Sunday, August 28, 2011

Bank account, finally opened!

Opening a bank account was probably the biggest piece of culture shock for me here. First, as I've mentioned earlier, it's almost impossible to open a bank account in NL without a social security number (which I don't need for my short stay here). However, that makes it hard for me to pay my rent, since it's equally hard for me to setup foreign wires from the US while I'm here.

Luckily, the SSN only a Dutch bank regulation, and Belgium (only 1 hr by train, and one of my assigned sites), gladly welcomes your money if you're non-resident. And, Belgium cards work in the Netherlands! And everything can be done online. So much for laws... and ironically, my account is opened at the Belgian branch of a Dutch bank (ING).

Opening an account is a lot of work though. I started the process on Aug 5, and finally got my cards on the 26th.

1. You have to setup an appointment (!!) with the bank, can't just walk-in to open an account.

2. At my appointment, be prepared to bring a lot of paperwork: passport, employment contract (proving that you don't officially work in Belgium and not subject to Belgian tax), business cards (in case the employment contract wasn't enough), and proof that you are non-resident (ie, live outside of Belgium).

3. Even after all that, your account isn't immediately opened. Somebody has to REVIEW your paperwork, then they'll notify you that an account has been opened. (this took 1 week)

4. Your ATM card isn't issued immediately, it's shipped to the bank, and you need to go there to pick it up!

5. To use online banking, you need to get a special "card reader" (see photo), which supposedly makes your online banking more secure, but in reality, just makes it more troublesome to use. Whenever you login to online banking, you insert your card into the "card reader", it'll generate a one-time code, which you enter into the website. Similar authentication is used when you make online payments, you type a code from the website into the "reader", and it responds back with a number, which you re-type back into the website. Sounds like an RSA secureID, but more clunky. This "card reader" is also specially shipped to your bank, luckily, my branch already had one, so I didn't have to wait again for this.

Although it was painful, it's finally nice to have a local account, makes it easier, since some ticket machines here only take Euro Maestro (Mastercard affliate) cards, so none of my US cards work. That's really inconvenient, esp when you can't quickly get a ticket for a train departing in a few minutes from the machine, and there's a long line at the ticket counter...

There are some good parts though: I withdraw from ANY ATM in Europe (not just my bank's ATM) for no cost. (much better than the US system where I have to pay to withdraw my own money from other bank's ATMs.... these fees are a pure profit center for a bank). And most importantly, I can finally make my rent payments online instead of doing wires from the US!

One more interesting twist: when signing up for an account, you get your own bankier. Strangely, even if you have any questions or issues, you're supposed to only setup an appointment with your bankier. It seems so quaint, I've never had a single person to go to for US banks in the past, and especially now, when all my banking is online.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Shopping is tough!

I'm sure many of you have had that experience of going into a new grocery store in a new city, not knowing where anything is, and spending lots of time in the store trying to find all your things.

Well - that's my experience every time I go shopping! First, I don't know where anything is, Second, everything is in Dutch, so it takes longer for me to figure out if I'm buying the right thing, especially for speciality items.

Like today - my goal was to buy shampoo (easy), and rubbing alcohol (hard). The rubbing alcohol was for my computer... I had spilled coffee all over my Thinkpad keyboard during a sleep study. Luckily, the Thinkpads are really tough - the coffee didn't damage the computer, but made the keys super sticky. Luckily, there are YouTube videos on how to clean the keys, using alcohol.

So I go to the drugstore, and start looking around. While I entered, I found 3 Chinese students who were also equally confused. Hilarious scene... 4 foreigners all really confused in the drugstore. I was trying to figure out if brandspiritus (95% ethanol) for EUR0.85 or alcohol ketonatus 96% (EUR2.50) was the same as isopropyl alcohol. Google translate on my phone didn't help either.. then I had an idea. Just smell it! brandspiritus definitely wasn't isopropyl alcohol... wish I had figured that out instead of trying to figure out the labels.

While I was searching, one of the Chinese guys came up to me, said hello in Chinese, and we started chatting a bit. It was s nice to find somebody else who is equally confused.. This guy was looking for face soap, and didn't know where to look. So, I tried to help, but it was really like 3 blind mice! must have been hilarious for the staff to watch. In the end, after a lot of searching, I found the soap... in two different places!

I think I lost over an hour in that shop trying to figure where things were at, and it wasn't a big shop!

Repeat that with the new grocery store I tried, and it made for a long (but entertaining) afternoon.

More great stories to come, including:

  • my new apartment
  • bike locks
  • toilets
  • how to buy beer if you want only 1 bottle...
Update: Now that I think more about it, brandspiritus is probably something for burning (wicker candles?), since brand = burning.... it would also explain why it was in a huge bottle vs. the smaller bottle for rubbing alcohol...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Already famous

Just a quick funny post for today, seems like that I'm already well-known by my Dutch ENT colleagues. When I was first introduced to some of them, they they found a video dedicated to me on Youtube.... (for those of you who haven't heard about this yet...)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Going Dutch - more details

Seems like a bunch of you really enjoyed this last post. So - I decided to post a map to give you a sense of how it can be truly faster by bike than even tram.

From Sint Lucas Andreas hospital to Rembrandtplein is about 5km (~3 miles). Public transit time estimates 30 minutes for that ride!

And from the map, you can get a sense of how small Amsterdam truly is. The hospital is on the far eastern edge of the city, while the Rembrandtplein is just a bit east of the Center...

It's amazing, that even a bike could beat public transit!

View Larger Map

Monday, August 15, 2011

Going Dutch

As anyone that's visited Amterdam knows, bicycles are completely everywhere. Not until last week Friday did I totally understand how much you could do with a bicycle!

I decided to have dinner with one of our colleagues in the hospital, and the restaurant we were going to across the city. She had a bike, and I had arrived by tram. No problem, I thought, I'll just take the tram and meet at the restaurant.

Instead, I was offered a ride on the back of a bike, side-saddle style. You know, like what you see in the old 50's movies, or when travelling in Vietnam, one person pedalling, and the other riding off the back of the bike, with both legs on one side.

Really, I thought? Is it really possible? Our colleague, she said "yeah, it's the fastest way. People do it all the time". Here's when I realized I was up for a real cultural experience.

First - it's really tough to hop onto the back of a bike when both you and the bike need to be moving at some speed. That takes a bit of finesse. Not only that, there's not exactly a lot to hold onto on the back of the bike.

Second - it's kinda scary! like 3rd world scary! Dutch bikers are super aggressive, so I had cars passsing me on the side, the bike passing very closely to parked cars, other bikes overtaking us within what felt like inches! I would have been more afraid if I was actually facing towards the street instead of facing the sidewalk (ie, my legs were hanging off the right side of the bike, and bikes ride on the right side of the street)

In all though, it was a completely hilarious experience. After a couple of times, I mastered the technique of hopping onto the back of the bike quickly, and efficiently, and mastered hopping off when we came to a "red light" or street crossing. And, looking at the map, it's really amazing the progress that we made across the city. And as my friend pointed out, bikes are the most efficient way to cover the city!

She gave the following true example: a taxi from central station to home is about 20 mins and costs EUR25. A tram takes about 15 mins, and it's maybe EUR2-3, but a bike, takes 10 mins, and it's free!

Maybe I need to find a way to lease/rent a bike for my time here?

Image credits:

Saturday, August 06, 2011

A bottle or can? (een flas of blikje?)

Past week has been super busy, and even though I don't have an apartment just yet, my co-worker based in Antwerp has just returned to the US, and luckily, I can stay in his place. It's so much better to be in a house than the tiny hotel room I've been using. Plus I don't have to pay EUR10 a day for wifi, and I get a kitchen where I can cook something. (not that Belgian/Dutch food is bad, but it's nice to have something simple)

Testing the use of my language skills can be hard, especially when you're understanding more written words, but understanding spoken words is hit/miss. I had a great experience today while getting lunch at the Panos Panini shop. Decided to try to speak "only Dutch", regardless if I get in trouble or not. Luckily it's a slow day this weekend in the shops..Here's the hilarious conversation (and for me to remember my new words from today):

Kent: Can I order a prosciutto panini? (Kan ik een prosciutto panini neemen?)
Host: Is that for here or to go?
Kent: For here, and also an ice tea (voor hier, en ook een ice tea)
Host: You want the bottle or the can? (these were words I didn't know.. it was like you want the or the , where x and y are unknown)
Kent: Uh, I want the carbonated one (met gaz)
Host: (sooo graciously patient, and not switching to English, goes over to the fridge): We have a bottle (raising the bottle) or a can (raising the can) (een flas of een blikje?)
Kent: Ooooh!! I'll take the smaller one (but not knowing the correct word for 'can') - (de klein..)

then.. after I finish my lunch, I asked:

Kent: How do you say "this" (raising my can) in Dutch?
Host: Een blikje... (a can)
Kent: "Blikje?"
Host: Ja, blikje

Whoever you were, thanks for speaking slowly, being patient, not switching to English, and helping me learn! I'll never forget what is een blikje.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Newcomers / Nieuwkomers

Newcomers / Nieuwkomers

Past few days have been interesting, trying to arrange for housing and a bank account. I really have a better appreciation now for international students who arrive in the US who try to get all these things done.

Househunting was fairly straightforward, given the rental agency recommendation from a INSEAD colleague (that network is SO helpful), and I may have found a place. One amusing thing happened while apt hunting, where I stopped into a shop to buy a bottle of water. I went to the register, and the guy said in Dutch what I thought was "seven", and I was really confused, seven? seven Euros for a bottle of water? (mind you, I was jetlagged but awake).. and I thought, OK, I'll put out EUR7. I first started with the EUR2 coin, and was about to pull a EUR5 note, but then he just took it and gave me back EUR1.30. My rental agent laughed, and said to the shopkeeper: "nieuwkomers", which I was obviously one. Note: do people in NL say seven to mean seventy? How do you know when it's just seven or seventy? Just like how in Chinese you'd say 1 dollar, 4, meaning 1 dollar, 40 cents?

Anyhow, one task checked off the list.

However.. step 2, opening a bank account has proven to be more difficult. You'd think that a bank in NL would be more than happy to have your money, even the ones like Rabobank or ING, which were bailed out in the crisis. But no.. this turned into a really complicated case. First, every bank insisted that I needed a social security number to open, even though I had read accounts of people opening a non-resident account. I mean, I'm sure there are wealthy Russians, Indonesians, or other people coming into open accounts in the Netherlands with their overseas money. Even ABN-Amro advertises a non-resident account (but with a EUR20k minimum!) But getting a social security number is not easy - you have to prove that you have a work visa, a resident permit etc... but that not required for people who are here on short stays. Argh - seems like I just fell into a loophole in government policy. I'm sure that banks are checking social security numbers to avoid terrorist groups opening a bank account, etc, but I don't think I fit that profile. Please - take my money! You're a bank!

oh well - when frustrated, you just have to laugh. Just like a t-shirt I saw yesterday at a shop for baby clothes... the shirt said: "BABY GENIUS", and underneath it, was the text: "q t (pi)", as in the symbol for "pi". Hilarious!