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.

The Rules of Stuff

I have spent a lot of time recently compressing and optimizing my life: files, books, ornaments, mementoes, and random clutter. Moving house was a convenient opportunity to cut down on the proliferation of sheer stuff. In doing so, I have learned an important lesson: there are four distinct types of stuff:

  1. Stuff you still need. Easy to deal with: keep it.
  2. Stuff you don’t need any more, and to which you are not emotionally attached. Also easy: toss it.
  3. Stuff you don’t need any more, but you are emotionally attached to. This takes longer to deal with, because you spend time reminiscing about it. But you should keep it.
  4. Stuff you don’t need any more, but have kept around because you think you have an emotional connection to it, or even worse: you think you should have an emotional connection to it.

It’s the Type 4 Stuff that takes up all the time. Maybe it’s a collection of oddly-shaped seashells, stuck in a box in the back of your desk. You collected the shells as a kid, and have never thrown them out because, well, you’ve always had them around, and they’re a connection to your childhood. But do you really remember the beach where you collected them, and does seeing the shells remind you of that holiday?

Maybe it’s a stash of crystal wine glasses tucked away in a corner of your kitchen and never used. You haven’t thrown them out before because, well, they were wedding presents. But do you still remember who gave them to you?

Do you really intend to re-read those old class notes from college? Will you ever look over all those old birthday cards again? Worst of all is your kids’ early artwork. If it’s the first recognizable stick figure your child drew, that’s significant. But what about all the other random swirls and hand-prints? How certain are you that they were made by your child, and that the nursery didn’t accidentally give you another kid’s paintings?

It’s an agonizing and painstaking process, but if you don’t want to end up drowning in a sea of random clutter, every now and then you have to be ruthless and say: what does this item really mean to me?

If the answer is “nothing”, that’s a strong argument for throwing it out.

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.

Things that annoy me

A short list of irrational dislikes. Likely to be first in a series.

FF Dax FF Dax.
Just a couple of years ago, Dax felt fresh and interesting. But now it’s ubiquitous (at least here in the UK), I find almost every new instance of it, from McDonalds car parks to cheap toilet paper, simply grating.
People who start talking on their mobile phones on as soon as the airplane has landed. Or who get up to grab their bags from the overhead cabinets before the seatbelt sign has been turned off.
These are the ones who will be scrambling the wrong way down the aisle to the exit in the event of a crash, trampling children and old ladies to get there, yet too panicked to be able to open the door once they get there. I fear for my own safety in an emergency because of these people. Fortunately, they’ll all die if we land on water, because they won’t know how to inflate their life jackets.
Flight crew who don’t do anything about the above.
You’re not helping.
People who start eating their food in the supermarket before paying for it
It’s not yours yet.
The phrase “just a thought”
Because it never is “just a thought”, is it? What you’re actually thinking is “You’re a muppet for doing it that way, and I know better, but I’m trying to mask my obvious superiority by pretending to be humble about it.”
Cap'n Jack Sparrah Trilogies where first part stands alone, but where the second part doesn’t; usually because the second episode is so poor that without a tense cliffhanger ending you’d have no reason to go and see the final part.
I’m looking at you, Pirates of the Caribbean.

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.)