Saturday, May 2, 2009

A view from my window

  Storm clouds roll in over the old city in Maastricht.

Maastricht twilight

Friday, May 1, 2009

My first (traffic) stop in the Netherlands

Revealed ... fixed speed and red-light camera locations.In my youth, I was no stranger to the occasional police stop, usually for exceeding the speed limit by (somewhat) more than 5 mph.  With age comes (economic) wisdom and a heightened instinct for avoiding unnecessary risks, so my incidence of police encounters fell rapidly.  Beyond a 20-in-a-10-zone speed trap about six years ago, it’s been ages. Really.

The major regulatory force along Dutch roadways are the Speed Cameras.  These are big box-on-pole affairs, either dull grey or panted with police stripes, and they emit a bright flash as they photograph you. Monitored roads are usually marked with warning signs, and cameras are often visible from a distance.  Lately, they’ve been tucked up behind overhead signage (esp. the A12 in the 100 km/hr zone east of Utrecht), but with a TomTom armed with camera locations, you’re pretty well informed.

Actual police presence is usually limited to occasional mobile sightings on the motorways, or organized stops to spot-check all drivers for valid licenses and safety equipment.

Tuesday I was past Einthoven, headed south from Schiphol and fielding a brief mobile phone call, when I saw a distant red- and blue- striped police car behind me.  I excused myself, put the phone down, and put both hands on the wheel.  The police car went past with a backward glance at me, then another, then they slowed and pulled in front of me.

Dutch officers don’t do lights and sirens from behind you; they turn on a little flashing “Volgen Politie” sign in the rear window and assume that you will.  I cursed, and did.

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Unlike the US, you don’t simply pull onto the shoulder and wait.  Instead, we drove on for miles before exiting and pulling into a McDonalds parking lot.  A smiling officer in a green rain jacket came back and asked if I had a good reason for driving without a seat belt.  Argh.  He told me that it was likely to be a 90 euro fine and took my license back to chat with the computer.

He came back to advise me that since I’m a resident, I wouldn’t have to pay on the spot.  Whew.

But your license says you are from Arnhem: why are you headed south if you’re going home?  I live in Maastricht now, registered, and headed back after 20 hours on a plane.

Do you realize you aren’t on a road to Maastricht?  Umm, of course I am, isn’t this the A2?

No, you missed that turn about 10 km back; you’re most of the way to Venlo.  ‘totally blank look as I digested that.

In the US, I’d have been out of the car for a few more questions, a breathalyzer, and a more thorough check of license and registration.

In the Netherlands,  the officer smiled, gave me back my papers and the ticket, then asked me to follow him back onto the highway so that he could get me going in the right direction, then proceed 10 km, watch for the A73 signs, and take them south….

‘I really love the Dutch approach to people.  (Even when it costs me 90 euro.)

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Queen’s Day in Maastricht

First, my warm thoughts and sincere sympathy to those affected by today’s incident in Apeldoorn.

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Queen’s Day was a quiet affair in Maastricht.  The Maas did not fill with drunken sailors (only a few jet skis and motor yachts).  There was no dancing in the streets. Orange was applied as an accent to shop windows, rather than as a base.

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As a result, I spent the holiday quietly catching up with friends by e-mail,  learning cURL, and reading.  Yep, I’m a fun date today…

  So, as the sun sets and the band across the river launches into “Radar Love”,  I’ll turn, instead, to answering Isabella’s holiday questions at Touch of Dutch:

  • Are you living in the Netherlands or outside of the Netherlands?
    • Inside, but only by a few km.
  • Tell about why you celebrate Queen's Day.
    • There’s a bit of a feeling of Memorial Day weekend in the air; it’s a work holiday and there’s warm sunshine and music in the park.  So, my temptation is to get out and welcome spring with a blanket on the grass, a beer, and a picnic.
    • It’s also the first celebration since Carnivale… (maybe everyone is still recovering)
  • Tell about how you celebrate Queen's Day.
    • It appears to be a very quiet celebration here in Maastricht: the southerners may not be the Royalists that the northerners are.  A quick tour around town revealed…nothing. Vrijthof Square was deserted, both at midnight (below) and mid-day.2009 Queens Day 01
    • The sidewalk bars and cafe’s appeared to be about half-full.  There were few orange boas or orange glasses; few signs or flags to mark the day.
    • There was, however, a small parade across the stone bridge about 11 am, disrupted when the span was raised to accommodate an oversized barge.

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  • What are your favorite activities/foods you share on Queen's Day.
    • <gulp> I confess to leaving the balcony door open and letting the music and the breeze waft through while I caught up on computer-geek stuff.
    • I did like watching the boats.
    • I hoped for, but didn’t find, oliebollen.
    • I refused to drink Kriek (cherry beer, a summertime favorite).
  • Photographs!   Music in the park;  a band on the street

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Further thoughts on Plan B (and swine flu)

Amsterdam morning  NOTE: The Warden at the US embassy in Amsterdam has issued a bulletin reminding US citizens living in the Netherlands that “In case the need arises for antiviral medications, to access these antivirals without delay in The Netherlands, you MUST have registered with a “huisarts” (family/general practitioner physician) for everyone in your family.”

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I’ve written twice in the last year about the importance of good “Plan B” thinking: expatriate workers are guests in the Netherlands, and if the primary justification for residency becomes invalid, then contingency plans have to be ready.  In one post, I covered things to consider when moving off the expatriate agreement, in the other, items to take care of when moving within the country.

While it may not come to pass, I am now confronted with the likelihood of substantial change to my expatriate assignment, or the possibility of losing it altogether.  One appropriate response could be to wrap up the assignment gracefully and move on to a new assignment back in the US or elsewhere.  That may happen although, as I wrote earlier, the push and pull of current and future assignments hasn’t yet led back across the pond.

Another option for me is to move to local contract.  Many of the same considerations apply as in generally coming off of the expat agreement: there are substantial costs that have to be considered in exchange for continuing to live in the Netherlands.  I’ve found a few additional considerations that are worth adding to the growing list:

  • Health insurance: I have been covered under US Blue Cross insurance, which protects me worldwide.  However, all workers in the Netherlands are required to have local health insurance unless they meet very narrow exclusions: covered by a US health insurance policy while on short-duration overseas assignment with a firm that has access to the exclusion.  If you assume that you qualify for the exclusion but don’t, then you may be liable for a fine equivalent to the amount of Dutch health insurance premiums across the period that you were working in the Netherlands.
  • Social Security:  Once on local contract, you cease to be making social security payments.  This freezes your benefits, now pegged to your last US paychecks and the years you’ve worked,  rather than to your further earnings and additional service in the Netherlands.  There is a Dutch equivalent, but you need many years of work to qualify for benefits.
  • 401(k) / IRA:  The US-based employee contribution and matching programs for retirement are no longer available.  While you can still make IRA contributions, both the qualification and computation are more complicated, based on Foreign Earned Income Exclusion.  Check this source for guidance, then see a tax expert.
  • Credit Reports: There can be an immediate impact to your credit rating if you change jobs, including going to local contract, or become self-employed.  This can significantly affect your ability to get a loan and the rates you will pay.  Also, when your income, banking, and tax records all move off-shore, that may have further impacts on whether your financial records are even available to US rating companies.

I’m sure there will be more: I’m still asking and learning…

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Scenes along the road to Koninginnedag

image Thursday is Koninginnedag, the annual Queens Day holiday celebration throughout the Netherlands.  As expats quickly learn, it has little to do with the Queen’s Birthday (which is in January) and everything to do with a celebration of all things Oranje. The holiday began in 1885 as a day to celebrate national unity on the queen’s birthday, and took it’s present date in 1949 from Queen Wilhelmina’s birthday as a celebration of saamhorigheid (togetherness).

Today, although there are formal events, it’s mainly known for two things: the party and the street vendors.

The party starts at the stroke of midnight on the 29th as   koninginnenacht (Queens Night) is celebrated in bars and music clubs in the major cities. The day itself is celebrated with dancing and drinking, with the streets and canals of many cities (and Amsterdam in particular) filling with revelers.  There’s a huge ferris wheel near Dam Square, and music stages being set up around town.  I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s like in Maastricht, although it may be a more ‘northern’ celebration..

The day is also a tax holiday, and the Dutch take advantage by dragging their unwanted household goods to the curb and selling them as a huge garage sale.  I’ve always had the impression that it largely serves to rotate junk from one household to another.  Already, people were marking off their space with tape along the canals as I visited Amsterdam.DSC07777 StitchDSC07784

I Amsterdam, the local tourist organization, had a clever promotion planned for the event, involving photoshopped posters of celebrities.  Yes, Hillary on the left and Obama in the “Kiss me, I’m drunk” tee-shirt. Priceless.  After protests from the French, the posters have been removed from the website and largely taken down around town.

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(Thanks to the “I am not a tourist” blog for pointing out the story; details of the campaign and the retraction were published in Parool, and the photo is theirs).

Monday, April 27, 2009

The primacy of people and places

a1 The conference has ended: the closing dinner was held last night and the good-bye toasts ran into the wee hours.  ISCE is a unique event: 100 academic researchers, physicians, and industry scientists meet yearly for three days of formal presentations and informal discussions about cardiac disease and electrocardiology.  Sessions start at 8 and run all morning, followed by “ad hoc” sessions in the afternoon, then more lectures through the evening.

It sounds brutal, and it can be an intense and challenging meeting, filled with solid presentations, vigorous group discussions, and lots of people to meet. But I wouldn’t miss a moment.  These are my peers, mentors, and students from around the globe, my counterparts in companies, and my collaborators from studies.

It’s a challenging audience for making a presentation, though.  Most published papers of consequence were written by someone in the room, and, while I’m presenting to friends, there is always a highwire sense that I’ll get called out for any inaccuracy.  This year, I set my technical presentation into the context of James Whistler’s paintings, Trying to give it some variety and interest.  Learning from my mistake at Cambridge in January, I made sure that I rehearsed this one front to back repeatedly intimately familiar with every slide.  As a result, the talk went smoothly, it was well received, and I had good questions in the discussion.  Lesson learned.

The entire three-day conference also highlighted for me, again, the growing importance of people and places in my life.

As my expatriate assignment comes towards a close, I’ve wrestled with what the next stage of life should look like.  The Netherlands has become home to me over the past few years; I love the balance in life and the opportunities for travel and culture.  For the first time in my life, place seems to trump the pursuit of promotion.  I also value the professional relationships that I’ve had over the years; I’d happily continue working with these colleagues to look for new and better diagnostics for out of hospital resuscitative emergencies.

a2 Two weeks ago, the corporate parent offered everyone voluntary separation ahead of an upcoming reduction in the number of employees.  I looked at the past and future, what mattered and didn’t, and applied for the program.  Although discussions continue, there is now the distinct possibility that we could part ways in the coming months.

It would be a huge change after 20+ years, but I feel like it’s time to pause, take stock, and perhaps reset my life after some time to sort things through.  I expect to be in the Netherlands through the summer, and will update here as I find my way forward.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Hanging out on Alvin’s Island

Alvin 1 Sometimes the cheesy route is the best route…

  There is just something about a really tacky souvenir shop that never fails to draw me in.  I don’t need an excuse; cheap, trashy trinkets have an irresistible allure.  It might be the day-glo colors, cedar ashtrays, weird t-shirt slogans,  logo shot glasses, floating foam cup holders, and trucker key chains.  Or maybe it’s just the pathologic sociology of how a location creates a caricature of itself.  Or maybe it just says ‘vacation’.

In any case, Alvin’s Island is one of the best.

Alvin 2Alligator heads, everywhere.  A shark tank.  Acres of t-shirts that nobody could never wear beyond vacation (A fishing shop tee shirt with the logo “Master Baiter”.  Yes, I was tempted).  Sculptures made of sea shells; sand dollars and coral that probably (hopefully) were never part of the living seascape.  Henna tattoos; bathroom signs for Pirates and Wenches; float glass.  Short-shorts with PANAMA CITY BEACH across the back; night shirts with Panama City FL across the front; hats with Beer Pong logos; Reel Sandals; sharks teeth necklaces; hideous sunglasses. 

Okay, so I bought my share for the folks back home…

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and, no, i have no shame…