Sunday, December 7, 2008

Flying Visits

This month I have been lucky enough to have a veritable volley of visitors - and very nice it has been, too!

My mum and dad eventually arrived after a rather delayed start due to high winds across the channel grounding their flight and then the age-old European problem of snow on the line. Despite the weather, we had a lovely weekend although it involved much diving between cafes and museums in order to avoid the rain, sleet, hail and snow. We went to the Scheepsvaart Museum (no, not the Sheep's Fart Museum but the Northern Maritime Museum) which also houses the Niemeijer Tobacco Museum. Probably the best museum in Groningen, however, is the Groninger Museum, with its various permanent and temporary art collections in a rather eccentric modernist building. If you come and visit me between now and the end of April, you may well be 'forced' to go to this museum and see their current Pre-Raphaelite exhibition - this is purely because I have done the voiceover work for this exhibition's English audio tour. I have to say I enjoyed my time in the recording studio but you'll probably be highly relieved to know that at no point do I actually burst into song!

My second influx of visitors came in the form of friends, Charlotte and Phil. Charlotte took great delight in decorating my apartment with all things Christmassy. Phil and I were the engineers and were 'artistically directed' in putting up the fairy lights and glittery objects d'Christmas. Charlotte herself took charge of the tree and after re-decorating it FOUR times was eventually satisfied with her efforts. I should add that the tree is about 30cm tall and is now covered with lights, giant fluffy white snowballs...oh, and one glass angel!

As well as the festive festooning, we also had a nice time exploring Groningen's bruine cafés. Bruine ("brown") cafés are Dutch cafe bars. They tend to serve a wide-range of local or regional beers on tap (often with a high alcohol percentage!); Dutch jenever, a spirit similar to gin (but not as nice!) and Dutch hapjes, which are light snacks such as cheese, olives, nuts and bitterballen.

The term "brown" comes from the dark wood and stained walls that supposedly owe their hue to years of smoking patrons. Most of the brown cafés epitomize the Dutch term 'gezelligheid', a word that roughly translates as coziness or a feeling of friendly warmth. A few typical brown cafés in Groningen are Huis de Beurs, Cafe de Keyzer, De Pintelier, the Wolthoorn and, my local, the Stadtlander

Following the implementation of the EU-wide smoking ban, it's not known whether these brown cafés will stay brown for much longer. Having said that, I've seen a few which are flaunting the ruling and have reinstated their ash trays. This resistance was recently demonstrated with a large protest against the ban when smokers marched on Groningen Town Hall. However, it seems that, as far as the Dutch government is concerned, marijuana is in but tobacco is definitely out!

Actually, there seems to be quite a lot of activity outside the Town Hall at the moment as an ice rink and Christmas tree decorated with Chinese lanterns have now been erected. I was somewhat perplexed the other day when I saw Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten doing the conga round the square just before a hundred motorbike riders clad in leather and reindeer antlers rode into town.

I had a very enjoyable evening of Sinterklaas celebrations last week. I was invited to a traditional 'pakjesavond' (present-giving evening) by some of the girls from work. This involved enjoying a pot-luck dinner and some booze followed by a rather hilarious dice game. Each of us were asked to bring two or three small 'low-value' wrapped gifts. We then played a round of the game where those who rolled a six could take a present from the pile (but were not allowed to unwrap it). During the second round, players were able to swap or steal presents and undertake 'tasks' depending on what they rolled. The final round was the unwrapping round whereby the delight at receiving your present was often short-lived as players were again allowed to steal your presents with one roll of the dice. Despite numerous disappointments and a few coups I was very happy with the booty I went home with. I might have been tempted to cycle home in the g-string made of sweets in one of the pakjes so it was perhaps a good job that it was (rather cruelly) 'stolen' from me!

Now that Sinterklaas is officially over, the Christmas decorations are being dusted off and starting to appear across the town. However, I decided I was in need of a full-on Christmas fix so, along with a fellow shopaholic, headed across the border to Germany and the town of Oldenburg. We had a lovely day soaking in the atmosphere of the traditional Christmas Market and soaking up the gluhwein. There were quite a few interesting sights including an advent castle, some punk ponies, lots of drunk Germans and half metre long bratwurst sausages, the latter of which had to be sampled to be believed!

Merry Christmas one and all!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Drs Who? and an Alien Nation

I have a new name! I find it quite strange but here in the Netherlands I now find all my 'official' letters come addressed to me as Drs Becky Smith. No, I haven't acquired a string of PhDs all of a sudden but it's the norm here that those with a Masters degree also acquire a title - that of doctoranders. So, in the Bond spirit, you can now officially call me Smith, Drs Smith! However, please don't!! I'm finding it hard enough coming to terms with my students referring to me as Ms Smith in class - another Dutch formality and one I find rather odd at university level.

In fact, I've found a few aspects of Dutch culture rather puzzling this month. It didn't start out too well as I got the shock of my life when air raid sirens suddenly started blaring out across the city...I had no idea what was going on! Were foreign invaders massing on the border (very nearby)? Had the dykes broken? Had FC Groningen scored a goal? was simply the civil defence siren test that takes place every first Monday of the month at midday...quite what happens if World War 3 breaks out at that precise moment, I don't know!

It sounds like this (only MUCH louder!):

Also, this month I've noticed a few more oddities in terms of Dutch food. Groninger Mustard Soup, a local speciality, appears high on the list. As strange as it may sound I have to say it's rather yummy and warming on a chilly and damp day. Autumn has now arrived in full force and so the poffertje

man has packed in making his 'summery' poffertjes, pancake balls covered in butter and icing sugar, only to be replaced by the
olibollen man who serves his 'wintery' oily doughnuts with custard, cream and icing sugar! You can, if you so wish, go for the fruit-filled olibollen but, honestly, why would you? In addition to sampling these oily balls of dough, I've also had the honour of trying kroketten and bitterballen ...these are sausages or balls of a meaty sauce-type filling encased in breadcrumbs usually eaten when drunk...and I was! They are often served from automatic vending machines at FEBO fast-food outlets for a euro. Yep...they are as disgusting as they sound and not something I shall be rushing back for!

Probably the most bizarre thing this month, however, was the arrival and parade around town of "Sinterklaas" (St.Nicholas). Sinterklaas is a Dutch holiday, which is celebrated between the 4th and 6th of December and is more of an event here than Christmas. A few weeks before "Sinterklaasavond", on the 5th of December, Sinterklaas himself arrives in the Netherlands on his steamer from Spain. He is accompanied by his 'helper', "Zwarte Piet" (Black Peter), and the presents which they have been busy preparing. From his arrival in the country until the 5th December children put their shoes in front of the fireplace. At night, Sinterklaas visits all the houses by riding over the rooves on his white/grey horse called Schimmel along with Zwarte Piet who carries the presents down the chimnies and puts them in the children's shoes. There appears to be much debate over the role of Zwarte Piet and I found it rather odd, to say the least, to see white children blackening their faces. I leave it up to you to decide if this is appropriate or not.

It's perhaps interesting to view the traditions associated with the Sinterklaas festival alongside the historic event which took place in the US this past month. Barack Obama's election was loudly celebrated here in the Netherlands by a majority of the Dutch, in a similar way to many other countries around the world. I was invited by some American friends I've met here, who are members of Democrats Abroad, to attend a huge election night event in the Stadsschouwburg, a lovely old theatre here in Groningen. The all-night event included debates, music, comedy and (lots of) drinking. I made it until 2am before heading home and waking up to the good news (and work!) the next day.

My social life is gradually picking up. One thing that's helped is that I've started a group to promote social activities for both international and Dutch residents of Groningen. It's called the Groningen International Meet Up Group. So far, we've had four events. These include meeting for coffee and Halloween drinks, and viewing the World Press Photo exhibition. Membership is growing and it seems like a good way for me (and others) to expand my (our) social network. There, everyone knows me as Becky, just plain Becky!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Wheelin' and a Dealin'

Well, I've been here just over a month now and so am starting to get to grips with the place, the language and the new job.

Groningen is the provincial capital Apart from being a very popular student city, it is also known for its gas, sugar and tobacco fact, you can sometimes smell the sugar and tobacco in the air. Luckily, I haven't smelt gas yet! Or have I?

The city is not far from the coast and so has quite a lot of sea-faring boats in the harbours and along the canals. There's also a lot of lovely old buildings from the Golden Age and a thrice-weekly market on the two market squares - the Fish Market and the Big Market. There's a great cafe just in front of the 'famous' Martini Tower where I sit and watch the action if it's sunny. I got lucky the other day and scored a free lunch...a traditional Dutch herring...which must (apparently) be eaten as demonstrated in the picture and is usually accompanied by chopped onion. Put it this way, it's an acquired taste!

I like the buzz and the atmosphere of the market...but then I always have loved markets. The produce is great and it's a good chance for me to get in a bit of Dutch conversation over my wortels (carrots!) with the stallholders - just about all the practice I get as I'm in an English-speaking environment most of the time.

I'm starting to watch a few Dutch TV programmes but, to be honest, the draw of BBC1, BBC2 and the National Geographic Channel is sometimes just too great. My current favourite Dutch programme, however, has to be the 'The Irish Matchmaker' where a boatload of Dutch ladies appear to have been shipped over to Ireland, travel around in a campervan and go on dates with a bunch of Irish guys. It's half in English and half in Dutch so I just about cope. Alternatively, there's the Dutch version of 'Any Dream Will Do?' - I can't yet work out if the Dutch Joseph wannabes are singing in Dutch or are just really, really bad. So, as you can see...lots of quality telly! Mind you, it's a step up from the radio...I'm really struggling to find anything other than Europop, heavy metal/rock or 80s hits...played again...and again!!

Work is going OK. I've now got three advanced-level groups. One group of Pre-Masters students and two groups of first years. Their mastery of slang amuses me highly although they still need to work on their academic English. The first years, in particular, are an entertaining mix of Dutch, Germans, Bulgarians and Ukrainians. They invariably arrive completely hungover and proceed to drink gallons of Red Bull which usually means they are completely wired in the second half of the lesson. I gather there are various fraternities here and so a few of them appear to be taking part in initiation ceremonies...wearing a sticker on your forehead for a week is one of the tamer 'challenges'. I start teaching a group of university administrators soon...heaven only knows what antics they'll get up to!

I'm teaching on a different campus from the one where my office is based so my bicycle's getting lots of outings. I'm enjoying being a 'fietser' although I tend to be somewhat less enthusiastic when it's chucking it down. I've had to get myself sorted with the right rain gear...waterproof jacket, waterproof trousers and a really rather silly waterproof hat. Wearing the hood up on my raincoat simply didn't work as it kept blowing off and I couldn't hear the cars coming up behind me. I'm not yet able to do as the Dutch do - cycle with a brolly in one hand whilst rolling a cigarette and chatting on their mobile phone with the other.

I've actually had my first cycling disaster or should I say 'Dutch christening'? I was happily cycling along on my way to class when the next thing I knew was I was face down in the mud! The cycle path was being dug up so the workers had laid some giant metal door-type covers over a big hole. I went over them OK but hit a patch of mud on the metal, skidded and came off. Fortunately, there was no major damage to me or my bike apart from the fact I was rather shaken, red-faced and covered in mud!! Still, it made me feel better when a 'professional' Cloggie cyclist came through just after I'd picked myself and did exactly the same thing - he didn't quite go over but there was a lot of swearing as he tried to right himself. Wonder if I can sue the council??? They take enough tax off me. Maybe I could use my compensation to renew my membership of the Tufty Club?

Car-free living is very easy in the Netherlands as the public transport system is so good and there's so much provision for cyclists. We have a special underground bicycle park at work and, as I found out last weekend, the one at the station is a sight to behold - there are just soooooo many bicycles.

Amsterdam is two hours away by train and as the weather was so lovely last weekend I decided to have a day out there. The city was in its element. The autumn leaves were falling gently into the canals and the sunlight made the water sparkle. So romantic. Just a shame I had no-one to share it with, really.

Ah well...on that note...I guess it's time for a beer!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Going Dutch

You know how the saying goes...another blog, another adventure!

This time I'm exploring the Netherlands - otherwise known as the land of beer, bicycles, cheese, clogs, dope and tulips. I'm hoping to go a bit deeper though and learn a bit more about what this VERY flat land has to offer whilst at the same time updating you on my latest happenings.

So...where does this adventure start? Well, my last week in Leeds was rather hectic and involved lots of meals out with friends, selling my car and a great deal of packing. I also said a final goodbye to all my colleagues and friends at the University of Leeds Language Centre. After nine years there, I was sad to leave but I was very touched by the kind words, cards, gifts and lovely send-off I was given. I was particularly proud of my 'end of term' report which gave me top marks for, amongst other things, 'coffee making', 'George Clooney stalking', 'gossiping' and 'occasionally teaching'.

The move itself went surprisingly smoothly with the help of my uncle, Graham, and cousin, Fran. Fran was moving to Berlin at the same time as I was to Groningen so, as I needed a van driver and some muscle to assist me, we decided to pool resources. After loading up in Leeds and then collecting Fran in Nottingham we made our way to the Hull ferry terminal. The white cliffs of Dover Hull ain't got but a swift pint and portion of fish 'n' chips in a pub sent us off in True Brit style.

The ferry crossing was calm and as we sailed into Europoort, we were greeted with the sunrise and sight of windmills (well, wind turbines, to be precise) twirling. After disembarkation, we navigated our way towards Amsterdam and, eventually, found the campsite my parents were staying on right next to Schipol Airport. A rather delicious cooked breakfast was awaiting us in their caravan and it was good to catch up on their holiday happenings even if it was only brief.

The sun shone on us for the rest of the day as we headed north across the polders and edge of the Ijsselmeer (Zuider Zee). I was amazed it only took us about 3 hours in total from Europoort, near Rotterdam, and that was going relatively slowly in the van - Holland really is a small country!

Once we'd arrived in Groningen and navigated the rather narrow streets without a scratch, we spent the rest of the day carrying boxes up to my second floor apartment. It's a lovely bright space in the rafters of an old grain warehouse. It's very modern inside but retains it's old character. There's lots of beams you can crack your head on (trust me!) but there's also plenty of space for visitors! It's very close to the city centre, near a canal and there are one or two local 'coffee' shops so I'm in pretty much in the heart of Dutch life.

After a day unpacking, I started work the next day. My new job is teaching English at the Language Centre (Talencentrum) belonging to the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen. So far, so good - although I think they're breaking me in gently. I've taught my first group of undergraduates and am hoping to get a few more groups in the next week or so. It feels strange to be teaching a class of all Dutch students and I'm having to get to grips with lots of new technology. Some of my classes are on a different campus so my bicycle will get lots of outings.

I was a bit hesitant about getting on my bike again at first but at the end of week one, I'm gaining in confidence. I finally got my security locks sorted and rack attached yesterday so have spent this last weekend pootling about quite merrily. I even managed to navigate the Groningen marathon runners without killing anyone today! That may all change tomorrow when I cycle to work...over 50% of journeys in Groningen are made by bicycle so it's a bit like rush hour in Beijing on a weekday. Await news of my first crash!

Groningen itself is a bustling market town full of students so has a very 'young' feel. There's lots of funky shops, eating places and 'gezellig' pubs. The beer, as you'd expect in the Netherlands, is great. My Dutch classmates and I went on a little cultural excursion to our local hostelry after class the other night!

I started Dutch classes immediately and although I'm very rusty, what language I have is gradually coming back. My understanding's not bad but my speaking is terrible! I'm trying though and hope that it'll suddenly, miraculously, all click back into place. My classmates are a nice bunch of mainly PhD and post-doc students from all over the world - Italy, Ireland, New Zealand, China, Iran, Peru etc. They all appear to be so much more accurate than me - although my vocabulary is quite wide, I fumble around for the right words and they never seem to quite end up in the right place in the sentence! Bit like my English really!

Still, I managed to sort out my waste issue with the council OK so my Dutch can't be too bad. We only resorted to English when things got very technical. The waste bins here are really quite cool! On each street there is a central bin and you are given a pass to use it. You swipe your pass and the bin doors open, you deposit your waste and then, after the doors are closed, it gets swallowed into the ground. The council can tell via computer when these great big underground bins are full so they know when they need emptying. To do this, they lift the bins out of the ground using a big hook and then dangle them over a big truck to empty them. So simple and so efficient!

Watch this space for more lessons in Dutch efficiency coming soon!