Stressed – what makes you think that?

Here is a potted version of the last 7 days.  Today marked the end of one of the most stressful weeks in a long time. 

Last Monday we had to transfer some money into another European country to complete a project that we have been working on for 3 years.  Leading up to this Monday had required quite a lot of detailed engagements with a number of other third parties to make sure that everything needed was in place.  That actually was reasonably smooth.  So, Monday, execute the transfer.  Everything was set up for the 2 of us to fly out of Amsterdam on Friday morning to arrive and finalise everything, some weeks ago.

Wednesday afternoon I get a phone call.  “Apologies, but the schedule has changed.  Because of public holidays the offices of everyone involved will be closed by midday on Friday and we know your flight arrives at midday.  Can you change this?”.  Rapid calls to KLM and to my amazement could change things to Thursday night, last flight out.  Checked bank account late Wednesday night – all the money is back in the account. Shit, it take 3 days to transfer anything and this needs to be in specific accounts Friday morning.  Holy shit, what to do?  Try a different transfer method and this time pay for immediate transfer, – let’s try that.  Phone calls and screen shots emailed on Thursday. 

Booked a rental car earlier in the week.  Something in the back of my mind was aware that not everything was settled with this.  Checked reservation and noted in very bottom left hand corner saying that because we booked the pick up time at 11pm, reservation couldn’t be confirmed because the office shuts at 10pm – shit.  On the phone, called the hotline, “Dont worry sir, you can pay an additional fee and the people will wait for you” – great.  Arranged that.  Thursday mid afternoon, same feeling.  Called hotline again – “no problem, if they don’t wait the leave a note at the desk and the key and contract with airport information”.  Hmmm, this is Italy, why do I not believe this?  Decided to call Sixt in Italy to check.  Lady was helpful but not entirely convincing, so she put me through to the office at the airport – “wait for you, not really possible, yes, yes you have paid for me to wait but if you are delayed I cannot wait” (this is better this is the Italy I know).  “Try Hertz, they are open until midnight”.  OK, now we are talking.  Called back Sixt to cancel the reservation (that was never really a true reservation, apparently) and then get onto the Hertz site to book.  Fortunately this time I get a confirmation number.  Everything good to go.

Out to airport, jump on plane arrive on time 10.30pm in Rome.  Out through the doors, followed the signs towards the rental car desks.  Signs direct you through some doors.  Doors don’t open – they get locked at 10.00pm.  Hmmmm – lets follow the other Italians who seem to know where to go.  Around the corner into an elevator, up to the 2nd floor, out, down some corridors indicating direction to hire cars, doors locked at 10.00pm (only in fucking Italy).  Reverse direction, back down to arrivals area go to the exit – yep doors locked at 10.00pm.  Go further down airport until we find the one remaining exit.  Outside to taxi area of course no signs toward rental car area as all signs are inside.  Asked a person, yes 100 meters that way and up some stairs – easy.  Off we go.  Yes, there are the stairs, race up 4 flights and miracle of miracles, the fire doors are jammed open so we can go through.  The alternative would have been ugly as there was no way to open the fire doors from the outside.  Into the overhead walkway, relocate signs and off we go to Hertz.  Arrive at desk sweating like a pig.  Calm helpful lady – good.  Gave her the reservation printout, passport, credit card and drivers license.  After a few minutes the lady gets my attention “Excuse me sir can you please help me”?  “Whats up” says I.  “From what I see here your license has expired in January”. “Expired, impossible” – looking, looking – fuck me it expired in January – 9 months ago.  In that time I have hired 2 other cars (ironically from Sixt) and the police pulled me up to check papers and licence in Germany in April.  As you can understand this took a few minutes to process.  Holy shit, what happens now.  “K, please tell me you bought you licence and that it’s not expired” She tentatively pulls hers out and thank god, it’s all ok.  Why is this such a MAJOR problem, you ask?  Well we HAD to get a car because we then had to drive another 2 hours to be where we needed to be to meet people at 7.00am Friday morning and there is no public transport at all going anywhere at midnight and a taxi would have required a second mortgage.  “So ma’am, you will have to drive as he cannot”.  Yes that I figured out.  So bags in the car, GPS plugged in let’s go!.  “Why isn’t the GPS locking onto the satellites”?  Dont tell me that the major map upgrade I did 2 days ago has fucked something up?  Cant be, we used it yesterday in Holland.  Then why doesn’t it activate and pick up the satellites?  Bloody hell, how do I know?  Look follow directions as I remember them and I will figure this out!   Wait, 15 minutes into this journey the bloody GPS decides it can find the satellites and lock on.  Thank God.  Location plugged in, everything good.

Now of course I am completely stressed because my licence expired 9 months ago and I can hear the conversation already “I am sorry sir, 9 months is too long.  You will need to sit your test once again and yes the fact that the whole thing is in Dutch is a complete major pain in the fucking arse, but rules are rules”.  I could visualise this conversation!  Lets add to the stress of everything else.  Monday I have to figure this out.

Arrive back in Amsterdam late last night.  Up really early to make sure I have all the paperwork required to present myself at the Dutch Immigration office to renew my residents permit, which expires in December.  And the problem is?  To achieve this appointment took 3 weeks of pure Dutch bureaucracy at its finest.  It would take too long to explain, but bottom line was that because I haven’t passed the required exams that prove I have integrated, I cannot get an appointment.  So you then you enter this closed loop of bureaucratic insanity where everyone is apologetic, but those are the rules without any clear answer except you have to leave.  Luckily there is one absolute constant in Holland.  If you can clearly demonstrate to them that a certain action will end up costing the state considerable money (and supporting my 2 dutch children until 18 would do that), suddenly things become very easy.  “Oh, just fill out the form we send you, bring a photo and we will see you at 10.00am”. So got there, spent 30 minutes with a nice lady who takes my forms, photocopies them, then photocopies the photocopies, stamps the photocopies and then stamps the stamps on the photocopies, takes my money and tells me that they are a bit backlogged and the process could take 4 months. Oki doki.

Jump into my car (yes without my valid licence) and race to the local government office to see what awaits me.  Well the first thing is waiting time of one hour.  My number gets called and I go to the desk of a pleasant man and I explain what has happened and the fact that the agency didn’t send me a letter to remind me to renew.  (For those living in Holland you understand the importance of this observation.  Every single thing about you resides in a central database and you get letters reminding you about all the required things needed to function here).  The man from the local government office listens and says, quote “well that’s fucked up”!  I instantly knew things would be ok, and it was.  Entered more info into the computer, extracted a reasonable sum of money from me and told me to come back this Thursday morning and pick up my new licence!  Thank you God and my guardian angels!

Tomorrow morning I am up at 4.45am to get ready to fly to Geneva and so life continues. 

I think I need to sleep.

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A production line called ‘School’

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a parents evening at my eldest daughter’s school. The purpose of the evening was for the teachers and the Director to give an overview of what was the focus of this school year. This is her second year at high school and there are two more years to follow. I was told that this year is very important because depending on her performance it shapes which stream she will go into the following two years. The school Director gave a presentation that absolutely amazed me. Within the presentation there was the structure of the courses, the structured variation of the one exam that she will take, and then a list of all the jobs that she would be be qualified to do after leaving school. To be honest, I’m not sure why I was so amazed. The entire structure of the modern education system is premised upon a production line. By it’s very nature it tends to kill creativity and individualism. I don’t believe this was a conscious decision but it’s an output of having all these children conform to a certain structure, a certain flow and a certain outcome. Schools were actually created at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when there was a realisation that there was a requirement for educated people to work in factories and on production lines. They were taught certain specific skills, allowing them to become useful and productive within a factory environment. It is clear that fundamentally little has really changed. This is not strictly a criticism, because I am still really impressed by the breadth and choice of the subjects that my daughter can do which provides much greater intellectual stimulation than the dross that was served up at my school, purporting to be education.

Something that I do find a bit scary is the cultural imperative in Dutch schools to label everybody and put them in a box. The definition of this box is actually the exam that you passed at school. This does determine where you do end up in Dutch society. In my own experience, when I first arrived here and looked for jobs, one of the first questions was what exams did I pass at school. I quickly understood that it was very important to make this answer as confusing as possible. This of course made it nigh impossible for them to put me into a “job box”. This allowed for much more interesting conversations, albeit very confusing for the Dutch interviewer. However, what I have realised is that for the average Dutch person, breaking out of this set of labels and boxes is virtually impossible unless you then go on to do much more study, many more exams, and gain more qualifications, but ironically you just get transfered into a ‘higher educated’ box. The one way to beat the system is to leave the country, travel overseas and get a lot more experience by choosing varied jobs and gaining confidence in your own abilities to think and move outside of the box that defines you in Holland.

There are some very good videos by Sir Ken Robinson on Ted.com, who describes with considerable humour the waste of human capital because societies have failed to recognise the need to bring the education system into the 21st-century.

So you want to marry a Dutch girl? – part 2

Over the last 2 weeks the subject of being married to Dutch women has come up in a number of conversations with colleagues and acquaintances.  Of course the following is both a generalisation and subjective, however this aspect has been a common thread in these conversations.  This time the common thread has been about why, once married a lot of Dutch women don’t feel a driving need to work and contribute financially to the partnership.  Now to be clear, this particular situation is more related to couples who have children.  The conversations were actually prompted by the fact that with one income there is nothing left at the end of the year in savings.  The one income is just enough to pay for all of the stuff associated with living in The Netherlands.  There has a parallel thread to this as well.  Over the last week the weather has been freakishly good, so each day I have been out for a walk and I have noticed how many women, all with baby buggies have been sitting drinking coffee with their friends and co-conspirators at cafe terraces. This is where I begin to struggle.  I am not sure how people can make this ‘alright’ in their heads and that applies to both the husband and the wife.  On top of this, the husband works all week and when the weekend comes, it is his job to look after the children because wife has had to do it all week!  This is how it seems to be and to be honest I don’t get it.  There is one complication here that is not in other countries.  That is where the majority of primary schools (first schools), throw the children out at lunch time for an hour so the stressed teachers can sit back with a cup of coffee, a cheese sandwich and be ‘cozy’, which is accepted by everyone as normal.  Additionally every Wednesday school finishes at 12 noon, then of course add-on all of the teachers ‘study’ days that seem to randomly pop up and then the children have to stay at home.  If you are both working then of course this provides a level of challenge that is not suffered in other countries.  But it still doesn’t add up to what seems to be a general attitude of “its fine to stay at home and you go and earn the money”.  Last night we were sitting having an early evening drink in Amsterdam and you could hear the conversation inside (before service) from the waiters (Italian) and some friends.  The whole conversation was about how Dutch women don’t understand how to be a partner and make a man feel loved.  It seems to be consistent, if a man is not Dutch and if they have been involved for any length of time with Dutch women, this conversation is a common thread.  But who am I to comment, all the Dutch men seem to accept it.

An insight to my alien life

Prompted by something that I recently read, I thought about my complete reluctance to learn the language of the country where I currently live, which is The Netherlands.  Some would say – to my shame I have been living here for 11 years and I know only a small amount more of the Dutch language than when I arrived.  Fortunately (for me) living in Amsterdam which is truly a multi-cultural city, you can use English to achieve pretty much everything.

However, I have realised something very important this week.  By being a foreigner and not speaking the language you are essentially free.  Let me explain.  When you understand the language where you live, you are constantly immersed in ‘noise’.  You listen (unintentionally) to conversations all around you, being in the workplace, on the street, out to dinner, shopping – wherever.  You tend to flick through the local newspapers that are delivered, unrequested, through your mailbox.  You ‘listen’ to radio and you will sometimes be drawn into something on TV.  You are constantly immersed in others ‘noise’, where there is no escape.  This impacts everyone and not necessarily in the right way.  I listen to the comments and observations our friends who are Dutch.   A reasonable amount of their thoughts are devoted to ‘what is wrong’ or ‘what is going wrong’ around them and I have realised that in many ways, they have little choice.

I am free of all of this.  I don’t read the local newspapers, I don’t watch TV at all, I have absolutely zero interest in politics and ‘status’ is irrelevant.  I have no interest whatsoever about a Dutch persons ‘perceived’ status in the Dutch scheme of things and they certainly have no interest in mine, because to them I am irrelevant.  I cannot help them increase their ‘status’ in any way and correspondingly they cannot help me.  This is important because most societies people’s relevant status is important to themselves and those around them.  People inadvertently show reverence to those they perceive are above them and indifference to those they think are below them.  A lot of unconscious time is given to reference checking where you are within your culture, which is always reinforced in so many subtle ways via the media.  You can see this with the amount of air time and hype given to Dutch ‘celebrities’ who are mostly a media creation because they have little real talent and are only relevant to the domestic Dutch.  However, if you are not part of the cultural it is irrelevant.  Another important benefit of this is that it allows you to not be too concerned about being seen to do “the right thing”, whatever that may be, because you are largely forgiven everything because you are the “foreigner who doesn’t understand”.

So last Friday evening, I was sitting in bed on the 7th floor of our building, looking out over the lights of Amsterdam, realising that I am completely free from all of this.  I am allowed to live my life in the way that I want to, I don’t have to “care” about the constant nuanced messages of Dutch society and I personally feel both privileged and lucky, because to be free of the external ‘noise’  in your mind is a gift that most do not have the luxury of experiencing.

Dutch pragmatisim

One of the reasons that I really enjoy living in Holland is that you cannot beat Dutch pragmatisim.  Following is an excerpt of an article in the local press –

Utrecht city council wants to set up its own marijuana growing service to supply the city’s cannabis cafes, the NRC reports.

While selling small amounts of marijuana is tolerated, large-scale cultivation is illegal, creating a grey area between demand and supply.

In addition, there is no quality control with the current system and a risk of contamination, council officials say.

Grow your own

So the city wants to experiment with a new sort of coffee shop – the name for cannabis cafes – which would be members only and grow its own plants.

By law, the police turn a blind eye if people have up to five plants for personal use. So if each member of the coffee shop grows those five plants in the same greenhouse, the problem would be solved, the council argues.

The fine details still have to be worked out, but the city has said it will not operate the coffee shop or be in charge of weed production.