Saturday, July 11, 2009

Two patron saints of Maastricht

A friend wrote recently to fill me in on the background of St. Servatius, Maastricht’s patron saint.  I admit that I’ve never learned much about the bishop, although I’ve visited the church on the Vrijthof Square and have seen the tomb and the relics inside.

  His history is a mix of fact and legend.  Born in Armenia, he may be a distant relative of both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.  He was an envoy between the Eastern and Western divisions of the Church around 350AD and was guardian of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  During a vigil at Saint Peter's tomb, he had a vision in which Peter forecast the destruction of the unbelieving and sinful and gave Servatius the key to the Gates of Heaven, with the  power to forgive sins and to open or lock the Gates . Servatius carried the relics back to Maastricht, where he died a few days later in 384.  These relics, the Noodkist ("Distress Chest"), were carried around Maastricht to protect it in times of calamity, and the “Procession of the Reliquary” is still carried out every seven years.

St Servatius 4 Most interesting to me is that Servitius is, of all things, the patron saint of foot problems and lameness (also rheumatism, rats, and mice).  His statue stands two blocks from me in the middle of the Wyck; he is on the right facing the camera in my picture, and is often depicted with three wooden shoes.


Violinist André Rieu is performing his annual summer concert series in Maastricht this week: it is an event.  His CDs and DVDs are everywhere; the locals love the “Waltz King”.  Locally born and educated, he’s a Maastrcht icon, extravagant yet approachable.

He began playing the violin when he was five, and subsequently attended the Conservatoire Royal in Liège, the Conservatorium Maastricht, and the Music Academy in Brussels, where he won the Premier Prix. Fascinated by the waltz, he created the Maastricht Salon Orchestra and, later. the Johann Strauss Orchestra.  He performs internationally, but always returns to Maastricht to give a series of summer concerts. He can be followed on Twitter and his YouTube channel.

Tickets run from 100 to 400 euros: the streets are blocked off for a block in every direction.  I went over to Vrijthof Square last night to see what I could: overflow crowds sit in cafe’s watching the concert on projection televisions, screened from the actual event.  Security additional gates so that we gawkers couldn’t see anything.

Rieu 3Rieu 2

Elsewhere, giant television screens are set up for remote viewing around town. We joined a group at the Basin, a boat moorage and night spot north of the city.  It’s amazing; hundreds of people signing and dancing and having a wonderful time until well after midnight.  The music is a mixture of pop and waltz, relentlessly upbeat and occasionally kitsch, but always delivered with polished good humor and received with enthusiasm.

 Rieu 4Rieu 5

Friday, July 10, 2009

Interpreting Dutch road marks

Preliminary test:  Imagine you are driving from Maastricht to Liege.  You pull up to the A2, confronted with this signage, how do you turn south?

Road Marks 04

Among the many markers in this (true) picture are the route signs, lane marks, bike warnings, and bus signals.  It can be a real challenge the first month out.

Dutch road signs, while numerous and confusing, Road Marks 03can be deciphered by reference to the Road Traffic Signs and Regulations manual.   You’d find that the key sign in the highway intersection is this one, telling you that you can’t complete a right turn before yielding to all bicycles and pedestrians.  In practice, this precludes making right turns.

More confusing than signs, though, are the marks on the roadway itself.

Last week, Isabella at Touch of Dutch and I tried to sort out the meaning of serrated hash marks on the speed bumps Verkeersdrempel.  It led me to start taking note of the various street marks around, none documented in the Road Traffic Signs manual.

Herewith, a catalogue (Note: I am the passenger, not driving):

Road Marks 10

A typical Dutch country road: no marks whatsoever.  Like the British roads, it tends to be about one-and-a-half cars wide and lined with five-foot hedges, so it’s always difficult (for Americans) to navigate confidently.Road Marks 09

Worse, typically Dutch road hazards can suddenly appear without warning…

Road Marks 06


A typical Dutch village street.  The lane for cars lies in the grey area between the hash lines; bicycles own the red zone at the edge.  Right turns on red are not allowed: bicycles own the intersections as well as the countryside.Road Marks 01

A white-lined pedestrian crossing.  People on foot rank below both cars and bicycles for right of way; note that nobody is attempting to beat the van across the street

Road Marks 05

A speed bump, drempel, marked with serrated hash marks.  The bumps range from thumping tire-wide ridges to long platforms spanning 4-way intersections.Road Marks 07


Serrated hash at a 4-way intersection.  No speed bump in sight, so Isabella and I are guessing that the mark means “Slow down and look”, without requiring a full stop.

Road Marks 02

The famous “shark-teeth” mark, telling you to yield to traffic on the main road.  The pointy bits aim towards the submissive driver. Also visible are diagonal marks that signify street narrowing.

Road Marks 08 This is a bit of a puzzle: it’s also a Yield sign, but I believe a line of squares requires a full stop in the side street before proceeding.

Road Marks 11


A zigzag that shortens, generally indicating a crossing zone or low-speed zone. 

The bicyclists are, indeed, shown life-sized as  in the wild.

Final Exam:  Turn right properly at this Wyck intersection.

Road Marks 12

Extra Credit:  Dutch highway markings will be upgraded in the near future to improve  lane and speed control.  What are the new lane marks?image

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Whacking a cold with the Dutch

Midnight 1 The weather has become decidedly cold and rainy, leaden skies and sheeting wind.  Although I’m told that I can’t catch cold from abrupt temperature shifts, that’s always how I seem to get them.  “Count back 3 days to  find the source,” my mother always advised,  and it always coincides with a change in the weather.

And this time I really got it.

I have small stash of reliable US cold meds for the rare occasions that I do catch something: Sucrets for the throat, Coricdin for cough and headache, Sudafed for the nose.  Unfortunately, my front-line troops aren’t making a dent in the symptoms this time around.

I broached it with my doctor during my scheduled post-surgical appointment on Monday: he took a quick peep in the throat, a tap and a listen on the back, and pronounced it ‘nothing serious’.

“Are you serious?” I croaked, batting bleary eyes, and hoping for a magic elixir.

“Nose spray; throat spray, “ he commented, typing notes into the computer (Note to Obama: electronic health records seem to have arrived in the Netherlands)

Since I didn’t get a prescription, it must be something that can be obtained over-the-counter.  So, off to Kruidvat.

Kruidvat I’m actually not sure what Kruidvat is supposed to be.  It has health and beauty items, a few toys, some vitamins, a smattering of foods.  I think of it as equivalent to a US RiteAid or Walgreens, but it seldom has even the basic health-care items that I’m looking for.  I’m starting to think it might be a reincarnation of Woolworth’s, an ancient five-and-dime store.

In any case. I was advised to try a (something)-oth-eek.

Luck on my side, I spotted a Hypotheek across the street.  Sadly, this turns out to be Dutch for a mortgage-broker.  Nice people, helpful to a fault: they sent me to the Apotheek (pharmacy) around the corner.

In the Netherlands, pharmacists dispense prescription medicines as the do in the US.  But they also are involved in selection of over-the counter meds.  Rather than pick from an aisle of offerings, I go to their desk and explain the problem, they divine what could help.

“Nose drops?” She recommended a 10 ml bottle of xylometazoline spray.  Not a clue what that is, but I took it home and gave each nostril a shot.

Wow… I was bone dry for the next 8 hours.

There’s an urban legend in the US that the FDA review process keeps us from getting the good stuff that is freely available to Europeans.  This spray, Otrivin in the UK and Canada, might be one of them. Very impressive.

Still, I woke in the middle of the night with raw throat and cough.  Back to the Apotheek. “Throat spray?”  Kamillosan was the answer.  Interesting: this is a chamomile extract, anti-inflammatory, all natural, not available in the US.  ‘Worth a try.

This is the strongest throat spray I’ve ever experienced; impossible to inhale.  Overwhelming menthol, a touch of anesthetic, very aromatic. It makes my eyes water. (Note to Obama: the nose remains Otrivin-shielded and doesn’t spring a drop).

The box reminds me to “Niet in de neus sprayen en niet in de omgeving van de ogen opbrengen,”  Don’t spray it in the nose or get it around the eyes.  I can only imagine the pain.

So, fortified with a new front-line arsenal, I‘m ready for a good night’s sleep, free at last from cold symptoms. 

The last thought, falling asleep to the cooing pigeons outside, is a lingering concern that it might be bird allergy and not a cold at all….

Monday, July 6, 2009

Three thoughts on a Monday

4th 2The Fourth of July parties were lots of fun: as hoped, it was a good opportunity to get together with other expats and have a familiar (parochial) celebration.  We indulged traditional American pastimes of eating (hamburgers, chips, and beer), arguing about politics (Obama as socialist / Palin as genius, but I can hold my own amidst such barbarisms), and lying in the shade (my specialty since I arrived on crutches). 

4th 1 Conversation was lively and engaging all evening. I’ve found that expatriates generally have T-shaped conversational ranges: superficially broad and narrowly deep in a pleasing way.  Their wide travel experiences make them great raconteurs: full of good stories, specific advice, and self-depreciating experiences.  At the same time, most have developed special interests in history or culture that run very deep, some write or lecture and are able to make arcane subjects fascinating.

Still, I was surprised at how out-of-touch many of them were with US political and cultural events.  They haven’t ‘gone native’; they’ve simply disengaged, whether through personal disinterest or perceived irrelevance.  I would think that this would create conversational gaps back home; maybe it’s what my US colleagues were referring to when they suggested that “people moving overseas get weird after they’ve been gone more a few years”.


I got sucked into the BBC series “On Thin Ice”, documenting a 700 km overland race to the South Pole.  The series follows one team, James Cracknell and Ben Fogle, as they prepare for the endurance marathon, and their trials finding a third member and coming together as a functional unit in the months ahead of the race.

I never liked watching people self-destruct in individual dramas like “Play Misty for Me”.  But I really enjoy watching a good group train-wreck, where the individual personalities have to mesh to enable everyone to succeed.

The stories are as varied as the creative struggles documented in the Metallica movie, “Some Kind of Monster”, the team dynamics under stress in The Amazing Race, or the struggles to balance personal and team endurance in the Amundsen Omega 2 South Pole Race. None are competitive situations among team members.  Rather, these are scenarios where everyone has to contribute and communicate, working together to achieve the common goal.

It’s probably the project leader in me, but these shows are great case studies.


Stone Bridge The new business planning continues to make gratifying progress towards launch on August 1. I’m learning as I go; there are so many aspects to consider in getting a transnational business going.  Legal, banking, and tax issues are still front and center, with parallel activity in the Netherlands and the US to make sure that everything goes smoothly and mates well.

The legal issues seem to be the simplest: everything is ready for the new residency / work application in the Netherlands, and I’ve got cross-border contract templates put together.  The notary has moved rapidly through the incorporation procedures, and I should be a full BV next week.

The tax issues are trickier but workable if good advice is available.  Finsens is doing a great job with all of the Dutch reporting, a local student is helping with bookkeeping, bills, and invoicing, and we are almost ready for our first quarterly report.  Clark Nuber is handling the US side, they have strong overseas expertise and have spotted good opportunities for savings.  Together, it’s going to run about $5000 per year, but the net tax savings and avoiding compliance penalties makes this a bargain.

The banking issues continue to be a pain.  ING finally established my business account yesterday, over five weeks from the start. I just can’t explain why this was handled so badly: I hope it’s not an omen.  HSBC will be the  US banking portal for the Dutch business: they can act interface with US clients and handle international transfers smoothly: I wish that they had branches in the Netherlands.

My former corporate parent continues to quickly and dispassionately sever my expatriate services.  Most of the changes were expected, and I have replacements ready; the transition should be complete for both of us by the end of this month. 

However, three major headaches have surfaced.

One is negotiating health insurance / COBRA benefits: it costs a lot to keep my current insurance, but there aren’t any good alternatives to replace it.  That insurance isn’t accepted in the Netherlands, so I’m going to have to buy  Dutch insurance, creating duplicate coverage.  I’m still testing alternatives.

Another is tax withholding.  Deloitte was responsible for tax equalization and reporting while I was an expat, but won’t advise beyond my separation.  Since I don’t know the amount that they’ve reported to the US and Dutch governments, I can’t determine how much to withhold and pay to whom from any future income that I might get this year.  Catching the lump-sum severance payment in a tax-advantaged way is also proving difficult, with several schemes on the table to consider.

Finally, I was given a non-negotiable two months to pack up and move back or my repatriation benefit would be withdrawn. In effect, I’ll be stranded here with future responsibility for my own goods and shipping.  It may prove cheaper to store or discard my archetypic 13-boxes-of-stuff; it does challenge the “we’re sendng you over; we’ll bring you back” assurances that the assignment started with.