Saturday, June 5, 2010

About the realty office…

DSC08345 When I need to find a new residence in the Netherlands, I make the rounds of the local realty offices to see what is offered te huur (for rent) and te koop (for sale) in their windows.  (I also cruise around the streets looking for rental signs in windows, but that is less efficient).  When something looks good, I make arrangements with the agent to see the property; they also relay offers to the landlord, handle the paperwork, and oversee the move-in.  For this, they collect one month’s rent as their fee, about 1000 euros.

The fee is a bit of an irritant, since they don’t seem to do very much for it.  Appointments to see a property take half an hour, and paper signing is brief and straightforward.  But it’s the cost of doing business in Maastricht, and there doesn’t seem to be a way around it.

But in return for that fee, I do expect them to do their job well.

This time, things didn’t go so smoothly.  The apartment is above a vacant store (soon to be filled with a restaurant), and the stairway empties directly into the construction area.  The landlord promised to redirect the stairwell, but had heart surgery in April and the work lapsed.

I dropped by periodically to check on progress, advising the agent of the ongoing problems, but nothing changed.  Finally, moving day came.  I found that my agent had gone on a six-week vacation without making the handoff to another agent.  The rental agreements couldn’t be found; the keys went missing.  The new agent couldn’t get the keys to work; the stairwell was blocked by construction, there was garbage from the workmen piled against the apartment door.  The hot water was a trickle, the doorbell didn’t work, the mailbox went missing, the final cleaning hadn’t been done, and there was a thin layer of construction dust over everything.

I have moved three times in the Netherlands, and this was just bad.  The realty office owner said that the original agent had a migraine that prevented the handoff, that the landlord wasn’t answering the phone, that there were a dozen other excuses.  I was unwavering: with their fee comes accountability for managing the transaction.  It is not my responsibility to be checking the apartment and advising them, nor to be chasing down the landlord.  I refused to pay them until the situation was corrected (I did pay the security deposit and first months rent).

Within a day, workmen were back out front, a plumber stopped by to work the water and replace the heater, the owner dropped in to assure me that things would be taken care of, the agency paid for a cleaning.  I feel like things will be right within a few weeks and then can finish negotiating a properly reduced fee with the realtor.  But the lesson is to stand up for yourself, take pictures, and leverage your payments into actions when something needs fixing.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Settling into the neighborhood

DSC00277 The new office / residence is in the historic section of Maastricht, away from the familiar Wyck neighborhood that I’ve been living in.  I still walk across the bridge to find familiar stores and services, but am also starting to explore the surrounding area.

As noted, it’s flush with riverside bars and restaurants, all full in the summer.  When friends visit, it’s nice to be able to walk across the street and have a drink or snack.  Yesterday, I went looking through the nearby establishments for an acquaintance that I was supposed to meet, waving that I was just looking for mijn vriendin.  Flatteringly, all of the waitresses said they’d be my friend.

There are the drug boats out front in one direction, a brothel back in the other, head shops around one corner, bars around the other.  Ah, the Netherlands, but it doesn’t diminish the ambience at all.  ‘and the brothel advertises guaranteed multiple orgasms--  there must be an age limit?

DSC00309 I made the mandatory trip to Ikea yesterday to get some cabinets for the office, returning to find all of the streets blocked off.  Maastricht’s fraternal orders were having one of their periodic marches, brass bands and drums across the St. Servaasbrug.  So everything had to be carried across from the parking place.  ‘at least there was good rhythm to keep my feet moving.

DSC00322 Then it was midnight assembling everything.  I’ve always held that you’re not really a parent until you have to assemble a roomful of Ikea furniture for the kids.  Fortunately, the skills of deciphering Swede/English instructions and using the little toy tools hasn’t deserted me.

DSC00298 Friday is market day at the Markt Plaza, a couple of blocks away.  I used to use the green grocer in the Wyck, but this has far wider selection and better prices.  And there is the entertainment value of the vendors yelling hup-hup as they lob melons back and forth across the stalls.  It’s a bit like the salmon pitching at Pike Place market in Seattle, but without the smells.

‘speaking of ‘hup’, it’s football season again, and the oranje spirit is everywhere.  Foosball in the bank lobby, decorations on the stores, flags on the houses, lights in the squares.  I hope it lasts with a string of wins this year (I feel like a Cubs fan again…)

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Settling in

DSC00329 ‘dialing in today from ‘Stone Bridge Biomedical South, our temporary offices in the front window of the Vrijthof / McDonalds.

When I need internet access in England, it’s the Starbucks; in the Netherlands, it’s the McDonalds (and ontbijt with my email…)

However, when I have to do Skype, I’m dropping into the Annex: a friend’s backyard for some quiet and some wider bandwidth.  My comings and goings at odd hours has been noted by their neighbors, and is raising a few Dutch eyebrows.

Anyway, back online with a few catch-up posts today; nothing organized, but lots to share.

Kesselskade Panorama

Despite my misgivings about moving, I am liking the new place a lot.

It’s on Kesselskade, a commercial area across the river from the old apartment.  The namesake Stone Bridge is still there, the river, the steeples across the water to the north.  But the pace of life is very different.  There are restaurants throughout the area, so a lot more people passing by, sitting, talking, laughing.  At night there is jazz and blues drifting in the windows from the bar up the street; late night is punctuated by the occasional yells and curses.

Te area is clean, cars are banned most of the day, and the bustle of boats and waiters is a nice backdrop.  My office is on the third floor, with panoramic views along the river from the gable.  There is a lot of unpacking and organizing left to do, but I’ve got my desk and workspace positioned to catch the street dynamic while I’m working.

To the back, the kitchen looks out across the rooftops to the south, blue skies and sunsets, lots more churchbells throughout the day.  I still marvel at the close jumble of old buildings here in the older part of the city.  The only worry is fire hazard; I installed smoke alarms and bought a ladder quickly – ‘I don’t know why the building codes don’t require them in wooden buildings.

The living room has windows instead of a balcony, so less room for plants and waving at the boats.  But the arrangement with the two armchairs in kind of cool: they can be turned outwards to enjoy a drink in the evening with my feet up on the windowsill.

Yes, it’s all developing a very congenial ‘Denny Crane’ vibe.

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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Ik heb verhuisd

Of course, it rained…

  The big (and, for the moment, the last) move is complete.  Everything got packed up over the weekend, probably 30 boxes overall in a tidy pile in the middle of the living room.   About a third books, about a third clothes, the rest assorted kitchen, office, linens, and knick-knacks.  Lots of interesting tidbits turned up during the packing and sorting; lots of outdated paper went to the recycle bins.  The job of separating my minutia from the landlord’s is largely done: I hate counting spoons and towels against the inventory list from three years ago.

And then it was done.  I always feel like I’m moving phases in life when I move apartment, even though this one isn’t associated with any particular job or life change.  Still, I took the last of a good Cragganmore out on the balcony to toast the future.

Stenenwal panorama

Monday was dim with misty rain, everything was staged in the vestibule while friends brought cars and muscle around.  Loading and vacating was easy; all of the problems turned out to be at the  new end.

The stairway up to the new apartment enters through an empty store that the landlord is trying to rent, he’d promised to move the stairs around to a street entrance during the past month.  DSC00180Work started, then stopped, and now there was construction blocking the stairwell, trash at the top, graffiti on the windows.  The realtor said that their person responsible had gone on vacation, failed to delegate, the landlord had heart surgery.  And so we began by sitting down to have a very close, very serious conversation about taking responsibility when long with the month’s rent as their fee. 

I think it had an impact: workers appeared this morning and have been busy on the stairwell, the electrical and gas pipes, and the wallboard. 

The apartment itself lies at the top of a towering cliff of stairway: vertical, narrow, and twisting in the true Dutch style.  It was a real challenge getting the books and furniture up the trail, but the pile at the top of the stair grew to match the one emptied out from the old place.  We were done before sunset, everyone  had a quick drink to toast the new place DSC00249before departing.

Now to the challenge of unpacking and nesting, but so far, it’s all looking very good.  Here’s the first view of the namesake Stone Bridge from the new windows.

…on a sunny day.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Corporate Quality parable

ulan-bator_1211875235“In Ulan Batur stories are told of the old days of central planning by people bewildered that they had once been part of it.  In offices and workplaces comrades were required to keep a diary of what they planned to achieve each year.  Supervisors would check the diaries religiously to insure that they were in line with the Party’s Five Year Plans.

“After a time, the planning diaries became quarterly.  Managers liked them because they were something tangible that could be managed without leaving their desks.  Workers liked them because they could crib from each others plans, and they were a happy substitute for work.  The plans were becoming addictive.  Soon detailed written plans had to be submitted every month.  Then weekly plans were added to the regime and finally, with workplaces now in the full grip of planning mania, the plans became part of the daily routine.

“From receptionists to supervisors, workers spent a couple of hours a day on the planning diaries, ensuring that they had the right revivalist tone and that they were in keeping with the resolutions of the latest Party Congress.  As well as work plans, there were ideological plans with workers planning which books to study and which Party reports to read, and general plans like New Year’s Resolutions in which comrades planned to work harder and achieve more.

“The plans became everything.  They flowed back and forth on tides of paper.  An entire level of management as devoted to reading and checking the plans, advising amendments and suggesting future goals.  It was an Orwellian world in which the plans had become the chief industry. Implementation was considered a dangerous and intractable business, with its thread of failure and culpability.  It also took time away from planning.  Everyone in the system, from office juniors to under-secretaries, recognized that they had a vested interest in the plans and that the thing could be easily upset by a rogue zealot who wanted to take action.  Such people were quickly squeezed out.

Ulan Batur modern “Nothing so illustrates the enfeeblement of the country as this demented planning.  In trying to adopt to the ways of a modern bureaucratic society Mongolians had made a fetish of one element.  In Ulan Batur a race of hardy nomads, a swashbuckling people who swept across the face of Eurasia conquering all of the great civilizations of its age, had been reduced to a city of compulsive penpushers and timid functionaries.

“The plans are gone but the dead hand of seventy years of Communist rule still lingers.  The lack of initiative, the sloth , the unwillingness to take any action however innocuous in case it exposes you to criticism, will remain part of the mentality of urban Mongolia for years to come.”

In the Empire of Genghis Khan, Stanley Stewart, 232-233.