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.