Ten years in Europe, What's next? 

Chantilly, France

Sometime in the first half of 1998 I flew to Paris on assignment for Chrysler Corporation. Although I've returned to the U.S. many times over the years, it was never to reside there. Since 1998 I have been living in Europe, partly in France and partly in Germany.

Having long ago got over culture shock of living in Europe, I feel as comfortable living here, perhaps more so, than I did living in the U.S.

Although I enjoyed living in Germany, I feel most comfortable in France due to my longer experience here and the level of my French in comparison to my German. Although I feel very comfortable interacting with the French, and I'm sympathetic to their world view and share many of their values, I don't feel myself to be French. In fact, I rather enjoy my status as an outsider.

I might even call it a priviledge to be an outsider. I enjoy not having to measure myself against my peers in the society. I feel a real sense of liberty to be who I am.

And I feel a sense of accomplishment at having arrived where I am after having made a real effort.

Being somewhat detached from one's surroundings also allows one the freedom to be more philisophical about the events going around oneself, and to understand them within the context of a bigger picture. It's a picture that includes the consideration of history as an aid to understanding the present.

Having acheived a certain amount of success in my life, is it time to think about doing something different, of going after a new challenge?

My experience up until now has been mostly related to information systems in heavy industry, notably the automobile industry. During my years as an IT specialist I have acquired project management skills which have allowed me to approach problems in a certain way, by breaking them down into manageable parts and by identifying the dependencies between these parts. And from this analysis, putting together a plan with a defined objective and a defined time plan. I've come to believe that any problem can be solved this way, and that no problem, once analyzed in this way, is insurmountable. I have a bias towards simplicity and believe that all problems can be simplified and understood by those with little expertise. In my current job I'm applying these methods to the areas of IT infrastructure, product design/development, and manufacturing.

At the moment there are a number of notable events taking place which have received a lot of attention in the media.

1) The phenomena of Global Warming
2) The shortage of oil supplies
3) The banking and stock market crisis
4) The specter of global recession.
5) The U.S. presidential election

I guess the one reflection that these events inspire in me, is the fact that it has only been possible to support the present number of people on the planet through the industrialization and mass distribution of the food supply. And this industrialization has been possible due to the abundance of fossil fuel, which we all know is a limited resource which will run out at some point in time. If the planet were to somehow loose these industrial processes, there would be great suffering and catastrophe beyond the ability of the industrialized nations to manage it.

All of this on top of the fact that significant populations continue to be subjected to war and famine.

At one time in my life I thought I might like to make a career in some kind of humanitarian endeavor, perhaps conflict resolution. I guess I abandonned this along the way, perhaps due to a frustration with the (by definition) highly political nature of humanitarian endeavors. Politics has never been a strong point of mine, although I have learned with time some tricks of the trade. Obviously communication skills are key, one needs the ability to appeal to reason and to convince decision makers, sometimes to flatter and manipulate. Gestures and actions are, of course, important also, such as investments in time, attention and the giving of gifts.

Have I acquired the maturity to be able to think once again about involving myself in some kind of humanitarian endeavor? I guess that's the bottom line of this somewhat rambling entry. And if I have, what could I expect or hope to achieve and is there an opportunity?
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Vamos a la playa 

Chantilly, France

Although I grew up only a few miles from excellent sandy beachs on the shores of Lake Michigan, I have to say that I have mostly not been much of a beach person. I enjoyed the occasional outings for picnics and hikes but sitting for long periods in the sun has just seemed like little more than a waste of time, especially as a way to spend a vacation.

My attitude towards the waterfront, or at least certain waterfronts, changed in January of 1999 when I was in Egypt visiting friends Peter, Shannon and their baby daughter Abby. They had the wonderful idea of spending some time at the Red Sea in the waterfront town of Nuweiba on the Sinai peninsula. That trip is worth an entry in itself, but suffice it to say that it was in Nuweiba that I discovered the coral reefs of the Red Sea. I purchased a mask and snorkel at the hotel shop and spent wonderous hours discovering the reef.

(The Vogelaars and friend at Nuweiba)

I don't remember exactly when I was first introduced to windsurfing. I vaguely remember experimenting on an outing, once again with Peter and Shannon but this time north of Shannon's parents' home in Brighton Michigan on a small lake. I don't think I got very far beyond managing to stand up on the board.

My experience in Nuweiba happened during my second period of residence in France and a colleague of mine at that time got me interested again in windsurfing as his wife had gotten him involved and he was making good progress at it. I may have tried a few times, one at his cottage on the English Channel, and another on a beach in Normandy, but both times were unsuccessful due to the high swells which kept throwing me off balance.

What inspired me to vacation in Sharm El Sheik at the tip of the Sinai in January of 2000? Probably my experience in Nuweiba. I really wanted to see more coral. And I decided to try and do some windsuring. As for the coral, I definately wasn't disappointed. And I was able to visit the national park at Ras Mohammed which is a well known marine park. I was also able to do some windsurfing and got as far as standing upright and moving forward although turning remained problematic.

Later in July of 2000 I vacationed on the island of Malta. Although the underwater world is not as spectacular as the Red Sea I still enjoyed snorkeling under the summer sunshine. And I took lessons this time in Windsurfing and made quite a lot of progress. I was able to get through turns, mastered the use of the harness and even started on the beach start. I was thrilled enough to buy myself my own harness on the spot.

In October of that same year I travelled back to the Red Sea to the seaside village of Safaga, south of the city of Hurghada. I continued working on my windsurfing skills and enjoyed a day of snorkeling around an off-shore reef.

In June of 2001 I travelled to the south of the island of Corsica for more windsurfing but never managed to reach the next level with the water start.

(Windsurfing bay near Bonifacio in Corsica)

I had planned to travel to Dahab in the Fall of 2001 but cancelled this trip due to the terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York City on September 11. In the Summer of 2002 I broke my leg due to a Rollerblading accident and this pretty much deflected me away from risky sports for a while. Although the accident left me with a persistent discomfort in my left leg, it was not debilitating and was able to start downhill skiing again sometime after moving to Germany in 2003.

So it's been 7 years since I was last windsurfing and 8 years since I have been to the Red Sea. How time flies! In a few weeks I'll be going back. I have my sights set once again on Dahab.

Windsurfing is a physically demanding and except for some swimming a mostly anaerobic sport. My memory can recall a great deal of muscle aches and pain after a day of windsurfing due to the physical exertion. I have never been able to do as much surfing as I had hoped due to my own physical limitations, but on the other hand, I don't recall ever having prepared much before these vacations. This time I have joined a fitness club and have following a course of weight lifting with the aim of reducing the amount of muscle ache to a manageable level in Dahab. We'll see if I succeed.

I'm hoping to break through to the next level of Windsurfing which is the water start. As Dahab has a shallow lagoon, it seems encouraging as a location suitable for learning the water start.

I also have a list of fish I'm hoping to spot while snorkeling. I've never seen an Octopus in its native habitat and I would be thrilled to see a shark or a sea turtle. Seahorses are also something I have never seen although I have searched for them, especially in Malta. Seeing an electric ray would be something special as would a crocodile fish. Spotting and identifying a stone fish or a scorpion fish is a stretch goal. A second sighting of a Manta ray, eagle ray, and Moray eel would also be exciting. Becoming reaquainted with barracuda, pipefish and cornet fishes would be a treat.

Being able to spot and identify some of the less extraordinary species would be great also, such as jacks/trevallys, bat/spadefish, bluestripe snapper (which I think I spotted once in Safaga)

I fully expect that I will see lion fish, clownfish, parrotfish, hawkfish, sandperches, lizardfish, surgeon fish, trigger fish, puffer/trunk fish, goatfish, blennies, flounders, anthias, fusilier, butterfly/banner fish, angelfish (royal, emperor, yellowbar), wrasses (cleaner and others), groupers, reef stingrays, and damselfish.

O.K. so the objectives are set. Let's see if I'll meet any/some/all/none of them.

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Origins - Part IV 

Chantilly, France

I enjoyed the years I spent living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As it is home to the gigantic University of Michigan, there are many and diverse opportunities for intellectual stimulation and personal exploration.

My ideas about what kind of career I really wanted began to gel during my years there. I confirmed that I was not primarily interested in an academic career, nor in any kind of religious career. Although not ruling out a career with a humanitarian organization, I decided to continue along the path in the business world I had started upon my return from Africa. It's difficult to define exactly why I fealt the most comfortable in the business environment. Maybe it's because I saw the goals to be more clear cut, understandable, and easier to focus on. Not that the goals are aways clear cut and understandable and easy to focus on in a for profit commercial environment, but in comparison with other domains, they just seemed easier to understand (and still do) even if they are less worthy of my admiration.

The job that I was working at in Ann Arbor as a software developper did not hold any promise for developing into an international career. I also felt that I needed to acquire some additional practical skills in the business area and decided to aim at getting a graduate degree in international business. I started looking for an international program in which I could build on my computer science background and at the same time become more knowlegeable about how the commercial sector worked.

I found a program offered by an American university and located in Brussels, Belgium. It was a program in which I could receive a Masters degree in management with a concentration in Information Technology after a year and a half of study. I would be able to fund my studies through a combination of personal savings, student loans, and a stipend received from an internship.

It was a big step for me. I was unsure how I would manage living in a foreign country for so long. My unsuccessful experience in Africa had made me uncertain about how I would adjust. But I chose to except the risk and take the plonge.

In an effort to avoid the alienation that I had experienced living by myself in Africa, and expereince as much as I could of the local culture, I decided to take up residence with a Belgian family in Brussels which I arranged before leaving the U.S. Looking back on this decision, I think it was a good idea. I'm not sure I would have been able to be resourceful and confident in looking for an apartment after arriving in a foreign country and living with the family did provide me with an insight into the Belgian culture and European mentality.

But I quickly met new people and made new friends from all over the world. I thrived in this new environment and after the first 6 months moved into my own apartment with a beautiful view over the city of Brussels which I kept for the next twelve months.

(The Delaey Family in Brussels)

(Socializing with friends in Brussels - me front and left)

Upon receiving my Masters Degree at the end of 1994 I was ready for the next step. My ability to live and work in Europe had been confirmed and I was eager for more. In the last few months of my studies I had engaged in an extensive job search in the hopes of finding a job in Europe. It was certainly not easy to find a job as a non-European. My one positive lead came from an American consulting company who needed someone to help with a joint project they had in France with a French subsidiary of another American company.

As I wanted to stay in Europe and didn't have any alternative opportunity to be employed there, I accepted their offer. The project was located in the provincial town of Orleans some distance south of the Paris metropolitan region where I lived for a few months before transferring to another project located in Paris. The project in Orleans exposed me to a real French language immersion experience which was very challenging but lead to rapid improvement in my French skills.

My new project in Paris introduced me to the automotive industry in which I have continued to work ever since. I worked in Paris for the remainder of 1995 and was then transferred to Detroit for another two years before returning to Paris in 1998, this time to stay until 2003. I then transferred to Stuttgart, Germany where I spent four years working on an American payroll. Since the beginning of 2008, I have once again returned to France (for the third time). This last move has added a new dimension to my career as I have taken a job with a completely European company and am working on a local contract with European working conditions.

So it has been a rather long and eventful road but never a boring one, with ever changing challenges and circumstances. And even if my life at times has left me in some uncertain situations, it has been a continuous forward moving progression in which each new year has added something positive to a unique collection of experiences.

It is against this background that I embark on a public series of ruminations about what has struck me as significant or noteworthy and what has inspired me and continues to inspire me along the way.

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Origins - Part III 

Chantilly, France

In 1989, Mikhail Gorbechev was in his fourth year as leader of the Soviet Union. George Bush Sr was beginning his first year as president of the U.S., taking the Republican baton from Ronald Reagan who in 1987 had stood before the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and in a speech challenged Gorbechev to "tear down this wall". Of course, Reagan was referring to the wall which had separated the city of Berlin into two parts administered in the East by the Russian influenced German Democratic Replublic and in the West by the Western influence Federal Republic of Germany since the early 1960s when Berlin had become a major flash point in the Cold War between Russia and the West.

In 1989, I was living in my home town in Michigan, having recently graduated from College with a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science and having been to Africa and back, I was working for a small computer consulting company but was restless to do something else. I had already many years before acquired an ambition which this modest midwestern town could not contain. It was then that my attention began to turn from the more exotic countries to European ones.

That summer, an airline was offering discounts for trips to Europe beginning after the summer tourist season. I convinced a buddy of mine to accompany me on a trip to Germany where a friend of mine from High School lived. I had taken German lessons in High School and in College and was curious to see what use I could make of my education. We planned our trip for late November.

As Summer turned into Fall, it became clear from reports out of Europe that a series of historic events had been set in motion that would change the course of history and the relations between the Soviet dominated countries behind the "Iron Curtain" and Western Europe and its ally, the United States.

In 1988, Gorbechev's restructuring of the Soviet System was well underway and he introduced the concept of Glasnost, which provided greater freedoms to the Soviet people. It provided the backdrop for what was to happen in the Soviet dominated countries of Eastern Europe as a Pandora's Box had been opened providing hope and momentem to the aspirations of these countrys' citizens to enjoy greater freedom.

In late August of 1989, Hungry, the most "Westernized" of the Eastern Block countries, removed border restrictions with Austria, allowing its citizens to travel freely across that border. As East Germans were able to travel relatively easily within the Eastern Bloc, 13,000 of them who were in Hungary took the opportunity to cross into the West.

Demonstrations of East Germans against the government of Erich Honecker broke out in September and lead to his resignation in mid October. Meanwhile, immigration from East Germany to the west continued through Hungary and Czeckoslovakia when on November 9, the East German govenment decided to allow refugees to exit directly across the border in Berlin.

From that date, people would come to the wall with picks and sledgehammers, encouraged by the lax attitude of the border guards, to begin taking away souvenir pieces of the wall.

A few weeks later, my buddy Steve and I arrived in Germany to begin the tour we had planned months before. We landed in Frankfurt am Main, and made our way to Cologne, making a stop in the Netherlands before heading to Berlin. We found Berlin to be still very much the divided city it had been for decades. As we found out by trial and error, Americans were allowed to cross into the East only at Checkpoint Charlie. All but one of the stations on the one metro line which crossed from the west into the east were still closed. It was still very much the Berlin of the cold war although it was clearly the beginning of the end. I would return to Berlin a decade later to witness the transformation of that city and find that the Berlin Wall had become but a memory.

In late November of 1989, we were able to chip off our souvenir piece of the wall, and observe the lines of East Germans getting their allowance of West German Deutschmarks and the many Trabants, that ubiquitous East German car, parked in the streets of West Berlin.

We continued our tour of Germany, travelling by train to Bavaria, and making our way back to Frankfurt for our return flight home. I had enjoyed my experience in Europe. It was the first of many experiences to come.

In early 1990 I quit my job and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan taking a job as a software developer with a local company. I spent my off hours studying French at the University of Michigan in order to build on the language experience I had gained in Africa. In the next few years I would travel twice to France on vacation, the first on a solo hike across Provence which ended prematurely from physical exhaustion, and a second, much more successful trip as part of a volunteer group restoring an old chapel in Southern France.

It was a time of confidence building as I discovered my ability to work and interact with a diverse group of people from European and North African countries.

(To be continued)
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Origins - Part II 

Chantilly, France

The town I grew up in was founded in the mid 19th century by immigrants from Europe led by a church minister. From its beginnings it was, and has remained over the years, a highly religious community. My parents were quite active in their local church, and throughout my upbringing, I attended the church services, Sunday school, sang and played bells in the youth choir and participated in various other social activities organized around the Church. The Church played a major role in my early life.

Like many religious denominations, the church I attended sponsored missions in various parts of the world. Once in a while, the missionaries would return to the U.S. to share the stories of their activities. My parents knew many of them and I knew many of them also through their children with whom I had grown up.

At some point, I began to be fascinated by the stories the missionaries would tell. It seemed like such a meaningful existance, to be helping others in a foreign land who were disadvantaged. It resonated with the lessons of altruism I had been taught and the stories I had read in the Bible. Later in life, as I drifted away from religious orthodoxy, the fascination would continue based on more secular and humanistic grounds.

Studying conflict resolution in Jerusalem was my first real foray in this direction. Looking back, I believe that I chose this program over other foreign study programs because of the sense of meaning I felt it would bring to my life. It seemed more adventurous and daring as well. I needed to test my boundaries.

In Jerusalem, there was much to discover that was exotic and challenging and thought provoking. I was delighted to discover that living in such a place suited me. It was stimulating and envigorating. Yet as with all study programs, the result remained academic and when it was over, I felt there was more that I needed to achieve, while at the same time, unsure of how, exactly, to reach what I could consider the next step.

{Great Lakes Jerusalem Program (Me, second row, center wearing the sweater)}

In returning to the U.S. I embarked upon a number of adventures which allowed me to continue my self discovery. I worked for a summer camp in far off Colorado, for a government agency in even farther off Oregon protecting endangered species, even returning to New Mexico for a summer to help protect threatened natural environments. I was thrilled by my new found independence. But I was still faced with what I would do upon graduating from University. Obtaining a traditional job in my field of specialization did not seem to promise the same kind of stimulation and meaningful existence I had become accustomed to in my travels. And I knew that my previous experiences had all been intermediate steps, not destinations in themselves.

I ended up turning to the government as a way to explore a career in doing humanitarian work abroad. The international aspect was a given, working domestically was of no interest to me. During my University career I had met others who had volunteered with the government in overseas humanitarian projects and admired their apparent intrepidness and aura of cool worldliness in the way they would tell the story of their experiences as activists providing assistance to developing countries. As I imagined myself following in their footsteps I got a good feeling about the idea of taking the skills I had learned in University and applying them to the direct benefit of countries less fortunate than my own. It seemed somehow glorious.

And so it was that in the summer of 1988, I found myself in Cameroon trying as hard as I knew how, (perhaps too hard), to teach children a subject which had frustrated me in University in a town far away from any kind of support network. It had all started so well. The training, which was notorious for ruthlessly weeding out the unfit, I adored. Surrounded by local intellectuals and like minded compatriots, I thrived in my new environment. The accommodation was Spartan, the food at times barely tolerable, the roads muddy or dusty according to the weather, and yet I reveled in the adventure and discovery of this new environment, the feeling of personal achievement, and the fellowship of the Cameroonians who I met. It was only when I left the protective community of this rather elite group of people that I started to feel isolated, alienated, overwhelmed, and devoid of the means, opportunity and strength to pull myself together. In retrospect I can only identify a single mistake that I made, which was to voluntarily give up teaching a subject which well suited me to teach one for which there was a great need, but which in the end exhausted me. It is difficult to say if things would have worked out differently if I had refused to make such a sacrifice. I had high expectations of myself, which were perhaps, and also in retrospect, too demanding.

{Me and friends in Foumban, Cameroon}

In the end, I had to abandon this endeavor which had become so near and dear to my heart and return to my country much to my great disappointment and with personal feelings of humiliation. I had lost all sense of direction and suffered a great deal in terms of my personal opinion of myself and my abilities and it took me several years before I would regain a sense of direction. In the meantime, I struggled to get over the idea that performing humanitarian work in a foreign country was not the right choice for me at that time of my life. I flirted with the idea of working for the Church but this too ended in disillusionment and disappointment which would seriously call into question for me the competence of those working for the Church and more or less put an end to any consideration of the Church as a vehicle for my aspirations.

I think that discovering one's limitations always has to be a difficult experience. It's disappointing to be sure. It calls into question one's understanding of who one is, one's capacities, one's purpose in life, and one's metaphysics. I suppose that one can only hope that the passage to the next chapter occurs as rapidly as possible. In my case it lingered rather longer than I would have hoped, a matter of years rather than months. But eventually it would occur, and not, I must say, without the help of some good friends who helped me along the way to nurse my wounds.

(To be continued)

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