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I moved out to a new job in The Netherlands on 14th January 2008 and pulled together a few Mid-Winter photos and also wrote something about what here is new, weird or interesting to my eyes. It is so easy to get around the local towns: Amsterdam, Leiden, Scheveningen, Den Haag, Delft and Rotterdam are all on the tram routes or less than 40 mins apart by train.
Travelling in Argentina became fractionally irritating when I
discovered that many town names were prefixed by a saint's name in
their official name in the map index but never normally in
conversation. Now I have arrived in the Netherlands, I'm even more
confused because the locals make their town names unpronounceable,
start them with a missing word but also continue the South American
joke of multiple names for the same place: The Hague, (The Count's
hedge, The Count's domain), Den Haag, 'S Gravenhage are all the same
name for my new home. The last one, that you have never seen before,
is the official name; the actual one used on letters ! Anyway, the
city has a beautiful old town centre, great museums, good shops and
wonderful public transport: trams run from the Northern beaches South
to Delft at either four or six per hour until Midnight every day and
trains from Schipol Airport take only about 30 minutes (and cost about
GBP 6) ! Tonto, we are not in Britain any more, and definitely not in
I'm now working in a small research group at the European Patent Office (EPO) with a particularly bright energetic boss and a hard-working bunch of fellow contractors. For most of the other staff at the EPO, there is a peculiar apartheid system in operation: an elite force of international very well-paid examiners are surrounded by obedient administration staff, sometimes in high heels, and also hundreds of geeky contractors. The EPO examiners get proper permanent jobs, excellent offices with huge windows, and also get subsidised lunches. The contractors share less desirable offices, get no food discounts and often work without even a contract which sounds oxymoronic but happens whenever blocks of contracts are parcelled up and sent out for bids by IT consulting companies which act as the middlemen. The main EPO building is fantastic with a huge auditorium, a green leafy jungle beside the long entrance corridor, a vast sports hall and bar at the back. One might worry that the luxury and privileged job could make some people slightly spoilt but perhaps it is necessary to counter the downside of becoming a commodity despite a PhD and spending most of your conscious hours splitting legal hairs and looking for novelty in the minutiae of the latest washing machine doo daa or some combination of chemicals used in the latest women's face potion. Anyway, I did feel sorry for one visitor to the site: the wonderful Croatian singer Vesna Pisarovic sparkled and brilliantly sang jazz in the bar last week at a free social event but she was drowned out by the bigmouths just talking at the bar.
All the EPO car parks are surrounded by a moat and tucked away underground ready for insurance claims after the next great Netherlands flood and so also pushing the offices up enough to be just above sea level. It still strikes me as most peculiar to be looking out of some colleague's window and seeing a ship sailing past the bottom of the car park - on its way down to Delft and Rotterdam. In most countries it would be an exceedingly bad idea to build anything precious below sea level on foundations of nothing but sand but the Netherlanders seem to get away with it by skill, ingenuity, fictitious little boys sticking their fingers in dykes and very high taxes (foreigners with PhDs get a useful exemption, but locals sometimes face 60% taxation from their first cent). The local altitude and geology means that any vacant plot of land becomes a cross between a sandpit and a pond. Any small child with a big grievance could undermine their neighbour's house with nothing more than a teaspoon but such terrorism would be very un-Dutch and besides the hundreds of policemen would surely spot something first. I have never lived anywhere with so many police cruising around but I get the occasional reminder that this is almost the nation's capital which must partly explain the omnipresent police - usually on cool-looking trials motorbikes. Today, mounted police just sat and watched watched whilst there were Serbs in one lovely square setting off flares but otherwise just singing, holding signs and behaving nicely (they want Kosovo back) - who can blame them - they must be feeling very lonely and unloved these days with their old bosses dead or waiting in The Hague courthouse jails.
Finding a place to live is by far the hardest part of moving here - the estate agents are slow, expensive, sometimes useless or even sneaky. I found a place through an ex-pat website and skipped all that hassle/expense. I live right in the town centre near the big church, I can see its spire from both my bedrooms. On the other side, the living room view, is a canal and, at night, the blue and green strip lights from the "Coffee shop" opposite reflect beautifully on the water's surface. I have a pleasant 20-minute cycle ride to work through town and past a deer park with only 50-metres of the 5.5Km total shared with cars. Luckily, I can also travel by tram 17 which almost magically goes from the Northern beaches/harbour past my road, both main rail stations and stops directly outside the EPO! Many of the flats (apartment blocks) the Tram 17 passes are starkly bland without so much as an arch, piece of ironwork, column, brick pattern, or hint of decoration to break the awful monotony. Are they council built and owned or are the locals afraid of being un-Stalinist? Some roads must be private because they have suspiciously large numbers of flats for sale ( < Euro 80,000) which I am told might be because the immigrants who live nearby are especially patriotic and have a berserkers party every time the Netherlands football team win an international match. Apparently, the police now move in and seal off the area before the matches even start. The middle of the tram 17 route is more beautiful: going through the old town, and past the reflecting pond outside parliament.
I got a peculiar kick from cycling through the inner courts of parliament (Binnenhof) and seeing the raw herring kiosk right outside. (Where is the cycle lane through and fish and chip shop outside The Palace of Westminster ?) The locals must be very cool and understated about government and still keep liberal attitudes about almost everything. The Queen used to cycle to school and now works in a palace 200m down my road. During the day, she keeps the gardens open for collecting dog poo though not all the local owners manage to get their pooches down my road before they relieve themselves prematurely.
The painted Mesdag Panorama in Den Haag is unique, lovely and strangely convincing after a few seconds of adjusting to the new perspective but my favourite "Kunst" gallery is right in the centre of the old town. Late one Sunday, I walked out of the hostel under a pure blue sky, past the red white and blue flag of the herring kiosk, the pink tubes of the red-light district and then found myself looking at a pair of rich red lips, white skin, a blue turban and a large pearl earring. It was just me, in an empty room with Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring"! I felt so lucky I almost cried -it was half an hour before closing time, the only camera was pointing the wrong way and only my lack of wire cutters stopped me from eloping off with the most lovely graphic masterpiece I had ever seen. It is so carefully composed, or I am so fickle, that I reckon even a slightly differently shaped frame could ruin the whole look. Maybe it is just fashion because the painting's international fame is relatively recent, it was bought for a few Euros equivalent about a hundred years ago, even since then, a painting of a cow and calf in the same gallery has been the local favourite in the Mauritshuis collection. I do love cows and cow pictures, but really what where the milk-mad locals thinking ignoring their own local boy's real pearl of a painting ? Den Haag is absolutely full of art galleries both commercial and public so it is not like they did not have a choice.
I only got to see the "Girl with a Pearl Earring" film last week - lovely too but not as exciting as the real thing. Incidentally, there could have been even more fabulous paintings in the Netherlands but the painters all seem to die young: Vermeer had 11 kids but only one made it to adulthood before he himself popped off, Van Gogh was not ever all there anyway, and some of the others died in the seemingly common town-centre gunpowder explosions - OK, maybe the Dutch are not as smart as I had been thinking but they still started New York (it was New Amsterdam), gave the British our first modern monarch (William), taught the British all about colonies and started central banking and stock exchanges and they now have little flaps at the end of their duvet covers so your feet don't get cold - always thinking !
Actually, I haven't met many Dutch people yet (The EPO is very international) but I did once make the mistake of questioning why a million Turkish people would want to leave vast beautiful Turkey (my last holiday was Istanbul) for the damp and overcrowded Netherlands (to a Dutch psychologist on a train journey) and got a very nasty look in reply. I guess I was the dirty pot (Englishman economic migrant) but I still reckon I have a point so I hope more Dutch people head to Turkey to teach them how to be relaxed about everything and do efficient business with everyone - Adam Smith should have been a Netherlander.
I have heard said that no one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the average American (USA) and you could probably say the converse in the Netherlands so I'm suggesting a vast Netherlands conspiracy is afoot. I even have some evidence: my landlord has left his homeland and now teaches foreign languages with his Italian partner in Italy, his father whom I met and chatted to whilst waiting for my local bank vault's time lock to open to hand over a deposit and first month's rent in cash - (not cheap), he now has a bigger place in Spain but he also said he absolutely does not believe in Global Warming and told me it is all fiction. Why has the Netherlands not been complaining about fat American cars or Chinese coal burning and instead burns as much oil as it can import to heat its greenhouses full of beautiful flowers all across Holland ? I have a theory that they are pumping up the heat as fast as possible but counting on a few decades lag in which time they all leave to spread liberalism and efficient business practises around the World. All that is needed for the plan to work are plenty of denials, good jobs on offer here and enough wealthy EPO immigrants to buy out the Dutchmen's homes. Furthermore, I have not yet found a local who does not speak a foreign language - well English at least - and I heard today that a single Antarctic glacier floating or melting would push up sea levels by 25cm. It must be a diaspora scam or some way to make catching Herring fish even easier - just hang the rod and line out of the house window ?
I'm told that any time a car hits a cyclist here, in the eyes of the law, and without other witnesses, it is always the car driver's fault no matter how naughty or innocent the cyclist actually was. Of course, this means that the town centres of Den Haag and especially Delft are blissfully quiet and pleasant places to be. For the ultimate in delightful municipal transport Delft has skipped hydrogen powered bendybuses and reverted back to a two-genuine-horsepower carriage which manages to carry about 10 people over the many high arched canal bridges. If you really fancy something more modern, the huge Delft Technical University has won the trans-Australia solar powered car race the last four times it has been run with their "Nuna" cars. They beat big international teams each time and the rules have even been changed to slow them down because the Aussie speed limits were holding them back so much.
The local transport hierarchy of who gives way to whom goes something like: ships, boats, trains, trams, horses, bicycles, pedestrians, lorries, and then cars at the bottom. The junctions where these modes meet are amongst the most complex that I have ever seen anywhere and I reckon that the guide-dogs for the blind here must have IQ's higher than the average English Media Studies student: trams, cyclists, pedestrians and cars/vans get their own separate traffic lights at most junctions and they are not entirely coordinated: like America, pedestrians get a green signal at the same time as side-street cars - but, here, the cars usually stop before the blood spills out.
Cycling home from work behind a group of track-hogging gossiping girls riding into town for a night out wearing all their finery and high-heeled boots makes me realise how different this place is for transport, and how lucky I am to be here. Most cycling here is pragmatic like hassled mothers with kids stacked around them, but the ultimate for other-worldly (Heavenly) sights is one cast-iron giraffe-like Dutch bike carrying two lanky blonde girls: one cycling, the other sat side-saddle on the back rack - its common here, it really is. My other transport treat is taking the rearmost seat on the tram: it is a single sideways seat, surrounded by glass, that swings wide on all the corners, and the view backwards reminds me of what it must have been like being Tail-Gun-Charlie on a Avro Lancaster crossing Europe a long time ago. Indeed, for all the cloned European shops: German MediaMarkt and British Dixons, Phone Warehouse etc. there are real differences: I have only seen one fat person since I got here and the jeans are much tighter and the legs can be unbelievably longer. I saw a long blonde pony-tailed and crash-hatted policewoman in overalls getting out of a van backwards and unfurling herself to almost seven feet tall before she turned around and, oops - it was a policeman ! The road names are impossible to remember (apart from Winstonchurchillaan) and the map is 45 degrees West of North (follows the coastline) so my nightmare job would be Pizza Hut delivery (they have Dominos too).
After I drove back from one weekend back in Britain, picking up my belongings, and driving back into the heart of Den Haag, I realised that despite the signs saying that I was in the "Centrum" nothing was recognizable and I had no idea which way to go - none of my cycling had prepared me for the underground highways, one-way roads and bollarded bridges - these obstacles never even registered before on a bike. In the end, I was two hours late for work but both my EPO boss and the hire company were totally cool and I avoided all penalties. However, I was lucky to have made it back from Britain at all because the British customs were very interested in a large car doing a very quick round-trip from the Netherlands - I was, apparently, doing a perfect impression of a drug dealer and my license plate was glowing in red on their screens as I drove off the fab Stena Line ferry. The thick fog driving back to Harwich also nearly prevented my return as the A12 turn off sign had become totally invisible though, fortunately, the ship had radar and the calm weather made for a really smooth Mid-Winter crossing of the North Sea so I am back here again enjoying it very much so far.
There are more pictures here and here.
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