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.

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