Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Week 83 – Seasonal Stuff

Ever up for an opportunity to get out and about at the weekend, the Saturday after my last post I went to a couple of birthday parties in Amsterdam, the first of which was my introduction to the Amsterdam Expat group. The party was held at the home of Barbi, an American lady whose 40th birthday it was, and Joost, her Dutch husband, and other guests were Marcel and Annette (Dutch and American), Phil and Kathy (English and American), and Anthony and David (both American).

Barbi and Joost breed Siamese cats, and there were five on the premises: a howling male with big balls called Phi Chan, which means ‘wisdom’ in Thai; a lovely mother called Fa Ying, which means ‘celestial princess’; a fat lilac Point named Som Chai, which means ‘living up to heart's desire’; a half-Balinese kitten named Chai Lai, which means ‘beautiful’; and a "guest", Aradia (who has since been sold to a Fries couple). Phi Chan, who is un-sterilised for breeding purposes (hence the swollen appendages), is nicknamed Oedipus, or Oedi for short, and he lived-up to the reputation of his namesake (think about it) shortly after the beginning of the party by escaping and going on the run. We all spent a good half-hour combing the streets for him before he was found and returned to captivity.

Barbi had prepared turkey (she said “made”, but our colonial cousins are known for their abuses of language), which was accompanied by sweet yams, and Kathy had prepared an excellent pumpkin pie. We had a great evening, fuelled by red wine and beer, which culminated in a game of Trivial Pursuit - the end result of which was unclear, but it hardly matters amongst friends. Afterwards, I slept in the lounge on a futon (which was considerably more comfortable than I had anticipated), accompanied by the male cats (the females were separated upstairs, for obvious reasons). If you know anything about Siamese, you’ll understand that they don’t purr or miaow, they howl. Come morning, they were rushing around the lounge in a scene reminiscent, to my spinning senses, of the end of the first Indiana Jones film, when the Arc of the Covenant was opened.

After a lovely breakfast of scrambled eggs (real food is still a rare treat for me out here), I went to see Dewi in Haarlem, who was celebrating her birthday with her mother Jessica and her siblings Jeffrey and Jennifer. As always, I was besieged with Indonesian delicacies, including a wonderful Indonesian Chicken soup. Dewi is still doing very well with her recovery, and we had a great day of it.

Bolstered by a well-fed weekend, I have been attempting to introduce the office to the musical stylings and finesse of Fin de Siècle, but since almost nobody has ever heard of them it seems to be a wasted effort (which is a shame, because they were bloody good). Mind you, they played at considerably less than 120bpm, and there are lyrics and melodies and everything, so what can I have been thinking, really? Meanwhile, I am being driven gradually insane by dance music in the gym. The CD player apparently keeps sticking, but I’ll be damned if I can tell. It’s possible that I simply haven’t grasped the subtle complexity of the lyrics, or that I just don’t appreciate the melodic nuances of the sophisticated musical interplay between the constant repetitive beat and the basic tune. I can’t quite tell because the voices have started screaming again.

On the subject of music abuse, it has been brought to my attention that not only do the Neds ruin perfectly good classic rocks numbers by translating the lyrics into their horrible, simplistic, guttural language, but that they actually translate musicals and operas: Mamma Mia and Carmen are the two notable travesties of which I have heard so far. Of course, the Netherlands (despite what its inhabitants may think) has no musical talents (or great writers or film-makers, or any artists at all) to its name, which may explain this approach to butchering the output of others. This slightly relates to the whole piracy issue, which I have discussed at some length previously: the Dutch are quite shameless about this, “why should I pay for it when I can download it for free?” I am asked by my colleagues, clutching recorded CDs and DVDs which they burn at home and then sell-on to each other. It has been said that those with no discernible talent view the theft of art with the same dismissive air that those who have never worked for something view burglary or mugging. I couldn’t possibly comment, of course.

As a complete aside, and in no way wishing to cast the populace of my host nation in a bad light, I have noticed that the Neds appear to act as caricatures of themselves, masking their faces with exaggerated expressions. For example, people actually do step-back in surprise and stand agape with amazement. I can only assume that these responses are due to over-exposure to cartoons during childhood, or perhaps a misguided effort to appear human…

Anyway, I’m working on this track layout in Haarlem, and the drawing hasn’t been changed since October 2000, so I’m expecting it to be relatively simple and unproblematic. I’m looking at the track circuits - now, to those of you who aren’t clued-up on the highly sophisticated and high-tech world of railway signalling, this might not be obvious, but the rest of you might spot the problem with this if you watch this sequence carefully: 162AT, 162BT, 162CT, 162CT, 162BT. If you missed it, then the adjacent track might help: A160T, 160AT, 160BT,160CT, 160CT, 160BT. Or the track crossing it: 158AT, 158BT, 158BT, 158AT, 158CT. Granted, it’s a bit like one of those MENSA brainteasers one might see in a newspaper, but those of you who remember Sesame Street might just spot something not right with the sequences shown. The Control Panel for this lot doesn’t even bear thinking about. It can be no co-incidence that wired is just an anagram of weird. Safety signalling systems: more by luck than judgement. Worse, after intensive investigation, it transpires that in fact that is the way the track layout been constructed, and that it is correct. Nobody here has ever seen a set-up like it before, and no-one can offer me an explanation as to why it’s been done, but everyone seems to agree that it should be left as it is. The same plan also offers up such confusing notation as writing 1.021 as 0.21 and 1.082 as 0.82. Well, it’s only about a kilometre out - who’s gonna know? Sometimes I wonder why I even bother.

Signs are apparent that the Nederlands is bang up-to-date with concepts of commercial insanity, in common with certain UK institutions (which will remain nameless for the sake of not jeopardising future employment possibilities), as ProRail makes some staff redundant, which a huge redundancy package, only for them to be hired by us and seconded out to ProRail. Right. In addition, curiously, there has been a great deal of movement between our company and our competitors of late. One possible explanation for this might be the positioning of subliminal messages throughout the office, as many doors and coffee machines, facing operating difficulties, have been adorned with signs bearing the single word ‘DEFECT’.

I finally got a translation for overtime, which might explain the previous confusion some months back. Literally translated, the only occasion when the term overtime is used here is when a woman is late; which means that last year, when John and I requested overtime for the Schiphol project, it may have been interpreted as quite a different type of accommodation. I am still having issues with other translations, too: the Nederese word for page is ‘blad’, but when the Neds translate ‘blad’ to Engels, they say “blade” - presumably because it sounds similar. Needless to say, paper-cuts are a major workplace hazard. Currently, there is a lot of work on OR bladen and OA bladen, which makes me feel quite at home, being from the West Country where we are quite used to a lot of O R O R A (sorry). Other oddness revolves around figures of speech: the other day I let out a sigh at the coffee machine, and Bianca asked, ”have you got it hard today?” which quite threw me for a moment, until I realised she was talking about work, rather than more intimate issues. Of course, many questions literally translated from the typical Nederish can sometimes seem over-personal: I was asked by Fons, after a break at home, “was Mary good at the weekend?” and it was only thanks to good fortune and a couple of decent bottles of red wine on the previous night that the answer coincided with his intent, which was to enquire after her health. Beyond these, there’s the stuff that’s just plain irritating: when referring to the price of a relatively cheap item, often people will quote the price in Euro-cents. As opposed to what? A cent is a one hundredth unit of the currency standard, which isn’t the dollar - so I can only hazard a guess that they’re merely, once again, tying to ensure that they don’t get confused with Americans (just in case the standard of service in shops and restaurants didn’t give it away).

Incredibly, one recent Friday saw me looking for Martin, the boss, only to find our Design Manager, Marcel, talking to him in his office. So far, nothing particularly surprising there, except that Marcel was talking to Martin on a cellphone. Martin was in the car-park, outside. Logic exits stage-left, shaking its head and weeping.

Just to show that it’s not only the locals who are fallible, I managed to commit a fairly blinding faux pas a couple of weeks back, when I was presented with yet more unintelligible, blotchy, scribbled and badly photocopied circuitry to work on. I made the comment that perhaps if our competitors didn’t entrust the production of such documentation to three-fingered half-wits then there might be a chance that the quality wouldn’t be quite so poor, at which point Ed, who has been sat next to me for a couple of months, made the revelation that he only has three fingers on one of his hands (thanks to a swivel-chair based office accident some years past). Obviously, I had been referring to a sloth (which neatly encapsulates both the manual dexterity and the work ethic of many people in the rail industry), but this explanation in no way reduced my resultant embarrassment or softened my blushes.

Further evidence of night-time activity, as it transpires that electricity is cheaper to use in the Nederlands at night (as it is everywhere), the consequence of which here is that washing machines, tumble driers and dishwashers are run after midnight. I had been aware of spin-cycles in the early hours from my neighbour whilst in Kampen, and have occasionally heard mechanical noises here in the dead of night, but it seems now that these were not isolated examples. Now, given that said machines are not noted for their quiet running, one might be tempted to ask what sort of people wouldn’t be disturbed by the habitual (one could even say ritual) practice of such activities during the hours of darkness…

I am out of pocket to the tune of a pair of jeans and a Zippo lighter. To elaborate, there are new houses being built along Buitenkwartier, where I am currently ensconced, and as part of the project the road has been dug-up. Consequently, there was just a foot-and-a-half wide pavement to pick ones way along in the dark (the streetlights are also offline) and yet, despite the obvious potential for misadventure, residents of the street still think it’s nice to leave huge plant pots outside their front doors, blocking the way. I have no idea if I damaged the decorative object which caused me to fall onto the rubble, ripping my jeans, gouging my leg in three places and emptying my pocket of aforementioned lighter, but I certainly intend to cause some harm if I pass it again in the dead of night (always assuming, of course, that I see it next time).

After only a few months amongst the Neds, Stuart is clearly suffering from cabin fever – early indications of this are that he’s started to laugh at my jokes, which I needn’t add almost never happens amongst those with a sound mental foothold. I’ll monitor his decline into lunacy for as long as he continues to function, and keep you updated accordingly.

In the interests of safety, Fons has fitted smoke alarms in my apartment, presumably in order to alert the rest of the building as to when I’m cooking steak. There is an extractor fan mounted over my hob, but I had been unable to find a way of making it work, despite numerous attempts, for many months. I have now finally mastered its operation, but it still isn’t enough to prevent the sensors acting as an insanely loud toast-timer of a morning.

Thanks to the hospitality of Barbi and Joost, I have been getting to see some of the more scenic parts of the Nederlands of late. A few weeks ago they took me to visit Zaanse Schaans, in the city of Zaandijk, which has fantastic, sweeping views and lots of windmills. Photos to follow on the website.

Fortunately, this last trip was conducted before the winter really started to bite. Winds are now unfeasibly strong, and are often accompanied by hail and snow – to such an extent that Fons and I have been unwilling to cycle to work since December the thirteenth, which was far too bracing for my liking anyway. Nonetheless, the expat group recently braved the elements to go out ten-pin bowling at De Konijn, in Amsterdam, where we were joined by two new members, Jason and Petra - a charming American/Dutch couple, the latter of whom graciously took my usual last-place position on the score-board. Afterwards, we went on to consume copious amounts of beer at the Hard Rock Café, and then on to a delightful, if rather cramped, Belgian pub called De Zotte, which had a fabulous atmosphere and a great selection of beers.

Back at the office, all the staff received Sinterklaas tins a couple of weeks ago, containing some chocolate and marzipan goodies, and were yesterday bestowed with Christmas boxes from the company - each of which contained a bottle of white sparkling wine, a vase (or perhaps just a really big glass, who can tell?), a pair of candles, a box of chocolates, biscuits for cheese, cheese, a jar of olive paste and a packet of serviettes. Precisely why we have received what are obviously picnic hampers just as we enter the start of one of the coldest winters on record is anybody’s guess, but the thought was there.

Anyway, best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everybody. I’m off to Blighty for a week’s respite from the wind and the cold. Till 2006, Leave from Zwartsluis.

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