Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Rowing in the dark

The other night I was in rowing in the dark. (Well that's not strictly true, it was actually my turn to coxwain, which is amusing for the girls powering the boat, as I am meant to be the one supplying the inspirational instructions, but the requirement for me to give these commands in Dutch, probably causes more stomach-creased amusement than abdominal sturdiness and focus.) Fortunately for us all, there were several prolonged moments of silence, with only the occasional gentle splashing of the river over their oars, disturbing the eerie peace. Gliding unhurriedly through the waters which rippled apart for our boat like melted chocolate in the dim light of the moon, I was reminded of a dream I had two years ago on a distant part of the planet. The dream that is, was dreamt in Australia, but I confess I have no clue which ocean was its scenery.

In the dream I was sitting on the front of a small and humble yacht, surrounded by vast and unending sea. I remember a tension of emotions: the threat of being overwhelmed by agoraphobic awareness at the colossal waters, but at the same time a sort of awe at the majestic seas trickling over the horizon. I was sitting with my feet dangling over the front of the boat as it sailed slowly towards the ever-moving edges of the sea. I had no idea where I was going and whether I would ever get there. The water was an eternity spreading out before me, but I became completely calm because my toes weren't just dipping impersonally into the plethora of sea, but were stretched out to touch the tips of a tail rising up from an enormous shadow beneath the surface. Swimming bucolically before the boat was a beautiful blue whale. I can vividly call to mind at will how I then felt looking ahead at an oceany abyss; would-be-terror subdued by my not being quite alone. The whale’s flight was gentle yet purposeful; my feeling of meaningless abased by the communication of my little podgey toes with this mighty creature of calm and harmonious navigation. I didn't need to know where I was or where I was going. I felt peaceful in the midst of an otherwise uncomforting infinity.

A while after having this dream, unable to escape its impressing image, I asked God what it might mean. I felt him interpret it for me. He was my shepherd in the deep. So often I worry about what's behind me, (the unhelpful 'what ifs' of my past) I worry about what's beside me (the pressures, stresses and demands of the present) and I worry about what's ahead of me (the future: am I heading towards my destiny? Will I make the right choices? Have I already scuffed up Plan A for my life? Am I fulfilling my potential? What does my life even mean? What is the point? Will I make it to the end?). But as I consulted my heavenly dad, I felt assurance wash over me as I realised that the magnificent whale in the dream had been him with me. He was guiding me through the troubling waters of life. And because he was there, they were still. It didn't matter that I was a million miles from eternity's shore, because I was safe and God not only knew exactly where I was with all that surrounded me then, but he also knew exactly where I’d come from, and what’s more he knew where we were headed to and was leading the way. The huge mammal wasn't hurried or flustered, like me as the cox. There was no one or nothing to disturb our tranquil sojourn.

I felt reminded too that in the absence of the spectacular (in the dream there were wasn’t a storm, a fight with pirates, a shark attack, riding on dolphins, conversing with mermen, or anything else that might have been characteristic of a sea-orientated remarkable dream – it was just me in the boat and the whale on a journey), God still goes ahead of me. One day I will look back or maybe I’ll catch a bird’s eye view (that’d be cool) and I’ll see the pathway, like wet tracks across the sea that my life has forged, but I don’t need to worry about what direction those tracks will spread into, nor force them into being. Jesus comforts me saying: Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:34) As I silently coxed in the dark, I experienced a baptism of peace, even though the flurry of my next frustrated Dutch command was soon due. I still don't completely fit in here and I still don't quite get why God wants me here, neither can I imagine what I will look back on in years to come, but because I am following the whale - the beautiful beast before me, I will not be fearful, even though there's 'water, water, everywhere'.

I don’t quite know whether the season I’m in at the moment fits neatly into my ‘high’ or a ‘low’ category among those moments in my life which I can easily compartmentalise, but I do know that I am excited to see what’s next. I love the adventure of following God. Sometimes he asks some pretty scary stuff of me and I have no idea how I can possibly make such decisions for him, without life changing radically. But I’ll take the risk of radical changes because I do not want my life to be like an idle ship on a painted ocean – I want the dynamism that comes from following, even when it hurts and my trust seems blind. Next time I will tell you about one of the most difficult decisions I ever made, which I guess in hindsight was a little bit like rowing in the dark.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Holy Buzz

[direct continuation from last blog]

... I was invited to go with some friends of the family to a Christian conference during the Easter holidays. The only reason I agreed to go was because it was at Butlins and I figured I could skip the Christian stuff for the fairground and the water rapids! Well to my annoyance, my friends' mum insisted that we sign up for the teenagers' programme. I was disgusted to see my peers singing passionately and 'getting into' prayer and listening to all this religious malarky. I always sat at the back during the sessions scowling and cringing at the thought of my school friends knowing I was there. I was made to go to the programme all week.

On Friday something shifted inside. Rather than scowling, I started to cry. I can’t even remember what was said, but I heard about Jesus for the first time, which was odd as I’d been going to church all my life – maybe it was just that my ears were now open. I heard a woman at the front speaking about how we have each done stuff that we’re ashamed of and have not acknowledged God in our lives, eventhough he loves us and made us to be in relationship with him, we have ignored or discarded him. I heard about how this Jesus, who I'd always pictured woodenly in a distant manger or on a crooked cross in some life-sucking church building, had actually died to give me life! Apparently, me rejecting God, the giver of life, was going to result in death. I had freely chosen death and deserved to be separated from God forever, but on that wooden cross Jesus died a death that should have been mine to reconcile me to God, and to bring me back into the relationship I had destroyed!

I know this all sounds mental and as I type it, I'm like - do I actually believe this? But yeah 14 year old, teenage-angsty me just started balling my eyes out and deep deep down, I knew it was true! I think I'd always kind of assumed that God loved the world, but the fact that he loved me personally was revelation. I felt a tug on my heart and I just knew that I had to let this Jesus in and say sorry to God for turning away and thank you to Jesus for making a way back to God. Balmy I know ... This was a very inconvenient acknowledgement – it was a Friday night if I remember rightly and if I was at home, I’d be stoned, drunk, or both! This Christian thing, just wasn't me... I wasn't sure how well behaved I could be and whether I could stop the drinking and pot-smoking... It took me (and is still taking me) lots of time to continuously realise that following Jesus is not about moral behaviour, but we'll come to that at some later date. So yeah, I said this prayer to God, pretty much like: 'Erm God I know you're there and I know that I haven't exactly been letting you into my life, but I can feel you calling me, I'm not exactly sure what you're calling me to, but I can just feel a tug and how can I say 'no' if it's true that your son died for me - that's amazing. So yea, thanks for dying for me Jesus and sorry for disregarding you. I think I want to follow you.'

And that was it. I was a Christian. I hadn't become weird and sandal-with-sock-wearing and I wasn't thrusting around the Holy Scriptures and bashing people all of a sudden; but I did feel like my eyes had opened for the first time and I was buzzing! It was like I was drunk or stoned, or both, but I just felt all tingly and alive in a very raw way, but this was a holy buzz. I felt on top of the world. I had begun a relationship with the creator. I couldn't believe it. (My friends as it happened, had not responded to God and I couldn't work out why they were not as excitable as me, but I didn't care too much and was dancing around like a bit of a loony). It is probably worth me mentioning now, that life as a Christian, doesn't always make me feel fluffy and invincible and is sometimes times really tough, but that was my experience at the very beginning. That being said, living life for Jesus is an adventure! I wouldn't want it any other way. My question of 'Is there more?' was answered with a resounding 'YES' from the heavens and life has never felt boring since. My trials mean something and my destination is significant. I am not blowing in the wind, but am standing firm on a rock. I will continue next time to share some of the highs and lows of my walk with Jesus so far ...

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Facial hair and knitting - before it began

Since I last updated you, I have nursed a beard, climbed the cultural ladder, aged by about 4 decades and had a thought about my future.

So what's with the beard you wonder? My friends and I went to see Harry Potter 7 pt 1 at midnight on Tuesday in Amsterdam and I decided to transform into the world's favourite half-giant Rubeus Hagrid. Apart from the beard protecting my face from the bitter cold, having a pillow up my t-shirt was probably the most beneficial nugget of costume I have ever sported, contributing to the most comfortable 3 hours in a cinema ever. That's right English suckers - Harry Potter came out in the Netherlands two whole days before the UK, in fact, we had the second soonest release date in the world; only coming after North Korea and Japan, but I figure that may have something to do with them being almost a day ahead due to time zones... Anyhow it was actually brilliant! Of course Daniel Radcliffe never fails to disappoint, but I sincerely enjoyed the film despite him and wasn't constantly comparing it with the book in my head, which I think can only be credit to the director.

My cultural metamorphosis took place as I watched Carmina Burana - my first opera! It amazes me how sound vibrations can make ones hairs stand on edge. If my existence has at times felt dull here in Holland, I was truly alive, as a full orchestra serenaded me into the depths of my imagination and onward to sophistication.

Which brings me to 2050! I've learnt to knit. I don't even care if it's what old people do. It's amazing and it's actually tres chic. Furthermore, it's so therapeutic, even if I haven't progressed beyond fraying patches yet, my new pursuit is laden with potential, which might end up as a stocking or even in yours this Christmas - watch out I might make some home-made pressies if my skill allows it.

As to thoughts about the future. I have been loosely toying with the prospect of a phD, having been enjoying my course so much. This week however, my tutor informed me of a funded position coming up next year at Leiden, that he thinks I'd be interested in/suited for. I actually think I might apply. The thought terrifies and excites me all at the same time - kind of like I felt about coming to Holland in the first place and yet here I sit... We'll see what God has in store.

Before I get ahead of myself I want to look back to where it all started, even before Holland I mean. Why do I attribute everything to God? Has it always been that way?

I’ve always believed in God. Maybe because I was taken to church with my family from the moment I popped out my mother’s womb, or maybe because as I observed the world I couldn’t but think it must have a purpose. However, that being said, any belief I had was vague and didn’t affect my life and it certainly wasn’t strong enough to make me view church-attendance as a worthwhile activity (or up and leave my country for that matter). I went to keep mum happy and make my life easier subsequently; but I was terrified that as the second-hand girl to the most popular girl in school, my reputation might fall from superficial glory to the status of bible-basher (the term knocking about on the playground of the early naughties).

When I was about 12 I remember having a discussion with my puppy-love about whether or not he believed in God. He said he did and described what his god would be like. I distinctly remember thinking that his god sounded nothing like mine and thinking that if there was a god, he couldn’t both be like his and my idea of him at the same time. Perhaps I was destined to be a philosophy student.

But it was to be two years later that I stopped theorizing about God and encountered him...

Monday, 8 November 2010

The love affair with prawns begins

Apologies for my thesis-long blog posts recently. Obviously no one enjoys my monologuing enough to merit my writing to that excess! I promise to keep today's post succinct and easily readable.

Since the last time I blogged, I've been through peaks and troughs. I'm going to therefore adopt a writing formula that I never have before - one that mirrors the fat burning program on the bike at the gym... In other words I'm going to give you a high and then a low alternatively, in an attempt to slim down my flabby, waddling blog style, which never seems to be in a hurry to reach the conclusion.

High: the last Saturday of October I took part in my first ever rowing race in Amsterdam.
Low: I had to get up at 4.45am to get ready and get to the train station on time.
High: we didn't forget how to row and came 2nd in our first race, getting us through to the next round!
Low: we got knocked when our mind - body synchronization and sheer fatigue failed us.
High: nevertheless, I was able to enjoy the proceedings of the day - the atmosphere was as I would imagine that of a Hogwarts Quidditch match (all the different university rowing clubs, like Hogwarts houses, in their different coloured uniforms with their supporters and matching scarves - we of course we red and purple and the red makes us Gryffindor!) To top it off, there was even a commentary box with Lee Jordan-esque comic student commentary and songs and cheering and well, it was fanatstic!
Low: on Monday night I went to eat with the rowers and was reminded how much it sucks not being able to understand what people are saying. I'm normally one for initiating conversation, or cheekily butting into other people's, but when you don't understand what is being said, you don't want to risk interrupting a D&M (that's deep and meaningful folks) to trivially comment on the weather AGAIN and it's just really frustrating. I just felt so isolated and like I'd been stripped of my personality, as those of you that know me can hopefully testify to, I like to joke around and make people laugh and I am not a silent spectator, but rather have a loud and often uninformed opinion about most things. Not being able to speak Dutch however, renders me a mute, shy and 1D, lesser version of myself.
High: I've discovered prawns! For years I've refused to eat them, because they look horrific; like little pink aliens that will build an army in your intestines and eat your insides, from your bowel upward until they take over your brain, allusive to the heinous scene in Men In Black. I remember my old best friend asking me once to shut my eyes and open my mouth, an order which I stupidly obeyed, as she subsequently popped one in my mouth, which I proceeded to spit straight back at her. But gone are the days of prawn-projectiling: they're succulent and sweeter than honey-roast ham (well not quite), juicier and more delicate than chicken and absorb subtle flavours better than delectable lamb. Why oh why, did I not surrender my stubborn not quite know-it-all gastronomy before now? I even caught myself day-dreaming prawns in my class on Death last Tuesday. I was imagining a peachy-coloured, succulent little bugger on my tongue and the mellifluous explosion as I pierced it with my canines, when my teacher caught me by surprise and asked my opinion on people that will to die ... Have you ever noticed that prawns look a lot like croissants? I wonder whether prawns and croissants would taste good together ...
Low: I can't afford fresh prawns every day.
Serious Low: I have loads of work to do.
High: I went out and danced to drum 'n bass beats all Friday night long in Amsterdam. Finally good music (Leiden's nightlife leaves London to be desired). Four hours straight, a break prevented by the incredible deep jungle-tastic booms murmuring through my body and driving my dance moves like a whip and all this perfected by Jonathan Cluny's incredibly smooth and excitingly original hip moves. I rarely envy dance moves, but his I wanted to perform and claim as my own.
Low: my friendships here are lacking in depth. I was spoiled in London - with people that knew me so well, I didn't have to lie about having been to lectures for them to already know if I'd skived and people that I knew so well, that I knew what they were thinking simply by the way they walked into a room.
High: God is faithful and if He wants me here, then it's where I'm supposed to be even if it's hard and very surreal at times.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

2 poems and a less cultural performance

I’ve just realised that it’s been like over two weeks since I blogged last, apologies if I have any avid readers! I know this blog is about Holland, but I want to tell you about my recent trip to France to visit a good friend (who wishes to remain anonymous...)

Thinking that the easiest method of transport would be plane, I chose to fly there but had a minor running at the airport, which I describe below in a poem:

The 1 bag, 10kg of handluggage Ryanair iron rule:

Enough to make an underprepared, underpressure passenger cry, explete, stamp, collapse, slump, give-up, pay and give-in

But I am no fool and with my quick thinking, my hopes of a true economy flight not sinking

With buyoncy and cunning, I am still in the running for escaping the undemocratic and bloody annoying baggage charge with my systematic, loop-holing-logic repacking.

I’m 2 kilos over the allowance and must eject the extra weight or pay 35 euros (more than my quasi bargain flight!) for my 2-bags-of-sugar’s worth of extra freight.

Not feeling sweet, I recall the contents of my bag, consider what of my swag I can discard, but it occurs to me and should do to the airline too, that I haven’t packed items for which I have no regard like a packing retard – if this was the case I wouldn’t have overloaded my case, what a waste of space that would be and my intention is clearly to travel light otherwise I’d have checked in a larger bag for the flight, but this logic is out of sight to Ryanair who don’t want to play fair and should turn on the lights rather than remain aloof to the truth that I’ve packed what I need and won’t with any heed throw away thoughtfully selected paraphernalia and neither will I pay an excess fee, it is an outrage that my baggage should cost more than me, too uncanny to savour, but I refuse to exclude a single item and conclude with defiance that I won’t be done-over by the pseudo cheap way to travel and a plan I unravel...

With a little rejiggle, rewiggle, reshuffle, unshuffle, rearrange, realign, redesign, remix and redistribution of my luggage I can reduce Ryanair’s money-grabbing, back-stabbing 10kg 1 bag, not so genius iron rule to fluff and stuff my pockets! A puff of victorious triumph and out comes the ipod, the phone, the purse, the make-up bag and into the receptacles of my attire.

I reapproach but am reproached, still 800g over the allowance, but there’ll be no concedence or unquestioning obedience to their ridiculous enraging policy of folly.

I walk away and shove my gloves into another aclove in my jacket, take out my scarf and hat and 600g of biscuits, too delicious to throw I hide them in my hat which goes under my arm and wrapped in the aforesaid scarf, a secret niche and return to the dreaded scales with a lighter bag, but heavier person, pockets more affected by gravity than at the start of this mission, but a cavity in their bizarre regime means I defy the system and with no emission proceed to the gate and as quickly as I loaded my person simply return the freight of my disallowed extra weight back into my case and it weighs as before when they said, ‘Get rid of 2 kilos or pay’ and I thought


And sabbotaged Ryanair’s pathetic, frustrating, sense-abating 1 bag, 10kg iron rule which presumably aims to moderate the overall weight of baggage + people taken on board, but their rationale must be flawed and ignored in so far as although my bag now lighter, I was a blighter and reassigned my excess stuff to my clothings’ storage sollutions with a resolution not to be defied by, but instead to undermine Ryanair’s stupid rule, which on a less-cunning day might well have made me cry.

No frills = nonsense and if we’re going to be pedants then thinner people should have a larger luggage allocation on their way to vacation – seems like a deal - with less load round their middle, that would make more sense, and save the healthy expense, perhaps raising an eye-brow of the obese-people-pleasers, but then it might just be easier if we all quit the aueronautical bargain hunts, think about the planet (as well as our figure) and reduce our carbon foot prints; not making reality of our dreams of jetting off on the rainy days or we could just do it properly and fly with good honest British Airways.

I soon got over the annoyance of airline pedantry and was greeted by my wonderful friend. She’s living in France to learn the language and as part of her language school’s scheme is living with a family there to help her more quickly progress. I too was to be a visitor in this house for the week, a little awkard considering I couldn’t speak to any of them (if my Dutch is bad, my French is worse!) and felt at times like an intruder, but saying that they were a lovely family. My friend and I enjoyed a lovely few days together, in the morning she would go off to school and I would sit trying to learn Dutch scribbling thoughts and eating pastries – I have another poem coming up dedicated to these blissful mornings! And in the afternoons we spent time at the beach, wondering around the city and just generally catching up on all the things we’ve missed over the last 2 months of being apart. At first I felt rather sophisticated, two friends away from home, both living in foreign countries, both proud possesors of a BA from King’s College London, but then came Saturday nigh, a joust to knock me off my high horse.

Eighteen year old Nelson, one of the boys in the family we were staying with invited us to go clubbing with him, describing the three rooms of some huge club out of town: one minimal tech, one drum n’ bass and one apparently for Lady Gaga! I was stoked, Leiden knows nothing about nightlife and I’d been craving a good night out for ages - so what if the guy taking us was young enough to be my son (well not quite)! We headed into town with him, bought some beverages for pre-drinking at his friend’s house (our drink of choice: wine, because we’re so cosmopolitan) and the night began. I had been a little apprehensive about going to his friend’s house, thinking I was way beyond school-boy gatherings, but turns out there were just three other girls and a boy there, all of whom seemed very pleasant and mature, not that I understood much of what was said.

Maybe it was the comfort of being around a friend that knows me as well as anyone in the world and I let my barriers down; or maybe because I wasn’t exercising my mouth as much as I usually would in social situations, dibilitated by my lack of French mastery, that I kept sipping on my wine; refilling my emtpy glass and then sipping some more. I switched to Desparados and back to wine (I hear you scream, don’t mix the grape and the grain!). Feeling more drunk than I have been since I was like thirteen we headed out and I wondered why I didn’t do this more often – I was all floaty and confidently talking at the French guys despite their inability to understand me. My friend and I headed to the bus stop with them and I was arm in arm with Nelson, loving the reliving on my youth, as he bragged about his eighteen-year-old- bachelor lifestyle and made me promise I would return to visit him one day. Next thing we’re on the bus with hoards more energetic French school students all dolled up, drunk and ready to go. Julian a member of our little gang, thrusts a bottle of lime green vodka emulsion at me saying “drink Naomi, drink”. “No thanks Julian” thinking I transcend such teenage tomfoolery. My friend takes a swig and the bottle reappears under my nose, “drink, drink”. My resolve crumbles and I take a big swig and giggle like an idiot. I am wasted, but still happy. The bus journey goes on forever and involves bumps and corners which I may have exaggerated in my memory. My friend is swinging her head around heavily whilst holding onto the bus pole and I think, ‘Oh no, she’s going to really embarras us’. The gaggle of French youths are babbling away excitedly as we make our joint venture to the superclub on the otherside of town. Our crew, other than my friend are playing it quite cool, chatting, laughing, getting psyched up for the night with more sips of yellow stuff from the plastic bottle, whilst I am starting to feel very light-headed and dreamy, zoning out of the numerous buzz of conversations I don’t comprehend. With another glance at my friend the only one on the bus who speaks my language, and a concern that she really is about to do something stupid; I pass out slumping down the bus window and onto the floor, before vomitting everywhere. I hear shrieks, French ‘yuks’ and am aware of everyone edging away from me, as I feel my sick stickying my face and running into my hair. I am in the south of France, lying on the floor of a bus sardined full with eighteen year olds, passed-out helplessly massaged by my my own vomit: smooth. Turns out I do not condescend this teenage past-time. I don’t remember much more than flickers after this. Dragged off the bus against my will. BLANK. Lying on a curb with my friend slapping my face. BLANK. Being pulled into a seated position. BLANK. Puking. BLANK. Puking some more. BLANK ‘Naomi, Naomi are you OK?’ BLANK. ‘Naomi, can you hear me?’BLANK Puking BLANK Puking and ... you get the picture. Next thing I know Nelson has called his mum and she drives 50 minutes accross the city to rescue me. In the meantime, my friend who was as I suspected apparently also pretty past it, is sick (she blames it on the smell of mine – whatever!). Heroically Nelson’s mum manages to get a very stubborn comotozed masquerade of myself into her car before I pass out again. The long journey home is a blip in my memory and I only become conscious again as she undresses me and tucks me up in bed.

I sleep like a dead weight until 2pm the next day and wake up as the snippets of memory from the night come rushing into my mind. Oh no. How embarrassing. That is so not me. I can’t believe Nelson’s mum had to come and rescue me at 1am – I don’t even know her, she’s going to think I’m always like this, but I’m not. My friend is going to be so annoyed at me. We were the older ones going out with eighteen year olds, we should have known better. Not so sophisticated. Turns out thet only place your BA will get you is into the gutter. What on earth was I thinking? I touch my face and feel dried puke and try to orientate myself before taking a well-needed shower, drinking the herbal tea that Nelson’s mum has prepared and consoling with my friend our joint embarrasment.

Why do I share this with you? Well so you can all laugh at my expense, but also because I’m human and I do stupid things like the next person. Sometimes I can be so self-righteous, thinking I am beyond drunken folly, but I’m not. I’ve been in Leiden for like 2 months with people all around me getting smashed, but thinking I’m not like that! Sunday morning was truly humbling, having to face Nelson, (probably wishing he’d never volunteered to take two twenty-somethings out with him and his mates, doing more damage than good to his street cred) and his mum, but also Jesus. As I lay in bed with only my terrible hang over for comfort, I prayed, God I’m sorry for being an idiot. And I just felt Him remind me, that it’s not about my behaviour and that He knows I’m an idiot and that I’m gonna do stupid stuff from time to time, but He loves me all the same – this Christian thing is not about keeping Him sweet. It’s funny cause I’ve been reading in Judges (a book in the Bible) about God’s people messing up and Him always redeeming them. I’m glad He’s the God of the screw ups and that I don’t have to be all holy and religious. I’m also grateful that other than receiving a terrivle hangover I was reminded that the reason that I don’t normally get wasted is not because I have a duty to keep God happy, but because it sucks. Despite the brevity of feeling like I could fly, I hated not being in control, definately didn’t enjoy being humiliated infront of youngsters I thought I superseded and an achey chest from persistant vommitting for three days after wasn’t good either, not to mention missing out on a night of dancing to drum n’ bass nutrients, or the wasted mongy next day in bed ... Jesus knows what’s best for me. Can I just say for the record that I LOVE red wine in moderation - that way you enjoy its silky smoothness slipping down and not its acidic burn on the way back up!

Anyway I’d like to end on a sweeter note by sharing another poem inspired by my delicious mornings spent in French cafes:

Boulangerie, boulangerie

How that word does speak to me

Not so much the satisfying combination of syllables

But that promise which your names stands for –

Your salivatable goods within.

Your pan eux chocolat calls to me

Tickling my nostrils as I try to walk past

No chance, as I glance

You’re on my mind and I want you in my mouth

That chocolatey scent is foreplay to me

And I reason that making a transaction for you would be a euro well spent

I anticipate the warmth in my hands

As I walk with you to a bench

All the while the delicious stench

Fueling my impatience

And I can’t wait – I will bite you

And enjoy you whilst still in motion

And your texture, your flavour, your buttery flakes are a love potion to me

Putting me under your edible, erotic spell

It’s that smell that takes me to some place else

That only an invasive sewage-or-similar aroma could call me back from

You’re the little black dress of pastries

Classic, reasonably-priced and guaranteed to be tasty

Giving me everything I need and yet

Your seduction is flailing, failing, dimming

By the radiance of the macaroons beside you.

They’re exciting, inviting, sense-stimulating

Promising the sweet peak of oral pleasure

The array of colours representative of exotic flavours

An assortment like a tapas of puddings: perfect

Is it my greed that I lust for more than one taste?

I don’t just want my fill, I want the thrill of variety

The spice of life and I feel

That the macaroons will give it to me.

But then I catch a glimpse of the chocolate tart

And I know what it is to want to start my life with the one

You’re casketed with a protective pastry case

Not giving away to much too soon, chaste

An outer shell to conqueor

(You are driving me bonkers)

I will pursue you and when I’ve undone you

I know we’ll have a richness of bliss

With your warm chocolatey kiss

And a depth of indulgence that makes for a romance

That tingles right down to the core of me.

Raspberry and almond brioche, raspberry and almond brioche

I thought I had everything I desired, but it’s not enough

You didn’t appear appealing at first

But I caught a glimpse and developed a thirst

For your hidden sticky red suprise

The sweet raspberry red syrrup within

Layers of nutty wholeness

And a burst of berry boldness

Adding zing to our growing passion

You’re the plane Jane I hadn’t noticed before

I repent, once I start I always want more.

Boulangerie, boulangerie

How that word causes problems for me

You’ve thrown me into confusion

You offer so much

But it’s not that easy to choose from you

I’d hate to objectify your honest apple pie

Only to satisfy my current desire, so flippant

When tomorrow reveals my lack of commitmant

As I struggle to make up my mind.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Anecdotes and Secrets

Haha, so did I hear that you wanted a crazy Dutch anecdote? Well I've got a corker! So you know I've mentioned a few times how fond I am of this rowing malarkey, I took it one step further this Saturday... Having rowed last week on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (and boy did my muscles know about it) I was asked by one of the board members as I went to fill in some forms if I was coming on Saturday. "Sorry, what's on Saturday I ignorantly replied?" to which I was told that there was an official inauguration day, which due to my ever-inadequate/non-existent Dutch, had escaped my knowledge. "You must come" they told me, "it's gonna be a lot of fun, we'll send you an email with the details". So I receive the email on Friday morning and much to my horror read:

Normally you wouldn't get this much information ... but our experience is that this day can be very confusing for non-dutch ... So let me explain a bit ... This is designed to let our members grow close to eachother, and to make people feel like they have achieved something ... There will be some screaming, and other activities that can scare you (especially when you don't understand whats happening). But keep in mind that it's all a big joke, and that its fun to do.

Flippin' great, this all sounds like it might be a bit of a laugh if you had friends to go with and people to console you/egg you on, but billy no-mates over here has to brave it alone. On Saturday morning I wake up early, wanting but a rowing-free day to catch up on washing (a habit I need to get into), tidying my room, and oh yeah, work for that MA thing I'm doing, but I drag myself out of bed and head off to the rowing club house complete with clothes that I don't mind getting dirty ...

The morning activities were physically challenging, but in no way mortifying, the worst for which I had feared. A boat race in fancy dress (my boat penciled on moustaches and wore our jumpers as capes, in a lousy attempt at being a plurality of Zoros) then some time to chill out and a rumour of a 5km run, which foolishly I doubted. Sure enough the relaxation shriveled up, when the powers that be told us, that not only was the rumour true, but that it was a race. Occasionally I go running and my stamina is not atrocious thanks to a good mate (Brov - you know who you are). Yes I can do this, I thought. So all 70 of us set out together, boys and girls, we have to run the length of the river we normally row, down to the windmill and back. Lots of people start off at a speed I know they will not endure and I plod along like a robust donkey. But can I just say people, that I not only came 5th out of all the girls (there was about 3o behind me) but I also beat at least 1/4 of the boys, finishing in just over 27 minutes and it felt goood - well it didn't actually I was a terrible red in the face and shaking for ages after, but I knew that I had worked damn hard and that felt good in a painstaking-I've-achieved-something kind of way. After a short break, we then took on our next challenge. The rowing machines were brought outside and we were split into 'boats' of four: the challenge to row 2km between us as fast as we could in a race against the other teams, 500m each. Now this, at the best of times, as I found out fresh-faced on Friday morning is tough, but imagine this after a boat race and 5km run which your body is still in recovery mode from ... glad your in the frame of mind. Well I did fall off the rowing machine at the end of my stint, but I'd worked bloody hard and didn't feel at all inadequate to the gaggle of Dutch peers. We then all get sat around for the presentation of awards from the running race. After the presentations, we unsuspectingly get hosed down and water-bombed by our superiors. A massive water fight ensues, which results in everyone jumping into the river - it's freezing and there are yucky weeds at the bottom, but jumping in hand in hand with a girl (yey! - I have a friend) along with the 70 or so others at the culmination of this epic water fight is communally liberating, even though I was now stood with wet knickers, a see-through white t-shirt and blue bra -oops! Despite exhaustion, I was actually having fun. People were talking to me and my conversations were beginning to go beyond what I studied and whether I was, like my accent suggested, from Britain. I finally even bucked up the courage to shower naked with the other beautiful girls of all different shapes and sizes - that too gave me a strange sense of relief and more feeling of achievement than my personal 5km victory. What had I been dreading?

Well if the sport-enthusiasts' day programme was for kittens, the evening was for the big cats. After eating some dinner and stocking up on some drained energy, we get frog-marched into the club house, which has had its windows blacked out. The girls are ordered to move all of their belongings into the boys' changing rooms and the last chance to go to the toilet is announced. After conforming to these instructions we are shut in the clubhouse, with strict instructions not to peek outside (all this is translated for me, by a guy who actually wants to talk to me). In the interim before the activities commence, he asks if we have this in the UK. I tell him that we have sports clubs and initiations and he then explains that Asopos de Vliet is not just a sports team, but a student society. That might not sound shocking to you England-dwellers, but as I've learned in Holland, their societies are allusive of American fraternities/sororities and are closed, cliquey communities. I've been fascinated by this alien concept ever since observing the ominous 'Minerva' frat flags hanging from eerie looking buildings around Leiden and here's me unknowingly joining my own! When I signed up for this I was told that we could just do it for fun, on a non-committal basis (even though it has all gone to my head a bit) yeah, whatever. The same boy doing the translating for me, asks me if I'm scared. "Yes" I nervously giggle. "It'll be alright" he says, "We're all in it together and it's not like they are going to hurt us. I just don't want to throw up!" As he says this, I'm starting to wish that I'd stuck to the initial plan and chickened out to 'go and do work' after dinner, but oh no, curiosity kills the cat. Anyway, as much as I would love to recall every last detail to you, your time will probably not allow, so let me gloss over the next few hours in little depth. We are in the clubhouse for approximately 2 hours and tension is slowly bubbling up to overflow as every 15 minutes or so, 10 people's names are read and they leave the room not to return. Whilst the rest of us nervously wonder what fate awaits them and soon enough ourselves, we have to sing a Dutch nursery rhyme repetitively and when the board grow tired of making us do this, random people are selected to share stories from the front (I deduce not really understanding what is going on) and then we are made to line dance. Finally after these tiresome and confusing activities, my name is called and I sheepishly follow the other 7 out of the room. We are the penultimate group to undergo the impending...

Two guys shout in Dutch at us to get into line. Not understanding a word they say, I observe the others and quickly scuffle to follow suit. They proceed to bombard us with instructions at us. I giggle and say, "Excuse me, but I don't understand"
"Oh Engels" he sighs and then translates, "you don't speak unless spoken to and when spoken to, you reply 'YES SIR'"
"Thanks" I mutter.
"No you say ..."
I get it suddenly and interrupt, "YES SIR"
He nods, I comprehend and we are ready to continue. We march in a line with our hands on the person in front's shoulders. We go around obstacles and every time a car puts us in the spotlight we wave at them like idiots, part of the intended humiliation I guess. After walking backwards in unison for a while, we are taken around a corner and have to do star jumps into squats 10 times over. The whole time I am concerned that my jeans that are far too loose might expose my bottom to the unfortunate person behind me. Builders bums do not translate well in any country I assume. After this, we are instructed to get into girl-boy formation and hold hands with our partner, before we are guided round another corner. The elaborate drama is starting to invade reality. Around the corner and up to our left is a steep embankment and a huge plastic sheet. At the top are more of our Aposos de Vliet (the name of the rowing society) superiors like dark shadows and yet we are the puppets. One of them hollers down at us aggressive instructions, which our captors realise I don't understand and request that they translate for me. He summarises as follows: "We're up here and that means we're everything, you're down there and that means you're nothing. The aim is for you to get yourselves up here and to get us down there. Now, COME AND F***ING GET US!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" My partner and I are shoved - a prompt that we should be the first pair and we run up the slope, which is slippery, sludgy filth from the previous groups who earlier endeavoured to succeed this challenge. We get 3/4 of the way up and I am feeling like it's not so bad, when in unison big black buckets are forcefully upturned and the contents of which projectile towards us. I am sure I have a face full of curry and God only knows what else. Mayonnaise, flour, yoghurt, ketchup. And then a whole bucket of soapy water. It's on my upper lip, in my hair, it stinks and then they physically launch on us, rugby tackling us down the sloppy slope, sending us flying off the end of the plastic sheet to toboggan through the mud to the bottom ... I am in the sort of pain that makes you feel alive and smile in relief.

The other pairs take their turn, but none of us escape our dirty baptism. Next we are ushered on, but rather than walk we must run (through sewage) and then frog hop into squats (which would be bad enough in dry clothes, without a day's physical exertion under our belts, but now my jeans are falling down more than before and my whole body is damp and sticky with yuk. We are instructed to count in unison 'een, twee, drie, vier' as we walk along. I feel silly, but giggle as we go along at the hilarity of the situation - maybe this would be scary if I was dutch, but I question what was to fear, the worst is over I am sure. Our kidnappers, catch me laughing and fiercely warn that this is just the warm up act. I doubt this and laugh more heartily, but they aren't lying...

We are forced into a room which would be pitch back were it not for a few flickering candles. The girls changing rooms have been transformed into a fictitious prison wherein reside the freshers that have undergone the torture before us (I did wonder where they had gone) and they are buzzing and quacking all at the same time - sounds comical - but is actually nerve-invoking. (Try it some time, if you should ever be with 30+ mates up for a social scare experiment!) As we enter, a guy definitely compensating for something shouts, "TEMPO, TEMPO, TEMPO, TEMPO" as we run and get down on our knees with our faces to the wall. He continues with his scare tactics for about 10 minutes and I don't know what's being said, all I know is that I must remain still and not draw attention to myself - I know it's all a drama, but I do not want to be shouted at in the dark by a man I cannot understand. He chucks some water over the guy next to me for wearing a hat and then I think demands something like "Who do you live for?" in Dutch, to which my group responds, "APOSOS SIR" and I hastily mimic. We are made to do press-ups in the dark and then released to create the whole quack, buzzing symphony for the last group to come through and the ritual begins again. Finally the lights flick on and I assume we've finished the initiation. But we haven't ...

I would love to walk you through every detail, but I simply do not have the energy to relive/write it down. In brief, two hours pass in the changing rooms. To get the general flavour - there are 70 of us sardined in, each covered in curry, mayonnaise, water, sweat, mud and other delightful liquids - there is a stench and a mist of exhaustion. We are given a 30 minute low-down on the unwritten rules of the society (which when I requested later in an email, due to incomprehensibility, and was refused). There is then an hour clinic, teaching us all the anti-every-dutch-rowing-club-bar-aposos songs. This activity would be more fun if I had the gusto, and ability to understand them. But it goes on and on and on and ... Names start to get called out and people leave the room in groups again for the next stage. In the meantime we are 'entertained' by the duo who had done the shouting in the dark, who with the lights on are less scary and unsure whether they are in a stand-up comedy or Walk the Line, like angry, cockish, dissatisfied prison-officers they occasionally scream at us and launch cups of cold water over our already damp and cold, dirty bodies. After the torture of discomfort and confusion of bombardment by a foreign angry tongue, my name is finally called out and I follow the others.

We are blindfolded with a smelly tea-towel and thrust into the cold October night's air (it is approximately 11.30pm, although I confess I feel as if I've been in a time-vacuum). Of course the blindfold is highly disadvantageous for me, no longer able to mimic the others' behaviour; I can now neither understand the instructions audibly nor visibly. I convey this and an occasional bitty translation is given - the first of which is "On your knees". Shortly after, the dreaded words, "Open your mouth" are uttered. In goes a spoon, of what tastes remarkably like human vomit, chunky and acidic. I want to hurl and skew my hidden face in disgust. God I had no ideas the places you were gonna take me when I agreed to come to Holland. We have to do mock rowing on the concrete floor, which is not at all reminiscent of childhood play, as I awkwardly end up in the guy behind me's crotch. On the second request to open my mouth, a table spoon of flour is shoved in. I hurl and dribble it down my front, all the time getting, colder, dizzier, more exhausted and wondering what will be next. Bewildered and really on the brink of break down I continue. How bad can it be? I remember the boy's words from earlier - "they're not going to hurt us". I am grabbed and pushed along to join the rest of the group, we pubescently wander around for a bit, losing footing and momentum, with the backing track of aggressive imperatives. Someone mutters at me in dutch, not recognising that I still have no idea what he's saying to me. I feel terrible. We are once again told to kneel down and open our mouths. This time it's a pleasant surprise - some kind of cinnamon delicacy with chilli sauce - apparently prematurely, I stand back up. Someone yells with hurricane force at me and I burst into tears. He is rebuked, "She's English, you idiot"
"Sorry, he mutters, I meant you have to kneel back down". My tears flow freely and I start viciously shivering. An unidentified voice asks if I'm OK. "No" I mumble. I am ignored, but continue to shiver. I feel as though I might faint, absolutely exhausted, nauseas, freezing, exasperated and baffled by the events of the day. Eventually they realise that I am not OK and after much desperate persuasion, I am unblindfolded and permitted to go and take a warm shower. One of the coaches intercedes as I head back to resuscitate myself. "Where are you going? Are you sure you can't finish up? It's just your group are nearly finished? Only 10 minutes more and I'd hate for you to miss out on the last station. It will be really fun for you." Thankfully I convince her, that I couldn't care less. Turns out her idea of fun is (can you believe) getting pushed, blindfolded into the river. Yes that's right folks, they pushed my poor blindfolded peers into freezing water after everything their bodies had been subjected to that day. I think I actually would have passed out with the icy, wet shock of a midnight plunge.

They judge that as a hurdle enough to get over to earn one's entry into the society and the last part of the initiation, which I was able to rejoin, was going before the board, regally clad in their Aposos de Vliet uniforms, with oars criss-crossed behind them and a huge flag, like a life-sized breathing crest. We sing the club anthem, sign membership papers, are awarded with a certificate, official club scarf and shot some gym. Success. We are members...

This is all true, I kid you not. That was how I spent this Saturday. Somehow I am still alive. But I did it, I got through, initiated. I know I sound like a wimp, with the whole crying thing, I knew it wasn't real, I was just so confused, so do excuse me for that bit and concentrate on my victory would you. I have been laughing to myself ever since, like you do at an incoherent nightmare that consumed you at the time, that I took it so seriously. Since Saturday I have warn my amazingly 'ra' scarf with pride and honour and today as I cycled to uni actually got nodded at by someone in the same scarf I had never seen before. I am in some weird, close-knit community. Recently I have been mulling over prophecies (promises and picture from God for my life) that people have given me and I remembered that someone felt I would fit into Holland in ways that I would never have imagined. Let me tell you, that Aposos de Vliet is one of those ways. Hopefully the initiation day is not one of those top secrets that I will get ejected immediately for sharing with you all.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Wisdom teeth and washing

Once again dear friends I'm gonna keep this one short, as I've burdened you with some pretty heavy stuff over these last few posts (don't worry heart-spilling will return soon for those of you who like to talk feelings, or at least read about mine!).

Two items of news, we'll start with the least interesting, but perhaps most shocking...

1. I've lived here for 4 weeks and only just now put my first load of washing on. Before you point the finger to accuse me of being a gross, smelly, inside-out-knicker-wearing-tramp-of-an-existence, I'd like to defend myself. I have worn a different, clean pair of pants every day since being here and still have approximately eleven pairs left. The reason I decided to do some washing on this particular night, is because I was down to my least favourite undies, which is when you know it's time for a wash! As to other items of clothing, I guess I just have too many clothes, as I could probably last for another month or so, but I prefer variety, to having to force myself into wardrobe B. Prepare for standby. In October, I have arranged for my parents to bring my winter wardrobe over - well, not only for that reason, I quite want to give my mum a hug too.

2. I had a wisdom tooth out today! I peddled for 20 minutes in the pouring rain to a private practice, which was quite hard to find, tucked inconveniently behind a row of houses. The whole cycle ride there I was a bit scared about a) coughing up what I was told could be in surplus of 100 euros and b) the possibility of having a tooth ripped out by a dutch man; but motivated by the nightmare of a sleep last night, (or lack of - I was woken up at hourly intervals by a toothy-throb) I pressed on. After filling in some forms, flashing my European Health Insurance card and shaking the dentist by the hand (a polite and surprising gesture which he initiated) I found myself in the dentist's chair. I know lots of people harbour fears over going to the dentist, but for me, the dentist's chair has never been a symbol of horror. I've never had problems with my teeth before, luckily blessed with an orderly set, so never before had any reason to fear. But in this foreign land, and with an aching gum, I sat and explained my problem in English to the Dutch dentist, hoping he would understand. Although I had secretly wanted them out, I was shocked and more than a little afraid when he said that the only way to solve this problem was indeed to remove my wisdom tooth - "there's not enough room in your mouth for all those teeth". He then injected my gum with anesthetic and X-rayed my tooth, which was a most invasive and unpleasant experience. Whilst the X-ray image was processed, I was dismissed to the waiting room. I felt so surreal. Something tasted really weird and I realised that my mouth was going numb. I wanted to be sick. Five long minutes later, I was summoned back into the clinic. Terrified I hotched back into the chair, with no comfort thinking, 'I've brought this on myself, why didn't I just stick the toothache out, buy some corsodyl, lay off the icing and boiled sweets ...'. I reluctantly, not merely for anxiety, but for literal numbness, opened my mouth and watched the scalpel/sharp instrument go into my mouth at the dentist's command. "We don't do it like you do in England, maybe they put you completely under. Tell me if you feel this." I am thinking, WHAT? DID I SIGN SOMETHING FOR THIS. THE RECEPTIONIST TALKED ME THROUGH SOME DUTCH FORMS, BUT SHE DIDN'T WARN ABOUT EXCRUCIATING PAIN. He gets to work and I can feel what he's doing, but not the pain; well, I can sort of feel the pain, but distantly if that makes sense. I know the anesthetic must be working or I would be pleading with him to stop; I mean you would be, wouldn't you if someone was knifing your gum to wrench tooth out. I'm expecting any moment for the insensitivity to buckle under impending agony. I can hear the sound of the knife cutting around the tooth, a sort of scratchy, etchy sound - skin splitting. And then he says, "There we go" gives it a twist and it's out. He's finished, I'm dizzy. My whole head throbs and I try to cry, but I can't. I can't move my mouth. I'm dumbfounded and I'm numb all over, which makes me mute. "You're done" he says expecting me to sprightly leap out of the chair and skip home. No thanks, I'm not moving. He asks if I'm dizzy and when I nod like a lost toddler, he lowers the chair and takes my shaking hand. After I've laid down helplessly for a moment he says that I look a much better colour and then automatically raises the chair again, which I take as my cue to leave. I go out into reception, pay, try and say goodbye in Dutch, which at the best of times is comical and now is pitiful with my half-immobilised mouth. I ring my friend for comfort as I'm disorientated and want to cry. I sound like I'm putting on a silly voice and he sounds confused. All the way home my face is numb and I think I might fall off my bike.

Five or more hours later, I've got the feeling and motion back to my face, which is unfortunately accompanied by a new ache. The dentist was right, about taking out my top tooth, even though the bottom one was the root of the problem, as it now doesn't hurt. Instead however, the hole where the top one was is a little bit sore and my whole head aches a bit, but other than that I'd say the whole procedure was far-less traumatic than expected and what's more, I got bought some ice cream (stroop waffle flavour) my by thoughtful friend Johny, so it can't all be bad!

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Bunting, Bikes and Windows

I am really exhausted today, which will be reflected in the lack of substance of this blog. The ache which was a week ago in the slowly-surfacing wisdom tooth on the left side of my mouth, has gone on vacation to the right side of my mouth, which is draining, but on the plus side, I am now wise. Despite feeling sorry for myself, I wanted to share a few trivial things about the Netherlands that I have found to be charming, in an attempt to cheer myself up.

Bunting: you may have seen this stuff at village fetes when you were younger. It's a decorative string of flags, often made from scraps of material. If you're not sure what this is, then google it in images and you'll see what I'm referring to. The dutch absolutely love it. I don't know if it is symbolic or it is just a cheap way to cheer up a blandly decorated room, but it is everywhere. From cafe windows, to just about every living room I have peaked into. If you should throw a party and wish to adorn the place, then the dutch will not disappoint you. Go into the stationary and party department of Vroom and Dreesman (the department store in Leiden) and there is bunting for every occasion: girls' birthdays, boys' birthdays, passing your driving test, graduating and many more a wonderful theme, as well as multiple colours to suit everyone's taste.

Bikes: now you may have heard it said, that there are lots of bikes in Holland. Well that's actually a lie... there are a phenomenal amount of bikes in Holland! The cycle culture just takes it one step further then what you might possibly be able to imagine. They haven't quite got round to making a cycle lane on the motorway yet, but I'm sure that day will come. Londoners who get annoyed at bike-riding, light-jumping, angry peddlers, would be infuriated by the fact that bikes ALWAYS take precedence here. With a million and one bikes outside every dutch train station, and special two-storey slidey storage devices, which are so clever/intimidating (I haven't yet worked out how to use them) you'd think it would be difficult to relocate your parked cycle. Think again, that's where cycle couture peddles onto the catwalk. Fancy panniers, floral saddle-covers, flowers for handle bars and even the aforesaid bunting has been spied, spray painted and customised to personal taste - this cycle chic deters robbers, makes your own steed stand out and what's more is hot! On Friday my uni are hosting 'Pimp my Bike' so that us novice internationals can become true cycle scenesters. But it's not all about the look, utility is also important. If it's possible to lift it off the ground, then you can get it on a bike. To date I have seen a dog, a cello, a bookcase and even an entire family on a singular peddle! The dutch are not jokers.

Windows: the dutch love light (I'm glad I haven't moved to a nation that revels in darkness!). They can make prison-like buildings look inviting, because their windows are so enormous. Although some buildings are oozing with dutchness like a piece of melted Gouda, there are many that on first glance aren't that different to British builds; but the sheer size of the glass really does transform their overall appearence, which is why despite the rain, I can never forget that I'm not in England. Big windows legitimise nosiness. One further thing I have noseticed, is that all dutch people are extremely gifted when it comes to interior design.

Bunting, bikes and windows: all this I really like about the Netherlands!

Sunday, 26 September 2010

'Unashamedly naked bodies'

For those of you who desire to read my blog as a prompt procrastination exercise, rather than as a substitute for your bedtime reading, I'll try and keep today's post a bit shorter than my last.

'Clean behind yourself :( '. I have just walked past the toilet on my corridor to catch a glimpse of the aforesaid quote on an angry yellow post-it. Presumably, the foreign author, was suggesting that the previous inhabitant of that toilet cubicle should have cleaned up their skiddies after them self with the thoughtfully-provided bog brush, or, maybe they were confronted with a vision of toddler-reminiscent hilarity: a dirtied bottom in the air, debilitated face and desperate need for assistance. Talk about 'lost in translation', although in my case, maybe it's just 'lost in imagination'...

This week has been so busy that my weekend was a haven of welcome inactivity: well almost, Friday night saw some epic and rather excessive baking (carrot cake cupcakes, hazelnut and would-be-beetroot-had-there-been-any-so-instead-we-used-pumpkin-and-it-worked-really-well cupcakes, upside down Canadian pineapple cake and chocolate brownie mess) with some of the ladies from church along with some uni pals; the latter who were excited to get near an oven - an apparent rarity in this nation, that seems to prefer fried to baked goods. I'd feel bad for packing away so much cake, were it not for the fact that it all tasted YUM and that I've been rowing 3 times this week!!! Already I am feeling more energetic and toned, although after every power-pumping session I am faced with a dilemma... In addition to the slightly awkward absence of conversation (I am still lacking in the Dutch language department) between the boat and the changing rooms, upon entrance to the changing room I am confronted with lots of unashamedly naked bodies. Nothing is better after exercise than a refreshing soak in the shower, but with no divisions and an open plan shower arrangement fit for testosterone-fueled rugby lads, I really don't fancy it all of a sudden. Is it strange that I don't want whip my kit off and get stark naked in front of Leiden's rowing lasses? I don't even know why it is, sure there a some magazine worthy bodies, but also some wobblies and I don't have self-esteem issues with my physique, or at least I didn't think I did ... I could easily go topless without much consequence, but baring my bottom and other lady bit scares me silly. So instead I trade in my shyness and desire to keep my privates private, for a reputation as the girl who doesn't shower (For your information readers I do shower when I get home).

'science is the only path to understanding'
'religion is based on rapturous embracing of the bizarre'
'[the afterlife] proves to be a potent source of inspiration and reward for those who wish to kill in religion's name or merely satisfy their blood-lust'

The quotes above agitated me earlier as I was doing my reading for tomorrow's seminar on Philosophy of Religion and the Natural Sciences. Is it just me, or is religion often attacked on the basis of being dogmatic and intolerant and yet that's exactly what these statements convey to me. It's a bit of asymmetrical injustice. Religious people are not allowed to be narrow-minded. But are atheists? My study at Leiden has already activated a bee I've had in my bonnet for a while now; why does 'science' (or rather certain scientists, as no-one can claim to represent the position of global science as if it was an internally-coherent entity, there is of course much dispute within the field) claim objective grounds to absolute and unquestionable authority on knowledge? I think scientists, like the one who authored the quotes above have as their motivation a desire for truth, so I think they could do with being a little more cautious before discarding age-old traditions of knowledge-acquisition and keep an open mind. It looks like he's a bit angry at religion (and rightly so, it has been the cause of much evil, but then so has science -the word 'nuclear' comes to mind). Another thing I pondered as I was reading, was that he argues that science can be trusted as a way of knowing about the world as it is open to public testing, whereas religion cannot. But then in the context of his discussion, in which he was ridiculing religious people for bringing God into accounts of the universe's origin, it occurred to me that I for one could not test the accounts that certain scientists give us, as I am not expert enough to understand and assess in any significant depth their arguments, nor do I have direct access to the data or methods that cosmologists and theoretical physicists uses to reach their conclusions and hypotheses. I suspect that much of the growing crowd today that revere the works of Dawkins and others, don't have this knowledge either, and yet take regardless what they say as gospel truth with one open hand, whilst clenching a tight fist at the supernatural, the extra-physical or the God-explanation, for fear that such an account is not verifiable. If personal testifiability is the requirement for accepting something as a means for knowledge, then it seems to me, that for most of us mere mortals, neither science, nor religion can be appealed to. Maybe, it could be argued, that some people at least (these certain scientists) could access the empirical facts, but then if this can be granted and we are going to trust their reports even though we cannot test them, should we not also treat some religious people with the same degree of respect in granting that they might really have received revelation? Of course, one could argue, that this is a foul move, for potentially we could all become expert enough to check what the certain scientists are claiming. But then if we are now entering the realm of potential, we could all potentially receive revelation from God. I'm not 100% sure that my argument is valid, but I'm curious to know if we should give up our claims to opinions on such matters until we can reach the level of expertise required to have a stab at the 'hows' and 'whys' of the origin of everything; or at least not bully the person of faith out of the debate with verifiability demands? Just a thought.

Whilst I might from time to time reflect on what I am studying, fear not this blog is not about to become a philosophical springboard for my gymnastic mind. I will resume with my Dutch exploits next time ...

Monday, 20 September 2010

The muscle ache and language frustration may well be worth it

I've done an awful lot of looking back in this blog so far. Am I finding the present challenging? To be honest, yes, a little bit. But I guess the main reason for it, is that I love casting a retrospective eye on the chapters of my youth slotting seamlessly into my progressing biography and wondering what the next events to unfold in synchrony will be. I was chatting to a friend the other day about how I was already enjoying my course here (an MA in Religion, Science and Ethics: Philosophical Approaches), even more than I had enjoyed philosophy at King's (and I'm only 5 classes in). She remarked, that perhaps it was because I was meant to be here - what with God providing the finance and everything - it seems like He has ordained this next period of my life and given me the fervour for the course to accompany this divine pre-planning. I thought about her suggestion after our conversation. Was my being in London somehow arbitrary, or at least less important than my present phase? It occurred to me during this monologue, that had I not have studied in London, I would not have met Jeff and Becky, who had first posed the question of me coming to Holland; and what's more, it was at my church in London that I nurtured the desire to go overseas and plant churches... There's no point asking the 'What if?' questions. The only thing a guess-of-an-answer to those can render is, that things could have been rather different. Instead, I'm going to try and spend myself dreaming about the 'What next-s?' and how what I'm going through now, will in turn, become events transcendentally weaved into my future.

This helps me to get through the days when I am fed up. As much as I love Leiden, a gorgeous and very Dutch historic town with canals to divide driving lanes, in place of more typical white road markings, sometimes I am simply disenchanted with it all. The times the love is coldest is when I am stood in the foreign supermarket aisle staring longingly at the inconsequential cereal selection; if I stare forlornly and intensely enough, maybe just maybe I'll wish into existence a box of Branflakes! Not a tall order - it's not like I'm asking for Cinnamon Grahams or Crunchy Oat Bakes (two epic breakfast choices by the way). I settle heroically for their version of muesli without much foot-stamping and get it stuck in my teeth later that week. Living abroad can be tough. What I find perhaps even more testing is that people aren't English. Now, I know I'm living in a land that's not my own and you may say, that this was to be expected and I did know all along. But sometimes you can know something, without reallying knowing, if you know what I mean. It's like there are facts that loom above your head, but until you're plunged into that factual situation you don't digest them enough to be affected by them. I, of course, knew that English would not be as freely available here, or at least not perfect English, but until you're here mixing with new people, you just don't realise how tiring it is. For someone who craves more than anything authentic friendship, the underbelly of superficial people-pleasing conversation, I admit that I am struggling slightly with talk about how many pets I have, my siblings' names and the weather; but understanding and intimacy takes time.

Not quite on the brink of an existential crisis, I have over the last few weeks, been asking myself: 'What if I'm wrong? What if God didn't tell me to come here? What if God doesn't exist at all and you're following someone that's not there, pouring your life away for an imaginary friend? Your life would be so much easier at home with a breakfast comfort and your mother tongue - but you've done this to yourself.' Things could have been rather different it's true, but somehow as much as I doubt, and wonder if I'm being a fool - I struggle to really doubt you know. I guess the situation is parallel to the not knowing until you know. Some knowing is different to knowing. But this doubt of mine is somehow not the paramount, life-ruling kind of doubt, it's just negative questioning affirming the positive that I'm alive and thinking.

I spoke to my dad on the phone beyesterday (most languages I'm learning have a word for the day before yesterday - so I've made my own) to wish him a 'Happy Birthday'. More easily pleased, perhaps than I, he said his hearing my voice had made his day. He also reminded me that it was 6 years to the day since I had been baptised. Wow, so I've been doing this Jesus thing for that long. We should be pretty well acquainted by now, but I'm still getting to know Him and finding out He's certainly my most multi-faceted of friends. I don't regret for one moment following Him. My life would be seriously different by now. About 7 years ago, my sister's friend apparently predicted that I was going to be a teenage mum! Maybe that says something about who I was before I don't know. Personally I think it's a little unfounded - I might have been drinking stolen whiskey in my pushchair (apparently 11 is quite a young age to start drinking) but I certainly wasn't promiscuous. My brother occasionally informs me that he liked me better when I was a cannabis-(ab)user, but personally I'm glad to have put the red-eyes, munchies and paranoia behind me. Of course now in the midst of Holland's famous Coffee Shops, where cannabis, not coffee is on the menu, I am offered a legal ticket to highs, but I'm not yet convinced it's a place I want to revisit. I kind of like the crazy journey God has taken me on so far enough not to need enhancements.

I realise I've been slightly over-indulging myself with my introspective-blogging today, but I have one last thing to share before I put down the proverbial pen... I actually got in a rowing boat last night! After two unsuccessful attempts at getting out on the water, due to the clog-clad gales that so frequent this land, conditions were finally perfect. Rowing in a real boat is so much harder than rowing in the gym. It was a little difficult for me to take everything on board: what with being an English novice, sitting at the very back of the vessel away from the supervision of the cox, and trying to contain my excitement of being upon the water; yet processing Dutch instructions shouted at me, of which the sound vibrations got lost somewhere between the cox, the length of the boat, the splashing of oars and myself. And what's more there were two coaches cycling along beside the river, calling out at me to keep my arms straight, to clip my oar and to follow the rhythm of the girl in front. If I hadn't been in the boat, we'd have soared and it'd have been brilliant for the other girls. I'd been under the impression that I sucked. But on getting out of the boat a tired hour and a bit later, I was told that I was one of the best beginners they'd ever had and they couldn't believe how quickly I'd improved. I blushed as they congratulated everyone, 'especially Naomi' on our achievement. Haha, the muscle ache and language frustration may well be worth it!

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

God really is good and mum is apparently a psychic

I'm two classes down; the MA (in Religion, Science and Ethics: Philosophical Approaches) has officially begun. I was really scared before yesterday's 9am start (typical for my only morning class to be on a Monday!) worried that the tutor was going to put me on the spot with a tell me everything-you-know-type question. It was OK, but I must say slightly overshadowed by today's class on death. Yep that's right, I know we don't normally like to talk about it, but we have a whole course on questioning life and death and in preparation, I had to read an article about the 'art of dying' and how suicide is morally praiseworthy. I'm still processing the argument, but it made for an interesting read...

On a lighter note, I am delighted to tell you that Ronald McDonald's dutch cousin Rutger Van Donald has devised a recipe for a STROOP WAFFLE McFlurry and it tastes *lekker. All the joy that I got from the icy dutch desert, however was lacking last night at the University of Leiden's rowing house. Having not made the most of student life at King's College London, I'd made an internal pre-commitment to my coming here, to try something new. For one reason or another, I felt drawn to rowing. All excited yesterday afternoon, I set off, in my sports clothes to the boat house (which is state of the art I tell you) only to have my excitement ripped out of me and resculpted into humiliation. I didn't even get within touching distance of a boat, let alone get out on the water; but what's more, everyone knew each other, were already experienced rowers, had already rowed that night and were freshly showered and in their snazzier attire, had booked in for dinner together (which I had not) and sat round eating, whilst my stomach rumbled and chatting energetically to everyone except me, who sat muted in the corner by my inability to speak a word of dutch, (other than the aforesaid 'lekker' - but then food adjectives are of critical importance in any language). And yet, I'm going back tomorrow morning at 8.30am for another round of alienation, and if I'm lucky a spot of rowing too!

Apart from now feeling sorry for me and getting out a collection of the world's smallest violins, you might have more pressing things on your mind, like for example, why I recounted last time in some detail my car accident in a blog dedicated to my Netherlands adventure. 'Maybe,' you consider, 'the trauma caused her to trade in her four-wheeler British experience for a cyclists' paradise.' True in part. I do love cycling. False, in that I do still drive and false furthermore in that as much as do I love cycling; that fact is not motivation enough for me to move country!

I will now attend to the object of your consideration. In early August, two weeks before I was due to move to Holland, I realised that I had no money, which of course was more than a mere spanner in the works - more like a plan-thwarter. Before then, it wasn't that I was completely ignorant to my financial situation, but to tell you the truth I'm not really much of a forward-planner and am such a scatty character, forever biting off more than I can chew, that I rarely deal with the logistical details of my endeavours until they are fast upon me. Well now my minus bank balance was very much upon me and the anxiety and feeling of stupidity jumped on board for the ride. I felt like such a knob. I'd been telling people for months about my imminent voyage to Holland to start a church and that God had spoken to me etc etc. I'm sure there must have been, at times, rolled eyes when I'd not been looking. But here I was, with my university place procured, my accommodation arranged, my one-way ticket secured and the weight of my audience's expectation like a yolk upon my shoulders. What an utter twat I felt: naivety seeping from my every pore. All this talk of God providing and the great plans I proclaimed and hoped He had for me and yet all I had were empty pockets, an empty purse and empty plans. I rang my mum up in tears, sorry that it was going to be her who was to bail me out of this mess.

I'd already looked into a loan, but it turns out, one is only eligible for a graduate loan if a) you live in the country and b) you've been in full-time work for a while. I didn't satisfy either condition. I'd applied for various grants, but turns out religious studies is far less important than medicine or law and no one wants to invest in us humanities types. So then there was the possibility of getting a job when I arrived, but this wasn't a concrete plan, but a feather a possibility - would I even have the time and furthermore would a dutch employer really want to take on little old monolingual me?

I came home and sat down with my mum and we worked out that I was going to need 10,000 euros for the year and that the university wanted to know that I had this amount of money to support myself. Big fat ****! Mum had said earlier on the phone that her and dad would try and get the money together to lend to me, but I felt really uncomfortable by this prospect, as although they are in no way struggling to survive, my family do not have spare thousands knocking about. Face to face in Sainsbury's cafe one evening and mum drops on me that she has £5000 inheritance money for me from my granny. Well, I don't know what to do with this piece of information. Initially I think, 'why the hell not tell me this until now?', and my second ridiculous thought (since I don't have a man friend, let alone a fiancĂ©e) is 'but that could be part of my wedding fund' - I've been to 2 weddings this summer! However, I soon realise that I can't refuse to accept this money for the purpose, it's not like I have any other options. My parents haven't mentioned it until this point, because it was meant to be for a housing deposit, and I worry that I'm about to waste a large sum of money on an unfounded feeling about what God wants me to do and an extravagant graduate education. I still need the other bit of the cash though, which mum tells me she'll lend me. Not ideal to add to my student debt, but it seems to be the only course of action available to me.

A couple of days later, I share with Louisa that my mum has this £5000 to give me for the purposes of moving to Holland for the church plant and funding my life as I embark upon my MA. 'No way' she says, 'I've been praying for months about giving you some money to support you and only yesterday did I finally come to a figure that I felt at peace about...' TELL US LOUISA!!! 'I think God wants me to give you £5000 as well.' At this point, I don't know what to say or do. £5000... Blimey... That's a lot of money... £5000 + £5000 = £10,000 ... and I need 10,000 euros ... so this is actually slightly more than what I actually need ... and time is running out ... I will have the money I need ... maybe the ship needn't be abandoned ...

How is it that a fellow graduate peer has £5000 lying about to so generously offer a friend in need? I don't happen to have any rich friends. Louisa's dad doesn't have a title and she wasn't schooled in Eaton. But she was the girl in the car with me on March 24th 2007 with the broken jaw, and ended up receiving a large sum of compensation (for injuries that since the healing in July I told you about, she no longer has). Louisa interrupts my train of consciousness, 'Haha, you know it's funny Nay that I got the compensation three or more years after the accident and for some reason it came through in two separate installments. And the first one came through on your 21st birthday for £5000.' Good point, that is a bit funny, don't you think? What's weirder, is that I then get on the phone to my mum to check that she has transferred the money into my bank (both what she's giving me, as well as what she's agreed to lend me), turns out she's only put £5000 in. When I quiz her as to why, she tells me, that she somehow had a feeling that Louisa was going to give me £5000 and knew that there'd be no need for her to lend it to me.

Well I find this all quite balmy. Louisa gets online, whacks £5000 over on internet banking with the click of a button and the balance that the day before had read -£1600 now reads +£8400! I literally scream 'I've got £10000' (in my jubilation I don't deduct the stupid overdraft balance) whilst jumping round the house like an absolute loony. I'm not a naive twat, but an exuberant worshipper! You did have it in your plan all along Jesus. People had always told me that when God asks you to take a step of faith, He often leaves it to the last minute to provide the necessary finances, so that you will trust in Him and not your own resources. Two weeks before I go and I get that God really is good, really does provide and mum is apparently a pyschic.

* the dutch word for damn tasty