Sunday, November 11, 2007

In the beginning: the Contract

I simply wanted to stay in Europe.

I'd spent a year at Cambridge, emerging full of ideas, energy, and hope. The three months back in the 'States had only added to my conviction that my best opportunity and happiness lie overseas. Curious: I know so many people who define their ambitions first in terms of Place, but often it comes from a desire to stay close to home and friends. Somehow, I was the opposite.

And an opportunity did surface, six months to negotiate, but by early November 2006, an agreement had been reached. I would take an ex-patriate assignment with the Dutch division of my American company, re-locating to Arnhem, in the eastern part of the Netherlands, about an hour from Amsterdam. Accompanying the offer was The Contract, an agreement that would set the boundaries and terms of life for the next couple of years. It's probably worth taking a post to describe the highlights, since it has come to define many of the best and worst features of this assignment.

The Contract defines the reason for your transfer, the start date and duration, the reporting terms and expectations, and the general expectation that you will return to the US in another lateral transfer at the end of the assignment.

"Compensation" has lots of complication for ex-patriates: there is the base salary and bonus that you receive in the US, which you retain when you move overseas. There is the purchasing power of that salary, which is subject to local cost-of-living and exchange-rate differentials (Neither Holland nor the Euro are cheap these days): the company provides built-in offsets and quarterly re-adjustments to keep you whole. Taxes can be much higher (or lower) when you are working in Europe, so an advisement and equalization process assures that you pay the same taxes as though you were still in the US. (It does make for a breathtakingly large tax package at the end of the year). In my case, where my family remained in the US, there was a division of the salary un-nervingly suggestive of a divorce.

You get a housing and transport allowance: these define the rent, utilities, lease arrangements, and allowed expenses. For me, it allowed for a nice apartment and a snappy lease car. All of the utilities are covered, up to an umbrella limit, and (unbelievably) all gasoline for the car. That is almost the best arrangement in the package: I wanted to **see** Europe, and suddenly wheels are the best option.

A half-dozen home-stays were included, allowing for flights both ways, and one visit for my family over here, along with relocation allowances to move household goods to Europe. A relocation service supports both cross-cultural adjustment and document / househunting assistance in the Netherlands. These people are wonderful, and have become wonderful support people throughout my stay. Language and intercultural training are provided; security services and emergency leave provisions cover emergencies.

You are expected to remain in place for at least a year: if you leave early, you pay back every penny spent on you (above). You are expected to remain with the company for at least a year after the assignment.

Overall, the terms are standard, but, in practice, very nice. On the one hand, it's a bit like colonial days, when ambassadors and trade envoys located overseas to lives of comparative comfort and privilege. I've been given a solid base for living and working overseas. However, I recognize that this comes with expectations, and that the terms are intended to let me hit the ground running. Clearly, it also implies that I run hard for the duration of the assignment: not a bad thing, but worth acknowledging. It's a balance and a bargain: not a holiday or sabbatical.

And, yes, I can do it without it: I bounced off a plane at Gatwick with a student visa and my clothes on my back and no support at all just the year before. But this does have advantages...

And, at the end of the process, I'm in Europe !