Money, I’m glad to see you again. Funemployment, I miss you already.
This week I joined the Dutch workforce as an instructional designer for Mambu. Mambu sells cloud-based banking software, which admittedly doesn’t quite have the sexy cachet of “I work at Apple.” But after 17 years at the World’s Biggest Corporation, they’re just the sort of employer I’d been hoping for: a smallish company that’s growing fast and gives me the opportunity to contribute in a foundational way.
On Monday morning I biked, trammed, and walked my way through the spitting rain to the super-slick office building on the river where Mambu (normally) occupies the 14th floor. As you’d expect for pandemic times, I was ushered across an empty floor into a conference room with three other new hires, where an IT guy handed us MacBooks and helped us complete our onboarding process. It wasn’t the grand entrance one would hope for with a new career, but there *were* free snacks and a welcome box with Mambu-branded trinkets.
By Monday afternoon I was back home and seated at my new home office—that being the corner of our bedroom with a space just big enough for the smallest desk Ikea sells. I’m facing the window, so it’s not the worst WFH situation, but I’ll be more than ready to at least occasionally visit the HQ.
I neither expected nor got a riveting first week—it’s been a lot of app downloads, password setups, and hi-how-are-ya’s with my new coworkers1. I’ve also completed a bunch of required new-hire training courses, which is rather meta, since my team wrote the courses; I’m meant to understand the content but also to own it moving forward.
I’m excited about the job. It’s a warm fuzzy feeling to feel qualified for the work I’m doing, to have smart ideas about how I can help make the training better. I’ve got good first impressions about the company too, which has strong diversity and anti-harassment policies and just hired a Director of Sustainability (she was one of my three fellow new hires!).
Meanwhile, my residency in Nederland is past the five-month mark. I’m less than a week from reaching a 1,000-day streak in Duolingo, and coincidentally am almost done with the *entire* Dutch Duolingo course. Final verdict: while Duolingo will IN NO WAY make you conversational in a new language on its own—and is often frustratingly obtuse about how Dutch people *actually* speak2—it’s still a great way to soak up common words and phrases to the point that you can almost-but-not-quite interpret the latest De Speld headline.
Which reminds me: we are officially OVER the weather. I knew what I was in for, moving to northern Europe in the wintertime, but I’d at least hoped for a lovely spring as a reward. Instead—with a few gloriously sunny days excepted—Amsterdam had its coldest April in 35 years, and May isn’t doing much better. But it’s spring just the same: tulips and peonies are in abundance, and the days have reached an alarming length, with light lingering in the sky well past 10pm and starting up again around 5am. I’ve got to wear my eyemask to have any hope of sleeping until the alarm goes off. By midsummer it’ll almost never be completely dark outside.
(This might have been a bad idea. It works better on a laptop.)
I woke up at about 8am1 and got some work done2 before biking3 to the fysio4. On the way back home I bought some nuts5 per Kiki’s request. Back at the computer6, I read through some of my Safari tabs7 and shot some zombies8 before Nardje showed up9 in the afternoon.
On the advice of the fysio I took an hour-long walk10 around Amsterdam, getting feta cheese11 for dinner on the way home. Kiki made a delicious shakshouka12 while I built an Ikea cabinet for the bathoom13. We were in bed before 1114.
From the beginning of the Big Move planning process, I intended to spend a significant chunk of money on improvements to the Hoendiepstraat apartment. It started with a large Ikea closet to hold my clothes. In short order after my arrival came an “American-sized” TV1; a new dining table; and the most non-negotiable item, a clothes dryer.2
And then, in the middle of discussions about what should take priority next, the toilet started to leak.
Feel free to make the obvious joke about my American poops overwhelming European bathrooms. Given that the toilet was now being flushed more than twice as often as before, you wouldn’t be far off-track. But the toilet was old and in poor condition anyway, so it was time for a new one. And—all you homeowners will nod in agreement here—if we’re swapping the toilet, why not do the sink as well?
This would be the fateful twist in the story. As James Breakwell recently wrote, “The key to any small, reasonable renovation is to keep adding to it until both of those adjectives are a lie.” In this case, all it took was a sink.
Now, unlike those free-wheelin’ Americans, home-improvement stores are currently closed in Nederland, so your only option is to order online. Praxis.nl is no homedepot.com, but we were eventually able to pick a toilet, sink, and faucet from their online shop. I successfully booked a plumber (no small feat) who had a delightfully thick British accent for the following Tuesday.
Then on Thursday, the sink arrived. It sounded like this.
Now let’s not kid ourselves: that is hilarious. But it meant that I had to cancel the plumber, letting him know I’d let him know when I had an intact sink. It also meant that, when the toilet arrived the following day, it had nowhere to go besides our living room.
We found ourselves at a standstill as Praxis customer service remained consistently unhelpful and unresponsive about getting the sink replaced. (One customer service rep hung up the moment I asked if we could speak English. Another told me via email to call their shop in Heerhugowaard, 45 minutes north of Amsterdam; when I did, the shop was as confused as I was.) Days stretched to weeks, with the toilet and shattered sink going from comedic conversation pieces to unwanted freeloading roommates.
In desperation we ordered a second sink from Praxis, which arrived in one piece and allowed us to schedule the plumber once again. Finally on Wednesday, March 10th, five weeks after we’d started the process, a very nice, ridiculously good-looking plumber3 arrived. In four short hours, the toilet and sink were installed; by the end of the night, so were the cabinets. (Small bit of bragging: thanks to my double- and triple-measurements, the cabinets fit in with the new sink down to the centimeter.) Our new bathroom looks fantastic. So happy the ordeal is over.
I’m still trying to return that broken sink, though.
1 Okay, y’all. I had a WHOLE BLOGPOST written about what it’s been like adjusting to the cold Dutch climate—from standing on my first frozen pond to learning the joys of dry cracking skin—only for all of Texas to become a goddamn ice planet on the very day that it all melted here. I never thought I’d be wishing happy warm thoughts from NL to TX, but these are strange times, my friends.
So that long whiney post got deleted. The short version is: we got a solid layer of snow on February 7th, and—as a native Texan, this was new to me—it stayed snowy. The canals and river were mostly frozen, ducks and pigeons and occasionally humans sliding around on top. I saw kids being pulled on sleds for function rather than fun. We mostly stayed indoors.
2 When I arrived here in mid-December, the sun set at 4:30 in the afternoon and I was confused why delivery drivers kept showing up after dark. The tides are turning, though! Our days are now about 11 hours long, and in the summer we’ll have blissful 17-hour days and the sky will *never* be fully dark. Latitudes are crazy.
3 Dutch update: I’m still at the level of knowing just enough to get myself in trouble. Like, I’ll absolutely nail the first line of a conversation—“Goedemiddag, ik heb een afspraak om half tien”—and then the person will respond in Dutch and… I’ll have no idea what they said.
But I can eavesdrop on Dutch conversations (usually Kiki’s) and more often than not grasp the topic—sometimes even entire sentences at a time. Progress!
Fun Dutch vocab of the month: the Dutch word for latte is “koffie verkeerd,” literally “wrong coffee.” The Dutch word for Easter is “Paas,” which explains the weird name of those ubiquitous egg-coloring kits when we were kids.
4 On the 24th we rented a Mini Cooper and road-tripped two hours south to Maastricht, a historic town in Nederland’s weird little appendix at the border with Germany and Belgium. This city is a thousand years old if it’s a day, with charming buildings by the dozens and literally more churches than they know what to do with. There was a full-sized church sanctuary behind our hotel with no apparent means of entry. Elsewhere in the center are a bookstore and a grocery store, both inside churches.
It was a charming couple of days in a truly charming city, and also a good example of the COVID-tourism paradox: though the city center was blissfully free of tourists1, all the shops and museums were closed, which explained the emptiness but also made things a bit boring. Then again, “boring” gave us ample time to explore virtually every street of the old city with time left over to relax on the hotel balcony. Also I discovered the magic of vlaai.
On our way back north to Amsterdam we zig-zagged through a variety of small towns, any of which might be the setting for the Dutch edition of “Hot Fuzz,” with their own 500-year-old churches and unironic thatched roofs and war memorials2. The weather was glorious, peaking around 20C/68F. We’ve got to do it all over again when things are open; I’m sure we’ll grumble about how many tourists there are.
6 I’ve thought a lot about how the pandemic has made me miss my casual friends—the ones I never texted with or even think much about (or even know the name of!) until they weren’t around. The improv acquaintances and regulars at the bar. This article is a good read about that very subject. Some of them I’d probably never see again even if I’d stayed in place; moving to a new country might ensure I’ll never see many or most of them again. It’s an odd angle on homesickness I hadn’t considered. Whenever I can finally-finally start haunting local places here and making new friend-quaintances, it’ll be a relief.
7 After two-and-a-half months in the Netherlands, I finally finally have a working Dutch phone number and bank card. It wasn’t the highest priority since we never go anywhere, but it’s nice to be able to pay for groceries myself at last. Ik ben een grote jongen!
1 I had a simple revelation when I was younger that I still think about now and then. Seeing a herd of cows standing in the freezing cold, I felt pity for how chilly they must be. Then it occurred to me: those cows have no concept of not being chilly. They don’t know HVAC systems even exist. They’re cold, and that’s just the fact of the matter, and they probably don’t think too much about it.
On a totally unrelated note, I think I’m getting used to the weather here.
2 This weekend we took a semi-staycation to Utrecht, a city 20 minutes south of Amsterdam with historic architecture and one charming market street after another. It is of course a ghost town right now.
The main thing I want to tell you about in Utrecht is the big cathedral, which was one of the tallest buildings in the world when it was finished in 1382 and then in 1674 got fucking bulls-eyed by a tornado. The citizens of Utrecht wisely decided against rebuilding, so it’s now a weird half-cathedral and a standalone tower with a public square in the middle. Check the before-and-after:
3 This is my neighborhood! It’s called Rivierenbuurt, and it’s a short tram ride south of the city center at the bend of the Amstel river. It was built from scratch in the early 1930s and is almost entirely comprised of four-story apartment blocks with shops at the corners and gardens1 in the centers. Everything was designed in the Amsterdam School architectural style, a know-it-if-you-see-it melange of modernism and geometric flourishes straight out of Middle Earth.
4 On a related topic: of course I’ve had to shift many of my expectations moving from a standalone house to a densely-occupied apartment block. Some of this could be expected no matter where I’d moved: adjusting to the smaller space, cursing the loud music playing from god-knows-where late at night. But some of it feels distinctly European. I’m always walking past ground-floor apartments, and a surprising number of them give zero craps about keeping their shutters open and their home life plainly visible to passers-by. On a recent walk down the block, there were more windows uncovered than not. From my couch I can see what the neighbors across the street are watching on *their* TV. I’ve had to train myself not to look.
5 One of my house-husband duties during funemployment is to make Kiki her tea every morning. Yeah, I’m doing it out of love, but I’m also doing it because I get to pour in the milk.
My favorite way to learn Dutch one headline at a time is De Speld, Nederland’s version of The Onion. Translate a headline and you get a joke!
Your delightfully-literal Dutch word of the month: liquid is “vloeistof,” meaning (and sorta pronounced) “flowy stuff.”
7 The Netherlands isn’t a safe haven from COVID. You’re thinking of New Zealand.2 It’s a relative improvement over the US in that each household is allowed one visitor per day, so we’ve experienced the novelty of “having friends over for dinner” for the first time in a year. Still, sad to say we’re fifth in the world in COVID cases per capita (though deaths are thankfully low). The recent spike in cases has resulted in a 9pm curfew, which naturally—that’s the point—limits my social opportunities even further. On the one hand, yeah, that sucks. On the other hand, it’s nice to be in a country that’s actually responsive to a public emergency. It’ll get back to normal soon enough, and hey, sitting on the couch all day isn’t the worst way to spend unemployment.
8 I included a pretty Netherlands video last time, so let’s keep the party going. One of my very favorite sights in the world (after milk in tea) is starling murmurations. Now I live in a place where I might actually see one!
On Inauguration Day, I want to share with you one of the weirdest things I’ve ever created: it’s a children’s book that I literally came up with in a *freaking dream* a few months back. Usually when you have a brilliant idea in your sleep, you realize upon waking that it’s incredibly stupid. But this idea actually turned into a proper story that I’m rather proud of!
I didn’t get any nibbles from publishers, and (despite my unemployment) didn’t have the bandwidth or skill to illustrate it myself, so I’m setting it free. Hope you enjoy it. ———
Black Cat, White House
Hans was a black cat who lived in the bushes next to a big white house. Every day, many people would come and go from the house on their human business, and every night Hans would hunt for food on the grounds.
Sometimes Hans would get a scratch from a passing tourist, or a bit of tuna sandwich from a friendly guard. Once, a very friendly lady1 picked Hans up and told him he was a good cat. He liked that a lot.
Then one day, things at the white house changed. The friendly humans got in their large black cars and drove away; a new set of cars brought a new group of people.
They weren’t so friendly.
Hans heard the humans yelling at each other all the time. They interrupted his naps. The leader of the pack was a man who never laughed; Hans didn’t think he seemed like much of a leader at all.
As time went on, the humans in the house grew more unpleasant. When Hans tried to meow for a bit of food or a scratch, they yelled at him or even threw stones! Hans could tell that the people outside the house weren’t happy, either. Every day, large groups of them would gather and yell angry human words. An enormous wall was built to protect the white house from the outside world. But Hans didn’t feel very safe.
“Humans are awful,” thought Hans disgustedly one afternoon, after the guards sent people running with clouds of unpleasant gas. Hans hardly even remembered that people could be kind.
And then one day, a fleet of large black cars arrived again. Hans watched with interest as a new group of humans moved into the house. He recognized the new leader as someone who had once given him a bit of cheese. One night Hans saw the man passing by, and poked his face out of the bushes.
“I remember you!,” said the man with surprise, immediately reaching down to give Hans a scratch. Hans purred in relief. Maybe the white house could be a happy place again.
1 It doesn’t get easier to witness what’s happening back home just cause I “escaped” to Europe. Heck, it might even be a little harder. My thoughts are with the people who are vulnerable and suffering.
2 You know how anywhere you travel, you’ll find some yokel who says “If ya don’t like the weather here, just wait a few minutes and it’ll change” and then gives a hearty laugh? Yeah that is NOT the case around here. It’s been mostly cloudy in the mid-30s since I arrived, literally any time, day or night.
Speaking of which, here’s my handy-dandy conversion kit to understand temperatures in Celsius. It’s not that hard!
-10: Miserable 0: Cold 10: Cool 20: Pleasant 30: Hot 40: Texas in August
3 My Dutch is sloooowly progressing. I can speak a sentence with a few seconds’ thought, whereas my comprehension has progressed from “recognizing two words” to “recognizing five words and maybe grasping the topic of conversation.”
Dutch word order is a bag of monkeys, by the way. Today’s example: “She did not hear me say that” translates to “Zij heeft mij dat niet horen zeggen,” or “She has me that not heard said.”
As before, though, learning a new language teaches you a lot about your own. Have you ever thought about how “mint” can mean either a flavorful herb or the place where they make money? It’s the same word!!
4 I’ve shared this before, but this is how the Dutch do trash collection, and it’s awesome.
5 Just a random fact, because I looooove random facts: in 1973, Duracell debuted a battery-powered pink plush bunny mascot with a European commercial, but they never trademarked the bunny in the United States. Fifteen years later, Energizer stole the concept and introduced the Energizer Bunny with a US commercial. So that means when you’re in the US, you see the Energizer bunny; and when you’re anywhere else, you see the Duracell bunny.
6 Being a World War II nut makes a move to Europe all the more interesting. It was well less than a century ago that Nazi Kübelwagens were rolling down my street; the D-Day beaches are a day’s drive away. The most famous local story was Anne Frank, of course, and only after moving here did I realize I had a fundamental misunderstanding of the story: the “secret house” in the city center that Anne’s family hid in for two years was not their house. I realized this because the house where they did live before going into hiding is a ten-minute walk from mine. The streets Anne walked on, the park where she played, even the bookstore where she bought her diary (still in business!) are all right across the neighborhood. History here feels as close as a curtain against a window.
7 Okay, that was a bit heavy. Here’s a palate cleanser: a ten-minute time-lapse of a boat’s commute across the Dutch countryside from Rotterdam to Amsterdam. (If you’re the impatient sort you can skip to eight minutes, when day turns to night and they arrive in Amsterdam.)
HOT DRAWBRIDGE ACTION!! ???
8 I know long-distance relationships are all the rage, but have you tried a SHORT-distance relationship? It is soooo much better.
In November 2002, having been dismissed from my first job out of college (no hard feelings, NI), I reluctantly took a call-center job. It’s a glum rite of passage for any underemployed early-20-something, and the only thing about it that didn’t depress me right into the ground was who I’d be taking calls for: Apple, my favorite company since before I knew what a “company” was.
I walked in the doors as a temp worker on November 1, 2002, where my future coworker Elizabeth trained my class of new hires in the mysterious art of troubleshooting PowerBooks. After a three-week boot camp I was shown to my desk and issued an outdated blue-and-white Power Mac G3. My first bewildered day on the phones—telling people to reset their PMU *way* more than was necessary—was Thanksgiving Day.
Apple was more of a punk-rock company in those days, still an underdog to Microsoft and only five years removed from its near-certain death. Our call center was a couple of prefab buildings overlooking a highway interchange in low-rent Austin. Mac OS X was a buggy mess, and plenty of people were using the “classic” Mac OS. The iPod was still an overpriced curiosity.
Having passed muster with my call metrics, on my birthday—June 30, 2003—I was officially “badged” as an Apple employee. My employee ID was 55508; ID numbers are issued numerically, meaning I was the 55,508th person to ever be hired by Apple (Steve Jobs was #1). By the time I left, the numbers were approaching 650,000, which means by this inexact metric, Apple has done over 90% of its growing since I’ve been there.
Though Apple is a superior company to provide tech support for, it was still call-center work. Doing it for five years felt like a stint in purgatory. I remember in the early days having a pile of pennies that I would toss into a dish, one every three seconds, which was roughly the rate I was earning them.1 My Job-like patience helped me stay on the job and get promoted to Tier 2, but there were many occasions where I was inches away from leaving The Fruit for somewhere else.
There were many memorable moments over the years. Every Advisor had their share of famous-customer interactions. Mine included Isaac Mizrahi (tricked him into thinking he was getting VIP treatment; it was really our normal repair process); Scott Baio (spent an hour troubleshooting his printer); and Pat Sajak (replaced his PowerBook G4, only for it to be lost in transit due to Hurricane Katrina).
And naturally there were the exchanges that sound like jokes from an email forward. Not once, but twice I asked a customer to look near the clock at the top-right corner of their screen, only to have the following exchange:
“There’s no clock in the corner of my screen.” “Okay… what DO you see in the top-right corner?” “It says Tuesday, 2:43 pm.” “…”
The most seminal moment during my 18 years was at noon on January 9, 2007, when a number of us watched the live broadcast as Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone. (If you’ve never seen it, the first couple of minutes are genuinely worth your time as a historic artifact.) Steve was a deeply flawed man, but good lord, he could pitch a product. And he correctly predicted that everything about our company—maybe about the world—was about to change.
The iPhone even helped me escape the hourly-wage tech-support life. A few months later I helped train the very first class of iPhone support agents, which would help land me a job in the AppleCare Training organization.
That first class was a bit of a mess, because the iPhone wasn’t physically available to us—we didn’t even see one in person until the afternoon of the day it was released to the public. Apple is like that when it comes to secrecy. You don’t get new-product information unless strictly necessary, and sometimes not even then. When I wrote training all of our projects had code names, and often code names for code names. The training team once got a black eye when some of our screenshots leaked to an Apple rumor site, but I used context clues to help Apple Security identify the culprit, who I assume was drawn and quartered.
I also experienced business travel for the first time, visiting call centers in places as out of the way as Daleville, Indiana or as exotic as Hong Kong. (The latter was a spectacularly whirlwind trip: my boss asked me on a Thursday morning if I could be in Hong Kong on Monday morning.) My favorite trip was a three-week training class in Portland, June 2008—the class ran until 3pm, giving me leisurely evenings and not one but two weekends to explore the Pacific Northwest.2 Regular business travel might never return in our lifetimes, but if you get the chance, I do recommend it.
Though the company changed, my job from 2007 until now largely hasn’t—besides switching from training delivery to training development, I’ve remained in place as Apple ballooned around me. In 2002, the iPod seemed like an odd product offering for Apple to be offering. Now we’re offering Ted Lasso.
I never aspired to greatness at Apple. I never wanted to be a manager, and I certainly didn’t want to move to California, so I was content to contribute to the big big company in my own small small way. I’m powerfully lucky to have found a niche where my tech-writing talents could be of good use. And I’m amused that that niche is almost exactly where I started—training newly hired tech-support agents.
Apple was a golden-handcuffs situation, to put it mildly. The company’s wild success is gratifying for anybody who rooted for it as an underdog, but it’s gone from a plucky little sailboat3 to an nuclear-powered icebreaker. That took some of the shine off the rose over time; much of my work the past year in particular has been 5% writing, 95% approval-process. Trying to implement a change these days is like turning an icebreaker. When you add that to my compelling personal situation, and with the *waves around generally* that is 2020, there are plenty of reasons to call it a career and figure out what’s next. I’d say it’s no guarantee that I won’t be back, but I’m very happy to think of my time at Apple as being finished.
Much like with improv, it’s difficult to imagine how different my life would have been without Apple as my employer. It seems unlikely that I would have gained the privilege that lets me now, 18 years later, quit the race and move to Europe. I’m boundlessly lucky and grateful to the company, even though the big ship will hardly notice as I hop off and set out across the ice.