Saturday, August 30, 2008

Expatriate safety nets

Safety Nets"Touch of Dutch" wrote a good essay last week about the need for expatriates to have a sensible contingency plan for taking care of themselves if their domestic situation goes bad. I think that its a good time to echo her sentiments.

I was faced with the potential loss of my expatriate contract a few months ago, and made a list of the things that would need to be replaced if my support were suddenly withdrawn. It was surprisingly long, and costly, and made me realize how dependent I've become on my corporate parent.

So, this summer, I've put plans in place to 'take back' my life if the worst should happen. I think that it has to be a part of every expat's contingency planning: Take a day to review your contract and your everyday life, so that you will know what you have to do if the balloon bursts unexpectedly.

Visas and work permits: The work permit is company-specific and, in some cases, location-specific. Once you separate from the company, you are on 90-day tourist visa, and the clock is running. If you make application to stay beyond that period, you will be responsible for fees and document handling.

One alternative that I considered was to start a parallel consulting business here in the Netherlands that I could fall back on. It's a surprisingly difficult process, approval of a business plan, demonstration that the Netherlands is necessary for your business, and evidence that you can support yourself, from the outset, in this business. Check the Dutch IND Website for details; I had a few conversations with my local relocation advisors and other expats to understand details particular to my situation.

Salary: If you switch to local contract, then the salary will generally shift towards local norms. Consider not only what your skills are worth in the local markets, but how far your earnings will stretch. I have taken my base salary times my company's G&S differential to estimate what an equivalent compensation would be, then 'reality check' that with Dutch colleagues and managers.

Medical / Dental / Vision / Pharmacy services and coverage are different, or course. The New England Journal of Medicine recently published an article, Going Dutch -- Managed-Competition Health Insurance in the Netherlands, that gives an excellent overview of the system. It is worth finding out your eligibility and costs if you immigrate.

Taxes: I am under a tax equalization policy with my company, which shields me from the impact of dual-country income taxes. I also work under the Dutch "30%" scheme for knowledge workers. It means that I have no clue what my taxes actually are. I've pulled the last year's Dutch and US returns to understand how they interact and to add up the total. It's unlikely that I could complete my taxes alone: I've talked with the tax advisors provided to me to get some idea of their fees.

Remember, too, that in a severance situation, you may have to cash out options or take bonuses within weeks of separation, further increasing the payments that will be due.

Housing: I live in a furnished apartment, and have talked with the owner and relocation people about taking over the contract at the same (or reduced) cost if the company withdrew from the contract. The alternative would be to negotiate my month-to-month lease on the fly (or end up with 20 boxes of personal effects out on the curb). Also, you may need to remburse the company for the amount of the security deposit, which could be a several thousand euro hit.

I've also started keeping good records of my utility contracts and contact information, so that these can be canceled or transferred. Any prorated fees for taxes or maintenance deposits also need to be compiled onto the list.

Finally, I've looked into the availability of local storage facilities for caching household items in case I have to live lightly, or leave the country for an extended period.

Transportation: The loss of a lease car and gasoline allowance will force a different dependence on trains and walking.

I still use a car somewhat thoughtlessly because it is convenient and free, and I've begun to cut back and to become more aware of my schedule of shopping and commuting habits. I know that I can become more 'Dutch about using alternatives, including learning the train and tram schedules and learning how to use strippenkarts.

Banking: Although the cash accounts are clear of the corporate umbrella, bank cards may not be. Check that you have working 'chip and pin' and credit cards available through your bank.

As mentioned above, be aware of the automatic payments that are being deducted from your accounts and how to stop them quickly if needed.

I've also established a separate savings account in the UK, paying 6% interest, that I pay into each month. It builds up a reserve that I can rely on if there are unexpected expenses or contingencies. In the US, we would move towards liquidity in challenging times: in contrast, all accounts are 'short-term' for expatriates in Europe.

Misc. services: Other items to consider include:

    • Mobile telephones (can you take over the contract and keep the number)
    • Personal computers (can you buy it at prorated value)
    • Unreimbursed education, language training, or travel expenses (keep expense submissions up to date and prepay where possible)
    • Home Leave (family travel will become your responsibility again)
    • Repatriation and Shipping allowances (these may only be available for 90 days and then you lose the benefit)
    • Memberships: Health clubs, travel clubs, and discount club (may cease, or require re-registration and new fees)

I don't think it's an impossible situation if you are prepared, but it can be daunting if you have to try to pick up the pieces on the fly when there is a catastrophic event. Always know your Best Alternative to your Expat Contract, and underlie your trust with some practical defensive planning.

Photo credit Rainbow Net and Rigging

Friday, August 29, 2008

"I need to get better."

image I watched Barak Obama's acceptance speech last night (as I'll watch John McCain's in full next week). It was well written, well delivered, hit most of the issues that I align with him on. I wish that something more had been said about restoring civil liberties, banning torture, and closing Guantanamo ( a comment echoed by Slate). I thought some of the promises for Iraq, health insurance, and tax reform were simply unrealistic.

But my biggest concern was that it felt like performance rather than personal communication. Set in a stadium, surrounded by prop pieces, scrolling 50 minutes of applause lines from his glass teleprompters, it was devoid of any hint of the man behind the words. Michelle Obama's talk felt more genuine (although her gestures were distractingly overchoreographed), and even Hillary Clinton was more personable than I'd seen her on the campaign.

The Herald Tribune (AKA, international edition of the New York Times) put their finger on it yesterday in an article asking whether this resulted from his own obsessive self-improvement. He critiques himself with "I need to get better", almost able to stand outside of himself to assess and improve. "His virtuosity, his seriousness, his ability to inspire, his seeming immunity from the strains that afflict others - may be among his biggest obstacles." His self-detachment may prevent others from making connections as well.

Charles Krauthammer at The Washington Post echoed the thought this morning:

The oddity of this convention is that its central figure is the ultimate self-made man, a dazzling mysterious Gatsby. The palpable apprehension is that the anointed is a stranger -- a deeply engaging, elegant, brilliant stranger with whom the Democrats had a torrid affair. Having slowly woken up, they see the ring and wonder who exactly they married last night.

I can't support John McCain, but I wish I felt better about Barak Obama.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Nieuwersluis and Kasteel Sypesteyn

Over dinner last night, I was asked which region of the Netherlands was my favorite. The villages around the Vechtplassen hold a special charm for me, with picturesque villages and lakes filled with holiday boats, and winding roads along tree-shaded rivers.

I'm starting a two-day round of meetings in Amsterdam this afternoon, so I took advantage of the time to make a leisurely circuit through the ponds region to enjoy the late summer sunshine. The road led around to the village of Nieuwersluis, just north of Breukelen along the Angstel river, and to the Kasteel Sypesteyn, a sculpture garden near Nieuw Loosdrecht.

Here are a few pictures that capture the views and the art: more up on Flickr.

Nieuwersluis 08 Stitch

Nieuwersluis 13 Nieuwersluis 11

I drove on along the riverbanks and country lanes, towards the east, then up and back to the west.

Kasteel Sypesteyn 36

Kasteel Sypesteyn 05 Kasteel Sypesteyn 21

Kasteel Sypesteyn 26 Kasteel Sypesteyn 16

Kasteel Sypesteyn 17 Kasteel Sypesteyn 10

Monday, August 25, 2008

Catching up with life and the future

It's been three months since the announcement that our corporate parent would move responsibility for our product back to the US, closing the facility here and releasing the 200 Dutch folks in our division. It's been a difficult period: coming to terms with the changes, finalizing the Social Plan, transferring the programs, closing the building. I've written occasionally in this blog about the process, but not much: it's easy to become sad or angry about events when writing alone. 'far better to work things through with colleagues and friends over coffee or beer.

But now, with everyone just about gone, it's a good time to reflect, here, on the future. And, as the outlines of that future have finally begun to crystallize, I feel like I have something concrete to share in these pages.

From a personal perspective, I'm happy with my life's ABC's. I know my Ambition: doing entrepreneurial work with a talented team, building a business around an innovative medical idea. Further, I know that I want to do it in Europe, the first time in my life that "place" is so prominent. Living among the Dutch has forced Balance: time for rediscovering travel, reading, writing, and sailing activities that I personally enjoy. I've continued to develop Connections, social and personal relationships that have opened and enriched my life. These matter to me more than ever.

I want to nurture all of these, and. while I'm not done growing(or weeding), I do have a pretty clear vision. And this experience has provided enough success and happiness to inspire belief in the future, and to drive the further journey.

Along the way, I've had to come to terms with things that I expected to be true, but, in fact, are not. There is no waiting stack of understaffed projects. There is little credit for what we built here. There is no talent management. In these circumstances, hope only leads to rationalization and procrastination. It crowds out the necessity of arriving at true explanations and clear decisions. I've found that some facts are easy to understand and to deal with: the limits of a visa or a housing contract. Others are not: trying to read meaning into an unreturned telephone call or a single-line e-mail. I hate to say that I've had to be ruthless with myself, but I've definitely had to confront hard truths.

The most difficult personal consequence is to keep confidence no matter the uncertainty, and to be willing to press forward to a resolution, right or left as the Dutch say, rather than to float along and wait.

Honestly, this round, I couldn't get it all. My father has written to counsel that I shouldn't settle for too little. I've thought this through, though, and I think that I have enough for the next few months, and that these months give me the time that I need to finish the process. At least, it provides enough time for everyone to come back from vacations...

I'll stay in the Netherlands for the next nine months, under my current expat agreement, in an independent, transitional role in our division. The job will be a mixture of market analysis, clinical research management, and economic modeling for a US-based project team, supporting their European studies and thought leaders. Although based in Maastricht, I'll be free to live where I want within the Dutch borders.

During that time, I'll sort out the next job. My mentors counsel trust and patience, waiting to see what the new fiscal year brings. Fair enough. But there are also tangential alternatives at hand. These show every sign of spinning spin into great opportunities with a bit of care and feeding. I'll give them that attention.

Additionally, I want to credit the progress that both of my children have made in the past year. Last fall, we were struggling with 'failure to launch': my daughter veering towards a dead-end trade, my son in a part-time job. Last week, he graduated from basic training and she went off to university: significant progress towards establishing successful, independent lives. Wow.

Good things are happening.