Friday, April 28, 2006

Week 101 – Room 101

So to week 101 in the Netherlands, which might almost be the Room 101 of the world. Into my own personal Room 101 has finally gone my pony-tail (for the second time) because, at thirty-six, I had to admit that it had started to look like a desperate attempt to hang-on to a youth long-since past; and so I’ve chosen to return to a French crop (or should that be a Freedom crop?), which at least keeps my fringe moderately close to my face.

My last but one venture back home was, once again, delayed; which is of no consequence in itself except that it gave me the opportunity to meet an upcoming artist called Mike, who used to work in airport security and was able to confirm to me what I had always suspected: that, when a plane is going to be late, the airports like to break the news gently, first announcing a thirty minute delay, then increasing it incrementally (despite knowing the true figure from the outset), so that, by the time the total delay is revealed, the passengers have no fight (and very little flight, for that matter) left in them. My other theory - that flights were held-up until passengers had spent a target figure in Duty Free - is apparently groundless, but I still have my suspicions.

Looking after my health is once more on the agenda: the last time Fons and I cycled the 44 km to work and back (22km each way, we’re not stupid) in 2005 was on December the thirteenth, rather unwisely given the conditions; equally unwisely, the first such venture of 2006 on March the twenty-second, but the weather has now improved substantially, and we are making the effort once or twice a week. I intend to get back to the gym any month now.

Friday the seventh of March presented an opportunity for Stuart, Hendrick and myself to travel to the RUI at Amsterdam to visit the Intertraffic trade exhibition, partially as an opportunity for me to catch-up with my BRI agent, Mike, and his latest business venture (One2See,, which is actually very impressive), but mainly for the lure of free beers (one might be forgiven for seeing a pattern emerging here). The exhibition was particularly notable because of the interesting promotional techniques employed. To illustrate: there was a naked woman wandering through the stands wearing only a loincloth and body-paint, with the words ‘Follow Me’ painted on her back. We never found out was she was promoting, because we made the quite reasonable (it seemed to us) premise that it might just have been a rather audacious mugging technique, but this is, of course, the Netherlands, so traditional concepts of normality often fall far short of experience.

Mention of abductions brings me rather neatly to a recent foray by the British contingent into the world of kipnapping (sic): Egbert de Haan, one of our colleagues in the office whose name fairly unfortunately translates literally as Egbert the Cock (and hence begs the whole chicken/Eg question), brought a stuffed toy representing the male of the chicken (kip) species into the office, and said doll, when squeezed, emitted a cry of cock-a-doodle-doo, three times. After barely a fortnight of this far-too-frequent irritation, Stuart and I decided that we’d had enough and, one evening, whilst working late, swiped it. Various photographs (to be posted later) have been sent anonymously to Egbert, illustrating the holding of the chicken by masked (though fairly recognisable) men in various bars, on trains, in Amsterdam, outside a branch of KFC and up a mountain in North Wales (not my doing – Stuart’s one of these outdoor types). A ransom demand of Rebecca Loos and one hundred chocolate eggs has been presented (listen, this is the Netherlands: it took us two days to think of anything worth asking for that they had) and, since the ransom remains undelivered, the hapless chicken has now ended up in the offices of one of our competitors (revealing more at this juncture might be unwise, but suffice to say that this represents a substantial blow to Grontmij office morale).

A few weeks back, there was a Grontmij function of some description called Meeting Point, in De Bild, which gave all of the various divisions of the engineering part of the company an opportunity to get together and find out exactly what it is that each other does (rail, traffic management, technology solutions and various other off-shoots). Also featured were an opportunity to sample some more excellent Indonesian food (which we don’t seem to have in Blighty yet, but really ought to because it’s very, very good), a chair massage (fabulous, for reasons which I’m going to keep to myself), and a Tarot reading (in which my past and present were related to me with almost uncanny inaccuracy). Stuart and I were given a lift to the meeting by Cornelus, whose services we secured by the simple offer of a free lunch and, during one breather in the agenda of the day, the three ventured outside for what must have been one of the most abortive games of football ever staged – none of us having the least skill or any interest in the game but, you know, there was a ball. The day ended with speeches and presentations from the hosts, which were made in Nederish but which led to the revelation that there is no translation for customer service – they actually had to break into English in order to mention it! After this period, the free beers became available and Stuart, predictably, pulled – he’s like a dog, sometimes, I tell you: we’re seriously considering getting him a leash. Upon leaving, we were presented with a commemorative bag of goodies which contained a Thermos flask (I have no idea why), a Grontmij mug and a somewhat premature Easter egg – which I was forced to eat myself, because there is no way that it would ever have survived the aeroplane journey home. I also met the top guy from the company, which was a little unnerving because he asked me what I thought about everything. Given that I wasn’t expecting this, I was forced to resort to honesty. Fortunately, I actually was very impressed, since the whole event was actually quite interesting and rather well done, and I can’t think of anywhere else that I’ve ever worked which tried to instil such a sense of family amongst its employees. I only hope I made a good impression.

So back to the office, and we are currently working on another major level-crossings project, and consequently we encounter a lot of street names, many of which are almost comic in their absurdity. Particularly worthy of mention is Rijksstraatweg, which translates as Kingdom Street Road. I tell you, some nations just shouldn’t be trusted with a language on their own.

Also, recently, I was given a frightening insight into the Nederish working philosophy, as I was recently instructed that often it is more important to do the job quickly than it is to get it right or to do it well. It’s only lucky that there were no sharp or heavy implements within reach when these words were uttered. To give you some clue of the level of organisation, signalling standards (such as they are) are contained in a collection of severely dated and alarmingly unmaintained folders which are sorted by colour code. Unfortunately, this being the Nederlands, they are colour coded orange. All of them. The absurdity of this seems to be lost on my colleagues, but I hardly expect anything else anymore.

One notable feature of the office which I may not have mentioned previously is the Ned propensity for hanging calendars (or Venn diagrams, as I like to call them – “Venn is de appointment?”, “Venn is your birthday?”) all over the place, despite their common failure to change the month on them (time has no meaning…). I am able to hold my own in this regard thanks to Penny (an ex-colleague from WSL), who sent me a wonderful calendar which features lots of photos from the West country, and gives me a little of the flavour of home in my day.

Meanwhile, a new alarm/security system has being fitted in the office, which means that every morning, without fail, I enter a building which is already screaming even before my arrival. Part of the problem is that, annoyed by having to use pass-keys every time they move from one area of the building to another, some members of staff have been attempting to bypass the security system by using sellotape and bits of wire to circumvent the locking mechanisms, with predictable results. This is supposedly the behaviour of functioning adults, but then, this is the rail industry.

More recent health service observations, as Barbi went into hospital for an operation (the details of which can comfortably be skipped over - unlike the six hour delay on the actual process). Before surgery, she was administered with a pill to calm her nerves and supposedly produce a euphoric state, but she reported that this was completely ineffective – however, given that euphoria to a typical Dutchie can be best construed as a cheese sandwich, the threshold for an alochtoon would naturally be far higher than Nederish drugs might be expected to achieve. Anyway, once the anaesthesia wore off and she awakened, after the operation, she complained of a great deal of pain, and was given paracetamol. I kid you not. Predictably, this was a long way from being sufficient (because suffering is not a natural state for warm-blooded humans), but it took a further two hours of complaining before she was finally given morphine. Suddenly the NHS looks like a utopian model.

On the social scene, a recent visit by the Amsterdam Expats to the Hard Rock Cafe gave us an opportunity to pay substantially over the odds for what can best be described as mediocre fare – indeed, this point was driven home when two of our number popped-out between courses, ostensibly to put further monies in a parking meter, and never returned. No, we couldn’t believe it either. They hadn’t even come by car.

Easter in the Nederlands brings rise to traditions which I hadn’t noticed before: Good Friday, curiously, isn’t a bank holiday, despite having the obvious religious significance, and yet the Monday after Easter Sunday, which has no import whatsoever, is. The reasoning behind this only becomes clear once it is realised that the Neds eat boiled eggs on Easter Sunday: lots and lots of boiled eggs – they have competitions. Sharing any kind of enclosed space with them the day after that simply doesn’t bear thinking about.

Not much else to report, except that my attempts to musically enlighten the hip-hop listeners of the office has continued futilely with Ultravox (the Midge Ure period, naturally), although I have gained some ground with The Amateur Transplants, a duo of London doctors who have recorded a superb album of song parodies about medical training, the NHS and life in London which is available at and is raising an admirable amount of money for cancer research. The songs are incredibly clever and funny, but also potentially hugely offensive, so those of fragile sensibilities should definitely make a point of buying it, but probably not actually listen to it.

Anyway, this weekend I’m off to Amsterdam to check out the delights of Queen’s Day - a major event in the Ned calendar which I have thus far avoided, but which is taken very seriously by the natives - so hopefully there will be more to report in my next missive. Live from Zwartsluis.