Thursday, March 24, 2005

Week 44 – Prettig Paasdag

Spring is upon us, and whilst I shall miss the sight of children building little igloos and babies normally pushed in prams being pulled on sleighs, I am relishing the higher temperatures (which are still five degrees below what you are enjoying back in Blighty). This is fortunate, because it appears that I may be continuing out here beyond my initial twelve months, but I sincerely hope that I shall no longer have to be dealing with my current agency, who I shall henceforth refer to as the Ewings (which won’t present viewers of Countdown or mental goats with any serious challenge to interpret, but avoids leaving me open to litigation), an agency which consistently takes the mick, screws me (a cryptic agent name reference) and then, in an effluvial stream of prevarication, claims that they didn’t make any of the statements and promises that they have been making for the last ten months. If you can deduce who I’m talking about, then be warned. On the other hand, one advantage of dealing with the Ewings, has been that it has taught me that statements and apologies which are not made sincerely are empty and worthless, so I would like to take this opportunity to withdraw my apology of the previous posting to blondes, and IT and admin people.

Totally as an aside, I was finally able to get back to the UK two weeks ago (after my snow cancellation a fortnight earlier, which I’m pleased to say EasyJet refunded promptly and without quibbling), and while I was there I bought some new spectacle lens cleaning cloths from Vision Express. I was mightily disturbed to see that the instructions specify ‘Not suitable for use with contact lenses’. The whole world has gone mad – oblivion, take me now. I try take heart that the Mayan calendar ends on December 21st 2012, though I suspect the conspiracy theorists are wrong, and this is just where the Mayan’s ran out of ink, rather than the end of the world.

Arianne made a brief appearance in the office a couple of weeks back, and I’m pleased to be able to say she’s looking good: still walking with a crutch, but she seems happy and she’s obviously getting back to her old self despite the chemotherapy – certainly, she wears her head-scarf jauntily. We’re expecting her to come back to work a few days a week in June, and she’s as pleased as Punch because her hair is starting to grow back.

Dewi, meanwhile, has had her recovery hampered by pneumonia, but Alfons, Shahram and I went to visit her in the hospital (zeikenhuis is curiously denoted H on road signs, go figure) in Groningen on Wednesday and the anti-biotics seem to be doing their job. I showed up with ‘VERVELLEN’ stamped on my forehead, in an attempt to give her a laugh (hey, I’m already the ‘Crazy Englishman’, what have I got to lose? Anyway, it only took twenty minutes to wash it off at the end of the day). [In actuality, I was lead to believe by the guys in the office that this translated as ‘deleted’, but disturbingly AltaVista’s Babel Fish gives it as ‘to expire’, so I count myself lucky that I didn’t run into any hungry Neds.] Dewi seemed to be really doing well, and was in better health than we were expecting, which is re-assuring, but there were too many of us there (including her father Michael, mother Jessica and sister Jennifer) so we were only able to stay for about ninety minutes before heading back out, at which point Alfons (an ex-resident of Groningen) took us to a rather good Shoarma restaurant for a late snack (Turkish and Greek food in the Netherlands, in contrast to the Indian and Chinese food here, is really rather good).

It has become apparent that my knowledge of Nederish is weaker than I previously thought – I have now learnt that the health warning ‘Roken is dodelijk’ does not mean ‘Smoking is easy’, although I still think it was a perfectly understandable mistake to make. Oh, and the term ‘lekker ding’ has to be used with discretion, to avoid being slapped in the face. Experience is a good teacher, but always too late to be of any use.

Requiring hair maintenance and shopping, I went in to Zwolle at the weekend, and I was quite impressed to notice how many public buildings had wheelchair access, until the real reason for the ramps became clear when I saw someone cycle out of a restaurant. What was I thinking? Anyway, it has been driven home to me that it is probably unwise to get a haircut from a non-English speaking hairdresser. I know what I think I asked for (a trim, and to remove my sideburns) and he assured me that he knew what I meant. So, I’m sitting in front of the mirror, but with my glasses off, obviously, and it doesn’t look like he’s doing what I expected, but, hey, he must know what he’s about, right? I now have fully an inch of shaved clear head between my ears and the start of my hair, a look apparently popular with gabbers (dead-head-Neds: refer to for disturbing images of Dutch chavs, check if you don’t know what a chav is). Still, it’ll grow back – probably not as fast as I’d like, but you live and learn.

Whilst travelling about, I saw (well, you couldn’t miss it) that last weekend there was a national annual bike race – evident from the number of closed roads and bridges, switched off traffic lights and junctions manned by eight police, two cars and a motorbike. Everything stops: you simply can’t get anywhere for like twenty minutes while all the bicycles go past, fist in blocks and then in dribs and drabs. Now, I can understand restricting traffic for the first fifty or so riders, but, after that, there are only losers – maybe it’s a little harsh, but I say, let them take their chances with the traffic.

Back in Zwolle for a Saturday night (Kampen offers mighty few options for socialising) and I run into a guy from Yorkshire in Sally O’Brien’s, the Irish pub (everywhere you go, theme pubs like a plague), who is so pleased to meet someone who speaks English that he chats to me for twenty minutes before he decides he’s too drunk to stay out and goes home. Fabulously, this farewell sentence was the first thing he’d said to me that I’d been able to reconcile into coherent words. Ah, the English abroad: ambassadors for our country, every last one of them.

So, back to the job, and I’m currently reproducing track plans digitally from paper prints. This is mind-numbingly tedious, and is only really challenging because the prints I have to work from look as though they were projected onto the side of a building, those projections were photographed from a tremendous distance, the photographs were photocopied and then those copies faxed before I even got to see them. Despite this almost total illegibility, it is apparent that the original drawings were produced digitally. "Why don’t we just work on the digital files?" I ask. They weren’t kept – well, who could have known that these computer thingies would catch on? In fairness, the UK made the same mistake (railway people aren’t always the quickest at grasping new ideas), but certainly not since the early 1990s – the practice remained here until early 2004.

Far, far scarier, I’m in the middle of a track layout and I see a platform set between two sets of tracks, and next to it a set of level crossings. Well, obviously the only way to the platform wouldn’t be through the level crossing, would it? Well, yes, it would, apparently. The only platform at the station, and you can only get to it by crossing the tracks. And this is normal, of course. Safety? I don’t believe they don’t know the meaning of the word.

Meanwhile, the whole office is out two days a week at the moment on training courses, although I’m still in, obviously, since the courses are in Nederese. Thanks for that, then. The lights, which I believe I already mentioned are controlled by sensors, keep switching on and off all day; the silence is deafening. The upside is that I can play my own discs all day (Tears for Fears, Howard Jones and Talk Talk at the moment - I never really did get much past the eighties); when everybody else is in it seems to be a diet of dance music or house, and yet they have the nerve to bitch about the leaking sound from my headphones. D’ya know, I long for the silence of a proper design environment.

I’m still having issues with the concept of version control out here: 3 in black scribbled out in green with 2 in green ringed in blue and 4 in red. This is apparently to indicate that the version was 2, is currently 3 and is now becoming 4. I suppose this is very useful for anyone who doesn’t know what order numbers normally come in, but I’ve always assumed that engineers would need to know how to count as an absolute base level of education. Having said which, these are the same people who seem to think that 4.284km falls between 4.278km and 4.282km. Then, somehow, there are ‘J’s that look like ‘3’s and ‘4’s that look like ‘9’s – fortunately, I’ve never been one to complain. Beyond that, equipment that is new is coloured green; recovered kit, which was but is no more, is also coloured green – I have asked why, in the name of all that is holy, and have been told that this is in the interests of keeping things simple. Of course it is. I’m just impressed they use three different colours for their signals. Clothes, on the other hand, use more colours than I was aware existed: boldly checked and striped shirts seem to be making a real comeback, inexplicably, and some days I get a headache just looking at my colleagues.

Then there are the concepts which are clearly backwards: the timesheet software (and I use the word in its loosest sense – I always thought that computers were supposed to make things easier, but no) is called Oracle. Now, traditionally, in ancient Rome, an oracle was a person considered to be a source of wise counsel or prophetic wisdom, essentially a seer into the future. Timesheets look into the past. A fairly obvious difference, I would have thought, but not one that apparently registers with people to whom the concept of time is meaningless.

Curiously, for a nation with such religious proclivities, it seems that they don’t do Good Friday here. On the other hand, they do celebrate 2e Paasdag (2nd Easter Day, Easter Monday), Koninginnedag (Queen’s Day – I don’t know, Gay Pride? - 30th April, lost because it’s a Saturday), Hemelvaartsdag (Ascension Day, 5th May – a Thursday), Bevrijdingsdag (Liberation Day, commemorating the end of WWII occupation; also 5th May, this year, much to the chagrin of the populace), 2e Pinksterdag (2nd Whit Sunday – 2nd Whit Sunday? Be honest, it’s Monday, isn’t it?) and Kerstdagen (Christmas, obviously).

If it seems I’m becoming increasingly sarcastic at the expense of my hosts, this might be explained by my bitterness at having to feed, conversationally, on the scraps from the table of dialogue that my colleagues and acquaintances deem fit to translate for my consumption. If you’re used to taking part in any kind of decision making process or the debate of any issue of interest, then you don’t want to be here unless you’re fluent in Nederese. I ask questions relating to design procedures, which prompt twenty minute discussions resulting in “do it like this,” with no further explanation supplied. If apathy ain’t a trait you’re anxious to develop, then this is not a way you want to be working. Having said which, in the early days, when I could still be bothered to press for a why, it usually came down to ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it.’ Yes, similar logic used to be used to explain the practices of sacrificing virgins and worshipping the moon….. Apparently, people still get stoned over here.

Anyway, I’m off to Schiphol for a long weekend chocfest in the UK. Tot straks. Evil from Zwolle.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Week 41 – Snow Way Out

First off, I want to add some points about the Amsterdam museum, which I kinda skated over on my last posting. As Mary and I went through the galleries, it became apparent that the artists had all been very bad at doing noses, because all the people portrayed in the paintings seemed to have unrealistically long, thin, almost comical noses; but worse than this, when we left the museum, we noticed that most Amsterdamers actually do have unrealistically long, thin, almost comical noses. Honestly. The other thing worthy of mention in the museum was that the same faces kept appearing in all the paintings of the town fathers, by many different artists, over a period of hundreds of years…..

Anyway, the following Sunday (Zondag) (or whenever it was, I’m beginning to lose track) Dewi’s sister Grace, who lives somewhere in Kampen, kindly gave me a lift to Haarlem to visit Dewi, who had been allowed a weekend out of hospital, at her parents house. The inclement weather was beginning to come to fruition at about this time, and powdered snow swirled across the roads much in the manner of the wraiths in Ghostbusters. Our ninety minute journey also gave me my first sighting of any windmills since I’ve been in the Netherlands – and I kid you not, there are hundreds of them, and they’re all kept very busy. On arrival, I was heartened to see that Dewi was in fine form, and the scarring (which was quite extensive, initially) has thankfully all but disappeared from her face. So I spent a few hours in the company of Dewi, Grace, parents Michael and Jessica, and additional siblings Jennifer, and Jeff (they’re certainly fond of their ‘J’s over here) while they treated me to Indonesian coffee (sweet, very nice), home-cooked Chinese food (superb) and cheery conversation. Good news from Arianne, meanwhile, since she is apparently getting on well with her new knee and is able to run with crutches and drive (at least as well as anyone can drive in this dodgem car hell).

The weather went from bad to worse over the ensuing days, and I promise you it’s no laughing matter cycling in blizzards – suddenly all that facial hair starts to make some sense. I was quite impressed to find that the Neders, whilst not really at the forefront of technology with their cars, have developed some kind of cabriolet gloves, with which the fingers lift up and fold back as with convertibles, only with velcro fastenings – which is really very handy. I realise that it’s been quite cold in Blighty, but quit your whinging because, trust me, you have no idea – it’s always 5ºC colder here than it is over there. Last night it dropped to -19ºC, which is apparently a record low for March. The rivers are ice, and the ducks are walking around on it like, “where’s my water?” For the first time ever, I’m starting to worry about the freezing point of beer.

Tuesday brought us 18cm of snow – oh, so much snow. They don’t grit the roads or pavements in the Netherlands because there’s never a sufficient break in the snowfall for it to be effective, they claim. One potential upside is at lunchtime, when snowball fights break out regularly; however, this rapidly lost its appeal for me when I remembered, as I have mentioned before, that nobody cleans up after their dogs in this country, and snow may be masking some unseen nastiness.

Yesterday (Thursday, Donderdag) I had planned to come back to the UK for the weekend; but, what with the snow and rail engineering works, it took me three hours in the freezing cold to get to the airport, where I arrived just in time to watch my flight drop from the screens while I was queuing to check-in [there is only one runway open at the moment for all outgoing and incoming flights at Amsterdam] so then I had to change my railway ticket (amidst a throng of similarly inconvenienced fellow travellers, most trying to get the Eurostar to Brussels) so I could get back to Kampen on the Thursday, rather than the Sunday as I had originally planned, then deal with more changed routes and cancelled trains and trains which were so packed that every seat was taken and the gangways were filled with standing passengers and the doorways were jam-packed with more passengers so the doors were only just able to shut, until I was finally (eight hours after setting off) able to get back to the village of the damned. I was no longer hungry by the time I got back to my digs, but I ordered a take-away anyway, just so the delivery guy had to ride his scooter through the snow (why should I be the only one to have a bad day?).

So to Friday, and I find myself once again expressing consternation to my colleagues because I find a drawing (an engineering design) where the wires are labelled 1.5 squared – I mean, what’s that about. Back when I was in school, they would have whipped you to within an inch (25.4mm) of your life for that. 1.5 what squared? “It’s normal,” I’m told. Yes, I suppose it is…..

Well, that’s about all for this time, except that it’s been suggested to me that I am sometimes a little caustic in the way I express myself, and that therefore perhaps I ought to apologise to anybody I may have offended over the years: so listen, I’m, like, really genuinely sorry – especially for everything I’ve said about blondes and people in admin., oh yeah, and I.T. support people. Whatever. Till next time. Live (or, at least cryogenically preserved) from Zwolle.