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Latest Elfstedentocht news: it's sort of looking more and more like it might happen this year. The organising body have had a meeting, and done a press conference, and are going to have another one on Wednesday. People were wandering round on the frozen surface of Prinsengracht tonight when I was cycling home. The ice isn't about to go away; it's -8 in Amsterdam right now, and Leeuwarden, the biggest city on the course, is expecting -10 °C every night this week. If you look at the right sort of weather forecast, i.e., a Dutch one, that roughly translates to another 3cm of ice per night, on top of what's already accumulated. People have been seen on the course with brooms, getting the snow off to prevent it insulating the ice that's there and avoid further thickening. More news as it comes in, of course.
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I started some Dutch lessons last week. They originally put me in the complete beginners' class, since the assessment for levels was mostly done over the phone and I clammed up at anything beyond 'ik kom uit Engeland', but after two two-hour lessons of that, it was clear (and best of all, clear to me) that I wasn't in the right place. I do know more than the complete beginners, and not only were we not covering anything I didn't know but we weren't about to be either.

I ought to be able to use these things that I know to say stuff, but thanks to a lack of both practice and confidence, I can't. But this week they let me move up to the second-level class anyway. It isn't a lot higher, but assumes that the very basics don't need walking through, and that frees up time for practice instead. So the main benefit of these lessons for me, certainly for now, is the chance to prattle. Put simple sentences together, turn them around, try and say the same thing in a different way, a different thing in the same way, the way you couldn't talk to anyone you needed to actually exchange meaningful information with, and then hopefully I will get talking, rather than just listening and reading.

I can hear enough, these days, to help non-Dutch speakers out with train announcements; they're generally repeated in English, but not when something's going wrong and the conductors are distracted, which is of course exactly when non-Dutch people going to and from the airport on the fast train want to know what's gone wrong. And I can read enough to read the newspaper for the sake of the stories, not just the reading practice, though still only at free-newspaper reading levels. I think I'm getting more of a feel for the place through that than through anything else.

One aspect I'm enjoying reading about is the weather we're having right now. Freezing cold, drifty bits of snow, same as the UK, basically, but while I've always liked snow I've always been irritated by the same bloody stories and arguments that come up in the British press every single time there is any. Infrastructure can't cope - but it can in colder places - yes, but they pay more for it, do you want to pay more - shuffle out of that one muttering, try whinging instead, like why do schools shut at the drop of the first flake, health and safety gone mad, must write in and complain to someone about it, after I've been out sledging with the children and we've built a snowman of course, which I will of course in no way enjoy... Pfft. There have been a few newspaper stories here covering the downsides of the cold, that there have been serious effects in Eastern Europe, that some people are nervous about driving in winter weather (46 percent of women versus only 11 percent of men, in a recent survey) that some building companies are trying to get out of letting their workers stop when it gets colder than minus 6, which they have to do by law here. But that's not the main focus at all. The Dutch see all this cold, and there's only one thing they're thinking about, and that's going skating.

It makes sense in a country with this much linear water, after all. As soon it freezes, they're on it like a shot. The papers are full of stories about skate manufacturers and shops getting mobbed, speculation about which state will be the first to have enough ice to hold a marathon-distance skating race, pictures of cheerful people testing ice depth, firemen flooding fields with hoses, handy diagrams explaining what temperature is needed for what length of time to produce the required amounts. Where snow gets a look in, it's in the context of how it keeps the lowest layers of the air nice and cold and therefore promotes water freezing. There's been more or less no mention of anything like traffic or transport problems; I understand the train system still falls apart in a British fashion if there's appreciable amounts of snow, but no-one really cares if it does because they all just go skating instead. The most exciting thing of all, if gets cold enough for long enough, is the Elfstedentocht, which is a 200km one-day skating race around eleven cities in Friesland, travelling on frozen canals all the way. I doubt it'll happen this year but the mere possibility that it might (the last one was in 1997) is getting people all in a hoop-la. If the country does suddenly go skate-nuts this weekend I'm not quite sure what I'll do (my skating ability is limited to puttering round the edge of a rink, trying not to think about falling over all the time) but it's certainly making a pleasant change.


Jan. 21st, 2012 07:37 pm
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I haven't been playing regularly in a band since something like 2008. Until this afternoon, I hadn't even sat down behind a drumkit since March 2010. There didn't seem to be much point when there was always something else I was supposed to be doing, when it cost money I didn't have, when it would be stupid to join a band when the plan was to leave. But then I did leave, to here, and there's someone from Hyves who's a bassist and looking for other band members, and today it was time to work out if I could still play the drums or not. I'd heard about a practice room that's walking distance away, and arranged a couple of hours for this afternoon, and dug my cymbals out of their hard case and gathered sticks and earplugs and headphones and stuff and went off to try it.

The short answer is that I still can, insofar as I ever could, play the drums. My tempo's probably rather wobbly but the muscle memory is right there. It's kind of weird to find your hands and feet still capable of these complex things, to think about a sound and have it appear in front of you by means of playing it. I had some music with me, and played along to some old stuff, but also to some things that I know I've never tried to play before because they hadn't been released last time I did that. I could still hear what they were, take them apart. It's good. We're having a bit of trouble working out where to find other band members, but hopefully something will come together soon.

However, the best thing about the experience was the practice room itself. It's like a whole bunch of aspiring musicians sat around imagining what a practice room is like and then made it reality. Go through the coffee shop, through a weird dark tunnel to the back, and there's a fairly large room, made to appear even larger by the random selection of mirrors around the walls (but the not big intimidating whole wall of them like I've seen in some more modern places) and it's filled with all sorts of mostly old, but mostly pretty good quality music kit. The drumkit was a Pearl, a decent one, with an eclectic selection of heads on, all of which probably could use a change but all of which were far from cheap when they were bought. It looked like a classic, but without the depressing unusable decrepitude of most shared-use kits that look like that. There were various things that hovered between useful and decorative; random world-music percussion, more guitar stands than a band could really use, a sofa, some old keyboards. And for the other traditional requirements of some musicians there was, well, a coffee shop out front. Big pre-rolled spliffs sitting in racks, a few Saturday lunchtime customers sitting staring into space; the ability to not only light up at your practice room but to score there too. Not that I smoke much ever, and never when playing the drums, but for some UK bands that would be a dream come true.

In my music-playing experience so far you pretty much either get old run-down practice rooms with shit kit that no-one looks after, or modern and quite efficient places with good kit but with fiendishly crammed schedules, where you turn up on time and you pay if you don't show, and pay quite a lot whatever happens. If you went into the centre of London they were generally expensive and shit (grief, the place near Old Street that stank), or expensive and good but dealing in larger chunks of time, aimed more at semi-pro bands. This was booked while walking past last night and had surprisingly usable kit, so it was well off my known scales. I went to pay at the end of my session, and the man behind the counter gave me a bit of a squint, in the manner of a man who has plainly been joining in with his customers.

'Two hours, just me,' I say, 'how much?'

'One hour, wasn't it?' he says.

'Well, one and three quarters,' I say, 'I got here a bit late.'

'Ah, I'm weak,' he says. 'Call it an hour. That'll be five Euros.'

I think I might be playing the drums some more.
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I've had a cold for two and a half weeks now. In the first week I sounded like I'd managed to develop a decades-old 60-a-day habit overnight. In the second week I stopped croaking but started sneezing everywhere. By of the end of the second week I'd gone back to croaking, especially after spending Friday evening in a biercafe/restaurant in Rotterdam with several colleagues. It wasn't a big night out, just some food and some interesting beers and some card games, but there was lots of chat; good for getting to know people, but bad for a sore throat. And last night we went to a beer tasting event in 't Arendsnest; a blind tasting of six beers that all had a theme, and we had to guess strengths and score them all out of ten. The theme, it turned out, was Westvleteren 12 and associated beers, which means the lightest beer there was 8% and most of them were over 10%, and what with the cold too, the booze went to my head a bit, so when we carried on drinking afterwards (marvelling at the fact that Westvleteren 12, a ridiculously exclusive Belgian trappist beer that's meant to be one of the best in the world, came 5th out of 6 on score when no-one knew what it was) it seemed sensible to deal with my cracking voice by forging on through anyway. Which means today, I basically can't speak at all, except in a sort of thick whisper. What with also feeling somewhat off from the booze (if I hadn't already been drinking I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have agreed to the last beer being De Molen's Bommen & Granaten, Bombs and Grenades, which while it comes in a 150 ml serving, is still 15%) then I doubt I'm going to get anything else useful done today at all, so I'm going to try and document some of what we've been doing with the home brewing.

Long post about brewing )
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I could tell the conversation had gone from childbirth, hospitals and home births to buckets, but not why, and what all the hand gestures were for. It turns out that for home birth in the Netherlands, you're supposed to have two buckets. But since no-one really knows what for, speculation included making it easier to whirl the baby round like a new born lamb, dousing the baby with water like a new born calf, or for head protection for the farmer when his wife finds him treating the new born baby like a farm animal.

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One of the expected results of trying to brew beer is that already we know more about beer, not in a theoretical, have talked about it at a beer festival kind of way but in a practical, how would we go about making this kind of way. Also having lived in the Netherlands for even a short time, we've tried a broader range of beer styles, because all those Belgian beers that normally sit in a fridge looking expensive in the UK are now things we semi-regularly drink.

Right now we're lurking in The Spotted Dog, ex- The Hop Poles, one of the newest real ale pubs in Brighton (not what I wanted to be doing with the earlier part of this evening but it really is pissing it down in Brighton today) and comparing everything we taste with the flavours we know a lot more about now. Dark Star's Smoked Porter, compared to some of the Dutch smoke monsters like Rook & Vuur, tastes barely smoked at all, while anything even vaguely hoppy tastes like it would blow the Beneluxers' tiny little minds. Everything is much less sweet; the beers we've been brewing have been from an American recipe book so they're tending to the sweet side too.

And the American recipe book warns of the dangers of getting over-enthusiastic with the flavourings, of making something because you can rather than because you should, of producing a stunt beer rather than something you want to drink, but this is where good British beer comes in. They show that it's possible to make a beer with a subtle and integrated amount of a flavouring in. Chris is drinking Dark Star's Winter Solstice right now, and it's got an undertone of ginger and a whiff of cinnamon and generally just enough to remind you of the existence of mulled wine, without trying to make you drink an entire pint of mulled wine. This is, I think, a valuable thing to try and keep in mind. Although I'm going to try and make a ginger porter or a dandelion and burdock stout anyway.

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Dec. 17th, 2011 03:41 pm
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We're on our way to a beer festival in Belgium. By train, and without passports or border controls or needing different money or anything, because you can do that round here. We had to select a different bit of the ticket machine menu to get destinations in other countries, which was very nearly momentarily confusing. Also the Kitkat Chunky I just ate was a hazelnut one, and tasted confusingly like something made by Kinder. The tiny local train that goes from Roosendaal to Essen once an hour is full of Americans eating kebabs from the station shop and going to the same festival, by the sounds of it. I think this is probably going to be a fun evening.
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As is traditional on many LJ posts these days, let me begin by explaining why I haven't posted in ages and how the mechanics of modern life tend to prevent this.

One, having finally got a smart phone with decent data access I can check email and flists and facebook and Hyves (blimey, going native) easily, and am less keen to get behind my ageing laptop for news of the day when I get home. And while smart phones can do remarkable things for their size, writing posts of the dimensions I usually want to write is still quite hard, even with a remarkably good keyboard. Two, I've been busy, and that doesn't help the stuff to report: time and ease of reporting it ratio. But here I am with a forty minute train ride and a swipey keyboard (and darkness out of the window, sunrise now occurring after I get to Rotterdam) and it's better to do something than nothing.

And now I can only think of my immediate concerns. I might be late for the 9 am meeting, I hope I get to do something involving robots and dew point sensors this afternoon anyway, I must get the Christmas shopping finished, I hope the beer festival in Essen this weekend (in Belgium! Getting a train to another country! By about half a kilometre, at that particular point in the impossibly convoluted Netherlands/Belgium border!) is fun. Being reminded when cycling past some workmen this morning that Amsterdam doesn't fasten its floors down, the pavements and streets made of bricks laid in herringbone patterns directly onto a bed of the same fine, sandy silt that lurks in vast layers at the bottom of lakes, making still-hanging cloud structures you can practically navigate by if you're foolish enough to disturb it. The things I've done (brewed two lots of homebrew, both drinkable, had a minor diving incident because of the extremely cold lake water, leading to me having to ride Chris's bike, which is too small for me, around the steep-bridged city centre with thirty something kilos of cylinder on a trailer on the back to get new valves put on them, eating a lot of Dutch holiday related food, almost all of which seems to be letter-shaped, gradually improving my Dutch by applying myself to reading the Rotterdam edition of the Metro everyday
), these things have mostly gone unrecorded.

And the forty minutes is pretty much up. Damn these smart phones.

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This is the third morning of my commute, and for the first time I'll actually be able to comment on it. On the first morning I got to the station with plenty of time but the Fyra was cancelled, and then I'd forgotten the bike lock and had to sit in the noisy end bit of a carriage with my bike, and then yesterday I got the Fyra and a nice comfy chair but my bike had thrown its chain twice on the way to the station so my hands were mucky, and anyway it was misty so I couldn't see anything. And it's dark by the time I'm on the train home.

Anyway the point of the Fyra is that it runs on its own separate tracks so it gets to Rotterdam twenty minutes quicker. It costs extra but I'm willing to pay a supplement that amounts to about two Euros a journey to get an extra twenty minutes in bed of a morning. But though the chairs are indeed comfy, I think the views are worse; the route seems to parallel the motorway more, and spends more time in tunnels, and we're really not in the flower season right now. The acres (sorry, hectares) of glasshouses are kind of impressive, though, and back at the Amsterdam end this morning I saw someone feeding a swan in his dressing gown from his houseboat. As commutes go, it could be worse.

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Just going out (in a bit) to run the Amsterdam Half Marathon. I may be some time. (Okay, I can't take longer than three hours or I'll end up on the broom wagon, and I think I'll probably manage under 2:30, and I'd be really chuffed if I can get under 2:20, and anyway this'll be a new PB because I've not actually run further than eleven miles before, and it's the best possible weather for it, and having the already-familiar territory of the Vondelpark in the last 5km will be really helpful, and Chris is going to try and be spottable in the crowd in a couple of places, and actually this is just a thing where I go running and none of it matters at all, but still, eep.)
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Things I have learnt during the last few days:
  • You can buy baking powder and yeast that isn't in tiny irritating individual packets in Amsterdam, but you have to do it in Chinatown
  • Romanian and Brazilian Portuguese sound so much like each other as languages that Romanians and Brazilians can get quite freaked out by it
  • Brazil is really huge
  • The last tram home from the vicinity of Cornelius Leylaan leaves at about midnight
  • It takes about forty minutes to walk home from there, but the streets and even the park still feel completely unthreatening at one in the morning
  • Underfloor heating takes a veeeerrrryyyyy long time to heat up
  • No, I mean really huge, like, if the USA didn't have Alaska, Brazil would be bigger
  • Boning mackerel isn't as hard as I feared
  • Blue versions of Dutch cheeses, like the blue Gouda we have in the fridge, are damn tasty
  • Because the Dutch like to do things properly, there's no cheap-as-chips rubbish-but-they'll-do tools in DIY shops, so a battery-powered drill costs €30, has a sensibly-voltaged power pack rather than being part of the escalating more-voltage = better war in the UK and doesn't even come with any bits at all, never mind the usual forest of millions of mostly useless ones - hence I didn't actually buy one
  • When the wind is in this exact direction, the planes going into Schipol sound like they're trying to land on our roof
  • Mackerel, stir-fried in a freshly bought and seasoned wok, is damn tasty
  • The Lapjesmarkt (rag market) on Westerstraat is a fabulous place filled with a pleasing mixture of bargainous and quality fabrics
  • I'm getting better at understanding what people are saying to me in Dutch, but I'm still pretty useless at replying
  • I can run nine miles in relative comfort
  • Fructose has a considerable effect on cholesterol levels (that's juggzy's interesting and useful overview of what's going on with the whole cholesterol malarkey) - I knew it was dietarily suspect, but not that it had anything to do with that
  • If we can't be arsed to get beer from Albert Heijn before it shuts, it's approximately twice the price from the avondwinkel (late-night shop) over the road
  • The ring-necked parakeets I keep seeing around here, including swooping round my head while running in the Vondelpark, are part of a stable population that's been breeding here since something like 1976
  • I can get very heavily rained on while running without suffering from chafing, blisters or any other detrimental effect (thank you Friday's very heavy and unavoidable showers)
  • My running shoes dry out pretty quickly given newspaper and the nice warm laundry room
  • That still doesn't mean I want to go running on this windy, drizzly afternoon
That's about it for now. More discoveries as they come in, folks. 


Sep. 12th, 2011 10:16 am
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Just had a call from the recruitment bloke from Lely. (In which he apologised for his poor English after using the word 'properly' correctly.) They want to know which of the departments out of electronic or mechanical or something else I'd like an interview with. They're going to ring me back later to make an appointment for an interview.

There's a bit squatting at the back of my brain that's waving a flag of protest about the possibility of having to commute to Rotterdam and the way this has nothing whatsoever to do with solar energy but it's mostly being drowned out right now by the bits that are running round shouting about GIANT COW-MILKING ROBOTS.
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I'm keeping up on my plan of applying for a job a day so far, though I think I'm not going to beat myself up if I don't find anything to apply for at the weekends. Thursday's application was for a process chemistry job doing something with commercial starter cultures for cheese - yet more milk products, but I do have some microbiological and cell culture work lurking in my employment history - and Friday's was for a data crunching job at Elsevier, the publishers of some ridiculous proportion of all the scientific journals out there. I always kind of knew they were a Dutch company, I've seen 'Elsevier B.V.' enough times, where B.V. is the Dutch equivalent of Ltd., (oh dear, if you wish to waste some time, here's wikipedia's list of the various international names for business entities, where a paliskunta is a Finnish reindeer herding corporation) but I hadn't realised they had offices here in Amsterdam.

I have also carefully not applied for jobs where the management-ese is so dense that it's hard to tell what the actual job is. I'm aware there are ways to get that sort of buzzword-heavy job, but I don't want to work for a company that thinks that's a good idea, and they wouldn't want to employ me either. When I'm also seeing adverts using terms like 'practical' and 'down-to-earth' it seems unnecessary to put myself through that.

I have done stuff other than look for jobs and housing, I should say. We've already found some of the best beer in Amsterdam (at the Brouwerij 't IJ, the Brouwerij de Prael, and 't Arendsnest, a bar with thirty types of Dutch beer on tap at all times, not to mention the other however many types they have in bottles)(did you notice them 'ts? Northern or what?). We went on a day trip to Haarlem, where they happened to be having a celebration of it being a hundred years since Mr. Fokker flew his self-built plane three times round St. Bavokerk on the Queen's Birthday, thereby launching his career in plane-building, and so an elderly Fokker Friendship hauled itself noisily and ponderously three times round the tower at one point in the afternoon too, while the original 1911 plane was sitting in the church in the middle of an exhibition. I mean, I've seen a forklift in a cathedral before, but never a hundred-year-old spindly plane. We've been to the town centre shopping, if not yet properly touristing, and I've been looking for 36" leg trousers. They seem to be available but only as an odd size they probably only had one pair of, unfortunately, so this isn't the haven of clothes shopping I could have hoped for, and it's possible it's even worse because then there won't be specialist shops covering this length. There are certainly some good fabric shops around, though, down the Albert Cuypstraat market, and I haven't even checked out any of the others. As soon as I've got my sewing machine out of storage and the money to buy some fabric, the situation could still be an improvement.

I've also done quite a bit of running. I've registered for the Amsterdam half-marathon in October, because it seemed like a thing to do, and there are lots of places to run round here. The furthest I've run before is 11 miles, but that was back in April, and I couldn't do that right now. But I have a plan which I've been more or less sticking to, and I did six miles with no trouble last week, although I also did ten minutes - ten minutes, mark you, minus the warm-up anyway - of stair-climbing lunges on Thursday and now have seized-up blocks of concrete instead of calf muscles. I tried swimming as cross-training, but even though the Sloterpark baths are the largest swimming complex in the Netherlands, as a normal member of the public most of the pools aren't usually available to me, only the shallow, short 'recreational' pool. We went in the Slotermeer itself, a lake which is 30m deep in places, impressive for round here, but it's a bit murky and even at this time of year it wasn't exactly warm. For now I'm going to stick to running round it instead.

Meanwhile, let's have a bit of Dutch culture. This is the theme tune to a children's TV programme, fondly recalled by many Dutch people of my sort of age. It's about a postman. He's called Pieter. Ringing any bells?

On Alert

Sep. 5th, 2011 12:13 pm
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Aha. I'd sort of heard about this, but I didn't know when they were going off. It turns out to be noon on the first Monday of every month. The city-wide air raid / nuclear attack / flood warning / general panic sirens, that is.

People seem pretty unbothered, as I suppose you become with regular fire alarms and things, but this being the first time, that was officially quite peculiar.


Aug. 24th, 2011 11:59 am
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Ik wil graaaaaah, which I think is my first ever international pun. The experience of attempting to rent a house has been a strange one so far. The agents all think that this is a blisteringly fast-moving market, that houses go quickly and you should put an offer in straight away if you're interested, but compared to my experiences elsewhere it's all curiously leisurely and drawn-out.

The first task is hunting down flats to look at. We're getting good at that now, with the help of a couple of aggregating websites, some useful agents and an increasing familiarity with the postcode system (1053 or 1054 currently preferred). We have two big problems in looking for a flat; one is the dive gear, which means places either have to be ground floor, or have a lift (that goes all the way up, some of them have lifts that go to the entrance of the flat and then stairs right behind the door) or separate ground floor storage. Old places usually have neither, just winding and massively steep stairs, and new or modern-conversion places usually have both, since mazes of little storage cupboards are apparently what ground floors are for in Amsterdam. The other problem is that I like cooking, and think you ought to be able to use a kitchen to, for example, bake a cake, roast a chicken or cook a pizza. Apparently I am a fucking wierdo for wanting to do these things in a kitchen in Amsterdam. The vast majority of ovens here are combi-ovens, some of which I'm sure are the better sort that are usable as ovens, just inconveniently small ones, but many of which are the sort which are no more than microwaves with too many buttons. There are flats going for two thousand Euros a month with fabulous luxury-finish kitchens, integrated appliances, acres of granite worktop, high-gloss cupboards, five gas rings including a wok burner, stainless-steel extractor hoods, and then some poky little box that goes bleep instead of an oven. You're more likely to see an integrated coffee machine than something you can bake a decent-sized pizza in. I mean, they sell butternut squashes here; what's the point of a butternut squash if you can't roast it? So I am getting very good at determining from the photos and description, before I ever get close to trying to arrange a viewing, whether the kitchen is a place that actually deserves the name.

(As an aside, things the Dutch do like in houses: two sinks in the bathroom (don't get it myself), separate bath-with-shower and big shower cabinet or wet-room-type open shower (right behind that), sinks inset straight into worktop with no drainer (another peculiarly backwards kitchen feature if you ask me but one I can live with), double-glazed everything, even old-fashioned or sash windows (definitely don't mind that), balconies (FTW), separate laundry rooms with washer and dryer and extra storage space (brilliant), putting the washing machine in the bathroom if there's no laundry room (less convinced) and big open-plan L-shaped kitchen-dining-lounge main spaces (rather nice if you ask me). Oh, and really steep stairs.)

The next problem is arranging a viewing. Every website has an email link but few are the agents that respond to it. Ringing them up gets you on the right path, but even then that doesn't always get you there; right now I'm waiting for every agency I've rung this morning to get back to me once the right person is in. And despite the dire warnings about how fast places go, people are asking me tentatively whether I can make a viewing as soon as the next day, even if the property is empty. Also the times of viewings seem to be only between 9.30 am and 4.30 pm, and only very rarely on Saturdays. Perhaps this reflects a more civilised culture where you're expected to be able to get out of work to look at a flat if you need to (Amsterdam feels rather more like an oversized small city than a compact big city), but can you imagine if you couldn't view flats on evenings or weekends in London?

The agency system itself is a little different. All the agent does is arrange viewings, broker the deal, arrange the contract, and after that they're out. The rent goes direct to the landlord, and repairs are done by arrangement between you and the landlord. The fee for the agency therefore isn't paid out of the rent by the landlord, it's paid by the house-hunters, up front, right at the start, and is usually one month's rent with VAT of 19% on top. And there's still a deposit, and the first month's rent too. That's quite a lot of dosh to find, especially when some places want two months' rent for the deposit.

So anyway, after a week and a half of running around, getting the feel of things, filtering, arranging, viewing, all the rest, we saw a place we really liked. Great location, ground floor, lots of character but very usable, with a Real Oven and a small back garden and all sorts of good things. We put an offer in - you don't just say 'I'll take it' at the asking price and the deal is done, you see, despite again the dire warnings about time, you put an offer in to the agent, who might speak to the landlord directly, or might speak to the landlord's agent who will deal with the landlord, and then there's some considering, and then maybe the offer goes up, and yadda yadda yadda - and then waited a day and a half to hear anything, all the while getting terribly excited about this nice house. We shouldn't get gazumped, we thought, because in another example of civilised-ness over here, once you're negotiating with someone the negotiations carry on in good faith until they're done. Great. Except in this case the owner had forgotten to tell his agent that he'd already signed a contract with someone at the weekend, and so when we saw it on Monday it was already gone, and then he was away so we didn't find out til close of play yesterday.

Which is why I'm back on the horse this morning and ringing and emailing agents, none of whom have so far replied to me. We have a place to stay for now and something will be found eventually and it's hardly the nastiest of problems to have but when we thought the problem had been solved already, it's just a bit irritating.
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I'm sat here on the sofa in the Flat Of Architecture, with its floor-to-ceiling windows facing west and its side window facing north, (as I may not be doing much longer pleasepleaseplease nice mister landlord of place we would like to rent get back to us) and it has once again occurred to me to look up something that's been bothering me since I got here.

I failed to manage to move somewhere warm, but another and opposing idea that I liked was moving somewhere with some extremity, some long nights and long days, some harsh winters and hot summers. On first glance I've managed to fail on that too, what with Amsterdam's weather being essentially the same as London's only possibly a bit cooler and with more wind and drizzle. I really love it when it's mid-summer in Brighton and it's light til something past nine at night, though. I don't mind it when it's midwinter, when it's just dark a lot and you're dealing with that too, but I get quite cheesed off when I can feel the evenings getting shorter again and sooner than they should; sooner than they did up North, I'm sure. In my head, it should be light til 9pm most of the year, and then switch immediately to winter and be dark; all this faffing around where it gets dark sometime while you're cooking or eating seems a bit rubbish to me. But at least it could not start going dark quite so early quite so soon.

While I was decorating through June and July, natural light was useful for some tasks. Painting anything where you had to go up to an edge or make sure to cover the whole area properly, any topcoats, in short, were best done in daylight because artificial light just doesn't match up. So given I was often starting work mid-to-late morning and working til eleven or twelve at night, the sunset time was quite important in task scheduling. (Yes, yes, could have shifted my working day around to more rational hours, wasn't going to happen.) By the start of August, the sunset time was creeping in already, losing a couple of minutes a day and back to about 20:40. That's forty minutes earlier than in late June and enough to really feel it. But when I got to Amsterdam, the sunset seemed really noticeably later.

Now, Amsterdam is a bit north of Brighton, on roughly the same latitude as Cambridge, but it's only a shift of a degree or two, and that doesn't get you that much difference. Looking it up now I see Cambridge's sunsets were about four minutes later than Brighton's at the start of August. But on the day I got here, the 9th of August, Brighton's sunset was at 20:33, while Amsterdam's was 21:18. I mean, that's a whole three quarters of an hour later. And it's taken me til now to check up on my hunch as to why.

World time, time zones, all that, right, best compromise between dividing along the rational lines of every fifteen degrees of longitude and making it the same time in areas you're working closely with. Unless you're China and declare it to be the same time right across the country even though it's big enough that it really ought to have three or possibly even four time zones in it. I'm used to living in Brighton, which is something absurd like five miles west of the Greenwich meridian. Brighton's dive club pays keen attention to whether a mark's longitude is east or west because round there it's quite easy to get wrong. The time is the time and the sun is overhead at midday (or 1pm in summer) and there you are. Amsterdam, however, is only about five degrees of longitude east of the meridian, which means although it's in a time zone that's an hour ahead, it's not physically very far into that hour. The sun doesn't reach properly overhead til forty four minutes past 1pm in mid-summer. So Amsterdam is generally running about three quarters of an hour late on its own time zone; the sun rises that much later too, but in mid-summer, I'm not awake at any time between half four and quarter past five to find out, or care.

My first thought was, what happens over in Brittany, or the west coast of Spain, then? Portugal is on the same time as the UK but Spain, even the bit just north of Portugal that's eight degrees of longitude west of the Greenwich meridian, is still notionally an hour ahead. In late June, the sun isn't overhead until an hour and thirty seven minutes later than it should be in La Coruña. But, right, that's further south. The days don't change their length as much. While the sun sets at 22:18 in late June, it doesn't rise til pretty much 7am. Even I could probably detect that's later. In December in La Coruña, the sunset is at six in the evening, which is quite civilised. But it doesn't come up til five past bloody nine, which is ridiculous. It gets as late as ten to nine in Amsterdam in December, but you know, this is the north, it's supposed to be dark in winter. It gets light earlier here in mid-winter than it does in northwest Spain. Nuts.

Comparing the other way, another place I could have ended up, because they do solar photocatalysis work up there, (largely theoretical, funnily enough) is Aberdeen, six-and-some degrees of latitude north of Brighton, five of here, but where those numbers are starting to skim close to the 23 degrees of tilt of the planet's axis and therefore quite significant. That's good in June; a sunset time as late as Amsterdam's at about ten past ten, and I'm sure with the sun just under the horizon there the late-night glow would be delightful. But because that's an extreme, it pulls in quicker. Sunset in Aberdeen was 20:33 tonight, but it was 20:52 here. Midwinter sunset is half four here, but four o'clock there. So, nearly as much late night light in summer, more light in winter, and, you know, Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Aberdeen, Amsterdam, how does one choose...

Erm, anyway, yes. Amsterdam is brilliant and I can prove it with numbers. So there.
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Dutch: I'm working on it.
  • I can usually take a stab at what anything written means, but there's a good chance I'll miss the subtleties. For example, I could tell a house advert I was looking at earlier today was talking about smoking and pets, and that pets required discussion ('overleg'), but I thought smoking was banned when actually they were saying it was allowed.
  • Overhearing people speak Dutch, I can pick out some common words, understand some simple conversations - earlier today I was looking at a flat and the key the agent had wouldn't open the front door of the block, and another resident coming in couldn't get his key (sleutel) to work either, and then some other people were coming out and said yes, the keys aren't working, and the bloke said he'd ring the maintenance people, and I was quite pleased with how much of the conversation I followed.
  • However, natural stage fright and general impostor syndrome kicks in when anyone says anything to me in Dutch. I go completely blank and can't even remember how to say things like thanks or sorry, *even though sorry is understandable in Dutch as the word for sorry*. That possibly makes things worse; someone says something I totally don't follow and I say sorry and they say it again, assuming maybe I just didn't hear. I was quite embarrassed in the supermarket yesterday when the woman at the till had to point at the screen to indicate that she wondered if I had the fifteen cents in change. 
  • Because numbers, man, numbers, I can't hear numbers yet. I've only just worked out today that I've been struggling to hear the difference between two and three because I had the wrong idea of what three was. Twee (pronounced 'tvay') and drie (pronounced 'dree') aren't actually confusable, dammit. 
  • Suppressing the inner sniggering teenager is hard sometimes. 'U bent hier', says the sign on the map, and that's the polite way of putting it. Okay, the informal way of saying 'you are here' is 'je bent hier', which isn't much different, apart from including the confusing second-person singular pronoun 'je', as opposed to the French 'je' which is the first-person, which is 'ik' in Dutch, with a hard k so not like 'ich' in German, unlike the letter 'g' which is like the ch in 'loch', which leaves the word for 'gladly', 'graag', which you add to things to make them politer, (therefore saying 'ik wil graag' for 'I would like' instead of 'ik wil', 'I want'), into a word which starts with clearing your throat, proceeds through a rolled 'r' and then a long posh 'a', and finishes with clearing your throat again. Which means that asking for something politely involves a word where you clear your throat twice, go 'aaaa' inbetween, and try and wedge some sort of 'r' in the middle. Thanks, Dutch. (This bit edited because I'd been spelling it 'garaag', not 'graag'. 'Garaag' means 'garage'. Ahem.)
  • Also on the sniggering teenager front, the verb can or to be able to is kunnen, so it's a good job the Bob the Builder theme tune says 'yes we can', 'ja, wij kunnen', and not 'yes you can', or the Dutch equivalent would go 'ja, u kunt'. 
  • Incidentally, consider the 'ij' in the 'wij' above to be equivalent to a y with an umlaut, pronounced something like 'ey', because sometimes when written that's what it is anyway. If you're looking for Rijnsburgstraat in a map index, it's somewhere after Ruysstraat, not between Rigelstraat and Rimastraat. 
  • Meanwhile, mushrooms = champignons. GET YOUR OWN WORD, NEDERLANDERS.
  • Keeping the conjunctions and articles and other little words straight is tricky because they often either do mean or sound like they ought to mean something else in English. Over in Dutch means about in English, and op means of, but of means or, and van also means of, but the word for than is dan, and that also means then. Which at least explains why people have trouble keeping than and then straight. That is dat but this is dit, not dis, so this and that is dit en dat, because en is and, but don't confuse it with een, which is one, but also the indefinite article a. You can tell these apart in speech because en sounds like the letter name en, and een the number is emphasised, like 'eyn', while een the indefinite article just has a schwa, a lazy e like an unstressed 'un'. See? No, neither do I. Yet. 
I suspect a good way to try and get started with talking will be to try and say things in Dutch to the dive club. They're generally willing to talk to us on account of the shared experience of diving, although some are more willing to do it in English than others, and so they'll probably put up with us trying things out. And it was quite surreal to come up from a dive and not be able to join in with the general 'how was your dive, what did you see' sort of chat. For a thing where you can't really talk while doing it, diving has a massive social element. Mind you, we did a dive on Monday and what we could see was not much. Never mind. Ik ga naar Albert Heijn, omdat ik wil aardappels kopen. Except I'm not sure if the wil ought to be the other side of the aardappels because of the omdat effect. Ahahahahaha. 
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There's a local van hire place that does walk-up deals on Transits. Today I walked up, and between me and Chris we've managed to get rid of both the old bed frames, the half-destroyed sofa, the massive pile of wood and chipboard off-cuts from the loft, vast quantities of rubbish old fabric, boxes of waste packaging, dead bike tyres, knackered pans, etc. etc. There were things in there I didn't even know were there, like Tom's vinyl collection hidden under the woodpile. That's still there, though, because I don't have the heart to throw away almost anything in the line of music. The loft isn't exactly empty but there's a lot less stuff in it that there's been any time this millenium, pretty much, and the van cost £16 including mileage charge.

More packing now, sausages for tea later, and then I think we're going to the Evening Star, because tomorrow morning Chris is actually going, on a Eurostar, to live in Amsterdam. Erk.
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Dive holidays are very definitely holidays in the sense of escaping from the usual round of concerns. They're physically exhausting, but for the entire week you don't think about anything other than the dive you've just done, who you're diving with later, what dives are being planned for later in the week, what state your kit's in and whether you've got enough air. The exceptions are thinking about how tired you are, wondering vaguely where the next starchy or lardy food's coming from, and drinking beer. And rambling conversations about things that may or may not be relevant, like kit configurations, our diving officer's experiences as soundman for various 70s and 80s rock bands, or whether list songs are a sure sign of a band's impending decline. (I'm concerned for the Arctic Monkeys on the basis of their most recent single, I can tell you.) I took a novel with me; I haven't so much as picked it up all week. I took stuff for learning Dutch with me; I managed about an hour of that halfway through the week but that's it. Some people take more time off, but frankly once you've paid for the accommodation and getting there, the dives on a dive club holiday are dirt cheap so I think it's a shame not to do as many as possible. There were twenty-something of us, ranging from someone who'd never dived in the sea before this week to people with hundreds of dives, also including a blind man who dives on a rebreather that gives him audio signals and feels his way around wrecks, so I got to dive with all sorts of people, and also got to do a day's marshalling which means I've now passed my Dive Leader. I've got a drysuit with a leak in one leg, a huge pile of slightly damp socks to wash, horribly split and chapped lips, some leftover chicken from Thursday's barbecue for tea, various bruises and a slightly bad back, no idea what's been happening in the news this week, and a captain's hat and big bottle of scrumpy that were leaving presents from the dive club.

Meanwhile, Chris leaves the country on Wednesday morning and my house is still full of all sorts of stuff that needs to be got rid of. Er.

Clear out

Jun. 17th, 2011 03:15 pm
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Clearing everything out is being tedious work. I've been through all my CDs and I'm getting rid of a substantial number; I'm going through all my books and the plan is to take some, leave some more in the loft and charity shop yet others, and I suppose I probably need to do clothes at some point but I buy so few of those that's never the issue it could be. Some things I've been able to sell, like a tape deck that used to be brilliant but has stopped working at some point since I last used it, though someone still gave me a tenner for it, and some things I've had offers on even though they're not up for sale yet (a dive club member wondering what I'm doing with my car when we go), but drumkits don't seem to be selling anywhere. I bought mine for £150 as a naff second-hand learner kit, and now I've tarted it up, bought it some new hardware and can certify its value as a usable gigging kit it's not worth £100, apparently.

We dismantled the bed frame Tom built, the one we sawed the legs off to covert from a cabin bed last year. The big piece of MDF that was the base went to the people next door but one who do up camper vans. The toluene we have for purposes of gluing drysuit stuff can't exactly be exported, so that's been given to the dive club's equipment officer. The bottle of New Zealand gewurztraminer we had last night while trying to drink up the booze stash was really tasty. But I don't know if Wayne finally wants his copy of Geoff Thompson's Watch My Back returned to him. This week, and the week after next on the other side of this dive holiday to Brixham we're about to go on, will be all about this solving of hundreds of miniscule problems. I'll be quite glad to go back to renting again, at this rate.
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