Monday, April 27, 2015

The state of being exotic... to a degree

Here in the Netherlands, I'm often told I'm "so English."

"Hmm," I reply. "Is that not good?"

"It's nice, it's just that it's so you," is the usual answer. Okay.

But I start to doubt (as you do). How is it something supposedly good can sound…well… you know…a bit dubious?

Then I start to wonder. What if I were something more exotic, like, say... Italian, French or another latin flavour like Spanish or Portuguese? Would it be more appealing?

I'm 25% French, I am…what if that were more like 75%…or 100%? And if I spoke with an alluring accent? Would being "so French" sound more of a compliment maybe?

Have any of you ever wanted to be something more exotic? If so, what would you like to have been?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Memories and musings

Do you remember things that went on around you in your childhood? I was musing about such things the other day, realising how much life has changed in the past fifty years. We are so automated now, we've almost forgotten how to do things manually.

The prompt for these mental meanderings was an old ship's washing machine, a tobbe that one of my neighbours in the harbour gave me a few years back. I've never had time to restore it, although I've long wanted to. Koos, however, decided he'd waited long enough for me to do something and took the task on himself. The tobbe was something he remembered from his childhood on board his father's commercial barge. This kind of 'machine' was what his mother used to do their washing. She used outboard water and he recalls 'helping', although whether mum saw it that way might be something else. Theirs was a slightly different model from this one, but the principle was the same. As you can see, it really is a lovely old thing.

Old tobbe washing machine with mechanical

Inside the tobbe, or tub, is a four bladed paddle that fits on a central pipe, through which the rod of the driver passes. Using either a small motor, or even a bicycle to operate the pulley wheel on the driver the rod turns, and the paddle is activated in a to and fro action inside the tub. The laundry is thus agitated (physically, not mentally of course). I can just imagine being a child and wanting to help with this too!

Koos has made a fabulous job of restoring it, as it was all in pieces and in a sorry state before he started. I just wish I'd done it as I love restoring old things.

Here's a photo of his father's barge. You can see the tobbe just next to the wheelhouse.

What I do remember is helping my own mother wring the wet washing out with one of these:

Clothes wringer (courtesy of ebay)
I enjoyed doing this and watching the water pouring out of the wet laundry. We're now looking for one here that can go with our tobbe. I'm not sure where we'll put them as the Vereeniging is far too small to house such a bulky system, but at least we'll be equipped if all power goes phoom!

Another thing I remember loving as a child was watching the piano tuner. My mother had a beautiful grand piano given to her as a 21st birthday present and it had pride of place in our lounge. The piano tuner used to come about three times a year, and I used to stand and watch him adjusting all the pegs and strings with his tuning tools. Being an intensely shy child, I never asked him what he was doing, but it was a very restful activity to watch. 

I also liked being cook's assistant. My favourite jobs were whipping cream (watching it thicken always fascinated me), making custard and sauces, and doing scrambled eggs. I think I just liked the transformation process from liquids to almost solid forms - strange child that I was! Later, when I lived on the farm in South Africa, I loved making butter, which is a similar process. So clearly, the fascination continued. These days, well, let's say the kitchen is not my favourite place...

Do you remember any special activities as a child? What did you enjoy doing most?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Faith restored….

And no, I'm not talking religion here, but bear with me for a bit of a yarn before I get to the point (what's new, yes?).

Okay, so last Thursday I took the bus to work - not an unusual occurrence, I should say, but something I haven't done for a few weeks. That being the case, I took the opportunity to do some reading while the bus negotiated the inevitable traffic jam on the bridge into town. As often happens when I read, though, I was so absorbed in my book, I nearly missed my stop, and had to rush to get out in time. It was only when I got to the university entrance that I realised I'd left my handbag on the bus. Yes, I did.

A traumatic emotional eruption of some magnitude ensued. At least 9 on my personal Richter scale. This was my nightmare scenario coming true.

I don't think I've mentioned it before, but for some years I've had a recurring dream about leaving my bag in a classroom in a building with a maze of corridors and rooms. You know the type. Anxiety in extremis. In my dream, I can never find the room where I have been teaching and I usually wake in total and utter panic. The realisation it's just a dream sometimes takes time to sink in, but the relief is immense.

My real life version was, however, even worse, as the bus had gone on its way and I was convinced I'd never see my bag again. This was no dream and I wasn't going to wake up.

I've had a few experiences like this before since I've been here in Europe: twice my bag was stolen; once my purse was snatched; and another time I dropped my phone on the train without noticing. On none of these occasions have I been lucky enough to get my things back. What it meant each time was an exhausting, frustrating and expensive process of replacing passport, cards, driving licence, car papers and keys, not to mention one cancelled trip to South Africa.

So here I was again, this time wide awake and sweating with the knowledge of what I'd lost: passport, car papers, driving licence, keys….sound familiar?

I was doing some individual coaching that morning, so when I arrived in my student's office, I threw myself on her mercy. First things first, I took over her phone and cancelled all my bank cards - a reflex action I am now horribly used to. Then I looked up the bus company and called them to report the loss in the faint hope someone might hand it in. A very nice woman took the details and said she would let me know.

My next task was to look up how to replace my passport if I didn't get it back. The British Consulate in Amsterdam no longer does them, so I knew I'd have to apply to the UK. My heart plummeted even further when I saw the plain, stark truth. It would take "at least" eight weeks to replace, they said. Splosh, gurgle, sink went all my plans for travelling in the coming months. European countries might have no borders, but to get any kind of ticket to anywhere interesting, you have to have a passport.

But then my guardian angel came to the rescue. My 'student', who is in fact an events organiser at the university, is a real life angel, not to mention a wizard when it comes to charm offences. She patted me on the back, winked, picked up the phone and performed what can only be viewed as a miracle. Calling the bus company again, she persuaded (or rather cajoled and coerced) another very charming girl to contact the driver of the bus I was on. I don't know exactly how or what happened (it was all done in rapid fire Dutch which I was too dumbstruck to understand), but it seemed he'd found my bag and the bus company girl told my angel that if I stood at the same bus stop at precisely 11:42, he (the driver) would hand it back to me. I could hardly believe my ears. Was this really true?

Sure enough, half an hour later, I was waiting at the stop when I saw the bus approaching with 'my' driver waving and smiling at me though the windscreen. The doors opened, I jumped on board and he gave me back my most important worldly possessions - intact, complete and with absolutely nothing missing.

I was so incredibly relieved, I kissed him. He was so incredibly surprised, he blushed beetroot and promptly drove off with a big grin. Luckily I'd managed to hop off the bus again before he screeched away or that might have been another calamatous story.

But, with this kind act I have to say my faith in humanity was restored. Isn't it just a wonderful story? In a large, notoriously brash metropolis like Rotterdam, this personal service really made my day, week, month and year so far.

So now of course I'm very curious as to whether I will continue to dream the dream. I'd love to believe it's over, but knowing me and my penchant for inventing things to be anxious about, I'm not sure…. What do you think?

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Window Shopping

This last weekend, we made a brief excursion into northern France, a region I love. Unlike most people, I have no real desire to make for the south despite the very clear attraction of sunnier climes. I have discovered that on a miserable day, everywhere looks drab - even the beautiful cities of the south west - but when the sun shines as it did for me, the north is lovely too. And it's still France with all those cultural attributes that I find so appealing about the country of my grandfather's birth: the colourful exuberance of the French language; the enticing smells of early morning bakeries; the long, relaxed lunch breaks; and the way whole families go out together even quite late in the evenings.

Our overnight stop was in Maubeuge, a town many might avoid as its architecture is predominantly fifties to seventies. I, however, like it immensely as here it has many features that are almost Art Nouveau, and having learnt to appreciate this era from my architect father, I am intrigued by the quirky disregard for standard proportions and perspective.

Banking by design

Lauding the Lord in concrete and glass
This aside, I was fascinated by the High Street shops. As quirky as the town itself, I spent some time peering into shop windows and wondering how such businesses keep afloat with their somewhat unusual stock. First up was a shop that seemed to trade in shoe repairs, keys and second hand buckles. The first two I could understand, but the buckles were something else. Everything in the window seemed a little old, in fact, but inviting all the same. Had it not been Easter, I would certainly have gone inside to have a sort through their shelves.

Buckling up in Maubeuge
Then there was the furniture shop with rather classical and ornate chairs at odds with the post war architecture. And the dress shop where the clothes on display did not seem suited to the trends favoured by the local populace.

Classical satin stripes

Modish Maubeuge

But the best shop window of all was the local patisserie, whose bakery was busy even on Easter Sunday morning.  I stood with my nose pressed to the window watching the (tasty) young baker mix dough and form rolls ready for the morning rush to buy petit dejeuner. The smell was divine and it all looked so wholesome. And so French.

The bakery at the patisserie in full swing
 on Easter Sunday

I am an unashamed Francophile, so this was food for my soul, but for all that, I did not miss out on a few of Maubeuge's more obviously charming nooks and crannies. The town is not most people's choice of a place to visit, but I'll leave you with this lovely arrangement of steps, walls and rooftops and the obligatory lock on the river Sambre. 

An appealing hidden stairway

The Sambre as it cuts through the town