Saturday, August 7, 2010

Village vintage car evening

Schwab Tip It was getting to be past five and I was moving from closing the books to paying the bills.  I dropped into Schwab to check an account balance, and was greeted with their latest Helpful Tip for my retirement accounts.  Honestly, there’s little in this squib that' makes me feel good about saving, spending, aging, or working, which pretty much confirms that it’s time to log off and call it a week.

Fortunately, village life in rural England means that the local pub (here, the Royal Oak) is only a short walk away, ready with a warm selection of local ales to chase the financial demons.


And this week, it was also the setting for the monthly meeting of the Barrington Vintage Car Club.

The dusk lighting does no justice to these lovingly restored automobiles.  They have all been restored (not, I was told, conserved), with original or re-machined parts to original specifications.  The engines were simple affairs, every spiraling condenser tube and lug connector big and understandable, and not a processor or wire harness in sight.  The interiors smelled like boats, all wood and leather, and the chassis glinted with brass accents and crystal lenses.

All of the retired folks who make this their passion were clustered around the open hoods, sipping beer, puffing pipes, and making quiet, timeless suggestions and comparisons.

These are former university folks, civil servants, businessmen, none worrying about their accumulated retirement savings, position on the career ladder, or what the boss things about them.  They’ve got a summer evening, some classic cars, a group of friends, and time for trading tips about something they think is really important. 

And shouldn’t that be the real goal of anyone’s retirement?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Navigating the checkout systems

Cards The Chicago Tribune recently published advice to travelers about paying for goods with credit cards in Europe.  The prevalence of Chip and PIN systems has diminished reliance on magnetic card readers,they report, leading to situations where "In some of the smaller shops, some of the clerks are young, and have not used magnetic stripe cards themselves, so they don't know what to do, and automatically decline them."

Actually, everyday life hasn’t gotten that bad.  But Europeans do use a variety of electronic payment systems that are unfamiliar in the US.

It’s worth starting with the observation that you can always pay with contant geld (literally, ‘hard money’).   This is much easier (although less fun) now that most countries accept euros.

The next step up is a pre-loaded cash card, in which a balance has been transferred to an electronic chip.  I carry about 20 euros on my Fortis card, the ChipKnip, which I use to pay for parking.  A similar idea is the OV-chipkaart for train travel (or Oyster for the London Underground) which are swiped past readers to pay for services.  Card balances can be checked at reading stations located next to most ATM machines (or in train stations for OV cards).  However, if you lose the card, you lose the money.

Most commonly used are bank debit cards (Maestro, Electron), which take money directly from your account, and bank credit cards (Visa) which debit your account for the full accumulated amount at the end of each month.  These are all Chip-and-PIN: insert the chip into the reader after the cashier has rung up the purchases, verify the amount, and conclude with your PIN code.

The credit cards, in particular, are less convenient than in the US.  There is no online access to the charges: a statement is mailed at the end of each month just after the charges are paid, and there’s no opportunity to decide what portion to pay.  Credit limits are generally lower and harder to get raised than with US cards.  There are no matching airline miles.

And, in restaurants, it’s generally customary to leave a cash tip rather than to add it to the card when you pay.

I do have one US card, my American Express, which has a mirror-gloss magnetic stripe and no chip.  As the Tribune article warns, I have had trouble using it.  One gas station attendant insisted that I buy something with it to demonstrate that it worked before  allowing me to buy gas.

Generally, my US credit and debit cards all work fine: I don’t use them because foreign transaction and currency exchange fees add up.  The only hiccups I’ve noticed are that bank debit cards sometimes stop working on the weekends when US computers are down for their weekly maintenance.

Traveler’s cheques seem much less familiar, and merchants have made me go to a currency exchange to cash one.

The most frightening alternative is the new Barclay Connect card, a variation on the swipe card that “allows consumers to make payments of £10 or less without having to even remove the card from their wallet.”  As a security measure, only six or seven contactless transactions in a row are permitted before customers are forced to verify their identity by using Chip-and-PIN again. 

Call me a Luddite, but I’m scared to even try it.  It’s a direct debit rather than a debit against cash stored on the card, and I don’t like having cash disappear without my participation.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Back across the Channel


I drove back to the UK at mid-week, facing a solid round of meetings and palm-pressing for organizing the businesses and raising funds.  I have a good mental picture now of how all of the moving parts of this operation should mesh together, but it’s tricky getting everyone lined up (and paying up).  I need to shift my focus to the operations side of things within the next month or so, so a major goal si to hand off the business development and fundraising tasks.

I left Liege with 3 1/2 hours to make the Dunkirk ferry.  Unfortunately, given traffic around Brussels and slowings near Ghent, it took 4 hours to make the 2 1/2 hour drive.  That meant waiting for two hours to make the next, 10pm ferry, so I didn’t arrive at Cambridge until <groan> 2 am.

And that, in turn, was enough to turn a mild case of sniffles to a raging cold by by morning.  Lack of sleep and cold meds put me out f most of the first day here.  Although I’m starting to feel a bit more like myself, I’ve planned a deliberately slow weekend.

‘Just as well, rain and cold have moved into the area for the next few days.

Monday, August 2, 2010

What if everyone learned Dutch?

  BBC Radio hosts a weekly segment during the Forum roundtable called “60-second Ideas to Change the World”.  Recently, Dutch-born author Ian Buruma proposed that everyone should learn Dutch as their first foreign language, worldwide, no exceptions.

His argument was that it has a rich literature, it is spoken by many people, and that nobody can take exception to learning it because the Netherlands is so small.

The panel debating the proposition suggested that there were other small, inoffensive countries (Ian noted that most alternatives don’t have as much to read), or that there were more useful languages (Hindi, Arabic, Chinese).

And, before you dismiss the idea entirely, watch UK Deputy PM Nick Clegg in action (around minute 1:40).  He has a Dutch mother, who he credits with giving him fluency, and a degree of skepticism about the entrenched class configurations in British society which helped guide him towards becoming a liberal.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Skadefesten 2010

DSC01287 Since I don’t know enough Dutch to keep up with the daily newspapers, I’m occasionally, and delightfully, surprised by unexpected festivals.  Such was the case last night: I came back from dinner with friends to find that my street had been taken over by Kesselskade Festen.


There was a music stage, cheap beer, lots of people and laughter flowing past my window (and ringing my doorbell) until the wee hours. Then it cranked up again this afternoon…’looks like another late night. 

It was a lot of spontaneous fun, though: this is the sort of thin I really enjoy about living in the city, especially in summer.

SkadeFesten 2010 - 23