Sunday, January 29, 2006

Week 88 – Toon Time

So, after the excesses of Christmas and the New Year, I flew back to the Nederlands on New Year’s Day (which follows Old Year’s Day for reasons which will be discussed later on) and encountered a bi-lingual beggar on the train back from the airport (well, perhaps bi-lingual is overstating the point: he spoke fluent English and Nederish, which is only really one and a half languages). Said beggar entered the carriage wearing a red jacket and made an announcement that he was not the ‘controller’ (despite his apparent uniform), but that he was homeless and acting as a representative of the homeless and needy of the city. Well, it was more imaginative than the hordes of junkies in Birmingham who hang around the railway station claiming to have been pick-pocketed and therefore in need of train fare.

Monday, January the second, and I was back in the office, where several hours were spent shaking hands, doing the three-cheek-kiss ritual and wishing everybody “Beste wensen en een gelukkig nieuw jaar” until half-eleven (10:30), when we all went up to the canteen and did it again (with cake, orange juice and coffee) for another thirty minutes, thus ensuring that any viruses picked up during the holidays were passed on to the optimum number of people in the shortest possible time.

By Tuesday, there were still no secretaries back from holiday, so I pointed out that perhaps leaving the mail unopened until they returned wasn’t the smartest way of operating a business. Everybody here seems to have a rigid idea of what their responsibilities are and are not: in fast-food outlets, people just stand up and leave their rubbish strewn about the place (“It’s not my job to clear it up.” – yeah, I didn’t notice you being paid to eat it either).

Further challenges with designs as, not content with presenting me with poor quality photocopies of circuit diagrams to work from, Maastricht has raised the game by instead supplying me with photographs of photocopies of diagrammatics. Needless to say, these are of the highest, sharpest quality, providing all the detail necessary to reproduce said circuits for further design. They are deliberately taunting me, I swear (quietly, but continuously).

Yet more linguistic observations, as it emerges that tekening en brekening, despite sounding like burglary, actually means drawing and calculation (although the way they do it out here, it’s still a criminal act, in my opinion). Also, it transpires that the word ‘als’ means both ‘if’ and ‘when’, which makes its meaning rather difficult to discern, if and when it is used.

Henk, meanwhile, has been expressing his thanks to me for expanding his English “vokking abulary”, which isn’t quite how I would have put it, but still. Not for nothing do people say that the Netherlands has the densest population in Europe. Which brings me neatly to a recent proposal by the Ned government, which was that only Nederish would be permitted to be spoken in the streets of the country. This proposition is, quite rightly, being laughed out of parliament as I type, but it at least allows me to mention the differentiation which is made in the populace out here: if one is a native (able to trace ancestry within these expanding shorelines by at least three generations), then one is classified as an autotoon; otherwise, one is an alochtoon. How perfectly this fits the behaviour patterns on the aforementioned groups requires a mere shuffling of the letters to illustrate: those who behave according to a strict paradigm of rules, regulations and social codes are automatoon; those who drink to forget are alchotoon. I place myself firmly in the latter group.

It’s possible that I may have touched upon this before, but if the phone at your desk rings and you’re not there, and then your cellphone rings and that’s on your desk as well, and you’re still not there, then you are going to a hell of senseless noise and pain, and you richly deserve it. Oh, and here’s a thought – rather than having your mobile telephone’s ring set to stupidly loud, why not carry it with you? A radical proposal, I’ll grant you, but just an idea.

At New Year’s (or in fact not, because the Neds celebrate Old Year’s Day – seemingly preferring to look back rather than forward) there is, predictably, a cake type celebration which on this occasion involves the consumption of oliebollen, or oil balls, which, as the name suggests, are particularly unhealthy balls of dough absolutely saturated in sweet oil. They are actually rather nice, but their precise level of nutritious value might well be estimated by the fact that, on a recent visit to Joost and Barbi in Zaandam, whilst walking in the park feeding the ducks, even the seagulls wouldn’t touch the rather evil looking snacks, which sank without trace into the murky depths of the river.

The introduction of the high-tech bus signs, which I mentioned in earlier posts, doesn’t seem to have been particularly well implemented, since, although they are now powered and actually working most of the time, the internal clocks are so inaccurate that they make the information which they offer (how long till the next bus) completely useless. No doubt they will be sorted-out eventually. Also, the GPS which enables the bus’ onboard computer to tell passengers where they are and what the next stop will be have become rather confused, to the extent that I have glanced up and been filled with momentary horror that we are apparently arriving in Amsterdam, and not Zwolle as I had expected.

On the topic of transportation, I have noticed a strange oddity in bus fares: if you travel in the morning more than three times a week then it is cheaper to buy a season ticket, but since Fons gives me a lift some days and we still cycle from time to time (despite temperatures making this seem rather foolhardy), this was not working out to be cost-effective. Instead, I have purchased a strippenkaart, a kind of strip ticket which is cheaper than using cash in the mornings. Zwartsluis to Zwolle is six strips, which works-out at €2.64, but after nine o’clock, it is cheaper to pay cash than it is to use these saver tickets, if one is travelling five or more zones, because all tickets are €2 after that time, whilst the number of ticket strips used for a journey doesn’t vary with the hour. Precisely why this strange state of affairs should be the case is beyond me, though not so puzzling as the fact that nobody else seems to have noticed that using the strippenkaart of an evening costs more than paying cash.

It has come to my attention that, curiously, the Dutch celebrate their twelve and a half year wedding anniversaries. This, to me, shows a wonderful pragmatism: marriage is for life, which is generally acknowledged by the judiciary to be twenty-five years, so presumably after half that time one becomes eligible for parole. That’s probably not the real reason, but it’s a lovely thought.

Whenever the Dutch college kids see me in Zwolle, they always call out “Manchester United”, presumably to show that they know I’m English. Now, I’ve never been a football fan (it’s like watching the same film over and over with a slightly different ending), but even if I were, there are a great many other teams which I might support. Anyway, from what I can gather, saying Manchester United to a Brit right now is rather rubbing salt into the wounds. Still, I’m sure their intent is good, and it’s nice to be recognised because it allows me to enjoy the feeling of being famous without having to bother with all the enormous riches which that would normally entail.

Thanks to the recent expense of Christmas, combined with my taxes being due and a mix-up with bank transfers, my lifestyle of late has been rather restricted – which Stuart described as my being on a “salary controlled diet”. Full marks to Metro, though – as soon as it became clear that my payment had dropped into some banking abyss, they re-submitted the monies and remedied the situation immediately, which was far-and-away better than I might have expected from certain agencies with whom I have dealt in the not-so-distant past.

One recent weekend brought more ten-pin bowling escapades with the Amsterdam Expats [, which, I must stress, is absolutely not restricted to Americans – and as an incidental point, Barbi has insisted that I expand her definition in my previous post from being a ‘Dam Yank to being half ‘Dam Yank, half ‘Dam Pomme: apparently that was important (‘Dam, of course, in this instance being a geographical reference to being based in Amsterdam)]. This afforded me the opportunity to meet Jayson, a fellow Brit who has been over here for sixteen years and is still loving it. I also made a foray into a rather pleasing brew which the Dutch call blonde beer –apparently a reference to its colour, rather than the insensibility to which it leads.

Fons has a lovely big fireplace in his lounge, which spreads a real feeling of warmth and gezellig (a word for which the Neds claim there is no translation in English: it means cosiness) through his whole house. Obviously, as I’m living in a separate apartment beneath the house at the back of the garage, I do not benefit from this, but I am able in some small way to share in the experience because as soon as the fire is lit, all my heating goes off. Fons is hoping to fit a separate thermostat and heating system for me some time after the winter.

On the subject of the temperature, on the seventeenth, Stuart returned to the office after a week at Christmas up a freezing mountain in Scotland and then two weeks in the desert heat of Egypt. He was greeted back in the lowlands by ice rain and frozen waterways. On the previous Sunday, I looked out of my apartment window to see a heron standing on the river in consternation at being cut off from the local food-supply by a sheet of solid ice. I am sat at the moment looking out over the river at the ducks and gulls skidding over its surface. It is so cold that my hands look like a bare knuckle boxer’s. Yet, fantastically, there is still a kingfisher hanging on around the office, flashing past me on my increasingly occasional (it really is bloody cold) cigarette breaks.

Anyway, that’s all the news that comes to mind for the moment, and I have an appointment with a beer bottle with my name on it (Fles). Live (though perhaps cryogenically frozen) from Zwartsluis.