Friday, December 24, 2004

Week 31 – Prettige Kerstdagen en een Gelukkig Nieuwjaar

Well, the Christmas meal on Saturday went really well, and I found Utrecht to be quite a bustling town with a lot of life in it (and a fish market, of course). The rail station is in the centre of a shopping mall, much like Birmingham New Street, but it’s enormous – it took me over ten minutes to find my way out, because the complex contains shops, restaurants, a museum and a music academy, and has about twelve exits to different areas of the town. Utrecht is pretty much the hub of the Netherlands, because all the routes across the country intersect there, and for that reason it is the biggest station in the country (17 platforms). Anyway, I got to the Florin pub at 6:30pm (from a photocopy of a blurred downloaded map fragment, quite pleased with myself there) and was faced with the problem that I didn’t recognise anybody in the place; although this was aggravated by the fact that nobody else was there at that point. Fortunately, when the rest of the party did arrive, they recognised me (from my picture on the intranet, apparently, and not simply because I was the only pony-tailed, be-spectacled person in the pub), and so Phil, Gill, Jeff, Fiona, Vincent, Jenny (who were wonderful company, despite being virtual strangers) and I went on to the restaurant and had another of those eighteen-course meals the Indo-Chinees restaurants here are famed for (and very nice it was too).

I think I went to the pub when I got back to Kampen, but all I really know is I slept till 5pm Sunday (trust me, in Kampen that can be the best way) on a two-seater sofa (why? I have a perfectly good bed, and the sofa’s not even comfortable). Whatever, that took care of the weekend.

Anyway, it didn’t actually snow, thankfully, just pelted with hailstones (-3C is the best daytime temperature we’ve had for over a week now) and rain which froze in sheets. Refreshingly, when it rains or freezes here, nobody seems to think they need to put up warning signs about the ground being slippery, because people in the Nederlands still rely on common sense, rather than lawyers, to protect them from falling over.

On Tuesday afternoon, Alfons, Shahram and I borrowed a car from work and drove to Gronigen to visit Dewi in the hospital (zeikenhuis: literally, house of sick – it’s almost like they let a small child build the language out of some basic blocks). The drive was a little scary, since Alfons hadn’t driven for a couple of years and was eager to push the experience to its limits, to the extent that light curved and time seemed to slow down, in accordance with Einstein’s theory of relativity. Nonetheless, we arrived safely and asked at reception for directions to Dewi’s room. Then we set off, but it became apparent after a couple of minutes that Shahram had thought Alfons was listening to the directions and vice versa, so we had to return to the desk and this time I asked the receptionist to explain the route again in English. Laughing (though whether in amusement or despair was unclear), she obliged, and we set off for a second time with, thankfully, more success.

Dewi was in a separate room on the third floor, with her mother (who referred to me later as staartmans: literally, tail-man – presumably a reference to my pony-tail, rather than a suggestion that I am the cloven-hoofed one) sat at her bedside, and also, later in the evening, her brother, who comes in every day after work. She was operated on last Wednesday for eighteen hours to remove a tumour from her left cheek and then to rebuild her cheek with bone from her hip, so her face was still quite swollen and there was a scar from the corner of her mouth up to her eye. She’s twenty-four and slight of build, so frankly, it was heartbreaking to see her lying, so small, in a hospital bed with tubes in her nose and mouth, for food and drink, and a hole in her throat for breathing, which she had to cover with her finger to whisper to us (so she mostly communicated by writing on a pad). Apparently, the doctors have told her they are impressed with the speed of her recovery from the operation, and she hopes to be out in a fortnight. Certainly she’s being really brave and smiling through it. Well, in fact she started laughing when Shahram and I got into one of our usual set pieces of insults, arguments and singing (trust me, not as insane as it sounds… not quite), and I think her mother started to worry about her breathing at one point. Still, she seems to be quite strong and you can see that she’ll get through it. She’ll be fine. In fact, Sjoerd, Frank and Jasper visited her the following night and she’s now off the morphine and has actually taken her first steps; and the stitches in her face will be coming out in the next couple of days.

Wow! We have Christmas presents from the company – a bottle of wine and a board game, and I’m not even staff. Tragically, the board game is in Nederese, so I’ve been forced to exchange it for another bottle of wine with a tea-total colleague. Oh, the horror… the horror…

And thus to Friday. I am now sat at my desk in an almost empty office on Christmas Eve. Not sure if this is because a lot of people have taken the day off, or simply that somewhere else in the building there’s cake. Gotta be honest, never really find myself too motivated to do much on the last day of the working year - not much work, at least. Still, Wormeveer’s gone, albeit with a ‘worm of fear’ graphic hidden in the title block (well, who’s gonna know?) and Schiphol’s taking a holiday till the new year, when apparently it will be coming back again, so my conscience is clear.

Anyway, that’s the lot for this year. I’m off to Schiphol for a plane to Blighty and a week of serious Christmas/New Year excess. Till 2005.


The lights are now working on the office Christmas Tree. Whoopee!

Friday, December 17, 2004

Week 30 – Kerstmis Krackers

So, the round of Christmas (Kerstmis) parties and meals has started, one last Donderdag (literally, Thunder day – Thor’s day – Thursday), with the office; and one this Zaterdag (Saturday – I guess every dag has his day) with Faber Maunsell, the company I’ve never worked with and am here to represent; and, curiously, they are both traditional Indo-Chinees meals (do they even do Christmas in China? I don’t think so. Go figure.)

Life in the Nederlands feels increasingly like serving a sentence in a velvet prison (a reference from some film: A Clockwork Orange or Catch 22, perhaps, I don’t recall): ostensibly free, yet still a virtual prisoner because of the barriers placed upon me by language, culture, and everything being closed for half the weekend. I even have a serial number to identify myself by (P602815) on the computer system (I’m more than just a number, dammit). At weekends I sit in my cell (as a safety feature, there are actually bars on the windows of my digs) or walk around the parade ground (it’s only just been driven home to me the implications of living in a town called (Mine) Kampen).

The next project we’re working on is further up the line from Schiphol and is called Wormerveer. Now, biblically, worm is a term of reference for the serpent, dragon, Satan, whatever you will; and Wormerveer is actually pronounced Worm of Fear. Do you think that might be a clue as to how the job is going to run? I’m working with two other designers on this, and so far they haven’t been in the office on the same days. Late last Thursday Ronald gives me his designs to start working on, but Vrijdag (Free day, Friday) is hangover day from the party, so very little gets done. Maandag (Moon day, Monday) there is no Ronald, but Alfons looks over the work and disagrees with the principals, so he amends the design and I change my work accordingly. Dinsdag (Noise day? Tuesday) Ronald is in but Alfons is away (you can see it coming, can’t you?) and he sees what’s been changed and insists that he was right so I change the design back again. [This must be the origin of the expression Double Dutch.] I seem to spend my days digging holes and then filling them in again (another prison reference: hard labour). Woensdag (from Wodin, or Odin, the Norse god of half-day closing: Wednesday) and Alfons and Martin are all, “why isn’t Wormerveer ready?” (Ronald is, of course, not in the office) and I’m with, “well, leave me alone with it and stop changing the fundamentals of the design all the time and interrupting me with other ‘little’ jobs (Maastricht, Leeuwarden, Lichten) and with continuous annoying questions, and maybe I’ll be a little quicker.” Friday and the job has to go out, so obviously Ronald isn’t in and I’m once again having to try to reconcile two conflicting designs with an aspect sequence chart (don’t ask) at the wrong version and I’m told to use design A and refer to design B where A isn’t clear, so I point out that the two designs aren’t even the same and this leads to another round of checking and changing and if there’s one thing I find quite seriously scary it’s when two designers are altering each others’ designs without taking the trouble to find out what the intention was behind any alteration that one or the other was trying to make in the first place and we’re sending this design out to the client after lunch and frankly I don’t have a great deal of faith in it being right. Update: 13:30 – “Oh, yeah, can you redraw that layout upside down.” Aaarrrgghh!

Of course, technique for production is a variable thing depending on who I’m working with, but at least I know I can always rely on them to tell me any special requirements four days after I start work on something. Yeah, thanks for that.

Another cause for consternation is that there never seems to be enough time to do things right (“We’ll do it this way to save time”) but there’s always enough time to argue with me about why there isn’t enough time to do things properly and there’s always enough time to lament how much time would have been saved if things had been done properly the first time. Deep breaths, keep taking deep breaths.

Q. How many Dutch signalling engineers does it take to wire up a set of Xmas tree lights?
A. Dunno. So far eight over five days, but no lights yet.

Beyond that, it has become increasingly evident that the reason for the fall of the Dutch empire was the invention of cake. Cake appears anywhere and everything stops for about half an hour while people eat and converse about, well, I don’t know, but it seems to be how nice it is to have cake again. This happens on a regular basis, and nobody ever seems to ask where the cake came from or what it’s for; they just accept that there is cake and that it is their destiny to eat it. Good cake, mind. Cakes and coffee…..

Anyway, I am now able to speak perfect Nederese, to all intents and purposes, since all the swear words are English, sorry is sorry, and excuse me is pardón, which pretty much takes care of the bulk of my conversational requirements, certainly in the workplace; and beyond that all I really need is ‘Goeden morgen/midden/avent, en bier/fles/amsterdammer austebleift. Dank u wel. Tot straks/ziens’ and I’m sorted. In truth, of course, there’s a little more to it than that, but the fact is that there have been no new words in Nederish since at least the mid-sixties, they just use the English words for everything invented since then. German tends to be resisted as a lingual alternative, since they’re still more than a little bitter about the occupation during WWII. From what I can gather, every time Nederers meet Germans, the conversation always ends when the Ned asks, “can I have back the bicycle of my father?”, which shows wonderful humour and a superb ability to offend people without actually being offensive.

Anyway, in case I don’t manage another post next week, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I’m afraid that cards just ain’t gonna happen from me this year, due in no small part to the fact that it’s prohibitively expensive to send any volume of mail from here, but perhaps more largely down to the fact that I’ve left it much too late. I’m off now for a weekend of promised rain and snow: almost like being at home. Till 2005, live from Zwolle.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Week 28 – Sinterklass Shenanigans

Well, the most outrageously surprising thing in the land of Neder at the moment is the run-up to Christmas. I’m in town the weekend before last and there’s a brass band playing and a tall Grim Reaper figure with a beard in a red bishop’s robe (yes, I know it’s Father Christmas, Santa Claus or Sinterklass as he’s known out here, but you’ll understand why I didn’t immediately make the association in a moment). This figure was surrounded by scores of children and teenagers with blacked-up faces dressed as sixteenth century pages. Now, my initial reaction was astonishment that I was witnessing what I was seeing. Afterwards, that was still my reaction. Indeed, now that I’ve had a chance to ask people about it (apparently, Sinterklass didn’t have elves, he had a Spanish assistant, Zwarte Piet – check for a discussion of this and its historic origins), I still can’t believe it. I’ve tried to explain to people here how it’s just offensive and wrong on so many levels to make themselves up like that, but they don’t get it. Naive, innocent, some might say stupid - I don’t know; yet it remains true that racial harmony seems to work really well in the Netherlands - go figure. Anyway, they do have rather a quaint Christmas tradition, apart from that, which is that December 6th is Sinterklass day, when presents and cards are exchanged, and that the 25th is just for Christmas proper (presumably church, rather than just James Bond films and the like), which is rather wholesome and quite nice.

On Wednesday afternoon, rather sweetly, all the children of the employees were invited to the staff canteen to meet Sinterklass (who arrives on a horse, rather than a sleigh), and sat around singing Christmas songs to an accordion accompaniment – which harks back to the halcyon days of my vaguely remembered childhood. Then, later, two Zwarte Piets ran through the office and I was pelted with candy and pepernotan (pepper nuts, small ginger-nut type cookies which are everywhere at this time of year because Neder culture advocates, curiously, the throwing these little biscuit missiles at friends, colleagues and even total strangers in the run-up to Christmas).

Meanwhile, the motivation for Theo Van Gogh’s murder the other week has been made clearer to me. Apparently, in newspapers, on radio and television, he called the prophet Mohammed a geitenneuker; which I’m not prepared to literally translate here, but it involves activities with goats in ways that definitely don’t relate to farming (to be honest, I’m a little shocked that they even have a special word for it). I mean, he can’t have expected that to pass without incident – and I’m in no way condoning what was done to him, but he travelled alone by bicycle, for the love of god (or goats, for that matter).

John Caddick returned to Zwolle at the end of last week, in his own time (which is taking dedication to the extreme, in my opinion), to run a final check on the Schiphol 24 project before we returned it to ProRail for the second time (they’re trying to get out of paying for the design because they costed it wrongly and can’t afford to build it, so we’re refining the documentation so that it’s perfect beyond reproach). I was left in a state of some consternation when we were trying to put a key on the drawing (one of the major problems is that ProRail don’t understand what we’ve done, because they’ve never used Speed/Time profiles before) and I needed a translation for ‘headway’: nobody in the office knew what it meant - I mean they didn’t even understand the concept. For those of you who don’t work in rail (you lucky, lucky people), headway is the distance in time between the front of one train and the front of the train following it, and is a fundamental concept of signalling design because it stops the trains running into each other. A frankly frightening dearth of knowledge there, then. Anyway, he confirmed that everything in the design was as it should be, then the two of us spent the weekend touring pubs in Kampen and consuming copious Amsterdamers (quarter litre glasses of froth with a little beer at the bottom) before he went back to England on Sunday.

Monday morning and we’d lost our fifth secretary in as many months: Bianca and Marion through pregnancy, Arianne and Dewi to (thankfully operable) cancers, and now Pauline to a (mere, by comparison) migraine. Investigations are now proceeding into whether some kind of a gypsy curse has been placed on the office, since we’ve also lost two designers to stress and just had another two return from a mild heart attack and some blood pressure issue, respectively.

Tuesday brought the good news that ProRail have finally admitted that our Schiphol 24 design was correct, but that they simply can’t afford to implement it – which we already knew. However, they now want us to produce a much reduced design (further reduced, again) only focusing around the station at Schiphol, with some minor engineering work based on their own calculations to speed up the trains in the tunnel. But we are mightily suspicious of their figures, which appear to have been reached not by calculation of curves relating to the acceleration and braking profiles, as we did, but by examining the entrails of a recently sacrificed goat and interpreting the phases of the moon.

And then there’s the repetition. Three months ago, when Schiphol 24 started, I found errors in the base plan (the layout of the design area before we’d done any design work) and pointed them out to Andries so that he understood why I had changed the design accordingly in our new plan. Then, when John started, he asked me why I had changed the data from the base plan, so I showed him the error in the original data and why I had changed it. Then, when Andries was off and John had left, Hans (the ProRail contact) asked Martin (the boss) why the data was different, so Martin asked me why I had changed the data from the base plan, so I showed him the error in the original data and why I had changed it. Then Martin asked Jasper to help administer the finalisation of the project, and he asked me why I had changed the data from the base plan, so I showed him the error in the original data and why I had changed it. Then Alfons took over from Jasper and asked me why I had changed the data from the base plan, so I showed him the error in the original data and why I had changed it. Now, Ronald is checking the condensed version of the design, and he asks me why I had changed the data from the base plan, so I showed him the error in the original data and why I had changed it. Every day, I wake up wondering if the Groundhog will see his shadow.

So, in the interim, while the design is checked again, it’s back to the level crossings job, and we are experiencing problems (of course). We have to design on existing circuitry sheets, so that our alterations are to the actual current situation, but we don’t have these because ProRail only allows drawings to be booked out for twenty days and we need to have them for the commissioning in February. BUT we also need them so that we can design on them which we need to do NOW. The fact that the time-scale from commencement of design through to installation and commissioning is not, never has been and never will be less than twenty days, because it’s impossible, seems to have escaped the accountants and managers who populate the offices of ProRail, where, it has been said by an informed source, “too many people don’t know what they’re doing.”

I don’t know whether it’s because I fit in well or because I’m beginning to blend in better here, but somehow my colleagues seem to keep forgetting that I’m English. More to the point, they seem to keep forgetting that I don’t speak Nederish, and just assume that I know what they’re talking about and whatever conclusion it is that they reach after any discussion. This makes it very frustrating trying to keep abreast of any changes in design methodology, general news, or indeed of anything going on around me. If spending time in isolation chambers is your idea of fun, though, then I’d recommend spending time out here.

My apologies that I haven’t had time to answer individual emails lately, it’s been seriously busy and there isn’t generally much time to write; but, in brief: Rachel, everyone has to grow up eventually; Tim W, what do you mean, collars and cuffs?; Luke, let your conscious self go and act on instinct, your eyes can deceive you; Rachael, one Zwolle can make a summer, in my experience; Marlene, glad to hear things are improving for you, stay in touch; Paul, so what are you up to now, dude?; Hani and Clives, February’s going to be damned cold, might not April suit better?; Nick R, surely that’s illegal; Albert, hope things are still going well, thanks for your continued support; Bruce, man, you need to slow down; Bilbo, unlock door with brass key, open door, go north; Mary, what do you mean, green?; David R, relentless wind?; David E, tried ram-raiding (as per your suggestion) got a puncture; David C, how’s the new job?; Rory, wait till the swelling goes down; Graeme, what do you mean sarcastic?

Anyway, I’m off to Schiphol for a plane home for the weekend. Till next time.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Week 26 – Six Months - Half-Time!

So, that’s the half-way mark and things still seem to be going fairly well. We finally got Pro-Rail to accept the English way of doing Speed/Time profiles on Monday (because it’s the RIGHT way, dammit) and with luck there should be a couple more UK designers (esteemed colleagues from previous contracts, no less) out here in the near future to back me up.

Both the mornings and evenings are very dark now, and the rain has started to fall in earnest. This makes visibility extremely poor, especially since the law out here requires bicycles to have lights at night, as it does in the UK, but doesn’t appear to specify anything about them being switched on. This is, however, less of a problem than might be expected, since, because people cycle everywhere, the bicycles tend to be in more of a ‘used’ condition and therefore squeak a good deal when in use. The weather, meanwhile, encourages people to wear large coats or gowns when outdoors. So, picture the scene: I’m walking home in the rain and the dark when bearing down on me I see a shadowy figure moving swiftly, a cloak billowing behind it, accompanied by the sound “eek eek eek”. A major bicycle manufacturer out here is actually called ‘Batavus’… I mean, they don’t even bother being subtle about it; and yet moustaches are popular out here, which can only be an attempt to conceal fangs (well, honestly, why else would you grow one?). Garlic is a very popular additive out here.

Anyway, it’s far too inclement to go anywhere much in the evenings or at weekends for the moment, so I’ve been doing a little more local exploring of Kampen and have discovered the night life, which is actually quite good. Also, I’ve had to re-assess my original impression of the churches here: apparently, there is one where the congregation don’t smile or talk much, and march like zombies, but there are also many others with real people who spill out onto the streets mid-Sunday and really brighten the day up with laughter and smiles, which is quite refreshing to witness and harks back to a golden age which I suspect was well before my lifetime. Which, in turn, brings me to another glaring difference between Nederers and Brits: generally, they’re just much, much friendlier and more open towards people they don’t know (imagine a foreigner walking into a pub in England and just striking up conversation with a total stranger, now imagine it again without the blood). You really need to experience the Neder lifestyle to appreciate just how relaxed it is. My guess is that there’s something in the coffee that just makes people more chilled around each other.

Another of the really nice things out here is that they’ve managed not to let supermarkets take over the country like they did in the UK: there’s none of this 24 hour 7 day nonsense and they restrict themselves to selling groceries. The difference this makes is most evident in town centres, where people still shop at weekends from specialist storekeepers who actually know about the stuff they’re selling and genuinely care whether their customers are happy (can anyone else remember 1984 (the year, not the book)?).

The weather is seriously beginning to exhibit schizoid elements: so far today we’ve had rain, snow, brilliant sunshine, rain and now snow again; and it’s only one o’clock in the afternoon. Tomorrow, apparently, thunderstorms (I think; I’m just judging from the pictures – the words still mean nothing to me). And, damn, it’s cold.

My agent is still a sore point for me: I have overtime unpaid from two months back and no expenses (flights or accommodation) yet received for the six months I’ve been here, despite verbal assurances. Obviously, I can’t name the agency here (for fear of litigation), but I can tell you that they’re not an old recruitment firm, and advise that if anybody does deal with them then they should ensure that their contract contains everything and is written in blood, otherwise they’re apt to take the mick. ‘Nuff said. [Ah, tact and subtlety – call it a gift]

Anyway, that’s all for the moment. More as it breaks.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Week 24 - Communication Difficulties

So I don’t know, maybe it’s just that a lot of sentences don’t survive translation, but I keep getting requests that don’t rest easy with me, or get given tasks with the accompanying words “you can do this” (d’ya think? I’ve only been working this system for fourteen years), or “I don’t think it’s much work” (no, you never do, do you), or being told it’s not my fault when other people lose the only hard copy of design work that I’ve produced for them (gotta be honest, wasn’t really sweating about that one, anyway).

Then there are the variations in working technique. In the UK we have a simple system for marking up designs with colour, where red is new, green is recovered and blue represents notes which do not form part of the actual documentation. Here, red is red (simple), blue (almost indistinguishable from black and tending to obscure anything beneath it) is green, and green is blue; EXCEPT for some people here, to whom blue is red, red is green and green is blue. Oh, and then there’s the insane yellow scribbling, which apparently merely indicates some spasmodic twitching. And Tipp-Ex: you can’t see through Tipp-Ex. I’ve stopped even trying to make sense of it. I have also had to become familiar with the technique of going through people’s bins for information which they have forgotten was required and have filed carelessly under trash.

Oh yeah, and we’re working on uncontrolled copies. This was brought home to me on Tuesday, when I came across two near identical circuits with identical drawing numbers but at different versions and with DIFFERENT BARCODES. So, from this we can surmise that there are definitely at least two versions of this circuit floating around out there because, oh and get this, we don’t even have the originals to work on – and they don’t correlate the drawings before design work starts (to keep costs down, I’m told). Tick, tick, tick…..

In the interests of seeing a bit more of the country before it’s destroyed by a train crash, I went to Groningen on Saturday, which the locals here describe as being the Amsterdam of the north, but without the tourists. Well, I can understand why it’s called the Amsterdam of the north, and I can also see why there are no tourists. Not bad for shopping, though; and, as I was promised, it has a good fish market (but everywhere over here has a good fish market). Also, although I didn’t sample them, the pubs are supposed to be pretty good, and there are certainly a fair number of them. Of course, UK Health and Safety would close both the fish stalls and the pubs in a heartbeat, and it certainly takes some getting used to the relaxed attitude to hygiene out here: washrooms don’t have hot taps (although they do always have soap, which trumps Blighty), food to be served is left exposed, and beer glasses are rinsed at the bar and then re-used for the next person’s drink. All this is just accepted as normal. Surely, only those for whom death holds no fear would tolerate such conditions…

Weather is tolerable. Not cold, but not warm. There is a constant layer of low cloud hanging like a thick fog over everything. I haven’t seen direct sunlight for over a week…

Anyway, I’m in the gym on Wednesday evening, and over some ‘artists’ recording of a car alarm going off (dance music in gyms, why is it always dance music?) I can hear a church bell chiming one note over and over again. I ask Bas, the fitness instructor, what it’s about and whether it’s a town alarm (trust me, if you’d seen Kampen, you’d know why I thought that) and he tells me that it’s ringing to commiserate the re-election of Bush. And, embarrassingly, I believed him. Sucker. In truth, it transpires, the ringing is a monthly occurrence to give thanks for something (presumably the quiet between rings), and I just hadn’t heard it before. Meanwhile, of course, there is something of a mood of national mourning for Theo van Gogh, a film-maker and newspaper columnist regarded as the Nederese Michael Moore, who was killed earlier this week for his opinions about religion.

A note for anyone thinking of doing all their shopping by bicycle: if you have a week’s shopping hanging from the left side of your handlebars, and you indicate left and turn left, then you won’t be able to stop turning left. Trust me, I have learnt this.

Curious language observations:
The scourge of text spelling leaves Nederland largely unaffected, since the appalling abbreviations used are actually words here. For example, ‘lol’ (textese for ‘laugh out loud’) means ‘laugh’; and ‘u’ (textese for ‘you’) means ‘you’. Would anyone be surprised if the origins of texting began here?

EURO WARNING: Anyone concerned about the Euro affecting prices if the UK introduces it will be further unsettled by this observation. Because of the relative worthlessness of a cent, shops over here don’t take 1c or 2c pieces and the coins are falling out of circulation. Effectively, therefore, the smallest coin is now 5c. At the moment, prices are still being rounded down. At the moment. Beyond that, everyone complains that everything costs twice as much now as it did before the transition – anyone who remembers the switch to decimalisation knows what I’m talking about.

Thankfully, it seems that no-one over here watched ‘Whistleblower’ on BBC1 last night, which saved me from embarrassment in the office. For anyone who didn’t see it, the programme was about how fabulously safe UK railways are and heaped praise on all the track guys and raved about the professionalism of Network Rail and the care and attention of all the maintenance contractors. Honestly.

Anyway, John Caddick is back in Holland for the weekend collecting evidence for his Principle Design Licence application, so now we’re off for a fish supper and a brace of bevvies. Many thanks to everyone who’s been staying in touch, it helps to take the edge off the feeling of being an alien (♫”an illegal alien, I’m an Englishman in Zwolle”♫) in a strange land. More updates soon.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Week 22.3 – Version Controls

So here’s the ‘system’ out here. Imagine a children’s party, and at this party there are games. The first game is Chinese Whispers, and the first child is told the name of a thing to be drawn, this then being whispered around the circle until the last child hears a substantially corrupted version of the original message. This last child then begins to draw the whispered thing, folds the paper concealing what has so far been drawn and passes it backwards around the circle, the drawing progressing with no knowledge of what has already been done or what is to be added. Now, imagine the scene thus far described, but make the game players attendees at separate parties many miles apart, and imagine that they have never met and use different drawing tools and speak different languages to each other. This, I am now convinced, is the technique used to produce the kinds of design that I get to work with every day.

Of course, all these various drawings and documents have to operate together and relate to each other precisely, in order for any interlocking system to function safely. Fortunately, this constancy of design can be ensured by rigorous attention to version control, ensuring that all documents are at the same issue status. I was prepared, initially, to place some confidence in this, but have now seen it fail far too often; for example, the circuit I have before me as I write has passed through these versions: A, B, A, A, B, C, D, B. That must have been the episode of Sesame Street that I missed. Typical safety-critical engineering design specifications which I receive tend towards “around there somewhere” and the frankly scary, “it doesn’t matter, it’s not important.” Be afraid, be very afraid.

And then there are the standards which I put in that I’m told to remove, because, unexpectedly, they don’t want precision, accuracy, scaling or any detailed design information (“if we don’t state anything, we can’t be wrong.”) [All I need is a head-sized gas oven.] So I painstakingly explain to them why they ought to produce documentation that’s useful, dependable and a valid design component, with the potential to be used as a future resource, and they natter away to each other in Nederish and then ten minutes later tell me to change it anyway. What, did the Nederese tell Van Gogh to use fewer colours and less detail? Maybe now I understand why he cut his ear off.

Meanwhile, ProRail, the alleged overseeing body for all things NederRail (the Dutch railways have been recently broken into separate components and now work in much the same way that they don’t in the UK), have totally failed to specify any standards whatsoever for the production of designs and seem to merely expect that everything will turn out for the best. Blind faith, don’t you just love it?

My suspicion that English is a second-class language over here was further deepened on Thursday, when I was speaking to Shahram at great length regarding version control and its importance, and as I near the end of my tirade he interrupts me to start TALKING TO HIMSELF. Apparently, he hadn’t realised I was speaking to him, despite the fact that there was no-one else in the area.

And so to the weekend. Shahram, Cornelus and I were planning to go to Six Flags (“it’s about time you saw more of the Nederlands – we’ll take you to an American theme park”); however, it started to rain at 5 a.m. Saturday (so hard that it woke me despite double glazing) and didn’t stop till Sunday night, so we were forced to cancel. I took the opportunity, being trapped indoors, to clean my digs – I was amazed how much the dirt had mounted-up in just four short months.

Monday, and Ronald returns from the Hague (there seems to be a tendency to go on holiday just before a job is due for completion out here) and begins to hurry me on a project which I thought I’d completed. The problem is that he was given design changes to make to route control tables, and was supplied the design prints with required changes at version B; however, the digital files which we were supplied were at version C, which is known to be wrong, which is why the drawings are now at version D, which we don’t have and won’t get, so we are now raising the design to version E based on the design changes which we’re adding and the errors which we have been able to identify. I mention to Ronald that I think this is a bloody dangerous way to proceed, and he agrees and tells me that he only agreed to work on the job because it’s already been decided that it won’t be built anyway. What? Then why the hell are we working on it? Damned stoners, all of them, I swear.

For a while I found going to the gym to be a good way of working through aggression, but now that I’m getting a better grasp of Nederese even that’s beginning to annoy me. I’m on the cycling machine or the cross-trainer or whatever, and up flashes the message ‘HOUDEN HANDEN OP SENSORS’ (yeah, I know it’s easy to translate, but I just didn’t bother reading Nederish until recently, okay). This message represents a basic mis-understanding of the whole man-machine relationship, which is a classic master-slave scenario: man is master, machine is slave – the machine can’t be telling me what to do, I have free will! Anyone who’s seen Terminator knows what happens if you let the machines get the upper hand – get your sensors off me, you damn dirty droid.

More news if it breaks. Just about live from Zwolle.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Week 21 – Cycle of Life

Well, I started this week with aching knees and a sore bum. The innocent explanation for this was that, knowing that Thursday would be the day of the national transport strike, I decided on Sunday to try cycling the journey between Kampen and Zwolle. It’s something around 35 to 40 kilometres for the round trip (22 to 25 miles) and afterwards I could really feel that I’d done it. Everybody says that cycling out here is easy (because it’s so flat), but the fact is that, because it’s also very open, there is always wind exposure – and it’s really quite unfeasibly windy - with, somehow, almost always a facing wind, despite the fact that that’s clearly impossible. At least now I understand why serious cyclists dress-up like gimps in all that skin-tight fetish-wear. As if that wasn’t enough, it’s suddenly become much colder out here: now down to 7° C (2° C at night), and that’s without factoring in the not inconsiderable wind chill (to truly appreciate the wind out here, you have to see the waves that it makes in the canals; or, incredibly, the waves it creates on the roads during rain).

The Schiphol drawing, of which it might have seemed I was complaining last week, is no longer an issue since, after spending two days working on it, I went in search of some further information and learnt that the entire document already existed complete from a previous job. Ah, inter-departmental communication - same as it ever was. Anyway, I’m now producing three solution studies for turnouts at Riekerpolder, on the Schiphol route, with my usual attention to detail and scaling that goes so un-appreciated out here; and out of curiosity, I translated the notes associated with the designs: 1) Not possible (so why am I producing it?); 2) Probably not possible, must take measurements (the measurements are available, I’m using them; they’re right, it’s not possible); 3) Not possible in reality (in reality! Where else would they build? Fantasia?). So, having spent two months producing a feasibility study for a project that won’t get built, now I get to spend a further two months on an unfeasibility study for a project that can’t get built. Thump, thump, thump the head against the desk.

Anyway, this week the top bods from ProRail came in to review our progress and examine the drawings produced so far, on which, predictably, they had no engineering comments; just aesthetic criticisms and a query regarding the kilometrage points which I had added to the design for clarity (‘what are they?’). [Mental note: next time in UK, purchase baseball bat]. I suspect that a great deal of the apparent confusion out here stems from the way the Nederese communicate numbers: for example, if someone tells you to meet them at half eight, you’d better make damn sure you arrive at 7:30, which just makes no sense at all that I can fathom; worse are ages, because they always seem to group figures in pairs and say them backwards (twenty-eight is eight and twenty, for example), but keep them in forward form when they translate them: so our secretary tells me she’s 82, and I complement her on her youthful looks; but, far more distressingly, a telephone number which you hear as 436275 will actually be 342657. Aaarrrgghh!

The time warp factor is still very much in evidence: there are bands with guitarists and real drummers out here, and last week I swear I saw Duran Duran in the charts. Freaky. Tragically, having finally found myself once again somewhere where paisley is fashionable, the pattern on my tie (which was brand new in only 1987) is now too faded to really stand-out anymore. Ah, cruel fate.

Come Thursday (the day of the strike), I was fortunate enough to be offered a lift by my colleague Meindert, which saved me from a long cycle in the dark with quite high winds and sporadic rain. Not that drivers fill me with confidence out here – they make the cyclists look cautious with all their unsignalled zigzag manoeuvres and corner-cutting. The curious thing about the strikes is that the changes which the government are proposing will only really affect the long-term unemployed and the long-term stay-at-home sick pleaders, and yet the workers of the country are up in arms about it, support the strikes and have a really militant attitude to any suggestion of change (supporting malingerers is, apparently, something they consider a birthright out here). Despite their holding such views, when I called them communists they got upset about it.

Not much else this week, except to relate that curiously, once again, two or three Nederish are wrestling in the office – actually wrestling, mind, on the floor: not quite WWF, but in that vein. That seems to happen once or twice a week, as does the putting practice – not what I’m used to as office behaviour, but a pleasant enough distraction, I suppose. Having said which, I can’t really comment, since Shahram and I spent twenty minutes on Wednesday re-enacting the battle scene between Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader using a banana, followed by a chase scene from The Blues Brothers using the spent peel.

On a completely separate note, a warning: when using a combined photo-copier/fax machines, always ensure that it is set to fax mode before punching in a twelve digit number and walking away.

Anyway, I’m off to catch a train to Schiphol, languishing under the pleasing delusion that EasyJet might give me a punctual flight home. More news as it breaks.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Week 20 – Weather Patterns

Well, Autumn’s really starting to set in, and it’s notable mainly for its changeability. Thanks to the fact that The Nederlands are totally flat and right up against (or under) the sea, the wind is very strong; and this means that a beautiful sunny day can become torrential rain in half an hour, and a half hour after that be back to warm sunshine and a clear blue sky. Oh, and when I say torrential, I mean it: it’s not like UK rain, it’s like the tide coming in. I’ve been out at lunchtime in the sun and come back totally saturated. This makes choosing clothing quite difficult, since the only truly suitable attire would be a swimsuit but, frankly, that’s not deemed appropriate to an office environs.

Perhaps because of the climatic vicissitude, health seems to be going downhill in the office, so most days it’s like being in the waiting room of a doctor’s surgery, what with all the coughing and sneezing. In addition to this, in the almost five months that I’ve been here, two members of staff have gone on long-term sick leave with stress, and two others have left to have babies (all occurrences for which, I hasten to add, I deny any and all responsibility). I blame powdered milk (for the health issues, obviously, not for the pregnancies - although you can’t really tell what’s in it…) – they don’t seem to use actual milk over here, and there’s so much white powder about the place that it looks like the offices of an advertising agency.

Another strange seasonal observation is that secretaries out here appear to be deciduous. The principal indicator of this is that three of their number, who were blonde all summer, have all come in as brunettes this week. I can’t tell if they’ve gotten any smarter, but this unusual phenomenon clearly merits further investigation.

Schiphol is becoming a headache to design for. I have to produce modifications for the track layout, and in order to establish what it’s like on the ground at the moment I have to refer to three documents in order to get all of the information required. Now, they’re all of the same area, so you’d expect the drawings to be pretty similar, right? Wrong. I have three drawings of the same area showing three different layouts; although even this isn’t immediately apparent, since not only are none of them to scale, but they’re all not to scale by radically different and continuously varying factors; so I have to look quite hard simply to establish the similarities, before I can even begin to notice the areas which bear no correlation to each other. And then there are the tracks which can only connect if I bend the fabric of space (because, for example, the kilometrage 20.262 doesn’t lie between 20.875 and 20.930 in this universe, as it does on one of these plans). In addition to which, I also have to make connections to two proposed new lines which are part of a separate project which I have no data for and which nobody can tell me where they will be or where their ends are. Still, I’m not one to complain.

Fortunately, to break-up my work I also get to be an interpreter (which, given my language skills, would seem somewhere between unlikely and incredible). Lots of European companies exchange information between each other, but since, for example, the Italians speak no Nederlands and the Nederese speak no Italian, English is the common language through which they opt to communicate (after, apparently, a brief but abortive attempt to use Esperanto); and so I am often asked to review and correct letters and emails being sent out, and to interpret and simplify the replies. It gives me a bit of an insight into the way things operate over here, but most of the messages seem to be complaints about people not having done things which they’d promised, and most of the replies are hollow apologies and vacuous excuses, so it seems some aspects of rail operation know no borders.

After last weekend’s anti-whatever it is they’re complaining about demonstration, a general strike has been called for next Thursday; so no buses, trams or trains will run on that day. Fantastic. Fortunately, it’s only about an hour’s cycle ride from my digs to the office, so it shouldn’t affect me too badly. If it’s not raining. I tell you, all summer, not one strike.

Anyway, just got back from lunch – we went into town again for fresh fish – and I had what I think was cod, but here it’s called lekkerbekje. Now, I know that lekker means nice, so I ask what bekje means. Disturbingly, I now know, lekkerbejke translates literally as ‘nice mouth’; well, I guess fishermen can get lonely on those long nights at sea, but please.

Not much other news for the moment, except for a couple of observations:

• If you visit the Nederlands at any point, you have to remember to set your watch forward by an hour, but your calendar back by two decades: the fashions, the music, in fact the whole fabric of society is from a different age – and, generally, it reminds you just how great the eighties were. Except the IT, which reminds you how badly the eighties sucked - most of the time it would be quicker to use a pencil and paper than a computer. Oh, and don’t even start me on standards and systems.

• The Nederers keep apologising to me, in perfect English, that they don’t speak very good English. I worked in Birmingham for three years, and not once did anybody there apologise.

Anyway, it’s Friday evening (almost) and the pub beckons most enticingly, so I’m off for a swift fles of beer (how gratifying is it that my moniker here refers to a beverage receptacle?). Live from Zwolle.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Week 19 - Rail Olympics

Well, the good news is that I survived the whisky night. On the Tuesday evening in question, Sjoerd graciously allowed me to eat at his place beforehand (he cooked spaghetti bolognaise with fresh vegetables, which is a big deal for me in these days of microwaved meals and pizza deliveries) and then we went to the Blues Cafe, where our host treated us to a forty-five minute soliloquy on the history and provenance of Scottish single malt whiskys, during which I smiled and looked attentive and made like I could understand a word he said; which in actual fact, on reflection, I could (“durby der flurby derby der whisky flurby durby fur”).

We were then taught the correct way to drink whisky (orally) and sampled many (well, more than four) single malts. Long before the evening ended (4am, apparently) I slithered back to the station, caught my train and (somehow) cycled back to my digs, considerably the worse for wear.

Curiously, I was fine to get to work the next day, which is more than I can say about the following Monday. After a weekend at home my Easy(?)Jet flight back from the UK on the Sunday was delayed by an hour and a half (thirty minutes more than usual), so I didn’t land until 11pm Nedertime. I was just able to catch the last train back to Zwolle, where I arrived at 1am with no hope for a connection. Fortunately, the station was abundantly furnished with cabs, so I caught a ride back to Kampen in what I subsequently realised was a jet-car. Apparently, after midnight traffic lights don’t apply, and nor do any other road laws, so I was whisked through a multitude of red lights in a 50kph (30mph) zone at speeds in excess of 140kph (90mph) back to Kampen station (the only place in Kampen my driver knew how to get to), where I had fortuitously left my bike and was so able to complete my eight hour journey with a ten minute cycle. Four hours sleep, I can assure you, is not sufficient when you have to work the next day.

The Schiphol project has been cancelled because the bean counters at ProRail failed to take into account almost everything involved in the process of increasing the headway, and therefore estimated it at €30 million; whilst our feasibility study put it at €60 million. Apparently, they forgot to cost for OLE (Overhead Line Electrification), cabling, civil engineering or health and safety. Once again, I find myself with a new respect for Network Rail/Railtrack.

Nonetheless, I’ve been pulled back off the significantly late level crossings job to work on the design of the new, massively downscaled Schiphol project, which is now reduced to just a few extra sets of points and a couple of new signals. Once again, I’m back to digging holes and then filling them in again. Still, I’m much happier to put in the hours since my agents got their act together and started paying me properly.

And so to the volleyball weekend. Once a year, all the rail companies come together and play volleyball against each other in a tournament of fifteen minute games between fourteen teams, which really helps to establish better contacts with your colleagues and competitors. I’d already warned the boss about my sporting abilities, but I think he thought I was joking. He tried to explain to me about the tactics for passing, and I explained to him that ’away’ was the only direction I could guarantee to hit a ball when it came near me. Nobody could doubt my commitment, though: I was the only player who actually bled for the game (tragically, during warm-up, because the ball hit my wrist quite hard, which isn’t too impressive now I come to think about it). Anyway, I actually managed to score a few points and we didn’t come last (we came fourth from last - an improvement on last year, I’m told). Martin, Sjoerd, Erwin, Erwin, Marcel and Marcel’s son Jorik were quite patient with me while I overcame my confusion of volleyball (over the net) with football (back of the net) and basketball (through the net) and at the end we were all awarded a pair of sports socks each. Don’t know what they expect us to do with them - having come tenth out of fourteen, I thought giving us sporting goods was rubbing salt into the wound a little bit. Still, I suppose I can always wear them in the gym.

For the rest of Holland, Saturday saw the general public (200,000 according to the papers) going to Amsterdam for a protest march. At the moment, everybody here works about 35 hours a week tops, has twenty-five days leave, five to ten bank holidays (if a holiday falls on a weekend, it’s lost!) and ten other days called ADV (some flexi-time arrangement where if you actually do a proper working week then they give you time-off to compensate). If you’re made redundant, your unemployment benefit is equal to your last wage for the first TWO YEARS that you’re out of work, and most people retire at 55. Now there’s going to be a general strike because the government has said maybe people ought to go to work once in a while. On the other hand, of course, there’s no NHS and free education ends at age twelve, so perhaps they have got a point. I swear everybody went to the demo. I’ve never seen the stations or trains so crowded. NR had to lay on extra trains to cope with the volume of protesters, and yet there was no trouble. See that in the U.K.

Anyway, on Sunday, after all that exercise and stress, I fancied some real food, so I went back to D’Olde Vismark for a meal. I can’t say enough good things about this place. The food is just superb, the service excellent, and the staff so friendly that Ron (the owner) found time to beat me twice at chess, despite having to deal with other customers, while he waited for me to be ready for dessert. D’Olde Vismark, curiously, translates as The Old Fish Market. I asked about this, and it was explained to me that the one was constructed on the site of the other, and it was better to keep the old, familiar names. I wasn’t convinced, until I recalled that this would have given Goldiggers (Chippenham’s old nightclub) the name The Old Cattle Market, which has a strange kind of symmetry to it.

Beyond this, I am finally making my mark, and now have another office saying ‘dude’ and ‘cheers’ on a regular basis, which is gratifying to say the least. That’s everything for the moment. More updates as stuff happens.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

The song, as published in the magazine Posted by Hello

Legend has it that, many years ago, there was grass growing on the roof of one one Kampen's 26 churches, and the church elders thought it would be clever to winch a cow up to eat it. Every year, an effigy of a cow is suspended from the church to commemorate what happened to the poor beast. Posted by Hello

Where am I? Posted by Hello

When Geese Attack Posted by Hello

View of Kampen over the river - the boat with a roof is a fantastic fish and chip restaurant Posted by Hello

Kampen - twinned with Milton Keynes? Posted by Hello

Robin Masters' mansion has the world's smallest bathroom, with, curiously, a washing machine to boot Posted by Hello

The Kampen Riviera - 9 Posted by Hello

The Kampen Riviera - 8 Posted by Hello

The Kampen Riviera - 7 Posted by Hello

The Kampen Riviera - 6 Posted by Hello

The Kampen Riviera - 5 Posted by Hello

The Kampen Riviera - 4 Posted by Hello

The Kampen Riviera - 3 Posted by Hello

The Kampen Riviera - 2 Posted by Hello

The Kampen Riviera - 1 Posted by Hello

Kampen bridge again Posted by Hello

Kampen bridge - the whole centre section lifts up for boats to pass beneath it Posted by Hello

Kampen Bicycle Graveyard Posted by Hello

Robin Masters' mansion - the view from the front door Posted by Hello

Robin Masters' mansion - my digs Posted by Hello

Robin Masters' Ferrari Posted by Hello

Kampen riverside farm - 2 Posted by Hello

Kampen riverside farm - 1 Posted by Hello

Kampen park 2 Posted by Hello