Friday, January 28, 2005

Week 36 – Better Ned than Dead

Let me begin my saying that I have learnt that the readership of my blog is somewhat wider than I had originally anticipated (apparently this internet thing has become rather popular), but that I will in no way allow this to dilute or influence the opinions which I express.

Anyway, despite my famous skills of tact and diplomacy, I believe I may have, once again, upset a few people this week, when I pointed out that the addition of three more letters to the name of the country gives undeaderland, which is an observation which I found deeply disturbing. The people in the office just laughed and turned quickly away when I mentioned it [this from a nation where, whilst all the women are breathtakingly lovely, most of the men (with the obvious exception of anyone who might be reading this, of course) look as though they should be spending their weekends hiding under bridges and scaring Billy Goats. Having said which, they are a wonderful and noble people, and really, really great to work with – especially the Fries (pronounced freeze, they’re not chip people) and the ones with facial hair]. My suspicions are only heightened by the manner in which, whenever the Neders see you eating one of the perfunctory meals which they affect to use for sustenance, they always wish you “eet smakelijk” (enjoy your meal) in an automatic, almost robotic manner, which might lead you to think that perhaps they were acting out a role, rather than revealing their true nature…..

The more I see of the country and its people, the clearer the reasoning behind the draconian tax system over here becomes to me. What I failed to take into account initially was that the majority of the nation’s wealth is untaxable: the greatest levels of productivity which I have observed are in drugs, prostitution, counterfeit goods (mainly cigarettes, which I thought were cheap enough here already, and which are clearly identifiable by the printing errors) and piracy of music and films (at almost epidemic levels – I have tried to explain the concept of theft, but, frankly, they just don’t seem to get it, almost as though they had no conscience…), which I suppose kinda redresses the fiscal balance in favour of the population. The ubiquitous fish and cake, conversely, and pornography (of which there really is an unfeasible amount, sold even in supermarkets and placed on low shelves, presumably for the gratification of sexually frustrated short people) are taxed to the fullest extent of the law. Hence, also, I suppose, the low crime rate over here: there are virtually no laws, and those which there are remain largely unenforced.

The lovely Bianca returned to work on the seventeenth, after the birth of her daughter, Carmen, about whom we get to share every little bit of information regarding anything and everything she does (as is so often the case with virtually all new parents). During the three days that she now comes in, Bianca leaves Carmen with her “elders” (her word - which has a wonderful tribal (or covenal) sound to it, I think) while she significantly reduces the oxygen content of the office with her chirpy chattering.

John Caddick, that esteemed master of signalling design and train/speed profiles, came over again to visit for a week this week, burning his air miles before they get scrapped in favour of shopping discounts, so last Saturday evening we were in Kampen when we learnt that there was a darts tournament (the Open Kampen Darts Tournament, apparently) going on in a sports centre in the North of the town. Now, neither of us is darts fans, but there was nothing else going on in town because almost everybody had gone to see the darts, so we got a cab and went out. €10 for the cab each way, €5 each for admission and within ten minutes we were looking to get out again. It was like a big community centre with an alcohol licence and a thousand people in it, and frankly it was a most unimpressive venue. However, it transpired that it was in fact worth going after all, because it gave me a chance to view another aspect of Nederese culture: in the eight months since I got here I’d seen no violence in Holland, yet it now seems that too much lager (they call it beer, but it isn’t) and a lost darts match is all it takes to fire up a serious fight. One guy lost his match and, obviously the worse for wear, picked up a steel barrier (one of the four-foot wide tubular portable fences you tend to see at public events) and started swinging it around as he stormed across the floor away from the darts lanes, and the ensuing scuffle/fistfight involved about twenty spectators before the disturbingly large, imposing security staff moved in and broke it up.

Thursday and I was still trying to live down my footwear mistake of the previous day (it’s dark in the mornings, so it’s easy to pair a brown shoe with a black one, even if they are slightly different heights – I told them it was the latest fashion in England, but I’m fairly sure they didn’t buy it). In my defence, they were both the same shape and fastening mechanism, so its almost understandable.

I can’t cope with the weather here anymore. I don’t understand the TV or radio reports, so I look at the three day forecasts in the newspapers, and last Vrijdag the forecast indicated that on Zondag there would be clouds, hail, snow, rain, lightning and sunshine. Well, that kinda covered all bases, so I figured the forecasters probably just didn’t have a clue what was going to happen and then on Sunday we did in fact pass through all of the aforementioned conditions in the space of two hours. That’s just greedy, in my opinion. The snow is relentless, and because the wind is so strong it blows past the window like long striped snakes. Nonetheless, it always settles. Temperatures, meanwhile, continue to flail wildly between 0°C and -8°C, which is apparently unseasonably warm, and consequently the snow remains on the ground for five days or so (the authorities don’t seem to salt the roads at all. and most areas here seem not to get exposed to direct sunlight often enough to melt it…). It’s just clearing now, but we’re apparently set for another five days of snow from tomorrow, so that hardly matters.

Once again, I feel I may have tactlessly upset people with regard to tonight’s ‘feestavond’ (feeding frenzy?), a traditional night held every Januari to see in the new year. The venue is known beforehand (Apeldoorn, a large village halfway between Zwolle and De Bild – apparently in order to make it equally inconvenient for all members of the company), and everybody goes in casual dress, but the theme is a mystery: so no-one knows what they’re supposed to be doing. All I said was that it sounded a lot like being in the office. Anyway, soon to find out: we’re leaving for the gathering at five o’clock.

That’s pretty much the lot for the moment. More updates if I live to see the dawn. Undead from Zwolle.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Week 34 – Bob’s your Uncle

So, straight after New Year (yes, Monday morning – everyone in England complains that we don’t get as many bank holidays as other European countries; but nobody seems to be aware that, if a public holiday falls on a weekend, it’s lost: only Good Friday and Easter Monday are guaranteed, and only then thanks to the day being in the name) and I’m greeted by the news that the law in the Netherlands has changed and all citizens and foreigners aged 14 or over must now carry their passports (Identificatieplicht) at all times (for the first time since German occupation ended on May 5th 1945, which seems to be a bone of contention), on pain of a fine up to €50 (see for details). I can’t see that working on the beaches, myself, but I suppose that’s only really going to be a problem for two weeks in May, anyway.

In addition to that, I have learnt, it is considered normal here to submit to blood tests and to show all your qualification certificates in order to secure a mortgage, any kind of insurance or a loan. I have asked, and I have been assured that the Nazis were vanquished at the end of WWII (to Buckingham Palace, I’m being informed by my colleagues here - thanks for that one, Harry), but it looks to me like they took over the government and financial institutions, and I gather the Nederish populace shares my feelings on this matter.

Other governmental actions over the holiday period included a frankly inspired drink-drive campaign, informing the Neds that, when out drinking, somebody has to remain sober to drive home – this person being denoted Bob, as designated in the slogan for the TV and poster campaign, 'Who's Bobbing, you or me?' – which I suspect would have very different connotations in the UK, especially after the consumption of alcoholic beverages. In fact, just thinking about the creative idea process behind that makes me want a drink. It seems that Bob stands for Bewust Onbeschonken Bestuurder (Deliberately Sober Driver). Needless to say, people aren’t falling over themselves to be ‘Bob’. (Think about it).

Curiously, despite the Neder nanny-state fussing over controlling every aspect of the behaviour of its population, and despite the civil unrest after the murder of Theo van Gogh some two months ago, it seems that nobody is concerned that the newspapers continue to run the aforementioned’s column empty most days, with a small picture of him and the dates 1957-2004. I would have thought that was inflammatory; but, on consideration, suspect that the intention is simply to save money, because it’s much cheaper than hiring a new columnist.

Anyway, another nice Neder tradition came to light on the non-Bank Holiday Monday morning, as everyone gathered in the canteen at eleven o’clock for orange juice and consumption of the ubiquitous cake; coupled with shaking of hands and the Neder three-cheek kissing (left-right-left, obviously: they’re a little odd, but they don’t have three cheeks) whilst wishing each and every other member of the company “Gelukkig Nieuwjaar, Beste Wensen en Gezondheid,” which took quite a while and left me with a sore throat (because G is pronounced Kkkhhhaa, as in the death rattle of a mummy in some cheap Hammer flick, or, now I come to think of it, the sound of a vampire in full attack), chapped lips and jaw ache. Pleasingly sociable, though.

Meanwhile, there was sad news from Dewi, as the bone and muscle implanted from her hip to her face did not take, so she had to have another operation to remove them and have them replaced with a prosthesis. However, this has been a success and she left hospital on Monday and is already out buying handbags, shoes, and other girly things. Arianne, too, is making good progress with her new knee, and is beginning to walk again, which is great news.

Schiphol has finally been accepted! Pro(Amateur)Rail have spent the last few weeks looking for a reason not to pay for it, and couldn’t find one. Hah! Vindicated! [Smug? me??]

My first weekend back in Kampen came as an unpleasant shock to the system, because I’d kinda forgotten how long those two days can last. Anyone who ever thought I was in love with the sound of my own voice (and face it, you all did) can rest assured in the certainty that that passion is now long since past. Weekends in Kampen are 63 hours (5pm Friday till 8am Monday) of knowing that the longest conversation I’m going to have with another person is going to be at a supermarket checkout, paying for my microwave meals for one and telling the cashier that, no, I don’t have a loyalty card (bloody rubbish clogging up my wallet so I can get one whole penny back for every ten quid I spend, while the shop continues to update its database on my life: my shopping habits, where I’ve been, my relationship status (meals for one, meals for two), substance abuse (coffee, alcohol, cigarettes) and sugar and carbohydrate addiction – ah, brave new world). Still, every little helps – clearly, since the company in question posted profits to year end of ₤1,600,000,000. But I digress….. And still nobody gets my jokes out here (I know, I know, ce qui est la diffĂ©rence).

So to another Monday, and Alfons and I decide to go out for a beer after work to celebrate/commiserate his divorce proceedings/forthcoming marriage. He doesn’t want to walk to the pub, and I have no bicycle in Zwolle, so he carries me on the back of his, which is quite a frightening way to travel (he cycles like he drives) and leaves me bruised, aching and walking bow-legged (yes, yes, I know: “oh, that Dutch beer makes my bum sore”).

By mid-week, the rainy season is in full swing (apparently, the near constant rain before was off-season rain, though still normal; this is more severe and proves that the previous precipitation was really just messing about). Use of umbrellas is unfeasible in the Netherlands, because of the intensity of the wind – I believe my brolly was last seen somewhere over Northern Belgium – so the choice is to wear a hood (no-no-no-no-no) or get very wet. To give you some concept of what the rain is like, imagine a voodoo doll of yourself being stabbed repeatedly and ferociously in the head by an insane compulsive psychopath using needles made of ice. And, apparently, it hasn’t even gotten cold yet. Fabulous. Curiously, the only acknowledgement made to this ongoing climate change is that the golf season is now deemed over and football is the new in-office sport (which includes tackling and headers, incredibly). Wrestling, meanwhile, appears to be an all-season office sport. I tell you, it makes no sense to me at all.

Another strange observation, as the winter chill begins to bite, it that the women out here (who wore jeans and trousers all summer) have begun to wear skirts, and short skirts at that – a few skirts so short that some would find them offensive to the sensibilities, though I myself am blessed to be a broad-minded and liberal individual. Nonetheless, I have to ask myself how warm blooded mortals can find such exposure comfortable.

Anyway, that’s the lot for this time. I’m off to a bar to try to thin my blood to un-appetising levels before I head back to Kampen to shiver and vegetate in silence for 63 hours. Live (but not as we know it) from Zwolle.