Sunday, February 15, 2009

Winter Warmers & Criminal Tendencies

January was cold, very cold! Although, to be fair, probably not as chilly as other parts of Europe. Indeed, whilst the UK was experiencing the worst snow for years, we had none here, just over the water in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, it has still been rather nippy so I’ve been very grateful for the warmth offered by having some of my closest friends to visit in the last month.
My first visit of the year was from Bee and Fred, who literally arrived on the midnight train.

We had a lovely weekend exploring both Groningen and Amsterdam. Fred had been briefed on all things Dutch with the aid of a classic book, Hendrike the Cow, so we had fun pointing out the sights similar to those Hendrike saw on her travels.
We toured the canals of Groningen, saw green cheese in the market, admired the tulips, rode on a tram in Amsterdam and ate traditional pancakes on board a pirate ship. Fred also enjoyed sampling hagelslag, a Dutch delicacy which is basically chocolate sprinkles on toast. Gastronomic heaven! It was lovely to see them both and be able to spend some quality time together.

Last weekend, one of my other friends acquired during my Cairo days, Rachel, flew over from Cardiff. We were on something of a mission given that last time we got together our drunken antics involved someone (not me!) falling off a stool in a Liverpool wine bar. Disgraceful behaviour! Needless to say, we had a couple of boozy nights in the bars and restaurants of Groningen with lots of good ole girly chatter and plotting for future adventures. Rachel was very generous in her efforts to help the shops of Groningen get through the recession and much sitting on her suitcase was required before she departed.

The rest of my month was fairly quiet after the mad marking flurry at the end of the semester in early January. I’m not teaching very much at the moment although have acquired a couple of small group classes teaching staff from Gasunie (the gas arm of Shell) and RDW (the Dutch driving licence authority akin to DVLA in the UK). As things are not so busy at work, I took a day off mid-month to go down to The Hague and the Egyptian Embassy. I needed to apply for a police certificate from the Egyptian Embassy stating that I do not have a criminal record in Egypt. This ended up being a rather ‘interesting’ day out.

As I had to be at the embassy before midday, I needed to get an early train from Groningen. It takes about three hours to get to The Hague by train from here. I crawled out of bed, walked to the station and bought my ticket in a sleepy haze. As the doors on the train closed, the conductor announced that this service was bound for The Hague and that discount tickets were not valid as it was before nine o’clock. Ooops! I had used my discount card to purchase my ticket. I decided the only thing to do was declare my error before the conductor checked my ticket and ask to purchase a top-up ticket. No. Not possible. My only option was to either buy a new ticket for the entire journey with a forty per cent premium on top or disembark at the next station and buy a new ticket. I chose the latter. I then got off the train and bought my new ticket. Stupidly, and probably because I was still not entirely awake, I bought a return ticket…I must have pressed the wrong button. I then had to change to change twice and eventually arrived in The Hague an hour and a half later than planned.

However, I still made it to the Egyptian Embassy before it closed and was somewhat amused by the whole experience. I entered the building through the basement and was greeted by a wall of smoke and lots of Egyptian men in baggy brown suits puffing away. Once I explained my situation, I was taken into a backroom littered with paperwork. Eventually, the right application form was located and I dictated the information required to my ‘handler’. I was then finger-printed and acquired a set of lovely blue fingertips. When I asked for a letter to prove I had made the application, I was instructed to sit at the embassy computer and type it myself. I’m not sure if this is standard embassy procedure but needless to say I did as instructed. The letter was then duly signed and stamped. Before leaving, my ‘handler’ who had already told me about the fact his wife and kids were in Cairo and ascertained that I was single decided to take it upon himself to ask me out for lunch. Whilst a kind invitation, it was not exactly something I felt comfortable with but what does one do? Running through my head I’m thinking that I need this certificate processed and he holds the power. I declined saying (truthfully!) that I needed to get back to Groningen for a US Presidential Inauguration Party (you can see me make an appearance toasting Obama with a glass of champers in the video below!). My Egyptian 'handler' then asked me if he could call me from time to time on the number I’d had to provide for the application form ‘to chat’. I explained that if it was to do with my application I was happy for him to call but otherwise, I did not think it was appropriate. He seemed to accept this. So, whether I ever receive my police certificate remains to be seen…but at least I have the paper that says I applied!

I went on my way and after a short wander around The Hague I got back on the train to Groningen. This time I had the right ticket so anticipated a trouble-free journey. How wrong I was! The train conductor came through to check my tickets and asked to check my annual discount pass. I presented it to him but was then told it had expired. This could not be. I had only purchased it in October. However, what I had been issued with was a temporary card only valid until January 11th. The replacement card had never been sent and I hadn’t realised. At that point, I was near tears and almost threw my already finger-printed hands up in the air saying “Take me away, and lock me up now!” I’m not sure the ever so serious train conductor could cope with a clearly emotional English woman so he did his best to pacify me, told me he understood it was not my fault and said that he would let me off as long as I promised to go straight to the ticket office in Groningen. Phew! Quite ironic that my fare-dodging (although unintentional) could have lead to a criminal conviction in one country while the purpose of my journey was trying to prove I didn’t have any convictions in another!