Saturday, January 9, 2010

An inch per day…

…adds up fast.

There’s about 10 cm of snow in friend’s backyards, and the wind off the river is whipping up little drifts along the walls.  Temperatures are still fairly mild, only a couple of degrees C below freezing, but there’s a layer of snow over ice that makes things treacherous.

Although they’ve started skating up north, the river remains ice-free here.  Locals say that the “10 below for 10 days” rule only holds if there’s no snow.  Instead, we get about an inch each night.  The papers are full of stories of snarled roads and blocked railway lines; all of the evening trains down from Eindhoven were delayed 25 minutes by problems up north. Still, everyday life isn’t much different here in town.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Risk and confidence

life_on_edge How far out on the edge do expatriates live?

The question raised a couple of times in Christmas card notes this year, in notes from friends, and in conversations back home.  “Were you always such a risk-taker?” wrote one.  It took some thought to make a reply.

The truth is that I don’t see what I’m doing, living and starting a business overseas, as particularly risky.  I’ve  lived in Europe for years’ I think that I know how to do it.  The procedures for getting visas or registering a company are straightforward and take more effort than brains.  Life among the Dutch (or, occasionally, the British) is different, but not impossibly so: I think that the differences are usually stimulating  and usually fun.  I can cope.

And solving problems builds confidence. In the beginning, finding the word for “drycleaner” or discovering where to buy a mousetrap took a day of trial and error.  I knew that if I was methodical and persistent, I’d figure it out, and there was benefit in having patience to wrestle it down to a successful answer (stomerij and “the pet store:”, respectively).

The downside is also manageable.  If the business fails or the residence permit is denied, I move and find a new job.  Experience gained will, hopefully, be a plus in recovering.  And, as a friend once observed, when everyone is sitting around the lunchtable swapping war stories, I’ll have some especially good ones.

So I don’t really see this as a tremendous risk.  I understand what needs to be done.  I can handle the setbacks and the disasters. What looks like an extreme midlife crisis is, in fact, a way of living a life that I always wanted to live.

It’s not perfect, but it’s not crazy.

(It is, however, hard on relationships.)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

By the numbers

I spend 40 minutes on the bike each day, level 15, good for about 25 pages of reading about world affairs in the Economist.  When the articles get slow, I find myself drifting to the statistics at the back of the magazine, seeing how my adoptedBy the numbers country is holding up relative to it’s neighbors and peers.

House prices are down 7.1% in the Netherlands, after an 87% run-up in the prior ten.  Perhaps it’s a good time to buy, although they are still 21% overvalued relative to rents.  I suppose that could be due to a drop in rental rates as well, although most of the apartments I’m reviewing still seem expensive.  By comparison, house prices are down 9% in the US and 16% in Denmark (both too cold).  They are rising again in Britain.

Dutch Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is up 1.7% in the latest quarter, a bit below most European and the US numbers, but at least the economy is expanding.  Inflation is running 2.3%, double the US rate and half the British.  The unemployment numbers are among the best in Europe at 5.3% (only Austria looks better): Britain is at 8% and the US is 10%.  If the GDP number is soft, though, then why the low unemployment?  I wonder if it is due to social policy and lower productivity: maybe the very high rate of Dutch part-time workers also drives down the unemployment number?

Trade balance is good, exports exceeding imports by $46 bn in the past 12 months.  It’s probably partly due to the strength of the euro relative to the dollar and pound.  Still the Dutch did well even in comparison to it’s neighbors (only Germany was better).  I wonder what the unique exports are (flowers?).  Despite the bank bailouts, the Netherlands national budget is less out-of-balance than almost any other European country.  The stock market is up 37% in the past year, vs. mid-20’s for the US and Britain.

All of it paints a surprisingly good picture: the local team seems to be weathering things well on a national level, although the local shops are certainly hurting.

Once in the mood, I couldn’t resist a peak at the CIA World Factbook:  the Dutch have

  • 16.7 million people (a slight excess of males until age 65)
  • 7.3 million landlines; but 20 million mobile phones
  • 342 broadcast television stations
  • 12 million internet hosts; 14.4 million users
  • 2,800 km of railway, 6,215 km of waterways
  • and 1 heliport

and, of course, one bike per person

and this curious notation at the bottom of the page: “major European producer of synthetic drugs, including ecstasy, and cannabis cultivator; important gateway for cocaine, heroin, and hashish entering Europe; major source of US-bound ecstasy; large financial sector vulnerable to money laundering; significant consumer of ecstasy.” Ouch.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Serving two masters

The new year is off to a fast start: phones and emails are getting active, projects are ramping up, and the to-do list is accumulating faster than the snow.  At least there’s incentive to work it since the icy cobblestones and cold temperatures are inhibiting bike travel.

Well, not among the true Dutch, but I’m being cautious…

There’s always a backlog of work after a holiday and this has been no exception.  I’ve been through the e-mails and postal mails, replies are all out.  End of month accounting is done, food is back in the ‘fridge, the plants are being nursed back to health.  My luggage showed up on Sunday after two days (they apparently never left Seattle at all until long after I’d arrived in the Netherlands).

And now I’ve settled in with three sets of to-do lists: one of work that has to be done for the contract and consulting projects and another with tasks that need to get done to build the new business.   Five days at the desk, and the asymmetry is becoming stark.

The consulting jobs are my bread and butter today: they provide income, build experience and reputation, are a fun challenge working with good creative folks.  But there are schedules that have to be met and these jobs become my priority. Each evening, their work has to be crossed off my list. No work, no billable hours.

In contrast, the tasks to define and build the medical informatics business take a back seat.  As a result, although the business structure is in place, there is nothing happening with branding , market analysis, to product development.  I still haven’t had time to get the web site up or to have a good brainstorming session about the customer requirements.

I promise myself that Monday, Friday, Saturday for sure I will spend the day on the “real” business.  But each week passes.

It’s getting frustrating,and I’m not sure how to solve it.  The consulting work will tail off within six months, so I need to either be prospecting for further consulting or laying the foundation for funding my main business plan.  It feels like a crossroads, deciding whether things go left or right based on prevailing winds of opportunity, or my desire to build a product and a business.

It feels like new year’s.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The long road back to the Netherlands

The itinerary is straightforward, taking less than a printed page.  Board in Seattle, scoot north to Vancouver on the local Jazz commuter (a subsidiary of Air Canada, if you were wondering).  A break, then Lufthansa for 9 hours to Frankfurt.  Another break, then a CityHopper to Brussels.  An express train to Maastricht on New Year’s Eve, arriving in time for dinner and fireworks.

Now, the reality.

Seattle.  Last chance to buy American souvenirs before boarding the little cigar to Canada.  Security is less fearsome than expected.

Vancouver: a picturesque airport, steeped with Northwest Eskimo art and faux-salmon streams.  Lots of Olympic souvenirs already displayed; the Delta lounge refuses me admittance because I’ve defected to Lufthansa. I settle for a last ‘burger and root beer by the aquarium and plan revenge.

Nine hours to Frankfurt.  The lights are off but nobody sleeps; the discount flight is filled with children under 6 and much more luggage than I thought could be carried through security. I read my psychology book and watch second-run movies.  Twice.

Upon landing, we’re greeted by a gigantic coffee ad featuring an idyllic couple in the throes of espresso-ecstasy.  I’m feeling Home (it looks like Rome).

Frankfurt airport’s connecting trains are empty and the concourse echoes to only my feet.  I’m welcome in the deserted lounge; No champagne, so I settle for bubbly German beer and unidentifiable fried balls with mustard.  ‘making notes to see “Up in the Air” soon. 

Another short hop, and things start to detail at Belgium (unexpected?).

Both pieces of luggage fail to appear in Brussels.  The express train suffers breakdowns all the way to Liege, one hour turning into three.  The crew gives up completely at Vise, only one stop short of Maastricht.  Everyone is put out into the rain: most of the crowd is teenage boys getting a jump on the evening’s drinking.  The railway promises a replacement train in 45 minutes.  I’m feelin’ like a refugee…

Arrive in Maastricht at 9 pm.  Head to town center to find dinner, but most things have closed early. Four teenage boys ask me if I know where to find prostitutes and whether they are any good.  ‘not good; I hope it’s just the jet lag making me look haggard and desperate.

However, fireworks are still for sale and the bridges fill at midnight for a wonderful display; the snow starts to fall as the new year begins.  I last for half an hour then collapse into bed despite the noise…happy new year, all…