Going skating

Oostzaan is a very watery place. The central square lies about 60cm below sea level, and the whole village is criss-crossed with canals and waterways. It’s easier to get around on foot and by bike, because there are plenty of bridges that aren’t accessible by car.

There’s a canal that runs just behind our house, and we have been thinking about buying a small boat for messing around in. Until just a few days ago, though, the thought of walking out our back gate, crossing the road, and going skating hadn’t crossed my mind. But we have had freezing temperatures at night for the last week or so, and almost all the water around the village has a thick layer of ice. While Abi and I were out cycling on Monday, we saw a handful of people out on the ice at the skating club, but today it seemed like half of Oostzaan had their skates on.

Alex and Fiona have never been skating before. When I suggested to Alex that we go out and try it, his reaction was immediate: “No! For two reasons: one, I don’t want to injure myself. And two, I’m hibernating!”. Fiona proved more persuadable, and we took a quick trip out to the local bike shop to buy her a set of strap-on blades. (Unfortunately they didn’t have any real skates in my size – I’ll need to go out after New Year to get some.) Then I took her out and let her try them.

Normally I don’t enjoy the cold of winter much, but I’m wondering if that’s because it hasn’t been cold enough for me in recent years. I have to admit that I’m quite thrilled by this deep icy chill.

NL in ’07: Being There

Well, we’re here. Here follow some random thoughts on my first two weeks of Dutch life.

We managed to land a totally awesome house. It has office space for me, bindery space for Abi, a huge bedroom for Alex and Fiona, and a guest room (which doubles up as play space for the kids). The problem is that it is going to set our expectations very high when it comes to buying a new house next year. (We’re renting it for a fixed 12 months.)

Downside: cleaning the bathroom and toilet(s) now takes three hours rather than one.

Fucking mosquitoes. There was a point last week where I was almost afraid to take Fiona out of the house in case people thought she had smallpox.

Fast food: Chinese cuisine varies from country to country. The Dutch variant is a Chinese/Indonesian cross-over, and it is amazingly gorgeous. I’ve missed this so much.

The pace of life is slower here than in Scotland. Shops still close on Sundays, and on Monday mornings. If you want anything more sophisticated than cash from a bank, be prepared to wait a fortnight for it to show up.

Even worse: don’t believe a fucking word you hear from KPN (the former telecom monopoly). Really, don’t get me started. After a month of dealing with them, I have concluded that they are institutionally incapable of delivery. If you can ever get through to an actual person (and that’s a big if), you’ll find them to be friendly people who genuinely want to help. Unfortunately, they can’t, because they are thwarted by internal procedures at every turn.

Being offline for so long (we were dark until the middle of this week) made me realize just how much I rely on the Internet, not just for entertainment, but also for the smallest nuggets of everyday information. I’m not at Manfred Macx’ level of integration yet, but I definitely feel dumber when I’m off the grid, like part of my brain is missing. (More thoughts on this to follow soon.)

Speaking Dutch again every day is making my head hurt in lots of different directions. It’s messing with my spoken English.

The biggest problem with my Dutch, however, is the mismatch between my accent and my vocabulary. After getting my mouth used to the vowels and diphthongs again, my accent is essentially native. But because I’ve been out of the country since 1990, I’m unfamiliar with the standard terms for anything related to minor stuff like, oh, the internet. Also, although I recognize and remember idiomatic expressions in colloquial Dutch when I hear them, my brain doesn’t have them ready at hand for spoken use yet. As a result, I just sound like a tongue-tied moron most of the time. Conversations in shops often involve much hand-waving and tortuous circumlocutions.

Strange: the Dutch intarwebs (.nl domains) haven’t fully emerged from the stone age yet. It’s years since I’ve seen so many <marquee> and <blink> tags and sites that don’t work properly in Firefox. I’m sure this is related to the fact that of all European countries, the Netherlands has the lowest Firefox uptake; I just don’t know how.

Potentially related: Dutch radio still has an unhealthy fascination with Supertramp. Scrolling through the FM band is like taking a trip through the 1980s. (Thank goodness for the BBC: I can still catch Zane Lowe and Steve Lamacq online.)

Dutch schools: yay. Although one of the local schools offered to absorb Alex into a normal class, we have decided to send him to the Kernschool in Zaandam instead. It’s further away, but they run a special educational stream for children from 6-12 who don’t speak Dutch. It’s a 1-year course, after which the kids are transferred into a regular school. We reckon this will make it easier for Alex to progress through normal school work at the same time. He starts tomorrow, and we’re all a bit nervous about it.

Downside: it means driving Alex to school instead of walking or cycling. We’re in the process of buying a tiny little car.

Packing up a house takes three months; unpacking at the other end takes at least a week. If you’re moving yourself, GET THE VAN AT LEAST A DAY IN ADVANCE.

Ikea isn’t just a shop any more, it’s up there with death and taxes as one of the inevitable facts of life.

Nice: food is cheaper here.

Dutch bikes are really cool. Forget mountain bikes and racers. The traditional Dutch bike has evolved into a sophisticated cargo-carrying commuter vehicle. Screw your light-weight frames, racing tyres, and all-terrain suspension. These are the shire horses of the bike world. How much can yours carry?

Downside: I feel embarrassed about bringing my cheap-ass “British-style” bike in for a tune-up.

DVD box sets are the only way to go when watching TV series. I don’t have the patience any more to wait a week to find out what happens next. (We’ve just run through the first season of The Wire. Very excellent.)

Are we liking it so far? Yes.

Sack of coal

Alex is totally engrossed in Psychonauts. I need to figure out what to give him to eat. Alex likes having a chocolate spread sandwich in the morning.

Me: Alex, we only have enough chocolate spread for one sandwich. If you have it now, you won’t be able to have a chocolate spread sandwich for breakfast tomorrow.

Alex: Okay.

Me: You could have some yoghurt for breakfast though.

Alex: Okay.

Me: So you want me to make you a chocolate spread sandwich now?

Alex: Yep.

Me: And you’re fine with having yoghurt in the morning?

Alex: Yep.

Me: So do you want a sack of coal for your morning snack at school, then?

Alex: Yep.

Me: Okay.

Fridge

For the last few months, we’ve been working to get the house ready to sell it. We’ve been throwing stuff out, tidying stuff up, rearranging storage, and where necessary adding small decorative features. Because I’m a geek, I think of this as a process of compression and optimization: we’re refactoring our life.

When we put in our new kitchen a couple of years ago, we chose a very pale colour scheme for it. White cabinets and white splashback tiles, light painted walls, and light floor tiles. I often thought it looked a bit stark, but it was very practical, and because we were living in it all the time, we were used to it. I didn’t realize just how stark and uninviting until we came back from holiday last week. We had been away for two weeks, and so when we walked back into the house, it was almost like seeing with fresh eyes. My first impression of the living room was that it felt bare and un-lived in, but my reaction to the kitchen was: “Huargh!” The overall lightness made it feel unfinished–like the builders had just wandered off mid-way through the job.

So, our project this weekend has been to “finish” the kitchen. We’ve chosen blue as our highlight colour, and the addition of a new window blind, a new blue toaster, and various other blue highlights seems to make a big difference. Blue isn’t a very homely colour, but it gives a modern, practical feel to the kitchen instead.

We’re also redecorating the fridge. Over the years it has accumulated a variety of magnetic attachments, but it makes the rest of the kitchen look a bit messy. We have got attached to the fridge poetry over time, though, and we didn’t want to get rid of it without keeping a record for posterity. Hence:

Our fridge poetry

My favourites: “tiny bunny in ferocious wuv urge”, because it’s cute, and “son born & I smiled”, because it’s a reminder that we bought this house as a couple, and we’ll be leaving it as a family.

Going Dutch: NL in ’07!

The year is 2007, and the time of the Big Move is drawing near. For three years, we’ve been planning to move to the Netherlands, and it is finally starting to happen.

We took a trip to Rome in the spring of 2003. Alex had just turned two; Fiona was still in the planning stages. Our journey to Rome took us through Stansted Airport, where we had a couple of hours to kill. It was a nice day, so we went outside to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. We were joined by a few other kids and their parents, and we started chatting. We ended up speaking mostly English, this was mostly because it was the main language we all had in common. I don’t remember what the nationalities of the other couples were, but I think that one of them was Spanish + Italian, and the other was Italian + Danish. Their children were all merrily running around and jabbering away in a variety of different languages at age two.

Abi is grew up in California, I grew up in the Netherlands, and we both have a very international outlook. But talking to those other parents, we felt painfully aware that staying in Scotland was not the best way to pass our multi-cultural perspectives and love of languages on to our children. So we decided to move, and to live in a country without English as its primary language.

Because we’re very cautious by nature, this wasn’t an overnight decision. For a long time, we just talked about where the best place to settle would be. We love Rome, but Italy didn’t feel right. Initially we also dismissed the Netherlands, because I thought it would be unfair to give me the advantage of living somewhere I already spoke the language. Then we thought about Quebec, because it would give us a nice balance between English and French. It wasn’t until after Fiona was born in 2004 that we cut the knot and made a decision: yes, it would be the Netherlands. And the year would be 2007.

Why wait three years, though? Well, did I mention that we’re very cautious people? Although we knew intellectually that this was what we wanted to do, the idea of moving straight away scared the crap out of us. We were both at transition points in our careers. I had just started contracting, and Abi was just moving into test management. We both felt that we would prefer to pump up our skills for a while before attempting a big move. We recognized that we had to set an exact date, though, because otherwise we might just keep postponing it because we didn’t feel “ready”.

That’s why we chose 2007. It was far enough in the future not to be too scary, but not so far away that it was a pipe dream. Alex would be six, Fiona would be three; almost exactly the ages that Scott and I were when we moved to NL. We were both speaking Dutch within a matter of months, so we knew that Alex and Fiona wouldn’t have any great problems with the language. In three years, Abi could take Dutch lessons, and bring herself up to a level that would allow her to hit the ground running in a Dutch company. We both had specific professional goals that we wanted to achieve that would maximize our value to employers. It would also give us time to do some work on our house (new kitchen, bathroom) to increase its value before selling.

So here we are. Abi has been taking Dutch classes at Edinburgh University for the last two years. In 2006, we took a couple of scouting trips to the Netherlands to look at some different cities and to get a feel for the place. Alex finished his first year of school at the end of June. Yesterday evening we had a decorator round to give us a quote for painting our hallway and living room in preparation for putting the house up for sale. And at the weekend, Abi sent off her first job application.

If we could choose all our dates, this is what our ideal plan would look like for the next few months:

  • Mid April: we come back from holiday, and Abi starts sending out CVs and job applications
  • Mid/end April: paint & tidy up the house
  • Begin May: house goes up for sale
  • Mid May: Abi starts getting job interviews
  • Begin June: Abi gets offered a job, to start on 2nd July
  • Begin June: House gets sold
  • Rest of June: Various trips to NL to look for houses and schools
  • End June: We find a house in NL
  • Begin July: Abi moves to NL, stays in a hotel or short-term rented accomodation
  • Begin July: I stay in Edinburgh with the kids, tying up loose ends
  • Mid July: The kids and I move to NL, to stay in a hotel or short-term rented accomodation
  • End July: Arrange school for Alex, and find childcare for Fiona
  • Begin August: Move out of house in Edinburgh, and into new house in NL.
  • Mid August: Alex starts school.

As Abi is fond of saying, it’s a plan for Angels. It wouldn’t take much to blow all of this careful preparation out of the water. But we’re ready for that. Abi has handed in her notice at the Bank, and won’t be going back to work after we get back from holiday at Easter. This will give her the opportunity to be flexible with anything the comes up. And in the absence of any major emergencies, we still plan to go ahead with buying a house, and moving in July. It’s a bold move, but we think we’re ready for it.

(Oh, and as for me? I had the foresight to find an excellent company in Edinburgh that will let me work…from the Netherlands. They rock.)