Sunday, June 25, 2006

Week 109 – Streets of Shame

Well, I’m now into the third year of my tour of duty in the Netherlands, and I'm starting to get a little homesick.

My venture to Amsterdam on Queen’s Day was quite an eye-opener - a chance to see what the city is like when the streets run with urine and pulse to hip-hop, while people sell their unwanted junk and over-priced drinks are sold in plastic cups. Having said which, the natives obviously seemed to like it. There were techno street-parties all over the place, and everybody was wearing orange: orange clothes, orange wigs, orange hair (but not ginger: they have some standards), and orange body-paint. This obsession is now being repeated for the world cup (which, let’s face it, is just about a load of blokes kicking a ball about) to the extent that the entire village is decked with flags and bunting – one house has been completely covered in orange tarpaulin – and there is orange beer available in many drinking establishments, and orange cake, and orange biscuits: I tell ya, this isn’t somewhere you want to be if you have a sensitive stomach.

A few weeks ago, I went out with a couple of friends for a couple of drinks, and we popped into this eatery for a light meal. We all asked for lamb shoarma (my companions were Dutch, so I know that there can have been no misunderstanding here) but when it arrived, I seemed to have chicken. I initially assumed that perhaps my senses were befuddled or confused, so I asked my friends what they’d got, and they had also received chicken. Naturally, I signalled the waiter and asked why we seemed to have chicken when we’d asked for lamb, to which he replied that the chicken had been ready. Now, this rather threw me. I realised that one of us wasn’t making any sense, but I found this exchange so surreal that I thought it might have been me, so I just said “fine” and let it go. My companions merely commented that they’d had worse service elsewhere in the past and kept eating like there was nothing out of the ordinary. Frankly, I felt so out of my depth with the whole scenario that I didn’t know how to react, so I finished my food (which was quite good, but completely not what I’d wanted) and kept drinking in the hope that I might find some sense or meaning in the beer (it hasn’t ever worked yet, but I've never been a quitter). What really shocked me was that everyone around me just so failed to react that I can no longer tell if the world is strange or if perhaps this is normal and it’s me that’s odd.

So to Blighty for a long weekend, as Hemelvaartsdag (Ascension Day) is a Bank Holiday for the Neds, on a Thursday, and so the office was also closed on Friday. The airport was packed out, people pushing all over the place, and the woman in front of me commented that one thing she hated was the way everybody jostled for position and pushed in all the time. A nearby grinning imbecile laughed and said that, in the Netherlands, getting in front of the person in front of you was considered a sport. He went quiet when I told him that shooting was also a legitimate sport.

The nightmarish element of the job has become even more apparent because the Dutch don't produce a separate contact analysis schedule, preferring to reference different relay racks and positions within the actual circuitry. Those of you who work in this industry may have some idea of what that makes designs look like, but for the rest of you: imagine a visual migraine in black and white, or trying to read the FTSE index through a kaleidoscope. In fact, the more I look at the standards, systems and procedures over here, and the whole seat-of-the-pants way things are done, the more the whole thing seems scarily reminiscent of the way the UK signalling industry might have been in late 1988, just before Clapham. Whatever, I can happily absolve myself of any responsibility for this since, in a remarkable display of team-building spirit, Stuart and I have had all our privileges with regard to the system removed, so we can no longer create or amend cells or templates. No adequate explanation for this was given but, needless to say, motivation levels do tend to drop when this sort of thing goes on.

Summer is well and truly upon us, and once again the river is buzzing with life. Of course, it’s been quite a while since this was last the case, so I’ve been sitting with the windows wide-open, and now I've got so many insect bites on my chest that I might easily be mistaken for The Man With the Golden Gun.

A couple more linguistic observations: it seems that the phrase 'Naar werk!' means both 'To work!' and 'Horrible work!', which is quite appropriate; and, wierdly, the Nederish word for ‘gloves’ is ‘handschoenen’ – literally, shoes for hands. Of course. As a certain Austrian film star turned politician might have said, “Alta la Vista, Babel”.

Anyway, that’s about it for the time being. Live from Zwartsluis.