Friday, March 30, 2012

"Oh Beautiful for Specious Claims"

In 2010, the United States passed, for the first time, a universal health care bill. Known as the Affordable Care Act (aka "individual mandate"), it basically stipulated that everybody in the US was required to have some kind of health insurance, and it reformed the insurance industry so that they couldn't refuse coverage for pre-existing conditions and pull some of the recission crap that they had been, as seen in Sicko. If you were too poor for it, you could get your insurance subsidized. It was, in other words, hardly extraordinary. It did not put the federal government in charge of the hospitals, as in a single-payer system. It left people able to make the decision to go without insurance (an extra tax would have been added to their tax forms) if they so chose. People in the Netherlands might recognize it as the Dutch system, and I'd venture to guess that most of them/us thinks it works quite well. Or at least, it's not terrible, and certainly better than having no system at all.

And for some reason, it's being seen as the worst thing to happen to the US healthcare "system". What there was of one, to begin with. It is now in danger of being deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

A bit of a primer on US politics for the internationals: Their are two systems at work in the US, the federal system, and the state system. States have jurisdiction over whatever goes on within their borders, and the federal government has jurisidiction over whatever concerns the nations as a whole (waging war and international trade, that sort of thing). What sounds cut-and-dry has been debated since the nation was conceived 223 years ago, with Gibbons v. Ogden as the first substantive case in which the federal government was granted authority over and above the state governments.

The main gist of the argument against "Obamacare", as the ACA is called, is that the federal government simply doesn't have the authority to mandate that individuals must buy insurance (what is erroneously viewed as a private product), never mind that hurricane insurance is mandatory in areas like Florida. People kvetch and moan about how stupid it is that they, who are perfectly healthy (until they're not) must subsidize the care for the fat, lazy, and diseased. They completely ignore the fact that people with insurance already subsidize the care for those without, in one of the most expensive, unfair ways possible.

But logic makes for a poor argument, at least when the Constitutionality of a matter is at stake. No--far more impressive is to worry about the federal government mandating that you eat broccoli, and death panels denying care to granny (like they already do--in Texas and Arizona, of all states, no less--but apparently if it's a state government doing this it's perfectly okay). Never mind that none of these have any basis in reality, nor are they within the scope of the ACA.

But perhaps most ironic of all, is that the ACA, which essentially puts into law the requirement that you be a good (Christian) person and help out your fellow man, is being attacked by the very same Christians who would require transvaginal ultrasounds for abortions(state-mandated rape) and permission notes for birth control. If it weren't so sad, it'd be funny.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


Where I live, there is a C1000, Coop, several tokos, a greengrocer, and an Albert Heijn XL within easy walking distance. Within easy biking distance is a Lidl, an EMTE, and the Dunya. If I feel really indulgent, the farmers' market comes to Nijmegen every Saturday, and two competing Turkish supermarkets duel for customers on my way back (the best feta I've ever had--and I don't even like feta--was Turkish). I've heard rumors that there's a Jumbo somewhere in the neighborhood as well, but I haven't encountered it in my five years of wandering.

Price-wise, the best deals are to be found at the C1000, hands-down, but as penny-savvy as the Dutch are, they all seem to prefer the Albert Heijn. The vast acreage of available parking probably has something to do with this (most of the immediate neighborhood walks to the C1000), as does the inclusion of a Blokker and a C&A (clothing superstore) in the same complex. But most people prefer the Albert Heijn because, I think, it's done the best job at fulfilling the needs of the Dutch consumer. And though they may not want to admit it, that need goes beyond merely having the lowest price.

Other supermarkets may have better-quality items, or lower-priced ones, and in fact, the Lidl-- bottom-of-the-barrel in terms of pricing--has the best produce at the lowest prices. But the Albert Heijn has escaped oblivion by consistently shooting for mid-range in both quality and price, and craftily pitching itself as quintessentially Dutch in a way that no other supermarket has succeeded in. That, and the free Allerhande and Wat handig (showcasing new kitchen gadgets and 1001 ways to simplify your life) are carefully written to make cooking easy and success virtually guaranteed.

I admit that, when I first moved here, I hated the Albert Heijn commercials, with Harry's slightly doltish pitch or the cartoon hamsters. They were annoying, and sometimes a tad bit racist in that awkward you-know-they're-not-trying-to-be-racist-but-oh-boy way. But after having lived here for what's now five years, I've come to appreciate, the cunning, non-threatening way that the Albert Heijn continually adapts new tactics and methods, while simultaneously positioning itself as a bastion of Dutch-ness. It makes me wish I could market half as well as they can..

Monday, March 26, 2012

Zoom zoom zoom

My opinion about cars--that they're expensive to keep and pointless in an urban environment with good public transit--has been validated. It would have been more interesting to see what the Millenials, as they are called in that article (I count myself slightly older, but Millenial-ish enough), have to say about not owning cars, but I do find it cute that GM thinks twenty-somethings watch MTV. Cute, and terribly misguided: it doesn't matter how cool the paint job is, at the end of the day, the damn car still costs half a year's salary for someone just starting out. And half a year's salary buys a lot of girls' nights out, karaoke--or day care.

On this side of the pond, cars tend to be smaller, and the possibility of getting a cheap, new car is far greater, as you have a lot more brands to choose from. Even the luxury cars (the sexy black Opels or the zippy Alfa Romeos) are not more than €30,000--the advertised prices say "starting at €25,000). The "starter" cars, which is what Karel would be getting if he were purchasing a new car (which he isn't), are a scant €6000, and most cars fall somewhere around €10,000 when new. Of course, you have a 14% sales tax that doesn't get factored into the advertised price, plus a "road use" tax depending on the size of your car, plus a tax you pay for the emissions, plus...well, you get the idea. Many Dutch people actually go over the border to buy their cars, thus avoiding the 14% tax, though when they bring it back to the Netherlands, registering it kicks all of the other taxes into motion. Gotta love the one-currency economy.

But Karel is set on getting a car this year, despite the astronomical--even by Dutch standards--gas prices (currently at around €1.80/liter). And I can't say "no" to his wanting to cut his commute time in half. Nor can I argue with the fact that dragging a little bambino on the train is a bad idea. Nor can I argue with the appeal of a long weekend in Luxemburg.

Even so, it is a significant purchase for us, and I completely understand the trepidation Millenials feel at the thought of committing to what must seem like a lifetime of payments--for maintenance, for gas, for insurance (which we also have to pay for, on top of the taxes mentioned above)--when they're already in indentured servitude for their student loans. At this point, it's more of a necessary evil than a burning desire.

People used to buy cars because it cemented their status--as cool kids, as grown ups, as whatever was "in" at the moment. Now, people buy cars because they have to--because status these days is owning an iPhone, writing with fountain pens, and shopping at farmers' markets. Cars, for all the auto industry's progress (or lack) in cutting emissions and becoming more fuel-efficient, are simply at odds with what's cool.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Taxes: You're Doing Them Wrong

Now that I've officially begun as a freelancer (photography is but a subset of what I do--the main bread-and-butter operation is copyediting), I enter the world of Dutch tax forms and all their insane, crazy, and confusing glory.

Oh. Sorry. My apologies to the Netherlands. I meant US tax forms.

Something that I never did truly appreciate up until now was how simple Dutch tax forms are to fill out. At the end of the year, most people receive a jaaropgaaf from their place of employment, which contains just four numbers. When you do your taxes in the Netherlands, you basically match up the four numbers on the forms with the four names on the online form, and (assuming you haven't made any significant investments or bought a house or had a baby) click through the entire form in about 10 minutes. If you have made significant investments/bought a house/had a baby, clicking on the box next to the scenario leads to a drop-down menu, in which you can enter in relevant data. What you do need is a working DigiD account to complete the form (it's sort of like the electronic PIN you get when you take out money for your student loans), but even that's relatively simple to arrange.

As a small business owner, though, perhaps the nicest part of doing taxes is that the Belastingdienst has made every effort to simplify the tax forms I need to fill out, to the point where, even though I don't know what half of the words mean, I can still enter in the right numbers (mostly--adding and subtracting have always been a bit iffy). And furthermore, rather than putting any onus on me to look up the right form to fill out, the Belastingdienst sent me the form, with directions, and a self-addressed envelope. It was mind-bogglingly-simple, so much so that I felt sure that in my mess of papers (looking up receipts and all makes everything a bit messy) some monster tax form was about to rear its ugly head.

Contrast this with the US: when you go on the IRS website, the section on internationals gives you a screen filled with small type, most of it highly legal-esque. Do I qualify for this exemption? Do I have to fill out that form? Clicking on the forms leads to a PDF rather than an explanation. The PDF, granted, does have an explanation: "Fill this form out if you meet conditions A, B, C, D, but not if you meet conditions E, F, G, H." It's positively Vogon-ish, compared to the simplicity of the Dutch system.

And then there's the fact that if you don't have a W2 ( = jaaropgaaf, but with more blocks and inked in bright red), you can't use the relatively simple online software to zip through your taxes. The Dutch government gets around this by (sensibly) not requiring citizens living abroad to contribute to its coffers. The US government is the only industrialized nation that requires its citizens to keep paying income taxes even though there really is no way to do it properly once you leave the land of the "free" (used ironically, as I am a woman and the uses of my uterus can be legislated by creepy white guys). Up until now, when I had been a regular working stiff, things were relatively simple, but now that I'm a small business owner (even if it goes belly-up) it gets infinitely more complicated. I'm sort-of-jokingly-considering renouncing my US citizenship, just so I won't have to deal with the IRS. Several millionaire expats have done just that, actually, since their tax burden has gotten too onerous to bear. Happily, my income falls well short of that bracket, but there's still the question of whether I can do my own taxes correctly.

Is it the government's responsibility to make things easy? I don't know, and given the vitriolic tone of recent US politics, I don't particularly care to venture an opinion. But what I will say is this: if you make it look easier, people are certainly more willing to try, and more likely to succeed. I think the Dutch government got it right: you shouldn't need an accounting degree to do your taxes properly, which is something that seems to have escaped the IRS.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Word

I've commented several times on what I perceived as "the Dutch hive mind", and although I meant it largely in jest, the fact is that conformity is a valued commodity in the society here. You must be, in other words, appropriately fatsoenlijk in order to fit in.

Like zuinig or ouderwets , there is more to fatsoenlijk than meets the eye. It carries with it not only the definition of conformity, but also an extra dimension of propriety, and extra bit of "Dutchness". Anybody can offer their guest only one cookie, but it takes someone with an extra bit of fatsoenlijkheid to make the guest feel guilty about thinking of asking for a second.

Despite our relative non-conformity, though, if you live someplace long enough, something will eventually get to you. Part of redoing our apartment involved making new curtains for the small window on the side of the apartment, and I'd always envisioned a pretty, lacy inner curtain that could be drawn to reduce the sun glare in the afternoons, but still light enough to let the light through, with an opaque layer over that in case we wanted privacy in the evenings. About five hours' worth of sewing later, I assembled the curtains (Karel tacked up the hardware) and was quite pleased with the result.

At least, I was, before Karel told me the whole thing was oubollig, a word that means both fatsoenlijk and ouderwets. I still like the arrangement--the colors fit the decor and the lacy fabric is pretty and I put far too much work into the whole thing to just take it down--but I must confess that I am a bit peeved at myself: maintaining one's individuality is apparently much more difficult than I'd thought. But I suppose I could always blame the hormones.

Monday, March 19, 2012

So Much for Plan A

Believe me, I had a post idea all ready to go last week. I was turning over the picture I wanted to use, and then...well...I discovered I'm pregnant.

Needless to say, this was unexpected.

Now, don't worry, I have no intention of turning this into a one of those mommy-blogs. Still, you don't get this kind of news without reshuffling your priorities a bit. And right now, our main priority is redoing the apartment. Like, before I turn into a bloated whale and can't see my toes. We have a ton of little projects that we need to take care of before we can even begin to look into baby things, and in the meantime I have to fend off both impending (well-intentioned and certainly loving, but exasperating nonetheless) grandmothers.

There are a few things they never tell you about being pregnant. Yeah, morning sickness and exhaustion and hormones blah blah blah. But the part that's been giving me the most trouble, actually, is how spaced out I am ALL THE TIME. It's like always smoking a joint. I blink and I forget what I'm doing, where I'm going, why I'm there. And although I mean it literally, it's weird, how suddenly a "Little It" (as we've been calling the tiny embryonic fish-thing) can make you completely reassess what you're doing, where you're going, and why you've been put on this earth.

Monday, March 12, 2012

"If I were green I would die"

Mojo is back...

One of the hardest things to get used to about living in the Netherlands (and, I suspect, the Catholic countries) is the blue laws--the fact that everything closes on Sunday. Need a plumber? Go find the nearest patch of woods. Forgot noodles? Rice should work just as well...I think. There are a few exceptions to this: the supermarkets do tend to be open for a few select hours on Sunday now, and of course the NS and buses keep running with slightly reduced schedules (though I would recommend checking the website very carefully before travelling on Sunday--that's when the majority of maintenance happens). Museums and zoos are also open, and of course the cafes are always angling for extra business. Depending on which city you're in, you might be lucky enough to have an open library on Sunday. But by and large, if you come from a country where shopping is a legitimate Sunday afternoon activity, the mass closure of stores on Sunday can be a bit of a shock.

I'm sure other expat bloggers have written about culinary adventures that come about when you suddenly find yourself halfway through a cheese sauce and discover there's no cheese in the fridge (not that I recommend making a cheese sauce with Gouda, unless your boyfriend likes that sort of thing). But besides having learned how to deal with such setbacks--by having a freezer full of kroketten and buns--one must wonder: just what, exactly, do the Dutch do on Sundays?

If the weather is nice--if the sun is shining and not a drop of rain is in the forecast--then they lace up their walking shoes and wandelen. A few crazy sods drag out their mountain bikes and don the full Spandex regalia. Wandelen is not quite hiking--though there are some hills in this country, the terrain isn't nearly so rugged, and the paths are quite easy to follow. You have to work hard to sprain an ankle, and there's always a small cafe somewhere nearby. But it's not a stroll around the block, either, as you're in the middle of the woods/heather patch and the only sign of civilization is the whisper of a distant train. That being said, it is difficult to get too lost, and in any event, cell phone coverage is universal.

It's hard to pinpoint the Dutch attitude towards wandelen; they approach the activity with too much intensity for just enjoying nature, but not quite enough effort to qualify it for fitnessen (what you do at the gym). Unless there are small children around, they stomp away with a purpose, but the end they pursue is a mystery. Perhaps it is to burn off enough calories to justify the beer at the cafe. Or perhaps there is a collective subconscious effort to flatten out the hills even more. Or perhaps they don't quite understand how to enjoy the sunlight. God knows, it's a rare sight in the Netherlands.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


Because even I run out of ideas every once in a while...

But mainly because I'm mentally preoccupied with stuff. Little things, mostly. Buying birthday presents for our niece. Setting up the secretaire. Working up to a full 10K (and not getting lost in the woods). Starting my work/job hunt. Y'know, stuff.

And...well, I think it might be time to call an end to OLI. This is by no means certain, and if I start posting again in a week or two it means I've gotten my mojo back. But reading my old posts reveals just how much things have changed in three yearsa, and more and more, it feels like I'm inside, looking out.