Family weekend

Mum & Dad were over for a lovely visit this weekend. They arrived on Friday afternoon, so of course we had frites for dinner. (Friday is frites day.)

On Saturday five of us (no Alex) went in to Zaandam to do some shopping. We snacked on kibbeling (which, I just learned, used to be made from cod cheekskabeljauw wang — not just generic cod fillet) and deep-fried mussels from the market while wandering around. Abi and Fiona hit the crafts shop to get materials for crochet projects. Our other goal was for Mum & Dad to get Fiona a birthday present, and we quickly located a prized pink space scooter, although we did some price checking and stopped off for coffee (and hot chocolate) and cakes before actually buying it. Steak and salad for dinner.

In the evening we watched Robot and Frank, which is a sweet and funny film, lined with sadness. I’d seen the trailer, and I’d been too fascinated by the robot-human interaction story; I hadn’t realized that Frank’s dementia is the twin theme. It’s a sweet story, but it was a bit of an emotional trip for us.

Sunday, five of us (no Alex) had a walk around Oostzaan, ending up in at Eetcafé Oostzaan for coffee (and hot chocolate) and warm apple pie.

Mum, Dad, Abi, and Fiona

Our plan for the evening had been to order in Chinese-Indonesian from our wonderful local Het Oosten, but I’d forgotten that it was Chinese New Year. Fortunately our fallback take-way in Zaandam was open, so I drove out there to pick us up a minor feast. We played Kill Doctor Lucky after dinner for the first time, and it was a hoot. We’d been burned by the phenomenal complexity of Arkham Horror last year, but Kill Doctor Lucky is much easier, and plays moves nice and fast once you get going. We didn’t have time to finish a whole game before the kids had to go to bed, so we just called “sunrise” at 21:30. True to his name, Doctor Lucky lived to see another day.

Then we watched Drive, which was a trip of a whole different kind than Robot and Frank. The sound design of the film has incredible dynamic range, from ear-splitting car chases to long scenes of almost total silence. This matches the plot and emotional content of the story, which goes from calm and passive to brutal, gory violence in jumps you know are coming, but which nevertheless arrive as gut-wrenching shocks. The way the film builds tension is incredible. I loved it.

Monday was back to work and school. Mum and Dad went to Amsterdam for the day. We had burritos in the evening, and played De Mol (The Resistance) after dinner. Tuesday was a beautiful sunny day, and Mum and Dad went to Volendam and Edam, and we all went back out to Eetcafé Oostzaan for dinner in the evening. Alex ran into a classmate, and Fiona experimented with vanilla ice cream (turned out it was too delicious for her).

Departures this morning. But the kids and I will be over in Scotland in a few weeks to see them again soon.

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.


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.