April - June 2015
  • Day48

    Bilk at a glance

    June 2, 2015 in Germany ⋅ ⛅ 20 °C

    My apartment -- as seen in the first picture -- is pink. Not only that, but it is next to a nail salon and directly opposite a bakery called 'Kamps'. Make of that what you will.

    Bilk is the name of the neighbourhood itself, and its about five to ten minutes south of the 'stadtzentrum' by train. The buildings here are all five, six or seven residential apartments. And they tend to be either Baroque in style, or plainly rendered yet painted in the same Baroque pastelly colours - blue, pinks, greens. It's all very agreeable.

    The nearby park, about a five minute walk from my apartment, is full of red squirrels and some odd looking ducks.

    The neighbourhood has a Berlin-esque feel about it, which certainly isn't true of the other parts of Düsseldorf that I've seen so far. The buildings, the trams, the S-Bahn could all be straight out of Prenzlauer Berg. But also the street life seems to have something 'Berlin' about it. People just seem to be out and about for no particular reason. The cars seem to be parked irregularly and a bit haphazardly. Things down on the street are ever so slightly disheveled, which is in direct contradiction to backdrop of the Baroque style apartments. I think that is what gives it its charm, for charm it certainly has.
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  • Day47

    Great Expectations

    June 1, 2015 in Germany ⋅ ⛅ 13 °C

    The holiday is over! Today was my first day at work, and I've been thrown in at the deep end. I was supposed to have a nice, slow induction, but the facts on the ground at the company mean I have to get involved straight away. There will be no easing me in. I've been tasked with redesigning the end of a shaft, changing the existing sealing method to one better suited for a product in the food industry (it has to be IP66 - in other words, completely protected from any ingress). This is easily doable and I relish the challenge. I wanted to hit the ground running, and now I've no choice but to. Early next week I have to travel to a company in Nuremberg, and a few days later I'm back in Holland. But not, this time, to visit lovely little towns, but to meet a man who has been doing all the FEA work for my company on a sub-contract basis. Basically, I will be taking over from him.

    It's 11pm and I'm drinking a Yorkshire tea. Normally I wouldn't touch tea or any other caffeinated beverage after about 5pm. But it won't make the slightest bit of difference tonight. I couldn't drink five double Espressos if I wanted, and I'd still be out cold as soon as my head hits the pillow.

    The apartment is nice, as is the neighbourhood Bilk. I shall write about it tomorrow, for now is time for some sleep.
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  • Day46

    Mönchengladbach

    May 31, 2015 in Germany ⋅ 🌧 16 °C

    At 8am this morning, grey clouds hung low over Rotterdam. Now, at 10pm in
    Mönchengladbach, it is dark and wet. Over the course of the day I've been in Delft, 's-Hertogenbosch and now Mönchengladbach. Yet no matter where I was, it was either grey, drizzly or torrential. Luckily, I experienced the worst of the rain whilst driving, but what has happened to the sun that was shinning so bright just yesterday? I'm beginning to think it was just a fluke, and that from now on I will experience nothing but bad weather. Why? Because I've long suspected that, just like Rob McKenna, I'm a Rain God:

    "Rob McKenna was a miserable bastard and he knew it because he'd had a lot of people point it out to him over the years and he saw no reason to disagree with them except the obvious one which was that he liked disagreeing with people, particularly people he disliked, which included, at the last count, everybody.

    He heaved a sigh and shoved down a gear.

    The hill was beginning to steepen and his lorry was heavy with Danish thermostatic radiator controls.

    It wasn't that he was naturally predisposed to be so surly, at least he hoped not. It was just the rain that got him down, always the rain.

    It was raining now, just for a change.

    It was a particular type of rain that he particularly disliked, particularly when he was driving. He had a number for it. It was rain type 17.

    He had read somewhere that the Eskimos had over two hundred different words for snow, without which their conversation would probably have got very monotonous. So they would distinguish between thin snow and thick snow, light snow and heavy snow, sludgy snow, brittle snow, snow that came in flurries, snow that came in drifts, snow that came in on the bottom of your neighbor's boots all over your nice clean igloo floor, the snows of winter, the snows of spring, the snows you remember from your childhood that were so much better than any of your modern snow, fine snow, feathery snow, hill snow, valley snow, snow that falls in the morning, snow that falls at night, snow that falls all of a sudden just when you were going out fishing, and snow that despite all your efforts to train them, the huskies have pissed on.

    Rob McKenna had two hundred and thirty-one different types of rain entered in his little book, and he didn't like any of them.

    He shifted down another gear and the lorry heaved its revs up. It grumbled in a comfortable sort of way about all the Danish thermostatic radiator controls it was carrying.

    Since he had left Denmark the previous afternoon, he had been through types 33 (light pricking drizzle which made the roads slippery), 39 (heavy spotting), 47 to 51 (vertical light drizzle through to sharply slanting light to moderate drizzle freshening), 87 and 88 (two finely distinguished varieties of vertical torrential downpour), 100 (postdownpour squalling, cold), all the sea-storm types between 192 and 213 at once, 123, 124, 126, 127 (mild and intermediate cold gusting, regular and syncopated cab-drumming), 11 (breezy droplets), and now his least favorite of all, 17.

    Rain type 17 was a dirty blatter battering against his windshield so hard that it didn't make much odds whether he had his wipers on or off.

    He tested this theory by turning them off briefly, but as it turned out the visibility did get quite a lot worse. It just failed to get better again when he turned them back on.

    In fact one of the wiper blades began to flap off.

    Swish swish swish flop swish swish flop swish swish flop swish flop swish flop flop flap scrape.

    He pounded his steering wheel, kicked the floor, thumped his cassette player until it suddenly started playing Barry Manilow, thumped it until it stopped again, and swore and swore and swore and swore and swore.

    It was at the very moment that his fury was peaking that there loomed swimmingly in his headlights, hardly visible through the blatter, a figure by the roadside.

    A poor bedraggled figure, strangely attired, wetter than an otter in a washing machine, and hitching.

    "Poor miserable sod," thought Rob McKenna to himself, realizing that here was somebody with a better right to feel hard done by than himself, "must be chilled to the bone. Stupid to be out hitching on a filthy night like this. All you get is cold, wet, and lorries driving through puddles at you."

    He shook his head grimly, heaved another sigh, gave the wheel a turn, and hit a large sheet of water square on.

    "See what I mean?" he thought to himself as he plowed swiftly through it; "you get some right bastards on the road."

    Splattered in his rearview mirror a couple of seconds later was the reflection of the hitchhiker, drenched by the roadside.

    For a moment he felt good about this. A moment or two later he felt bad about feeling good about it. Then he felt good about feeling bad about feeling good about it and, satisfied, drove on into the night.

    At least it made up for finally having been overtaken by that Porsche he had been diligently blocking for the last twenty miles.

    And as he drove on, the rain clouds dragged down the sky after him for, though he did not know it, Rob McKenna was a Rain God. All he knew was that his working days were miserable and he had a succession of lousy holidays. All the clouds knew was that they loved him and wanted to be near him, to cherish him and to water him."
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  • Day46

    's-Hertogenbosch

    May 31, 2015 in the Netherlands ⋅ 🌧 14 °C

    's-Hertogenbosch is precisely halfway between Rotterdam and Mönchengladbach, so why wouldn't I make a put stop there and break a two hour trip in to two one hour journeys? Well I did, and I'm glad of it too. 's-Hertogenbosch is a brilliant little city. It has a huge central square and an amazing Gothic cathedral. Although it has fewer canals than some of the other Dutch towns and cities I've visited over the weekend, the canals it does have are larger and more substantial. Indeed, substantial is the word: the city is essentially a fortress. Joe and I were discussing how strange it is that there are these weird, star shaped islands all over Europe. They are fortresses essentially.Read more

  • Day46

    Delft

    May 31, 2015 in the Netherlands ⋅ 🌧 13 °C

    Delft is historic due to its connection to the House of Orange. Given that I was in Rotterdam and but a few miles away, I simply had to visit. I set off for Delft at half 8, hungry and in search of some breakfast.

    It took me all of 15 minutes to reach Delft. Strange, I thought, how you can go from a bustling metropolis like Rotterdam, drive for 15 minutes through green farmland, and end up in the perfectly whimsical town like Delft. Distances in the Netherlands are different. For it to work, they must have incredible green belt laws. Although the Netherlands vies with Bangladesh for the title of the most densely populated country in the world, to me it actually feels open and spacious.

    Anyway, back to Delft: what a lovely town. Full of the normal Dutch charms of canals (and here there are many!), boats, bikes and houses that are more violin shaped than house shaped. On a drizzly Sunday, it was quiet and languid, with not many people out and about. Those that were tended to be in no particular rush.

    Most shops and cafes were shut, posing me a bit of a problem given that I was in need of some breakfast. It took me 15 minutes of wandering around to find somewhere open. It was a smoothie bar, and looked a bit hipster, but I couldn't afford to be choosy. I escaped the rain and headed on inside.

    There are 6,500 languages in the world, and I must make a point of learning the word 'egg' in each and every one of them. Ordering the 'le plat du jour' in Lille and getting a plate of eggs was a terrible, unforgivable mistake. It wasn't a mistake I was going to repeat today. So I asked the waitress what it was I was actually ordering (the polite thing would be to order without having a clue what). I settled for another ham and cheese toastie and green ‘detox’ smoothie. They were great, the smoothie especially. Feeling detoxesd, I headed back out into the drizzle and wandered round Delft for three and a half hours. A beautiful town, absolutely beautiful.
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  • Day46

    Rotterdam Overview

    May 31, 2015 in the Netherlands ⋅ ⛅ 10 °C

    After Guernica, Rotterdam was the first city to suffer an aerial bombing. Infamously, Warsaw, Coventry and Dresden would all follow. The bombing of Guernica -- carried out by Hitler’s Luftwaffe at Franco’s request during the Spanish Civil War -- has been forever immortalised in the consciousness of humanity, thanks to Picasso’s painting. Indeed, the painting is now better known than the town itself. Joe and I have been fortunate to see it in the the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. In my opinion, is it worthy of its reputation as the greatest painting ever produced. For one thing, its size alone is breathtaking.

    There is no such painting to commemorate the bombing of Rotterdam, but there is a sculpture in the centre of the city. Its a sculpture of a perished looked figure, staring upwards in disbelief. The metal work is black and deliberately wrinkled to try and capture further to the gloom and desperation.

    Today, the center of Rotterdam (the outskirts and suburbs survived) is a city built entirely from the ruins of WWII. It is, in other words, a modern metropolis. In that regard, it is unlike anywhere else I’ve visited in the Netherlands. Like the figure in the statue, you can’t help but look up. But for a different reason: you look up in awe at the skyscrapers of Rotterdam. Its reinvention, its ability to come back from nothing and be the city it is today, is perhaps the best tribute there can be to the Rotterdam of history.
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  • Day46

    Euromast

    May 31, 2015 in the Netherlands ⋅ ⛅ 10 °C

    From the viewing deck of the Euromast tower you can see all of Rotterdam and more. It's quite something. The Erasmus bridge, the Nieuwe Maas, Rem Koolhaas' new skyscraper (which, I admit, I actually like now I've seen it in person). Because the Netherlands is so flat, the horizon seemed to be infinite. I could, for example, easily see the skyscrapers of the Hauge. Looking the other way, I could see the Hook of Holland and the port I had come from in the morning.Read more

  • Day45

    Rotterdam

    May 30, 2015 in the Netherlands ⋅ ⛅ 14 °C

    The ferry was great. The sea was smooth, and I have to admit it, the band were good too. Really good, in fact. I think I may have witnessed the next Beatles. OK, not really, but they did know what they were doing.

    I went to bed around 12 and slept like a baby. That was, until, the captain (who liked the sound of his own voice, it must be said) came on the tanoi at about 6am to inform everyone that breakfast was now being served on level 8, should anyone be feeling hungry. Well I wasn’t feeling hungry, and so I went back to sleep. I slept from about another hour before rousing myself, and making my way out to the lounge.

    What a pleasant surprise to look out the window and see blue skies. Given that we had set off from Hull under a dark, black cloud, I was fully expecting it to be raining in the Netherlands too. Far from it. The sun was gleaning of the barely rippling sea. Rotterdam is a huge port - by the far the largest in Europe. Up until 2006 -- when China finally woke from a 600 year sleep -- it was the largest port in the world. And as we sailed along at a languid pace, the shoreline was nothing but miles of containers. There were hundreds of pristine white wind turbines, all in a perfectly straight line, like poplar trees lining a French road.

    I wanted to stand and watch for longer, but I had to go and change the last 30 quid I had in my pocket into Euros. Man did I get ripped off. 30 pounds, on a P&O ferry, gets you 27.30 Euros. That is called getting stung. Then (again!) the captain came on the tanoi; this time he was asking all car drivers to return to their vehicles. I did, and twenty minutes later I was driving the Up off the pride of Hull.

    I showed my passport to a security guard and hit the road. I didn’t know what to expect driving on the right hand side of the road, but everything seemed to be intuitive and natural. That was until I got to a roundabout. Roundabouts are squeaky bum time, very confusing. Anyway, I was soon on a motorway, heading towards to Rotterdam and all was well. The Dutch roads are silky-smooth, like a baby’s bum. It was easy.

    Five minutes down the road, halfway across a bridge, there was a traffic light on red, instructing me to stop. I stopped, and down came a barrier. Then the middle section of the large, four-laned bridge started to rise, vertically. The whole of it, even the lampposts. It crawled up vertically, and a huge cargo ship -- stacked high with crates -- passed through the gap. What an impressive sight - it was the first time I’d been glad to get stuck at a red light for as long as I can remember. The whole thing took about 15 minutes, then I was off again.

    Just as I was getting the hang of driving on the right hand side of the road, I came to a barrier with a ticket machine on, of course, the left hand side of the car. Normally, you’d simply wind the window down, press a button and be on your way. Obviously I couldn’t; I had to get out the car, walk round to the machine and start faffing about with it. For whatever, reason it wasn’t working. It wanted 4 Euros off me, but didn’t like my card. An elderly Dutch couple stopped their car and came over to help me (the Dutch are super friendly). After a minute or two, the three of us had figured out, and the barrier raised. I had to run, through, quickly round to the other side of the car, climb in and head on before the barrier came back down.

    Why was there a barrier in the first place? My sat-nav showed a river ahead, and I presumed it was for a toll bridge. However, when I got to the shore, it was obvious that there wasn’t a bridge. This was a river crossing by boat (another ferry!). There was myself, a tractor with a trailer full of hay and a few other cars. We sat waiting for the ferry to return. And, as we were doing so, I noticed we were parked next to a cafe. As soon as I saw the cafe, I felt a pang of hunger. It was breakfast time. I decided that once I’d crossed the river, I’d find a place to stop and eat.

    Lucky for me, then, that on the other side of a river was the beautiful little town of Maassluis. As soon as I drove off the boat I was greeted with a picture of utter Dutchness: canals, bikes, windmills, bridges, boats and men with moustaches. I parked up and went in search of a cafe or a pub or anywhere where I could sit down, drink a coffee and eat a bit of food.

    The first place I found was a pub alongside a canal on what I think was called the Havenstraat (harbour street?). I entered and everything, suddenly, went dark. Outside was bright, inside wasn’t, and my eyes found it hard to adjust. I could just about make out a snooker table in the far corner and a bar to my left.

    ‘Hello, sorry, spreekt u Engels?’ I asked what I thought looked like a human figure.

    ‘A little,’ came the response.

    My eyes came round, and in front of me (behind the bar) was a middle aged woman. I ordered a cheese and ham toastie and a cappuccino. The bar was lined with brown, green and clear liquor bottles, and the decor of the rest of the pub was a dark, varnished wood; wood decor in the quintessentially Dutch style. This town -- this whole town -- was Dutcher than a Dutch place. The toastie came and I wolfed it down. The woman asked me where I was from. Manchester, I told her.

    ‘Oh yeah,’ she said. ‘I’ve been to the UK before, to Middlesbrough.’

    ‘Oh really,’ I said, ‘have you been anywhere else in the UK? London, for example?’

    ‘London? Oh no, I’ve never been to London. Just to Middlesbrough.’

    Fair enough I guess.

    I finished my cappuccino and felt a million dollars. I was in tune with the place. I left the pub and wondered about the canals, taking pictures of the boats, the wooden sail boats, the windmills. There is no such thing as Europe, I thought to myself, if, as is the case, people wander languidly alongside the canals of Maassluis while at the same time Putin shells the streets of Donetsk.

    I couldn’t believe a town so quaint could be just 12 miles from Rotterdam, but it was. After exploring it for about two hours, I made my way back to my car and left. Maassluis, what a beautiful town.

    I was in tourist mood now. I hadn’t been on the road for more than another 15 minutes, when I saw a cluster of red eye symbols on my sat-nav (red eye’s mean there is something of interesting to see). I couldn’t let the opportunity pass me by, so I took the next turn off and head towards, what I came to find out, a town called ..dam.

    ..dam is larger than Maassluis, so not as quaint, but equally as beautiful. It’s windmill galore - I think I counted six or seven of them. The canals were wider than Maassluis’, but architecturally the buildings were of the same 17th century style. I spent another wandering them, until I felt canaled-out. What a beautiful place small town Holland is.

    So: after 18 miles, four hours, one boat trip, and two excursions later, I’ve finally made it to Rotterdam. Check in is at 2pm, and here it is currently 20 past one, so I’m sat in the lobby. And what a posh lobby it is, too. Far too posh for me. I have a suspicion that I smell like cheese. And given that I’m wearing yesterday’s clothes, I don’t think that’s an altogether unjustified suspicion.

    Now, I’m just writing a quick blog, waiting for 2pm to come around. And when it does, I’ll check in, shower, and head off out to Rotterdam zentrum.

    P.S. My sat-nav and I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, but so far it has been more than impressive. A nice touch was that, after turning it on, it proceeded to tell me all about the quirks of Dutch motoring; what the drink drive limit is, the various speed limits, etc. Top marks VW.
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