Monday, 3 November 2014

An 8 year old's birthday wish - A world where the bike is the world's primary means of transport

Leon turned 8 on Saturday, and despite his bike being locked up in a shed in Utrecht, while we were away at Eurocamp, his birthday wish was a world where the bicycle was the main form of transportation.
Not so strange, impossible or impractical - most journeys we make are short, and the main reason we reach for our car keys is more down to habit and in the UK, because if you ride, you risk someone trying to kill you and them blaming you because they didn't see you.
Living in a land where the infrastructure allows most journeys to be performed by bike and seeing that, surprise, surprise, that's what people do shows it's not just a child's unrealistic dream.
All over the developing world, the bike is already the preferred work horse, but in China and India, the emerging middle classes are being herded into cars by advertising and promises of a life that the west seems to be enjoying. They can add the heart and respiratory disease and road deaths to their new found riches. Or they could take the emerging trends in from the Netherlands and Denmark and think about where all these people are going to park their new cars (electric or otherwise) and instead provide them with the integrated transportation so that the car, a useful tool when used in context could be available when you need it. It's only down to the might of advertising that everyone needs there own to feel normal -it can be normal to share, hire or borrow one and not need to have several sitting cluttering up the streets.
Still I feel that even the Netherlands is in the grip of the auto industry - advertising in Holland is still pushing car ownership as hard as it possibly can and trying to reduce the costs making the number of cars parked all over the streets ever more a problem. They are still in conflict between local councils trying to make a place pleasant and liveable verses the ever powerful auto industry, who might be nowhere near as powerful as in the US but still pull out every trick in the book to draw people away from being rained on in return for paying an arm and a leg to pollute, make themselves less healthy and work even harder to keep a lovely shiny car.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Our first bike prang in the Netherlands

The one thing I have been frankly terrified of having happen, is that in moving to the Netherlands to enjoy their better standard of living and fantastic cycle provision, we find ourselves in an accident with a car, thus completing the irony and feeling really stupid at best and at worse loosing a loved one. I was expecting it would be the kids and I've been very careful riding with them.
Never did I imagine that it would be my 75 year old mother in law that would be the first of the Joneses to be in a prang with a car. It wasn't fun, but this rates on the feeling really stupid end of the irony. She hurt her knee but both her and the car were travelling in opposite directions at walking speed, she was trapped between the car and the wall with not enough room and the handlebar of her bike scraped the car.
They were out of the car with insurance forms before Ellen had even had time to get up, they just about managed to ask her if she was OK before saying, you've scratched our car, what's your insurance details.
Where my red back lamp is, it the spot where Ellen was squashed between the wall and the oncoming car

From the other direction - cars can travel in this direction only and it's two way for bikes.

We've filled in the forms, I made sure that Ellen's side of the story said, there wasn't enough room, they were both moving - so not just her and that she hurt her knee but it will be the insurance company who decides who pays.
In the Netherlands the cyclist is always given a bit of the benefit of the doubt and is classed as the vulnerable road user, but even in the UK, I think given the amount of space the driver had left Ellen between the edge of the road and his car, I doubt he would be able to say he'd given her enough space to pass.

What's interesting and what I've observed is that in the Netherlands generally speaking in urban areas cyclists and drivers on narrow roads are both at very low speeds.
When prangs happen it's not likely to be serious - in real terms a scratched car is far less valuable than a wounded knee, even if a scratched Audi costs much more to fix. Of course the Dutch driver in his early 20's driving an Audi in the centre of Utrecht doesn't see Ellen's 75 year old knee as being more valuable than the side of his car. This is never going to be a simple equation in the modern world - I am very interested to see how the insurance company see it, if legally and morally there is any chance that, yes indeed the driver doesn't have the right to make a 75 year old cyclist he barged past pay for the scratch because she wobbled and fell onto his car. To me, it's straight forward, but I still don't know what the outcome will be. This is my bias opinion, as I'm sure you are aware.

One thing we've been musing about is the difference the provision here makes when drivers are arrogant assholes - and they come up of course. For the most part, you only see them from the safety of your segregated cycle path. Where you find yourself on a shared way -

  • either in the old narrow parts of the city 
  • or an access road - most streets with houses are no through roads, so cars are rare and are generally about to park or are just starting their journey, 
  • or on a road that's been deemed a 'fietstraat' which means the whole road is red tarmac and there are signs all along it saying 'Auto te gast'  and drivers have to treat the road as if it's predominantly a cycle road and they take 2nd place 
BUT all sorts of bad behaviour can still happen.
I've been riding on a fieststraat and been practically sideswiped while riding with a kid next to me by a driver doing faster than I would have liked. I shouted at him but the man in his 50's clearly could see me and did it because he wanted to communicate that he wasn't playing the game expected of him.

But here, you see, is the difference and it's a very significant one - he saw me, he knew that it would intimidate me but that would be it, it would be irritating, but nothing more. He saw me.
The infrastructure means that whether you are on a separate cycle path or on a road shared with traffic, they can see you.
The big killer on the UK's roads is SMIDSY - sorry mate I didn't see you, and your dead.
Here, yes there are some right tools in charge of motors and there's sometimes a weird way that at 10mph cars and cycles in the city somehow can coexist millimetres apart with the odd scratch or angry exchange, but they see each other.
Access road to our flats, no through road, cars only come here to park or are leaving - example of shared space we cycle on with cars.
Example of two-way path that runs along major roads - you can see and hear crazy drivers but they can't really bother you or endanger you.
In conclusion, it was horrible that Ellen spent one day riding around Utrecht, only to have a prang and not to get back on the bike for the rest of her weeks stay once we'd ridden back to where they were staying. It was the worst thing to happen to someone on their first day riding in a foreign country. There I am trying to demonstrate how wonderful our life is here, and it seriously backfired. I'm just glad her knee was better the next day. Hopefully Ellen will still cycle in to Ely on a sunny day, but she said herself, it's been months since she'd ridden in Ely and as traffic volumes there keep going up, the whole idea is less and less attractive.
Has it put us off or the kids here in the Netherlands? Nope, I still would prefer to pay the insurance in case I scratch some twat's audi, and I prefer taking the risk of that uneasy prang at 5mph than a SMIDSY left hook in the UK any day.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Hard to admit things aren't easy

I'm not comfortable with the idea of admitting things aren't going to plan job wise, in fact, it's really hard. Nobody will pay me to do the menial stuff because I'm too expensive and all the good jobs out there require me to be someone with bits of paper rather than a capable, intelligent, experienced useful person. Somewhere along the line, the idea of a degree turned into a thing that it isn't. Just because you can do one thing, doesn't mean you can do something totally unrelated and being a practical sort, all that practical experience gives you diddly squat when put in front of some suit looking for a few specific words on a bit of paper.

I'm quite down about it, life has never been fair, it's nothing personal and there are too many people and not enough jobs to go round.
Most of the jobs out there seem so meaningless and pointless anyway, I hate that but I'm too lazy, scared or just incapable right now of finding a way to do something useful and relevant to make a living.

Toby's money will stop next July, which will mean that we will have no source of income unless we find something. It's possible that if the Pre-school at the International school goes ahead, I might have a job as a TA but that can't support us all.
Both of us are in a manner of speaking unemployable, we are too old to be messed about and really should find a way to work for ourselves. Running our own business comes with many risks and problems as well as being the only way to trully do what you can do and be rewarded for your own efforts. Money has no conscience and it will always be bankers that get bigger bonuses than nurses. I don't want to be rich, but I do want to provide for my family and make enough that there's a buffer for hard times.

I will find a way, somehow and I've been trying to have those searching conversations that turn into changing what I'm doing and trying different things until something sticks.

As much as anything else it's about working out what I want to do. The last time I had to do this was in London, with no benefits, but a few loans from my long suffering Dad, I managed to re-train and work and live in London. I started from scratch, chose a path, planned it and achieved success. Then I changed my focus, and did that and so on.

The biggest challenge I'm facing right now, is committing to something to focus on and until I do that, I can't properly plan my energy. I keep bouncing from what I might be able to do to what I actually want to do. I need to sort out what my long game is first.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

A new month

September is upon us, the weather has improved dramatically - the kids are back at school.
I'm still looking for work, it's harder than I expected, the job market has less of the types of jobs I could easily do and being that bit older, I am less employable in a job market geared towards graduates.
It's never been a breeze to find work for me anyway, I don't have a degree, which has always held me back. Plus of course, the language barrier. I got told today that even though my spoken dutch was good, it wasn't up to call centre standard - I thought that was a bit much knowing some of the calls I've had to call centre staff - the job was a call centre for a national service as oppose to an IT product, which I guess makes all the difference. In my experience, the service you offer is as much in the listening as to the speaking if you really want to offer a good service.
Today I've applied for jobs delivering post, working in a supermarket and being an assistant shop manager in a phone shop. I'd be happy with any of them, although the first is only part time.
Last week I applied for a job as a teaching assistant at the ISU (International School Utrecht) it would be right up my street. My Mum's said she will put in a good word for me too, I don't know at this stage how far into the solicitation process they are so I have no idea if my chances are real. The cat is still alive until I open the box, so to speak.

We met a mum with a baby and a boy who looked about five in the lift this morning, they live on the 7th floor. I got Reuben to repeat in Dutch "welke verdieping wonen jullie?" and "wij wonen op de 4de verdieping". His pronunciation was really good.

We dropped the boys off for their second day at their new school, they are enjoying the ride to school. I must say even during rush hour, the traffic is so much better managed, we ride along the inner ring for about 2/3 of the journey, through at least half a dozen sets of dedicated lights. It's stress free and straight forward, there are plenty of riders around us, from other kids with parents, to blokes on road bikes in Lycra who silently speed away past us once the lights change.

Both boys have been moved up a class, the teachers needed to assess which class would best suit, based on their age, size and ability. They are now up a class and we shall see how they get on. Leon looked happier, all the kids were almost exactly the same height but you can guess based on their geographical DNA, that the ages were going to vary, as each kid was at the very least from a different continent to the kid standing next to him. I'll be interested to hear today at pick up what Leon has learnt about his class mates.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

What a difference a couple of weeks makes

We arrived two weeks ago, and in that time we've done a smattering of day trips and official stuff like getting a bank account and registering that we are living here. Yesterday was our wedding anniversary, nothing went according to plan, from the appointment at the bank in the morning without the BSN number we are still waiting for for Toby to when we left in the evening, leaving our friend to babysit, Toby realised he'd lost the car key, which after much searching and my third bike ride into town, had been inside our friend's sofa for a couple of days. In the end, we ordered a pizza, played a board game with our friend and babysitter and had beer. So hardly a romantic evening but considering our luck yesterday, it ended very well.
We have been in our new apartment for almost two weeks, I'm sitting typing at our dining table from Emmaus de bilt, blogging with wifi, while the kids watch CBBCs, they have declared a pjama day and I haven't the stregnth to deny them. It's cold and windy outside, we've had a busy couple of weeks, we have plenty of food in the house and no real need to go anywhere today.
The boys have been cycling into town with us most days, and the days we haven't ridden, we've been on the bus and even got a train back from the spoorweg museum a few days ago.
Beautiful path into town, able to have a hand on R's shoulder to help him along, stop him wondering and make sure he stops at the lights!
Where we are, like every area of Utrecht, there is a dedicated cycle network and integrated public transport.
Local commuter train home, this carrage has flip up seats for bikes, pushchairs and peak standing room only.


The trains and buses have screens like this, it makes using public transport so much less stressful when you know where you are and where you are going.

This isn't the usual but having a slide at the local train station is always a bonus.

This bus was scheduled to meet the train we got and goes round the area - real integrated transport, no taxi needed.
Either we get the bikes out or we walk 30m to the end of our road and there's various bus stops going in various directions, we walk across the road and there's a shopping centre, I got the boy's haircut there yesterday. It's got a great bike shop, I've already got  my back tyre fixed, I thought it was the valve, turned out when I had the new hub fitted the spokes the fitter used are too long and they had punctured through the lining and into the tyre, the guy at the bike shop here said he shortened the spokes and replaced the lining and inner tube, so good job done by someone who knows what he's doing. I have to pick up Toby's bike today, he's having a service and having a back rest and foot rests fitted to his carrier, so Reuben can sit on the carrier. Reuben's good at cycling but his concentration is still such that you need to be one to one, that doesn't work with Leon there as well, who is fantastic but they've only been using the infra for a few days and I prefer us to be one to one with them, come the school run in September, it will be good to have the option for toby to take R on the back and Leon cycle. I'm going to do the same on my bike. It's a very simple set up - a back rest to stop him falling off the back and foot rests, it's not that comfy but it's only meant to be for short distances. In a few months I hope Reuben will be more accustomed to riding and we will feel able to ride with two kids next to us.
I've pimped our balcony. We have a lovely view of trees anyway and I've got a nice mixture of some flowers and culinary herbs. It's lovely to sit out there (although today it's rather windy) The door to the balcony has been open most of the time we've been here, it's a great design that you have the fresh air there right next to the kitchen, dining and living room, even if you are four floors up.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

One near miss too many

There are many ways that being right is not a good thing. When I said the road in front of our house was potentially a lethal dose of HGV's and speeding motorists who should have gone another route and shouldn't be driving through our residential streets, I have been praying I'm not proven right. School runs and heavy traffic don't mix.
Monday morning Reuben wobbled off the pavement and into the road in front of an HGV. Fortunately the driver was looking where he was going and took evasive action which saved his life. I'm only glad I didn't see it, Toby was taking them and he watched while Reuben fell, both Toby and the Lorry driver had that horrible moment when they thought that was it.
Lot's of families saw it and multiple people called 999. At one point a helicopter was on it's way. Reuben was dropped back home by a Paramedic and luckily we were just cleaning up a few scratches and bruises. The police also dropped by. It seems they also feel that the increase in traffic is alarming but as usual the County don't see it as a problem and are prepared to leave our roads as they are unless people start getting killed.
It's a horrible feeling of helplessness and  frustration, each day we leave the house ready to keep ourselves alive in the face of a danger we have no control over other than a bit of bright clothing and a helmet that's designed to protect you for slow moving impact, hardly something that would stand much chance in a contest with a 40 tonne lorry. All you have is luck, and luck on Monday was on our side.
 I'm milking it for all it's worth and I've taken the opportunity to confront the county council on this, I really wish someone else round here would take it up too, I'm not sticking around to wait for the changes, but they are, so I don't get why they don't get together and fight this.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

A month from now we will be in Holland

I have found us a place to live from the 1st of August if it goes ahead as planned. It's 100m2 and the target price I was looking for instead of right at the top end of our budget, it makes the whole move more likely to be a success.
I'm applying for work and we are slowly but surely sorting out our house before we go. There's loads still to sell but I'm hopeful that there won't be alot left after Tobe's ebayed and Gumtree'd, boot saled and freecycled. I'm doing a yard sale when I stop childminding, I'm hoping that along with what's already been reserved, the majority will see good use with other parents and childminders.
The boys are excited, so am I, as well as slightly overwhelmed and occasionally terrified, although I try to suppress that in favour of 'hey, I've turned my life upside down several times before and eventually it turns out' I hope that this is a positive move for Toby and this is what he needs to start a fresh, so we can start a fresh together as a family and recreate what makes us happy.
The point of keeping a diary or blog is to write about what's happened and what's happening but my thoughts are always into the future at the moment. I can report that yesterday, I found all the kids art work that was spread out on walls, in old carrier bags, in drawers and on book cases is now all together in a moving box labelled 'boys memories 2006-2014 along with their first shoes, baby grows, hats and a couple of favourite t-shirts they wore as toddlers. Also a few photos, birthday cards etc. I nice little time capsule that when they get married and have kids we can open up and enjoy.
So much stuff we don't need and I want to feel lighter and less weighed down by a house full of stuff I can never seem to get on top of.
Time to get some sleep, another day with toddlers, lovely though they are, I am looking forward to going back to work that doesn't involve rainbow rice and nappies.