Monday, December 17, 2007

Maryssa and Craig are wed

Aren't they a lovely couple?

Isn't this a lovely group....?

Aren't we lucky parents.......?
Check the head gear girls! Craig's mum and I wore these by special request. Genuine, once in a lifetime mother-in-law hats.

Until I've settled back in again, it's good to be home, good to be on blog, and lots of love to you all.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The flavour of a flat country

Just a taste of Holland to leave you with while I'm away. Endless horizons have their own beauty, don't they?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Confessions of a long suffering English Teacher

Being an English teacher is a fine occupation. I mean it involves me in something I already love, the intricacies of which I can find endlessly and quite boringly (for my students) fascinating. After all, who else do you know who could talk with almost unbecoming and outrageous enthusiasm for at least half an hour about the apostrophe?

Nevertheless, doing this can also get me into deep water, nay not only water, into the dark and dirty mire. Take, for example, my main weakness: spelling. I have to say, and this is a real confession, that I am a bit hopeless at vowels - I get them mixed up all the time. Imagine this scenario then: I'm busy giving my students a quiz on confusing words and we come up with the one about 'principal' and 'principle'. This is when I discover to my shame I need the answers. But I haven't got them with me. Then one honest student says, "but Valerie, what's the difference?" Gulp. Well, I know the difference, but at that moment, I can't remember which definition goes with which spelling...oh mortification..and I'm the English Teacher.

But there's nothing like a bit of panic to get the juices working, and without so much as a break of pace or a hint of remorse, I look brightly round the room and ask, "now who would like to explain?" nodding knowingly and encouragingly as another student gets me out of the doodoo.

There are several others like this one, all sent to catch me out, but as time goes on, I'm becoming increasingly agile at avoiding these verbal minefields...the other day it was the difference between 'stationery' and 'stationary'.."one means not moving, and the other means paper and writing material. Now you tell me which one's which?" say I, deftly ducking the obvious booby trap.

Then there's the problem with pronunciation pickles. Many of my international students come from countries where they learn English from books but never hear it. The result can be hilarious when they finally get round to having to actually speak it. The trouble is, I'm not supposed to laugh at them! That is an absolute no no. But it's really really hard sometimes. I mean what would you do if someone was giving a serious presentation on an academic subject, and came up with the sentence: "We feel that under these circumstances, we have been seriously mizzled". Everyone looks blank, including me. "Could you maybe just repeat that please?" I ask diplomatically, but the laughter lump is already forming in my throat, and is refusing to be swallowed. The hapless student repeats the sentence, and when the sea of faces remains vacant and clueless, she spells out the word: Misled.

Now I don't know why this should strike me as so funny, but it does, and try as I might, I can't staunch the flow. I've even had to leave the room on occasions just to get over a fit of incurable giggles caused by a mispronounced word. It's even worse when the whole class watches you with total incomprehension as you splutter and weep tears of laughter into your piece of crumpled loo paper, which happens to be the only thing you have to hand. Nothing so refined as a real tissue is ever there when you need it.

Then there's the third obstacle: making language mistakes yourself. This is of course the students' delight. They love it, and will happily remind you for the rest of the course (and beyond to eternity) when you make one teentsy, tiny, minute and insignificant little error, such as leaving out a 'the' or saying 'less things' instead of 'fewer things'. Well, part of it could be that I pounce on them from a dizzy height when they do the same, but even still....when you meet them later on, even a year after, they will delight in reminding you of a sin of your own making. Sometimes you can gloss over mistakes, and if I can, I do it shamelessly - just to avoid the permanence of being branded the teacher who fell into her own hole…or was it whole? Or a whole hole?

I've become quite adept at saying things like "oh yes, you're quite right, but I was going to say 'less baggage (for example)' but I changed my of course it came out wrong". Big smile.

I know that they know that I'm bluffing, but at least it's one way of crawling out of the mire..or the pit...or the minefield..or was that a pit too......?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Soft focus delight

I have been very shortsighted since an early age, although with time and cataract replacements, this is becoming less so. Nevertheless, I had my first pair of glasses at the tender age of six. This was not the age that I actually became myopic - no, it was merely the day and time when my parents discovered that I really couldn't see. There was this Golden Eagle (escaped from London Zoo). Goldie, it was called, somewhat predictably, and it was sitting in a tree not four metres above my head. I squinted skywards, and saw nothing but blurred blobs. Shocked at their inattention to their offspring's borderline blindness, my parents rushed me off to the nearest optician to order my glasses.

I remember them clearly. They were like toned down versions of the ones that famous drag queens wear. You know the type. Pink. With wings. And because I was so young, I had those springy extra wire pieces that hooked round my ears to prevent them falling off. I hated them with a passion. Not because they were ugly. In fact I thought they were the last thing in elegance when I first got them. No, it was because all of a sudden, I could see the ugly side of life.

I'd had them for just a matter of days when we were driving through an area of south London just after a heavy snowfall. Without my glasses, everything had looked sparkling, clean and fairy like. I lived in a delightful fantasy world of soft focus vision. Then suddenly, I had these things that made me see that all that glittered was not snow. I could see the ugly mud and slush. I could see the litter on the streets being trodden into the same ugly mud and slush. My world was shattered, and I made a conscious decision at that moment that I was not going to wear my glasses unless absolutely necessary. Quite determined for a six year old, I was!

The result of that piece of willfulness has sometimes been quite hilarious. There was the day when we were driving past Hyde Park, and I asked my mum what all those sheep were doing on the grass. She gave me a very peculiar look. What sheep? I pointed to the creamy coloured shapes ahead of us. "Vally, put your glasses on", she scolded me in exasperation "they're deck chairs, not sheep!"

Then there are the times I have tried to greet 'someone' up ahead, only to find I've been talking to an electricity box.

There are other downsides too. I have this tendency to totally ignore friends and acquaintances on the street, even when I am walking right past them. When you can't see, you are less inclined to look. Or there have been occasions when I have literally walked into people I know well without having seen them at all. Try explaining that to your best friend.

More recently and with Sindy's aversion to being confronted by other canines, I have crossed four lane highways in a dash to escape dogs, only to be acutely embarrassed when I've realised the said 'dogs' haven't moved and are temporary traffic signs or bollards.

But the last and most puzzling truth for most of my friends is when I tell them I have to put my glasses on to hear them properly...well, excuse me?! It's true, but I'll leave you to figure that one out.

At the end of the day, though, I still prefer my fuzzy world to the real thing. Here in Holland, I tend to wear my glasses more because I'm a danger to myself without them. There are so many hazards afoot as soon as I step off the boat - cyclists, moped riders, cars, trams and buses too. And you have to watch out for all of them all the time.

However, as soon as I get home, the specs come off and my eyes breathe a sigh of relief. They are in their own form of denial, and really prefer a life of ease and softly blurred edges.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Cultural gaps

Rotterdam has thirty four museums - apparently. Whatever the precise number, there are a lot. I have been to just one of them, the Kunsthal, which is an art gallery. I've been to it three times, but it is the only one I've visited. I am ashamed.

I have never been to the Doelen, the city's fine concert hall, nor have I been to the famous Rotterdam Film Festival as a visitor. I have been part of a film crew that was making its own film about the film festival, but I have never watched any of the films being screened at the film festival itself(is that enough films for you?). I am still more ashamed.

Now tell me where I can find a piece of history and I will seek it out - the monumental windmills in Schiedam, the Pilgrim's church in Delfshaven, the old VOC warehouse in the achterhaven; show me books of the pre-war city, immerse me in the tales of devastating floods and the building of the great dykes and you've got me hooked. I will even drive over a hundred kilometres to see ancient ship wrecks exposed by the draining of the polder (pity they were no longer there when I got to the place!). Why then, can I not find the motivation to go to the fantastic collection of musea that are just around the corner?

It is quite expensive. That's one possibility, but if I really wanted to it wouldn't put me off. I paid handsomely to go to the Escher and Dali exhibitions - and I'm not Dutch - yet. Maybe they are also too close, as in they are always there; I can go any time which means I go at no time. But no. I think the real reason is that I find museums and art galleries are often oppressive places, where everything is out of context. The artifacts in museums were all once part of people's lives while the paintings of the old masters were intended to grace the walls of people's homes. To me, the only art that is at its best in a gallery is the more modern, abstract art which is often designed to be observed in isolation. Art for art's sake. As for history, it should be alive and around us, not locked in cases in pompous, featureless chambers.

When it comes to music, I love classical concerts as well as rock and this is something I really should address. There are recitals, dance performances and symphonic concerts going on throughout the year in Rotterdam, and I should and will be there. That then is my resolution. I know it's a bit late for new year, but I think it's not one to be shelved until the next year is in. if I start now, my cultural gaps may be closing nicely by the time 2008 comes around. What about the museums, though? Well, I guess I'll save them for when the family is here in the summer. Then I can ooh and aaah along with the best of them and still sound as if I mean it!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

A Flabby Blog Story

I’ve never been very concerned about my looks and appearance. For the most part, I’ve spurned the delights of make up and cosmetics of all sorts, preferring rather to pore over power tools and different grades of wood than creams and lipsticks. I even gave up colouring my all too plentiful hair a few years back, finally accepting the fact that my natural brown mop was now having to be unnaturally dyed every two weeks to maintain my self image as a brunette.

Nevertheless, I do have a secret vanity, or at least I did have until about a year ago. It was my jaw line, you see. Forgive the preening, but all my life, I had been rather pleased with the clean line of a chin that needed no help to keep it clear of my neck and had absolutely no ‘doubling’. In other words, It had always been firm and defined without even a hint of flab.

I was, I thought, justly proud of my superior profile.

For example, I would examine myself in the mirror each morning – not to see if my eyelashes were long or thick enough or if my skin was clear – no, I would turn my head this way and that and smile at the uninterrupted curve of my magnificent mandible.

But pride, as they say, comes before the proverbial fall, and last year everything changed.

Now, it’s no secret that I won’t see fifty, or even fifty one again soon, so I suppose it can only be expected that certain ‘bits’ will start to give up the fight against gravity. It doesn’t worry me too much and on the whole most of me is still in the right place and hasn’t shifted too far down towards my knees. After all, I can still put my bra on in the dark without finding I’ve missed the main appendages.

However, the big blow came when I caught sight of myself in the mirrored walls of a lift one afternoon last spring. I remember it clearly because I was almost traumatised with the shock.

There I was, minding my own business when I caught a glimpse of my right profile, and horror upon horror, there was a fold of skin positively hanging off my chin! It was simply awful! At first, I thought it was a trick of the light, so I shifted a bit closer to the glass to make sure I was wrong. There was a student in the lift with me at the time, so I couldn’t start too probing an examination. I mean what would he have thought of this potty old woman (anyone over thirty is old to them) pinching and pushing at the skin on her neck as if she was trying to shove it back into place.

Nevertheless, I thrust my chin out and raised my head high , and wonder on wonder, it seemed to disappear. Whew! What a relief. It must have been the lighting after all.

But, the reprieve wasn’t to last.

The next shock came when Koos took a photo of me when I wasn’t paying attention and my face had literally ‘slumped’. It seemed that everything was falling off my chin then, not just one fold of skin. To make matters worse, he wanted to publish it on his blog! Well of course, I completely forbade that and made him delete the offending image forthwith. I had my reputation to think of after all – you know hip, cool and trendy – that one?

After this, I started looking up remedial exercises on the internet:

“How to stop sagging chins in five easy steps”; “creams to firm up floppy flab”; “10 minutes a day keeps saggy chins at bay”. I tried them all – I did ‘press ups’ with my jaw every night; shoved my tongue against my teeth twenty times each morning to exercise ‘those no good lazy neck muscles’ and then furiously rubbed cream into my neck four or five times a day. Alas, it was all in vain. The dratted flappy fold of skin kept wobbling at me – sneakily and cheekily when I was least expecting it.

Then, at last, after months of agonising over what to do, I found a solution – not a cure, mind you, just a simple, easy solution. I realised that this was one sign of advancing years I wasn’t going to get rid of without external intervention, and as that is not an option, the only other way to disguise my deteriorating dermis was to smile!

Yes, indeed, I discovered that just a big wide friendly smile fixed to my face had the same effect as a face lift, but with even greater benefits. The fact is, oh friends of the blogosphere, that the old saying is absolutely true, because if you smile at the world, it smiles right back at you and all is good.

So, chin tucks and face lifts be damned, for those of us who are doing our best to halt the ravages of time...a smile a day keeps the surgeon’s knife at bay!!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A little piece of my history

When I first bought the Vereeniging in December 2001, the man who helped Koos and I bring it back to Rotterdam from the east of the country published this article about my barge and its engine on his website, and tonight, I found it again! The old photo at the top is of the Vereeniging when it was first built in 1898, the one next to it is just after our arrival in Rotterdam and you can see the Hoop (of my WW blog) lying next to it. The other photo at the bottom of the page is of us on the way from Grave to Rotterdam. That frozen looking dark haired body on my barge is my good self, and the figure standing in the wheelhouse of the tug boat is Koos. Ahhh nostalgia!

By popular demand,(ok,ok, I got the message ;-))here is a link to a hilarious translation of that page, courtesy of Babel fish translator on I know I can make more sense of it, but this is such a hoot!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Learning Dinglish as a foreign language

One of the challenges of living in Holland is not just having to learn Dutch. On no, that would be too easy. You have to learn another language too, and it’s official. Dinglish is a requirement for anyone coming to live in the Netherlands. It’s taken me a few years to pick it up, as it’s quite difficult and rather confusing. Indeed, much of the time it does sound rather like English, but don’t be fooled – it genuinely is a different language, and the rules, pitfalls and traps are many. However, nearly everyone speaks Dinglish as a standard form of communication in business, and it really is very handy because it replaces the need to learn any other language properly.

The trouble is, though, I’ve become so good at it now that I even speak it on occasions when I should definitely be using standard English. After all, that is what I’m paid to do when I’m teaching….

My first encounter with Dinglish was when a friend approached me and asked with total innocence if I could fill in her backside. I paused, took a deep breath and was about to utter some scathing response when I realised with a flash of insight that she was referring to the reverse side of a form she was clutching in her hands. Relieved that I had escaped a serious breach of courtesy, I burst out laughing.

This was, of course, the wrong thing to do.

My friend looked wounded. What, she wanted to know, was wrong with her question? Nothing, I soothed. It was just that I thought she had been speaking English, and that we don’t talk about the backside in such a context.

Another example of Dinglish that had me rooted to the floor was when a student said proudly to me one day “Oh yes, miss, when it comes to boys, I always get my sin.” My eyebrows lifted only a fraction, I swear, but I couldn’t help the “ Oh …really..!” that popped out before I could stop it. Fortunately, I had the restraint to ask her exactly what she meant before I put my other foot in my mouth too. You can imagine the chuckles when I found out that mijn zin in Dutch means ‘my way’, and that in Dinglish she had just been telling me what a determined lass she was.

Without writing my own text book on the subject, there are so many of these tricky translation problems it would be impossible to list them all, but another of my favourites came up in a conversation with a fellow dog lover. We were talking about training our canine friends one day when she told me earnestly “Yes, Val, you must be very consequently with your dog”. It took me some time to realise that the meaning of this was ‘consistent’ which is consequent in Dutch, but the extra ‘ly’ is Dinglish. Bearing in mind that in Nederlands , there is no separate form to distinguish an adjective from an adverb, ending both in Dinglish with ‘ly’ is a safe bet and solves the problem of having to decide which form to use. Simple, but rather mystifying for the beginner. As a result, you often hear things like “the economically situation” and “a fully automatically machine”, not to mention “he had a highly regard for her”!

But, as with all good stories, the best has to come last, and here I refer to a little book on quotable Dinglish quotes, written by a former Dutch diplomat who has spent his life collecting exceptional Dinglish faux pas. He describes his absolute favourite as the phrase issued from the lips of a newly appointed MP who said in a speech at a glittering dinner for intermational guests: “I am the first minister for the inside and I am having my first period”. The poor woman never did understand why all the guests promptly choked on their drinks and had to be treated for shock. If, on the other hand, she had known that binnen in Dutch can be translated as ‘interior’ and ‘internal’ as well as ‘inside’, and that the English word for periode is in fact ‘term’, then she may have saved herself and her audience quite some distress, not to mention hospital bills.

Needless to say, though, another minister went one better. In response to a particularly generous gesture or gift (I forget which), he boomed: “I thank you all from the bottom of my heart....... and from my wife’s bottom too!”

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Paradoxically speaking

The Netherlands is a country of the most amazing paradoxes and contradictions. Almost every week, I learn something that leaves me shaking my head foolishly in astonishment.

Consider this: Hollanders pride themselves on their tolerance and liberal approach to life, but these are the very qualities that allow pockets of the country to be so strictly religious that even the most rigid conventions are observed in entire villages, not just households.

As an example, I had a student once who came from a village in Zeeland where she was treated as an outcast because she wore jeans and long pants and did her gardening on Sundays. Absolutely true! When I commented on how fantastic such a situation was in so progressive a country, I was told that it is because the Dutch are so tolerant that this intolerance can exist. Get it? I wish I did!

On a similar theme, the country can still be divided along loose religious lines, i.e the north is protestant and the south catholic. Although this is fairly diluted these days, and like most other western countries, religion is not that big an issue, you can nevertheless still see the divide clearly in the culture. The south is home of the carnival and grand festivities. Wine and good spirits flow with typical catholic extravagence. In the north, though, there is little in the way of this type of hair loosening event, and in fact it is still seen as rather 'low' behaviour.

Add to this that some of the major broadcasting networks are run by the dominant religious groups, and you start to wonder how it is that so secular a country whose government is a mystery of concensus and coalition can also be home to such noticeable spiritual boundaries.

And there's another oddity I learnt a week or so ago from Invader Stu: Amsterdam, city of the coffee shops, all night parties, red light district, the gay games and basically an 'anything goes society ' closes its liquor sales at 3 a.m on a weekend night and absolutely nowhere can you buy anything but alcohol free beer after this time.

The list continues: Illegal acts such as smoking weed are not prosecuted or even fined, but walking your dog without a lead is; the police all carry guns, unlike their counterparts in the UK, but as a force, they are considered by most people to be little more effective than rather feeble social workers; voluntary euthanasia and gay marriage were first legalised in the Netherlands, but fail to turn up at a family birthday party and you are in trouble for the rest of the year!

I find it a source of constant amazement and fascination - if only because it is always so unanticipated. "We are tolerant", said a Dutch friend "As long as you don't expect us to be, that's all." And that's a paradox in itself, isn't it?

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The last ones standing - or rather lying

The pictures above and below are of Koos's and my barge just before we moved out of the Oude Haven. We were the last to leave, and it felt very strange to be so alone there. Itwas a moment worth recording too, as it is very unlikely we will ever be in such a position again. The harbour authorities have now embarked on the big reconstruction, so I'll give an update as soon as there's something to see.

And....this is where we are now....

It's a great spot, in fact, and we rather like it here....hmmmm. We might even be reluctant to leave...who knows?

Friday, January 19, 2007

AND SHE’S ONLY JUST FIFTY…..A tribute to the best friend a girl could have. Updated Saturday 20th

I have known Moira for sixteen years. This weekend, she is celebrating her fiftieth birthday in Johannesburg. Okay, she’s not my childhood friend and we were never even fellow students, but we’ve had as much laughter and as many tears together as it is possible for two friends to have. I have been remembering some of those occasions.

When we met back in the bad old days of good old CAMAF, the health insurance company where we both worked. Moira was the supervisor of the Financial department, while I was in Customer Services. I used to pass her office on the way to my desk every day, and at first I thought she was one of ‘them’ – you know, ‘them the Management’. That meant, of course, that she didn’t talk to lowly and insignificant minions like me, and I thought she was oh so terribly posh! In due course, I would step into her office to ask about problems with members, and I slowly discovered that that she was neither lofty or a snob as I had at first thought. Mind you, she had thought that I was rather intimidating much to my horror, so we were both happy to discover we were both mistaken. And it was good.

Our friendship went from strength to strength, and before long, we were sharing the usual confidences about the usual female things, and of course about our bosses, which was always great for forging ever closer ties. Moi will well remember our weekly Squash sessions when we pretended the balls were various members of CAMAF’s management, or indeed anyone we had the miffs with that week.

My first real memory of getting into the thick of things with Moi was at one Christmas party. I seem to recall we went to an Italian restaurant, not that far from the office. It was a good lunch. The wine was even better. In fact it was so good that when the time came to go, we were both too sloshed to walk. But as Moi was feeling seriously sick, it was quite clear that I should be the one to drive. Naturally. Nowadays, it seems shameful to laugh at being so potted; standards and opinions have changed for the better, but every time I think of that day I start chuckling. There we were in Moi’s little ‘shitty’ brown Escort, driving with exaggerated care back up the road. She was keeping an eye on the distance that I was keeping from the kerb; meanwhile I clutched the wheel feverishly and tried to focus on what was up ahead. A difficult task when you can see two of everything. Then suddenly, she screamed at me to stop, which of course, I did, thinking something dire had happened. Moi flung the door open and leaning out, deposited her wonderful lunch copiously in the gutter. That was definitely a sobering experience, I don’t remember too much more about the ride home, but we managed to get there as we both lived to tell the tale over many another Christmas party.

Another special occasion I love to remember came much later, in fact in 2000 after we had both left CAMAF. It was on that memorable pony trekking trip to Lesotho. Moi, Les and I had what was one of the best weekends of my life, made so partly by Moi’s unintentional, but hilarious antics. Now most of us know Moi as the lady. When we used to go shopping together, Moi would go and look at the lovely, soft and elegant fashions, while I went and pored over power tools. It goes without saying then that while Les and I were equipped to deal with the rough and ready conditions of an overnight stay on a Lesotho kraal, Moi wasn’t.

The great Trek
After a six hour ride and a five kilometre hike to a waterfall, we were all exhausted. Neither Moi nor I had ridden ponies in years and Les, bless him, had never been on horseback before. I still cry with laughter when I recall the blue air surrounding Les’s expletives as the horses picked their way down the sheer sides of a particularly rocky gorge, but he was so game. He just kept going. Anyway, we collapsed into a rondavel on our arrival like a bunch of zombies.

Moi and I looking wasted in the Rondavel..yes that is me with the dark hair...;-)

Then the fun began. The village residents had kindly supplied us with the basics. There were mattresses to sleep on, a gas ring to cook on and a single bucket of water for all our needs. Let me stress that. ALL our needs. There was also the famous ‘long drop’ for the toilet, amounting to a shed surrounding a deep hole in the ground with a toilet seat sitting over it.

Now remember Moi is a lady. Moi does not use a long drop to do her deeds. Moi refuses to even have a ladylike pee in a long drop. Coaxing and persuading her does no good at all. She is simply not going to do it. A few hours and a cup of tea later, however, and she was facing a problem. Where exactly was she going to do her deed. Another couple of hours and a good level of desperation further on and she finally conceded that she would have to try. Somewhere, and sadly I don’t have it, there is a photo of Moi hovering over the long drop with an expression of utter disdain on her face. We captured the moment as proof that in fact Moi is more courageous than any of us. She did it. She used that long drop against a whole heap of her better judgments.

Going back to the rondavel, though, we managed to cook, make hot drinks and wash dishes with sparing use of our bucket of water, carefully leaving about half of it for teeth cleaning, face washing and most importantly, coffee and tea in the morning. Later on, just before turning in, Les and I were dutifully cleaning our teeth with mugs filled from the bucket, when suddenly I heard Les positively shriek. “MOIRA, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Turning round I saw Moi frozen in mid action. She had a bar of soap in her hands. But it was too late. She’d already done it. She’d soapily washed her face in our precious bucket of water. The one that was for ALL our needs. The tea and coffee next morning had an extremely interesting flavour.
What a trip, what a friend!

Happy Birthday, my friend. I should have been with you at your party, but as you now know, the forces were against me, and we were cruelly prevented from catching that plane. May you have another fifty wonderful years, Moi and I promise...we will see each other soon xxx.