Friday, November 18, 2005

Week 78 – Harrowing Halloween

Well, I re-joined the gym on the Saturday after my last post (cycled there and back – 8km each way) and worked out for an hour and a half. In the afternoon I cycled 10km with Fons and the kids. On the Sunday I couldn’t move my arms or shoulders, so I went for the 10km cycle again, but backwards (I mean the other way, obviously – I’m not stupid) to see if gentle exercise would help. It didn’t, but by Monday I was starting to get the use of my limbs back, so on Tuesday I went to the gym again. Oh, and my weight is still 93 kilos – I swear it never changes, it’s just the distribution that varies.

As an incidental point, despite coming in a can of the same colour and approximate size, fly spray doesn’t work anything like as effectively as a mentholatum spray. Although it does actually smell a lot worse, it has no discernible effect on muscle pain. On the other hand, no river insects bit me during the time that I was using it. Nonetheless, I have now made a point of organising my shelves and cupboards more carefully.

Halloween was an interesting time out here. The Neds claim not to celebrate it, instead citing something on November 11th instead – not Armistice Day, though, but St. Martin’s Day (St. Martin is apparently the patron saint of children begging at doors). Somebody in the office commented that Halloween is an American thing (with the usual derisory sneer), so I told them that no-it-damn-well-isn't, it's All Hallows Eve, from All Hallowed Souls, a Celtic tradition (circa 600BC) and an old Northern European Pagan festival of the rising of the spirits of the dead, which was embellished by the Romans during their occupation of Britain in 55BC (1,831 years before the formation of the USA). The trouble is that the Neds are obsessed with America and putting it down (“Americans this… Americans that…”) every chance they get. These bloody Europeans, they’re all the same with their sweeping generalisations. I used to have mixed feelings about our old colony myself, but I now find myself defending it rigorously just because so many Dutch criticise it without knowing what the hell they're talking about. All of that aside, one would imagine that Halloween would be a great deal more popular here, though: I can imagine that they’d welcome any excuse to spend an evening sat in the sauna playing with their ghoulies. [What I want to know is: why can’t all these nations be properly civilised, like the British, encouraging small children to burn human effigies and play with small explosives?] Stuart and I went out, nonetheless, to see if we could spot any celebrations going on, and we were gratified to see that most of the women had dressed-up as male members of the undead, whilst a great many of the men had chosen to go out wearing troll masks (although, in fairness, this might have gone without remark to the untrained eye).

In actual fact, the St. Martin’s day tradition is much nicer than trick-or-treat. The children (and they were children, not just teenagers chancing it) went through the village with lanterns and sang carols at doorways, for which they were rewarded with chocolates. Once again, the Netherlands traditions hark back to an idyllic, more simple, halcyon age – although this romantic nostalgia does little to temper my feelings about the Babbage engines which we are reduced to using in the office.

Watching drivers take lessons around the business park where our office is based, it occurred to me to ask how hill-starts are included in driving-tests. I was quite amused to learn that there are especially constructed hills in test centres for just this purpose. Having said which, once you’ve hill-started on a bicycle with a bag of shopping and a crate of beer on the pillion, anything else is going to be a doddle. Another curious observation, which I had somehow overlooked for the whole time I’ve been here, is that all the cars drive with their lights on all the time. Never mind day or night, light or dark, rain or shine, fog or clear, the lights are always on. One might almost think that the Neds had poor daytime vision – please feel free to draw your own conclusions about these creatures and their unfamiliarity with the world of daylight.

Slightly connected, as will become clear in the next sentence, is golf in the Nederlands. In this country, in order to play the popular pseudo-sport (well, it isn’t a real sport, is it? They’ll be calling darts a sport next), one requires a license (presumably to prove one’s competence on the course: driving in a straight line, not getting too close to the preceding player, awareness of prevailing conditions and surroundings, consideration for others using the same fairway, all the things that clearly aren’t included in the driving test). Rather amusingly, given the counter-flow of traffic entering the Netherlands for beverages unobtainable in neighbouring states, the Neds can choose simply to slip over the border into Germany for a quick round without having obtained said licence. Although I’m sure they wouldn’t dream of it.

Buses, meanwhile, seem to get more reckless as the weather gets colder. I have watched a driver pop into the depot and return with a steaming-hot, flimsy, disposable plastic cup of coffee, get back into the driver’s seat and then pull-away and negotiate a roundabout one-handed whilst holding the cup. Now, and I don’t want to be leaping to conclusions or anything here, but I’m not entirely convinced that that’s safe. But who am I to comment?

Scary news of project pricing techniques, as I learnt that engineering drawings are charged according to the size of the paper upon which they are produced, in direct ratio, with no reference to the variation in complexity or content between, for example, a simple circuit and a scheme plan (for comparison, imagine an A3 diagram of a torch circuit at half the price of an A4 ordnance survey map, and I think you’ll appreciate the absurdity of the situation). I can only count myself lucky that we don’t produce designs on microfiche. Still, it could be worse: if we charged according to the size of the back of the matchbox or cigarette packet that the designs are obviously originally produced on, then we’d be in real trouble.

Further complaints about the standard of handwriting in the office led to the observation that the figure eight (8) is written from the middle – just try it and you’ll see why it doesn’t work – and this is how they are taught to write it in school. Most times it comes out as a six (6), sometimes only as a two (2). One (1) also occasionally manifests itself as a figure which might be confused with a two (2), for reasons that I can’t even begin to think about without getting a headache. From this incomplete and illegible information, I am supposed to identify specific signalling installations somewhere on a several kilometre long stretch of track. Still, I’m not one to complain, so I don’t let it get to me.

Fantastic business ideas: under the stairs there are broken and frankly rubbish office chairs which need to be disposed of. A group email has informed us that they are to be raffled, with tickets available for a mere €5. The first thing to strike me about this is that the ticket price seems to exceed the value of any of the prizes on offer. The second thing that struck me was that it might not be entirely morale boosting for a company to start to raffle its trash to its employees.

It is becoming increasingly clear that I need bigger, more powerful headphones to combat the noise pollution of SLAM FM in the office. What is that track with the incessant bloody whistling on it? Dance music, I tell you, exists purely in order to drive me, personally, to acts of random violence against its advocates: eight looped notes on two instruments, one chorus repeated incessantly with no lyrics worth hearing, no verses – all it achieves is to re-awaken the little voices, which start to scream “KILL! KILL! KILL!” in the most persuasive tones. And then there’s ringtones. No, I must go and have a lie down somewhere dark and quiet…

Cycling to the gym is proving to be more adventurous than I had anticipated, because I am going both ways in the dark and the bike lights are dynamo driven. There are road works just outside Zwartsluis, which are a little tricky to negotiate, because the temporary route is over rubble and between open pits at the sides of the road. Obviously, this necessitates that I slow right down, but then I’m riding blind because the lights go out. Fabulous. So far, I’ve been lucky, but I suspect that the odds are stacking-up against me the more times I make the trip.

This brings me on to the whole issue of dynamo lights. In the UK, dynamo lights can no longer be sold, and battery lights are the only option available, which I had previously thought was a bit extreme, but the reason has now become clear to me: just outside Zwartsluis, there is a roadside shrine to seventeen-year-old Stephanie, who was cycling home one night about a year ago when it began to rain; she stopped to put on her anorak and was run over and killed by a scooter rider, who couldn’t see her as she was now unlit, whilst he was dazzled by the lights of oncoming traffic. The shrine always has a candle burning in it, which acts as a constant reminder of the importance of being well-lit. For the sake of my own personal health and safety, therefore, I have been attempting to chain-smoke for the length of the entire journey in both directions – but given that monsoon season is almost upon us, that’s not going to work for much longer.

Further two-wheeled adventures last week, when a group of us from the office went for an evening out in Zwolle. Fons and I had cycled in to work that day, so that we could cycle home afterwards, but there weren’t enough bicycles to go around, so we carried passengers on the backs of our bikes. I guess my shopping trips had prepared me for the extra weight, but pulling away from traffic lights with the bulk of a guy in his mid-twenties on the back made my front wheel rear-up in a manner not quite reminiscent of the Lone Ranger making a grand exit on Silver – certainly, I don’t recall him ever losing control of his steed and careering into the pavement. No injuries were incurred, thankfully, so we proceeded to the bars for food and drink until, come nine o’clock, Fons and I decided it was time to head for the hills (although, obviously, not literally) and saddled-up for the return journey. Twenty kilometres, in case you were wondering, is far too far to ride in the dark after consumption of excessive libation, and yet it has a fabulous sobering effect, such that, upon entering the village, we found it necessary to stop at another hostelry for further refreshment, which led me to make a rather astute observation: do not drink vodka Martinis on a work night.

It is, in fact, thanks to one other visit to D’Albatross, that I now hold the title of undisputed pool champion of Zwartsluis. Gary, the other Englishman in the micropolis (who also has rapidly greying hair tied back in a pony-tail, just to avoid confusion) consistently wins every game he plays; except that, one Sunday (when he had been drinking all day and I was fresh from the plane), we met up and played a few frames. I won the last game, and so long as I never play again, the title is mine. I remain unchallenged simply by not telling anybody that I’m making the claim.

Outrageous news pedalled from Amsterdam, as four gangsters from the area have become recent victims of ride-by killings. Apparently, major underworld players have been assassinated by mounted assassins, who then rode off into the sunset (on a bike with no name) - it’s like Pale Rider meets Bugsy Malone (the latter of which films I can’t recommend highly enough – if you haven’t seen it, watch it soon).

Last Saturday saw Sinterklaas and about fifteen Zwarte Piets (which is still very wrong, see last years post for an extensive examination of why) arrive in the village harbour on a ship with full rigging. He was greeted by all the children of the area, many in traditional costume; the town dignitaries (well, the manager of the local supermarket); majorettes and a marching band, and it really was a grand occasion. I’ll post some photographs in a couple of weeks.

Just a quick footnote regarding the free grocery box from C1000, which I mentioned in my last post: among the many new lines included in it was a shower-gel called Fa. Sweet. What kind of minimal market research went into the concoction of that name?

Anyway, this weekend I’m off to Amsterdam for a couple of birthday parties (I guess that makes me properly Dutch now, shudder) – although, as time passes, such annual festivities become more pyrotechnical fantasies worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster than simple celebrations. Whatever, they should be good fun, and it’s a chance to catch-up with people. More news as it breaks. Live from Zwartsluis.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Approaching the road to Zwartsluis Posted by Picasa

Leaving Genemuiden Posted by Picasa

View from the ferry Posted by Picasa

View from the 'dock' Posted by Picasa

I mean, how short a journey is this? Posted by Picasa

Possibly the worlds most pointless ferry, connecting Genemuiden to Zwartsluis Posted by Picasa

Genemuiden waterway Posted by Picasa

More ducks in the park Posted by Picasa

Genemuiden ducks Posted by Picasa

Genemuiden, a neighbouring town Posted by Picasa

Pigmy Goats Posted by Picasa

And the Dutch claim this country is crowded. Posted by Picasa

Hasselt, but with the sun this time Posted by Picasa

Waterskiing Posted by Picasa

Marauding ducks Posted by Picasa

Marauding vikings? Posted by Picasa

Boat races on the Ijssel Posted by Picasa

Cycling the dyke again Posted by Picasa