Friday, September 16, 2005

Week 69 – Food, Drink and Culture

Well, summer came back. We enjoyed a fortnight of temperatures in the high twenties and low thirties just as everybody returned from three weeks of holiday taken in teeming rain, but that brief reprise ended yesterday and sunlight is now just a distant memory. Walking one recent lunchtime before the rains came, a conversation came up regarding how difficult it is to farm land adjacent to dykes (because sea-water seeps up through the soil, so crops don’t grow well), and it emerged that, whilst in English we refer to salt-water and fresh water, in Nederish the terms are zoutwater (salt-water) and zoetwater (sweet-water), because sweet is the opposite of salt. This brings me to a point where I am finally willing to answer the question I’m still being asked by the Cloggies, which is why haven’t I learnt to speak Nederlands. Quite simply, I have friends (it’s true, I tell ya) who are fluent in other languages, and they tell me that they actually reach the point where they think in the language that they’re speaking. I’ve met people who think in Dutch, and, frankly, I’d rather be lobotomised than make my thought processes suffer like that.

I’m still being eaten alive by bloody insects coming in off the river. Whilst the summary execution of this tiny midges provides good entertainment in the evening, when the cable TV has gone down, it seems that enough are still getting through to make a decent meal of me most nights. Speaking of decent meals, and growing heartily sick of living on microwaved mush and pizza, I’ve been brushing–up my cooking skills, starting with scrambled omelette (which is prepared just like normal omelette, but in a slightly more catastrophic fashion) and progressing to steak and salad (I’ve discovered that cooking isn’t actually that difficult as long as I’m only dealing with one item. Some time ago, I did actually cook myself a three course meal: egg, bacon and sausage. I realise that, technically, that’s only one course, but since each was separated by about a ten minute interval, I figure I’ve got to call it as I find it.). In fact, I am finally starting to try to domesticate myself a little, and have taken to ironing shirts, rather than simply drying them on hangers (which works surprisingly well, actually).

Since I was given cinema tickets by the company for Christmas, I decided to take the plunge and visit a bioscoop. Unable to access film reviews, I went to see The Island (an advertisement for perfume, automotive manufacturers, a prominent software company, some magazines and a forthcoming computer game). I don’t want to talk about the film itself, although to surmise: if you’ve seen the start and the end of Logan’s Run, and the middles of Coma, Capricorn One, The Seventh Day and The Prisoner then you’ve experienced much better use of celluloid and got pretty much most of the salient points of the movie, save two or three fairly good jokes. Anyway, in the middle of the film – not at a natural break or anything, right in the middle of a chase sequence – it stopped, just stopped dead. This is the interval, when the audience can buy more beer, popcorn or chewing gum, or pop outside for a smoke. I would have thought that the sale of gum in a cinema was just asking for trouble, but learnt later that it actually has a fabulous cleansing role in that it enabled the audience to walk most of the litter out of the theatre after the performance on the soles of their shoes.

More Monday morning angst as I’m greeted with some message telling me that my password has expired and I must select a new one. Nothing unfamiliar there, but then some other message appears which I eventually get translated as ‘you are not authorised to change the password on this PC.’ Magic. I have to change my password, I am not allowed to change my password. Fortunately I brought a book with me, because the I.T. department don’t start what they like to call work until about 10a.m. Well, what can you do?

Rather amusingly, the Dutch love to adorn things with writing in English, but they really aren’t very good at it. To illustrate my point, there is a biscuit tin in the office embellished with the words: ‘Teddy Bear loves dear nature so much. He really takes care of his family and his friends. Human also loves sweet life with a happiness of their life and warm heart as Teddy do so. These pretty cookies have good quality, and they are fit to “Teddy Bear style”!’ Beautiful – absolutely nauseating even if it was correct. My duvet cover at home has: ‘Thinking of you stop a while to reminisce and to pleasantly review happy little happings and the things you used to do’ printed on it. Seriously, if they can’t do it properly then why bother at all – I mean, I realise that Nederese is an ugly little language with horrible guttural sounds and only one word where English has sixteen (the constant quacking of “lekker” is just one example of the limitations of a language which seems to have been stripped down to a level where the Orwellian vision of Newspeak looks positively liberal) but, if they’re going to translate, then it would surely be sensible to at least check that the new text has been rendered correctly. Another example of this simplicity of thinking is illustrated by the department store Hanos, which has giant signs on its side testifying to the availability of both ‘Food’ and ‘Non-Food’. Words don’t fail me at this point, but given the restrictions placed on my missives by email firewalls, not to mention general propriety, I think perhaps I’d better keep them to myself.

Another interesting ‘cultural’ point is that, when buying shower gel or anti-perspirant in a chemist's, I am often asked by the checkout staff whether it is a gift. I have always responded in the negative, and yet I have seen other customers having such items gift-wrapped at the tills. Now, I can only draw one of three possible conclusions from this: a) the Dutch are incredibly cheap with their gifts (just a suggestion, no more); b) the Dutch are often making thinly veiled insults with their selection of gifts (surely not); or c) the Dutch consider personal hygiene to be a rare occupation associated with birthdays or other special occasions. But who am I to comment?

Then there are the descriptive words: makkelijk means easy, smakelijk means delicious, heerlijk means delightful, and so it would seem natural to draw the conclusion that the suffix –lijk means like. No, lijk means corpse or cadaver. Draw your own conclusions, but sinister just does not cover it anymore.

Another observation comes from the enquiry, “have you got any plans for the weekend?”, to which the response is always that there is a birthday party that they’re going to. Every weekend. I suppose that, if you live long enough, then you’ll always know someone who’s having a birthday, but I would imagine that getting older would lose its fascination eventually. The truth is, of course, that people are expected to attend the celebrations of all their friends and every member of their extended family – fortunately, for many Neds, this can be achieved without travelling much further than a ten kilometre radius of their own home.

Incredible evidence of further Orwellian Double(Dutch)think came in the news at the end of the month, as the government announced that it is seeking to ban foreigners from using ‘coffee’ shops. Apparently, the problem is that, having legalised the sale (but not the cultivation, inexplicably) of exotic coffee, they have found that people are coming into the country and buying it. Yeah, that would concern me too – and who could have anticipated it?

One thing I really can’t get over is the attitude of the Neds to those around them in general. In fifteen months, I am the only person I have seen to give up a seat on a bus or train for a lady (I’m an Englishman, dammit, and I’m determined to make that still mean something - especially now that we’ve won back the Ashes). Moreover, pedestrians routinely continue to cross roads and car-park entrances while traffic is waiting - I’ll make to stop and be told that “they’ll wait”, as if that makes ignorant behaviour acceptable; cars stop, blocking a single carriageway, and ignore the queues building behind them until they have finished their business; cyclists ride two abreast on narrow carriageways, seemingly oblivious to the cars and buses behind them waiting to pass. Far scarier, I have witnessed cyclists, circumnavigating a roundabout, ignoring and blocking an ambulance (lights flashing and sirens blaring) which is already on the roundabout and waiting to exit – remember that cyclists travel in packs of a hundred or more during rush hour and you’ll get some idea of what a significant a delay this can cause. It’s almost as though they have no awareness of the fragility of mortality…..

Missed opportunities, as I came across a student on who was looking for overseas workers in the Nederlands to interview for her thesis. I volunteered for a telephone interview and, over fifteen minutes, I couldn’t come up with a single negative thing to say to her about my experiences of the place. What was I thinking?

Anyway, once a week or so I like ‘treat’ myself to a proper meal, so come the weekend I popped into Zwolle and decided to try an Italian restaurant. There were no Italians on the premises, which should have been all the warning I needed, but I ploughed ahead regardless. It seems that there is no area of foreign food which can’t somehow be ruined by using cheaper, inferior ingredients and little cloggification of the recipe. This is what the Dutch think Italian food is: pasta and bread. Everything else can be substituted. Parmesan is replaced by a locally produced cheese (the Dutch are very proud of their wide selection of cheeses, all of which are totally indistinguishable from each other); bacon is… well, bacon deserves its own separate discussion: in the UK, streaky bacon is bacon streaked with fat, the Neds have something called spek, which is fat streaked with bacon; I have no idea what was done with the sauce, but that was also wrong. I’m told Greek food is good here, but I’m no longer prepared to trust the Neds as credible food critics, so I’ll have to test it myself. I expect they make the moussaka with pork, but I’ll give it a try.

Having pretty much avoided drinking the local ‘tea’ (thee) for the best part of a year now, I investigated it again in the first week of September, prompted by the arrival of an English colleague, Stuart Munday (guess the level of sophistication of the jokes from the locals). Anyway, I have made the point that the Neds don’t know how to make tea properly (fetch a cup of hot (not boiling) water, dip herbal tea bag briefly), which was inexcusable to start with, but I noticed on closer examination that each of the individually wrapped tea bags has instructions printed on the back. Once a society reaches that level, I’m not sure if there’s any hope left for it.

I’ve also been warning Stuart about the food (specifically the frikandel, which actually tastes quite nice until you realise that it’s a deep fried sausage made from pigs jaw and cows udder – offally good; and the dried fruit, which are oranges - I have no idea how they do that, but it’s wrong) and the culture, which is - well, how to put this - the Dutch are both metaphorically and actually dammed (otherwise they’d drown, of course). Anyway, he seems to be quite happy so far. Give it time.

As an oranges (sinaasappelen) addendum, besides being arid and juiceless the fruit also seems maliciously inclined over here. On a recent trip, after work, to what passes for a supermarket in these parts, I was dowsing for oranges when the netting bag of one collection of these barren husks attached itself to a button on my suit jacket and stubbornly resisted all attempts to be disengaged. To the amusement of shoppers around me (whispering “Engels” amongst themselves), I was reduced to taking off my jacket, removing my wallet from the pocket, taking out my bill clip and using the small knife attachment to cut through the bag and release myself. Didn’t buy the oranges anyway, after all that.

The Sunday return from a weekend back in Blighty proved to me that the Dutch don’t organise their rail much better than the English. There were engineering works (although, obviously, these were not mentioned on the rail website – well, why would they be?) which meant that I spent five hours travelling back from Schiphol to Zwartsluis (118km, 73 miles). Five hours, entailing changing at Amersfoort (forty-five minute wait) and then Deventer (doubling back on myself, and an additional thirty minute wait), both stations with no shops open (Sundays in the Netherlands) before finally getting to Zwolle. Apparently every major rail route was affected, which probably explains why the whole country seemed to be getting onto the same train that I was.

Anyway, tomorrow I’m off to Amsterdam for a meeting of the BDA (the Bitter Drinkers Association, apparently – although it’s not clear whether they’re drinkers of bitter or just bitter people who drink, but I expect I’ll find that out later – which can be found at, which sounds as though it’s going to be a pub-crawl to remember (or, at least, to struggle to remember) and will give me the opportunity to link-up with some other overseas workers here in the lowlands. Anyone who’s been out drinking with me when I needed to get home by train afterwards will be aware that the chances of me returning without difficulties are marginal at best, so I’m off to charge my batteries and try to line my stomach in readiness. Live from Zwolle.

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