Saturday, September 5, 2009

Pedaling into Herfst

There’s a chill in the air and the leaves are starting to turn in the south-central Low Country. At first, the orange and red turned out to be just berry clusters among the leaves, but this morning there is a definite change in color along the trees beneath the High Bridge. Autumn (herfst) is not far off.
I was tempted to take along a coat to go cycling last night, but thought I’d be warmer once I got the blood pumping. Nope. The wind was cold and unrelenting from the south, and I had to turn the bike's light on by 8 pm. I ended up further out than I thought I was, a fact I discovered while pausing on an A2 overpass to figure out which direction led back to Maastricht. The signs pointed back the way I’d come, 10 km, and the city's highest buildings were barely visible among the trees along the horizon. A flat tire would strand me hours from the apartment. ‘probably time to start taking a kaart as well as a jasje.
Two other lessons learned today:
Queueing up: The brick-red bike lanes are narrow, and everyone stacks up one-behind-the-other at traffic lights and rail crossings. When the signal is given to proceed, people stay in order like the start to a NASCAR race. Nobody jumps the queue to pass until they’ve ridden a block and everyone is up to speed. Even if the lead rider is slow off the mark, checking both ways to see if another train is coming, everyone else stands. And waits. Until. He goes.
There is also a trick to the box of red bike lanes around major intersections. Unless otherwise marked, bike lanes are one-way running in the same direction as traffic, so you always use the lane along the right side of the road. At major intersection, I stopped to turn left when I came to the cross street, but there was no pole-and-button to activate the crossing, and crossing lights only allowed the riders coming towards me while remaining stubbornly red for me. It dawned on me that a short left turn would put me on the wrong side of the street and in the oncoming bike traffic. Instead, I have to cross the street then turn left to remain on the right side of the road when I’m done. It’s time consuming and counterintuitive, but I suppose it makes logical (Dutch) sense.
Passing through: I approached an underpass to get to the recycling bins and was confronted with the Do Not Enter combination shown to the right. Since I knew that cars could not enter, and the sign had a picture of a car and a bike below the red circle, bikes also could not enter? But bikes can go anywhere that’s not a pedestrian-only area. I was about to take my chances, but then a parking warden motored in on a scooter. Guiltily changing plans, I deftly turned into the curb and crashed everything onto the median.
The warden was nice enough to stop and help me up, get things untangled from the wheel, and set me on my way. During this operation, four bikes and a scooter passed the Do Not Enter and whooshed on down the road. I don’t understand the signage yet (nor the meaning of red-ring signs around bicycles), but I do need to learn to be more decisive and to take a bit off Dutch courage at intersections and crossings.
At least I’m understanding where to dismount and walk my fiets...

Friday, September 4, 2009

A quick visit to the Pyrenees

One of the wonderful things about Europe these days is that it's easy to hop onto a discount airline and take a short, cheap holiday somewhere really fantastic. Ryanair flies out of Maastricht in the summer with 40 euro fares to Girona, just north of Barcelona along the French-Spanish border. A new adventure in a warm location: what more could one need?

The area packs a lot of variety into a small region. A couple of hours drive can literally pass from mountaintops to coastal harbors, from traditional villages to large cities. The Pyrenees themselves are rugged and cloudy: twisting roads lead up through the stands of trees to break out at crystalline alpine lakes and snowfields. There were lots of late summer hikers and climbers; the chalets are running pre-season specials that include a vast skier's breakfast.
I loved the warning signs ahead of the mountain passes: it was hard to imagine any road that might have more hazards than these...

Carcassone is a vast keep at the foot of the mountains, restored a century ago and now a UNESCO Heritage site. Although filled with tourists and overpriced cafes, the castle itself is wonderfully reconstructed. The cathedral has a Gothic transept attached to a Roman nave, a unique bit of architecture. It's not far from Toulouse,which I thought was a better bet for eating and taking in the local museums.
My favorite piece of art was the scholar in Wilson plaza, studiously absorbed in his books despite the nymph sprawled at his feet...

The villages along the Mediterranean coast are compact and colorful, perfect for relaxing along the waterfront or enjoying the cafes. Collioure is a convenient stopover with a good balance of scenery and attractions: the seafood restaurants and local wines were both excellent.

More pictures on my flickr page.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Tuesday Miscellany

I almost spent the night in the Global Command Center. I was working on a regulatory landscape, alternating internet searches with cut and paste into a huge spreadsheet, when I heard the downstairs door bang shut. An innocent investigation of the cause revealed that the office staff was closing up the building for the night. It was not a pretty scene: "Meneer, you can't expect that we will remember to look for you! You must be at the door by 5:30 in the future!" I hope that there's never a fire.
Shortly after I arrived in Arnhem, I received a series of increasingly frantic Dutch e-mails one afternoon (you can always tell when the ratio of capital letters to lower-case exceeds 1:1). Not having visited the nuns, I ignored them all. Finally someone wandered in to tell me to evacuate the building: the weather service had warned of 100 km/hr winds and there was fear that the windows wouldn't hold. So I weathered the storm in my car, stuck in traffic along the Neder Rhein.
I'm still not used to the work hours being so fixed and limited here in Europe. If I wandered into the corporate offices late or on the weekend, I would set off the security alarms. If I showed up at 8 am in Arnhem, the coffee wouldn't have started. The Dutch program doesn't simply recommend an 8-hour workday: it actively enforces it. In concept, I do love Europe, but I have to get my habits in sync.
The health care debate tumbles on in the US, hopefully headed towards a better resolution when Congress comes back in September. I think that Pres Obama has to call a reset to the process: the debate has really degenerated in recent weeks. Legislative sponsors have not handled the criticisms well: when someone says that the death panels will kill their grandmother, their concern can't be dismissed out of hand as ridiculous. If we all agree (and we should) that end of life decisions are personal and family matters, then we should make that explicit in the legislation, confronting the problem head-on.
I think that we have to go back to first principals. We need universal, high-quality health care. There needs to be more emphasis on risk identification and prevention, rather than treatment and rehabilitation. People should pay or be taxed the same for the basic care package, like the Dutch system, and I like having employers (or, for the unemployed, government) provide the basic stipend. People should have free market choice among providers; I don't think a government-run option is needed if there is good insurance reform to eliminate exclusions and to keep basic policy costs within reach. People should have the opportunity to choose specialty a' la cart options, and children should have enhanced coverage to ensure dental care and immunizations.
I don't know how to achieve meaningful cost control: the options I've heard so far like switching to electronic records or limiting legal penalties don't seem like they will save much. More savings might be achieved if we were to get commercial influences out of the standards of care, address high capital and consumable costs of diagnostic systems and prescriptions, and have flexibility in deciding where healthcare gets delivered (hospitals as a last, and temporary, choice).
I was reflecting on the strengths that we develop as expatriates: it forces us to keep an opportunistic and take-what-comes approach to life, to express ourselves simply and clearly, to become perceptive and flexible problem-solvers, and to have tolerance for alternative perspectives and lifestyles. I think that these are all good traits and necessary, all to some degree, in order to succeed outside of one's home culture and language.
When I visit the US, though, I realize that there is also a downside to these traits. Living opportunistically loses the sense of home and longstanding friendships and traditions. Simple, direct (Dutch) communication styles can seem abrupt and rude. Sometimes flexible problem solving means not taking 'No' for an answer; sometimes tolerance is achieved through detachment. I've noticed a loss of grounding, a contraction to where only the "13 boxes of stuff" have constancy.
I suppose it comes back to being a matter of balance and connection: the importance of taking time out-of-assignment periodically and of not letting people drift out of my life.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Radio Daze

I joined the college radio station as a freshman: WRVU, the student-run Voice of Vanderbilt, Nashville's Music Station. Album rock, special jazz, folk, and classical, news-of-the-hour. I'd originally joined to be a board operator, fascinated with all the buttons and lights (the studios of a Paris FM station, left, was my vision), but the station had their on-air talent operate the controls, so I became a DJ. As "Dashing" Dave Roberts, I lit up the late night airwaves with teeny-pop and oldies, migrating to the late afternoon drive-time slot. It was a wonderful experience: I made a lot of close friends and had a ton of fun.

Facebook started a WRVU Staff Alum group, and its been amazing to reconnect with all of the folks I knew. Some stayed in radio and enjoyed good ratings and careers, others went into related work in audio engineering or voice entertainment. Fred Buc, for example, hosts an oldies show on Lightning 100 that I can stream into the Netherlands on Saturday evenings (highly recommended while cooking dinner). It made me dig out the olde yearbooks from that forgotten era, and I was able to get some decent scans of the staff and facilities for the group photo page. We've all been trying to pin names on the players, swapping stories about who did what.

Of course, my daughter couldn't help but notice the activity. I was around 20 when this all happened, her age now, and she thinks it's a hoot to see what I looked like then. Even more so, the blonde woman next to Nick, Ben and I in the picture above was my girlfriend at the time.
"You had a girlfriend ?!?!" "But … she's cute ?!?" Yes, dear, yes: Dad was once a hot property…
'funny how we come full circle from not believing our parents were ever young. I still don't always understand how many years have passed, I don't feel that much different.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The sensate pleasure of cycling

The expat-car went back to the lease company a month ago: I armed myself with a discount pass for the train and a strippenkart for the bus and braced myself. So far, though, things have gone swimmingly. The office is three blocks from the apartment and shops (winkels) fill the neighborhood, so I usually walk (still a novelty) to the loft for work, stroll to the stores, putter over to the PT.
Life (in summer) is good.
This week, I borrowed a bike to pedal over to Il Fiore for some exercise (ironically, to do the exercise bike), and found myself completely captivated within five minutes. I passed the club, continued along the river out of town, and nearly on to Eijsden. It's a wonderful evening ride; the sunset glints off the river, the town dwindles off into farms, and the traffic gives way to cattle. Regions of warm air alternate with cool, enveloping smells appear and disappear: the air has much more texture than when walking or boating.
I haven't got the full Dutch style yet: riders are either "upright and nonchalant" or "hunched over and sweaty". There's no way that I'm doing the super-suit, glasses, and helmet, opting instead for a comfortable jeans and t-shirt combo, one hand on the steering, one ready for the bell.
The biggest hazard is not cars: if you can read Dutch street markings, the bike lanes are a mirror image, and cars really do yield to cyclists. Rather, it's the motorbikes that sneak up, pull around, cut in, roar onward. A momentary distraction, occasionally unnerving.
I could get used to this; at the moment, I'm alternating nights out and am starting to hunt the classifieds for a used set of wheels. It's hard to believe that I let three years pass before I picked up the habit.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Live, from the Global Command Center

When I first started working in Maastricht, I remember that a stylish corner office was one of the early thrills. Glass furniture, territorial views, a personalized nameplate were all pretty exciting perks for starting the new position with confidence. I gave that all up, of course, opting for a substantive workspace befitting the modest beginnings of my new enterprise. Outplacement assistance provided an office, really more of a room (?), no, actually a table in a hallway, free for six months. So, I have a nice big workspace, live internet connection, communal coffee, and a fair amount of quiet in a second-floor loft in the central Wyck. The temperature control isn't great, the window faces a brick wall, and the firewall blocks e-mail and Facebook, but its home each day from nine to five.
Time is evenly divided between building business structures and completing work for the first client. I have a notebook of thoughts and questions that is rapidly filling with ideas, arcane drawings and scattered sentences culled from friends, books, and podcasts. The cash-flow diagram finally simplified to something that could be reported to the government for my first VAT accounting, and the logo got its first public airing in my first invoice for payment. Things feel pretty humming and happy as the new week gets underway.
I had a really good conversation with a member of my fledgling board of advisors last weekend, a group of august grey-beards (even the women) possessing vast experience and endless patience. How do I delegate tasks effectively; how do I avoid over-managing my contractors? If there are opportunities to grow beyond the hours I have to put into it, how do I find and manage help (without taking on employees). What should the business become when it grows up, and what jobs should I refuse along the way? Should I become known beyond my circle of friends and, if so, how do I brand and market to my audience? While I can hypothesize about all of these answers, it really helps to have folks to bounce ideas and alternatives off of. A little interaction energizes me for the week, and the fertile space of the Stone Bridge Global HQ gives room to find the answers. I am doing a lot off little experiments and seeing how things turn out, how they feel. Then I talk them over, press the best bets, and grow new shoots from there.
I don't know if this is how professionals set up new businesses, but so far it's helped me to avoid a lot of the mistakes I made with the last few attempts.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sunday's Thumbs Up /Thumbs Down

‘gotta love the Maastricht Food Festival and Chateau de Jehay, but CarTrawler and Microsoft are causing trouble…
Thumbs up to the four-day Bite of Maastricht, rolling into the Vrijthof Square this weekend with 40 food booths and live entertainment. More properly known as the Preuvenemint, it resembles US festivals from Seattle or Chicago, where local restaurants offer low cost / low volume samples. It’s ideal for noshing a wide selection, discovering a hidden gem or finding an old favorite. It seems to be yet another opportunity for locals to dress up, eat, and socialize against a backdrop of colored lights and bouncing music. I can’t fault a culture that enjoys so many varieties on this theme.

It’s a more expensive event than its American counterpart: patrons purchase coupons for 1.80 euro each, then redeem them at the food stalls. Beer and wine cost one coupon (lassen); small samples cost 3, small plates cost 5, and champagne and drinks run 6-8. This pricing tends to attract an upscale crowd: there were more evening jackets and cigar smoke than I remember from any other Dutch festivals. The grounds were packed, though, and the food samples were excellent.
Thumbs down to Skyscanner’s new Car Hire service. I’m a big fan of their discount airlines search engine: it’s the first place I go when I need to find a cheap flight. I was excited that they added car and hotel booking to their service, and found offers at about 2/3 the price of other sites. The first booking with EuropeCar went fine, but the second, with GoldCar, got ugly very quickly.

My flight arrived early, so I was at the rental counter at 3:15 rather than 4:00. GoldCar told me that I could accept a micro-car for the same price, or wait 45 minutes. I cooled heels until the appointed time, then went back to claim the car. The booking, prepaid, was for 165 euro. However, the desk agent started adding fees for taking the car out of Spain, for extra insurance, and for prepaid gasoline charges, bringing the total to 300 euros. When I objected, he said that was between me and CarTrawler, the agent behind SkyScanner. I called them, and they said that the fine print in the contract allowed the agent to add on excess charges at pickup, at will.
So, there is really no way to know what the booking will cost, and because it’s prepaid, I can’t refuse and go to another vendor? “Sorry, sir, you need to read the contract and call us if there are questions.”

Since I had already dropped 45 minutes, I had time and inclination to press the point, and got the booking down to about 200 euros. But beware: the quotations can be an absolute fiction.
Another thumbs up for the Chateau de Jehay outside of Liege, a large country house with a wonderful collection of rococo procelein and clocks. The owner was also a sculptor scattering his uninhibited copper statuary across the gardens and pools that surround the house. There’s an exhibit of abstract works expressing the idea of colour in the gardens, and a museum exhibition of drawings by the Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux.

The owner’s tastes are both colorful and erotic: he depicts the female form in many happy poses and variations. Having taken a few life drawing classes, I always enjoy seeing how artists capture the human form, and there are wonderful works in this collection. Some of the works will surely provoke a smile: his statues of women draped over insects and waterways are absolutely unique.
And one last thumbs-down to Microsoft. A recent update to 64-bit Vista has infected my computer with the Blue Screen of Death every time I unplug a USB device; no fix is yet available. Both Windows Live Writer and Windows Live Mail have died; tech support has escalated my issues for the past week before notifying me that they have reproduced my problem, thanks for bringing it to their attention. In the meantime, I have yet to find an alternative WYSIWYG editor for Blogger: I’m limping along with a combination of Word 2007 and a draft editor from Google.

Windows 7 can’t come too soon...