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Saturday, 25 February 2012

Fourteenth letter: Vibrating cars and a Fat Controller

Today I experienced genuine frustration at being a none native in the Nederlands.

 During my weekly Dutch lessons, I endure my teacher’s regular looks of pity and notice, although she tries to hide them (bless her) her increasingly, frequent sighs of irritation. Andy might be swayed by my new ability to ask for a table for two or an English menu. But my teacher and I know different. If I’m honest, I’ve been content with my slow progress, after all I’m English, we’re not supposed to be good at languages.  Well, today I’m not content; in fact I wished I could pick up and throw the guttural sounds  around with the natives.  All because of a little rage – car park rage.

Earlier today, I drove down the ramp into our car park, and only just managed to avoid hitting the blue Citroen parked in the middle of the subterranean road.  Initially I was happily tapping to the radio and content to wait for the car to move.  But after 5 minutes, I began growing decidedly twitchy. I tidied my bag, searched the car for chocolate, found none and then, feeling a touch hard done to, nervously beeped my horn. The Citroen started to vibrate, that wasn’t the reaction I expected, had the driver fallen asleep or worse, while I’d been searching for chocolate had a stroke or heart attack. Jumping out of my car, I ran to the blue Citroen; the car looked empty, but then the vibration returned, I peered into the back and spotted a small, blond child fearfully trying to melt into the corner. My imagination ran wild. Had the child been abducted, or worse. I peered closer to see if it was hurt, and it's tiny chin began to wobble, as it shrunk even further into the upholstery. It wasn’t masked abductors the child was afraid of, it was me.

15 more minutes passed during which I tried to manoeuvre around the blue Citroen, but my car just wasn’t having it. Eventually a door opened, and out pottered an old-ish chap carrying a bicycle pump. Finally. He walked up to the Citroen, peered inside then walked off in the opposite direction. I’d been waiting 20 minutes for this old dude and he was going to leave me still waiting while he pumped his bicycle tyre. I couldn’t prevent the loud beep that emerged from my horn.

                The, not so old-ish chap placed his bicycle pump carefully on the floor and slowly turned to face me. I reluctantly wound the window down, in response to the rapping of his knuckles.

It’s very difficult to maintain annoyance when you have to start the conversation with:

 ‘I’m very sorry, I’m a stupid English women and I don’t speak Dutch well.’
‘No problem,’ he replied, ‘ madam with the car, is upstairs with her mother, you will find, I’m sure.’

I used sign language to show I was fine sitting here for another 30 minutes and to apologise for the loud beeping. He smiled, definitely not in a condescending way though.

Reversing space minus Citroen (it looks bigger than it actually is)
15 minutes later the women appeared, mobile phone stuck to her ear. Not even glancing in my direction, she jumped in her car and slammed it into reverse, forcing me to retreat.  I managed to reverse up the ramp on my third attempt, and then some perverse, bitter segment of my brain (Irish part?) drove me to yank the handbrake, cross my arms and glare at the Citroen. I held the glare for oh.. at least 30 seconds, before throwing up my hands and mouthing ‘you selfish woman’ (shocking) and driving off. I had to drive off because I can’t do rage when my opening line is always.
‘I’m very sorry, I’m a stupid English women and I don’t speak Dutch well.’

Later, while nursing my wounds of indignation, the internal doorbell rang, and I opened the door to a man the shape and size of Jaws from the James Bond films, sporting a nifty, navy blue boiler suit and carry a metal box.
Before I had time to begin my ‘I’m very sorry….’
He lifted his metal box and said in a deep voice, ‘Controller.’
I gave my best smile, recited my best line and waited for him to respond –he did.
‘Controller’ he said, this time louder.
I felt a moment of panic, wasn’t this a scene from Se7en, I had a vivid image of my head in a box.
Almost a doppelgänger for the man at my door only my one didn't
have blood on his shirt - yet!
The large man gave me a hard purposefulness stare and this time shouted, ‘Controller’.
I had no idea what to do, so, like a woman who’s never listened to the news, read Steven King or watched a horror film I stood back and invited him in.

He seemed to know my apartment, marched through the living room, the kitchen and into the utility room.
‘Controller’ he said pointing.
‘Ah controller’ I smiled as he took the lid of the boiler and began its annual service.

Okay so he wasn't fat, but I couldn't resist the picture.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Twelfth letter: Dutch porn sandwich

My first real culture shock as an expat in the Nederlands.

Wednesday night I was aimlessly scrolling through the TV channels, while Andy worked in his ‘office’ (remind me to describe his office one day). The choices being somewhat limited: BBC 1,2,3,4, Discovery (playing back to back Dog Whisperers) and the main Dutch channels, which occasionally play a good film. Well, I was searching for a film and my finger slipped (it’s true), and I scrolled up instead of down.
Out of nowhere appeared channels numbered up to 699, I’d been under the impression that our channels stopped at a quarter of that. I thought I’d discovered a whole new world of entertainment; great, we’d be no longer forced to watch reruns of Cash in the Attic and Mandelsons Great Train Journey.

So, any normal person living in the Nederlands would have realised channels above 500 were indeed ‘Entertainment’, but I didn’t. Clicking on 699, I almost choked on my caramel waffle, as the screen flashed (ha) with a picture of what appeared to be a couple who could easily be my neighbours, involved in explicit sexual capers, disturbingly the cameraman and film extra(same person), looked not unlike one of our local waiters. I quickly flicked onto the next channel. This time the actors seemed unfamiliar, although that feeling didn’t last long. I cast a quick glance at Andy, he was still typing away across the room, giant earphones on, oblivious to the cultural education going on in the other half of the room.
Both blissfully unware
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not a prude, but I am easily shockable. That’s what happens if you grow up on a diet of Little House on The Prairie and The Walton’s (we only had three channels then). I gave myself a quick talking too, this was a healthy thing, the Dutch have it right. Why should sex be out of reach on the top shelf, or secreted away inside shops with blacked out windows.  

The actors and actresses, apart from becoming familiar too quickly, had one very healthy thing in common. They all looked normal: fat, thin, wide, spotty, black roots and chipped nail varnish showing, paunches, baldness (on the head too), although I thought the keeping on of socks might be a Dutch thing to far.

I can’t let this moment go without passing a judgement. Seeing so many naked bodies in a short space of time reminded me of a fact I always used to tell my clients - skinny women might look good in clothes, but they look bloody awful naked.

The next channel came as even more of a surprise - a children cartoon channel, sandwiched right in the middle of two porn channels. I’m still thinking this one over, is it nourishing for children to grow up, understanding sex is just a part of life, or is it a step to far to have Thomas the Tank Engine sitting side by side with Sexy Zelda’s day in Zeeland?

Time to go and stock up on caramel waffles and chocolate cake…

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Eleventh letter: Kojak impressionists and the Open University

Monday the 13th of February

I have two big items of news this week.. well, when I say big, I mean big news for me.

Last of the snow

The biggest and most important news is that the temperature has risen above freezing today. Walking along the now familiar paths I’ve been overjoyed to watch the last of the ice dissipating, revealing the rather grubby streets beneath. Grubby only because for the last two weeks, the efficient, sweeping, yellow Tonka toy, that follows the man in the reflective waistcoat with a floral disinfectant hose pipe, in the early hours of the morning has been laid off due to the weather. It’s amazing to see just how organised and effective the Dutch road cleaning service is. It’s also horrifying to notice how bloody dirty the local streets are without it.

Outside my local supermarket this afternoon, I noticed:

·         50% of the footpath covered in gum.
·         Almost every crack in the footpath filled with paper or plastic lolly pop sticks.
·         Lolly pop wrappers
·         Several pieces of bicycle mud flaps
·         A purple plastic flower head
·         Two charming piles of lumpy, pink vomit

You’d be forgiven if you imagined the streets of the Netherlands are crowded with gangs of Kojak impressionist (you need to be over 40), chewing gum, wearing bovver boots, kicking at nearby bicycles, ripping flowers and spewing heaps of sausage and Pernod. But you’d be wrong. The streets are full of perfectly nice people who keep carbon monoxide levels down by cycling everywhere, recycle passionately and aspire to healthy work life balance (that doesn’t extends to the expats unfortunately).  So where does all the litter come from? I’m damned if I know. I’m tempted to blame Andy, after all he has some similarities to Kojak, and he recently has broken his bicycle.

This week I’ve been preparing myself for my years of study with the Open University, and believed I was managing reasonably well  - until:

Consonants are sibilant or dental

Amazingly this for me, is the phrase that launched a thousand dreams. I’ve been trying to work my way through The Arts Good Study Guide, the OU help book for beginners like me, who are under the illusion they can achieve a degree. I had more or less completed the section on communicating your ideas, when I came across the little beauty above. I read the phrase several times, broke it down and finally reread with the help of a dictionary (surprisingly the word dental isn’t always associated with teeth!)

In between all this I:
  • ·          Fell asleep once.
  • ·          Composed a witty, mildly wise email to my sister.
  • ·          Wrote a wistful booklet for my sons, advising them against making all the same mistakes as me, not letting opportunities pass them by and making a conscious decision to choose to be happy (think I read this in a Facebook article last week).
  • ·          Rang an old friend in Derby and promised to keep in touch more often.
  • ·          Re-learnt the skill of ice skating and joined the other youthful (ah), elegant skaters on the frozen river here.
  • ·          Spoke to my brother, regarding several childhood incidents.
  • ·          And watched three quarters of a very bad made for TV  American movie.

          Only the first and last events actually happened, the rest were just wistful day dreams. I’m hoping that not too much of the reading in AA100(the first module of my degree) will invoke such expansive fantasies, otherwise I foresee difficulties.

I almost forgot the other big news  – the reintroduction of wine. Yes it happened, I’m no longer teetotal, I'm sort of sad to hang up my goody-two-shoes hat, but in a greater way relieved. Weekends were becoming duller(or so it seemed) and the diet cokes just weren't cutting the mustard on a night out.

Thats all for now...
Trace xx

P.s. It's now Valentine's night and I was expecting nothing more than a frown.. But I was delighted when Andy came home with tulips, roses, wine and chocolates. (So glad I didn't say anything too mean about him this time)

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Tenth letter: Sometimes flavoured with meat

Saturday the 4th of February

Hi *******

Lately, life hasn’t gone exactly to plan in the Nederlands. A couple of times fate needed to step in, to remind me of my place, and restore my faith in the power of the Universe.

The view from the balcony Friday
First failed plan.
One of the benefits of moving to the land of bitten ballen (deep fried paste balls, sometimes flavoured with meat) was of course the climate. At some point over the last few decades I’d decided that as the Netherlands was reached by traveling through France, it must be either, at least the same temperature or warmer. It’s neither, its bloody freezing, -18 on weather forecast this morning, -18! What kind of temperature is that?

I’ve had to learn a whole new set of rules to cope with the weather:
a.       Start getting ready to go out, ten minutes earlier than normal.
b.      Do not go to sleep without laying your thermal underwear next to the bed.
c.       Don’t run with Alfie, his balance on ice is better than mine.
d.      The ducks are fine on the ice; they don’t need or welcome your pity.
e.      The younger you are, the fewer clothes you need as the temperature drops.
f.        On my next birthday, I’ll be 97 years old.
Preparing to walk Alfie

Second failed plan.
Steve with the winning team, and if you look closely
you can see Andy on the right. The bucket is off camera!
Started with last weekend’s international games jam at NHTV, where Andy was supposed to be judging, as well as taking care of Steve, the keynote speaker. However Sunday morning, with typically cosmic timing, delivered to Andy, a rather serious bout of food poisoning.  Yet rather heroically (I thought) he dragged Steve and himself off to start judging – he had a job to do after all.  The day didn’t go well, Andy spent a considerable amount of time laid on the office floor with people stepping around him, and an emergency judge had to be drafted in. I arrived later for the speeches and presentations, one look at Andy had me checking for the emergency doctor’s number on my mobile.

Now normally I’m particularly unsympathetic whenever Andy has another bout of flu, or similar serious male illnesses. Stuffing toilet roll up his nose doesn’t impress, neither does littering the house with vitamin pills and flu remedies. However on Wednesday morning when he was still asleep at 8 am, I panicked, he was so still, I couldn’t hear him breathing and his skin looked grey beneath the special tan.
I held my hand close to his nose and sighed in relief when he snapped. ‘What the fuck are you doing?’  He was on the mend!

Third failed plan:
I was out walking with Andy and Alfie not long ago, complaining (a rarity!) that nothing funny ever happens to blog about anymore. Alfie chose that precise moment to squat in the frozen grass. Our little dog, still not quite recovered from his previous illness and was rather liquid. This release of liquid must have comes as something of a relief to him, as he shook his dry furry body like dog coming in from a thunder storm. Shooting a particle of a dreadfully cold, and heavy something onto my eyelashes.
 It couldn’t be, could it?
Could Alfie be any happier?
I pleaded with Andy to check my lashes for poo - he found none. However the feeling of heavy cold remained. Using the tips of my pale, pink gloved finger I carefully stroked along my lashes (away from the eye) – nothing. Yet the feeling of cold was now accompanied by a mild stinging. Andy checked unsuccessfully several more times. Before admitting that although he couldn’t see anything, he could still bizarrely smell dog shit. We eventually traced the smell to my pale, pink gloves. Alfie had indeed managed to spray stinging dog juice on to my eyelashes. Or perhaps was it the universe telling me to stop worrying, it’s still got plenty more shit to throw my way?

Trace xxx

Catching snow flakes

Our usual walk by the river, which was completed iced over