Saturday, August 21, 2010

Op Stockholm

Stockholm has always been one of my favorite cities, red walls and green copper roofs nestled across islands in the center of blue water and evergreen wilderness.  I nibble Swedish game dishes in Gamla Stan, wander the many museums, ride the ferries, enjoy the people enjoying the brief summer.  It’s a wonderful jumping-off point.

The words seem more commonplace than I remember, clearly connected to the same roots as the Dutch.  I remember, decades ago when I was offered a position in (Maastricht and declined), I thought the language was more Scandinavian than Roman.  The familiar offerings of Haring and the Dutch artisans engaged in the shipbuilding history here bring it home as well.

It’s nice to see Bjork on the street corners: I know she’s not Scandinavian, exactly, but it’s nice to have a world with room for people like her.

‘and me.

The boats and the subways combine to give easy access to the city: I remember a time, not long ago, when navigating foreign public transportation was unthinkable.  Cars or cabs, that was the only way.  Now I barely give it a second thought.  And there are always fun discoveries underground, like the Cave of the Frost Giant decor of one station.

The Vasa still impresses: an enormous dark hulk from the past with a complete cultural history clinging to it’s rough flanks. Only400 years old, but so far distant in how people lived, thought, held necessary skills and connected with a much smaller and slower world.   Contrast it with the headlong rush to learn and discover captured in the Nobel Museum.  The first Prize was Physics: the story of the Vasa reminds you how quantitative science an engineering did, indeed, change the world.

A few more pictures that caught my eye or imagination…it is, after all, a vacation.

Friday, August 20, 2010

On beyond the horizon

I’m taking a long-overdue vacation next week, genuinely disconnecting from online- and business- responsibilities.   It’s become painful watching the Europeans disappear on holiday for weeks at a time while I keep working through the summer. ‘Time for a break.

Water or wilderness fit my mood, so this is going to be a sailing holiday in the Archipelago off Stockholm.  It sounds exotic, but the area reminds me of favorite places: the San Juans, northern Minnesota, or the coast off Maine. ‘ Towering evergreens, a network of coastal islands, long lazy twilights, and quiet rippling coves.

The Swedes end their sailing season around August 15th, leaving a good two weeks of summer weather with empty moorings and off-peak charter rates.  I’m hopeful that the time away will make a new man of me. So, the journey begins.

I pulled out of Maastricht late in the week, ferry to Dover, then Ryanair to Stockholm.  Stansted was full at 5 am, holiday-makers taking cheap flights to dozens of destinations, all departing at 6 am in one happy exodus.  Skavsta airport is far out in the country, an hour’s bus ride from Stockholm, but it was nice to just look out the window, watch the forests and fields roll by, listen to some road stories on the MP3 player, and let go of the week’s tasks one by one.

And so, my holiday mood grows with each passing mile, each letter, meeting, call, and report filed away at the back of my mind for the (distant) future.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bummer

Weed hunt 10 The New York Times has published an article about efforts to curb drug abuse in Maastricht by closing the coffeehouses to non-residents – this seems to be my week for drug stories.  I got stopped by a carload of kids asking the way to ‘Mississippi’ on Monday evening – I’ve been a resident long enough to know that it’s the drug steamer down by city hall.  So I gave them directions, only later wondering why they had chosen to stop me, of all people, to ask the way.

In part, I understand the Time’s point.  I’ve seen the tourism downside that the article mentions: cheap-jet flights crammed with kids coming up for a party weekend.  It doesn’t look good (and its much worse on Sunday flights home than Friday flights in).  And what becomes of the carload of kids after they leave the shop?

The EU-legal issue is going to be a hard one to resolve (although my Dutch friends maintain that the Brussels has been scheming to close the shops down for years)

Weed hunt 14 But, contrary to the alarmist tone of the Times article, I haven’t had much trouble with drug folks in the city.  The drunks lurching out of bars and kids zooming on scooters are more of a threat, and I seldom see the down-and-out users except by the train station (where, paradoxically, there are few coffee shops). 

Honestly, the shops themselves tend to be clean, tidy places with well-built bouncers at the doors to keep out minors.  And mid-mornings, there is a charmingly steady stream of housewives getting together just like it was a Starbucks, everyone leaving with a big smile.

It’s kind of a congenial (smelly) part of the neighborhood – I wouldn’t want to see them disappear.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Making a list, checking it twice…

DSC01525

April and September always seem to turn into busy road months, and this year is no exception.  A week’s vacation, a week in the US, a week in England, a swing through the Netherlands…the month is gone.  It takes some planning to get ready for that without totally losing touch with the business and friends here, and there’s a long agenda.   So, I’m taking advantage of the last few sane days to clear out the list and make sure that things are buttoned up.

My brother is having his 50th birthday; that’s the ‘Abraham’ celebration here, and worthy of a special card.  ‘Tough to find a good one, though.  The bike is fully repaired, my OV-Kaart is activated, and the bookeeping is done.  One dark cloud emerged: American Express called to let me know that my card was used for a $650 shopping spree at Target and a $6 bag of White Castle hamburgers in New York two days ago.  Even so, enough criteria have been met to call it a successful week; I’ve earned an evening of Quiz Night.

Newsweek magazine has published it’s annual list of the best countries to live in: Finland won this year, the US was 11th, and the UK 14th.  The Netherlands ranked 8th, scoring well for Political Environment (despite not forming a government yet), and less well on Economic Dynamism (do they do that in Europe?).  They claim it takes ten days to start a business business here – everyone I know shakes their head about that.  It takes me that long just to get an answer from ING.

Newsweek poll

Preuvenemint And, Preuvenemint is coming to the Vrjthof square, an annual “Taste of Maastricht” being held the last full weekend of August.  It may be the only chance that you get to sample two-star Michelin food from Beluga at a reasonable price.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Costs of doing business

Ten rules of failure Expats make mistakes.  Sometimes it’s just that we take something for granted; other times we just don’t get it.  And sometimes, it’s just that we’re in a hurry and not really paying attention and, well, things happen.

My top eleven costly mistakes include:

  1. Locksmith – €10  Shortly after moving apartments, my landlord re-keyed the doors and we did a shuffle, taking keys off the ring, adding new ones on…in the end, my mailbox key disappeared.  The locksmith had to put a new bolt on the box, freeing my IND renewal application which I’d put there for safekeeping.
  2. Fortis – $25   My mother set me a check for my birthday, which I deposited in my bank account.  The bank charged exchange fees and processing fees that left me with less than $1 of the gift, then still took a month to credit my account.
  3. NS – €30   I was talked into paying an extra 30 euro for the “All-Europe” option when I bought my Rail Discount Card.  The clerk said that it would get me 25% off on travel across the Continent.  She neglected to mention that it only holds for travel originating or ending in the Netherlands.  Both the Belgians and Brits laughed at my pathetic OV-Kaart.  (Runner-up foolishness is letting the card expire, incurring a 2.50 euro fee for moving the cash balance from one card to another.)
  4. NorfolkLine – £40   A rush through the online ticketing process resulted in my buying a one-way ticket from Dover to Calais rather than the reverse trip.  It required an agent to correct the error, and a charge.  I arrived at the ferry dock to late to catch to boat anyway, and was moved onto a later, cheaper ferry.  “Do I get a refund?” I asked sweetly.  The young clerk got a big grin and said I’d made his day, because Under No Circumstances could he possibly… but it was funny to have been asked.
  5. Limburg Water Service – €70   I got a routine bill from the groundwater company, which I signed and deposited with my bank for transfer payment.  The bank wrote to say that the signature wasn’t correct, could I sign again?  I did, and was duly double-debited for the bill.  I complained to the bank, who called the water company, who said that since they had already spent the money, it could not be refunded.  The bank simply shrugged and said it was out of their hands.
  6. British Airways – £70  My own fault, I ran to catch a connection between Terminal 5 and Terminal 3 without realizing that I had to get my luggage and re-check it.  After a panoramic tour of Heathrow on the buses and two trips through customs, I arrived at the BA counter 5 minutes too late for the check-in.  Change fees were incurred: I’m still arguing with the flight insurance people about reimbursement. 
  7. ANWB – €100  I thought that if I didn’t pay the yearly  renewal for my roadside assistance card, the service would expire.  Instead, they sent the collection agency after me.  It was four months before I understood that the letters were a threat and not just an effort to win me back. Cost of doing business (emeraldinsight.com)
  8. Ryanair – £100  I mis-spelt my name as Hampoton during web booking.  But ‘Layed is played’ and Ryanair charged me to correct the error. (Runner-up for charging 10 euros at the airport for neglecting to print out my boarding pass before attempting to check in.)
  9. Italian Rental Cars – €200  Nobody does bait-and-switch like the airport rental folks.  I’ve been sold insurance I didn’t need, given a navigation system with city maps rather than country maps, and threatened with penalties for arriving at the counter an hour early (I sat and waited 60 minutes).  The most recent trick was to rent me a car in Milan without the Swiss border sticker, forcing me to buy one for the company as I passed through customs.
  10. Apartment rental agencies – One month’s rent   Dutch makelaar have their hand out at every turn, charging for finding an apartment, making payments each month, and checking out when leaving.  During my most recent move, the agent simply went on vacation without delegating the move, so there was no paperwork or keys available.  I refused to pay the agency fee; they tell me that they’ve met to discuss it and decided, among themselves, that they had ‘done their utmost’ and bear no blame or guilt.  I’m still arguing this one, too.
  11. Ministry of Justice – €1000+  Just east of Utrecht, along the A11, is an overhead sign pointing the way to Amsterdam.  Behind it is a small, unobtrusive speed camera.  For roughly 18 months, I commuted to Schiphol following the flow of traffic, never suspecting.  As the company closed down in Arnhem, HR came to my office with a summary of the fines I had incurred.  Not just a summary, but a full spreadsheet, with rows and columns detailing every offense.  We reached terms, but I can’t believe it took years for news of that camera to reach me. Or that I didn’t go to jail.

And one averted…

  • VGZ – €2000+  When I registered for health insurance, VGZ found out that I had been in the country for 2 1/2 years before making application.  Under the Universal Health Care laws, they are entitled to recover the back costs for what I would have paid in health insurance premiums.  They went after me with gusto.  However, I was actually here under an exemption granted to corporate expats, and was successful in explaining my position (with the help of my former employer).

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Naar Valkenburg

Saturday was the last sunny day forecast for the next week, so it was delightful when friends asked about a bike trip out to Valkenburg.  The city, formally Valkenburg aan de Geul, is a 16th century fortress town about a half-hour cycle ride east of Maastricht in the rolling farmland of South Limburg.  It’s a bit of a tourist trap these days, narrow streets crowded with busses and bistros, but there’s good bike trails out through lesser villages and the only elevated castle in the Netherlands in Valkenburg itself.

One good stopping point is Houthem Sint-Gerlach, marked by a colorful bit of architecture at the edge of the village, the Ronald McDonald Kindervallei.  Yes, Ronald McDonald.  But it is, nonetheless, a unique bit of architecture, colorful and pleasantly skewed, a bit in Miro’s style..

 

Beyond, on the other side of town, is the Sint-Gerlachus church, built on the site of a legendary oak tree.  It was created to remember a rich local merchant, who realized too late that he had spent his life neglecting his family in his pursuit of money, and so dedicated his life to penance and good works.  When he died a church was built around his tree, today it is the only church in the Netherlands with fresco painted on the marl stone (sandstone) walls.  The overall effect is like a New England church, light and airy in shades of blue and white.  An attached Chateau holds a hotel and sculpture gardens.

Valkenburg is topped with the ruins of an ancient castle (bonus points for knowing the difference between a Kasteel and a Slot).  The structure was torn down and rebuilt several times before finally being destroyed forever in 1672.  From town only a few walls seem standing, but once on the hilltop there’s actually a surprising number of rooms and stairways preserved. The construction is entirely from local sandstone, quarried from the hillsides below, giving a warm glow to the walls.

The village is hosting summer art works, putting contemporary sculptures around the town’s roofs and above the castle.   Martijn Riksen’s works are a bit like the Gormley nudes that appeared above London a couple of years ago (and are now gracing alpine peaks), but more varied and whimsical.  I liked his conversion of the 16-sided tower basement into a pool with a diver far above waiting to take the plunge.  It’s not being publicized anywhere, but adds a nice grace note to a visit.

And don’t leave town without a long, slow drought of the local brew Lindeboom, ‘t bier van hier.