Passing through Schiphol

I love Schiphol airport. (Which is a good thing, given the amount of time I spend there.) Aside from the fact that their ground handling is generally fast, friendly, and efficient, that also take the time to add neat design touches to the airport itself whenever they can. Here are some videos I took of two of them: a section of glass floor through which you can get a glimpse into the underground baggage handling operation; and a clock that appears to be being updated every minute by someone standing just behind the clock face. In fact, that’s what I really thought was happening at first. It’s really subtle, and fun when you figure out that it’s not real.

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.

1 year on

It was one year ago yesterday—Thursday 2nd August 2007—that we arrived here in Oostzaan.

I had taken the overnight ferry from Newcastle to Ijmuiden with a van full of our stuff. I was due to meet our landlord and the rental agent at 11:00, but the boat was delayed, there were roadworks and detours around the ferry terminal, and I got lost twice on the way. It was about 11:40 by the time I got to the house, apologetic and stressed. We took the tour of the house, noted meter readings, and the landlord explained the workings of the gas fire and the digital TV receiver. They gave me the keys, and left.

Abi and the kids, who had taken the plane from Edinburgh to Amsterdam that morning, showed up a little later, around 12:30. We briefly revelled in the sheer size of the house, and then started unpacking quickly, because I had to be back on the road again later that afternoon to catch the overnight ferry back to the UK. I was returning the van in Edinburgh around mid-day on Friday, and then jumping on a plane back to Amsterdam that evening.

That final round-trip might sound like a rush, but for me it was the exact opposite. The months leading up to the move had been a frenzy of work, packing, worry, and pressure. But when I drove off again on that Thursday afternoon, we had made it. All of the timing had worked out. Even if the ferry was delayed, or if I somehow missed my flight on the Friday, it didn’t matter, because I only had me to deal with—no posessions, no nappy panics, no travel sickness.

There was a cinema on board the ship, but the only films that interested me were ones I had seen before. There was no TV in the cabin. I didn’t have a laptop. I was on a boat in the middle of the North Sea, with nowhere to go, and even if I had wanted to do something, I couldn’t have.

I didn’t fancy a meal in the ship’s restaurant, so I bought myself some sweets and some drinks, and retreated to my cabin. I had a book to read: World War Z by Max Brooks. So I lay there on my bed, munched M&Ms, listened to my iPod, and just read. I grew sleepy half-way through, dozed for a while, woke up and read some more. Finished it, and lay for a while contemplating just how damn good it was.

That is my happiest memory of 2007. 2007 sucked massively.

We knew it would be tough, moving abroad. In 2006, we had reached a local maximum in our lives. On the one hand, a local maximum is great, because life is good. The flip side, however, is that almost every move you make leads away from that maximum, which is scary as hell.

But we have taken that hit now, and we’re climbing the up slope again. At the end of 2007, we sold our house in Edinburgh. In January, we made the decision to buy a house here in Oostzaan, and we started viewing properties. In March we signed a deal, and in the last week of June we set foot in a house of our own again. We even have curtains!

Now, exactly one year on, the annual village events that seemed magical and strange to us then are coming around again: the cycle race, the music festival, the kermis (fair). We’ve made friends. Next week, Alex and Fiona will be starting school again, only this time both of them will be at the same school, and this time they both know enough Dutch to speak to the teachers and their classmates. No more day care, no more specialist language tuition. Somewhere in there, Abi and I celebrated our 15-year wedding anniversary. (Crystal. Not much fanfare.)

It was a bad year. One of the worst. No denying that. And the last few weeks, trying to get settled into the house and a new routine, have been pretty tough.

But on the good days, I can let myself hope that we’re back on our way to awesome.

Something old, something new

We bought a car on Friday. (In fact, we bought it two weeks ago, but the infuriatingly slow Dutch bureaucracy meant that we couldn’t actually take possession of it until yesterday.)

Vauxhall Astra, circa 1989Despite having driven many other cars over the years, this is actually only the second car Abi and I have owned. The first one was a sky blue 1989 Vauxhall Astra (G934 PHS). We bought it for £3500 in 1995 when I got my first teaching job. We were living in Leith, but the school was in West Lothian, and it took me the best part of an hour to get out there in the morning. I only lasted three months in the job, but even though it was a drain on our finances, we kept the car for a few years after that.

That car was also the source of the sunpig moniker. Abi has a variety of hand-painted cars in her childhood, and we joked about painting a bright yellow sun on the sky-blue hood of the Astra. I have always thought that Astras of that era look like pigs when seen from the side, so even though we never followed through on the paint job, the car became the Sun Pig.

The intervening cars never acquired names, but we are starting to call this new one (a green Daewoo Matiz from 2000, for €4000) the Turtwig, or Turty for short. Turtwig, as you probably know, is one of the starter Pokémon you are offered in Pokémon Diamond and Pearl. It’s an obvious choice, as I’m sure you’ll agree they look uncannily similar.


Also on Friday, I set up my old Mac Classic on my desk. This is the first computer I bought myself, back in the summer of 1991. It saw duty until late early 1996 (still running OS 6), at which point I assembled Frankenstein, my first Windows PC. Frank has evolved (like a Pokémon) since then, and he is still my main computer. You can see Frank and the Mac side-by-side on my desk in the photo below.

Frank and the Mac

The Mac still works perfectly. Alex has been enjoying Sim City (version 1.4), and Fiona has been discovering the joys of SuperPaint. (The Fool’s Errand is still a bit beyond them, though.) The main reason I brought the Mac with me to the Netherlands was so that I could spend some time extracting all the old files if have on it, and converting them into more durable and open formats. It’s too old to have digital photos on it (it has a 9″ black and white, not even grayscale screen, and a 40MB hard disk), but it has a whole lot of text and email, most of it in Word documents and Compuserve filing cabinet archives.

Pipe Dream High ScoresBut it was the game Bioshock that provided the impetus to actually set it up this week. Why? Bioshock features a hacking mini-game that is based on Pipe Dream, which is one of the games I played most on the Mac, and I felt hugely nostalgic for it. It’s still a great game.

(Incidentally, the Mac version of Pipe Dream was coded by Eric Johnson, a friend of Abi’s. We went white-water rafting with Eric in 1992, and as I was digging through old photos this evening to see if I could find any of the original Sun Pig, I found some snapshots of that trip. Wow. I think I have a lot of negative scanning to do this winter.)

At the same time as I’ve been feeling nostalgic for old-skool Macs, so have other people: Peter Merholz posted some pictures of the original Macintosh user manual last week, and earlier today Steven Poole was reminiscing about how good version 5 of Microsoft Word was.

He is absolutely right. The ribbon interface in Office 2007 makes me weep. But every time I see it, it reminds me how little I actually use “Word documents” these days. Most of my word processing is all about the text, and for the purposes of editing, preserving, and archiving text, MS Word is more than just overkill, it’s actively counter-productive.

I may have been PC-based for the last decade, but I’m returning to my Mac roots. The Mac Mini was just a taster. My new work laptop is a MacBook Pro, and my eye is on one of those new 24″ iMacs once Leopard drops.

Everything old is new again.

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.

NL in ’07: single parenthood

Looking back at the plan from a few months ago, we have actually managed to hit most of our deadlines. Abi found a job much more quickly than we had anticipated, but they were cool enough to wait until the beginning of July for her to start. After we got back from California in April we decided that it would be more prudent to rent a house for the first year instead of buying one, so house hunting has been a little different, too. We found one place, lost it, and then found another. Now we’re keeping our fingers crossed until we sign the papers (11 July) that nothing weird happens to derail this one, too.

So we’re still running according to schedule! The big move will be happening at the beginning of August. We’ll be loading up a rental van on Wednesday 1st August, and I’ll drive it across to the Netherlands. (Overnight ferry from Newcastle to Ijmuiden.) On the morning of Thursday 2nd August, Abi and the kids fly to Amsterdam, and we all meet up again around lunchtime in Oostzaan. Then we hurriedly dump all the stuff from the van, and I take the overnight ferry straight back to the UK again. I’ll fly back to Amsterdam on Friday evening or Saturday morning. In either case, by first weekend in August, we will be living in the Netherlands. Wow.

There’s still another month to go before then. Just as planned, Abi is blazing the trail: she flew out this morning, and will be spending July in Amsterdam, getting used to the country and her new job. (She’ll be coming back to Edinburgh for the weekends, though.) Which leaves me as single parent for a while.

Oh dear…

Scary Nona Scary Alex