Monday, May 26, 2008

O Providence

I performed a particularly stupid google search last week whilst looking for some pointers on Dutch pronunciation. I put in "Dutch tips." Of course I came up with nothing remotely having to do with the Nederlandse taal, but I did get some information on how you don't have to tip waiters/-tresses as well as another expat's blog that gave some tidbits of information about living in the Netherlands, including, for instance, that the way the traffic politie signal that you're being stopped here is to pull in front of you and turn on a little sign that says "Volgen" (follow). Duly edified, I went back and put in a more considered search and found the desired pronunciation tips for those wily Dutch diphthongs (and even a pronunciation engine -- way cool).

On the way home from Hilversum this morning, I was flipping channels on the radio when I realized a Politie Volvo was pulling in front of me. And turning on a little marquee that said "Volgen." This rang a bell somewhere distantly in my brain... aagh! I was going under the speed limit along with all the other bumper-to-bumper traffic, had headlights on... I just knew this little beater of a VW Golf was going to get me into trouble.

So we pulled into the service station (the little marquee handily changing to "Stop" to let me know not to rear-end them) and I prepared myself for the long-dreaded first encounter with the Dutch police. Keep in mind that my immigration status here is still up in the air, so I felt more empathy with my non-green-carded ex-clients than I cared to. (An aside that only a criminal lawyer would notice: Oddly, she came around to the passenger side door to have our little conversation.) Like 95% of the Dutch I've talked to, when I asked en Nederlands if she spoke English she said "a little" and proceeded in perfect English. I asked what I'd done; she asked me for my license. I gave her my Tennessee license -- the only one I have -- and she ran it. (She was not wearing the same fetching clogs as the lad and lassie pictured.)

When she returned she explained that they have a computer in the police cars that alerts them when they pass a car that doesn't have a Dutch license in it, so they pulled me over to make sure I was licensed. We chatted a bit more about whether I have the car registered and the requisite insurance (she took me at my word, no proof required?!) and she let me go on my way.

These onboard Big Brothers mean, evidently, that I can look forward to being pulled over another host of times until I get the rumored Holy Grail of a Sofi number that will let me trade in my American license for a Dutch one... as well as have a bank account, get the tax refunds to which we're entitled, etc. etc.

Of course, after waiting since last September 10 for them to make a decision, we just heard on Friday that we're required to register our marriage at Utrecht Town Hall before they can decide. This despite having provided them a marriage certificate with apostille, the seal internationally demonstrating authenticity per all regulations in the convention drawn up in the Netherlands' own Den Haag. And, not incidentally, despite having attempted to register our marriage at the Gemeentehuis last September and being told that the step was not only unnecessary, but impossible for us. Boy oh boy, am I looking forward to my next conversation with those well-informed and friendly bureaucrats!

Oh well, at least I didn't have to make a souvenir of one of those expensive Dutch traffic tickets.

Friday, May 23, 2008

At least in Hilversum where the kids go to school, they have no driveways for the schools. The streets are quite narrow, barely wide enough to allow opposing traffic to pass politely. This means that parents have to troll for parking as close as possible and walk their kids in.

There are, however, those parents -- I have yet to decide if they are more or less natural selection-minded -- who yearn for a bit more adventure in their mornings. It does tend to be the Range Rovers and Hummers attempting this feat: they careen over to the side of the road, often pulling fully onto the sidewalk in front of the school where countless parents and kids are congregating, and discharge their progeny willy-nilly from the closest vehicle door (which is sometimes the hatchback) regardless of traffic or age of child. There is sometimes, but not always, a pause to ensure the children have gotten safely onto the pavement before this special breed of parent merges full-speed back into traffic. Kinda makes me miss the pseudo-military (or -superhero?) Safety Patrol presence at the kids' elementary school in the States.

Today, though, as I was leaving the first school in a sleep-deprived stupor I was momentarily surprised to see a smaller car pulling onto the pavement immediately in front of me such that I had to pause to avoid being hit by its bumper. I looked into the driver's side window and noted that the driver was a mere child, no more than 8-10 years old. I was astonished, but frankly I've seen such weird stuff in Hilversum that I wasn't shocked beyond comprehension; I noted to myself that the driver's tender age was a better excuse for bad driving than mere possession of a Chelsea tractor and being too lazy to walk a few blocks.

I was several yards past the car before it registered that the car was actually from England. Enough said.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Jeff, the Bird Whisperer

Jeff continues to claim that one of his favorite parts of living here is his commute, the daily bike ride of 20 km of which a beautiful portion runs alongside the huge Amsterdam/Rhine shipping canal. It's an odd mix of bucolic serenity -- gardens in which roosters crow at all hours, some woodlands where you can actually watch pheasants running around -- and postmodern industrial -- at one point there's a conveyor belt that actually unloads sand and gravel from the barges about 10 feet over the bikers' heads. Most important, there's only been one instance in which the winds were so strong that he was blown perilously close to losing his bike in the 60-foot-deep canal in the wee hours of the morning. Usually they just blow him in drunken wobbles all over the path like the rest of the riders.

After he got home last night, the kids were regaling him with stories of their day (like the guy roped to the tree outside the school playground who was hoisting himself into the wee branches with a running chainsaw holstered to his belt -- worker's comp waiting to happen, I say). Then Jeff remembered, excited, that he had one of his own to share.

"What," I asked, selecting a comically implausible scenario, "you got hit by a bird riding down the bike path?"

A pause.

"Actually, yes," he replied, deflated. As I sat there agape, he launched into the story anyway.

The weather was gorgeous; it was only the second time he's been able to ride to work without a coat. There he was on a portion of the path where the trees line either side, riding along, minding his own business. Then he felt something -- sharp somethings -- grab the back of his head and quickly release. Still pedaling, he whipped around in time to see the culprit land in the tree behind him -- a black bird with some markings. His first thought was, "That'd better not be a crow. I'm not in the mood for omens." His second thought was, "That bird's one lucky bugger because there are days when I'd turn around and find a rock." (Jeff is, incidentally, gifted with an almost supernatural precision with hand-borne projectiles.)

The funniest part: as he described the bird, we realized it was a magpie. Magpies, which are very common around here, are notorious sluts for shiny objects. Hate to say it, but it was going for the sunset glinting off Jeff's balding pate. Sigh. Looks like hats will be de rigeur if he hopes to avoid being carried off by a mischief of magpies. (Er, and that's not Jeff in the photo in case you were wondering...)

Edificatory Postscript: Who knew that magpies had so many collective nouns to describe them (along the lines of "a murder of crows")? I thought I remembered "mischief" but I wasn't sure, so I got curious and tried to look it up and found the following list of terms for groups of magpies:

a charm, a congregation, a flock, a gulp, a mischief, a murder, a tiding, a tidings (is that a double collective?), a tittering, a tribe

Edificatory Postscript the Second: Holy moly, turns out magpies are notorious attackers of bikers and this is their open season on
Homo sapiens. People have put actual thought into preventing the aggressive little buggers from divebombing them (all these links are Australian since I'm assuming most of you don't read Dutch). Looks like Jeff got off easy, particularly since he hadn't taken the recommended measure of wearing an ice cream container on his head (scroll down slightly to the section "How to avoid being attacked").

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Why my kids can't sleep, part II

It is 10:38 p.m. and not yet completely dark. Time to find some old air raid curtains.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Back in the saddle

You know, you leave for two weeks and come back to a totally different world than the one you left. When we left on our jaunt to visit family, we were all layered up and wearing jackets. When we got back yesterday, it was 28 degrees outside (er, that'd be Celsius) and about 35 inside the train we rode home with our myriad suitcases and jetlagged children. They're teasing Jeff at work that he left for two weeks and missed the entirety of the Dutch summer.

Anyway, we made it from Schiphol to Utrecht Centraal with the benefit of a little nap and had to take the bus for the final leg of our now-familiar journey. For those not in the habit of taking public transportation in the Netherlands, I should explain that the tickets are these cards split into 15 strips called, appropriately, strippenkarten. You punch 2-6 strips depending on how far you're going, or on buses the driver stamps it for you. So since we were wrangling all our stuff, we let most of the line go before us. We noticed that no one was getting their strippenkaart stamped, but that's not atypical since lots of people buy monthly passes that you just flash to the driver. I was getting the kids settled in their seats while Jeff talked to the driver and I noted that the conversation was a little weird and uncomfortable, but frankly, that's just par for the course when we attempt most Dutch transactions so I didn't think a whole lot about it but to note, "Yep, we're back home indeed." Jeff showed me the card as he walked by and pointed to the fact that the driver had only stamped enough strips for two passengers. Score -- free ride!

When Jeff got home from work today, he shared something else we missed while we were gone. Evidently the police recently went on strike for higher pay. I was vaguely aware of this, but I didn't see picket lines anywhere or anything. Apparently their version of striking consisted in not pulling over as many motorists.

No, seriously.

At any rate, they were successful, which prompted the public transportation operators to strike. Now I have to mention here that I was in New York when the subway workers went on strike a couple of years ago and it was utter chaos. They happened to choose midnight of the day we were leaving so the traffic was unbelievable on our way out of the city to LaGuardia... mostly in the other direction, thankfully. They knew that by refusing to drive the trains they could bring the city to its knees and get a response. It didn't take them more than a few days before the mayor responded. Mission accomplished.

Here's what I love: I don't know if it's because the Dutch are so averse to being late or if they simply fundamentally cannot abide chaos, but when public transport goes on strike in the Netherlands, the buses still run perfectly on schedule. Yes, you read that right. The only difference is that the drivers refuse to charge riders, i.e. they don't stamp the strippenkarten. Pity the poor passholders, but at least they're still getting to work on time.

So it turns out that the tension in Jeff's interaction with the driver was more one of, "Oh my god, this guy is not actually going to make me stamp his card. Do people not even get the concept of 'free ride' anymore? Jeez, fine. Let's see if stamping two is enough to get him to sit down."

Evidently, Dutch schoolteachers are either considering going on strike or already have done so. I can picture it now. All the kids still show up at school to learn that they will still have to go to class, but there just won't be any homework now...