Friday, April 27, 2012

Once around Sint Pietersberg

maastricht_image3Maastricht sits astride the Maas river, as it has since Roman times.  The river has a shallow section in this area that supports a crossing, otherwise the town lies in a bowl (the Maasvallei) surrounded by (not very Dutch-like) hills.  And, to the southwest is a particular and prominent hill: St. Pietersberg.

On the surface, it’s famous for dominating, capped with Fort St. PieterThis structure, thick stone walls surrounded by a deep moat, dates back to 1700.  The French besieged the city from this hill (and others) in 1673, overwhelming the defenses in just three weeks.  After the Treaty of Nijmegen returned the city to the Dutch in 1678, the fort was constructed as a (very) forward defense and was a major part of the city’s fortifications throughout the wars against the French through the entire 1700’s.

In 1987, I visited Maastricht to interview for a job with Diva Medical, a startup creating wireless diabetes monitoring systems.  The company was lodged in a chateau donated by the city; engineers filled the turrets.  I was offered the position of Engineering Director and we visited a gourmet restaurant in the Fort, now long gone, to celebrate.  My son was due to be born in two months so I ultimately did not take the job, although it’s always been funny that life curled around to Maastricht again, decades later.


Today, there is a smaller cafĂ© alongside the fort with a (pay) entry to the limestone caves that honeycomb the hills.  These were used as refuges and hiding places through the ages, and tours are still given of the old storerooms and fortifications beneath.  A large quarry craters the far side of the hill, due to be fully closed in a few years and then restored to a more natural state.  Otherwise, the mountain is filled with forest and farmhouses, some converted to guest houses and offering wonderful views across the valley.


Further down the face of the hill is a former casino, now converted to the restaurant Buitengoed Slavante.  The enormous  terrace has wonderful views of the river and the city, a great place to sip coffee and swap stories after hiking over the hill.


And, coming back around the base towards the Fort, you pass Andre Rieu’s home (sadly, no sign of the famous musician, who’s been laid up with back problems lately).  There were, however, some lovely exotic pigs in the nearby fields, eager to roll over for a belly rub.

‘really a nice tour for a sunny weekend afternoon.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Verhoeven retrospective

Helen Verhoeven is a contemporary Dutch figurative painter and sculptor exploring themes of social order and vulnerability.  I’m sure that this is an oversimplification, and perhaps even misdirected, but these were the themes that seemed to link her works as we explored her retrospective exhibition at the Schunck in Heerlen last week.

The works fall into two broad categories.  The large paintings are strike me as more party scenes, described as Weimar-era burlesque, but which remind me of more Cabaret-style decadence.  The figures, as in Event One, are crudely indistinct, variously dressed, posed; naked,engaged, spread across the canvases, gazing outward frankly but not drawing viewers into the scene.  We debated whether this was style or symbol: I think she;s trying to say something, while others only saw balance of colours and composition.

Verhoeven 11Verhoeven 10

The more numerous categories was of women in various forms and poses.  Many were derivative representations of familiar works; most were naked.  The black and white ones, especially, evoked feelings of sadness or hopelessness among women in our group, while the men debated whether there was any erotic content.  I didn’t think so: the works certainly portray their subjects disconnected from their personalities.  They have crude attitudes rather than feelings, feelings implied in context without individual expression.

The long row of nudes painted on plexiglass, the high wall of black and white portraits, the table of heads, seem meant to be interpreted as aggregates rather than individuals.  In each, I could find one figure that I connected with, but never two.

Verhoeven 16Verhoeven 06

The works are not pleasant, but they are interesting.  Photos of the artist herself seem happy and relaxed, but she doesn’t seem comfortable in the themes she explores.  As art, I think it’s provocative but distant, inaccessible.

Hopefully, not meaningless.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Time to replace the car…

Two years ago, I gave in to necessity and leased a Ford Fiesta.  For the prior year 2009, I had geared around using bicycle, train, and the occasional rental car.  ‘Very green (okay, except for the 130,000 air miles, but that was business).  But by 2010  the ramp-up of my UK startup meant meetings and pitches. 

It meant a car.

I had to lower my sights from the sporty BMW / Peugeot coupes that I drove as a corporate expat (those were the days of unlimited miles with subsidized fuel) to something more praktisch.  Wil and I tried a lot of different models before I decided on the blue Fiesta, then we negotiated the lease vs. buy, personal vs. business thickets.

In the end, the lease ran about 350 euro /month, all inclusive, for car, maintenance, roadside assistance, insurance, and vehicle/road taxes,  It qualified for green tax credits and I got VAT returned; it sipped gas (initially).  The only unanticipated problem was that it takes months to deliver of a car in the Netherlands, forcing me to rent for two months.

The other problem was, well, it was a Fiesta.  Within two years, I promised myself, I will  be rich and back in a BMW.  Custom fiestaOr it will be a sure sign of failure.

My 2 year/30K per year lease runs out July 1.  I’m looking at another Fiesta.  Maybe, at least, something sportier?  -->

I actually like the car a lot.  It has all of the cool  media, voice, and backup sensor electronics, holds a surprising amount of cargo (but not a bicycle), and grips the road nicely in bad weather. One difficult blowout during a rainy night in Dover was swiftly and competently dealt with by LeasePlan.

So, I headed back to Jos Brogman to strike a deal on a replacement, this time allowing for two full months to delivery.

My old salesman had gone (He sells much nicer cars now, they assured me.  Lovely: at least one of us moved up), but the new fellow seemed young and earnest.   We got down to it.

The first offer for a lease was a third higher than the online offer, so now we got down to hard bargaining.

But the Dutch are ruthless negotiators.

The tax laws are changing June 1 so there is a rush on to get cars ahead of the deadline. A pitiful gambit: I’m not picky about colour.

I can give you a 16K euro car for 400 a month, or a 15K euro car for 410, he offered.  Doesn’t that seem backward?  Not if you consider residual value.

It turns itself off at stoplights to save fuel.  That is not actually a reassuring feature.

I told him I’d go think about it and come back tomorrow.  He told me it was his day off and we could talk Friday.

I hammered at the computer and he sent e- mails, as each of us countered with one final offer after another.

For three days we rocked the terms and options around until we both found a sweet spot.  For him, it’s about X-options and Titanium packages.  For me, it’s 2010 X Games, Los Angelesabout swallowing pride and getting a  fuel-efficient diesel.

For three years, this time.

Then the BMW.  Or a really tricked-out Fiezta.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Tulip fields in Lisse

We spent the day riding bikes through the tulip fields in Lisse, north near the Keukenhof Gardens, and enjoying the Bloemencorso Bollenstreek.  It was a cloudy day, not the best light for taking photographs, but the rain cleared in time for the flower parade.  Young and old filled the bands and floats; there were debates about the number and quality of this year’s displays compared to others.  But it was a nice community event: I wonder if it’s also the type that may not survive the passing of another generation.

  2012 Apr Lisse 14  2012 Apr Lisse 18  

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Why do career expatriates stay?

DSC09659I moved to the Netherlands in 2007, a corporate expatriate assignment for management and product development.  When it ended, I left the company, as many expatriates do: it’s one of the biggest problems with international human resource management.  Unlike most, I chose to remain overseas, setting up a new Dutch business and working on international opportunities to develop medical devices after the formal end of my assignment.

My reasons for staying were a mix of ambition, connection, life balance, and challenge.  I thought that they were likely unique: I knew a lot of people who stayed because they had married Dutch people or had put down roots during long-term assignments, but none who stayed for entrepreneurship. 

Why do people make the jump from short- to long-term expatriate careers?  Maria Crowley-Henry recently analyzed the issue in her paper Twenty-First Century International Careers: from Economic to Lifestyle Migration, focused on expatriate settled in France, but with conclusions that likely hold true more broadly.

She begins by noting that ”career” is a narrative, a continuous process of acquiring competence and recognition, used to create the next step into the future and further growth.  At one time, career progression was managed by companies, but employees now write their own stories.  They gain experience, they develop self-knowledge, leading to formation of an occupational identity grounded in their talents, needs, and values.  These identities could be, for example:

• technical/functional competence
• general managerial competence
• security/stability
• entrepreneurial creativity
• autonomy/independence
• service/dedication to a cause
• pure challenge
• lifestyle

Alongside self-managed career narratives and the opportunities created by globalization of products and labor.  “Mobile workers move up any ladder onto which they can get a foot,” she notes, creating boundaryless careers that do not evolve within a single organization or country.

All well and good.  But when a self-defining, mobile, boundaryless worker makes the transition to being a “bounded transnational”, what factors drive that choice?

The reasons were really interesting (I’ve put the number or respondents giving each reason alongside).

  • Cosmopolitan lifestyle:  Craving the admiring glances of contemporaries; wanting to be perceived well by others in having an exotic lifestyle or image. (9)
  • Redemptive lifestyle:  Wanting to escape the commute, the media, the drinking culture in the home country: choosing not to engage with negative aspects of their home country in the host environment. There is an element of rebirth, the ‘phoenix’, a new beginning in avoiding a self-destructive lifestyle; anti-‘rat race’. (4)
  • Proving self:  Wanting to be perceived by others as having made the right initial choice; not wanting to take a step back, pride. (3)
  • Fear of return: The home country that they left has changed and moved on; a feeling that they would no longer fit in there without the need for readjustment.  (2)
  • Relationships:  Relationships in the home and/or host country with significant others (parent, child, spouse), where the duty of care and other’s desires are taken into consideration. (16)
  • Life quality: Wanting to remain in order to enjoy the quality or balance of life on offer.  (18)
  • Home integration: Feeing more at home in host country than in home country.   (9)
  • Tough adjustment:  Not wanting to go through the adjustment / readjustment phase again.   (5)
  • Job satisfaction:  Having a job in the area, equivalent of which one might not get in their home country.  (2)

She concludes that, while economic factors may have brought people into expatriate assignments, lifestyle factors are the ones that cause them to settle down as permanent residents in their host countries.  These include

• the individual (unique characteristics of the person);
• the individual’s stakeholders (e.g. family);
• the job in question (tasks, rewards) and the work environment (colleagues, policies);
• host country elements (amenities on offer, weather, environment); and
• the wider society (socio-cultural factors, such as the extent of the multicultural community; labour laws, minimum wage, maternity benefit, etc.).

Broadly, it rings true for me: lifestyle is the largest factor: even the elements related to career are likely part of it.