Monday, 17 March 2014

There's No Place Like Home

It is inevitable that spending some time away from home will induce feelings of longing for certain things that may not be available in your current location. While I never really feel homesick in the traditional sense of the word, there are things that, at times, feel frustratingly distant. Is it bad that they are usually food related? Here is a list of the top five things I miss about England. I tried to exclude the food ones, because I looked greedy.

#1 Being able to eavesdrop on strangers' conversations, especially on public transport

We all do it, it's human nature. We cannot help but pass judgement on people for a plethora of reasons ranging from the seeming insignificance of the clothes they wear to the choice of magazine they apathetically leaf through. Of course, being in a different country doesn't hinder the sagacious onlooker, but it does handicap the nosiness involved in eavesdropping on both phone conversations and those happening with both parties present when you aren't fluent in the native language. I was once on a long distance train visiting a friend, dreading the journey, heightened by the lack of preparation I had done in terms of providing myself with any entertainment. It turned out that I had worried for nothing after I was graced with a fellow passenger that decided to include the whole train carriage in a number of personal calls regarding her sexual harassment case against a colleague. After becoming totally engrossed by the story, laden with TMI, I just knew I was in for a good ride. She made call after call and the plot developed each time like a strange game of 'Chinese whispers', becoming more and more elaborate and bizarre until, frankly, it bordered on the plain ridiculous. What started out as a bit of a pat on the arse morphed into something much more illicit as she got caught up in her own fabrications. All the world is certainly a stage; sit back and enjoy.
#2 Turning on the TV to relax, not embark on an exhausting Dutch language task

After a long day isn't it just the most magical feeling to slide off your shoes and breath out in front of the box! Unless it's foreign TV. It's like a savoury muffin; full of hopeful expectations until you take that first disappointing bite and remember that its not always sweet. Don't get me wrong it is sometimes great to watch TV in a different language; you pick up some new vocabulary and it's amazing when you find yourself able to follow a little bit of what's going on, but for the most part it just detracts from the main appeal of parking yourself down and entering a vegetative state of unknown return; AKA the proper and intended way of watching TV. This is somewhat redeemable though. Whilst on holiday in Wales with my mum as a child I learnt a game that changed my life for the better. Naturally it rained so hard at regular intervals during the week we stayed there that I thought my freckles might get washed off yet, in true British style, we weren't going to let a bit of rain spoil all the fun. There was one day, however, that was just unimaginably wet, so we decided to stay inside. Due to the horrific weather conditions, the only channel on TV that we managed to get was 'C4'; the Welsh channel which was airing an omnibus of a Welsh soap opera. Obviously not speaking much Welsh, we decided to mute the TV and dub over the voices and I can honestly say that the hilarity that ensued resulted in this being my favourite part of the holiday. Perhaps I can solve #1 with this...

#3 Hilly landscapes

This one's a given. Being born and bred in the Malvern hills has ignited strong associations between the rotund, rolling landscape and home. Whenever I leave for any prolonged amount of time, the shrinking of the hills into the distance plunges me into the reality of leaving whilst their growing emergence on the horizon reassures me that I am on the way home. I miss their looming presence like an omniscient being and the human characteristics that vary from day to day. Saying that, I'm not sure I'd appreciate them quite so much if I had to bike up them every day with an increasingly large boy passenger.

#4 English holidays

No, I don't mean a week in a caravan park in Devon, I'm referring to those little days that we take for granted whilst at home like pancake day and bonfire night. All an excuse for a party I'm sure you'll agree and I was shocked to learn that most of the little things we celebrate are unheard of to other, saner countries. When I explained to my host family about bonfire night and the traditional burning of the guy, they were somewhat horrified and appalled by the level of violence condoned and exposed to children during this day. They couldn't quite appreciate it for what it was... An excuse to make a huge fire and blow things up in the garden and try to write your name in the air with a sparkler before it runs out of fizz, spending the rest of the night with white squiggles burnt onto your retinas. But it is really good fun to see their interpretation of the things I try and explain to them. My host family ended up having their own bonfire night party in which most of the key elements were there, but in a somewhat more civilised manner; we had tea and cake around the fire and talked politics.

#5 Cadbury's chocolate and Robinson's Squash

I tried to avoid letting them slip into the list, but they need to be here. They also don't need any explaining other than the fact that it is utterly inhumane to not stock these two things in all supermarkets, internationally. They are a basic human right.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Erectile Disfunction

You know there's that saying that dog owners look like their dogs? (watch 101 Dalmatians, you'll see exactly what I mean). Well Dutch people have managed to produce their architecture in such a way that holds a striking resemblance to it's inhabitants. During the sixteenth century the Dutch government levied taxes from citizens that were contingent on house width, predictably resulting in very tall and very narrow houses. So this is the first way in which the Dutch look like their architecture. The narrowest is reported to be around 80cm wide, which, interestingly is approximately the average American waistline, further suggesting that houses are built for their specific nationals and not for outsiders. Here I envision a scene from Alice in Wonderland when Alice eats the enlarging cake and bursts out of every orifice of the white rabbit's house. Perhaps the Dutch have to employ dodos to smoke overly engorged American's out of their houses too. Doubling up as a defence mechanism against foreigners. This can also be applied to staircases of Dutch houses which are notoriously steep. Dutch residents' heads are already at the top of the staircase whilst their feet are still at the bottom so it's just a case of their legs catching up which isn't an issue for them. For the vertically challenged among us, however, climbing the stairs is like scaling Vesuvius without any official safety equipment and as a result bruised shins are a regular occurrence.

I imagine that very tall people are subject to a fair amount of buffering on particularly windy days, tilting wildly like lanky blades of grass in a storm, so it's no surprise that their bricky counterparts have begun to lean in all manner of directions too. This is obviously most famous in Amsterdam and whilst strolling through the city streets it became a little difficult to distinguish where buildings ended and people began. I do of course exaggerate, but I couldn't avoid imagining the different reasons for the slouchy stature. The streets were congested with people walking almost horizontally having taken advantage of that certain famous substance. It was almost as if, by some sort of atmospheric osmosis, the buildings had absorbed the second hand haze from the air and consequentially synced up with the people in a mass lounge. I think it was no coincidence that one of the least upright houses | witnessed was integrated with a coffee shop. It is unsurprising that the Dutch are so laid back because I for one found it impossible to be uptight when even the buildings were radiating easy vibes. I'm sure there is plenty to say about the building-person relationship in regards to the red light district too as that is a less than vertical (in some cases) affair, but we'll assume that there might be some reference to structural erection innuendo and move swiftly on.

The traditional attire that we have come to associate with the nation is also, believe it or not, reflected in the architecture. Due to the boggy texture of Dutch ground (definitely a sign from nature that the land is not ideal for human settlement and urbanisation which the Dutch just went right ahead and stuck the V's up at) houses need to be reinforced by big wooden poles which are essentially, if you think about it, just variations of giant clogs. Talking of giant clogs:

The classic bonnet type headdress, or 'Dutch cap' associated with old fashioned Dutch clothing is also incorporated into the design with roofs sharing qualities with the women's heads in classic Vermeer paintings. Once you realise this, you can't unrealise it and I can tell you first hand it's a little unnerving to walk through a residential area in the Netherlands with the distinct feeling of being eye-balled by many rows of the working women of Holland's past.

If only walls could talk, eh?

Wednesday, 5 March 2014


A few weeks back, whilst eating dinner with my host family, the classic question of 'what do you want to be when you grow up?' arose, to which the twelve year old answered something along the lines of a fashion designer with the chance of a singing career attached on the side and the five year old... a dinosaur. Obviously. I'm pretty sure that a university somewhere will provide a study in how to become a dinosaur among the other, equally as valid, subjects such as 'shoe studies' (I genuinely met a girl at university studying this).

Actually, to go off on a tangent, I couldn't help myself but to do a quick good ol' Google search for the top ten most ridiculous university courses and the results were honestly more bizarre than I was expecting. Among my favourites is 'Arguing with Judge Judy' which is stated as being 'NOT about the application of law or the operations of the court system', but 'students interested in argument, TV and American popular culture will probably be interested in this course'. Probably. I think that says it all really. 'Oh, Look, a Chicken!' is another legitimate sounding course title, with the ambiguous course outline being: 'embracing distraction as a way of knowing'. Suddenly studying to become a dinosaur doesn't sound so absurd. I will iterate that these courses are only available in the US. Go figure.

Though, I am slightly worried that the five year old is developing a new life goal of becoming a musician. The shrill, banshee cries of an abused recorder being blown directly into my face are doing no favours to my ear drums. And who made the rule of having to be encouraging to children when they show an interest in things that are apparently cultural? I think it's definitely not the done thing to answer a child's question of whether you are enjoying their music with a string of ways in which you would like to see their instrument be destroyed; the less humane, the better. I suppose you have to convince yourself that even Beethoven was once a beginner. I'll take the dinosaur, thank you.

I just love the way children's minds work in such hilarious and unpredictable ways. Another great example of this was when I was having a conversation with my five year old little buddy about animals. After mutually agreeing that pigs are very dirty because they lie in mud all day he declared that he found cows the most scary because their eyes are so small on their heads. I had never considered this before, but I started to understand where he was coming from, they are fairly bulgy, yet in terms of diameter are unnervingly small in proportion to the rest of their face. In the end I convinced him that they are good because he likes milk. Although he still wasn't sure as he said chocolate milk is better. So I asked him where chocolate milk comes from. He then went quiet for a little while and I could see in his face that the cogs of his brain were turning, his head cocked to one side like an inquisitive puppy and proceeded to say 'ummmm, mice, I think' with such surprising clarity that I even believed him for half a second myself! Where on earth did he pluck that piece of utterly arbitrary information from? The only thing I found myself able to muster as a reply was 'oh yes, of course'.

But these musings aside and back to the initial question itself, I realised that 'what do you want to do when you grow up?' is for me synonymous with 'what do you want to do now?' The overwhelming realisation that I'm an adult and am expected to act like one was brought painfully into the foreground and that my days of dreaming of being a dinosaur are definitely at an end. Boo hoo. Having said that, playing Juno (junior uno) for, on average, six hours+ a week (and secretly enjoying it a little bit) definitely helps harness the whole growing up too fast thing.  

Friday, 21 February 2014

You are my Kandi Guuurl

Recently I experienced a very Dutch issue (no, I didn't run out of hagelslag). My bike broke down whilst I was on my way to pick up his Lordship from school. I heard the Devil cackling beneath me, chorused by a cacophonous explosion of malfunction at my feet. my legs kept pedalling but nothing was happening. It took me a good ten seconds to fully accept this and I have replayed the continuous, fruitless efforts of my laboured pedalling in my head at regular intervals ever since. I have come to the conclusion that the best way for you to come close to imagining this is to think about a classic cartoon running scene where you see the characters legs spinning very quickly, yet, for a few seconds they do not go anywhere. This was me.

However, there was still the very real issue of still going forwards at all. I should probably explain that the brakes on most bikes here in the Netherlands are operated by pedalling backwards. Obviously this wasn't exactly possible, so I had to wait until I came to a natural stop before hopping off and attempting to flag down some much needed help, preferably from a nice rugged Dutch guy, which would obviously blossom into something beautiful. This proved much more difficult than I ever would have thought and not just on the romance front which, by the way, I am half joking about. But seriously, it got into double figures of people that passed before anyone stopped to help. Thankfully, someone did, but unfortunately, whereas I imagined it was just an issue with the chain or something and that someone would magically fix it on the roadside for me, this guy took one look and basically condemned it. He spoke barely any English so in amongst talking to himself about the issue in Dutch (it sounded serious) he just kept shaking his head and repeating 'no' to me. I didn't take this as a good sign so resorted to phoning my host parents and trying to get them to arrange something for the little one.

Eventually it was Opa van Heek to the rescue and he agreed to have a look at my poorly bike when I arrived back after pushing it home. Someone should really provide an AA service for bikes. My shins were destroyed from repeatedly smashing them against the pedals.

This was the first incident. The second involved a more serious injury to the bike in which this time the chain, or axel maybe, or something technical involving these two things, had completely given up the ghost. Oh, and the back tyre had followed suit. Not ideal, and again on the way to school. This time it was possible to soldier on, though I think if I'd have ridden a drowsy tortoise there it would have been quicker, and much more comfortable too as the wheel felt like a square by the end of this ordeal and my arse definitely paid the price with each clunk. But I had to abandon it by the canal and resume the journey on foot eventually. Though I managed to arrive at school on time, so the world kept on spinning as always (unlike my wheels). She's all fixed now though, you'll be relieved to know.

Also, it has just occurred to me whilst writing this that my bike doesn't have a name. In England its very common to name your mode of transport, so perhaps she deserves to be christened officially. Definitely something befitting of her nature. She's sassy as anything and her leopard spots give her a catty streak, obviously with an element of teen drama queen. I don't know why but I imagine her to be an independent and streetwise black girl...

Kandi with a K and an I is a pretty solid choice.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

How Much is that Doggie in the Window?

Today, while I was in town, I thought I'd have a look around an art gallery that always catches my attention every time I ride past it. Whilst I was parking up my bike, I looked through the window and noticed a nice piece that featured a bulldog on a contemporary vintage velvet chair, asleep and looking rather regal. It wasn't until I opened the door, with the intention of going over to look a little better, that I realised the dog I had assumed to be a statue, was very much alive! He waddled over curiously, sniffed me a bit then proceeded to follow me around the small shop while I looked at the actual art. I kept looking at his jowly face and imagining him giving some intellectual critique on each piece, (all in the voice of Churchill, the dog from the insurance adverts, of course) and giggling to myself.

By this time, the owner of the shop appeared out of nowhere and told me that there was another part through a door in the back, and that the dog would show me the way. So this was a little confusing, and I wasn't sure whether he was joking or not, or indeed whether it was another case of mistranslation on my part, so I stood for a little while looking first at him and then at the dog, not wanting to look totally idiotic for following the animal. But then the dog grunted at me over his shoulder and led me through a door, a passageway and then through two more doors, stopping and looking at me at each one as if gesturing to me to open them. After taking me on a sort of tour of this much larger gallery, he turned and flopped down on a rug in front of the big open fire and waited for me to finish.

The whole thing reminded me a lot of the fabric shop in my home town where I used to go with my mum as they effectively had a cat acting as front of house and leading people up into the back of the shop where there was a greater choice of materials. Also, the cat was a talking cat. I'm not lying. But I am exaggerating. It couldn't actually talk, but it meowed in all the right places and knew what people were saying because it reacted in the correct way. For example, the man who worked up in the shop used to ask the cat if it wanted some milk and it would meow crazily and stand by its milk bowl. This was definitely not a coincidence and I think you'll agree provides conclusive evidence that the cat could definitely understand and interact with humans and basically had the same level of intellect as a small human child. Fact. 

Anyway, the man told me that I could ask anything I wanted and just to come and find him if I needed anything and I kept wondering how inappropriate it would be to ask how much he would be willing to sell his little tour guide bulldog for. Also, I'm not sure I could even get him through customs without at least having to declare him and that seems like a hell of a lot of hassle. 

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Hiep, Hiep, Hoera!

One of the most prominent cultural differences that Ive encountered during my stay in the Netherlands is birthday protocol. Birthdays, for me, conjure connotations of singing 'happy birthday' in a darkened room, gathered around a birthday cake with candles and wishes. The Dutch, however, do things a little differently. When I asked about traditional birthday foods I was met with blank looks of confusion. You'll find no sausage rolls, pineapple and cheese on sticks or jelly and ice cream here. The main aspect of this that I find most challenging is the lack of actual, real birthday cake. As a kid there was nothing quite like coming home from a birthday party and digging out the piece of birthday cake at the bottom of the party bag; peeling off the icing and saving it til the end. Heaven. A piece of apple tart, lovely though it is on any other day, just doesn't cut the mustard! 

And I know you Dutchies love a boterham, (that's a sarnie to you Brits) but is a birthday really an appropriate time to be celebrating this mundane lunch food? It's customary to pulverise the life out of countless things and call it a meal in the Netherlands and sandwich fillings are apparently no exception. They'll blend just about anything and slap the sloppy mess between their bread, the worst being Filet Americains (essentially just a chunk of raw meat passed through a blender). To me, this is no way to celebrate turning another year older. The increasing number is enough to remind me of my impending death, I don't need an early glimpse into the winter of my life by sucking my sandwich through a straw. The Dutch love sandwiches so much that they find them an appropriate figure head to place on the front of birthday cards. No, I'm not joking. Here is the proof:

Also, it is generally just expected that you will provide some sort of birthday party for your friends and family on your birthday. You are the host and you wait on your guests (who you basically didn't even invite) until they have reached their fill of sandwiches, tart and a good old game of shitting nails (you'll have to enlist the help of our trusty friend Wikipedia on this one). But I have to wonder how or even if, anyone ever gets thrown a surprise birthday party here. Perhaps on a surprise birthday no one turns up, who knows? I hate the whole big birthday fuss thing so perhaps next year when my mum asks the annual question as to whether I'd like a surprise party (it's not a surprise if you ask me if I want a surprise party) I'll tell her to throw me a Dutch one! 

The other strange thing about birthdays is that people congratulate the other party guests on the birthday of the person whose birthday it is. It has taken me a few times to work this one out and I still just sort of smile and nod when I get lunged at with an outstretched hand. If all else fails, just pretend you know what's going on and that it's not wildly bizarre. Perhaps fill your face with a boterham so it's not immediately obvious that you haven't got a clue how to offer a correct and appropriate response. Oh and if you can help it, try not to buy a 'Get Well Soon card' by mistake for a five year old's birthday. Though I'm pretty sure a cartoon frog with googly eyes on the front is more birthday appropriate than a sandwich, surely?   

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Red Peril

To set the scene, Urban Dictionary describes a 'ginger' as 'A human, characterized by pale skin, freckles and bright red hair. "Gingers" are generally considered to be inferior to their more melanin-rich brethren, and thus deservingly discriminated against. Gingers are thought to have no souls. The condition, "gingervitis" is genetic and incurable.' I have had first hand experience with this with one of my best friend's mum's never growing tired of asking me whether I'd like a nice cup of 'Red Bush' snigger, snigger. However, one thing that is really great about being in the Netherlands is that being a little bit ginger is completely acceptable and even desirable, would you believe it? In fact they even have a whole two day festival in September (Roodharigendag) devoted to celebrating the carrot tops! Though I can only imagine that the streets of Breda, where the festival is held, during this time look like an explosion in a Wotsit factory.

I think most of us girls at one time or another have fallen victim to the classic 'home dye gone awry' situation, so my suggestion would be to hop on the next plane to the Netherlands and soak up the praise. I'm not sure why the whole ginger hating phenomenon began in the UK but I would guess that our large inventory of orange foods are only exacerbating the issue. (I don't think orphan Annie did us any favours either). In the Netherlands biscuit trivia is minimal with no distinction between a 'biscuit' and a 'cookie' and I'm pretty sure I haven't seen any ginger nuts knocking about on the supermarket shelves. They really don't take it as seriously as the Brits, I mean, you need the differentiation so as not to find a nasty surprise at the bottom of your teacup, right? So the Dutch are definitely not dunkers, but this can only be good news for the copper community.

The most amazing part of the festival is that some red-headed children in certain areas of the Netherlands get a whole week off from school in order to celebrate. I'm pretty certain that would cull the bullying issues in school corridors and even make for envious 'melanin-rich' children. I know everyone has an 'If I were Prime Minister' speech ready in their dreams, but I think this has to be the first time in history that someone took their's a little too seriously. I mean, come on, people come from around the globe to join in with the festivities and there are even dedicated lecturers that come to speak on a myriad of ginger related topics.

Strangely, considering less than 2% of the Netherlands' population are sporting the ginger tinge, it was a bit of a coincidence to discover that the girl next door is also in this minority and shares my name too! Maybe she would like to accompany me to this years festival. I think it might be classed as ginger etiquette to ask. She'd probably be quite upset if I went without her. Gingers united.

(Also, freckles mean I am a walking dot-to-dot. How is that anything less than amazing?)

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