Saturday, January 29, 2011

Making the rounds on Saturday

The weekend starts busy in Maastricht.  In much of the Netherlands, stores are closed all day Sunday and at least half of Monday, so a lot gets pushed into Saturday.  One of the first lessons that I learned on moving to Arnhem in 2006 was that if I didn’t have food in the ‘fridge on Saturday night, I wouldn’t eat until Monday evening.

So, Saturday is the day to take the big green shopping bag and head forth.  Usually the first stop is at the recycle bins, sorting the week’s bottles, tins (blik), plastics (kunststof) and papers into their separate slots.

Grocery shopping is an extended process.   Depending on whether I’m in an upscale or discount mood, I head to the Albert Heijn or Jumbo (respectively) to prowl for meats, dairy, and staples.  The grouping of things varies from store to store and tends to be different, both in logic and allocation, to what I grew up with.  So it’s up and down each aisle, reading ingredients, comparing prices, making notes before checking everything off the list.  In the beginning, this could easily take an hour or two as I struggled with the language, but a bit of reading skill and confidence puts me through to the checkout in half an hour.

Fruits and vegetables come from the Green Shop or from the market stalls in Markt Square. DSC00298 There’s usually a crowd of shoppers, all waving to attract a clerk, then calling out a rapid list of produce.  I’m always surprised when six of seven items come to less than ten euros: it seems like the volume should cost more.  I haven’t gotten into the habit of doing breads, eggs, and fish the same way, although lots of folks do their entire shopping at the market.

Saline, aspirin, toothbrush, vitamins from the Kruidvat

For some reason, this is always the hardest store to find anything.


Valentine’s is coming, so there are chocolates to buy from the confectioner past the Vrijthof. Abbing-Nolle is a small, family owned shoppe that makes its chocolates in the back in amazing Belgian tradition.  The owner always explains how long he’s been making them, what the various types are, and how he only accepts cash (debit cards and web sites are not on his radar): there’s a focus in that which leads to great chocolates.

Another stop to get Turkish tobacco (my daughter’s water pipe) from the sigarenwinkel (Tobachoes according to the sign).

…then cards and mailing boxes from the postkantoor (who is technically closed, but happy to make a late afternoon sale in cash).

Valentines is checked off.


  A copy of  The Sun Also Rises from the Selexyz; my New Year’s resolution is to read something besides The Economist.

The bike generator will have to wait.

Everything gets secreted away into the big green bag, growing ever-heavier as I make my rounds.  With the list exhausted (and me getting there), there’s time for a wafel and a koffie before dragging everything home to stock the ‘fridge and sort receipts.

‘Not the fastest way to do things: a Safeway or Tesco would likely have all these items in one stop.  But part of the charm of city life is the Saturday morning hustle, almost a treasure hunt, a social routine, and a nice change of pace from the weekday workdays.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A billing question

I’m wrapping up a short contract job: it was pitched into my sweet spot, as the baseball analogy goes.  A bit of ECG signal processing: write a couple of algorithms, benchmark the performance, wrap it into a simulator and write a research report.

As Goldman Sachs says, every job is both a chance to make money and a chance to build relationships.   I brought in a couple of good people that I want to work with again, dividing the work between us.  The result has been gezellig: ‘nice to be coding and good to be working with sharp people.

So, here’s the question:  We are doing the work for a US company who will (hypothetically) pay us $10,000.  The three of us are dividing the work 4, 4, and 2; one partner is the US and the other two of us are in the Netherlands.

1) What is the most advantageous way to arrange the contracts, and 2) who must collect tax in their invoice?

1) I talked with my accountant, who suggests that the arrangement contract relationships is largely irrelevant.  So, I will be the lead contractor and the other two subcontract to me.

2) She further says that, with regard to taxes:

  -- I do not charge VAT on a US contract.

  -- The US subcontractor does not add VAT in billing me

  -- The Dutch subcontractor does add VAT when billing me, but I can claim it back.

I suspect that the US guy may have some local business tax as well – we’ll see.  And the lesson is to have good help before going into transnational business: it’s never simple, straightforward, or logical.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Righting the ship

Munch - The screamIt’s never easy to return to Maastricht after a couple of weeks away.  Inevitably, entropy sets in while I’m gone and there are maintenance tasks that need to be done to get everything running smoothly again.

This time, I returned to find the internet down, my bank inaccessible, and a broken generator on my bike lights.

I took advantage of a KPN offer over the holidays to update my communications to television, phone, and Internet for less than the cost of Internet, alone.  The upgrade took place while I was away, including activation of the new DSL box.  The problem was, the new box was delivered then returned because I wasn’t home.

KPN promised to send a new box to arrive Wednesday, two days later, but then delivered it to the bar next door when nobody answered my doorbell.  Once I discovered that and then spent a couple of hours installing cables and access codes, I was (finally) back online.

ING similarly promised to have my business Internet Banking online by the 15th, two months (!) after taking down my electronic payment services when they reconfigured.  The process required receiving two separate sheets of paper, one with access codes and another with an activation code to present to the bank.  I found one, but there was no tracking to help me find the other.

I asked the landlord to open the other mailboxes for the empty apartments in the building, and someone had tossed a pile of my mail in one of them.  Access codes surfaced, the bank flipped their switches, I completed the online procedures, and my accountant was (gratefully) paid.

The reliance on TNT mail delivery for these crucial connections is a real problem: mail carriers do their best, but behave in unpredictable ways and there’s no ‘plan B’ if they miss a connection.  In either case, it would have been more reliable for me to take my ID to the KPN and ING offices and pick up the items.  But neither company has a process that allows that.

It’s frustrating to resend things; it just replicates the problem using a system that has already failed.

It’s also exasperating that both companies change their access procedures on the assumption that the new credentials have arrived, rather than waiting for confirmation.

It all leads to a weird form of service lock-in: once things are running, I’m just try not to change anything, lest I kick off another month of disruptions.

Oh, and the generator.

In the Netherlands, it’s said that you should buy a lock worth at least as much as your bike.  So, fittingly, someone stole my lock last night but left the bike (the chain was on the back frame, unlocked, while I was in a store).

So, now I’m off to buy both a chain and a generator.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wednesday with Hemingway

Lost Generation   "You're an expatriate. You've lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see. You hang around caf├ęs."
- Chapter 12, The Sun Also Rises

Hemingway led the “Lost Generation”, a famous group of literary expatriates who colonized Paris and Spain between the wars.

What does it mean to be an expatriate in Hemingway's style?  Simply to drink the experience in great gulps?  Or is it just a search for meaning, away from an empty world with "all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken” (FS Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise)?

Is that excess even possible any more?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Inburgering Intake

Inburgeringscursus Nederlandse taal op schoolbord“You are obligated to appear",” began the letter from Gemeente Maastricht.  My Dutch friends raised an eyebrow, asking what I’d done.  Only inquire about entering the local Inburgering program: the provincial course in Dutch language and culture.

After four years in the Netherlands, this is arguably a late development.  But with the opportunity for permanent residency on offer this fall, it’s time to get the conversational Dutch up to my reading level (I think I’ve got the cultural bit under control).

So I cycled through the rain to my appointment with the local office at Werkplein, taking a seat among the mingling hopefuls filling the hall at Trefpunt Blauw. My name was called, off to the offices where my passport, residency card, driver’s license, work status, and (inevitably) health insurance card were checked and copied.  Then down to business: scheduling a language test, probably in a couple of weeks, followed by the course.

They drilled into the job a bit, reminding me that if I lost my job, I would have to do volunteer work so that I came into contact with Dutch speakers.  Since a) I work for myself, and b) I talk to myself, I think it’s unlikely (although neatly circular).

Hopefully it will be flexible to my schedule and located in Maastricht, not Heerlen.  They reminded me that the course would need to be successfully completed within 18 months, and  stressed that I was expected to do my best.

This last point seemed to be key: “Doing your best” was repeated several times, sometimes punctuated by “Finishing what you start”.

<sigh> If only they knew: those are my driving traits these days.

I promised, we signed a small contract, shook hands, and wished each other well.  Probably 15 minutes all told; not too challenging as a first step.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Then and now

Back in Maastricht: the waters are definitely down and the river back to it’s placid self.  Amazing that so much water rushed by for days on end just from snowmelt to the south.



Sunday, January 23, 2011

Waiting and going

Familiar to every cyclist in the Netherlands, these ‘Wait” signs guard every treacherous street crossing.  Once the crossing button is pushed, the lights count down the time until it’s safe to cross.  They don’t change in a regular fashion, but speed up and slow down the countdown based on moment-to-moment changes in traffic conditions.

I’m feeling a bit this way with trying to get these business deals closed this month.

I came back from the holidays with a determination to move both the fundraising and the acquisition activity to a close in January.  Events have moved at their own pace, though: some days the light is green and fast progress is possible; other days the Wacht signal is lit, and there’s nothing to do but wait for favorable conditions.

Time, though, has it’s cost: fixed overhead for housing, transportation, and communications.  It becomes a race for revenue against dwindling resources.

There have been days that it feels hopeless, immediately followed by days when things feel finished.  This back-and-forth is hard; I tend to be a person who puts the gears into Forward and presses the gas.  It’s a very human process, though, and one that just takes patience.

And Wacht-ing.