Saturday, November 6, 2010

Shoots of new growth

The Great Recession has been hard on Maastricht as it has over much of the US and Western Europe.  There are a lot of storefronts for rent, a lot of ‘going out of business’ sales.  A venerable chocolate shop two doors up from my apartment closed in October; a stationary shop where I bought business supplies is also gone.

Nonetheless, it’s heartening to see the occasional new business starting up.

The Kookhuis aan de Maes is a high-end kitchen shop that appeared on Markt Square.  There’s a wide assortment of  apparatus, utensils, and accessories, mostly expensive high-end items that high-end amateurs would look for (if you’ve seen MasterChef on BBC, you have the right idea).  There are some clever novelty items, a timer that plays different tunes depending on how well cooked the pasta has gotten, and a ‘rubber duck’ tea infuser were particularly.  Overall, the prices are breathtaking (18 euro for the pasta timer), but the staff seems friendly and knowledgeable, and the shop was crowded.  The building used to hold a bank, and there’s still a safe-deposit vault downstairs, put to new uses.


My building on Kesselskade was supposed to get a new pannekoeken restaurant, but construction stopped a month ago.  The chef moved over to Markt Square as well and has opened de Smaak next door to the Burger King.  Literally “Tasty” or “Savoury”, the restaurant serves a huge variety of traditional Dutch pancakes.  Pannekoeken are a cross between a crepe and a pancake, with either omelet-style fillings or dessert / fruit toppings.  Prices vary between 5 and 10 euro per dish, service is good, and there are lots of families and couples inside for a quick half-hour break.  The kitchen is open so you can see how they are made (inside the pan rather than on the outside like a crepe), and it’s a chance to experiment with Dutch syrups and sugars (sort of strange to a palate raised on maple syrups). 


Disclaimer: My opinions are my own, and I was neither paid by nor invited by either establishment to write this critique.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Making cheap calls from Europe

Disclaimer: I am giving my own account of these services, and have not been asked for nor compensated for my comments.

Overseas calls, especially from mobile phones, are hugely expensive in Europe.  Tariffs are generally in the 1 GBP (1.2 Euro) per minute range, and may include additional fees for network access.  I recently discovered that calls between the UK and the Netherlands were being billed at the same rate as calls to Chicago, which was a shock.  EU lawmakers and regulators have been trying for years to reduce roaming charges, but they are still very high by American standards and unlikely to change in the near future.

As a result, I rely heavily on Skype for international call services.  It works very well when both parties are members of the service, and I get good voice quality even on slower DSL connections. The text, video, and call conferencing services are also very useful;  my only complaints are that file transfer rates are abysmally slow and Facebook integration is a needless complication.  New ‘version 5.0’ features include the ability to log onto local internet services using Skype billing while on the road: not as good as ‘free Starbucks or McDonalds access (Amanda has a good review), but useful in a pinch at an airport or train station.

I added call forwarding (Skype calls forward to my cell phone), Skype Out (call from Skype to land line and mobile numbers), and Skype-to-Go (dial into Skype to call internationally at reduced rates) in support of my business.  However, since I registered with Skype from the US, Skype uses US rates.  So, while domestic calls are cheap, international ones are expensive.  This was driven home when I discovered that local call forwarding of Dutch numbers was being charged at international rates (below).  Beware!

Skype calls

I’ve recently registered with another reduced-rate provider, OperatorOne.  Unlike services that bill through the mobile phone account, these folks set up dedicated local dial-in numbers for each overseas number that I call.  My mobile bills only for the local call, and long-distance charges deduct from credits that I leave with OperatorOne.  So, here’s an example of my billing:

Operator One

It works pretty seamlessly: the only glitch that I’ve found is that the local number doesn’t hang up automatically if the long-distance caller hangs up.  Thus, I had a one hour ‘local call’ consisting of dead air when I didn’t notice that the phone was still connected even though the call ended.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Back among the Dutch

Drifted back across the Channel late Sunday night: a quiet ferry crossing with little evidence of ghouls or zombies on the boat.  I miss the traditional Halloween: I have lots of good memories of going door to door as a child and of hanging out with the other Dad’ when my kids made the rounds.  I suppose the fear of predators and the embrace of adult costume parties has crowded the kids out.

I arrived to find golden trees along the Maas beneath a turbulent grey sky; the roof is rattling in the wind and rain spatters on the windowpanes.  The sightseeing boats have pulled up for the winter and one of the cafes has taken in its tables. Cyclists dress against the weather,bulky, pedaling determinedly against  the wind as they crest the Stone Bridge each morning.  The sun glows yellow through gaps beneath the clouds, highlighting the horizon, outlining the steeples.

I’ve been up in my garret, working the phones, writing the mails, negotiating the terms, cajoling the investors: pressing the deals.  It’s becoming a game of inches against days: I’ll never speak ill of a business development person again.  Whatever bonus or dinner they get along the way is well deserved.

It would be easy to disappear down the hole, absorbed with trying to muscle everyone to a close.  All the more important, then, to keep perspective and live fully.  I take a trip to the store, a coffee along the river, a cycle outside of town; connecting with the sights along the water, the murmur of languages, the smells of autumn.  We do live remarkably.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Cambridge autumn

We had a sunny fall day in Cambridge yesterday for the Festival of Ideas.  The day was really too nice to spend much time indoors listening to lectures though.  The fall colors only come once a year and last for about a week.