Friday, May 20, 2005

Week 52 – “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in”

Well, so this is pretty much the one year mark of my time over here, all but four days, and my new contract is about to start. I am, fabulously, poised to tell my current agents, the Ewings, to go forth and multiply - I have renewed belief in their ability to perform such rudimentary addition and multiplication because, after only ten and a half months of invoices, telephone calls and emails, they have finally admitted that they still owe me for eight hours overtime that I worked in the week ending 2nd July last year, and have now agreed to pay it. My only remaining complaints regarding their representation of me relate not to the agency itself, but specifically to the expansive prevarication of the agent to whom I was assigned, whose litany of mistruths regarding the conditions of my employment, accommodation and flights were exceeded only by his cowardice, hiding tremulously behind the excuses of his subordinates ("he's on another line…..oh, no, he's out of the office"), and who patently failed to address any of the issues or questions which I brought to his attention during my first year here. Still, all’s well that ends.

Having travelled using EasyJet now for a year now, I can honestly say that I’m very impressed: by and large, the flights are punctual, and the staff are always smiling, courteous, efficient, good humoured and friendly – I cannot fault them. The passengers, on the other hand, are an entirely different story: for a start, when it’s announced that the holders of the first thirty tickets can now board, sixty people start to queue; then, during boarding, everybody just has to sit at the front of the plane, so they can get off first, and so they block the aisle while they pile their hand-luggage into the racks (because, it seems, delaying lift off by stopping other people from getting on the plane doesn’t make any difference to arrival time). Beyond this, a large number of them are clearly ignorant or stupid, since they find it impossible to follow even the most basic instructions, such as: switch off mobile phones, put seats upright, don’t switch mobile phones on (in fact, pig ignorant and stupid, because going through customs after the flight there are big signs saying ‘MOBILE PHONE USE PROHIBITED IN THIS AREA’ in addition to giant pictures of cell-phones with big crosses drawn through them – although, in fairness, nobody could be expected to see these because they’re all peering at their phones while they SMS whoever the hell they think cares that they’ve landed). I do my best to ignore them, which is helped by my recent interest in world theologies leading me to indulge in reading the Koran on the aeroplane, which seems to make my fellow passengers wonderfully uncomfortable (I’m still an agnostic, but I’m now an agnostic who knows that he’s definitely going to go to hell – heck, sometimes, in Schiphol, I’d think I was already there if it wasn’t for the sight of sparrows rather entertainingly hopping around under tables in the lobbies and living on discarded fries. Luton, by contrast, is far too thoroughly squalid to be confused with hell).

Koninginnedag, (the previous queen’s birthday, oddly enough) was on Saturday the 30th April, and everything was closed. Get this: it was a Saturday and everything was closed (remember shops closing? For reference, compare to the UK on Christmas Day or Easter Sunday). Mind you, it was also the current Queen Beatrix’s Silver Jubilee this year, so I suppose it’s fair comment. They really go all out for their festivities, too: bands, flags, fireworks, and scooters driving around blaring their horns all night, streets filled with tables and beer abundant. Never one for daytime drinking (or much of one for competent evening drinking, as my imbibing companions of late can readily testify), I chose to cycle to Zwartsluis (Blacklock, about 32km ≈ 20 miles) to view my new digs, which Fons is completing the conversion of from its previous incarnation as a bakery below his house. The place is fantastic: a really spacious apartment with two bedrooms,a bathroom and separate toilet, a large kitchen/lounge and a small garden where I can sit and watch the boats come through the lock. The village is about fifteen klicks out of Zwolle, across a ferry from the neighbouring village of Genemuiden, and I got to spend the day (and have lunch – fish, of course – and sample some Belgian beer) with Fons, his elegant wife Ingrid; their three lovely children, Bart, Marelijn and baby Eline; Fons’ parents, Jan and Martha; and his charming and well travelled sister Marga. Oh, and his Dad’s beautiful King Charles spaniel who has the fantastically unlikely name of Glen Whiskey.

I’m still trying to overcome my frustration that Visa cards don’t work in shops, supermarkets or railway stations – “we only take cards from local banks” – and, combined with the “Chipknip” card payment system, this makes it virtually impossible for any non-Ned to spend any money at all except in cash (which, curiously, isn’t accepted everywhere) – even their internet sites will only take money from Ned accounts. [As an aside, I wonder what monumental brain decided to do away with exchange difficulties by adopting a single currency, and then chose to pursue a cashless society using 19 different and non-interoperable systems (count ‘em: Quick, Proton, Danmønt, Avant, Geldkarte, P-Card, Paycard, CASH, Opera, VisaCash, MiniPay, Cassamat, Chipknip, Chipper, SIBS, SEMP, CECA, 4B and Mondex) across the continent. Pure genius.]

Which brings me, once again, rather neatly to my issues with lunch. Since I am no longer able to eat in the canteen, I have actually been saving money by bringing fruit into work and eating at the local snack bar, Anytime (open 10:00-19:00, Mon-Fri – go figure) where they make a superb Filet American. The human digestive system is not designed to deal with raw meat for more than three days in a row, I found out the hard way, and so I have been forced to return to more convenience food. The office has no microwave, but there is a kettle - ah, Cup a Soups and Cup Noodles (it seems Pot has other, rather different, connotations over here); and to think I was afraid I’d go hungry. The tragedy of this is that the canteen, whilst scarcely providing haute cuisine, was pretty much the only real food I was getting.

And so, circuitously, to supermarkets again: if you shop in the Netherlands, then make absolutely certain to check the sell-by dates on every item you pick up, ‘cause sure as hell no-one in the shops is – I’ve seen stuff over two weeks past date still on sale, and grow increasingly weary of telling shelf-stackers their jobs. In an attempt to stabilise my shopping, I have taken to doing a full weeks shop in one go and balancing my steering by hanging one grocery bag on each side of my handlebars. Unfortunately, this presents the bags at pedal height, and so judicious packing is essential to ensure that produce is not damaged – I learnt this through making inadvertent mashed banana one recent evening. In my defence, my attempts at trying to do too much on a bicycle are justified by the blatant overuse of such vehicles by the Nederese themselves: I have seen people walking dogs from bikes, towing trailers, pushing prams in front of them …

And to the job. I’m still re-producing hand-drawn bonding plans on CAD, so that we can make design modifications, and I’m checking and re-checking my measurements of distances and angles and I can’t find my mistake but I know that it’s there because the drawing just isn’t turning out right; but no, what I’d failed to take into account was that the rails on the original plan are getting closer together – I mean, what kind of trains are they running out here? Oh, and the kilometrages are getting harder and harder to believe: the other day, I came across ±67.502 – that’s about as vague as it’s possible to get, it really makes you wonder why they bother.

For the information of those lucky enough not to work in railways, the presence of a train is detected by track circuits: the basic principle being that one rail carries a positive feed and the other is the return leg, so the passage of a train shorts these circuits progressively and hence its precise location on any given route is known. Well, I’m working on this bonding plan (last updated in 1992), and I’m presented with a positive feed which runs straight into a return leg and thinking ‘this can’t be right’; but the scary thing is that, if it is right, then for thirteen years the piece of track in question has appeared to be constantly occupied by an immobile train and yet signalmen have been setting routes for other trains straight through it.

Other rather disturbing observations on electrical wiring occur in the office: if the kettle is boiled whilst the drinks machine is dispensing, all the computers go down; when the cleaners switch on a vacuum cleaner in the early evening, all the screens warp and roll. Having said which, last Thursday the whole of this part of Zwolle lost power thanks to building work going on near the station – a familiar scenario to Amey veterans who worked in the Rotunda, Birmingham, during the Bullring construction.

On May the ninth, it was announced that our designer Cornelus and his wife Petra’s new daughter, Kim, had been born: weighing in at 8 pounds and 52 cm long (they use long instead of tall, presumably for bragging in the pub purposes) a zusje (sister) to their thirteen month old son Timo – I’m telling you, they don’t mess about to catch their breath or anything in the lowlands. I expressed surprise that the weight was given in pounds, and you are absolutely NOT going to believe this, but I have learnt that it is usual to weigh babies in pounds and it is also common practice in the Netherlands to go into the butchers or a supermarket and ask for half a pound of meat, because it’s easier than asking for 250 grams and it’s near enough the same weight.

Weather, while much like that in the UK, is still continuing to exhibit schizoid tendencies: we have so far had brilliant sunshine, pouring rain, and now snow in May. I have already touched on the concept of cycling with an umbrella in previous posts, but it’s raining a lot harder now so I’m slightly more experienced at it. Riding into the wind is near impossible, like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain; riding with the wind behind me is quite scary, because the brolly acts as a sail; but the most alarming thing is stopping: I have the umbrella in my right hand, because I’m right handed, and this seems fine until I apply the brakes – I now know that the left lever applies the front brake. Thanks be for bushes, the cyclists’ airbag.

A brief mention for Dewi, who made an appearance in the office late yesterday afternoon to catch up with everybody. She’s really getting back to her old self, and is looking more like the Dewi we remember every time we see her. I was invited to join her and her brother for the evening, and we enjoyed a typical Dutch meal of Big Mac and fries (with mayonnaise instead of ketchup - a small cultural difference, I’ll grant you, but a difference nonetheless) and chatted for several hours. During this time, a friend of hers dropped by and, during her brief visit, her bicycle was stolen; she was kicking herself, because she’d left it unlocked - the UK equivalent would be leaving the keys in the ignition - so really it wasn’t surprising.

Finally, an observation made last Saturday regarding economies of scale: it takes one to two hours to perform one week’s domestic cleaning, but if said cleaning is left for six months then it can still be satisfactorily completed in only eight hours. As luck would have it, just as I finished my round of dusting, polishing, vacuuming and mopping, Wendy (the house’s owner, returned from her South American travels) dropped by unannounced to discuss arrangements for the handing back of her property, and said she was pleased how nice I’d kept it. I told her it was a good thing she didn’t arrive a few hours earlier, but I’m fairly sure she thought I was joking. I am, however, still kept unpleasantly occupied killing literally hundreds of little black winged insects which have started emerging through holes in the brickwork and taking a position of occupation in my digs every time I go out or sleep: in, around and under everything. On the upside, the fly-spray I’ve been using seems to hang around, so I’ll go out in the morning from a clean room, and when I return in the evening I find insect corpses carpeting the floor, which are easily vacuumed away. I will have to mop again thoroughly before I move out, of course, because the floors and windows are now liberally smeared with the blood of these slow moving creatures. I’ve mentioned this infestation to Wim, Wendy’s father, and he related that the same thing happened last year: even the insects out here are immortal, it seems (“Hollander, you cannot die”).

Anyway, the week draws to a close, so I’m back off to Kampen to continue the carnage of these multi-lived beasts. Live from Zwolle.