Saturday, October 29, 2011

Doing my civic duty

ballot

I’ve remained a registered voter in my native King Country, WA, following the instructions provided by Democrats Abroad when I first arrived as an absentee /expat . It really works well: I get notified of upcoming elections, review the on-line voter pamphlets, fill in an on-line ballot, then sign / scan / email to vote.  Makkelijk!

This year’s King County ballot has three initiatives, two resolutions,, and a dozen races ranging from judges and elections directors down to school board, fire, and water commissioners. ‘Twas time to settle in for an evening of long-distance research.

The hardest part is finding enough information about microscopically local races to make choices among candidates.  Maybe I’m over-sensitized by stories of stealth judges and school-board members with off-center agendas, but I really want to tick a box, not leave a blank, and to know what ticks inside the folks I’m ticking for.

The state guide covers the headline issues and county propositions, and I’ve always appreciated the way that Washington informs the voters. issue I never feel misled by double negatives or confused about the meaning of proposals in the guide, and can skim through this year’s transportation, caregiver certification, and liquor regulation proposals.  There’s an intriguing Senate resolution debating whether to use “extraordinary revenue spikes” to top off the state’s rainy day fund rather than to spend on new temporary services – that probably took the most thought.

The lower-level races didn’t have any obvious lunatics among the candidates, and I hate to just apply a simple rule (“vote against the incumbent”) – that’s not much better than picking the first name.  So, time do dig down.  Two good sources turned up.  patchThe Bothell Reporter had a pretty good set of interviews with the school board candidates, the objective and subjective, soft and hard, philosophies shake out fairly quickly. 

The Woodinville Patch was even better, featuring a series of “Meet the candidate” profiles that really illuminated the candidates and issues.  I especially liked the Comments sections that followed – at best they allowed some give and take between candidates and their opponents that highlighted key issues and positions.  (Building the Brightwater sewage treatment plant was controversial ten years ago: it still is….)

I wrote to the Patch’s editor to say how helpful the series had been, she turns out to have Dutch connections (doesn’t everyone?) and a nice touch with the language.  It’s really nice (and reassuring) to find people committed to creating high-quality local content at a time when we are all worried about the death of big-city newspapers.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Back in my groove

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DSC07623De herfst, het najaar, has spread itself over Maastricht.  Cool mornings give way to warm afternoons; early twilight, wet nights.  The trees are brilliant against the blue skies; the Maas is drifting lazily at low ebb.

dataI’m bundled into data analysis, numbers and waveforms, as the World Series echoes from Channel 700 in the background.  What is the best way to separate evoked activity from noise, nerve responses from muscle?  Skype hums with discussions and ideas along with a few questions and doubts.

DSC07606Evenings are wrung out with quick rides at twilight, essential shopping for the next day, dinners with friends.  Encouragingly, everyone seems pretty successful, projects and businesses moving forward.  Conversation touches on product ideas, talent migration, expat tips, local news, and travel stories. 

DSC07620Indoors, the work spreads and flows, colonizing surfaces, clustering, processed then filed.  Outdoors, Christmas lights are being raised in defiance of Halloween.

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It’s been a good week, a stimulating mix of progress and discovery, social and solitary, busy and quiet.  Another week will see everything back on a firm footing, better organized and better planned, ‘Wish I could keep it balanced in this spot more easily, but it’s nice when it comes together even for a few days.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Back among the Dutch

Its always a challenge coming back after a long stint traveling.  The mail is piled high, the ‘fridge is empty,  The bicycle could be anywhere: I’ve taken to writing the location on a slip of paper – fortunate this time around since the bike-park folks moved mine.  The leaves are starting to turn and the wind is blowing colder (although sun-worshipers, bundled in overcoats, are still filling cafes along the river).  The girls downstairs are back from their summer break; the tourist boats have shifted to a lighter schedule.

The first day is down to a routine, though.  Get the apartment opened back up, reboot the internet / TV, pick up perishables at Jumbo, find the urgent bits hidden in the junk mail.  Call a half-dozen friends,  get caught up on the local news (and gossip), swap the local credit and membership cards back into my wallet.

By noon, things are getting back to normal.

I find a letter from IND, Sept 29th, letting me know that two bits of information are missing from my residence permit renewal file.  Not unusual: their reporting rules constantly change, and business registration and 15% reserve  investment need to be formally confirmed this year. ‘could have been worse, there was an early suggestion that payroll tax payments and receipts would need to be documented every month.

However, they asked for a response within two weeks or they would review the incomplete file on October 28th. Since it’s already the 26th, this quickly rose to the status of Emergency.

Business registrations come rom the Kamer van Koophandel (KvK), which recently left Maastricht for Sittard.  Nothing to do but to hop the train north and walk to their offices to get the formally annotated registration document (uitreksel): two hours. 

The 15% reserve rule requires showing that 15% of Stone Bridge’s capitalization amount, in my case 4500 euros, is present in the business bank account at ING.  Since banking reform hit the Netherlands, local branches can’t print and stamp balance statements: those have to come from Amsterdam and require weeks to process.  ‘best I can do it print the Internet Banking page and attach a lame letter saying that I hope this suffices: two hours.

A run to the TNT and it’s off to Zwolle.  This is why learning the language for permanent residency actually makes sense.

Arcus College writes to say that this is a holiday week, so all Dutch inburgering classes are cancelled. I’ve developed a knack for hitting town on holiday weeks, but it gives me time to catch up with the e-lessons.  I’m starting to feel the deadline looming, even though it’s a year away.

MaastrichtStill  things have settled down and look routine by twilight (5 pm), so I celebrate with a glass of wine and a back copy of the Economist.  The first article is an essay reflecting on how Maastricht, the birthplace of the euro, has become suspicious of Europe:

Surrounded by grand 17th-century painted-leather wall coverings, the mayor of Maastricht, Onno Hoes, is grappling with a problem: how to mark the anniversary of a treaty that put his city on the map, when the euro could yet break up? Indeed, how to celebrate European integration when the Netherlands itself seems so disenchanted with it? “There won’t be fireworks” but there could be an exhibition, says Mr Hoes, a euro-supporter. Or maybe Maastricht could reunite the euro’s founders “to tell us what they think, now that they are free to talk.”

‘nice to be back.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Crossing the Channel

worryMaybe I should go back to writing about China.

I headed back to the Netherlands this morning, weighing the alternatives of train, car-ferry, and airline before settling on the Eurostar.  £89 round-trip fares from London to Amsterdam are being advertised, but I was only able to find a £69 one-way to Maastricht. Still, it beats Ryanair/NS or Total / Norfolkline this time of year.

A 10:57 departure from St. Pancras allows for a leisurely trip down from Cambridge/Royston, usually less than a 1-hour trip.  Unusually, when I checked the National Rail website ahead of walking to the station at 8 am, I discovered that all trains to London were cancelled (‘National Rail regrets any inconvenience that this may cause.’).

All ?!?

It seems that an overhead line problem between Kings Lynn and Ely stranded a lot of trains, while a broken engine blocked the tracks somewhere near Hitchen.  Delays of over an hour were already being reported; a quick call to Panther confirmed that there was already a run on taxicabs.

Royston stnI tossed bags in the car and headed to Royston, where at least occasional trains were reported to be leaving.

The first obstacle was long-term parking.  UK stations subscribe to an automated payment system, improbably called myringo.com.  Dial in, enter your license plate, location, and credit card, and you’re parked.   The first problem was that the system didn’t recognize Dutch license plate configurations – it  sent an SMS to the phone, asked for the plate in a return text, then a call back to confirm the text.  Meanwhile, the stationmaster was on the loudspeaker: All passengers are advised to board the train now in the station; severe delays of up to an hour are expected until the next train.  I hammered frantically at the phone; RingGo’s voice recognition mangled every American utterance.

Track display

The station was empty and quiet as I dashed onto the platform.  Two technicians bent over a flickering yard status board, LED-red showing everywhere.  “Are any trains getting through?” Hard to say.  “Any guesses?”  Hard to say.

Nonetheless, an express appeared, somehow routed around the wreckage to the north. It slipped through the maze of rerouted trains and filled platforms and arrived at King’s Cross 45 minutes ahead of the departure.  With entry gates open until 30 minutes ahead, I was home free.

EurostarThen I hit security, who decided my cable- and book-filled luggage was likely a terrorist threat.  We camped out at the x-ray, one guard and me, while she picked up, shook out, and inspected each (and every) item in my suitcase.  One at a time, deposited in a big box next to her counter as she finished.  Each package had to be opened; every book had to be riffled.  And, at the end, she handed me a big box of my tossed belongings and my empty suitcase, asking if I wanted help.

Nee, ‘dank.

I still made the train, though not by much. My random seatmates, a Dutch family returning home, couldn’t have been nicer.  And, emerging from the Chunnel, the clouds opened up, and the sun came out, and there was a whiff of Belgian wafels in the crisp autumn air in Brussels.  My attitude progressively brightened; my ear gradually tuned back towards Nederlands.  ‘Not sure that the car will still be at the station on my return, but there’s every prospect that, with the worst behind, I might get a good week ahead.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Katrina and Nola

KatrinaHurricane Katrina blew through the Gulf Coast six years ago.  I had recently attended a heart meeting in New Orleans and was transfixed by the scenes of homeless and desperate people filling the Convention Center.  I could trace my steps through the water on Canal Street, remembering a tour guide who warned that if the levees ever broke, water could reach second story windows across downtown.  It seemed fantastic; now it was real.

I’ve been to New Orleans many times, from band trips in college through business trips to Tulane.  The city is filled with memories, beignets from Café du Monde,  oysters from Acme, the voodoo shop at the end of Bourbon Street, riding streetcars to see where the lines end.  Karen had never been,so we decided to celebrate her birthday with a pilgrimage and and some fine dining (dinner at Bayona was superb).

Some cities were much worse hit – we stopped in Biloxi to find…nothing remaining.  There were city blocks along the waterfront, borders of trees and cracked driveway pads to mark addresses, but no buildings.  Not even “For Sale” signs. The casinos had returned, along with some of the shrimp boats, but, apart from a few damaged civic buildings, there was very little left.  It may not all be Katrina, I think that casinos exert toxic effects on the surrounding town economies, whatever the promise of new jobs and tourism.

The outskirts of New Orleans were still damaged, roofs and siding torn from houses, tarps covering window holes.  The downtown core is better, wash marks visible but the reconstruction complete.  Bourbon Street is unchanged.  The big news was that the Hyatt Hotel, blown out during the storm, was reopening after six years of renovation.

But the city retains a lot of charm and friendliness, the music playing late and the coffee served early.  From a base at the Royal Sonesta, we enjoyed two days of food, drinks, and music.  Krystal is still serving small, square classic gut bombs; Pat O’Briens pours bright pink Hurricanes (with no irony), the Café is still enveloped in a haze of chicory coffee and powdered sugar (we opted for a quiet bench in Jackson Square).  The Funky Pirate hosted wonderful blues, the superlative “Big” underestimates both Big Al’s size and his Blues Masters group’s music.

The cheapest drinks along the strip are shots, delivered in test tubes and running about $2.  Beers ran up towards $5 and mixed were above that, hustlers promised ever bigger glasses and higher proofs for half-price or less.  Our running favorite was Everclear, served with a cherry and cheerfully illegal in 19 states.

The Louisiana State Museum has a good exhibit remembering Katrina – it’s frank about the scale of the disaster and the inadequacy of the response.  The overriding theme is  We can do better next time. Upstairs is a history of Carnival, interesting to contrast it with the Maastricht equivalent (nowhere mentioned on the list of worldwide celebrations).  The musical organization and heritage is different; there is an emphasis to floats over costumes.  But the spirit is the same (and the beads, still flying overhead even out-of-season).

I don’t think New Orleans will ever “come back”; it will endure and move on.  I compared it to Yellowstone Park after the fires: The landmarks are still there, but it is otherwise smaller and humbler than it was, yet more rooted to its unique characteristics and heritage.  With the tourists going elsewhere, there’s less need to be what people expect, more of a chance to be who you are.  New Orleans is small discoveries in restaurants and shops, a slightly skewed French heritage jumbled with Southern gentility, and authentic music and relaxation.