first couple of years, since a year or 2 – and especially since he moved to the nursing home last year – he has hardly lived. I went to visit him with T last Sunday and it hurt to see him, capable only of drooling, sleeping, and hanging in his wheelchair – he now even lost the ability to sit. This was not the grandfather I had wanted to introduce to T.

My grandpa cycling together with my mum only last summer.

He was the first person in our family to study. We’re not even talking university degrees here, but simply continued education beyond 14 years of age. He made a career in the bank and actually became a bank manager – years later, my uncle would follow in his footsteps. He was in nearly every board in our little village that had anything to say, and he was well-known and liked. He was also a musician: he sang in the church choir and he played the guitar – up until today I hear stories about how he would entertain everybody on holidays and parties, and one of my fondest memories is him singing old songs from his childhood to his grandchildren

Toen ik nog een jongen was,
van zo een jaar of zes,
las moeder mij bij kattekwaad,
weleens flink de les.
Zat ik aan het trommelke,
En pakte ik een koekske,
moeder zei: gij deugeniet,
ik zet u in het hoekske!
Tralalala… lalalalala…

(When I was just a little boy, about 6, my mother would often get angry at me. Whenever I’d sneaked a cookie out of the jar, she’d say: you naughty boy, in the corner you go!)

I never had a particularly strong bond with him, but he is my grandfather and I love him. And because I love him, it feels confusing to wish him dead. But it is also because I love him, that I wish he may go quickly and softly, because I am convinced with all my heart and mind that this is not the way he would like to live, he deserves to live.
I have been very lucky so far to have lost almost none of the people close to me. I am not counting my 3 great-grandmothers which I saw once or twice a year, and while I was very sad to lose my other grandfather, I mainly remember annoyance because his sudden death forced us to return from our family holiday (I was 10. And selfish.). Opa will be the first person I have really known who will leave. The most disturbing thing about that is not the loss itself – he has had a good life, the time for him to go is not unexpected nor untimely -, what lingers in my mind about this is that next up in line are my parents. And that, I fear, I will not be able to tackle so lightheartedly.

In honor of my opa, one of his favorite songs ” ‘t Is weer voorbij die mooie zomer” (“The beautiful summer is over once more”) by Gerard Cox, in more than one way appropriate.

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I hate coming back

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I hate coming back to Sweden.
Contrarily to what you might think it has nothing (or little) to do with the loneliness I sometimes (often…) suffer from here, as I do feel I’m slowly starting up bonds, connections, … some of which I hope will grow into friendships. It is a challenge for me, but one I feel I’m up to (at the moment, at least).

No, what I hate about arriving in Sweden is the unpacking.

This is my 3rd arrival in about a month, so you’d think I’d have it all together by now. Turns out there is so much more to be brought back here every time I board that plane. Chocolates, I had to bring this time, and my calculator. A multi plug, my kitchen herbs, and some more t-shirts. A sowing kit, and my winter duvet. My winter coat. Some Tupperware, my oil-and-vinegar flasks, my perfume. More kitchen towels. And my accordion.

MY accordion.

I haven’t played in over a year – ever since I quit music school (there was no way in combining the tough third year with finishing my PhD) my dear instrument has been sitting in its case, gathering dust. Which is a pity, because I genuinely liked to play – although I’m not particularly good at it – I love music and being a musician has been a long lived dream. I distinctively remember the frustration of not being able to convince my parents to let me learn to play the clarinet – I still hold it against them at times.

So when I finally had the time (and the money… and the courage…) to get myself together and inscribe for music school, I had only one problem left. Which instrument to pick?

The clarinet was quickly ruled out – not only does it take ages before anyone can get a decent note out of that straw (and contrarily to wide-held beliefs I am not the most patient person…), you can also not sing along. (NOTE: I cannot distinguish a re from a fa#. I cannot keep tune. In short: I cannot sing.) The violin was discarded for similar reasons, and in one go I decided to dismiss with all string instruments – given that I simply do not hear whether a sound is in or out of tune, I thought it unwise to start any instrument which needed to be tuned: so long guitar. I considered piano (it doesn’t need to be tuned every time you want to play… and you can pay people to do it for you), but then I wanted to be able to take the instrument with me. And thus the only viable option turned out to be… accordion. I haven’t regretted it for a moment (although a diatonic accordion might have been a better choice, since my chromatic may be portable, but only just).

I hesitated for long whether or not to bring it here – not in the least because I was very weary whether it would survive transport (I’m pretty sure I well exceeded the 8kgs hand luggage quote but there was no way in giving it into cargo), but also because the apartment walls aren’t exactly made of rocks – and I fully realize how annoying it is for neighbors having to listen to someone just learning to play… but I’ll play quietly, I promise. If necessary, I can offer Belgian chocolates as compensation.

Quote on a Sungday

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I have come to the conclusion that politics are too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.

— Charles De Gaulle

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Saturday “Belgian” Smörgåsbord

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Lisa reading a Tintin comic book.

Even Lisa reads Tintin! (Image via Wikipedia)

For as long as Belgium exists, I will be proud of it! We may have the most indecisive politicians in the world, but we also have chocolate, beer, Tintin, the saxophone and amazing maps, … we have it all, we have it good, and we should be proud of it! So despite the current political crisis, I thought I’d use this week’s Smörgåsbord to highlight some of the good stuff coming from Belgium recently…

To start off, Sam Sulmont (25) has made it to the shortlist of 125 finalists of the YouTube Play. A Biennial of Creative Video competition. The competition, which was organized in conjunction with the Guggenheim Museum, aimed to discover and showcase the most exceptional talent working in the ever-expanding realm of online video. Sulmont’s movie, “Sounds in the key of Z”, paints a rather depressing view on life, as a man wearing a gas mask wakes up, wanders around in an old, worn-down building and finally dies in front of a non-functional television. The experimental short was Sulmont’s thesis at the Narafi film school in Brussels. Ironically, his exam jury wasn’t easily convinced by “Sounds in the key of Z” and Sulmont only just passed. Whether he has made it to the final 20 who will see their work on display at the New York Guggenheim from Oct. 22-24, will be announced on October 21st. (via De Morgen, screenshot from “Sounds in the key of Z”)

United Pepper, a Belgium-based eco-tech company, is setting high standards to their products. Not only do they want to produce “green” electronics by avoiding the use of PVC and flame retardants, two chemicals of particular concern when old electronics are disposed of, they also want to produce them in a fair trade manner. Since there really are no globally agreed fair trade standards for electronics, the company took general principles outlined by the World Fair Trade Organization – no easy task, given the global nature of the electronics supply chain – and applied them to their manufacturing partner in Vietnam. Greenness and fair trade aside, who wouldn’t want such an adorable-looking webcam? (via The World, image used with permission from United Pepper)

Good news from the Belgian army also! Conform the Oslo Treaty from 2008, we have destroyed all our cluster bombs. Cluster bombs have killed and injured thousands of civilians during the last 40 years and -unfortunately- continue to do so today even long after a conflict has ended. One third of all recorded cluster munitions casualties are children. 60% of cluster bomb casualties are injured while undertaking their normal activities. So far, the Convention on Cluster Munitions has been signed by 108 countries, 41 of which have also ratified it. Unsurprisingly, the USA, Israel, Russia, and China are among those countries who have not signed.
(via De Morgen, image under Fair Use via Cluster Munition Coalition)

And to finish off on a lighter note, the hidden camera show Benidorm Bastards has won the top award of best program of 2010 at the Rose d’Or television festival in Switzerland. Seven old people drive the kids crazy in this guerrilla-style show, in which the wrinklies get one over on the youth, for a change. But I’ll let the Bastards themselves do the talking… Enjoy!
(roughly every other prank is without dialogues, so it’s even enjoyable for non-Dutch speakers)

Stuck on the same track

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I’m sure many of you have heard either one or both stories…

A mother is preparing dinner when suddenly her 12-year-old daughter asks: “Mum, why do you cut both edges off the sausage before frying it?”
“Actually, I don’t know,” answers her mother, “but my mother always used to do it, we can ask her about it.”
But when they ask grandmother the reason, she replies: “Well, my old mother used to always cut the edges, I guess I simply learned it from her, but why she did it, I don’t know.”
The great-grandmother meanwhile has long since retired and lives in a nursing home. When her great-granddaughter comes to visit and asks her the reason for her sausage-cutting ritual, she is very much surprised: “My oh my, are you telling me you are still using that little old frying pan?”

What is the standard distance between railroad rails?
– 143.5 cm (4’8½”)
Why?
– Because that’s the gauge the tramways used before the railroads.
Why?
– Because the tramways were built using the same tools as wagon-builders and that’s how wide the wagon wheels were spaced.
Why?
– Because the old roads in England had ruts that the wheels needed to accommodate.
Why?
– Because the ruts were made by Imperial Roman chariots which were about as wide as the back of two horses.
And thus, when engineers at Thiokol were designing the solid rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle, they had to adapt the design so that it would fit through all the tunnels when transported by train from the factory to the launch site. The tunnel width was dependent on the track width which in turn derived from the width of a horse’s behind. In short, the main design feature of the world’s most advanced transportation system was designed based on a horse’s butt!

I first learned of the latter story/urban legend through Paulo Coelho’s “O Zahir” (for those who haven’t read it: read it, it is a beautiful tale of life, love, and longing) and was reminded of it by a colleague earlier today. I won’t discuss the level of truth/untruth of the anecdote(s) (that has already been done here and here, among others) but I feel both stories hold a great lesson in common.

Often, at one point in history, something or somebody decides: that’s the “right” way to do it, that is the “right” way to behave. Be it a woman that finds it easier to cut her sausages to fit them in her little frying pan or a Roman wagon maker that fits a chariot to fit two horses pulling it – their decisions are taken for good reasons, and may very well be the best decision at that time. But times change. Conditions change. And so should solutions. All too often we are stuck in our daily routine which may allow us to live our lives comfortably, but at the same time hinders us to be free, to make our own decisions, to set our own standards: to live our own life.

Because we are scared, we lack the courage to make the changes our lives sometimes so desperately need. Because we are scared, we’d rather accept the habits and customs that hold us back than question them, analyze them, and, ultimately, change them.

I plead guilty as charged. But one of the advantages of my coming to Sweden is that, in the meeting of a new environment, new people, and new habits, my own habits are automatically put in a different perspective, and through these new glasses, it is much easier to see what could and -especially- what should be changed. Let’s take it one step at a time.

Swedish for… Swedes?

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I prepared another post for today, but it’ll have to wait. See, today I tried to get inscribed for Swedish language classes. I was really looking forward, because I HATE (and yes, that needed to be in capitals) to be as isolated as I am now. Because that is exactly how it feels – isolate. While everybody (or almost everybody) here speaks English as fluently as you can expect from second language learners, it is just embarrassing having to reply “I’m sorry, could you repeat that in English?” time and time again every time someone in a shop or on the street addresses you for whichever reason. Let alone how annoying it is not being able to understand the signs in the street/in the shops, to have to ask your colleagues every single thing because you can’t even Google where the nearest hairdresser is. But I digress.

The SFI program Autumn 2010... in Swedish, obviously

Now, they have a nice little course in Sweden which is free for immigrants, called Svenska För Invandrare. For Lund, their website can be found here. Notice how it is in Swedish? Because obviously, people who want to learn Swedish… understand Swedish already, right?

But oh, you got me there! There IS an icon to get to the English version of the page. Try it. All in English! Isn’t that nice! Now try to find the opening hours. Whether there are courses Autumn 2010. When they start. It’s not there? Ain’t that a pitty…

So we send an e-mail to Pia Lindskoug, the SFI contact person, to ask for further information. At least on the Swedish page she is designated “Kontaktperson”, there is no mention of her on the English page. Maybe that’s why I haven’t received an answer to the (English) mail I sent 2 weeks ago. But hey, we’re flexible, let’s just go and visit!

I am fortunate enough to inform with my colleague about the opening hours, because those apparently don’t match what is stated on the web page (not that I found them on my own – that page was in Swedish). Now, to subscribe, you need to have a personnummer (some type of ID number). For which you need a Swedish address, a Swedish job and a Swedish person as a guarantee. Well, I’m lucky enough to be able to provide all 3, but while the application only took 10 minutes, it can take 2 months before I actually get the number – it’s a busy period, see. But no personnummer – not even a provisional (official) one – no classes.

So to be able to subscribe to Swedish classes, you need to

  • have a Swedish address
  • have a Swedish job
  • have Swedish friends
  • speak Swedish (to understand the website)

Basically, you need to be Swedish.

I understand the Swedish Democrats managed to get into the parliament – with this type of policies you’re making it real hard for foreigners to learn the language, a prerequisite for integration.

Quote on a Sungday

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Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current;

no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away.

— Marcus Aurelius

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Saturday “loo” Smörgåsbord

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This weeks Smörgåsbord was intended to be on clever waste-reducing solutions with a wink – curiously, they all seem to be related to bathroom visits. Whether this reflects a bias in my searching abilities or rather an unexplicable bathroom-love of the developers, I do not know.


Conceptual artist Matthew Mazzotta is the man behind the Park Spark Project in Cambridge, Massachusetts (I never knew there even was an American Cambridge!) in which dog poop is used to power an “eternal flame” monument. This shows how “going green” can be interpreted not only in terms of drastically changing the way we live or relying on scientists to develop better, renewable sources of energy, but also in terms of simply changing perspective and questioning the role and possibilities of technology, both old and new, in our lives. In a later stage, Mazzotta wants to involve the community to gather ideas as how to best use the flame – currently proposals range from a shadow-projection box or a popcorn stand to a teahouse. (image: Park Spark Project ; via Wired Science)

And while we’re at poop, do you also feel a sting of guilt when using more than 3 squares per sitting ever since Sheryl Crow proposed a ban on this anti-environmental behavior? Well, feel guilty no more, here is the White Goat from the Japanese company Oriental which converts used office paper to rolls of toilet paper! Every roll takes about 40 shredded A4 sheets and 30 minutes to make, saving an estimated 60 cedar trees annually. The machine went on sale last summer, but at $100 000 a piece I wonder how many they actually sold … . A video of the machine in action can be found here. (image and idea via Geekology)

Besides tons of toilet paper, bathroom visitors also use liters of water washing their hands afterwards. Now, we wouldn’t want to be responsible for a decline in hygiene by putting a ban on handwashing, but to encourage people to think about how much water they actually use Yan Li, a Chinese designer/engineer, has devised this Poor Little Fish basin. While using, the level of water in the bowl gradually falls, threatening the fish with untimely death; it will go back to the original level once the water stops running. Of course, the water doesn’t really come out of the fishbowl and the fish is never in any real danger – I fear otherwise some people would actually want to kill the little swimmer. (image and idea via Geekology)

Another clever solution for reduction of water consumption during toilet visits is this award-winning two-in-one sink and urinal designed by South Korean Yeongwoo Kim (anybody else feeling an Asian constant through these stories?). The Eco Urinal is designed to use the water that was used for washing hands to flush the urine. Thus 1) the water is used twice, reducing overall consumption, 2) less space is needed, and 3) people are encouraged to “keep their sanitation”. I actually wonder which of these will be the prime reason for success. (Image and idea via Geekology)

NOTE: If you are reading this on the day it was posted, shame on you! Today is Offlining day, which invites people to switch off and enjoy a day offline (more info at the link). In my defense all I can say is I thought it was tomorrow… I must have confused with Talk like a Pirate-day

Five Ways to Get Featured on Freshly Pressed

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As you may or may not know, I am currently maintaining two blogs: this one, and The Other Blog. And while this one is set as the primary one, The Other One was first, and this seems to be the reason why – more often than not – people who follow my comments to my blog actually end up on The Other Blog. Which is in Dutch. And talks mainly about how nice it is here (you gotta comfort them friends and family, after all). And is thus not very well suited reading material for your average American blogger. And as any beginning blogger obsessing over stats can testify: it’s hard enough to get other bloggers to pay attention to your feeble attempt to join the blogosphere, let alone if half of those which bother to be interested are redirected to the wrong blog. In addition to that that, I’m not too keen on my friends and family visiting The Other Blog discovering this one. It’s MINE! My precious…

Ahum, sorry about that.

And thus I was trying to find my way around the WordPress FAQ section to see how I best performed the surgery on my Sesame twin-blogs, when I stumbled upon this article.

Five Ways to Get Featured on Freshly Pressed

Stop the worrying over dropping stats, the sleepless nights, the frustration over why-oh-why the WordPress Gods didn’t recognize the sheer genius of your last post – there is an actual manual on how to get your much-deserved 24 hours of fame! Obviously, generous as I am, I gladly share their tips with you.

1. Write unique content that’s free of bad stuff.
Each post that makes it to Freshly Pressed contains original content created by the WordPress user. Bad stuff includes (but isn’t limited to) plagiarism, hate speech, fear-mongering, adult/mature content, copyrighted images that belong to someone else, spam or content that is primarily advertorial in nature.
Ehm.. yeah… so since I just copy-pasted this from the original page, I guess this post doesn’t exactly fit the “original content” requirement. At least I’m not pretending it’s my own… and I provided a link to source… no?

2. Include images or other visuals.
Although not every topic can be illustrated, we believe most blog posts can and should have a visual element. We like original images (meaning, your own) but if not, be sure you properly credit the original source. Video rocks, too. You may get a request from us to add an image before you are promoted to Freshly Pressed — the faster you can respond, the more likely we’ll put your post on the homepage.
But… but… I can’t upload my own pictures right now! I don’t have the cable to connect to my laptop… :/ (and while having lost it could, in my case, be an entirely plausible explanation to this situation arising, actually I received my current camera second hand from a friend which had already lost the cable). And I don’t have a card reader. Yet. But let’s see if Google or Flickr can come up with something to match this post…

This is probably how I'd react on being Freshly Pressed.

(Image taken from Lori Dyans post on being Freshly Pressed not so long ago – apparently, we have a lot in common.)

3. Add tags.
We find new posts by surfing the tag pages. If you don’t use tags, we can’t find you and how sad would that be? Also, don’t use tags that are too obscure (“beauty tips from the ancient world”) but rather more common tags (“beauty,” “history”).
“freshly”, “pressed”, “freshly pressed”, “tips”, “blog”, “hints”, “wordpress”, ehm… ehm… help? Somebody?

4. Cap off your post with a compelling headline.
Your headline needs to stand out. Avoid swear words, excessive punctuation or vague statements. We love a clever headline, and that’s often the reason we click on your article in the first place.
Now that was easy… I learned copy-pasted from the master.

5. Aim for typo-free content.
We know, we’re human, too — errors happen. We recommend using our Proofreading feature before you hit “publish.” If you’ve got a few typos but we really like your post, we may ask you to fix them. In most cases, we’ll put your post on Freshly Pressed after you’ve made the changes.
Do I get more credit for not being a native speaker? Yeah… thought so… maybe this is the signal to get something done about my punctuation, though, I seem to be using ahelluvalot ellipses lately… (I rest my case).

Ok, I am ready – WordPress home page, here I come!

NOTE – For those who’d like to see additional tips on blogging and maintaining a blog in general, check Share the Word, the Editor’s Blog by Joy Victory (the “Editorial Czar”) and Erica Johnson (“Editorial Producer”) which provides regular posts with self-evident and less self-evident tips and tricks for us newbie bloggers. Enjoy and learn!

Alone in a crowd

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So, I’m back! I went home for the weekend, or at least, back to Belgium. We have this circle of friends with which we get out for the weekend twice a year, and it seemed fun to go back especially for the occasion, even though I had only been away for 3 weeks. In addition, it gave me the chance to pick up some much-missed stuff I hadn’t been able to bring on first arriving (my cycle bags! my thick pillow!!). So it should’ve been an all happy so-glad-to-see-you-all-again kind of weekend.

It wasn’t.

I have no idea what went wrong exactly, and where, but I felt so much out of place.
Who were these people?
What was I supposed to do?
What was I supposed to say to them, anyway?

I have known most of them for 10 years or more, they are some of my longest lasting friends. If I can’t be at ease around them, when can I?

Maybe I set my expectations too high. Maybe I was actually having fun and it was the thought of having to return to my solitary confinement that brought me down. Maybe it was weird being surrounded by people again after almost 3 weeks of isolation. Granted, I’ve been out with my colleagues once, I’ve had the dance course and stuff, but still, I’m alone most of the time. Maybe it was just hormones. Maybe it was a combination of all of these things. Whichever it was, I felt flooded by a ton of emotions, but happiness wasn’t one of them. Which only resulted in feeling guilty for not feeling happy and I cried my eyes out with T about it. It’s a horrible feeling not to be at ease around your friends.

It got better later on the weekend – we did this high rope course (which I LOVE to do) on Saturday and the whole team building experience made me feel more at home – but as I had to leave early on Sunday I couldn’t really enjoy it much, and the coming home alone didn’t exactly help to lift my spirits again.

I expected this to be a life-changing experience. In fact, I counted on it being a life-changing experience. But somehow I assumed it would be the kind of experience you look back onto and say: now thàt changed me.
I didn’t expect to feel it so soon, so physically, so PRESENT in my daily life.

I guess lesson 1 has been taught.