Thursday, January 29, 2009

Airline Horrors

I was browsing through the latest edition of The Economist magazine's e-letter, Gulliver's Best, a weekly round-up of business and travel news. I've quoted from them before when they showed a picture of a hotel which cleverly disguised the fact that it was right in front of a nuclear power station, and this is another of their famously quirky items which I just had to copy. It's a genuine letter of complaint which was sent to Sir Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin brand, and is being widely circulated as one of the funniest letters of complaint ever written. I'm sure we can all sympathise with this poor travellers complaints, which sadly aren't uncommon at all. Apparently Sir Richard actually phoned this passenger personally to apologise. Good on him. Hope he chucked in a couple of free upgrades as well.

Dear Mr Branson
REF: Mumbai to Heathrow 7th December 2008
I love the Virgin brand, I really do which is why I continue to use it despite a series of unfortunate incidents over the last few years. This latest incident takes the biscuit.
Ironically, by the end of the flight I would have gladly paid over a thousand rupees for a single biscuit following the culinary journey of hell I was subjected to at thehands of your corporation.
Look at this Richard. Just look at it: [see image 1, below].

I imagine the same questions are racing through your brilliant mind as were racing through mine on that fateful day. What is this? Why have I been given it? What have I done to deserve this? And, which one is the starter, which one is the desert?
You don’t get to a position like yours Richard with anything less than a generous sprinkling of observational power so I KNOW you will have spotted the tomato next to the two yellow shafts of sponge on the left. Yes, it’s next to the sponge shaft without the green paste. That’s got to be the clue hasn’t it. No sane person would serve a desert with a tomato would they. Well answer me this Richard, what sort of animal would serve a desert with peas in: [see image 2, below].

I know it looks like a baaji but it’s in custard Richard, custard. It must be the pudding. Well you’ll be fascinated to hear that it wasn't custard. It was a sour gel with a clear oil on top. It’s only redeeming feature was that it managed to be so alien to my palette that it took away the taste of the curry emanating from our miscellaneous central cuboid of beige matter. Perhaps the meal on the left might be the desert after all.
Anyway, this is all irrelevant at the moment. I was raised strictly but neatly by my parents and if they knew I had started desert before the main course, a sponge shaft would be the least of my worries. So lets peel back the tin-foil on the main dish and see what’s on offer.
I’ll try and explain how this felt. Imagine being a twelve year old boy Richard. Now imagine it’s Christmas morning and you’re sat their with your final present to open. It’s a big one, and you know what it is. It’s that Goodmans stereo you picked out the catalogue and wrote to Santa about.
Only you open the present and it’s not in there. It’s your hamster Richard. It’s your hamster in the box and it’s not breathing. That’s how I felt when I peeled back the foil and saw this: [see image 3, below].

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it’s more of that Baaji custard. I admit I thought the same too, but no. It’s mustard Richard. MUSTARD. More mustard than any man could consume in a month. On the left we have a piece of broccoli and some peppers in a brown glue-like oil and on the right the chef had prepared some mashed potato. The potato masher had obviously broken and so it was decided the next best thing would be to pass the potatoes through the digestive tract of a bird.
Once it was regurgitated it was clearly then blended and mixed with a bit of mustard. Everybody likes a bit of mustard Richard.
By now I was actually starting to feel a little hypoglycaemic. I needed a sugar hit. Luckily there was a small cookie provided. It had caught my eye earlier due to it’s baffling presentation: [see image 4, below].
It appears to be in an evidence bag from the scene of a crime. A CRIME AGAINST BLOODY COOKING. Either that or some sort of back-street underground cookie, purchased off a gun-toting maniac high on his own supply of yeast. You certainly wouldn’t want to be caught carrying one of these through customs. Imagine biting into a piece of brass Richard. That would be softer on the teeth than the specimen above.
I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was relax but obviously I had to sit with that mess in front of me for half an hour. I swear the sponge shafts moved at one point.
Once cleared, I decided to relax with a bit of your world-famous onboard entertainment. I switched it on: [see image 5, below]I apologise for the quality of the photo, it’s just it was incredibly hard to capture Boris Johnson’s face through the flickering white lines running up and down the screen. Perhaps it would be better on another channel...Is that Ray Liotta? A question I found myself asking over and over again throughout the gruelling half-hour I attempted to watch the film like this. After that I switched off. I’d had enough. I was the hungriest I’d been in my adult life and I had a splitting headache from squinting at a crackling screen.
My only option was to simply stare at the seat in front and wait for either food, or sleep. Neither came for an incredibly long time. But when it did it surpassed my wildest expectations: [see image 6, below].
Yes! It’s another crime-scene cookie. Only this time you dunk it in the white stuff.
Richard…. What is that white stuff? It looked like it was going to be yoghurt. It finally dawned on me what it was after staring at it. It was a mixture between the Baaji custard and the Mustard sauce. It reminded me of my first week at university. I had overheard that you could make a drink by mixing vodka and refreshers. I lied to my new friends and told them I’d done it loads of times. When I attempted to make the drink in a big bowl it formed a cheese Richard, a cheese. That cheese looked a lot like your baaji-mustard.
So that was that Richard. I didn’t eat a bloody thing. My only question is: How can you live like this? I can’t imagine what dinner round your house is like, it must be like something out of a nature documentary.
As I said at the start I love your brand, I really do. It’s just a shame such a simple thing could bring it crashing to it’s knees and begging for sustenance.
Yours Sincererly

(Paul Charles, Virgin’s Director of Corporate Communications, confirmed that Sir Richard Branson had telephoned the author of the letter and had thanked him for his “constructive if tongue-in-cheek” email. Mr Charles said that Virgin was sorry the passenger had not liked the in-flight meals which he said was “award-winning food which is very popular on our Indian routes.”)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Bring Out Your Dead...

The Netherlands is in the grip of an epidemic. According to official sources, influenza is wreaking havoc accross the nation, emptying schools, decimating workplaces, and confining thousands of people to their sniffling beds. Mind you, before we start painting white crosses on the front door of anyone with a dripping nose it pays to keep in mind that an epidemic is apprently in place when more than 100 or so people per 100,000 have an illness. Thus, it's hardly time to throw ourselves onto burning pyres yet. For a nation that considers it perfectly normal for a dozen people to die ice skating when the winter gets cold enough to freeze lakes and canals, influenza is a walk in the park.
Mind you, it is a right pain in the arse when a whole country seems to be sick. Carl of course is quite ill, born as he was with eustacean tubes the perfect shape for incubating infections and an immune-challenged upper respiratory system that is determined to crash as soon as the temperatures dips below, oh I don't know, about 24 degrees celcius. Considering that the difference in temperature between Singapore and Lochem was more than 40 degrees for a considerable period of time, it's hardly surprising he's sick now.
The coughing is what really troubles him, keeping him...and me...awake at least half the night. And when he finally falls asleep from exhaustion fever sets in and he's glowing like a freshly baked potato by the time he wakes up, usually around 3 am.
There is only so much cough medicine you can administer. Did you know that the most common cause for pediactric hospital admissions is overdose of cough medicine? That little statistic is often uppermost in my mind during winter. I can understand how it would happen, when the poor little buggers are coughing like their lungs are going to flop out of their chests and they are literally vomiting from the effort, you'll do almost anything. I've even resorted to giving him that classic Old Wives Tale remedy; sugar water. Normally I wouldn't even dream of pouring what is basically pure sugar down the throats of one of my super-active boys (picture a squirrel on speed, then throw a few fireworks at it to get an idea of the effect) but after 3 days of Carl hacking, coughing, puking, and almost turning purple trying to breathe I would have bought up all the blue Smarties in town then washed them down his throat with Coca Cola if I thought it would help. To be honest, I'm not sure it does, but I'm persisting anyway. Sleep deprivation is sending me insane and now that hubby has left to go on board again, there's only one captain on this little ship and she's ready to hit the bottle.
As I was preparing another cup early this morning a little voice provided a running commentary. "And this is how we make sugar water...take the kids cup out of the dishwasher...get a teaspoon out of the drawer...pick up the sugar...put 2 spoons in the cup............." at this point my frayed temper and fading grasp on reality had me gripping the spoon in a death grip. Turning slowly, I faced Carl who was perched on a stool just behind me, watching every move and practising his sport commentators voice. As our eyes met I could see his were filled with laughter, despite the dawning realisation that perhaps his Ventolin-fuelled euphoria may have caused him to push Mummy just a little too far at this ungodly hour of the morning, topped off by a gleefull self confidence that he was just too adorable to resist. For a moment there was a pause as we each considered how this was going to play out. Then without taking his eyes off mine he continued "then Mummy adds the hot water and stirs......" We both cracked up laughing, which of course made him cough again, but at least there was a cup of warm sugar water on hand and we could pretend that would help.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dutch Flowers: Blooming Marvellous!

One of the really nice things about living in the Netherlands is the abundance of cheap, high quality cut flowers you can buy. Since we've returned from Singapore I've kept the house filled with fresh flowers, welcome splashes of natural colour to counteract the austere shades of winter outside.
Dutch flowers are amazing. The variety of blooms is staggering, and every supermarket sells a selection of mixed or single variety bunches for prices that seem absurdly low after living in the tropics. If you visit the weekly market it's possible to get your flowers even cheaper, and ditto if I buy them from the friendly greengrocer who parks his truck in our street every Friday morning to flog his fresh produce. Who could resist bunches of gorgeous pink and green roses for just three euros a dozen? They would cost five times as much in Singapore, if you could even find them.

Great heavy heads of hyacinth which exude enough heady perfume to scent the entire lounge are the same price, and even the fancy bouquets rarely top 5-6 euros. In Singapore we would have paid at least 30 euros for a dozen roses, and then they would only last a couple of days in the humidity.

Flowers I don't even recognise, cut the day before from the greenhouses which fill the west of the country and then whisked to the auctions that morning tempt me with their exotic looks, yet even then I'd be hard pressed to pay more than 5 euros a bunch. This is definitely one of the perks of living here.

Monday, January 19, 2009

By Special Request...

...a blog posting with no kids in it! The temperature has now risen above nil and the snow and ice has melted, leaving us to contend with a biting easterly wind which is blowing in straight from the frigid steppes of Russia, by the feel of it. Still it would be a shame not to share some more pics of the beautiful effects the Big Freeze created.

Rocco and Ashley were less than amused with the snow situation. While they will quite happily sit in the rain with only the occasional flick of their ears hinting that they do afterall realise they are getting wet, neither of them liked to hop through the show.
In sympathy I dragged out a large square of carpet for them to rest their fluffy butts on, reasoning that any sane creature would enjoy the luxury of sitting on dry woolly pile rather than cold, wet snow. Which simply goes to prove than one should never attempt to hazard a guess at what is going on inside a rabbits head. My offering was greeted initially with paranoid suspicion before being disdainfully sniffed, nibbled, and finally shat upon before the rabbits retruned to their grumpy vigil in the snow. With their ample butts pointed towards the house, the message was clear: We Are Not Amused.

There is simply no pleasing some bunnies.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

It's Been A While...

...but yes we're still alive and fully functioning! Despite the cold. And the ice. And the snow.

OK, ok, you've all seen the weather forecast and know that the Big Freeze is over now, and we are - for the time being at least - living through milder weather. The temp drops below freezing at night but rises to about 3-4 Celsius during the day, which seems almost tropical in comparison to a week ago. Unless of course you have just moved from the tropics. And unless a FORTY DEGREE temperature difference doesn't bother you. Hmmm, who could I be referring to???

Anyway, I am so over complaining. check out these pics. Directly behind our house is a 'natuur ijs baan' (natural ice rink), which is basically a flat open area which is flooded with water when the temperature drops below freezing for long enough to make it worthwhile. There are two skating areas; one is for sleds, beginner skaters, and amateurs such as your truely. The ice is rough and lumpy and no-one is skating at any speed on it. The second rink, a large oval, is highly polished and reserved for SERIOUS SKATERS. There are a surprising number of these in the Netherlands, and God forbid you wander into their path. There is a kind of winter apartheid which exists, fully accepted in Dutch society, and it ensures that rank amateurs such as myself don't dare to venture onto real skating ice. Fair enough too, it's so bloody slippery that you'll fall over and break an arm within 30 seconds of venturing onto the rink.
Despite the intense cold which makes your feet ache so badly that stories of climbers lost on Mount Cook suddenly spring to mind and your toes feel like they've turned black within an hour, it is so much fun to play on the ice. The neighbours are swooshing down the canals to work, the kids are going to school on sleds pulled by parents and all are wrapped in dozens of layers of clothes...The sun shone for much of the time the weather was seriously cold and so it was absolutely beautiful. Global warming??? Show me the money honey.
The worst part of this weather (apart from the extreme dryness of the air which makes your skin, hair and nails simply dissolve and flake off) is that it take at least 10-15 minutes to get the kids and myself ready to leave the house. I mean, even inside you're wearing trousers, long sleeved shirts and socks, but you have to add over trousers, boots/shoes, scarves, hat, gloves, and jackets. Add up the individual bits then multiply them by the actual number of individual items, and you get some idea of how long it takes to get out the door. Of course one glove is always missing, one shoe is always AWOL, where is that damn hat anyway???

Monday, January 05, 2009

...And Yet Colder Still

Just when we thought it couldn't get any colder: tonight the temperature will drop to minus 17C!!! For years Holger has accused me of exaggerating how cold winter gets in the Netherlands, refuting my claims of the coldest day of my life being in Vorden, 1996, when the mercury plunged to -18C, with a wind chill factor of a further 10 degrees. Now today, finally, vengeance is mine. Fresh from his tropical cruise bringing the Aoka Mizu from Singapore to the Suez Canal, totally un-acclimatised and still sporting a tropical tan, Mr "it never gets that cold" is having to eat his words. With a hearty sprinkling of frost on top.

We threw open the curtains this morning to find that snow had fallen silently during the night, blanketing everything in a thick crisp layer of white. The kids of course were ecstatic, and because today was also the first day of school for them, they figured this was simply an extra special treat we'd arranged to make the occasion even more festive. Oh, the power we have when our kids are still young enough to believe their parents are all omnipotent and powerful, that we can do anything, even control the weather! It was still dark as we walked to school, throwing snowballs and scrunching through the pristine snow. By the time we got their all our faces were glowing pink from the chill but it was the most fun any of us have had going to school.

Then once school was finished, we headed into town to do some jobs, the kids perched on the sled. Holger was the designated workhorse, although he didn't seem to mind and the kids managed to resist the urge to whack the back of his neck with a snowball at every second step.

I'll let you know how we survive the Big Freeze.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Cold, Colder, Coldest!

Oh my God, could it get any colder??? It dropped to minus 12 degrees celsius the other day....can you even imagine what that feels like?

Meanwhile we are (slowly) adjusting. Shorter daylight hours, low temperatures, and no Daddy - until today! Hallelujah, Holger came home this morning. Full of stories about the Gulf of Aden (the pirate gulf) where they fortified themselves by emptying the ballast tanks to achieve an exceptionally high water line and stringing razor wire around the hull...

Anyway, just to let you know I will begin posting more regularly soon - I promise!