Thursday, October 27, 2005

My shit year

I've been meaning to write a post about this for ages, although I try to put it to the back of my mind as much as possible, pretending it didn't happen.
Halfway through 2002, Richard and I had the opportunity to buy a cafe. We went spent all our hardearned money, everything saved, to take this opportunity, that really should be described as a whim. Big, big mistake!! Firstly, neither of us had made a coffee in our lives. My background is in libraries and he's an engineer. We decided that it would be best if he keeps his job (thankfully this was the brightest decision through the whole mess), and I consequently handed in my resignation where I was working and embarked on what I thought was going to be a great adventure.
At the end of six months I began to think, mmm, maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all. At the end of eight months, I was literally crying, saying I can't do this anymore! At the end of eleven months, I couldn't wait to get out of there, especially as by then it was up for sale, and I just wanted it over and done with.
To make matters worse, I also had staffing problems. My cousin's girlfriend (now fiancee as of last weekend), has worked in hospitality all her working life, and I thought it would be a good idea to bring her on board. Someone experienced who knows what they are doing. There were a couple of other part time staff members I also kept on, after buying the business. A few weeks into it all, I noticed that these two girls were getting irritated with, (we'll call her) Amy.
After spending a few days watching Amy, I noticed that she was extremely slow. Just before she started working for us, she confessed that she had a hearing problem. Knowing this, the penny suddenly dropped, it explained quite a lot over the years. Why, when you would be talking to her and she would have this blank look on her face. Well, this was what was happening at the cafe. Customers would ask her for something, and she wouldn't hear and stand there with a blank look on her face. I know that it's not her fault, but it was very frustrating to watch. Also, the set up we had was very different to where she had come from. Previously she would take down an order, give it to the chef, get people's drinks, and once the meal was ready carry it out to the patron. We had a sandwich bar, as part of the cafe, so if you took an order you had to make the sandwich and give it to the person. She was taking one order after another and not making anything! I think she expected the food to appear out of thin air.
As well as the problems with her work, I found that I was spending much more time with her. She began to tell me things. That she had a whole lot of money and in the next year she was going to buy a car for my cousin, her boyfriend (now fiancee!). What sort of house she was going to have. What sort of wedding, once they got engaged. That she could play the piano, as in she just has to listen to a song and could immediately play it by ear.
Now, I have always admitted to being gullible. If you tell me you have a yacht on the harbour, I will believe you. Why the hell shouldn't I. I ask you this, why the hell do people lie?
The way Amy talked, it became obvious to me that she must have quite a lot of money stashed away. One day, I said to her, if you don't mind me asking, how much money have you saved? Do you know what she told me? $200 thousand. I was flabberghasted! My response to her? Congratulations I told her. It's very hard to save that kind of money. You must be very disciplined. And on I went.....even now writing it, two years later, I sound so bloody foolish!
Anyway, the working situation didn't improve and we consequently had to let her go, especially as one of the other girls we had kept on was proving she was worth her weight in gold. At the same time, I happened to mention to my aunt, (her future mother-in-law) that Amy had all this money and was going to buy her son a car next year. You know what my aunt's response to that was? Bullshit! Yep. And then, I began to see the light. I felt like an absolute goose. I began to think of all the conversations that I'd had with her - everything that I believed, and then I got angry. Well, the shit hit the fan, so to speak. As well as the problem regarding her work at the cafe, she now had to deal with my family, as to everything she had been saying. And, she became belligerent about it. It's none of your business is what she would say when questioned. I had a phone call from her where she ranted to me that she didn't know that I was that kind of person. Hello?? That kind of person? She's the one going around telling porky pies!!
I've fully digressed from the rest of the story with the cafe, but now, in my retelling, i'm getting angry all over again! I think that the worst part, is that she didn't come to any family events anymore, and went on holiday with her family soon after. As a result I didn't get to vent. To tell her off and get it off my chest and then move on. Well, I'll have to do another post to continue the story about my shit year, because Amy was only part of it.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Los Angeles

On my first day here I did a tour of some of the main attractions in LA, whilst Richard was making some hard earned money. Our tour guide's name was Eddie, and he's a retired cop turned tour guide. He was very humorous, and kept asking me if I was single! On the tour there were some other aussies as well. Three boys from Frankston and a couple from country NSW. Eddie paired me up with a Chinese American lady who was visiting from New York. The Americans are really intense compared to us laid back Aussies. Lois, the lady I was paired up with, was really concerned about getting lost. If we just turned a corner she would start freaking out about where the tour bus was, or where Eddie was. I thought my sense of direction was bad!! I actually met someone who is worse. She wouldn't relax and enjoy herself, I kept trying to keep the vibes calm and relaxed and show her that there was nothing to stress about.

Eddie was very fond of repeating himself.
"You're here to do the Grand Tour, the Grand Tour is the best tour, and on the Grand Tour you will see some of the main attractions, more than what you will find on any other tour. Now on the Grand Tour, we will be making lots of stops, but the Grand Tour goes all day. So if you add it all up, there will be four hours on the bus and four hours off the bus. Ladies and Gentleman, this is the Grand Tour. Now four hours on the bus, is a long time, so we all are gonna get to know one another. Four hours equals a quarter of a day, that's a quarter of a day that we will be together and a quarter of a day that you're gonna be with Eddie. Now all you ladies without a partner, don't you go back and tell your partners that you spent a quarter of a day with Eddie. Nuh uh, I don't want somebody comin' after me after you spent a quarter of a day with Eddie......"
Eddie was intensly passionate about his city. He was also passionate about his food. One of the places we visited was the Farmers Market.

Eddie stressed that this was no market where they sell you things from the back of a truck, or from a box, or a bucket.
"Nuh uh, ya'll gonna see a Farmers Market like nothin' ya'll never seen before. Now we're gonna stop for lunch at the Farmers Market. I advise that ya'll get somethin' here. We got BBQ, hot dogs, shrimp, gumbo, roast chicken, Chinese, Mexican, seafood, sushi....we got sushi man, sushi (Eddie's voice rose about an octave here.  He was very excited about the sushi). Where else in the world can you find all this food, ya'll all make sure you try somethin', and don't forget to buy ya'll some cookies. Ya'll bring it back on the bus and ya'll nibble on some cookies."

Eddie was also very fond of pointing out all his favourite eateries as the bus went by.  The portions of food here are massive. Richard and I eat about a quarter of what's on the plate. They also like to serve salad and bread with practically every meal. I have to say though that the food has been very good.

On the tour we went to Hollywood, Mann's Chinese theatre, Kodak theatre, got to take a photo of the Hollywood sign, Beverley Hills, Sunset strip, Rodeo drive, but I didnt bother going into any shops, Olvera street, the oldest part of LA and Tijuana Mexican market, Frank Gehry's concert hall, marina del rey and Venice beach.

The next day, being a Saturday, Richard was able to join me and we went to Universal studios and spent the entire day there.

We hired a car, and it's been very strange (and nerve wracking) driving on the right side of the road. The American's love telling us that it's us who drive on the wrong side of the road! On Sunday we hired bicycles and rode for miles from Rodondo beach (where we are staying) to Marina del rey.

The next day my bottom and muscles cursed me soundly. We ended up riding for more than half a day, stopping only occasionally for water, and for about an hour or so to have lunch at Manhattan beach. The restaurant/cafe we went to for lunch has been the only sour point so far. There was a real sense of us being unwelcome. The girl (who needed to grow a smile) wanted to seat us inside on these high chairs, like the one's at a bar, but we said we wanted to eat outside. She made a face at this. Anyway, it wasn't a good impression, and we were tempted to leave a zero tip, but the waitress that actually served us was very nice, so we felt obliged to leave something.

Today, being Monday is shaping to be a very quiet day. Richard left at 5am to drive to San Diego, to look at some plant up there. He actually returned at 11.30am, and that was the last "work" thing he had to do, so now we have the rest of today and all day tomorrow before flying home at 11pm.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Flight from Amsterdam to Heathrow

Well, this promises to be a memorable flight because Richard spilt his cup of coffee on me. The whole, just-filled, to the brim, cup of coffee. In our home items often break and there are many spillages because quite frankly he is extremely clumsy. In fact, beverage spilling on a plane has occurred before. Only that time there were no casualties and it was only water that seemed to stream along the aisle of the plane. Really, when you think about it, I probably shouldn't be sitting next to him at all. Now, I must say I did handle it pretty well, expecially as I was soaked through to my underwear. In the plane's bathroom I washed the stickiness off my skin as well as I could, but there was nothing I could do about my soaked pants. I walked back to my seat, that the airhostess had kindly wiped down, the discomfort of wet clothing plain upon my face. Well, I said, when I get to Heathrow I will buy some new clothes. Designer Wear, I pointedly told him. So appeased by this I sat back for the rest of the journey, which luckily wasn't too long. For the rest of the flight Richard insisted that I somehow bumped him!! And he with the reputation of the clumsy. I asked him if he had ever had a feeling in his hand, and itch when a hand wants to deliver a smart slap.
At Heathrow I wandered through the shops, but could find no casual clothing. Everything really was Designer Wear, and even I baulked at paying 300 pound for a top! The only saving grace was that my pants were Kathmandu cargo's suitable for hiking and most importantly - Quick Dry. My underwear didn't feel as bad as I thought it had been, and it was just the bottom of my Tshirt that was wet, and by now damp. I resigned myself to staying in the clothing I was in, even though the next leg was eleven hours to LA. Now I had to do something about the coffee smell. I absolutely reeked. I started to listen to people's conversations to see if I could overhear them saying, what is that smell? Pwoah, someone really reeks! It smells like coffee. So, to the duty free perfumerie I went, where I liberally sprayed all manner of floral, exotics and citrus on me. I noticed one of the salesman was watching me and I felt obliged to tell him about my predicament. He produced a unisex perfume (Calvin Klein I think?), something containing vanilla and ohmbre, whatever that is. I have to say, the vanilla went quite well with the coffee smell! Then, to my amazement, I listened to Richard, who had suddenly appeared in the shop, telling the sales guy that it was me who had bumped him!!!!! The itchy hand was back......

Friday, October 14, 2005

Weekend at Amsterdam

Well Richard only worked a half-day on Friday, so we were able to take an afternoon train to Amsterdam for the weekend. It would be our first time there. The Friday afternoon trains were packed with people, mostly students, all out for a good time in the city.
After the quiet of Emmen, Amsterdam seemed like chaos incarnate. When we got off the train and I was pulling my bag behind me, I kept having to zigzag through the maze of people.
Amsterdam has an interesting vibe about it. There's almost a sexual thrum in the air. It is a little unsettling, slightly distasteful, yet at the same time compelling. There is a sense of wildness amongst the people, albeit this is mostly from the tourists, come to sample a hedonistic culture. When night falls people spill out of the city's nooks and crannies. There have been many locals living in Emmen who have fervently told me that Amsterdam is not their city. I can understand what they mean.
By day we took in the sights. We did a Yellow Bike Tour, a three hour ride around the city, taking in the major highlights. When we were waiting in line to be equipped with a cycle, there was a hens party, all the girls donned in party hats, and pretty clothes, ready for wild adventure. The bride to be's last hoorah.

We visited the History Museum (Historiche Museum) and Vondel Park, the Van Gogh Museum.

Our cycle tour took us through the Red Light District. Here the sense of sex was at its most concentrated. It is very difficult to gaze about and take in all the sights of this district whilst trying to manouvre about on a cycle. Here boys and men roamed about in packs.

One of my subjects this semester is a journalism one. An assignment I need to complete is a feature article. I had to find a topic to write about whilst overseas, because I essentially have the weekend to write it up before handing it in when I get back. I told my lecturer that I will keep my eyes and ears open for a subject. What came to mind was the drug debate in Amsterdam. This was from an exhibit at the History museum. There was also a video playing with a panel discussing the issue. Part of the requirement of the assignment is that I have to interview people. It can't all be about research. I have well and truly decided that journalism is not for me - I hate having to approach people for an interview! Anyway, after much thought I thought up a list of possible interviewees. My plan was going to be: interview coffeeshop owner (the places where it all happens), maybe a policeman, and then perhaps some Amsterdam locals. In reality, what did happen, was I went to the Hemp museum, where I tried to do an interview with the guy behind the desk, and then I happened upon a Hemp shop (Tiani Hemp) where I was able to interview the owner Jorge. The gentleman working at the History museum shop had encouragingly told me that all the people of Holland have an opinion about the drugs, so it would be very easy to do interviews. Easier said than done, I'm afraid! Richard was mortified, and refused to go in with me to do the interviews. in some ways I can't blame him - if I was him I would have refused as well.

The interview at the Hemp museum was really difficult. The guy was not forthcoming, he did not want to be named for the article. and standing beside him was this vocal American woman, who kept up with the cynical comments, making it very difficult to explain and try and get some information. She was really irritating, (and that's me being nice about her). She kept on saying, you can get all this from the internet. I had to keep telling her, that yes, I know that, but I need to include quotes. It's an article. It's a requirement of the assignment. Her rolling her eyes at me made me feel extremely stupid! Richard had definitely made the right decision to hang about outside to wait for me.
Feeling very dejected after that, I walked away, casting my eyes for other potential interviewees. Everytime I looked inside a coffeeshop, I thought the people behind the counter didn't look very approachable, and especially after my awful interview at the museum I was very hesitant in entering.

Spying the Hemp retail store, I thought this may prove more promising. Which it did. Jorge was great. After his inititial hesitation, and after awkwardly trying to explain what I was about, he began to warm to the topic and gave me heaps of information - lots of things that I probably wouldn't find on the internet. I was talking to him for such a long time, Richard ventured into the store and Jorge was so relaxed about it, even he joined in the discussion. We even bought a Tshirt for my brother (to say thanks for looking after the dogs) from him. Jorge even took a couple of dollars off the price, which was very kind of him.

After this interview we found that we were running out of time, because we had to return by the afternoon Sunday train back to Emmen. As we walked away from the Hemp shop, I heard Richard say to me, don't you dare! Confused at first, I then realised what he meant. Two police officers were walking towards us on the street. I decided to spare him and just walked past - though I think I may have missed out on some valuable quotes from the esteemed Amsterdam police!

Now back in Emmen, I'm going to interview the Boer family. Richard is here working with Peter, who is one of the managers of the Holland company. We have been invited to dinner on Wednesday night, so I'm hoping I will get some opinions about the drug debate from some people living outside of Amsterdam. I think that will give the article a nice touch. Also invited to dinner are Robert and Henk. They spent about eight months working in Melbourne, returning to Holland only recently. Richard and I took them out and about whilst they were there.

So, my final thoughts of Amsterdam? Considering I managed to talk to some of the locals about the drug debate, and how it sits with the surrounding countries, I have decided to dub it, the indulgent, eccentric uncle of Europe! It's a culture that seems to be at odds. It is a refined cultural European city with the gorgeous backdrop of the canals and the pretty canal homes, contrasted with the seamy side of sex and drugs.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Netherlands - Emmen and the fictitious bicycle tour?

Well, here I am. I have arrived in a small town in Emmen, which is about a two hour drive from the airport in Amsterdam. So far I have wandered about the town, passed by numerous cyclists, with the town clock pleasantly chiming on the hour. I've also been to the dierenpark - or zoo.

There were lots of school groups about, and what I found interesting was that one group of young boys, who must have been all of twelve years old, were smoking! With so much anti smoking campaigning that happens in Australia I was really surprised by this. The Dutch really love their cigarettes! Everyone smokes everywhere. I just read in Lonely Planet of a museum that celebrates the history of smoking in Holland that I can view at Groningen, a small university town nearby.

I have been trying to organise a bicycle tour of Emmen, which can be done by the history society through the library or Bibliotheek. They are only open on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Yesterday, I was in the library busily typing emails when the Librarian who I had enquired about the bicycle tours came up to see me. Downstairs was a couple who were expecting to meet up with a tour group at 1.30pm. I looked at the computer clock and it said 1.28pm. Thinking this would be a good chance to try and join the cycle tour I quickly packed up and went downstairs. After a short discussion with this couple, we hastened to the railway station, as they thought that perhaps they had mistaken the meeting place for the library rather than the station. Once we reached the station, we could see, to no avail. that there was no tour group.

There is a bicycle rental shop at the station, and not even they had seen any bicycle tour. We had tried calling the contact number at the library and we again tried with my mobile phone, but there was no answer.

As we waited in front of the bike rental shop at the station, and after much protracted discussion (the husband did not speak any english but the wife's english was quite good) it began to rain. This put a very decisive stop to any thought of touring the countryside by bike!

They asked me where I was staying. My hotel was about a 10/15 minute walk away from the station. The wife spoke to her husband in Dutch, she then turned to me and said that they would drive me home. Since it was still drizzling I gratefully accepted. The husband then rode off on his bicycle.
The wife and I continued to chat and after a few minutes I asked her if they had parked their car at the library. No, she said. Her husband had ridden home to their nearby flat to get the car!! I was astonished, and this seemed like far too much trouble, which I then proceeded to tell her. She brushed my protestations aside and insisted that it was no trouble. This left me feeling as though it would be rude to protest anymore after their kind offer, so I stood there, instead, awkward with the knowledge that the poor husband had ridden home to collect the car. A sudden thought occurred to me. Would she be able to fit her bicycle in the car? The answer to this was no. So again, I stood there, wondering how on earth I had got myself into this situation, when the car arrived. The wife turned to me smiling, as she jumped back on her bicycle, and the husband, who didn't speak a word of English, was pleasantly holding the passenger door open for me. The wife waved as she cycled away, and I was left with no alternative but to get into the car. I thanked the husband profusely as I crawled inside.

However, by this stage I was feeling really ill at ease. I kept on thinking that I didn't know these people. The wife was really lovely, but she had ridden away, I would really have preferred it if she had also been in the car. How would I converse with this guy in English? Thankfully it was a very short trip!

During the drive all these horrible unbidden thoughts kept encroaching upon my mind. What if he tried something? I sat there, willing each traffic light to be green. To his credit, he tried to make conversation, but the only thing I understood was whether I had been to the Dierenpark (zoo)? Which I had.

Well, it all ended well, but I do know that things could just as easily have turned sour. Something gathered from reading the newspaper everyday! Here is an instance of the kindness of strangers. Something that is not always usual, but when it does occur, you only think bad thoughts and look for a hidden agenda. It was a funny episode, and even now looking back I have a small feeling of distaste, and a voice in my head saying that I shouldn't have put myself in that position. But I also feel guilty thinking that, because really it was all done with the best of intentions.
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