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.