Saturday, September 14, 2013

Zaterdag, Maastricht

DSC09791Today’s the last full day in Maastricht for a while, organizing and packing against autumn temperatures and blowing rains.  I’m shifting back to Cambridge after a three week absence to open CamStent’s clinical trials and fundraising, then close out the Barrington apartment on the 30th. 

I don’t like moving (ik hou niet van verhuizen), especially given the recent difficult circumstances.  But a substantial amount is already packed and there’s a good future coming together on the southern UK coast.  So I’m keeping a generally positive outlook.

DSC00040 (1200x900)In the wake of our successful day in court, I celebrated by (finally) getting a television for the apartment.  My son laughs (anything less than 80” isn’t a real television to him) but 81 cm tucks nicely into the bookcase niche and fits the room.  DSC00044 (1153x1200)I also hooked in the new Chromecast, freshly arrived from the US, and gave the system an “All Anouk” YouTube test run. 

It all really works great: the direct connection to the Internet, controlled from the PC, works seamlessly.  With both US and UK proxies, I am a master of global media.

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DSC09946 (1200x840)Europeans sleep ‘commando’: beds have a bottom sheet and a duvet with cover, but no top sheet.  In hot weather, this gets uncomfortable.  Further, my fitted sheet never really fit and, frankly, it’s time for some color against the grey autumn skies.  So, it was time to head to V&D with my measurements and the magic word laken at the ready.

But the bedding aisles turned out to be a maze of choices, each package (not so) helpfully filled with arrows and bullets,  illustrated with outlines of bodies and beds.

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After a few stumbles, I enlisted several knowing vrouwen and was soon fully mentored in the proper approach.

I needed a hoeslaken (fitted sheet) above a molton (mattress cover), then a topper (the top sheet) and matching dekbedovertrek (duvet cover) and kussenslopen (pillowcase).   They should all be katoen (cotton), strijkvrij (no-iron), and in the correct size (25 cm overhang).

It was not a quick shop.  But I did have an adventure to talk about in Dutch class.

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Saturday was also Open House for various Maastricht city museums.  Historically, I would have tried to see four or more. My reformed self settled for one: the Keizer Bierbouwerij in the Wyck.  It turned out to be a very good (Dutch) tour through the old brewmaster’s residence.

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The walls were simple, the ceilings high, the stairs steep and narrow as with  most older architecture.  But the rooms were filled with everyday items belonging to the family and nicely evoked the life that they led.  the upstairs slaapkamer and eetzaal were my favorites, lovely blue porcelain and a very sturdy bed that looked way to short for most Dutchmen I know.

Friday, September 13, 2013

My day in Dutch court (2)

DSC00036 (900x1200)The hearing room was familiar: a desk at the front for the judge and the clerk, two tables for the opposing sides, facing the judge, and seating for others in the back.  I sat between Hans and my translator, introductions were made.  I thought that I might need to proven my identity, but nobody asked for passport or ID.   There was a preliminary motion to dismiss our exhibits, which the judge set aside before motioning for Hans to begin.

Arguments are presented in a formal written outline which is read by the seated attorney.  Everyone else follows along with their copies of the text.   The translator whispered into my ear as Hans proceeded; I knew the arguments by heart and could read the Dutch but it was good to have the confirmation in the background.  The judge asked, in curiosity, what my company was building, and took the answer in English.

DSC00037 (1200x895)The opposing counsel then offered their brief and began by questioning whether the court had jurisdiction, since I was a US citizen bringing an action against a US company.  Since my company and subcontractors were Dutch, the judge asserted that he did have authority.  The translator interrupted to ask if the counsel could  speak a bitt more lowly so that he could keep up.  The opposing lawyer went though his arguments, the judge asked occasional questions or made comments.  At the conclusion, Hans was given a chance to respond and there was back and forth debate about several points and closer inspection of some exhibits.

I was impressed with the procedure.  The judge listened well, asked good pointed questions, and cut through the smoke with a simple clarifying observation on several occasions.  When the US folks asserted that the money was a loan and not a payable, for example, he noted that it would need to be repaid in either case. 

Sometimes, Dutch bluntness is good.

DSC00038 (1200x878)After about an hour, the judge said that he was ready to give me the last word.  I was surprised, but said that it was a simple debt, that I had made sure that my Dutch subcontractors were taken care of, and that I simply wanted what was owed to my business.  He nodded and said that he was ready to rule.

The conclusion was two-fold.  First, he was going to give everyone one week to put a negotiated solution together that he would give the “King’s Stamp”, binding on all of us.  If that couldn’t be done, then he would render a verdict.

It was a very practical outcome, and I think that we had a good day in court, potentially bringing things closer to a favorable outcome. 

We’ll see what the coming days bring.  But, as I commented to a good friend, both of my companies now feel like they will survive and have a future.

Which means, finally, so do I.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

My day in Dutch court (1)

DSC00034 (1200x899)I suppose that it’s something of a milestone as an expat to be bringing an action in Dutch court against an American company.  Not what I wanted to be doing, but as a business owner, I have to run my business.

‘even if it means a day in the Rechtbank.

A bit of background: My company, Stone Bridge Biomedical BV, has been directing work for a US company among Dutch and US subcontractors.  When the US company ran out of money, we waited a month, then suspended work here.  Still, there were lagging costs in shutting everyone down that now total over half a million dollars.  I’ve used my company’s resources and took additional bridge loans to cover the bills, but after six months with no resolution have needed to initiate collection proceedings in the Netherlands.

Hans BosThe Writ of Summons went out in August, and the court date was today: I retained an Amsterdam attorney, Hans Bos, recommended by my accountants.  The US folks announced that they would appear in Limburg to contest the action, so the work and expenses ratcheted up for us both.  Hans and I spent the week combing emails and documents to prepare simple Pleitnotities and Exhibits for the court, anticipating arguments that the other side could make.

The courthouse lies just outside of Maastricht: I put on my suit, rattled over on my bike, and passed through security for the 11:30 am hearing.  There is a large central atrium with benches where clients sit with their lawyers, conferring.  Dozens of Zittenzaal (hearing rooms) surround the space, incongruously adorned with original art of the King and Queen (for sale).  Hans arrived and checked out his robe from the desk and asked about my translator.  Dutch lawyers Dutch lawyerappear in court wearing a simple black robe with a band, a precursor of the necktie consisting of two pleated white panels.  The judge wears a similar band, but over a fancier robe.

We reviewed the pleading and exhibits, Hans introduced himself to the opposing counsel, and my translator arrived (in a black t-shirt).  We reviewed court etiquette (Stay seated, address the judge as “Your Honor”, keep answers short and to the point), the order of events and circumstances where I could confer with Hans or needed to answer the judge directly.  It all seemed similar to US procedures (consistent with traffic court and television dramas, at least).

At 11:45, they announced our case and room and off we went.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Difficult choices

DSC00029 (1165x1200)I was sitting at my computer this afternoon, a page of notes to one side, an open calendar to the other, Skype headphones on, sorting through dates with my UK microbiologist.  Material samples being prepared by a university group weren’t drying as fast as expected so delivery would be delayed. This collided with a hard deadline for starting experiments at a testing lab: no samples by Tuesday morning, no start until the following Tuesday.

We discussed our options: could we pick up samples from Nottingham on Monday morning, drive them down to Portsmouth for delivery before 5 pm.  200 miles, four hours driving, one way.

And I needed to be in London for a meeting with investors on Tuesday morning, Southampton for a clinical trial discussion on Wednesday, Maastricht Saturday for a friend’s 60th birthday…lines on the map criss-crossed and blurred.

Déjà vu all over again, trying to do it all? 

Or just difficult choices, waiting to be made?

I took a time out for a think. 

After the crash in June, I realized that my ‘portfolio lifestyle’ could not work.  There needed to be focus, choices, commitments.  Some things would be let go or handed to others.  There would be balans en grenz around business and not-business time, living spaces would be consolidated, there would be a priority on relationships. I would stabilize the businesses, simplify my management of them, reduce expenses, sort the visa, and more, month by month.

It couldn’t be done overnight, but over the months life would change to something sane.

Fundamentally, I remain entrepreneur, expat, and partner.  I can build a successful business making products that help people and that give back to employees, investors, and the community.  I shall travel and understand places and people, enjoy conversations in cafe’s and excitement DSC00033in festivals.  I will share laughter, insight, love in a close relationship.  Those three things in my life are important, non-negotiable: they are all things that I commit to, work hard at, and take deep pleasure in.

But fears slither into that straightforward paradise.

These are three difficult things individually to sustain; each needs a large commitment of time and resources. Together, they may still be too difficult.

In the short term, the businesses need to be stable, because the expat life is impossible if they fail.

In the long term, only relationships matter, more than any business or place.

I can’t simply mashed the two together into a frenetic on-road life.  It works intermittently,  but is no fun for anyone full-time.  

The alternative, mixing the two with half away and half at home, has also proven spectacularly unsuccessful: both get neglected half the time when life is partitioned.

I have to admit that no matter how attractive the opportunity to live abroad and build a business looks, the reality is messy and stressy.  My reactive pace and footloose flexibility is hard to reconcile with taking dedicated, slow time for enjoying extended family and leisure pursuits together.

It’s a short-term spiral with long-term consequences.  I fear the anger, failure, loss, abandonment that may result.  Worse, I likely create those same fears in those close to me.

I’m left wondering whether the life I want is a life that is too difficult to others, perhaps even for myself, to live with.

I look again at the calendar, the maps, the tasks. 

So, which takes priority today?  Should one be allowed to take away from the other now?

Give in to the mess and do what needs to be done, one more time? 

Draw a line and acknowledge that change has to start somewhere, here, now?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Aspriational reading

DSC09796A week’s travel doesn’t make life much easier, but it is a good chance to catch up on reading.  The news has gotten somewhat depressing of late: the Americans are beating war drums again and the British are in an angry mood debating it.   There isn’t much tech news; and  now even the travel recommendations seem sparse.

So, ‘time to turn to the Management / Leadership section for some long-form self-help.

DSC09792“The biggest problem in the business world is ‘too much’ — too many distractions and interruptions, too many things done for the sake of form, and altogether too much busy-ness,” notes the Economist.   Remarkably, they cite vergaderziekte, a Dutch phrase for “meeting-sickness”  as another consequence of our over-rushed lives.  I sympathize:  One of my biggest issues with corporate was how others could grab control of my days through Calendar.  Skype can be almost as intrusive (berichteziekte?).

The essayist’s solution is “leaning back”, doing less, thinking more.  He suggests more time looking out the window, or making a “stop doing list” as the answer?  Certainly leaving voids in the day and enforcing a ‘tea break’ for reflection is important: either 15-30 minutes centered-relaxation or free-association according to another author.

Or maybe a few eye’s-closed minutes with Dutch singer Anouk drifting through her ballads and practicing my luisteren skills.

“Creative people’s most important resource is their time—particularly big chunks of uninterrupted time—and their biggest enemies are those who try to nibble away at it.”

DSC09799Flybe’s  in-flight business magazine offers seven keys to “Edge Leadership”, mostly pabulum, but I liked#2:  The ability to have difficult conversations.  I struggle with angry, unreasonable, and vindictive people and situations that overwhelm my usual rational fairness.  I’m reading psychologist Mark Goulston, who offers a lot of practical tips.

Mastering Difficult People is a delight:  How to keep an emotional distance from life’s takers, bullies and whiners who think the cheating world owes them something.  He offers a variety of disengage / respond techniques that help avoid the strong emotions that difficult people try to evoke in others.

How to Listen When Someone is Venting is similarly specific.  Asking three key questions, What are you (most frustrated / most angry / most worried) about?  are good advice for self-reflection as well as for getting through to others under stress.

DSC09794On the lighter side, I really enjoyed Sarah Lyall’s repatriation story Ta-Ta London. Hello Awesome.  She reflects both on the enduring characteristics of  peoples and changes in their circumstances on both sides of the Atlantic.  There may come a time when I must repatriate, and I hope  that I do it with as much insight and grace.

I visited my immigration lawyers today to assure that it didn’t happen as a simple consequence of turning 60.  No worries, and they think they can convert my 1-year visa to a 5-year. 

It would be ironic if I pass 65, the age limit for requiring language proficiency before I can actually pass the language exam.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Het Parcours

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The Theater Season begins in Maastricht with the citywide celebration of Parcours, a trail of performances and concerts through the old city core.  Art installations dotted the Vrijthof  and jazz ensembles crowded into the alleyways.  It was a warm and sunny day, perfect for strolling and stopping.

My favorites were three gigantic prehistoric birds that bobbed along the roads, a weird piece of performance art piece involving a man, a woman, and a boat in the Stadspark pond, and the precision dance Entusiasta Bateria that took over the Jekerkwartier.

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And, of course, the little robot that cruised around town painting messages along every street.

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