Friday, February 29, 2008

Flinging on Fridays

I-Fling What is it about otherwise good people that leads then to take a sharp poke at others after a hard day?

I was uncomfortable with my previous comment that it's challenging to slip into a communicating and supportive role when I'm feeling ground down by work or life. But shouldn't it actually be a relief to set the day aside and relax into time with a partner?

Today I called a friend who's been having a difficult week, wanting to listen and give her a chance to ventilate a bit. I knew that she was tired, but was struck by how many provocative things spilled out. In the end, I gave up, but, in retrospect, I wondered why we tend to spread hard times rather than suppress them?

Another friend of mine once commented that it's all too easy to become a poo-magnet in bad times. Is this because we bring it onto ourselves by jumping on others?

It seems to me that the best way to feel better is by letting others lift us, rather than by trying to bring them down to our level. Therefore, be it heretofore resolved that I shall not fling poo on Fridays, no matter how shat the week has been.

Photo credit art.com

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Idle miscellany...

'nothing organized to be worth a full posting today; just a few bits to pass through...

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I have discovered that the Dutch authorities consider my wife and I to be "legally separated".

The tax advisors tell me that if we have not lived together under the same roof during the tax year, we're separated. 'should make for an interesting return when she goes to sign it...

The Dutch Word of the Day, "Lekker belangrijk" ("Who cares?"), kind of captures it, but I'm sure she won't see it that way...

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Photo credit flickr

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Why are do people in the north of places always look down on people in the south, and vice versa?

In the US North, people in the South were always slow-thinking rednecks, and whenI lived in the south, Northerners were always 'damn Yankees' ('damn Liberals' now).

In the South of England, things were pretty much unprintable about Northerners, while friends in Manchester made fun of Southern airs.

Then there's the whole North and South of the grote rivieren thing here, and even worse reserved for the Belgians.

Oddly consistent, and seldom East to West, even in relatively square countries like the Netherlands.

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And then this has shown up parked outside Arnhem....

DSC03807

...should I worry?

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I'm in the market for (finally) getting a bicycle for my birthday next month, celebrating a year in the Netherlands. I know bikes are a big deal here, so I don't want to get something out-of-place.


An informal survey, surprisingly, reveals a lot of people with mountain bikes.
Ummm ... why, here, of all places, are gears and studded tires necessary...?

Of course, it's been pointed out that the truly exciting opportunity is to go out in Corporate Riding Spandex:

I'll need to work lots harder at the gym to be worthy of this...

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

International banking on a small scale

  "Due to global compliance payroll reporting we have made the decision to deliver all assignee remuneration shown on your balance sheet via your home country payroll.  However, we are pleased to introduce Reimbursement for Exchange Rate Loss.  This will be effective May 2008. We understand this is a big change and a member of the Global Assignments Team will be scheduling a meeting with you over the next few weeks to discuss the new process."

This is the sort of email that is guaranteed to take hours off my days and weeks off my life.

On the one hand, I serve at the pleasure of the corporation, so there's no sense in stressing over it. On the other, anything involving global banks and international money transfers these days is full or problems and procedures.Nov 2 2007 033

Prior to this note, my wages were divided and deposited into a US account for my family and a Dutch account for my living expenses.  With this announcement, it will all go to the US. So, the only way that I will have cash for living expenses is to wire a sizeable chunk of money over here every month, and then to apply for reimbursement of fees and exchange rate differentials, every month.

Welcome to the big leagues, as we say in the US...

I've got Dutch -> US transfers down to an art: the money arrives in a week and only one transmission has been lost in the past year.  In that case, the deposit was re-credited, but the merchant bank took off a $75 fee for it's trouble in returning my money to me.  Still, it's become a routine, five-keystroke operation (thank you Fortis).

On the US side, I use Washington Mutual, as in "Whoo hoo: WaMu".  That should be a hint: WaMu is a large bank ("$15 billion market cap; 2225 branches") but not a global one ("our friendly employees, our innovative approach to banking, or our work in our communities makes us unique").  This has big implications, as I found out in two hours of phone conversations last night.

First, they don't do currency exchanges.  They tell me that there are airport vendors and travel agencies for that sort of thing.

Second, despite their assurance that my account features ! Free * Unlimited * WorldWide * Wire * Transfers !, these cannot be done on-line.  Or by telephone.  The two options are (and I am not making this up):

   1-- Go in-person to the bank manager of my home branch and fill out a longhand paper form each time I want to make a transfer, or

   2-- Withdraw the cash and take it up the street to Western Union, please.

So everything must be dollar-denominated, and handled at the local-branch level as a personal transaction.  I tried getting in touch with my branch manager to explain that I live in The Netherlands (no, sorry: Holland), and to see if I could deposit a letter of authorization between us, agreeing to set up a recurring transfer.  However, the conversation faltered when the +31 part of my phone number led to a long discussion of how to make direct-dial international calls.  I haven't heard from him since.

This doesn't inspire confidence.

I'm not sure what my solution will be: options include parking a large chunk of cash here (at 0.01% Dutch interest rates), working with a different bank (and re-doing my direct deposit arrangements), transferring through a brokerage like Schwab (who will accept instructions by fax, but not on-line or by phone), or to make monthly flights to the US to withdraw a bag of money (but under the $5000 limit at Customs).

As a regular reader of the Economist, I am well aware of the ceaseless flows of billions of dollars chasing opportunities around the globe, and of the wave of government monitoring and regulation that is trying to catch up with it.  Maybe.  But, at the local level of transferring a thousand dollars over international boundaries, the US system (and my home accounts) still has a long way to go.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Expatriate Perils

The Wall Street Journal ran an article last week in their Expat Life column that detailed the "Marital Strain of a Life Abroad". (Thanks to Expat Focus Blog for the original reference!). It reviewed the various strains that a couple face when taking an overseas assignment, and the coping strategies that they might use to adapt. It drew heavily from the author's own experiences on assignment with his spouse in China, and his reflections on their 15-year anniversary.

imagePerhaps because of this (and perhaps because of the conservative bent of the Journal), I thought that the article disproportionately focused on the temptations of expatriate life "reeling into the darker corners". Adultery was discussed three separate times as a major risk, once noting the easy availability of young, attractive girls and of cultures open to infidelity. In my view, this simply plays to reader's prejudices of a corrupt world beyond US shores: it doesn't echo any reality I've encountered, anywhere.

The article does note the way that workloads and office hours ratchet up dramatically, which certainly fits well with my own experiences. I know that expectations are high, and that all of the rewards are aligned to promote overperformance in return for the substantial investment in supporting me as an expatriate. I also think that many factors that help to maintain a sane work / not-work life balance, such as friendships outside of work, community group memberships, and work around the house and garden, are all missing. This is the greatest peril, not a sudden rush of expatriate hormones.

Cross-cultural stress, absence due to travel, and the resultant fatigue are also cited as issues that strain couples when they are together. Agreed: I know that there are days that I really welcome the space and quiet when I come home. I'm not sure how quickly I could slip into a partnering role where I was open, communicating, and supportive.

The author wisely reinforces the five basics of any relationship in his remedies: Communication (consultation), mutual respect (support), equality, trust, and love. Not surprisingly, he concludes that with these virtues firmly in place, couples can survive (and, yes, thrive) in their expatriate setting.

Picture credit emofaces.com

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Wild, wet and weird at Duisburg Zoo

I was out in Germany on Saturday to see the Duisburg Zoo, a smaller park with some notable exhibits. What I found (besides legions of Dutch holiday traffickers Zoo Duisburg - Misc 23clogging the A12) was a transitional park with one foot in the zoological past and one in the conservation future. It's definitely got things you won't see anywhere else, and which probably won't be there too much longer.

On the Wild side, the park has some marvelous storybook examples of large African animals: the lion, in particular, has a beautiful mane and presence, and the gorilla is appropriately fierce and territorial. The zoo is making a change from older-style cages and pits to more natural and spacious settings, but while it happens, you can get amazingly close to the monkeys, ostriches, and reindeer.

Zoo Duisburg - Misc 30

On the Wet side, the zoo has one of the few remaining Amazon fresh-water dolphins. It's a lovely specimen, white and graceful in a large blue tank. It is an older animal, scarred and bent, but still curious and quietly active. I can't imagine that the zoo could get another when this one passes on, and it's really worth a look. The zoo also has a large Dolphinarium, an old-style dolphin circus with animals doing tricks and splashing water. I'm ambivalent about the show: on the one hand, it certainly engages the children and families who crowd the theater, and it may be the thing that hooks them to care about these animals. But, at the same time, I'm uncomfortable with making the animals do tricks on command just to make people laugh.

DSC04658 Stitch Zoo Duisburg - Amazon Dolphin 05

On the Weird side, the hyena dog cage, inexplicably, had a metal zebra suspended on wires about seven feet above the exhibit. At feeding time, the keepers hang big slabs of raw meat on the zebra and run it up and down the pen, with the hyenas in full, leaping pursuit. Sometimes they catch it and hang off the zebra for a bit: other times a slab ofZoo Duisburg - Dogs 20 meat falls off into the snapping hoard. They make strange twittering sounds as they fight over the bits and drag it off to corners of the cage. Horribly fascinating.