Friday, October 28, 2005

Week 75 – Cents and Sensibility

Well, flying out from Schiphol the other week was entertaining: there were substantial delays on all flights, partially due to the heavy fog, but also largely down to an unexploded 500lb WWII bomb on found on a runway – well, it’s only been sixty years. Fortunately, it cost me no more than an hour – there were people there who’d been waiting half the day and were looking at sleeping in the departure lounge.

My return on the Monday was a big day for Grontmij - not entirely due to my return, I hasten to point out, but because it was the company’s 90th birthday celebration - and so we were taken by coach to Schreveningen for a party for the day. Over 2,800 staff were transported, in 45 coaches, from all over the Netherlands and also from Belgium, Poland and Germany. We arrived just after ten o’clock for coffee and cake (of course) followed by a stage presentation which included acrobatics, cars and vans, an in-house film, a sheepdog and geese (which was never going to work), a speech by a prominent politician, another speech by a director, and a cabaret production of the history of the company. It was, of course, all in Dutch, but with the help of those around me I was able to follow most of it. Afterwards, there was a free bar and a feast of world food, which was prepared freshly before us in a variety of areas of the conference centre. We left just after three o’clock in the afternoon, rather merry, and the journey rapidly descended into anarchy as a fight developed using paper darts, screwed up balls of paper and, unexpectedly, biscuits. My deepest sympathies go out to our departmental head, Martin, who was hit by almost everything that I ducked. Oh, and we were each presented with a commemorative polo top which, together with the socks and scarf I’ve received previously, almost makes a complete outfit - especially if can I fashion the scarf into some kind of sarong. Then again, perhaps not.

Shocking news, as a new Nederlands dictionary has been issued, which contains two thousand spelling amendments. The official spelling of words has actually been changed. Ten years ago, apparently, the same thing happened. This strikes me as being another excellent reason for not bothering to learn the language: if the Neds can’t even make their own minds up about the words, then what’s the point, really? On the other hand, at least this explains the astonishingly bad spelling with which the Nederese mangle their own language – believe me, it’s the first thing one discovers when trying to use translation engines or Nederlands-Engels dictionaries, and it makes discerning the meaning of written words almost impossible. Still, what a wonderful concept: Governmental changes to the language - who could imagine a society where a controlling institution was able to manipulate its citizens ability to express themselves, and thus perhaps alter even the manifestation of their thoughts and ideas - for example when national issues might be seen to be going badly? Or well.

Another charming linguistic anomaly came to light recently, as Frank pointed out to Stuart and I that ‘contractor’ appears to the Dutch to translate as ‘sphincter’. Now, I can see how they get there; I can even see how it relates to some of the work that we produce (heck, it goes a long way towards explaining the attitude towards us by some members of the office) and, indeed, I suspect there are many back in Blighty who would heartily approve of the interpretation; but I’m still not sure that I’m entirely happy about it. Whatever, I’m going back to calling myself a consultant.

Other alarming recent news is that governmental justice officials are reviewing a plan to establish commercial call centres in its prisons, run by inmates. It reads like a joke, doesn’t it? There’s a lot of opposition to the idea at the moment, but the more I think about it, the more I can see a correlation between the ethics of criminals and those of cold-call salespeople. Giving your banking details to a convict, on the other hand, probably isn’t going to be a popular option. We’ll see.

Friday of the same week, and Stuart, Cornelus and I went, for the first afternoon of their Halloween Season to Wallaby World - formerly named, far more stylishly and appropriately in my opinion, as Six Flags, after the six countries represented as areas within its confines, but which lacked the merchandising opportunities for stuffed toys and assorted paraphernalia that its new moniker allows. Now, I’ve never been a big theme park fan, but I tell you this: the Dutch really know how to do entertainment well. The roller-coasters were exceptionally good and there were several shows and displays being performed, which included some fantastic acrobatic displays, a brilliantly performed ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ piece of comic theatre, a particularly well done haunted house and maze, and many extras dressed-up (or perhaps down) as the undead wandering around the park. Stuart managed to teach me a second valuable health lesson, which was not to drink heavily the night before hitting the roller-coasters, unless re-decorating litterbins and washrooms is a special interest or hobby [the first lesson he taught me was on the previous Tuesday, by SMS from his hotel room, where he lay groaning all day, which was not to eat rank meat and stale bread sandwiches - an enlightenment which led me to empty my own fridge, after a summary examination, of virtually all it contents that evening. A third recent health lesson, which I learnt for myself the hard way, involves dining on shoarma – pork kebab which I am not convinced is suitable for human consumption - but I don’t want to talk about that, or even think about it again]. Before we left, we ate wiener schnitzels in one of the restaurants in the park and, despite comprising the ubiquitous and rather tiresome pork, they were rather nice – although, in retrospect, I really do hope that the meat isn’t from the part of the pig that its name suggests. Cornelus sorted the transportation for the day (despite his claims, he was actually somewhat sane with his driving, compared to the usual standard out here) and at the end of the day he dropped Stuart and I at Harderwijk (literally, harder district, although it didn’t look that rough) so that we could catch a train back to Zwolle. The platform there is positioned between the tracks, and is accessed by walking across the rails. This may sound dangerous (perhaps even stupid, some might say, I couldn’t possibly comment), but, in fairness, there was a barrier and alarm system which came into action fully fifteen seconds before a train passed through. Back at Zwolle, Stuart made his way back to his cell in the hotel (he is staying at the Fidder, where I spent my first two months) while I caught the bus back to Zwartsluis - which was half filled with clearly rather drunken Zwolle football fans, who managed to sing with great enthusiasm, although no discernible tune, for the full thirty minute journey. It was all very jovial and good natured, though, and rounded off the day rather nicely, I thought.

As a footnote on buses, it seems that I was incorrect in my previous assertion that Connexxion was run by Connex. Having privatised the bus service some years back, the government has decided that it can do a worse job itself and is taking it back under state control. Given that the main contractor running the services previously was French, they decided that Connexxion would be a good name for the new state-owned company, and would eliminate any confusion as to whom the operators now were. Amongst the far-reaching embellishments that they have made (GPS and speakers on buses, so that they announce each up-coming stop, (unless it’s cloudy, in which case the system doesn’t work); less seats in shorter vehicles; and halving the frequency of journeys made, which presumably explains the symbolic ‘x’s in the new name), the new operators also attempted to do away with printed timetables by having electronic signs announcing the times of the next buses: beautiful, tall, steel, metallic-painted structures with high-tech digital screens and no electrical connection, which stand, futile and forlorn, as a testament to bad planning, alongside every bus-shelter on the route.

Last month I came across quite a clever marketing technique which I hadn’t encountered before. The local supermarket, the C1000 (and, of course, the rest of that chain in the Netherlands) recently ran a promotional campaign giving away stamps with every €10 spent on shopping (except on cigarettes and beer, of course, which immediately disqualified eighty percent of my purchases). Collecting sufficient stamps entitled one to a free box of groceries at the end of the offer period. I collected about half as many stamps as would be required, so I gave them to my landlady, Ingrid, but this actually left her with enough to fill two collection-books, and so she very generously gave me one of the boxes which she received. I was expecting it to be end-of-line stuff which couldn’t be shifted, but it was in fact all useful gear and new products. By this simple technique, C1000 have stimulated shopping for a month and simultaneously turned their customers on to new ranges of goods. Well, I was impressed – it won’t work on me though: well, what am I going to do with vegetable dressings and cleaning products? I still ate the chocolate, mind.

Despite it being the middle of October, last week I was still able to cycle to work and back, once or twice a week, wearing just a T-shirt, beneath clear blue skies (well, clear black skies on my departure in the morning and my arrival home of an evening - 7:00 and 19:00 respectively - but blue for the most part and warm despite the season). The downside of this weather was that I was still getting so many visitors flying in from the river that I’ve broken my bloody fly-swat.

Lunches have improved tremendously, following the discovery of a rather good Italian cafĂ© called Momma’s situated near the office - quality sandwiches and paninis made using fresh, high quality ingredients, and also really good home-made burgers, the patties for which are prepared while you watch. What’s more, they will deliver, which is useful as the rainy season is starting again.

There are many clocks in the office which appear to have all stopped at 11:55. In fact, this is not the case, they have no batteries in them – well, why would they? Obviously, knowing the precise hour is unimportant to a people for whom time has no meaning. There is, however, a running joke in our department that all the work seems to get done in the last five minutes, hence the visual prompt to hurry people along. Which brings me neatly to Herman, Mr Five-to-Twelve himself, who frequently arrives, often just as I am about to go home, with an urgent job. One Friday morning, he shows up needing prints of engineering drawings to take to site promptly. No problem, I print the drawings, but then there are changes required. No problem, I make the changes and reprint. Now, ordinarily one would expect, quite fairly in my opinion, that the updated drawings would be printed but, no, the prints don’t show the changes to the design – thanks to the wonders of modern technology and ‘intelligent’ software, the print server recognises the plot-file and resubmits its predecessor. In the name of all that is holy, why? When would that ever be a useful feature to have? I was eventually reduced to re-booting the server (rather than simply booting it, which would have been my response of choice) to clear the memory. My fondest dream at the moment is to accelerate the computers in the office at 9.81m/s2.

After one of these recent last minute tasks, which had us working well into the evening, Stuart and I ventured into the metropolis of Zwolle and visited De Hete Brij (The Hot Porridge, for no readily obvious reason), a bar which we have been frequenting of late. Curiously, the doors of the Gents and Ladies in this joint have life-sized nudes painted on the doors – initially I thought these were supposed to be Adam and Eve, but closer attention to detail revealed that they both had navels and access to razors. On this occasion we decided to ring Alfons and asked him to join us. He seems to be very happy with his new employers, despite the longer journey which he now faces every morning. He asked us how things were going back at Grontmij, so we told him that his name was mud. This is only to be expected, though, because traditionally (certainly in signalling, at least), when somebody leaves a company, anything which is found to be wrong in any design for the next six months has it blamed on them. Once Alfons had departed for home, we went on to another tavern which also serves as an eating establishment, the walls of which revealed, thanks to old murals, that Zwolle was originally called the far softer Swolla – not really interesting, just an observation. The place also presented menus divided, rather amusingly, into carnivore and herbivore. I’m not sure if that’s demeaning to vegetarians, but they’re asking for it anyway, really, so who cares?

I was all set to finally re-join a gym this week, when I discovered that I had lost my training shoes. After enquiries were made, it seems that I left them behind at the volleyball a few weeks back, and they were taken by the organisers back to Meppel. In fairness, I can’t really complain – they were certainly getting on a bit, I bought them when Hi-Tech were still at the cutting edge of sportswear. Moreover, prices here are a lot lower than the UK, apparently, so I can’t really quibble about replacing them. Having just been out at lunch time to buy a new pair, I have to say how impressed I was with the customer service: the salesman in the first shop I entered went through almost every pair in the shop trying to find something that fitted me, until I made my excuses and left. In the second shop, where I eventually found something in my size (11 – nothing difficult or outlandish) I was completely ignored by the (male) sales assistants until there were no young women left on the premises, at which point they finally realised that I was a potential customer and sold me some trainers. Tomorrow, if I can get up early enough, I may do some exercise.

I’d just like to finish by saying a big thank-you to those of you who still take the time to stay in touch and keep me up with news from the outside world. I’ve actually been receiving quite a lot of email lately, and even though most of it is ‘Out-of-Office AutoReply’, I’m grateful for the feedback. Anyway, the weekend is upon us and the bars are beckoning. More news as it breaks. Live from Zwartsluis.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Zwartsluis - a doll in a baseball cap spies on inhabitants Posted by Picasa

Student accommodation in Zwolle - lego city Posted by Picasa

The bridge was built to look as though it had a sail Posted by Picasa

The approach to Zwolle Posted by Picasa

Stormclouds gather Posted by Picasa

Approaching Hasselt, alobg the dyke Posted by Picasa

Hasselt from the bridge Posted by Picasa

View Posted by Picasa

Horses grazing Posted by Picasa

The cycle from Zwartsluis to Zwolle Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Week 72 – If I design, think only this of me…

…that there's some PC in a foreign office that is forever England.

Stuart and I, asserting our Englishness, have declared our corner of the office a British Territory, like Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands, and I now have a Union Jack as the wallpaper on my screen - partly out of a sense of patriotism and national identity, but mostly just to annoy the Dutch. In the next few weeks we hope to obtain flags and the .wav file for Land of Hope and Glory.

Anyway, the BDA (which actually stands for Bitter Drunks of Amsterdam – Amsterdam’s Premier Drinking Association) meeting a few weeks back was quite superb. The membership consists of the elite cream, some of the wittiest, most erudite and charming members of Amsterdam society (ex-pat British and Americans who have been here for years and have yet somehow managed to retain their manners and friendliness), accompanied by their Dutch colleagues, friends and partners (who were obviously on their best behaviour for the occasion). The club has its own beermats, the symbol emblazoned on which is based upon the Amsterdam coat-of-arms (three crosses, representing the three disasters which befell the city: flood, fire and plague; mounted on one beer glass, which was presumably the populations reply to each of these sufferances), and its own monkeys, which are not going to be easy to explain but pictures may help later. We toured some quite exquisite pubs, real olde worlde establishments (one of which, a four storey building, somehow contrived to have a ground floor toilet with a skylight – I’m guessing it was built in the fireplace, and pray there are not yet more conveniences situated above it), and sampled some exemplary beers and spirits, including a liquor that tasted exactly as though one were drinking apple pie. Stuart accompanied me, and we managed to get safely back to Zwolle at the end of the night (something rarely achieved when I fly these kind of outings solo, but probably facilitated by it being the last stop – finally an upside to engineering works at the weekend).

I don’t know why (given the poor quality of Italian, Chinese and Indian cuisine in the region), but for some reason Greek food is really quite good here. In addition, there are some pretty damned fine Turkish restaurants, if you know where to go – Dewi showed Stuart and I a decent one last week when she put in another appearance in Zwolle – and we’ve also located a not-bad Mexican. Dewi herself is still doing really well, and will be consulting with a plastic surgeon next month before restorative work starts on her face. I still can’t get over how strong and brave a person she is - for a slight, twenty-four year old girl, she really is quite inspirational.

As an addendum to my previous posts comment regarding the instructions for making tea being printed on each individual packet, I pointed out once again that they were failing to make it properly, and was told that if the tea-bag was left in the water for too long then the resultant drink produced was "coffee". Recently, the coffee machine has been breaking down regularly, producing really weak coffee, which my Cloggie colleagues then described as being "tea". Such a wonderfully simplistic, almost child-like view of the world - shyster alchemists would just have a field day with these people.

On a lighter note, one possible opportunity for turning lead into gold might be by painting some base materials with Meindert’s honey. Meindert is a colleague who delights in telling us how close to retirement he is (four months and counting) who keeps bees, and supplies jars of wonderful, sweet honey to the office throughout the season – my cupboards currently contain two jars of spring, one of midsummer, and a late season honeycomb which I am rapidly getting through by spreading on toast.

Interestingly, tax for any purchase here is listed separately at the bottom of every receipt (presumably to stir resentment at the government) under the wonderful moniker ‘btw’ – as if the authorities are actually saying "this is the cost and, oh, by the way, this is what we’re adding on top of that." Of course, btw doesn’t really stand for ‘by the way’, but for belasting toegevoegde waarde - Tax Added Value, which we in the UK don’t know as TAV.

Two weeks ago on Saturday, there was an events day in Zwartsluis: in the afternoon there was a waterslide set up in a field, a long plastic sheet being hosed by water which kids threw themselves along the surface of; and then later, in the harbour, there was a bungee boating competition (teams of twelve or so do their best to row a boat attached to the harbour wall by a bungee rope, to see how far they can get before being pulled back - ah, rural village entertainment). More culturally, there was also a very good jazz band, a cheap (well, cheapish) bar, and a massive cauldron of home-made chilli. [WARNING: If chilli is so good that you fell inclined to a second helping then, from a purely digestive perspective, a second helping probably isn’t a very good idea.] In the evening, Fons’ old army colleague Bart came to visit, and he, Fons and I made an impressive attempt at three bottles of whiskey (purely for comparison purposes, you understand), before going out for beer, ribs and pizza. You know how it is, sometimes you just get carried away.

Having made my peace with the pizzas out here – resistance is useless, eventually I had no alternative but to surrender and accept – and given that the rains seem to be returning sporadically, I have been occasionally (but no more than twice or thrice a week) ordering said delicacy to be delivered. Now, pizza is relatively cheap (and, given the ingredients used, so it should be), and therefore never comes to the minimum order price for delivery, but if ordered with a salad then the required total is reached; and, since I can keep the salad (which is of a much higher quality than I can prepare) refrigerated until the following night, it sorts out my steak nights. Result. I have also been experimenting with microwaved soups: one bowl cold soup, I have learnt, produces half a bowl of hot soup and a microwave oven in dire need of cleaning. Still, anything to help me to overcome my recent frikadel addiction, which I acquired when I was showing Stuart why they were a bad thing to eat.

I have noted, in previous posts, that overtime is not a concept readily taken to here, and was therefore surprised at the popularity of working from home, which seems to have increased during the unseasonable good weather of late. Further thought, however, led me to some disturbing conclusions: working hours seem to be not so much judged by time spent working as by time between arrival and departure; time spent chatting with people in the office, drinking coffee, eating cake and making telephone calls is not deducted from this total. I will make no assertations in this regard, but merely leave the point open. Feel free to draw your own conclusions.

Fire drills in the lowlands are the most relaxed thing you have ever seen: we had one the other week and people stopped to pack their bags, put on their coats, stroll out (but not right outside – it was raining) – whilst the receptionist stayed at the front desk, like the captain of a sinking ship I can only presume. A few staff even decided that, having got their stuff together already, they were just leaving, and walked off or drove home. My frustration at this blasĂ© attitude was noted by my apathetic colleagues, to whom it seems life is worthless (or, perhaps, just less fragile), but my protestations were, nonetheless, ignored.

Connex have taken over my bus route from Arriva, which has lead to a vastly inferior service (so no surprise there, then: check out their rail record - which also seemed to involve a lot of buses, now that I think of it) with smaller, less frequent, absolutely packed units (gratifyingly, I have witnessed people falling over themselves to give up their seats for elderly, so it seems that I may have managed to instil manners in the travelling public in only four months of travel on this route) which stop running far earlier than their predecessor’s did. I can’t imagine how they managed to undercut their competitors, but I will say this: never trust the French.

A brief moment of historical flashback struck the other day, as I was outside taking a smoke when a Mercedes pulled up at the barrier entrance to the car park and the guy inside pressed the button to buzz in and shouted (must have, as I could hear him clearly across the car park and forecourt), "Jah, achtung!" It makes you wonder whether we really did liberate these guys at the end of the war or not, which is especially worrying since the Dutch are still spreading across the face of the planet and drawing ever nearer to our shores by draining the sea and building land on it: witness the Dawn of the Ned.

Well, Friday saw the departure of Alfons to a competitor, leaving me as a team of one. This is a damned shame, as he was a bloody good designer and a decent colleague (with a huge capacity for beer consumption, co-incidentally). We saw him off with a bottle of Ardbeg (a fine single malt whiskey from the justifiably revered Isle of Islay), a book token and, surprisingly, no card (apparently nobody thought of it - I don’t know, I just give up), after which he and I consumed several grote (half litres) of Belgian Beer in the magnificent Belgisch Kaiser (a subsiding building which has a curious quality such that, once a level of excessive libation has been achieved, the walls appear to stand up straight).

Last Saturday was my second opportunity to make up the numbers in that venerable institution, the Grontmij Volleyball Team (consisting those esteemed volleyers, Martin van der Sommen, Erwin Jansen, Sjoerd Haga, Arjen Nakken, Jelle Visser and myself), and I’m proud to say that I helped steer us to defeat in seven of our eight matches (but we have to lose to the clients and, in our defence, during the morning play we were shy by one team member – Sjoerd had other commitments until the afternoon – and, on the one occasion when an opposing team lent us a spare player of theirs for a game against them, we lost, suspiciously, in a quite spectacular fashion). Incredibly nonetheless, and against all the odds, we managed to come in eighth out of ten teams, although that result is slightly distorted by the fact that one team got disqualified for cheating (at volleyball? How??), so we did better than last year. Well, in truth we came higher up the chart because there were less teams competing. Whatever, it was great fun again, and if they really wanted to win then they shouldn’t have selected me to play – they’ve only got themselves to blame as far as I’m concerned – although we did gain a slight psychological advantage when our opponents queried why there was an Englishman playing and we implied that I had been flown in especially as a kind of a secret weapon (tragically, that illusion was rapidly destroyed once play began). This year’s prize was a scarf, to go with last year’s sports socks – they do go together (white, so of course they do), but I think I’d still be a little underdressed, so I may need to keep playing for a few decades to get a decent outfit from these tournaments.

As I mentioned before, the administration of internet access at Grontmij has been taken over by Cobion – a company which applies so many blanket restrictions that it’s the virtual equivalent of just cutting the telephone lines. The resultant difficulties caused to me by these constraints – since I have to pretty much run my life back in the UK by email, and a great many ISPs are blocked for both outgoing and incoming mail – were so problematic that I requested release from these constraints and was told that that couldn’t be done locally, but would I like a laptop? I have a Forrest 3000 at home (a custom built machine, named after the guy who built it and roughly what it’s cost me to date), which I’m not bringing over here, and I was hoping not to have to purchase another machine myself just yet, so I happily accepted the offer and now have access to my email again in my digs. Consequently, I’d like to take this opportunity to retract some (but by no means all) of the disparaging comments I’ve made about I.T. in the past.
Anyway, enough of this banter, I’ve got to pack for a flight back to Blighty and a long weekend at home. Live from Zwartsluis.