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.