Saturday, August 21, 2004

Three months down, nine to go

Well, today marks thirteen weeks in the Nederlands, or three calendar months, or 25% of my contract. Not much of a cause celebre, but a significant milestone in my Neder experience nonetheless. The thing is, every time I think I’ve finally got my head around the whole culture thing, I come across some other weirdness that the Nederese regard as normality, and it just throws my whole perspective again.

Last Saturday, for example, was another Nederish special day, although it wasn’t mentioned in the press or on television (as far as I’m aware, not that I can understand a word of it). It was National Bad Hair Day, and they obviously take it very seriously because almost everybody had made the effort; indeed, some people had clearly put some serious time and energy into their follicle stylings. Mind you, the whole issue of style out here can best be described as some kind of time warp: the music reminds you of everything that was good about the 80s, the clothing, meanwhile, only serves to remind you what was so wrong about the 70s

Far scarier, however, was Sunday. I have already mentioned that Kampen is considered to be the Christian capital of Nederland, but I myself had no idea what that meant. A recent conversation with one of my neighbours gave me a clue, as it included me being asked if I had any plans for the weekend, which led to the following exchange:

“Nothing special. I’ll probably just pop over to the pub.”
“Oh, I’m a Christian, so I don’t go to pubs.”

Right… now, I’ve never been one of the most religious people in the world (apart from a perfectly natural unhealthy interest in Revelations in my late teens), but I don’t recall anything in the Bible (certainly not in the films) about not going to bars. It’s a strange thing, in fact, because Christianity isn’t actually a religion out here, but more some kind of a cult. For example, on Sunday everybody goes to church, but really dressed up (men in suits, women in dress suits, little girls in dresses with bonnets and pigtails, little boys in short trousers and shirts with ties), and they march there without talking to each other, or speaking at all, or even acknowledging people, or smiling, or anything – it’s like Dawn of the Dead meets The Little House on the Prairie, really quite, quite unsettling. Mind you, with all these vampires about, who can blame them?

Anyway, this week I decided it was about time I joined a gym and tried to do something about getting back into shape, so I went across the park by my flat (well, house, but it’s really just a small flat on two floors) to the Sports Centre. Gone. Just ashes and bricks. Guess that’s what all the sirens and flashing lights were about the other night. Will try to be more careful with cigarette butts in future.

Anyway, still not really having a love affair with the food out here. We keep having things in the canteen which I don’t recognise, and when I ask my colleagues what it is they just tell me that it’s better not to know. I mean, what’s that about? Even the soup has funny, mini-meatball looking things in it that nobody can tell me what they are or where they come from.

Beyond that, there’s still the whole difference of culture thing. People out here don’t seem to cover their mouths when they cough (ugh), and everybody talks with their mouth full. I’m telling you, you can really tell when you're in a country which the English didn't invade (or which the Germans did, come to think about it).

Then there’s the job. And suddenly it all falls into place. Grontmij, it transpires, has only been in Railway Signalling for thirty months, and has only had MicroStation systems for the last eighteen of those. Now I understand the appalling drawings I’ve been seeing, the partial and inaccurate cell libraries, and the blank looks I get when I express my consternation and frustration at these failings. Railtrack, I’m sorry I ever complained about your rigorous standards and insistence on minutiae.

Anyway, I’m off to launch another crusade on the creepy crawlies which seem to invade my house daily (pouring rain alternating with brilliant sunshine at a constant 29 degrees seems to provide perfect breeding conditions for flies, midges and mosquitoes – no wonder all the spiders out here are so fat). Meanwhile, any and all news from Blighty and the outside world will be gratefully received.

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