Thursday, December 22, 2005

It seems even angels can land at Schiphol Posted by Picasa

The boat outside my apartment getting in the festive mood Posted by Picasa

Office gifts Posted by Picasa

"What was that noise on the roof?" Posted by Picasa

Well, Dilemma-manager puzzled me, but what can NewNerds be about? Posted by Picasa

Windmills in the wild Posted by Picasa

A cheese factory in Zaanse Schaans Posted by Picasa

More windmills Posted by Picasa

Dwarf windmill Posted by Picasa

Grazing animals Posted by Picasa

Earth's defences Posted by Picasa

Wind over water Posted by Picasa

Flying daleks? Posted by Picasa

Zaanse Schaans windmills Posted by Picasa

Jessica, Jennifer, Dewi and Jeff Posted by Picasa

Jennifer, Jessica, me and Dewi Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Week 83 – Seasonal Stuff

Ever up for an opportunity to get out and about at the weekend, the Saturday after my last post I went to a couple of birthday parties in Amsterdam, the first of which was my introduction to the Amsterdam Expat group. The party was held at the home of Barbi, an American lady whose 40th birthday it was, and Joost, her Dutch husband, and other guests were Marcel and Annette (Dutch and American), Phil and Kathy (English and American), and Anthony and David (both American).

Barbi and Joost breed Siamese cats, and there were five on the premises: a howling male with big balls called Phi Chan, which means ‘wisdom’ in Thai; a lovely mother called Fa Ying, which means ‘celestial princess’; a fat lilac Point named Som Chai, which means ‘living up to heart's desire’; a half-Balinese kitten named Chai Lai, which means ‘beautiful’; and a "guest", Aradia (who has since been sold to a Fries couple). Phi Chan, who is un-sterilised for breeding purposes (hence the swollen appendages), is nicknamed Oedipus, or Oedi for short, and he lived-up to the reputation of his namesake (think about it) shortly after the beginning of the party by escaping and going on the run. We all spent a good half-hour combing the streets for him before he was found and returned to captivity.

Barbi had prepared turkey (she said “made”, but our colonial cousins are known for their abuses of language), which was accompanied by sweet yams, and Kathy had prepared an excellent pumpkin pie. We had a great evening, fuelled by red wine and beer, which culminated in a game of Trivial Pursuit - the end result of which was unclear, but it hardly matters amongst friends. Afterwards, I slept in the lounge on a futon (which was considerably more comfortable than I had anticipated), accompanied by the male cats (the females were separated upstairs, for obvious reasons). If you know anything about Siamese, you’ll understand that they don’t purr or miaow, they howl. Come morning, they were rushing around the lounge in a scene reminiscent, to my spinning senses, of the end of the first Indiana Jones film, when the Arc of the Covenant was opened.

After a lovely breakfast of scrambled eggs (real food is still a rare treat for me out here), I went to see Dewi in Haarlem, who was celebrating her birthday with her mother Jessica and her siblings Jeffrey and Jennifer. As always, I was besieged with Indonesian delicacies, including a wonderful Indonesian Chicken soup. Dewi is still doing very well with her recovery, and we had a great day of it.

Bolstered by a well-fed weekend, I have been attempting to introduce the office to the musical stylings and finesse of Fin de Siècle, but since almost nobody has ever heard of them it seems to be a wasted effort (which is a shame, because they were bloody good). Mind you, they played at considerably less than 120bpm, and there are lyrics and melodies and everything, so what can I have been thinking, really? Meanwhile, I am being driven gradually insane by dance music in the gym. The CD player apparently keeps sticking, but I’ll be damned if I can tell. It’s possible that I simply haven’t grasped the subtle complexity of the lyrics, or that I just don’t appreciate the melodic nuances of the sophisticated musical interplay between the constant repetitive beat and the basic tune. I can’t quite tell because the voices have started screaming again.

On the subject of music abuse, it has been brought to my attention that not only do the Neds ruin perfectly good classic rocks numbers by translating the lyrics into their horrible, simplistic, guttural language, but that they actually translate musicals and operas: Mamma Mia and Carmen are the two notable travesties of which I have heard so far. Of course, the Netherlands (despite what its inhabitants may think) has no musical talents (or great writers or film-makers, or any artists at all) to its name, which may explain this approach to butchering the output of others. This slightly relates to the whole piracy issue, which I have discussed at some length previously: the Dutch are quite shameless about this, “why should I pay for it when I can download it for free?” I am asked by my colleagues, clutching recorded CDs and DVDs which they burn at home and then sell-on to each other. It has been said that those with no discernible talent view the theft of art with the same dismissive air that those who have never worked for something view burglary or mugging. I couldn’t possibly comment, of course.

As a complete aside, and in no way wishing to cast the populace of my host nation in a bad light, I have noticed that the Neds appear to act as caricatures of themselves, masking their faces with exaggerated expressions. For example, people actually do step-back in surprise and stand agape with amazement. I can only assume that these responses are due to over-exposure to cartoons during childhood, or perhaps a misguided effort to appear human…

Anyway, I’m working on this track layout in Haarlem, and the drawing hasn’t been changed since October 2000, so I’m expecting it to be relatively simple and unproblematic. I’m looking at the track circuits - now, to those of you who aren’t clued-up on the highly sophisticated and high-tech world of railway signalling, this might not be obvious, but the rest of you might spot the problem with this if you watch this sequence carefully: 162AT, 162BT, 162CT, 162CT, 162BT. If you missed it, then the adjacent track might help: A160T, 160AT, 160BT,160CT, 160CT, 160BT. Or the track crossing it: 158AT, 158BT, 158BT, 158AT, 158CT. Granted, it’s a bit like one of those MENSA brainteasers one might see in a newspaper, but those of you who remember Sesame Street might just spot something not right with the sequences shown. The Control Panel for this lot doesn’t even bear thinking about. It can be no co-incidence that wired is just an anagram of weird. Safety signalling systems: more by luck than judgement. Worse, after intensive investigation, it transpires that in fact that is the way the track layout been constructed, and that it is correct. Nobody here has ever seen a set-up like it before, and no-one can offer me an explanation as to why it’s been done, but everyone seems to agree that it should be left as it is. The same plan also offers up such confusing notation as writing 1.021 as 0.21 and 1.082 as 0.82. Well, it’s only about a kilometre out - who’s gonna know? Sometimes I wonder why I even bother.

Signs are apparent that the Nederlands is bang up-to-date with concepts of commercial insanity, in common with certain UK institutions (which will remain nameless for the sake of not jeopardising future employment possibilities), as ProRail makes some staff redundant, which a huge redundancy package, only for them to be hired by us and seconded out to ProRail. Right. In addition, curiously, there has been a great deal of movement between our company and our competitors of late. One possible explanation for this might be the positioning of subliminal messages throughout the office, as many doors and coffee machines, facing operating difficulties, have been adorned with signs bearing the single word ‘DEFECT’.

I finally got a translation for overtime, which might explain the previous confusion some months back. Literally translated, the only occasion when the term overtime is used here is when a woman is late; which means that last year, when John and I requested overtime for the Schiphol project, it may have been interpreted as quite a different type of accommodation. I am still having issues with other translations, too: the Nederese word for page is ‘blad’, but when the Neds translate ‘blad’ to Engels, they say “blade” - presumably because it sounds similar. Needless to say, paper-cuts are a major workplace hazard. Currently, there is a lot of work on OR bladen and OA bladen, which makes me feel quite at home, being from the West Country where we are quite used to a lot of O R O R A (sorry). Other oddness revolves around figures of speech: the other day I let out a sigh at the coffee machine, and Bianca asked, ”have you got it hard today?” which quite threw me for a moment, until I realised she was talking about work, rather than more intimate issues. Of course, many questions literally translated from the typical Nederish can sometimes seem over-personal: I was asked by Fons, after a break at home, “was Mary good at the weekend?” and it was only thanks to good fortune and a couple of decent bottles of red wine on the previous night that the answer coincided with his intent, which was to enquire after her health. Beyond these, there’s the stuff that’s just plain irritating: when referring to the price of a relatively cheap item, often people will quote the price in Euro-cents. As opposed to what? A cent is a one hundredth unit of the currency standard, which isn’t the dollar - so I can only hazard a guess that they’re merely, once again, tying to ensure that they don’t get confused with Americans (just in case the standard of service in shops and restaurants didn’t give it away).

Incredibly, one recent Friday saw me looking for Martin, the boss, only to find our Design Manager, Marcel, talking to him in his office. So far, nothing particularly surprising there, except that Marcel was talking to Martin on a cellphone. Martin was in the car-park, outside. Logic exits stage-left, shaking its head and weeping.

Just to show that it’s not only the locals who are fallible, I managed to commit a fairly blinding faux pas a couple of weeks back, when I was presented with yet more unintelligible, blotchy, scribbled and badly photocopied circuitry to work on. I made the comment that perhaps if our competitors didn’t entrust the production of such documentation to three-fingered half-wits then there might be a chance that the quality wouldn’t be quite so poor, at which point Ed, who has been sat next to me for a couple of months, made the revelation that he only has three fingers on one of his hands (thanks to a swivel-chair based office accident some years past). Obviously, I had been referring to a sloth (which neatly encapsulates both the manual dexterity and the work ethic of many people in the rail industry), but this explanation in no way reduced my resultant embarrassment or softened my blushes.

Further evidence of night-time activity, as it transpires that electricity is cheaper to use in the Nederlands at night (as it is everywhere), the consequence of which here is that washing machines, tumble driers and dishwashers are run after midnight. I had been aware of spin-cycles in the early hours from my neighbour whilst in Kampen, and have occasionally heard mechanical noises here in the dead of night, but it seems now that these were not isolated examples. Now, given that said machines are not noted for their quiet running, one might be tempted to ask what sort of people wouldn’t be disturbed by the habitual (one could even say ritual) practice of such activities during the hours of darkness…

I am out of pocket to the tune of a pair of jeans and a Zippo lighter. To elaborate, there are new houses being built along Buitenkwartier, where I am currently ensconced, and as part of the project the road has been dug-up. Consequently, there was just a foot-and-a-half wide pavement to pick ones way along in the dark (the streetlights are also offline) and yet, despite the obvious potential for misadventure, residents of the street still think it’s nice to leave huge plant pots outside their front doors, blocking the way. I have no idea if I damaged the decorative object which caused me to fall onto the rubble, ripping my jeans, gouging my leg in three places and emptying my pocket of aforementioned lighter, but I certainly intend to cause some harm if I pass it again in the dead of night (always assuming, of course, that I see it next time).

After only a few months amongst the Neds, Stuart is clearly suffering from cabin fever – early indications of this are that he’s started to laugh at my jokes, which I needn’t add almost never happens amongst those with a sound mental foothold. I’ll monitor his decline into lunacy for as long as he continues to function, and keep you updated accordingly.

In the interests of safety, Fons has fitted smoke alarms in my apartment, presumably in order to alert the rest of the building as to when I’m cooking steak. There is an extractor fan mounted over my hob, but I had been unable to find a way of making it work, despite numerous attempts, for many months. I have now finally mastered its operation, but it still isn’t enough to prevent the sensors acting as an insanely loud toast-timer of a morning.

Thanks to the hospitality of Barbi and Joost, I have been getting to see some of the more scenic parts of the Nederlands of late. A few weeks ago they took me to visit Zaanse Schaans, in the city of Zaandijk, which has fantastic, sweeping views and lots of windmills. Photos to follow on the website.

Fortunately, this last trip was conducted before the winter really started to bite. Winds are now unfeasibly strong, and are often accompanied by hail and snow – to such an extent that Fons and I have been unwilling to cycle to work since December the thirteenth, which was far too bracing for my liking anyway. Nonetheless, the expat group recently braved the elements to go out ten-pin bowling at De Konijn, in Amsterdam, where we were joined by two new members, Jason and Petra - a charming American/Dutch couple, the latter of whom graciously took my usual last-place position on the score-board. Afterwards, we went on to consume copious amounts of beer at the Hard Rock Café, and then on to a delightful, if rather cramped, Belgian pub called De Zotte, which had a fabulous atmosphere and a great selection of beers.

Back at the office, all the staff received Sinterklaas tins a couple of weeks ago, containing some chocolate and marzipan goodies, and were yesterday bestowed with Christmas boxes from the company - each of which contained a bottle of white sparkling wine, a vase (or perhaps just a really big glass, who can tell?), a pair of candles, a box of chocolates, biscuits for cheese, cheese, a jar of olive paste and a packet of serviettes. Precisely why we have received what are obviously picnic hampers just as we enter the start of one of the coldest winters on record is anybody’s guess, but the thought was there.

Anyway, best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everybody. I’m off to Blighty for a week’s respite from the wind and the cold. Till 2006, Leave from Zwartsluis.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Week 78 – Harrowing Halloween

Well, I re-joined the gym on the Saturday after my last post (cycled there and back – 8km each way) and worked out for an hour and a half. In the afternoon I cycled 10km with Fons and the kids. On the Sunday I couldn’t move my arms or shoulders, so I went for the 10km cycle again, but backwards (I mean the other way, obviously – I’m not stupid) to see if gentle exercise would help. It didn’t, but by Monday I was starting to get the use of my limbs back, so on Tuesday I went to the gym again. Oh, and my weight is still 93 kilos – I swear it never changes, it’s just the distribution that varies.

As an incidental point, despite coming in a can of the same colour and approximate size, fly spray doesn’t work anything like as effectively as a mentholatum spray. Although it does actually smell a lot worse, it has no discernible effect on muscle pain. On the other hand, no river insects bit me during the time that I was using it. Nonetheless, I have now made a point of organising my shelves and cupboards more carefully.

Halloween was an interesting time out here. The Neds claim not to celebrate it, instead citing something on November 11th instead – not Armistice Day, though, but St. Martin’s Day (St. Martin is apparently the patron saint of children begging at doors). Somebody in the office commented that Halloween is an American thing (with the usual derisory sneer), so I told them that no-it-damn-well-isn't, it's All Hallows Eve, from All Hallowed Souls, a Celtic tradition (circa 600BC) and an old Northern European Pagan festival of the rising of the spirits of the dead, which was embellished by the Romans during their occupation of Britain in 55BC (1,831 years before the formation of the USA). The trouble is that the Neds are obsessed with America and putting it down (“Americans this… Americans that…”) every chance they get. These bloody Europeans, they’re all the same with their sweeping generalisations. I used to have mixed feelings about our old colony myself, but I now find myself defending it rigorously just because so many Dutch criticise it without knowing what the hell they're talking about. All of that aside, one would imagine that Halloween would be a great deal more popular here, though: I can imagine that they’d welcome any excuse to spend an evening sat in the sauna playing with their ghoulies. [What I want to know is: why can’t all these nations be properly civilised, like the British, encouraging small children to burn human effigies and play with small explosives?] Stuart and I went out, nonetheless, to see if we could spot any celebrations going on, and we were gratified to see that most of the women had dressed-up as male members of the undead, whilst a great many of the men had chosen to go out wearing troll masks (although, in fairness, this might have gone without remark to the untrained eye).

In actual fact, the St. Martin’s day tradition is much nicer than trick-or-treat. The children (and they were children, not just teenagers chancing it) went through the village with lanterns and sang carols at doorways, for which they were rewarded with chocolates. Once again, the Netherlands traditions hark back to an idyllic, more simple, halcyon age – although this romantic nostalgia does little to temper my feelings about the Babbage engines which we are reduced to using in the office.

Watching drivers take lessons around the business park where our office is based, it occurred to me to ask how hill-starts are included in driving-tests. I was quite amused to learn that there are especially constructed hills in test centres for just this purpose. Having said which, once you’ve hill-started on a bicycle with a bag of shopping and a crate of beer on the pillion, anything else is going to be a doddle. Another curious observation, which I had somehow overlooked for the whole time I’ve been here, is that all the cars drive with their lights on all the time. Never mind day or night, light or dark, rain or shine, fog or clear, the lights are always on. One might almost think that the Neds had poor daytime vision – please feel free to draw your own conclusions about these creatures and their unfamiliarity with the world of daylight.

Slightly connected, as will become clear in the next sentence, is golf in the Nederlands. In this country, in order to play the popular pseudo-sport (well, it isn’t a real sport, is it? They’ll be calling darts a sport next), one requires a license (presumably to prove one’s competence on the course: driving in a straight line, not getting too close to the preceding player, awareness of prevailing conditions and surroundings, consideration for others using the same fairway, all the things that clearly aren’t included in the driving test). Rather amusingly, given the counter-flow of traffic entering the Netherlands for beverages unobtainable in neighbouring states, the Neds can choose simply to slip over the border into Germany for a quick round without having obtained said licence. Although I’m sure they wouldn’t dream of it.

Buses, meanwhile, seem to get more reckless as the weather gets colder. I have watched a driver pop into the depot and return with a steaming-hot, flimsy, disposable plastic cup of coffee, get back into the driver’s seat and then pull-away and negotiate a roundabout one-handed whilst holding the cup. Now, and I don’t want to be leaping to conclusions or anything here, but I’m not entirely convinced that that’s safe. But who am I to comment?

Scary news of project pricing techniques, as I learnt that engineering drawings are charged according to the size of the paper upon which they are produced, in direct ratio, with no reference to the variation in complexity or content between, for example, a simple circuit and a scheme plan (for comparison, imagine an A3 diagram of a torch circuit at half the price of an A4 ordnance survey map, and I think you’ll appreciate the absurdity of the situation). I can only count myself lucky that we don’t produce designs on microfiche. Still, it could be worse: if we charged according to the size of the back of the matchbox or cigarette packet that the designs are obviously originally produced on, then we’d be in real trouble.

Further complaints about the standard of handwriting in the office led to the observation that the figure eight (8) is written from the middle – just try it and you’ll see why it doesn’t work – and this is how they are taught to write it in school. Most times it comes out as a six (6), sometimes only as a two (2). One (1) also occasionally manifests itself as a figure which might be confused with a two (2), for reasons that I can’t even begin to think about without getting a headache. From this incomplete and illegible information, I am supposed to identify specific signalling installations somewhere on a several kilometre long stretch of track. Still, I’m not one to complain, so I don’t let it get to me.

Fantastic business ideas: under the stairs there are broken and frankly rubbish office chairs which need to be disposed of. A group email has informed us that they are to be raffled, with tickets available for a mere €5. The first thing to strike me about this is that the ticket price seems to exceed the value of any of the prizes on offer. The second thing that struck me was that it might not be entirely morale boosting for a company to start to raffle its trash to its employees.

It is becoming increasingly clear that I need bigger, more powerful headphones to combat the noise pollution of SLAM FM in the office. What is that track with the incessant bloody whistling on it? Dance music, I tell you, exists purely in order to drive me, personally, to acts of random violence against its advocates: eight looped notes on two instruments, one chorus repeated incessantly with no lyrics worth hearing, no verses – all it achieves is to re-awaken the little voices, which start to scream “KILL! KILL! KILL!” in the most persuasive tones. And then there’s ringtones. No, I must go and have a lie down somewhere dark and quiet…

Cycling to the gym is proving to be more adventurous than I had anticipated, because I am going both ways in the dark and the bike lights are dynamo driven. There are road works just outside Zwartsluis, which are a little tricky to negotiate, because the temporary route is over rubble and between open pits at the sides of the road. Obviously, this necessitates that I slow right down, but then I’m riding blind because the lights go out. Fabulous. So far, I’ve been lucky, but I suspect that the odds are stacking-up against me the more times I make the trip.

This brings me on to the whole issue of dynamo lights. In the UK, dynamo lights can no longer be sold, and battery lights are the only option available, which I had previously thought was a bit extreme, but the reason has now become clear to me: just outside Zwartsluis, there is a roadside shrine to seventeen-year-old Stephanie, who was cycling home one night about a year ago when it began to rain; she stopped to put on her anorak and was run over and killed by a scooter rider, who couldn’t see her as she was now unlit, whilst he was dazzled by the lights of oncoming traffic. The shrine always has a candle burning in it, which acts as a constant reminder of the importance of being well-lit. For the sake of my own personal health and safety, therefore, I have been attempting to chain-smoke for the length of the entire journey in both directions – but given that monsoon season is almost upon us, that’s not going to work for much longer.

Further two-wheeled adventures last week, when a group of us from the office went for an evening out in Zwolle. Fons and I had cycled in to work that day, so that we could cycle home afterwards, but there weren’t enough bicycles to go around, so we carried passengers on the backs of our bikes. I guess my shopping trips had prepared me for the extra weight, but pulling away from traffic lights with the bulk of a guy in his mid-twenties on the back made my front wheel rear-up in a manner not quite reminiscent of the Lone Ranger making a grand exit on Silver – certainly, I don’t recall him ever losing control of his steed and careering into the pavement. No injuries were incurred, thankfully, so we proceeded to the bars for food and drink until, come nine o’clock, Fons and I decided it was time to head for the hills (although, obviously, not literally) and saddled-up for the return journey. Twenty kilometres, in case you were wondering, is far too far to ride in the dark after consumption of excessive libation, and yet it has a fabulous sobering effect, such that, upon entering the village, we found it necessary to stop at another hostelry for further refreshment, which led me to make a rather astute observation: do not drink vodka Martinis on a work night.

It is, in fact, thanks to one other visit to D’Albatross, that I now hold the title of undisputed pool champion of Zwartsluis. Gary, the other Englishman in the micropolis (who also has rapidly greying hair tied back in a pony-tail, just to avoid confusion) consistently wins every game he plays; except that, one Sunday (when he had been drinking all day and I was fresh from the plane), we met up and played a few frames. I won the last game, and so long as I never play again, the title is mine. I remain unchallenged simply by not telling anybody that I’m making the claim.

Outrageous news pedalled from Amsterdam, as four gangsters from the area have become recent victims of ride-by killings. Apparently, major underworld players have been assassinated by mounted assassins, who then rode off into the sunset (on a bike with no name) - it’s like Pale Rider meets Bugsy Malone (the latter of which films I can’t recommend highly enough – if you haven’t seen it, watch it soon).

Last Saturday saw Sinterklaas and about fifteen Zwarte Piets (which is still very wrong, see last years post for an extensive examination of why) arrive in the village harbour on a ship with full rigging. He was greeted by all the children of the area, many in traditional costume; the town dignitaries (well, the manager of the local supermarket); majorettes and a marching band, and it really was a grand occasion. I’ll post some photographs in a couple of weeks.

Just a quick footnote regarding the free grocery box from C1000, which I mentioned in my last post: among the many new lines included in it was a shower-gel called Fa. Sweet. What kind of minimal market research went into the concoction of that name?

Anyway, this weekend I’m off to Amsterdam for a couple of birthday parties (I guess that makes me properly Dutch now, shudder) – although, as time passes, such annual festivities become more pyrotechnical fantasies worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster than simple celebrations. Whatever, they should be good fun, and it’s a chance to catch-up with people. More news as it breaks. Live from Zwartsluis.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Approaching the road to Zwartsluis Posted by Picasa

Leaving Genemuiden Posted by Picasa

View from the ferry Posted by Picasa

View from the 'dock' Posted by Picasa

I mean, how short a journey is this? Posted by Picasa

Possibly the worlds most pointless ferry, connecting Genemuiden to Zwartsluis Posted by Picasa

Genemuiden waterway Posted by Picasa

More ducks in the park Posted by Picasa

Genemuiden ducks Posted by Picasa