Thursday, March 4, 2010

On the apartment-go-round

DSC00371 Today was the first day out on the hustlings, riding with the agent and seeing what the apartment landscape has to offer.  I had been warned by friends that the market was tight: with the A2 being reconstructed through the center of town, scores of units will be lost to either side, so there’s going to be a race for available space.

The reality is that the market seems glutted right now: the inventory seems good and most of the available apartments are being offered at 10-20% discounts over listed price.  I spent a few days cruising the realtors web sites and noted the most appealing units with good combinations of configuration, location, and price.  Then a call to the agency, set up an appointment, and off we go.

The process isn’t much different from the US: the realtor conducts an interview to get the requirements, shows pictures of available inventory that might fit, and laments that some ideal opportunities have just been let, but that more will come in a month.  Still, let’s go see the ones you asked about and start to form some opinions. 

So, half a dozen units today, no winners.

DSC00391 As always, there are a lot of substandard rentals in the market.  It’s not a uniquely Dutch problem, but it’s exacerbated by the narrow and vertical nature of many Dutch apartments,  Units are often two rooms wide and three stories tall, with views of adjacent buildings and busy streets.  Furnishings can be busy and cluttered, people are getting ready to move and its not clear what white goods (kitchen appliances, washing machines) stay behind.

It’s also a bit difficult to see the real potential in an apartment through other people’s furnishings.  How comfortable would this room be with different furniture, how much light would there be without drapes, is the room quiet enough for an office?  It’s distressingly intimate to be trying to see through other people’s lives to try to superimpose your own and make an instant judgment.

And it’s always a matter of trade-offs:

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A wonderful location along a riverside, but echoing with tile walls and floors throughout.  Can I make it warmer?

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Another, with a nice office space, but a difficult master bedroom against a littered courtyard.

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An architect's kitchen, but radically vertical and without any interior doors.

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And the bathrooms…the bathrooms….

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Moving the nest

DSC00362 Last fall, my landlord, a lovely 87-year-old matriarch, told me that it was time for me to leave.

No problem with my behaviour, but she was worried that she might need a full-time caregiver some day and wanted the space where I was living.  She offered a straight swap to the apartment upstairs, but it was dark and not as appealing.  So, time to move on.

Moving is never an easy task.  First, when I’m happy where I am, it’ hard to imagine what I want in a new place.  More river, less city, something bigger, or  more modern?  The first temptation is to say “the same, only better, for less.”  The fear is “trading down at the same price.”

The next problem is “What can I afford"?”  I know my budget, but if I have to buy furniture or a car, then that comes from the same pot, driving down what I can spend on an apartment.  Realtors, unbelievably, get a month or so of rent as commission in Maastricht, so there’s another overhead of 1-2K.  Then there’s the security deposit (one month for unfurnished, three for furnished).  Extras for parking, utilities, homeowner dues, cleaning, can often total a few hundred more month.

DSC00360 And where to live?  I like Maastricht, but maybe I can get more for less outside of the city.  The villages offer deals, but there’s an expat rule of thumb that says the further you are from the city center, the less cosmopolitan the populace becomes (tending towards provincial and suspicious at the village level).  The countryside can be very isolating.

And for how long?  Is this a ‘bridge’ residence until the business is established, the income flows, and I settle down?  Or, if things crash by summer, can I move out and move along?  I have the added “Two foot” problem of spending half my time in the Netherlands, a quarter in the UK, and a quarter on the road each month.  Does a Dutch residence make sense, Cambridge one, or both?  Maybe a bigger place here, a room there, a pied a terre one place, a two-bedroom in the other?

I’ve developed another rule against living in the same building as the landlord; there tend to be lots more interactions about noise, friends, and lifestyle than I want (even though I’m quiet, avoid throwing parties, and am, well, boring).

At the point where I’m considering moving a little, maybe I should move a lot.  If Valkenberg is on the radar, then why not Vucht, or the Vecht?

And if rent will be 1500 per month, maybe I should consider buying?  But will I be here that long?  Do I need permanent residency first (a year away)?

And if the deals are all across the river in Belgium, can I live there without having to register in yet another country?

In the end, it takes a long think and a deep sigh to pick up and move along…but, in best corporate fashion, I’m recasting my problems as opportunities.

Trying, anyway.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Just be…comfortable?

When people ask me why I live in Europe, I often cite opportunities for work and leisure, the balance its brought to my life, the adventure of learning the language and making new friends, the travel and culture.  I like the semi-urban setting in Maastricht, with specialty stores around each corner, music bars and cafe’s lining the squares, festivals every weekend,  and the rolling hills of Limburg and the Ardennes a half hour’s drive away.  It feels familiar and comfortable.

It’s surprising, then, when people tell me how uncomfortable the same things can make them feel.

To them the streets seem dark and small, dotted with intent young men muttering in a language they don’t understand.  Waiters are rude, people emerge from coffee shops glazed and unpredictable, shops are shuttered in the evenings against loud groups spilling from the bars. It’s a struggle to be understood in simple settings; neighbors seem distrustful of having a foreign person living in their midst.

It’s all in how people interpret the scenes and body language around them.  And I can appreciate that unfamiliar settings can give rise to a natural caution, apprehension and discomfort. Settings that I see as harmless can seem threatening; people I ignore may loom large on other’s landscapes.

And whether a person resolves that tension depends on the confidence and support that they can draw on: belief that you can cope with what comes and encouragement to keep trying until you have a comfortable nest in local society. Otherwise, life just stays disorienting and frustrating.

I think its back around to familiar themes of assimilation and accommodation. How do we read and react to the signs around us; how do we get help in learning about and adapting to a new environment?  When does the unfamiliar become ‘comfortable?

There are those who tell me that it’s not a matter of feeling threatened, it just common sense:  being realistic vs unrealistic?

So, what is the reality behind the photos along this essay?

Is it scenes of an abandoned industrial park, toothless broken windows, decaying weeds, graffiti?

Or is it a creative and vibrant art and sculpture park?

To be completely honest, I’m not sure.  It’s a rundown plot along the river near the Haven, a high-rent area north of Maastricht.  The city allows local artists to work there, and the stovepipe dragon and the suspended shopping cart are too good as art to be characteristic of blight.

But I still wouldn’t drop in after dark.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Whitecaps on the Maas

Weather A major storm blew through Western Europe today.  The teeth of it passed south of us through northern France and Germany, but I think the ‘eye’ drifted northeast pretty close to us.

We’ve had absolutely howling winds here all day today.  Windows blew out in the Crown Plaza hotel a block up the river and roof tiles litter the bikeway along the river.  The wind made biking upwind all but impossible, I had to walk mine along the river in the early afternoon, dodging branches and cafe chairs.  Whitecaps made a rare appearance on the Maas river, adding a bit of spray along the footpath.

Even this evening, the wind is still whistling through cracks around the window frames and rumbling along the roof.  It reminds me of when Windstorm Kyrill hit Arnhem in January 2007: I was in my office, oblivious to the increasingly frantic e-mails in Dutch as they evacuated the building ahead of the storm.  Eventually a colleague filled me in and I ended up stuck in traffic through the worst of it.  Peak winds were later reported to be over 100 km/hr.

Researchers are arguing whether we are seeing a cyclic or secular trend towards stronger windstorms passing through Europe.  MunichRe, for one, warns that the probability of severe windstorms in Europe is increasing, with event rates dropping well below the historic ten year intervals.