Friday, June 17, 2005

Week 56 – The Sanest Lunatic in the Asylum?

So, originally I was here for a twelve month contract. By mid-week of week 53 my account on the computer network had been cancelled. I called IT in Zwolle to get it re-activated. The same afternoon it was cancelled again by the IT team in De Bilt. Once more I called our IT to get it fixed. The morning after that it was cancelled yet again and then there was another power-cut across the whole of this side of Zwolle (but they always happens when the sun is shining, so no real cause for complaint). Three hours later the power was back on and my account was re-activated an hour after that. The next morning it was cancelled again and so I rang P&O (Nederish for HR) who had also deleted me from their records, and once more got re-activated. So far now it’s stayed on. On an associated theme, it took me 48 weeks to get my name on the group email list, and by week 54 they’d taken me back off. The phone still seems to be working, but it’s a good thing I’m not prone to paranoia, I can tell you.

On the upside, my new agents (Metro acting for BRI) are superb – just so much better than the Ewings. When I email them, they phone me right back; and, more to the point, it’s quite apparent that they’re genuinely interested in actually representing me and making sure I’m happy. Moreover, and this is the real clincher as far as I’m concerned, they pay me what they say they’re going to pay me when they say they’re going to pay it, without the prevaricative padding that their predecessors used.

Back to the job (where I have acquired the lamentable nickname ‘noodle’ thanks to my restricted lunch options) and I am becoming increasingly frustrated by the complete lack of procedures or systems– every time I think I’ve managed to establish some kind of a standard (from sketchy, minimally explained requirements), my colleagues change slightly what they require from it; and there are only so many times I can feel the motivation to invent the wheel again before I start to question the point of doing anything at all. Nobody else understands why I have a problem with this: consequently, I get the feeling, most of the time, that I am the sanest lunatic in the asylum.

Meanwhile, we are producing detailed drawings from what an outside contractor laughingly refers to as “designs”, which are actually incomplete scribblings of ‘Wisselstroomvoeding’ (SwitchPointsFlowFeeding) and ‘Wisselvrijmaking’ (SwitchPointsFreeMaking) on cut-up photocopies which have been sellotaped together in a manner which would make a Blue Peter presenter blush. As if that wasn’t enough, there are pieces of circuitry which have been glued over the top of other circuits, so that I have to turn the diagrams over and hold them up to the light to see what’s underneath them; and, in an amazing display of prescience on the part of the contractor, there are also photocopies of sheets where this was done so that it is completely impossible even to speculate as to what has been obliterated. I point out that other circuits are incomplete, because there are wires just dropping off the left-hand side of the sheets (presumably the “designers” ran out of sellotape and glue at that point) and that therefore there is no power input (although, in fairness, this doesn’t really matter, because there’s no output either), and I am told to just draw it anyway. Right. Frustrated? Me?? Good luck setting the points, guys. Then there are the engineering queries, which can be best summed up by this recent exchange: “This isn’t right.” – “Yes it is, look – oh, uh, mmm – what’s this?” – followed by ten minutes of searching through what pass for design standards and typical drawings out here before the eventual concession that it is, after all, hopelessly wrong, but that it’s not entirely clear what needs to be done to make it right. Of course it isn’t. Eventually, I get the start of an answer to my query, but as soon as my colleagues start to feel that they’re on uncertain ground, they scurry away obviously hoping that I’ll let it rest at that – it’s been a year, you’d think they’d know me better by now. Most of the time, they try to placate me with Nederisms: if I hear one more time the expression “it’s typically Dutch” as an excuse for leaving things unfinished or incomplete, I swear I’m gonna scream.

While I’m about it, there is a colour system for marking-up designs, whereby blue is used for recovery, red for new, yellow is used for checking, and green for notes that I don’t need to be concerned with. So components are marked blue for recovery, then checked in yellow. Mix blue and yellow, go on – what have you got? Every day, I swear, there’s something new. Goat farming, now there’s a sensible career option: constant, unintelligible bleating all day long; standing around chewing the cud; stopping to eat whenever the fancy takes them…

Of course, it’s now becoming apparent that the fashionable sport in the office is to wind-up the Engelsman. They know I can’t read the language, so I often get designs marked-up with notes in which the Nederese words (or place names, if they’re feeling really cruel) have most of the letters in them in roughly the right order, but beyond that are unrecognisable. In addition to which, the conjoined words can’t be found in any dictionaries anyway – I think they just make most of the language up as they go. Oh, I just have hours of fun.

Then there are the troublesomely paradoxical requests: Can I print an ‘Out of Order’ sign? “Of course,” I say, what for?” The printer. Now, I like a challenge but, c’mon.

The level of naivety displayed is another thing that sits awkwardly. One of our blonde receptionists was complaining of arthritis in her shoulder, so I bought her some cod liver oil capsules (which are good for easing joint pain). I asked her if they were working and she grimaced and said yes, but that they were a bit large. It occurred to me that I hadn’t told her not to chew them, so I mentioned it and it transpires that she, well, how can I put this delicately, she hasn’t been taking them orally.

Reading menus is a disquieting experience: beef, pork and lamb are described respectively as rundvlees, varkensvlees, lamsvlees – literally cow flesh, pig flesh, lamb flesh; a little bit unsophisticated, a little bit disturbing (a little bit obsessive, perhaps, to over-emphasise the mortality of the creatures upon which they feed). Oh, and of course the word for plum is the same as the word for chewing tobacco (pruimen) – well, why wouldn’t it be?

Major embarrassment recently, since I have been using the AltaVista Babel Fish translation engine to de-code group emails, and while the boss, Martin Eikelboom, was looking over my shoulder, we noticed that his name translated as ‘Martin nipple tree’. Very funny, but more than a little uncomfortable to have him next to me when it came up.

The limitations of Babel Fish are, in fact, becoming increasingly apparent, a point which is ably illustrated by this translation of a recent memo:
“Colleagues, The one want who waterpasinstrument these have lent on or for Tuesday bring back 13 June. These are then checked on Wednesday within the framework of the quality control on deviations. As from Thursday they are then for the arrangement. For he who no longer weet or they have a toestel of our follow here the data: Nikon AC-2SG with number 412953 Nikon AC-2G with number 310043 Nikon AP-5 with number 315117 If you can the not certain weet take you always still even contact with me. I stretch your collaboration.”
: I dread to think what a waterpasinstrument is, but if people can no longer weet then I suggest they just make their own arrangements, rather than entering into deviations or having their collaboration stretched.

I’ve done a little more exploration of my new surroundings in Zwartsluis. Pub-crawls are redundant since there are only three pubs, D’Albatross, Blizzard and Rommelbek (badly fitting false teeth, which makes about as much sense as the ludicrous pub names now favoured by trendy lager bars in the UK). In the last of these, one Ned has, on two Saturday nights, disturbingly tried to sell me a dance with his wife for €150 – which seems to amuse him greatly despite it being a clearly ludicrous proposition; I presume his wife doesn’t understand Engels, since I earnestly doubt she’d be so entertained by his sales pitch. I say his proposal is ludicrous simply because wed Nederesses of a certain age have a curious predilection for cutting all their hair off and wearing what little they leave in a style which can most kindly be described as butch. I have asked women who have not done this why the women who have done it did it, and they are at as much of a loss as I am. I’m not nearly stupid enough to ask the question of one of those who has had it done. But back to Zwartsluis: there is also a butcher, a baker (but no candlestick maker – they don’t seem too fond of naked flames over here), a hardware shop, a software shop, a hotel, a pizzeria/kebabshop/steakhouse (rather a good one, actually), one of those places which passes for a Chinese restaurant over here, a supermarket (more a large Londis, actually, but serviceable) and a post office. Being English still leaves me feeling a little alien, but there is at least one other Brit living here (Gary, who has dwelt amongst the cloggies for seven years), so at least I’m not the only gray in the village.

Of course, no longer being on a rail link (Zwartsluis is largely land-locked, and must be accessed by a ferry from one side or a bascule bridge from the other), I now have to rely on buses. Initially, this filled me with trepidation and yet, as with their trains, Nederland has managed to get buses to be both frequent and punctual (despite being run by Arriva and Connex). [Having said which, in the UK I’ve never been on a bus which was forced to brake hard because it had been cut-up by another road-user.] Possibly one of the reasons behind the rather good public transport system over here could be the additional funds for investment made available by the fact that fare-dodging has been all but eliminated by efficient policing: there are always two guards on the trains, one going up each side of the carriage; and buses regularly get pulled over by the Bus-Gestapo (black uniforms, black peaked-caps), at which point three of their number climb aboard and go through the whole carriage. It would appear that steroids are a mandatory feature of such personnel’s diet, which makes them fairly intimidating, and if a passenger doesn’t have a ticket then they are obliged to buy one at a substantially increased price there and then. If they can’t pay on the spot, then the fine increases further and is issued to the address of the fare-dodger; and there is no avoiding this consequence because, if someone is caught not carrying valid ID (or a passport if they are a buitenlander (expatriate) or an allochtoon (foreigner)), then the police will be called, leading to arrest, a punitive fine of €250 and some time in prison. Personally, I’m not sure if this is going to help to promote tourism in the Nederlands, but as a knee-jerk reaction to some half-imagined threat to the national security, it’s quite effective.

Priority mail from Nederlands to VK (Verenigd Koninkrijk) takes 2 days, yet airmail from UK to Netherlands takes 1 week.
Grapefruit look like oranges, and if placed where oranges normally reside will be considered oranges and purchased as such. I loathe grapefruit (too damned bitter) and it’s taken me a fortnight to finish them.
When moving between time zones, it is easy to get confused about whether you remembered to change your watch if you try to watch Tuesday night television on a Monday night (I was tired, alright), especially when the BBC keeps telling you that it’s an hour earlier than it is.
When washing-up new, very sharp knives by hand, care needs to be taken with positioning of thumbs in the washbowl.
Basic food hygiene seems to have left the country. If you eat out, don’t watch the food being prepared (wiping hands on trousers has supplanted the requirement for soap and water) and take no notice of the smokers in the kitchens.

Last night, Fons, Jasper, Erwin, Janko, Daniel and I went for a few beers after work. And a few more. I’m not entirely sure what the occasion was, but we certainly seemed to celebrate it in style. I think there were three bars, there was a rather good steak at some point, and I have now learnt that a house coffee is a drink which really doesn’t have very much to do with coffee at all. Consequently, I’m feeling a little fragile this morning. The associated sense of unreality is exacerbated because this Friday there is another national train strike, and so the office is thankfully almost empty. It’s quite eerie, in fact, because public transport is so heavily used in the Nederlands that, on the occasions when the trains don’t run, most people who need to commute any serious distance just take the day off and stay at home. The feeling is almost as if the country is sleeping, certainly from the perspective of this region anyway.

Just as a footnote, and I know I’ve mentioned it before, but seriously: red trousers – Why? Why?? Why??? [Although, now that I think of it, I can see how they might be useful for concealing scarlet stains.]

Live (and therefore, unhappily, fresh) from Zwolle.

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