Thursday, April 21, 2005

Week 48 – An Infinite Number of Monkeys

So, as I settle in further into the culture out here, reconciled to my extended residency, I find that many of my initial impressions were wrong. To elaborate, I had previously opined that there was no crime in the Nederlands, but I now learn that bicycle theft is epidemic to the extent that is considered normal and not even a criminal activity. The shocking thing about this is that the populace actually seems unconcerned, because the loss will be covered by insurance. Also, it seems to be deemed a bonus that, whenever people are out, they can always buy a cheap bicycle to get home. Equally, shortly after I got here, I suggested that all the swear words were English, but I now suspect that I may have got that the wrong way around: it appears that most of our swear words are actually taken from real words here. For example, the word for rent is huur, breed is fokken, and pissen also means exactly what you think it does (work out the pronunciations for yourself, but I think you’ll get the idea).

Beyond this, my impression of the Nederish as friendly, helpful people only seems to apply to their behaviour toward foreign visitors. Coming back from Schiphol a few weeks back, I saw a lady struggling with bags and so, of course, I helped her. ”You must be English,” she said, and went on to tell me that most Nederers tend not to help each other out, or even take much notice of people in difficulties, almost appearing oblivious of their surroundings in a way which will be very familiar to users of King’s Cross station. “Everyone tends to be out for themselves,” she continued, “not like the English.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth, but it’s good to see the rest of the world still regards England as being cultivated.

On a particularly thirst provoking Tuesday recently, at 17:30 I pop into what they euphemistically refer to as a café after work, accompanied by two colleagues, who I shan’t name here to spare their blushes. There are always newspapers and magazines left on tables for customers to browse as they imbibe, which I have never taken the time to look at since they will not be written in English, so I’m frankly flabbergasted when the Fries Design Manager and the Persian Designer in question pick up a couple of copies of Playboy and start to peruse the pages of said literary supplement and discuss the relative merits of various images whilst sitting in window seats, as the waitresses bring us our beers. Seldom do words fail me, but, really, what is the point of trying to educate or cultivate a people who have abandoned the mores of social acceptability so completely? There are times when I begin to suspect that this is all some kind of a dream and that reality has left the building. The concepts of what constitutes reasonable, respectable behaviour and normal adult sensibilities in a developed social structure seem to have almost completely bypassed this enclave of Europe.

Another surprising revelation which I have noticed is the amazing detergent properties of Dutch air, which enable some people to wear the same shirt for several days in a row, apparently without being in any way sullied by sweat or the environment. Then again, we’re not that far from France, I suppose, and at least they seem to wash daily.

Refreshingly, the whole greetings card industry is a lot less complex in this country. I’m searching for birthday cards (I know a lot of Taureans – who seem to believe in astrology and hence keep telling me their star-signs - which makes this a busy card time of year for Hallmark) so I’m looking for cards for fiancées, sisters, brothers in law and all that sort of stuff; but there’s nothing. Either it’s your birthday or it isn’t, there’s none of this special relationship card nonsense. Now cakes, well that’s different, of course: there’s a special cake for every conceivable occasion, as well as a whole cornucopia of cakes for no occasion whatsoever.

The more I see of cars in this country, the clearer it becomes that the Neds drive like they cycle: all over the place (they cross into the left hand lane to take a right turn). Yes, the shortest route between two points is a straight line, but please, they cut blind corners - it’s like a demolition derby without, miraculously, the impacts. Having said which, at least they don’t double-park their cars – I’ve returned to my bicycle on a few occasions to find I have to move four or five others just to get at it.. It’s also only fair to say that there’s not much problem with people talking on cellphones while they’re driving; ever frugal, the Neds prefer to text – I swear, I’ve seen it..

Indeed, the love affair with communication technology is more plague-like here than it is in the UK. Even with the office relatively quiet, there is time to dwell on the tragedy that cell phones (also known as mobile phones) aren’t made lightweight and conveniently sized to enable them to fit easily into pockets, rather than be left ringing unattended on desks – and yet, simultaneously, I like to bask in the glorious truth that the tune a cellphone plays when it rings is a reflection of its owners personality and a measure of their essential individuality and taste, which simultaneously confers a measure of the coolness of the original ‘artiste’ upon them.

Despite my prior observation on Nederers not helping each other out, there is a real sense of teamwork in the office – sometimes as many as three or four people gather together to send a fax or operate a photocopier, and often they’ll stop for a coffee and a chat afterwards. Then again, this is also a part of the wonderful, laid-back culture which is exemplified by the attitude that just standing or sitting around chatting still constitutes work, as long as it’s done in the office.

Given that I am set to be here for at least a further twelve months (while the rail network is allowed to sink into a deeper state of decay back in Blighty), I have decided to make a concerted effort to learn to speak Nederish and, to this end, I’ve attempted to research courses in Ned as a foreign language. However, since no courses are advertised in English, I have no idea if they’re available or not.

Back to the job, and I am currently working on a project in a province called Purmerend Overwhere. Overwhere? Yes: it seems the name Overwhere is considered far more acceptable over here than it would be over there in the UK. I just give up. The signalling itself isn’t that problematic, or it wouldn’t be if they used tunnels (admittedly unwise, since the country is only about three feet above sea level) or bridges. As it is, I’m looking at a stretch of line which has seven level-crossings over a two mile stretch (three of which are only separated by one eighth of a mile -That’s virtually adjacent) and the gates on every single pair are called ‘a’ and ‘b’. Well, that helps to distinguish between them. There are other letters available, guys. “But we can use the kilometrages,” I’m told. This in a land where they don’t even produce scale drawings – I, for one, have absolutely no faith in their ability to accurately measure distance. Then there are the abbreviations, which make no sense to me at all: for some reason Paggen (a gate close to the track) is abbreviated to pag’n, and yet aggen (a gate not so close to the track) is abbreviated to ag’s. Why? Because it is. Whatever. Oh, and symbols I don’t recognise which no-one else recognises either. “Just re-produce it like it is there.” Sure. Somewhere, an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of PCs are just copying each other, with no idea of what they’re doing or why, and waiting until the cake comes out.

So to April Fool’s Day, and I figure something’s expected of me, so the night before I re-arrange the keys on Arjen’s computer keyboard, which I figure is harmless but entertaining – and perhaps it would have been, if he’d noticed. As it was, he got his password wrong three times and got locked out of the system. He tried to blag an excuse by saying he touch-typed, and didn’t look at the keys, but I pointed out that in that case he would have got his password right (I only moved the keys, I didn’t rewire the keyboard). That just kinda takes all the fun out of practical jokes, really. On the other hand, it gave me a further opportunity to expand my language knowledge, and I now know that ‘lijp’ means daft or silly, and ‘onverlaat’ is a rogue or villain. There were other words, but I don’t think it’s necessary to detail them all here. Co-incidentally, later that day, I sent a sound-clip to a blonde receptionist who has asked not to be identified (presumably to avoid embarrassment in the eyes of her husband, Raymond; her son, Justin; or her co-workers Simone and Claudia), and she emailed me back to say that she couldn’t play the sound but the video was nice. Ah, sometimes the amusement just seems to generate itself.

A couple of weeks back, I was intending to put in some extra hours over the weekend to build up credit, but Martin, the boss, said that while I was here he considered himself to be responsible for not only my physical well-being, but also my mental well-being. Now, I respect a man who likes a challenge, but frankly I don’t think he knows what he’s taken on there – fools and angels spring to mind. Anyway, the upshot was that, since it was going to be a good weekend, he thought that I shouldn’t work the Sunday, and instead suggested I to cycle from Kampen to Zwolle alongside the river Ijssel. It was a scenic ride, but it was a scenic eighteen kilometres. I reached Zwolle and dismounted walking like a cowboy. There has got to be a market for more comfortable saddles. Well, just around the corner from our office is a large building called the Eco-Drome, which has always kinda interested me, so I decided to check it out. It’s a great place, with lots of different environments created inside its climate controlled building - they have otters, owls, vultures, turkeys (the first time I think I’ve seen one that wasn’t on a plate) spiders (all kinds, from all over the world), fish (really, really huge fish) and lots of endangered species which have been killed and stuffed so that coming generations don’t miss out on them. All in all, it was a really good outing. I mentioned it to the guys in the office on the Monday, but obviously, since they live right by it, no-one else has ever been.

As an aside, of late, elastic band fights have started breaking out around 17:00 (everyone uses 24 hour clock all the time in the Nederlands, both in writing and in conversation), which started out as just friendly sport but seems to have developed into an England versus Nederlands thing, leaving me significantly outnumbered and frankly without a chance. I have tried to point out the unfairness of this, but I guess when a country hasn’t won a war in five hundred years they’ll take any victory they can get. In fact, they claim it’s not even England versus Nederlands, but track versus signalling – although, since most of the signalling team starts to leave at 15:00, that still means it’s only me defending myself against the pagan hordes.

Good news from Dewi, meanwhile, who is back with her parents and is now able to eat small quantities of food properly, rather than through a tube; except to say that, since she is getting her senses of taste and smell back, she may not want anything further to do with us in the near future. Them’s the breaks, I guess.

During my time in the Nederlands, I seem to have retained a static weight of 93 kilos (if not going to convert that to imperial for you, but look, I’m big-boned, alright?), although obviously the gym is paying off because my belts are having to be tightened and my trousers are now too big for me around the waist. Re-assuringly, I am able to take this as conclusive evidence that dieticians are all talking nonsense, since I am practically living on convenience food and beer (alright, Mum, and fresh fruit). Nonetheless, work has seen fit to enforce a diet upon me with the introduction of a Chipknip only system of payment in the works canteen. Chipknip is some kind of card payment system for small amounts of money which is a function included in the Neder bank cards and which has the incredible advantage of having had the pin-code and signature requirements removed so that there is absolutely no security on it - Genius. This means that, since I don’t bank out here, I can’t eat (opening a bank account as a foreign worker with temporary residence is, apparently, virtually impossible. Not that I would use Chipknip anyway: idiot bloody system – I mean, what are they thinking?).

In the interests of owning up to my mistakes, regarding the public holiday detailing of my last post: okay, Whitsun day, not Whit Sunday: Whitsun begins on Whit Sunday, but apparently lasts the full week. Also, it seems, known as Pentecost, Whit Sunday is the seventh Sunday after Easter (which, itself, is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring equinox – sounds a little pagan to me, but who am I to comment?), and supposedly originally named White Sunday, after the white baptism cloths, because Whit Sunday was a very popular time for baptism. Yes, I’m sometimes wrong, but at least I research it.

Defending the honour of the British, I am sometimes forced to resort to making derogatory remarks regarding the lineage of my hosts by making recourse to references to Dutch in English expressions, and it seems there are a few more than I was previously aware of. I am always hearing references to the English as drunkards, so I was first, naturally, driven to inform my colleagues of the concept of Dutch courage, which apparently was first used in the mid-seventeenth century, and alluded to Nederish sailors gaining their sea-battle nerve from rum. Following hot on the heels of that, I learnt that "well, I'll be a Dutchman's uncle!" originally meant "thank-you for your unsolicited, useless advice!", rather than simply "bugger me!", which was what I’d always understood of it. Obviously, Double Dutch refers ably to the gibberish that I hear around me all day, but it seems also that it refers to a game of jump rope in which players jump over two ropes swung in a crisscross fashion. Going Dutch seemed to surprise them, despite the fact that ladies are always expected to buy their own drinks (that Dutch frugality again). Needless to say, after I’d concluded my listing, I found myself to be in Dutch - in disfavour or trouble.

Well, that’s all that’s fit to print for now. I’m off Schiphol and a flight to Blighty for Mary’s birthday celebrations. Till next time. Live from Zwolle.