Sunday, January 24, 2010

On Yer Bike

Every country has it's quirks and things that make you say "oh, that is so typical", and anyone who has been to Holland will know that bicycles are quintessentially Dutch. Not only is it almost competely flat here, but the locals are, as they say "born with a bike between their legs" and it's not uncommon for kids to start cycling as young as 3 or 4 years old. Bikes have right of way on the roads, there are dedicate bike lanes absolutely everywhere, and they even have their own mini traffic lights. There is no law requiring anyone to wear a helmet, but laws regarding having working lights and reflectors are quite strictly enforced by the police.
Singapore, for all its charms, is NOT a great place for cyclists. The traffic is too busy and there are no bike lanes, so our kids had a bit of a late start, with Carl only coming to grips with the whole idea once we'd moved back here.

Cycling is a great way to get around. Not only is it healthy - I credit it with the very noticeable lack of obesity and osteoporosis among the Dutch - it's also good for the environment compared to using your car and much more convenient in town. You don't need to worry about parking, you can stop right outside the shop you need to go to, and any purchases go straight into the saddle bags. And the bikes are so comfortable! None of your butt-spltting 10 speeds or neck twisting mountain bikes. I have a padded gel saddle soft enough to sleep on and the bikes are constructed so you sit upright in comfort. Accessories include child seats, trailers for kids, dogs or even bunnies (Liesbeth!), briefcase racks, double standards for stability, sprung 'arms' for attaching a dog leash, name it, the Dutch will have it for their bikes. Bikes with wooden carts on the front, bikes with motors for old people, bikes with 3 wheels for those who are unsteady on the feet...
Good bikes however don't come cheap. Way back when I bought my bike (the first new bike I'd owned in my life) in 1997, I paid 1,000 guildens for it. It's a sign of how old I am that the currency doesn't even exist now, but it's about 500 euros. And I bought INSURANCE for it, another quirky Dutch thing. Also, it's common to get your bike serviced, just like a car! It makes sense when you use it so often but for me arriving from NZ that was a concept I had to get my head around. Today you can easily spend 1,000 euros on a bike. The red one below, from De Fietsfabriek in Amsterdam, will set you back 1,295 euros. That's about NZ$2,600, enough to buy a small car! Of course there is a roaring trade in second hand bikes, but even so, Carl's 2nd hand bike cost 150 euros. And we don't even live in the Western part of the country in a big city where things are expensive. Ouch.

I have seen Cloggies carrying the most amazing things on their bikes, happily cycling with one hand while in the other clutching umbrellas, large boxes, paintings, even a LADDER! If one of our bikes needs to go into the shop for repairs, hubby cycles along holding onto the other one with his right hand (I call it taking a bike for a walk) and heads off into town with two bikes! I tried it once and nearly broke my neck so that's definitley his job.
There are few things that will keep a Cloggie of his or her bike, but the recent cold weather was an exception. As my friend Jeanette said, "you know it's REALLY icy when you see a Dutchman pushing his bike". As the snow became compacted and turned to ice the conditions were treacherous, particularly on cobbled streets like those here in Lochem. They may be cute, and some spots no doubt date well back into the towns 1,000 year history, but icy cobbles will break your leg or twist your ankle in a moment.
Fortunately hubby had the brilliant foresight to fit winter tyres on the car this year, big fat beasties that miraculously soften as the temperature drops to grip the icy roads better, with a profile so deep you could lose a shoe in it. I keep hoping I'll get rid of the neighbours yappy dogs with them, that we'll be removing the winter tyres and say, "hey, what's that stuck in the profile? Oh, it's that pomeranian we used to hear barking all day. Ah well..."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Oh, Well That's Ok Then...

What a busy, busy week. Sometimes life seems to speed up to the point where you're just hanging on by your fingernails, then slows down so quickly you're left broken and bent in a pile of rubble trying to get back to normal.
Last week I had a business trip to Paris to interview the CEO of a company for my magazine, Focus on Nuclear Power Generation. And while business travel is usually far from glamourous, there is a lot to be said for popping off to Paris for a day or so. Even the journey there is an experience, ensconsed in the plush seats of the Thalys (ta-lease) hi-speed train. We whizzed from Rotterdam to Paris in about two and a half hours; in fact on the return trip we were scheduled to arrive at 18:01 and we arrived at......18:01! How's that for punctuality? The trip from Rotterdam to Zutphen actually took longer. Paris was lovely as always although I was there and back in 24 hours, having dined at two excellent restaurants on the Rue de St Honore; the Coup d'etat for dinner (lovely canard confit), and the apparently famous Le Petit Machon for lunch the next day where I dined with the marketing manager for the company I was visiting on brioche stuffed with a pork sausage studded with pistachio nuts. Heavenly!
Back in Holland on Wednesday, hubby was shipping out to Singapore on Thursday (lucky bugger) for which I helpfully provided a very long and detailed shopping list. The boys also had a list which necessitated him making a quick trip to Sentosa Island to visit the gift shop located inside Fort Siloso (they have very specific wishes - Niels even knew which SHELF Daddy had to look on for just the right plane!), then he was onto an FPSO and off to China. Saturday saw the beginning of Carl's overnight scout camp, the Kids & Science Spectacular.

It was a lot of fun, with the kids being kept busy with science experiments for two days. They were well fuelled on bizarrely coloured food like blue pancakes (see above) and bright green spaghetti sauce (which unfortunatley looked like cow shit), which no doubt contributed to the two hours of hyperactive pillow fights and matress-diving before they finally passed out. Ah, what a week of culinary contrasts this has been! The 12 or so parents also got to sleep on the floor in the Scout Hut, and while it was very roomy and well heated I'm such a light sleeper that this is a situtation in which there is zero chance of me ever falling asleep. So I got to watch the hours tick by until finally 6:30 rolled around, the kid started stirring and I figured I could go and have a shower to freshen up. Needless to say we were all pretty tired.
On Monday night Carl must have sneaked into my bed in the middle of the night and then passed out into a deep, deep sleep. I was woken by him stirring next to me and opened my eyes blurrily to see him looking at me.
With less than the optimal measure of grace I snarled: "What are you doing in my bed?"
He looked a bit shame-faced and replied: "I peed in the night"
Feeing a bit sorry for him - this hasn't happened in a very long time - I said: "Well I hope you put on a clean pyjama before you climbed in here."
At which point he brightened up considerably and announced: "Oh that's ok, it was your bed that I peed in!"

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

It's For The Birds

Snow is pretty but spare a thought for the animals out there who have to live in it. I always worry about how the wild rabbits, birds and other animals get on when the ground is frozen and there doesn't seem to be any food around. I guess it's natures way of weeding out the weak ones but it seems very harsh. Fortunately the birds, at least, get a helping hand. Most people here have bird feeders in their gardens, and we are no exception.
Yesterday I bought some special food for birds such as robins and wrens who normally eat insects and who don't seem to be able to eat the fat-balls and seeds which most shops sell. The result was almost instantaneous; black birds joined in the feeding frenzy and it was amazing how many different birds visited the garden in the half hour I was watching.
In addition to the wrens, blue tits, sparrows, robins and others I can't name, I was surprised to see a black and white woodpecker briefly sit in the magnolia tree. He was soon gone in a flash of scarlet from the bright feathers under his tail, but about 10 minutes later I spotted his larger green cousin in the neighbours garden. Green woodpeckers are not very common so it was a treat to be able to watch one for so long. It's hard to see him clearly in the photo - I've circle him in red -and I didn't dare get any closer in case I disturbed him, but he's there if you look closely.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year blogosphere! I know it's a bit late, but I figure that since we're all just getting around to starting work again you probably haven't bothered checking this site for a while anyway. Now that the silly season is behind us it's time to sit back, ease that belt open by a further notch (you know you ate too much too!) and reflect.
This was an unusual Christmas for us. My mother-in-laws partner was knocked of his bicycle by another cyclist and ended up with a fairly serious head injury. Fortunately he's recovering well but it was a shock for everyone. We were buried in snow again...and again...and again...and in fact I've just finished shovelling the latest 15cm fall from the paths outside. We've never had so much of the white stuff!
Hubby was scheduled to come home on December 4th, but of course there was some cock up which meant he couldn't get off the vessel until the 27th by which time all the excitement had calmed down. And through it all I had a stinking cold and just couldn't seem to get enough sleep. At one stage I drove my mother in law to the retirement complex where her partner lives to collect his mail. It's a nice place, with about ten large apartments and the average age of the tenants must be close to 80. I was waiting for her downstairs when I started coughing and couldn't stop. In the end she got me a cup of water from a lovely old lady who lives there and they were all hovering around looking concerned - I was the youngest one there by about 40 years but they seemed to be in better shape than me! The next day I went to the Doctor and discovered I had pneumonia - which explained a lot. A dose of antibiotics seemed to clear it up but it was back a week later, so I'm still popping pills to make sure it's well and truly gone.

This is starting to turn into a bit of a whine so let's move on to the good stuff. The boys and I went and picked out a tree at a local farm, luckily before the first snow fall (little known Dutch tradition; dragging in 10 kg of snow on your tree then watching it melt all over the carpet for the rest of the day).
Christmas morning meant the boys could finally open their presents and at last I - oops I mean they - could play with their spectacularly cool new Star Wars toys. I'd seen the Millenium Falcon on a website months ago. When it arrived the box was HUGE so we had to hide it in the garage all this time. Carl's AT-TE (from the Clone Wars movie for all you fans out there) was only slightly smaller so it's a relief to have some wardrobe space again. Needless to say they boys love these toys- that look on Niels face translates to "hurry up and take your stupid photo so I can play with this NOW".
Despite the snow, family upsets and ongoing pneumonia Christmas was, as always, a lovely time spent focusing on family and friends. Once hubby got home we also did some cool stuff with the kids...but more about that next time.