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 blasé 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.

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