Friday, July 08, 2005

Week 59 – Wear Sunscreen

Ladies and gentlemen of the class of '05, if I could have been offered only one tip for the future, sunscreen should have been it. I am peeling badly. On the other hand, the weather has been fabulous, with all the additional benefits that that brings, so I will not complain. There are a pair of herons which live on the river just outside my garden, and every morning I see one of them sitting on the mooring posts scanning the water for breakfast. There are also ducks, swans, moorhens and black-headed gulls, and a glance into the water shows that it is literally teeming with fish and eels. There is other life on the water, too, which I haven’t seen but am nonetheless aware of because it is biting me with regularity. At least, I hope that’s what’s been biting me.

Good weather aside, in the storms which have characterised this last week I have been afforded a view from my apartment which was still very impressive: looking out over the river during a thunderstorm, with sheet lightning and rain falling so hard that the drops bounce back off the surface of the water, and creating the effect of a fire hose being pointed at the window, is really quite an invigorating way to observe what would constitute normally one months rainfall by UK standards falling in just four or five hours.

I am finding it impossible to pop out for just a couple of drinks in Zwartsluis, because I keep receiving additional drinks which have been purchased for me by either strangers or the house. This I find to be a wonderfully friendly attitude and fabulously altruistic gesture; although I do, obviously, feel obliged to make similar recompense – but this is also good, because, no matter how many people there are, a round never seems to come to more than €10. I have no idea how this works mathematically, but I’m certainly not going to start to dispute it. In fact, there is a wonderfully neighbourly feel to the whole village: a great many of the houses have little plaques on the front giving the names of all the occupants, including children and pets, which is very cute even if it does give an unfair advantage to door-to-door salesmen and roaming sociopaths.

Vexatiously, nevertheless, whenever I go out, people keep pointing out to me how different everything is here to life back home. The Neds are, of course, experts on this and know everything about life in the UK or US, because most of their television programs are imported from those two countries and some of them have been to London once. Right.

Village life is actually surprisingly noisy. The locals in bars sing along loudly to the Dutch music and bang wooden clogs (I know, I couldn’t believe it either) together in time with it. They also tend to hit the bar very loudly, so they can be heard over the racket, when they require service. Having said which, lots of these Coastal Krauts are very loud anyway, and always seem to be banging on desks, doors and other stuff. I was initially of the opinion that if they stood closer together then maybe they wouldn’t need to yell so much, but now I suspect that they communicate over such great distances simply because make so much background noise generally that they are now incapable of lowering their voices.

Last weekend was a dual village event: on Friday evening there was a motorbike procession through Zwartsluis – about two hundred classic Triumph motorcycles rolled through the streets, many of their riders even more antique than the bikes themselves; then on Saturday it was 112 day, with demonstrations of fire-men and -women staging rescues from crushed cars and burning towers, and kiddies being given rides in the elevating cage of the Toy-Town sized fire trucks.

I am building-up to joining the physiotherapy unit, which is the closest thing Zwartsluis has to a gym and makes its facilities available for a few hours a week, but it being rather wet of late I have been reluctant to venture out of an evening, and as a consequence, recently spent some hours with my landlord in the basement below my apartment, the concrete structure of which enables music to be played really quite loudly through his industrial-performance speakers without being audible to the rest of the building. Fons is, of course, also a child of the eighties, whose CD collection overlaps substantially with mine; and I can therefore now confirm, without fear of contradiction, that he has impeccable taste in music, women and tenants.

Re-visiting the clothing issue, it has to be said that there really is no concept of fashion over here – men in lurid, fluorescent green shorts is bad enough, but there are young women in short tops and cut-off jeans exposing flat, tanned stomachs; where are the rolls of pasty flab, as is the mode in England? Honestly, they just don’t get it, do they?

Another observation on cultural differences leads me to question the wisdom of the proliferation of coffee shops here. There are clearly no detrimental social repercussions, but a little attention to detail suggests that perhaps hairdressers shouldn’t be given access to quite such large supplies of caffeine (there can be NO other explanation for some of the follicle travesties which abound out here). Hair gel use is also running at levels which may be a cause for environmental concern.

In addition, and maybe I’ve just been unlucky in this regard, the Neds have a wonderful gift for stating the blindingly obvious: you can use this door, you can go tomorrow, if you don’t need much shopping then you can use a basket, you can’t sing (I know that, but it’s not my problem, it’s theirs). Of course, it’s quite possible that people are merely trying to make conversation with me to make me feel more at home, but unfortunately this often takes the form of “when are you going to England again” (an enquiry which I encounter no less than three times a week) which could make a less confident or psychologically balanced person feel that perhaps the natives just wanted rid of him.

I think I’ve been over this before, but it bears repeating: pizzas in the Nederlands are WRONG (they are often delivered cold and for some reason use locally produced kaas instead of mozzarella – it’s not a Dutch dish, guys, it’s Italian – if it was Dutch then it would be deep-fried and bland, and the main ingredients would be offal [Nederish fast-food is a body-temperature nightmare to behold, beyond even Dante’s most fevered imaginings]). The only safe option is to eat Quattro Formaggi, which alone uses the right cheeses, in the restaurant itself.

Further distasteful observations regarding hygiene: I had originally thought that only the Irish pub in Zwolle was guilty of this, but I have now seen abundant evidence of it elsewhere. It’s hot, right, so bar staff wipe the sweat from their brows with their hands. I order a drink – you can see where this is going now, can’t you? – and they reach into the bucket on the counter with their fingers and grab a handful of ice, which they drop into my beverage. Now, if that was what I was after, I’d just walk into the café and lick the bar staff. Don’t get me wrong, there are instances when I’m prepared to taste the sweat from someone’s skin, but that ain’t one of them. What kind of beings can happily consume fluids drawn from the skin of others?

The more I commute by bus, the more evident is becomes that bus drivers are the rebels of the road – they mount kerbs on corners and roundabouts, brake suddenly, drive one-handed whilst talking on cellphones or read whilst driving, and they wear dark glasses and Elvis-impersonator sideburns. Perhaps this level of coolness pays off, though: I have witnessed a surprising level of social conscience, which you rarely see in the UK, whereby a guy spilt cola on bus and then searched out some tissues and actually mopped it up. Flagging down of buses is not encouraged (although, in fact, it is quite common), and to illustrate this, at the bus station (which is also the railway station: integrated public transport system) there is a painted ‘chalk outline’ of a passenger (that’s ‘customer’, for English readers), with one arm raised, on the tarmac. Subtle, huh?

Outside of the office, I am occasionally left flabbergasted by the sheer arrogance of some (fortunately few) people who will ask me a question or enquire my opinion and then immediately switch languages, as if I weren’t there, if they don’t agree with me or don’t want to discuss it further, or if they realise that possibly I know more about their chosen subject than they do (for example, when they are telling me what it is like in England). I have also had my first encounter with one of the “Why haven’t you learned to speak Dutch” brigade. The honest answer (because everybody speaks English to me, unless they’re trying to start an argument) seemed un-diplomatic, so I just pursued my usual tactic of making inane comments until he got bored and went away – hey, it’s a natural talent. One of the best sources of amusement is the insurmountable ignorance of people who think that they can insult me in their own language without my understanding what they’re doing. [Many of the words in bar conversation are easy enough to understand (a great deal, like the word “slymbal” (slimeball), sound the same in Neder as they do in English; and, guess what, I can easily decipher the shrouded magical secret code hidden in the use of the word ”Engels”), I’ve already made the observation that all the swear words are the same, and insults are the first thing I make sure to learn before I come to another country. Smeerlappen.]

Further observations regarding language: the expression “living, breathing people” in a film the other night was sub-titled as “people of flesh and blood.” I was troubled that the translation was not made literally, but perhaps there is a need to draw some distinction between these two groups, for certain audiences. Who knows?

Another interesting language point which I’ve noticed is that Slagroom written on the side of a building indicates that they serve whipped cream, not that it is a house of ill repute, which was my original misimpression. Why it gets written on the side of buildings is a mystery.

Recent discussions have indicated that my phrase book is misleading: it gives the translation of ‘no’ as ‘nay’, and yet even casual observation reveals that the actual word is somewhere between ‘naynaynay’ and ‘naynaynaynaynaynaynay’, depending on how excited the speaker is. Actually, so anxious are some people to hold sway over dialogues that they will continue to neigh-away until they have something else to say.

More evidence of cell-phone dependency was revealed when I witnessed a guy typing an SMS while cycling, which looks as dumb as it sounds and cannot be safe. On the subject of typing, it is very noticeable that the literary device ‘…’ is used a great deal in communications by email and the ubiquitous SMS, almost as though the Nederese cannot conceive that a sentence might just end…

For the sake of honesty, and of protecting my reputation as a reliable source of accurate and unbiased observational critique, I will now make a retraction of a retraction of a statement I made some time ago: almost everybody does talk with their mouths full, and nobody covers their mouths when they cough. I have attempted to educate some of them to English levels of manners and politeness, but have been forced to accept that it may be an impossible quest to endeavour to cultivate these foreign types.

The view from my garden is continuing to be quite pleasant in the sunshine; although, as the number of tourists increases, the women squeezed into bikinis are increasingly interspersed with women who merely have swimming costumes stretched around them. The boundaries of taste are further eroded by the costumes which have clearly decided that they have been placed under demands well beyond the call of duty and have given up trying to conceal flesh altogether. I now draw my curtains when I eat.

Mary came over for a visit for a week the week before last, which meant I got real home-cooked food and vegetables and everything (I get excited about good food much more easily since I’ve been here). She weaned me off the noodles, too, by treating me to sandwiches, which I’ve continued to make for myself subsequently (“cold meats, processed cheeses”). Also, my shirts got their badly needed annual ironing.

There is a boot (boat) which comes with the apartment I’m renting, so we went out in it the first weekend she was here. Anyone who remembers my previous maritime experiences (I have a bit of a history: capsized a canoe in Wales, fell out of a dinghy during a depth survey in Wiltshire, steered a boat into the only steel-clad section of bank on the Norfolk Broads) will be unsurprised to hear that I managed to first trap us by tangling the rotor in paling (eel) nets against the bank, after which some passing Germans helped me to escape (which sits uncomfortably with me, for inexplicable reasons); and then, pulling away from the bank, I rammed another boat by accident (but caused no serious damage, fortunately). Also, whilst lost in some backwater area, we witnessed the thankfully obstructed view of naked boaters fishing – there are some things you just don’t need to see.

We also went later in the week to Giethoorn – known in the Netherlands as “Little Venice” because it is a maze of waterways and bridges with really pretty thatched cottages (apparently the Germans and Americans love it, and it seems geared towards exploiting this with holiday-home and boat rentals) – and enjoyed an excellent meal at a pub called De Fanfare, where the academy award winning black and white movie of the same name was shot in 1958 (on sale as a DVD at the bar).

Last Saturday Mary returned to the UK, and Fons very kindly offered us a lift to Schiphol. We drove out over the dykes, so there was water on both sides of the road, and it really was breathtaking. We passed literally hundreds of wind-farm windmills, and the bird and plant life is abundant and varied. Halfway there we had to collect another car from a garage and then deliver the first car to Fons’ parents, in Lelystad, some forty klicks away just outside Amsterdam, so I got my first taste of driving over here. Left-hand-drive: no problem; right side of the road: no problem; overtaking (“pass the Dutchie on the left-hand-side”): no problem; roundabouts: dis-orientating, but not so bad as I’d expected; gearstick: major difficulty: every time I went to change gear, I found myself reaching for the door handle, which is a little frightening although, fortunately, I didn’t actually manage to open the door. As an aside on the subject of driving, I still can’t believe how close together the cars are on roads: in England, we try to maintain safe stopping distance (except in the overtaking lane of the M1, of course); here, the rule seems to be three feet (one metre) apart, such that the only time when a reasonable distance is being observed is when the car behind is being towed. Also, perhaps because the land is so flat, most people seem to just stop their engines when they park: still in gear, no handbrake, just switch off the ignition and get out. [In fact, most of the sense of this country (the language, the food, the traffic, the CAD, the circuitry) is that a group of children have been allowed to just make the whole thing up as they go, with no rationale, rules or clear understanding of any of it. But who am I to comment?]

I still tend to read or write poetry in while sitting bars (partially because I have an artistic temperament, but mostly because I’m really quite pretentious) and this has led me to the observation that the Neds seem to be very suspicious of writing. Whenever I am observed scribbling in a book, someone will invariably ask me what I am doing, and will then insist on being allowed to read what I’ve written. This has, of course, given me a much wider audience than I’m used to, with the result that an increasing number of people in the village are now of the opinion that either a) I am quite poetic, b) I have a fairly depressing outlook on life, or, more commonly, c) that I have extraordinarily bad handwriting.

So back to the job. Every engineering drawing is identified only by its eight digit barcode, every project by its six digit serial number, and I am apparently expected to memorise all these details for every file I work on, because all I’m going to be asked is whether I can open, edit or re-print “that drawing from the other day“. Fantastic. At any time I can be working on several areas of up to five or six different projects which are all quite similar (you know, railway signalling). Still, I love a challenge.

There would appear to be trust issues in the office: the monitors have been padlocked to the desks; and yet the plot server has the login username and password printed and stuck onto the keyboard. This has got to be the oddest approach to security I’ve ever come across.

Clarification of a mystery from my previous post has materialised: it transpires that a waterpasinstrument is actually a spirit level. It still doesn’t look like that’s what it says to me, but it kinda fits Albert’s SA translation of what it might be. Designs which pass my way of late seem increasingly to be identical copies of the same circuits, using the identical relays and contacts with even the same annotation – I mean, they’re so similar it’s hardly worth changing the sheet numbers; all that is happening is that a few designs were done about thirty years ago and are being copied over and over again without anybody even knowing what all the components are for. This is design in the same way that I design cupboards that I buy from Ikea and assemble at home. Curiously, the only time this doesn’t occur are in the designs that I would expect to be standard circuits, where simply copying seems to have been beyond many people. I’m currently working on circuitry designs which appear to have been originally produced on a typewriter (1976 – I have no idea what they were thinking of, but I’m trying, really trying to stay calm).

Thursday saw a Brit interviewed for another position out here – he usually works in London, so he picked a damned good day to be out of the office. He seemed like a sound guy. We’ll find out later whether he takes the position.

I have been involved recently in huge arguments regarding circuitry, because colleagues start to argue with me before they’ve taken the time to listen to what I’m trying to tell them. All I can say is that next time somebody tells me that “it doesn’t matter”, I’m gonna crack open the automatic weapons. Live and loaded from Zwolle.

[If you fancy a laugh, check out the Anti-Dutch Movement at . The disclaimer is crucial, and particularly good. The Dutch Problem Test is a riot.]

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