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!