Saturday, August 25, 2007

Hills Found!

As the song goes, "Isn't it ironic?!" The Hillseekers live in Amsterdam, the most hill-deprived location in the world! Why on earth would they do such a thing?

Well, sometimes it's worth taking a big risk and choosing a really, really unusual path when chasing your dreams. We had a great time living in Amsterdam and we thoroughly enjoyed our immersion in the biking capital of the universe, but the mountains and new opportunities continued to beckon -- and finally, we found a path that would bring us to the perfect base camp. Two weeks ago, we arrived at our new home on the outskirts of Zürich, Switzerland, in the quaint village of Rüshlikon. We're far from settled (our apartment sits mostly empty, awaiting the arrival of furniture we ordered), but we've already been made to feel at home by the natural beauty of our surroundings. It didn't take long before we discovered forested mountain bike trails, panoramic running and walking trails, clear lake swims, and road cycling on mountain passes -- all within minutes of our driveway.

We think of our friends and family often -- wishing that you all could be here to share this with us -- ok, maybe not all at once, our flat is still Euro-sized -- but you get the idea! To share the experience, we extend an invitation to visit and also the series of photos included here to give you the first taste of what it's like to live in Switzerland.

Above is the view from our terrace of Rüshlikon, Lake Zürich, and the Alps. We actually use the clock on the church tower as our main house clock and enjoy the frequent bell concerts (video included below)!

It's all about bringing the outside to the inside ... this is the view from our main living area. The middle section of glass is actually a huge sliding window, which we leave open most of the time.

View from the kitchen -- the end of Lake Zürich and the city itself, is hardly visible, but present in that long, narrow window on the far-left.

View from our back terrace, where several cows live. And yes, you can hear an occasional moooo and the famous sound of cow bells. In the mornings, we hear a lone rooster. It's really bizarre living a six minute train ride from the city in a place where compared to the U.S., Porsches are as common as Honda Civics and Ferraris as Corvettes, all the while having livestock and apple orchards in your backyard.

Sights and Sounds ... from our terrace, the Sunday Evening Bells in Rüshlikon. Chimes sound every 15 minutes and at the top of various hours, we're treated to a little concert. The 7PM Sunday evening bells are the best -- when combined with the view, it's almost beyond reality. The bells toll nicely on weekdays at 7AM as well -- it can't be beat when heard on an early morning run in the forest. For those mornings when 7AM is a bit too early, we've learned that our bedroom door does a good job of allowing others to enjoy the bells while we enjoy sleeping in!

That's it for our introductory Swiss-living post. If you're ready to discover or re-discover the Swiss Alps, please come and see us!

Jeff and Becky

Sunday, August 19, 2007

A stellar day with a memorable Inferno finish!

I entered chilly water in Thun alone, just after a beautiful sunrise, and crossed the finish line in the clouds as darkness fell, just over 14 hours later arm-in-arm with new Swiss friends. It was a beautiful thing and the camaraderie was the unexpected highlight! The weather was perfect, the Alps were glorious, and this proved to be the hardest, yet most emotionally gratifying event I've ever tackled. I'll post a full race report in a week with lots of photos. For now, I just wanted to let you know that I'm safe and had the joy of crossing the finish line on top of the Schilthorn!

Warm greetings from Zürich,

Friday, August 17, 2007

Can Infernos beckon?

Race time is here and an Inferno beckons! In less than 24 hours, I'll plunge into a cold lake (photo on the right) in the heart of the Swiss Alps and enjoy a refreshing hour of flatness before climbing nearly 85 horizontal and 3 vertical miles by road bike, mountain bike, and foot. The fun begins in the lakeside town of Thun with a 3K splash in some chilly, but crystal clear water.

Next is a scenic ride through the Interlaken region with a remote (and likely stunning) climb to Grindelwald. Then the road bikes get to rest and take in the sights at the base of the famous mountain, the Eiger (center left), while we shift gears and mindsets to our off-road machines. We'll mountain bike under the shadows of the Eiger (across a pass on her lower shoulder -- just to the right of center) and drop into one of the most scenic valleys in the world.

This valley almost brought me to tears during my first visit -- it's loaded with waterfalls and the sounds of church bells echo off the mountain peaks.

After enjoying a brief jaunt through the valley, the insanity begins, as the run course reaches straight up into the sky to finish at the Schilthorn. This is where the real beauty of the course lights up though, because the effort affords stunning view after stunning view (like the view of Jungfrau above).

I have no idea how long the race will take (perhaps 14-16 hours) and no particular time goals, other than to finish and to push myself as close to the limit as I can and still get away with! I'm not racing with a heart rate monitor, bike computer, or even a watch. It's me against the mountains and perhaps frequently, against my own mind!

It's been an adventure just to get to the starting line. Intense work schedule, an international move only a week before the race, lots of training in Holland in the rain and with no hills! Becky has been a fantastic help, as have my friends, family, and co-workers. My experience working with Coach Lisa has also been stellar. Becky and I area heading from Zürich into the deep Alpine country now for race check-in. If you'd like to practice your German, feel free to check out the race website, where you can also register for updates (via text/SMS). My race number is 145 (and is already in the form for the link above -- which is in English!).

As always, thanks for reading!

Adieu from Zürich,

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Living in Amsterdam: Top Five Favorite Things

Hold your breath no more! Finally, without further delay, here are the top 5 ...

Number 5: Coffeeshops (& yes, spacecakes!)

Ok, it’s not #1, but #5 aint bad :) There are over two hundred coffeeshops (and I don’t mean the kind that just have hot beverages) – enough that I was able to go to a different one every day (ha, just checking to see if my parents really do read this!) The main reason they are in my top 10 list is because I like the concept -- In general, the open-minded and accepting attitude of the Dutch, “to each, his own”. It started in 1976 when the Netherlands allowed them as a way of separating hard vs. soft drug users, and it worked – over the next 30 years the percentage of hard-drug addicts in the Netherlands fell significantly relative to other countries.

Since it’s for the same kind of reason, also included in number 5 is the Red Light District (it can be “5a”, if you will). After all, it isn’t a complete list about Amsterdam if the RLD isn’t included! But sorry I can’t report any personal experience on it ;) Ideally it helps control things that would happen anyway and creates an organized and more health-safe environment. All I know is that it’s very popular with the Brits, but it’s only one small part of what Amsterdam has to offer. Here’s a pic from across the street (since the girls come after you if they see you take a picture of them) – It looks like these guys don’t even notice the girls in the window...

Number 4: Gezellig

What in the world is that, you ask? It is a Dutch word that they say is difficult to directly translate to English, but could be described as “cozy” or “pleasant” - it could involve something like sitting by the fire reading a book, or hanging out with friends at a cafe and enjoying conversation. Whatever it refers to, it usually involves a moment to enjoy. Don’t forget to clear the back of your throat like you're gonna spit when you say it (kinda takes some of the pleasantness out of it doesn’t it!).

In general, the Dutch are very keen on taking their time and enjoying the experience when they are out for a meal. Especially when there is great weather, the outdoor cafes are full of people sitting outside all day – It is not uncommon for a group to claim a table for the entire day and only consume one cappucino or glass of wine, and yet the wait staff never seems to get frustrated. Maybe this is because they would do the same thing if they could! The downside is that it can be a challenge to actually track down any wait staff if you actually do want to get your bill within the next 5 hours, and that can be frustrating to us ‘mericans, but gradually we are adapting to the “take your time” state of mind and enjoy the moment...

Number 3: Environmentally Friendly

It feels good to make a smaller “ecological footprint”(link), and that is not hard to do when living in a city with so many mass transit options (see Jeff's blog “Ride the Train”) as well as bike paths everywhere. This is also a general European thing of course. Here many people don’t even own cars, compared to the U.S. trend of Hummers as big as some houses in the Netherlands. This is the Amsterdam version of an SUV...

Gone for us are the days of collecting 50 plastic bags from one trip to the grocery store – Here you’re expected to bring your own (see Jeff’s hilarious blog on when he first learned about that).

The lights in the office have auto-sensors, and the buildings have solar panels and other environmental-friendly features. The living areas are smaller, and there’s no A/C. Our office was virtually paperless (see blog). Some things were harder to get used to than others, but you realize that it’s not so bad, and in the end it feels good to be helping the environment at least a little (or at least not hurting it as badly!).

Number 2: Proximity

This is another one that could apply to Europe in general, but one of the great things about living in Amsterdam has been being close to so many other interesting places! In the few months we’ve been here, we’ve gotten to visit Norway, Denmark, I went to Prague, we biked in Spain, visited Belgium several times (gotta get that Belgian beer fix!), I went to Germany, and we biked one insanely long day up some mountains in France. Oh and southern Netherlands too (even though it’s in the same country as Amsterdam, it seems totally different, and even has hills!).

But of course it was always nice to come home to our beautiful city filled with tree-lined canals...

Ok, after long last, you have finally reached the number one favorite thing about living in Amsterdam!! Drum rollllllllll......

Number 1: Having Friends & Family Visit!

We have been amazed by how much of a bonding experience it is when friends and family come to visit us over here. Maybe it’s because you spend a lot more time together than in our previous “normal” lives, and because there’s so many new experiences to share... Well whatever it is, we have really enjoyed the connections it creates.

Our friends Sandy and Jim were the brave souls who earned the title of “First Visitors”, and we rang in the New Year together in Dam Square with thousands of our closest Dutch friends (click to see more pics).

Jeff’s parents came out in February and we had soooooo much fun sharing everything with them (click to see more pics).

In April our friends Bill and Maria enjoyed a week of perfect weather (they must have brought the sunshine with them from Colorado)... As they put it so perfectly as we biked thru the countryside, it’s like a “fairytale land”. Then later in April my parents came out, just in time to catch the last of the incredibly beautiful tulips that Holland is so famous for. In July Heidi spent a week with Becky where they had some real girl-bonding and Heidi taught her how to shop (thanks Heidi!), along with a side-trip to Berlin.

Right after Heidi left, Brian stopped by during his bicycle tour of Europe...

It’s hard to put into words how meaningful the time was that we’ve spent with you all, and how much we enjoy sharing these experiences with you.

So that’s my top ten. There are still many other great things about Amsterdam, it’s impossible to mention them all – It really did surprise me how different the city is from possible first impressions. So I’d recommend including it in your future travel plans sometime if you haven’t already. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Living in Amsterdam: Top Ten Favorite Things

Sometimes it takes leaving a place to make one stop and reflect on all the experiences of the current situation, and that’s exactly what’s happening to us now that we’re about to leave Amsterdam. We’ve only been here less than a year, but we have experienced what feels like a lifetime of new encounters and different perspectives.

So I’ve decided to summarize it into another “Top Ten” list – Here are what I consider the top ten things we have enjoyed about living in Amsterdam:

Number 10: Biking as the main mode of transportation

Since this top ten list isn’t in any certain order, I’ll start with the most obvious, at least for us “cycling enthusiasts”. It has been so much fun to use our bikes to get around everywhere – to and from work, to get groceries and run other errands, to go out to dinner or concerts… We haven’t owned cars for almost a whole year now, and we haven’t missed it at all! Ok, maybe just a few times I have wished for a warm car to sit in when it’s January and raining with a 50-mph wind and we’re all dressed up for work (they tend to dress more formal here), knowing that we might as well not dried our hair that morning (!)…but luckily those times were few (and “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”, right?!).

For more about biking here, see Jeff’s blogs:

Cycling in Amsterdam, Part 1 & Part 2 (“My New SUV”)

When you use your bike as your car, you have to get creative with ways to carry things, since your "trunk" or "back seat" consists of a basket and maybe some panniers...and you can always strap things on too:

Number 9: Seeing everyone else biking everywhere

As a cyclist (and environment supporter), it is a wonderful sight to see more bikes than cars commuting to work in the morning. There were so many bikes on the bike paths, there were mini “traffic jams” at some intersections. I couldn’t help giggling when I see men dressed in crisp pin-striped suits holding their briefcase in one hand and biking to work! Including Jeff:

Women wear dresses or short skirts with heels while biking… anything goes. (By the way, that is a general theme for Amsterdam as you’ll see later in this blog.) Also I love seeing parents riding with their kids on the bike, taking them to school or riding around town:

Jeff and I laugh all the time when we see what some people carry while biking – some things have included a full-size ladder, a Christmas tree, rugs (see Jeff’s blog pic doing that himself)… the list goes on and on. Definitely a different way to use a bike than we were used to!

Number 8: The canals

Amsterdam has much more beauty than I think it gets credit for. The canals give the city a unique feel (some call it the “Venice of the North”), so that there’s less concrete and more of a nature feeling (just don’t look at the water too closely!)

It’s especially beautiful at night, when the lights on the canal bridges reflect in the water. That was really nice in the winter since it got dark so early!

Number 7: The buildings

We’re not usually into architecture, but this is different - In the city along the canals, all the buildings are connected, yet each has a different style. I guess we’re used to the U.S.-approach of making it all the same to minimize the material costs and get it done faster/cheaper/simpler. But not in Amsterdam – People here have liked to express their individualism, even through the buildings they design! It has been referred to as “the largest outdoor museum” since it is so interesting just to walk or bike around and look at the different designs:

Number 6: Our apartment

It’s only less than half the size of our smallest previous house, but we’ve actually loved having the smaller space – Less to keep tidy means more time to be out playing! And we are always able to talk with each other no matter where in the apartment we are, since it’s basically one big room (but the bedrooms are separate rooms). Jeff had to be very creative to fit all our skiing and backpacking equipment into the one closet that we have, but he made it work. The only problem was that we had to take everything out if we ever needed something in there! Overall it has made us see how we can live in a smaller space than typical in the U.S., and we’re just fine (although another closet or two would be nice!).

The windows overlook a canal, so it has been fun to be sitting on the couch and watch boats go by in our “front yard”!

Whew, this Top Ten list is turning out to be long! So I will take a break here… But stay tuned for numbers 1 through 5 coming soon (can you guess what they might include?!)…

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Finally, a post from Becky!

After putting it off as long as I could, I've finally learned how to enter the world of blogging... It was now or never if I was going to share anything about life in Holland, since we are moving in less than a week! This numbers-girl obviously doesn't have the writing talent of this household, but hopefully you can still get a feel for "my side of the story" about life here in Europe (see the Top Ten list in the post below)... Enjoy, and feel free to leave comments!

Working in Dutch Land

By moving to Europe, I was of course expecting to have an “international work experience” – Little did I know just how international it would be! Our office is located in Amsterdam, so of course we are surrounded by the Dutch culture (and its interesting idiosyncrancies, but I’ll get to that later). Our department serves as the financial “support team” for ING’s Central Europe Region, which includes: Spain, Greece, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech & Slovakia, Hungary, and Russia. In our department of only 30 people, there are 13 different nationalities represented!, including Hungarian, Greek, Australian, Indian, Romania, etc., and of course American (me and one other). So, obviously there is always a chance to be around people who see things from a different perspective, and to learn about how people do things in different parts of the world.

I feel very fortunate that English is my first language (ok, my only one!), since it’s already a challenge to explain things like market consistent embedded value without having to translate it at the same time. I’ve been working on several projects which are in some ways similar to what I have done in the past (e.g. embedded value, financial projections, product development). Of course, the approaches are different in many ways, and the markets are very different as well. But many of the same issues still apply, such as having to predict financial results more often and more accurately (at this rate we’ll be moving to daily financial reporting before too long!), and developing new products better and faster.

So, what about the Dutch traditions… There are so many little differences that every day something comes up - such as just saying something a different way (instead of telling someone “Good luck” when they’re getting ready to try something challenging, they say: “Success!”) – So I have decided to make a “Top Ten” list of my fave (or at least most interesting) things about Dutch office culture to share with you:

Number 10: In the office, the custom is that when you want a cup of coffee, instead of getting up to get one for yourself, you ask all your colleagues whether they would like any coffee or tea (there is a machine where it is free on each floor). Each person specifies whether they’d like coffee with cream, or maybe a cappuccino with sugar, or extra strong espresso, or some tea extra-mild… and you get to test your memory to remember these details as you head to the machine with a tray to carry the cups back. Then the real test is when you get back to your desk, you have to remember who ordered what as well as recognize each drink on your tray!

Number 9: The office work area is representative of Europe in general – lots of people in a small space. As a result, there are very few separate offices, which are occupied by only the most senior people, and more often than not are shared between at least two people. Most workers sit out in the open, at folding tables – no cubicles, no separators of any kind. It definitely is a test of one’s concentration skills (at least mine), trying to work with people talking all around! But it also is nice at times for supporting a “team” feel when you really need to work together.Number 8: A common phrase (translated from Dutch) is: “The Final Word Has Not Been Spoken”, referring to the fact that an issue is still being discussed (and discussed and discussed…). It is common for a topic to be covered from every angle very thoroughly, with each person’s opinion fully expressed and considered. This is also referred to as the “Polder Model”, as an example of how their focus on reaching consensus works successfully, as poldering is the process of creating land space by building dikes to hold back the water (and they obviously have done a very successful job of that!). In short, it can make for some painfully long meetings.

Number 7: After the Christmas and New Year holiday time, when each person returns to the office, they walk around the department and greet each other person in the department with the traditional three kisses (alternating cheeks), and ask about how their holidays were, etc…. This can take 10 minutes or more per person in the department, but it is considered very important. Needless to say not much work gets done during that first day back from the holidays!

Number 6: Let’s imagine it’s morning and you’re standing in an elevator full of other workers traveling to their work floors… When the elevator stops and the doors open for someone to get off, you hear them say “Eaaaggghh” as they leave, and you think: “Wow, they really don’t sound very excited about getting ready to work”, and then the elevator stops at the next floor and the person leaving says it again: “Eaaaggghhh”. What’s this about? Are people already stressed out about their day before it even really starts?? Well they’re actually saying “Dag”, which means “good day” (be sure not to face them or you’ll have spit in your eye!).

Number 5: Lunch time is always exactly at noon, and everyone always goes to the cafeteria together at the same time -- Even though the elevators take longer and the lunch lines are longer because everyone goes then. Even though you look at your colleagues for 9+ hours each day (since as I mentioned there are no walls between you), you also get to look at them every day at lunchtime too!

Number 4: Typical Dutch lunch consists of the following: 6 slices of bread, a small pad of butter, 1 slice of cheese, 1 tube of some type of meat spread that you really don’t want to ask what kind it is, and one box of chocolate sprinkles (kind of like the ones you might put on cupcakes in the U.S.). You make 3 sandwiches, each of which have butter and only one of each of the other ingredients, and you eat them with knife and fork. Sometimes you substitute a slice of meat for the meat paste. But you never, never combine the cheese and meat. If you ever see a sandwich like that, it is referred to as a “luxury sandwich”. You eat the sandwich with the butter and chocolate sprinkles last, with some yogurt, followed up by a huge glass of milk, juice, or karnemilk (a thick pasty-like milk similar to buttermilk). Mmm,mmm! (or as they would say, “Lekker!”)

Number 3: Birthdays are very important and celebrated by everyone. When it is someone’s birthday, the tradition is that the person having the birthday brings mini-cakes for everyone in the department.(At least this way the birthday person gets the kind of cake they want!) Each person in the department goes up to the birthday person and sincerely congratulates that person, while shaking their hand or exchanging the traditional three alternating-cheek kisses. It is very much acceptable to discuss age (which is even included on people’s resumes, along with their marital status and sometimes even the ages of their children!).

Number 2: The office is virtually paperless – No one has drawers, cabinets, or shelves to keep files or binders. The only thing we each have is a small locker with a metal briefcase, in which is stored our laptop overnight. There is enough room leftover for maybe three very thin files of just a few papers. It definitely teaches one how to avoid printing items and keep it all organized electronically. But it also seems extreme sometimes – There’s not even a drawer where we can each keep things like pens!

Number 1: Biking to and from work, in a suit/skirt and heels! Or biking to buy groceries or pick up the dry cleaning. Biking all the time, everywhere! (see separate blogs from Jeff and pictures on this) It is hard to believe just how many bikes there are here. You can literally bike anywhere in the entire country and be on a bike path, trail, or lane 99.9% of the time. The bike garage at work is always full. How can we spread this mentality to the U.S.? It makes getting to and from work every day a little more fun!