Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Week 95 – Flights of Fancy

So to March, which one might have anticipated to be at least slightly warmer than the supposed winter months but which has singularly failed to meet that expectation. Mary came out to join me in purgatory for a week at the start of February, and Leanne and Russell (the parents of my godchildren) joined us for seven days of comparative tranquillity (no kids in tow). We had intended to fly out here on the Sunday, but this was not to be because of some accident involving an aeroplane misjudging the end of the runway at Luton, however this did at least ensure that I had a crowded party on my birthday – albeit a party of disgruntled travellers trying to secure alternate flights. On the upside, after spending the best part of four hours queuing up to try to get some information, EasyJet impressed by transferring our flights quickly and efficiently to a plane early the following day, so it all worked out quite well in the end; and when we did eventually get to the departure gates on the Monday, I finally learnt the true purpose of the brace position (which had always struck me as rather pointless, in the event of a crash), when a fellow passenger informed me that the whole point was to preserve the jaw bone to facilitate identification from dental records. I’m not entirely sure that I wasn’t happier not knowing that.

Of course, money-grubbing git that I am, I still felt obliged to work most of the week while my companions relaxed or went sight-seeing, although that didn’t stop the four of us from having a great time of an evening, sampling good food (because I know where to go now – they were like, “what have you been complaining about?” but, obviously, I bypassed the trial and error part of the experience for them), enjoying the local toxins and eating in one or two rather decent restaurants. Deserving of a special mention here is a wonderful little place which we discovered on the Friday (which I did take off from work), when we spent a day in Amsterdam. It’s a fabulous little eatery tucked away on Warmoesstraat, called the New Season Chinees Orientaals Restaurant, and the food was fantastic, but particularly notable was the service, which was quite outstanding - to the extent that even our cigarettes were lit for us and after the meal the owner presented Mary and Leanne with roses, which nicely distracted from presenting Russell and I with the pleasingly modest bill.

It was great to have the company, and my apartment seemed a little quiet after I saw them off at Schiphol on the Saturday, but then on the Sunday of the following week, I got to experience my first circle party. This is a uniquely Dutch tradition (on this occasion to celebrate the birthdays of my landlords Fons and Ingrid, which are rather closely grouped with my own) in which a gathering occurs where guests sit in a circle and talk while drinking and eating the hosts’ provisions. Myself and ten Neds (neighbours, friends and family of the clan de Leur) enjoyed coffee and cake, biscuits, and some delicious home-made snacks which Ingrid had prepared. Everybody sat chatting away very loudly in Nederish. After an hour, I was asked if I could understand any of what they were saying. "Ja," I said, "Bier en Euro-cents." I waited another hour, during which time I was offered beer but no Euro-cents, and then made my excuses, thanking them and impressing them with my best Nederish: "Ik must go en get my kop down, but dank u wel for your zickenhouspitality en de lekker snacks. Angenaam, prettige avent en doei." How cosmopolitan do I feel?

I have been obliged to withdraw from the BDA, which I mentioned in earlier posts, because, even in a relatively small ex-pat community, it seems that tragically some back-biting and character assassination (not of myself, I hasten to add) still seems to be unavoidable, and I wish to be no part of such school-yard type proceedings. Nonetheless, I am still able to enjoy the company of the Amsterdam Expats - not least because their exploits tend to be more socially engaging, rather than simply being drinking based (which is especially good news for an alcohol lightweight like myself). In recent weeks we had a rather good evening at Casablanca, a bistro/bar/entertainment establishment in Amsterdam which boasts the city’s smallest theatre. Our meal was preceded by a magician coming to our table and performing various simple but amusing illusions, and the courses were punctuated by various performers from the later stage production introducing themselves to us in character. Sadly we had to forego said theatrical performance in order to make the karaoke in the bar, at which none of us were sufficiently inebriated to venture onto the platform; although Barbi, who was less imbibed than most of us, gave a rather accomplished rendering of a Madonna song which was particularly notable in that it was the only customer performance that didn’t clear the dance floor.

This brings me rather neatly to another feature of the capital city which I believe I have failed to mention before, which is that the bars of the ‘Dam, not content with charging for the consumption of liquid refreshment, also charge fifty cents for use of their disposal facilities – by means of a custodian who sits outside the facilities all night to take admission fees. Forgive the literalty of the observation, but this strikes me to be taking the piss on every conceivable level.

The most recent Expat event was another ten-pin bowling escapade in Zaandam, (where several new group members introduced themselves and I managed to achieve a staggering total of three strikes, thanks to the triumph of blind luck over skill and technique) followed by a trip to a bar which was either called Heineken or Grolsch, and culminating in a rather decent one a.m. snack in an Egyptian restaurant (whose flag I will return at the earliest opportunity).

Industry comment: once again taking a leaf out of the UK rail system’s book, having failed to meet its performance targets for the last year, NedRail has decided to guarantee no future failures by lowering its targets for next year. Just to seal that, they are also intending to introduce lower running speeds, thus making journey times even longer than they already are. [To give some idea of what this means, the rail journey from Zwolle to Amsterdam, which is a mere 113km (that’s 70 miles), takes one hour and twenty-two minutes. That’s an average of just 50 miles per hour (80km/h). How do they manage to maintain punctuality? Now you can see why cycling is so popular.]

And so to the job. I was rather disturbed to find, recently, that engineering drawings do not even exist for some track layouts, and that, instead, aerial photographs are deemed sufficient for design purposes. Worse, it was anticipated that I might produce a schematic of the track layout from said photographs. [Comment deleted on legal advice]

Conversations in the office have revealed that there is a certain amount of competition between the cities of Groningen and Utrecht in the regard of which of the two of them has the tallest towers – the edifice at Utrecht is actually the tallest in terms of height, but Groningen lays claim to the title because its tower is the highest above sea level. This is actually a topic of serious debate. Draw your own conclusions, I can’t trust myself to be near the keyboard at this point.

People in the office often store plot-files on the print server, in sub-directories which bear their name, prior to actually printing drawings. Henk Wetsema and Henk Westendorp both employ this technique, distinguishing between themselves by means of the device whereby one uses a folder named Henk and one uses a folder named HenkW. Truly brilliant. There is also a folder for Henneke, but we’re going to try to persuade her to shorten her name to Henk, just to avoid confusion.

For some months now, according to instruction, I have been placing an arrow with the text Rijrichting Noord on every track layout, and recently I thought to myself, "what's all this rijrichting nonsense?” So I looked it up. “Rijrichting” means "direction of driving". Direction as opposed to what, exactly? Is there some other meaning of North, of which I was previously unaware? And why is it only the direction when driving? Is it not still North when one is walking or swimming? If one remains still, does North drift? Then there are the circuitry drawings in which a resistor can vary between -110 and +0 – now I can see that certain values might be positive or negative, but plus zero? In what way would that vary from minus zero, exactly? Just another example of the curious thinking process of Netherlanderthal man.

I have commented before on the curse of techno-hip-hop-rap-dance muzak playing in the office (I mean, what’s ‘drum and bass’ about? Why would you name a musical genre after the two instruments that have been removed from the sound?), but a new phenomenon has emerged which is even more annoying: whistling. All the time now, it seems, there are people wandering around the office tunelessly repeatedly whistling the tuneless repetitive tunes. And they can’t even get them right. Chinese water torture has nothing on this. I would outlaw whistling in offices – even if there was a tune, it’s so damned distracting. Not for nothing has the term Whistler Mother fallen into common parlance.

Stuart returned from a recent weekend back home with more than adequate decoration for our ‘colony corner’, and we have now adorned our area with a 5’ by 3’ St George’s flag, and have additional similarly marked national emblems dotted around: a giant inflatable glove, balloons and another smaller flag hanging from the ceiling. An additional benefit might be that a large cross on the wall might help to protect us against certain unnatural elements…

I am overjoyed to be able to say that I finally have independent heating in my apartment. This may not seem like a big deal but, trust me, it is – especially given the current extremes of coldness which have been occurring here (five inches of snow in one morning, and even track safety boots couldn’t stop me from slipping on the ice, although I did at least have Heineken to soften the blow). In a fortnight, I will additionally finally have access to a broadband connection, which is also being installed – cue two weeks without internet operability.

Finally, if anybody out there is still reading these missives, maybe they could drop me a line, just so I know I’m not talking to myself. As always, any news from other parts of the world will be gratefully received.

Anyway, I’m off to Schiphol for a flight home for the weekend. Live from Zwartsluis.


Anonymous said...

HI Julien,

Your request prompted me to come out of the woodwork so to speak. I've been reading your journal from time to time since you placed a link on the Expatic forums some time back. At the time I was living in Amsterdam but have recently returned home to Australia. Anyway, thanks for the laughs. I really enjoy reading your entries and having a chuckle the way only someone who has experienced living in the netherlands (natives aside) can!


Anonymous said...

Hi Julien,

Just wanted to say your off hand comment about the BDA is a bit mischaracterised. If by 'Character Assassination' you refer to some well meaning folks talking in about their bad experiences, in confidence, with someone you count as a friend: then I say welcome to the human race.
I've never had any bad experiences with Expats here myself, but then different strokes for different folks...



Anonymous said...


You must be quite delusional if you can say that your group only discusses bad experiences they have had in private. While you are not one of the nasty ones, your friends have put others down based on their appearance, family background and other personal items. This has nothing to do with "bad experiences" but is flat- out character assassination and insulting. Your fearless leader has posted the personal details of a girl on the net with a call to people to ring her husband and tell him she was cheating on him. That is bang out of order. The man is sick and twisted as he sits on his throne- his empire built on pain and suffering of others. How is insulting someone's physical appearance a "bad experience" that someone had? Or saying they are a bastard as their parents weren;lt married? Or natural selction has ensured that they cannot have children? No depths are too low for your leader to sink to in his quest to be liked and popular by making others appear to be less than himself. Picking on someone's hair, weight, make-up etc. are all personal characteristics and should be left out of any discussions. They have nothing to do with how someone is as a person- their character or kindness. And nothing to do with bad experiences.