In Amsterdam

I’m in Amsterdam.

Specifically, I’m sitting in the flat I’m borrowing (and cat-feeding) from a couple of friends for the weekend. (They’re off in Brussels so Dave can turn 40.) It’s a nice place, right in the centre of the city. I’ve made the acquaintance of their very pleasant neighbour, and their cat Magic (black, naturally). Though Magic is shy, I think we’re coming to an understanding. Feeding her helped.

I’ve also made the acquaintance of their wireless LAN, remarkably easily. Whatever one can say about modern technology, I love the ability to take my computer with me and connect to my virtual world in minutes. I spend so much of my mental time in cyberspace, and that is going to make this move dramatically easier, because wherever I go, there it is. It’ll still be there Monday, when I move into the flat I have for the bulk of the month.

I’m going to go out and explore the area this afternoon. I want to get some food for the flat (though all the necessities are here), and generally settle into Amsterdam life. It’s going to be an interesting month, living alone here (weekends aside). I suspect, though that it will be largely a wasted opportunity, from the point of view of cultural exploration…I simply do not feel like walking all over the city and having adventures every evening, particularly when I’m doing something challenging during the days (travel and starting a new job both count in this context).

One thing I do find: coming to Amsterdam one day a week, as I did for about three weeks running, has given me a lot of comfort in making this move. The entire transaction up to this point has felt like business as usual. And I’ve done enough aimless wandering around the centre of Amsterdam itself to feel OK about the next few hours. I suspect that the discomforts will come in the form of little surprises, unexpected moments. But that’s better than being overwhelmed by all the changes at once.

Standing poised…

…at the edge of the high diving board, toes curled just over the edge, arms extended to their fullest length. I can feel the thrum of the board as I flex my calves a little, just scraping the soles of my feet on the rough surface. This is the moment before the moment, before I bounce down, then up, before I soar and slowly draw my hands together above my head, before the long inevitable plunge to the water.

Tomorrow morning I fly out to Amsterdam. Monday I start my new job. Although I will be back in Edinburgh every weekend in July, tomorrow’s trip marks the first stage of moving out of Scotland.

I take a deep breath…

Alarming sounds from upstairs

Martin was running the bath.

Fiona said, “I need to poo!”, and the upstairs reverberated with her footsteps in the hall.

And then it came. A heart-rending howl of horror and despair from Martin, followed by Fiona’s bitter weeping. And I realised instantly that Fiona’s low spirits had been due to digestive difficulties, and that these problems had suddenly become much worse. And Martin hates that kind of thing.

Those of you, dear readers, who have or have had a three year old know what sort of a scene I walked into in the bathroom upstairs. You need no description.

And those of you who do not know, from bitter experience, do not want to know. Please trust me on this.

What’s that piece of spaghetti doing on the wall?

Many people who know me know that I don’t drive in the UK, though I have been a US driver for many years. (American licenses can’t transfer to Europe, though European licenses are inter-transferrable as a rule. UK and Dutch ones certainly are.)

A smaller and less fortunate group of people have been around me at the time of one or both of my British driving tests (both, coincidentally, in October, which is too close to winter for sanity), and have seen how badly I react to failing them. If this isn’t you, dear reader, count your blessings. Seriously.

While we were in California at Easter this year, I did all the driving and really enjoyed it. So when we got back M and I agreed that I should do one more test before we left the UK. It would be like throwing spaghetti at the wall – if it sticks, great. If not, the Dutch test is reputed to be easier, even if all the road signs are in Dutch.

Accordingly, I’ve been taking lessons from the very patient Gareth of Euan’s School of Motoring. My competence as a driver has never been in question, but my nerves were pretty iffy after two failures. Along the way, Gareth and I have discussed the move to the Netherlands, various gems of classical scholarship, the comparative values of swear words between Battlestar Galactica and real life, and of course the odd bit of driving lore. (I talk when I’m nervous.)

I didn’t tell anyone about this, apart from two conversations where it was, for specific reasons, relevant. I simply didn’t want any expectations, didn’t want to tell anyone I’d failed again. It would just sink without a ripple, unnoticed.

And I did everything differently that I could – different test centre (Currie instead of Joppa), had the instructor in the car for the test, every change I could manage. Not to break any “jinx”, but to persuade myself to relax.

And still I was still sure I had failed. I was promising myself that entire bag of Hershey’s Kisses that’s stashed under my bed, with an afternoon of junk TV after the inevitable bad news. I saw the examiner marking minor points against me over and over again (you fail if you get 15 or more, even if all of your major behaviours are acceptable). By the time we pulled into the parking bay at the test centre, I was feeling deeply gloomy.

Well, the fact that you’re reading this means that I was wrong to feel glum. I got 11 minor marks (all due to nerves…you try to do 40 minutes’ drive perfectly error free while shaking like a leaf!) and no majors. I passed. I am now a licensed British driver.

I can use my UK license to drive in the Netherlands (or exchange it for a Dutch one, or use it to get a Dutch one – not sure). This will make logistics a lot easier, particularly if we don’t have childcare in Oostzaan. And I don’t have to sit any more tests, or do any driving lessons!


Schrödinger’s House

After the bad luck of losing the place we’d rented for the next year, we had to go back onto the house hunt. Looking for rental properties from abroad is, at best, difficult, and at worst, soul-destroying. We were not looking forward to it at all.

The estate agent who found us the first place, though, was keen not to lose his commission. So he scrambled around and identified another place that might suit. Maybe. It was more expensive, though he managed to get us a break on the price. But it looked suitable, so we went out to see it (we’d been planning to visit schools on Monday, so we were going to be in the Netherlands anyway.)

The one thing that the estate agent hadn’t explicitly confirmed to us was the rental time. I had asked him to look for a house that was available for a year. He thought (or says he thought) that I meant a maximum of one year. We spoke to him about 15 minutes before the viewing, and he said that the place was only available for eight months.

Our hearts sank.

We went to the viewing anyway. It’s a very pleasant, large place, owned by a nice couple, with four kids (one, a 7 month old baby girl, was there the whole time and flirted outrageously with us). They’re going to the Netherlands Antilles for a while. We talked it over, and they said they would consider whether they could extend their trip from eight months to a year. If they could, we said, we’d take the house.

They said they had to think it over.

We left, feeling deflated. We reckoned we had, at best, a 50% chance to get the place.

So we went to open a bank account for me, which was a whole ‘nother round of trouble. (If ABN Amro treats all its potential customers like they treated me, I can see why they’re a takeover target. ING, though not able to actually give me an appointment, had a motivated and intelligent man who helped me get the paperwork I needed to physically sign. All praise (and all my business) to them.)

And I got a Dutch mobile phone. It’s a prepay phone, bottom of the line, but it’s a phone I can use to make & receive calls without paying a fortune to my British provider. I’ll dual-run the phones for a while, because I’m going to need phone capability in both cultures.

We returned home, trying to turn the few success in the day into cause for some cheer. Not easy

But this morning, I got a phone call from our estate agent. The owners of the house are willing to rent it out for 12 months, less 1 week. 51 weeks is good enough.

So, once again, we have a house. It’s in Oostzaan, close enough to my job that I may cycle on good days; the bus will take me close enough to walk the rest of the time. The school is about 4 minutes’ slow walk away, and the local nursery is another two or three minutes beyond that (though getting places may be a problem).

Oostzaan, as any of my Dutch readers may already know, is notable for voting overwhelmingly either socialist or communist in national elections, and for being the founding place of Albert Heijn, the Dutch grocery chain. Having worked on the legal affairs of a supermarket, and dealt with the economics around staff pay, I find these two facts plausible.

Schrödinger’s verse

A falling redwood makes no sound
When crashing unseen to the ground.
No noise disturbs the sylvan peace
No birds unsettle, no deer flees.

While in its box the cat is dead,
And yet it rears its furry head
Awaiting watchers come to see
If it’s to be, or not to be.

The poem, likewise, dormant lies
Till activated by the eyes.
And who knows what entrancing things
The disregarded poet sings?

Originally posted on Making Light

Although we count on space and time

Although we count on space and time
To honour all that is sublime
And use oblivion to punish art
That makes no difference to the heart,
The time a writer needs to last —
The synapse-leaping flash — is fast.
And space is tiny; we can find
A universe inside the mind.

It’s with these smallest measures we
Decide the fate of what we see.
The generations come apace
But each must choose its time and space.

Originally posted on Making Light

Grrr! Argh!

The house in Wormerveer has just fallen through.

The owner is not going to Mallorca with his family next year, so he is not renting it out. We have to find another place.

This is really, really disappointing. It was a great house, light and airy and well suited to us. And the process of looking for housing is discouraging and frustrating, time-consuming and generally a drag.


Security Theatre, Junior Level

I am seriously annoyed.

Alex’s school is doing a “Keeping Myself Safe” unit, and he brought the first book from it home today. It’s entitled “Laura Goes Home”.

In it, because her mother is late, Laura is left at school. She decides to walk home on her own, but she’s frightened and crying. A man walking his dog stops to ask if she is lost. End of book.

The homework exercise that came with it was a half sheet of paper that said only:

Please read and discuss this book – Laura Goes Home – with your child and then tick the outcome chosen by your child.
1.   Left open ended.
2. a. The man takes Laura away.
    b. Laura’s mummy comes up at that moment.
    c. Laura screams, “I don’t know you” and runs back to school to tell Mrs Smith

We have included the following letter in Alex’s homework folder back.

We have decided to excuse Alex from doing this piece of homework, for two reasons.

1. It’s unclear what he’s supposed to do. He puzzled and stewed over the various options, but we couldn’t figure out whether this is what he would do, what he thinks happened next, or some other answer. He was quite upset by his inability to figure out what the exercise was about.

2. We strongly object to the high level of paranoia that the exercise is designed to build. Although children do need to be told not to talk to strangers, we both found the idea of ending this story with “The man takes Laura away” really repugnant. And the third option, to have the child scream and make a scene, is also inappropriate when the man has does nothing more than crouch down and ask if she is lost, with no contact or menace whatsoever.

Although we appreciate the teaching on well being and safety, we are concerned that this goes too far. Children need to be taught to be cautious – but not to be afraid all of the time.

Would you be available to talk about this at some point on Friday afternoon?

I think I need to review the materials for this unit, because I really don’t agree with the tone they’re taking.

The fact is that stranger abduction is extremely rare (see, for instance, the statistics for England and Wales here – I couldn’t find the equivalent Scottish statistics, but they will be smaller due to the lower population here.) Our fictional Laura was in much more danger from crossing the road than from the man who saw her crying and asked if she was lost. She was in more danger of violence or sexual abuse from people she knew than from strangers as well – the vast majority of these crimes occur in the home. But I seriously doubt that the next book in the series will address those issues – parents would riot, for one thing.

And Martin and I both really object to raising our children in irrational fear. They will have to adopt realistic threat assessment strategies when they go out alone in public, which won’t be for some time. (To go back to the book, I would teach Laura to stay on school grounds and get the office to call her mother. She’d never have gotten to page 3 until she was old enough to make the walk home without her mother.)

But if we tell them that every stranger is out to get them, and they find out that we were exaggerating, then where will our credibility be? How, then, will they believe us when we say not to go out at night, or through bad neighbourhoods, or with an ostentatious display of wealth? How can I teach Fiona the caution necessary for a woman to be safe, if she’s been immunised by cheap scare tactics now?

And what does that do for their fellow feeling with mankind? Are we really trying to build Margaret Thatcher’s world, where there is “No such thing as society”, one isolated child at a time? There are ways for a child to react to – and reject the assistance of, if appropriate – a strange adult that don’t involve screaming and running away, for instance.

I was annoyed enough that the nursery discussed Madeline McCann’s abduction with the kids (as though there was any cautionary or educational element to it – are they not to sleep with the windows open, perhaps?). But to hear this same message of fear from the school, from the official educational channels, really gets my goat.

It seems like we’re protecting our kids from everything but irrational terror. It’s almost like going to the airport these days.


lolcat n lolcat++
is in ur prezentz
watchin u play,
heerin u purr.

i can has sense?
o noes!
sintz i sees u
noe kitteh is u++.

noe meow left,
fur al on end,
pointy earz ringin,
green eyes clozin.

im in my sunbeamz
dreamin of u
makin me worse
lik ded katz befor.

– o0o –

don likz
but likz.
ask why
an how?
me don’
quait knoe
but ow!

Originally posted on Making Light