A New Experience

Have you ever been in a room and thought, “what the %$?! am I doing here?” At a zumba class perhaps, or a dubious country hostel in the outback of Romania… While both of these scenarios I have indeed unluckily found myself in, the event in question here is the south Netherlands spectacle that is CARNAVAL. The block capitals are in sympathy to the manner in which the word is spoken inside my head. When I say spoken I mean screamed. And when I say inside my head I mean reverberating inside my skull for time immemorial from the lungs of every native of the North Brabant and Limburg provinces.

It’s a big thing here, the ol’ CARNAVAL. It’s bigger than a British Christmas. And as my mother’s daughter that is truly saying something. People takes days, sometimes weeks, off work to partake and indulge in it. It hasn’t even begun this year and I’ve already attended two absolutely absurd events, and missed many, many more. For this year not only am I residing within the country; my boyfriend’s younger brother has also been nominated / chosen / selected by God / Allah / the Dalai Lama to be one of the Prince’s helpers. Yes. A helper of the Prince. And that makes CARNAVAL a mere ten hundred times more intense. But also a lot more enjoyable. And also makes me – the strange foreigner – the talk of the town.

CARNAVAL, in short, is a three to five day festival (depending on how committed you are, and how far south you live; which for the in laws is very and very, respectively), involving the teeny tiny tots to the unsteady elderly dressing up in garish outfits while men in tights and long-feathered hats ‘get the party started’. The Prince is King of ‘getting the party started’. And the Prince’s two sidekicks, of whom I have a familial connection to one half, are his wingmen, if you will. But that is not all. Prior to the five pre-diarised days of pandemonium, one has the event to reveal and crown the Prince (and his sidekicks), and two weeks later the grand Prince’s Reception.

The first event – the crowing of the Prince – was thrust upon me quite unexpectedly. (As has the whole concept of CARNIVAL been.) I was, in fact, on a rare girls night out on the town, enjoying scrumptious sushi with a Roman (Federica, a girl from Italy’s capital, not a relic) and a Kiwi (Bhamita, a girl from New Zealand, not a luminous healthy snack). We were planning on continuing the evening at a nearby bar, where our partners would meet us following our girls-only dinner. As the last drop of Chardonnay was poured from the bottle my boyfriend walked into the restaurant. He’s come to join us early! I thought. I couldn’t have been more wrong. For he had come to inform me that his brother had just informed him (at 20:30 on the night of the ‘crowning’) that he was, in fact, the Prince’s second hand man, and would we like to watch his big reveal. His parents, too, had been dutifully informed at the last minute, but for them the logistics were a little less challenging as they at least resided in the same town as the party. We were in a different city, 45 km away, not to mention the fact that I was otherwise engaged with some rather tasty tuna tataki.

As my boyfriend went back to our apartment to pack an overnight bag (due to the timing and distance we would need to stay at his parents’ house; there goes the lovely brunch I had just ordered and collected from Too Good To Go), we (the tempura trio) decided it really must be a big thing for him to come in like that, especially given that he had actually been out with a friend of his own, whom he had unceremoniously ditched to attend the great unveil (but the friend apparently totally understood, because, “he was from the south too”). So I needed to get a move on. It was now 9.20 pm and the train we needed to catch was at quarter to ten. I met my boyfriend outside our apartment, overnight bag with all my essential requests in tow, and we made a dash for the station.

On arriving into Horst Sevenum, a ten-minute drive from where the event was being held, we were collected not by one of Gijs’ parents – gosh, no, they were locked in the stock cupboard of the venue, not allowed to be seen by any party-goer’s eyes as that would immediately give away the game of their son’s involvement – but by someone Gijs went to primary school with, who had been sent to fetch us, along with a black cape for Gijs to wear when entering the venue via the back entrance, just in case anyone were to catch a glimpse of him too. There was no need for me to be camouflaged – no one knew who the hell I was, and as the night(s) progressed this fact became increasingly apparent.

We inconspicuously made it up to the waiting room and were greeted by a sea of adolescent males wearing silver trimmed capes and boat-shaped hats, drinking beer and complaining of bursting bladders (as they were not allowed out of the room either (one actually went on the roof to take a leak and got locked outside in the process)). I started taking photographs, naturally, and was reminded not to put them on social media before the announcement in ten minutes. I reassured the master of ceremonies that, in case he hadn’t noticed, no one knew who the hell I was and certainly wasn’t a friend of mine on Facebook! My English accent suitably reassured (and humoured) him (and them all).

When the announcement / reveal / crowning took place we still weren’t allowed in the main auditorium; we had to watch backstage from the gallery, and I felt as if I had won a VIP ticket to an intimate One Direction gig in which the band mates were in a school play and the crowd was everyone but 1D fans. There were no screaming girls here, just a lot of knee-slapping men in tights drinking pilsner and jigging to ear-jarring Dutch ‘music’. I realised there was a lot I needed to get used to.

Once the Prince and his best men had been announced we were allowed to join the masses, and take part in the knee-slapping, pilsner-drinking and joyous jigging. This went on until around 1.30 am, but this was by no means the end of the event. No. For as tradition goes, after this (and other) CARNAVAL events the entire crowd is offered an open invitation to the Prince’s home (or parents’ home in this case), for which no written directions are required because everybody here knows who everybody is and where everybody lives. (Except for me. He he he.) So we trundled on to the prince’s house, which, hats off to his parents, had been pet-cleared and plastic-flooring-fied in preparation for the masses.

The tradition is not only for an after party at the house of the Prince, but an after party involving fried egg sandwiches at the house of the Prince. We arrived at his home, walking straight through the front door without even knocking, to a domestic scene of bread-slicing, plate-arranging and egg-frying from all the Mums. It was quite a spectacle. The egg bap was actually very pleasant, while the infatuation of one Prince friend or relative to my English accent was a little overbearing but nonetheless complimentary. On his fifth utteration of, “heeeeeerlijk” (delightful, wonderful, lovely, delicious), my boyfriend and I decided it was time to make tracks.

The event if this weekend just gone, the Prince’s Reception, was similar in format although there was a lot more hand-shaking, present-giving (one must buy presents for the Prince and his helpers), and a lot of shoulder-saluting when anyone was adorned with another necklace. There were (many) speeches in a dialect I cannot understand, but I have to say that this was far preferable noise to the previous CARNAVAL ‘music’. I managed to escape Sunday’s shenanigans after just two hours, to go back to his parents’ to watch the Liverpool game and have a nap on the sofa, but was back in time for the (earlier than previous) egg session at, this time, the house of the parents of the other Prince’s helper. At 8 pm this equalled dinner so I had three egg baps a bottle of beer and said goodbye to any concept of nutrition.

The CARNAVAL proper is happening this coming weekend, which oh so unfortunately coincides with a friend’s wedding back in England – so I’m only going to have to miss it!!! I will be back in time for the final day, however, next Tuesday, one week today… On this day there is a play of a farmer’s wedding and one must dress how a farmer from eighty years ago would when attending a wedding. Nothing easy here. But with enough pilsner I can pretend I am back at the British wedding and sipping glorious prosecco. Prost!

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SoleCycle

Yesterday was Dutch Day. For me that is. Not a national phenomenon like the recent National Peanut Butter Day (January 24th, USA) or Tag des Deutschen Apfels (German Apples Day) (January 11th, Germany). No. Thursday, for me, marks a day of Dutch language learning. It is as hard as it sounds.

The morning calls for an informal conversation class at the bibliotheek; a large gathering of all the misfit foreigners (myself included) who have somehow rounded up in Eindhoven, with no prior experience of the troublesome Dutch language, who chat, over a free cup of coffee and under the supervision of a native speaker, about just anything they can muster. Personal introductions always begin (which gets a little tiresome if one ends up with the same group every week), of which mine I now have engraved on my frontal lobe for use at any given moment. I am Rachel; I come from England; I am a writer. It can be elaborated on as necessary, but you get the idea. As you go round the circle you learn the forenames of all the others in the ‘Ik (I) spreek (speak) een (a) beetje (bit) nederlands (Dutch)’ clique, along with their country of origin, number of offspring and time spent in Eindhoven thus far. Sometimes the accent in which they vocalise the Dutch words is much more entertaining than their life story (often the case). But none the less, after the five to fifteen minutes of backstories the clan is ready to tackle the theme of the day’s class.

Yesterday we talked about where we lived: the centre or the outskirts; a house or an apartment. You soon learn with the Dutch that no question is a question too far. On multiple occasions during these sorts of shindigs have I divulged the extract street in which I live, the precise location along this street – in response to direct questions, mainly from the native overseer – for which my answers have always, thankfully, drawn a blank from my fellow students. Age is very much a ‘go’ area too, no matter one’s gender or frailty, along with price paid for said apartment or indeed every piece of furniture one has within it. This would actually be the prime place for a stalker or household thief to conduct his research…

We wrapped up the session with a game (eek!), involving laminated red cards with the most impossible Dutch questions that one was meant to read, decipher and, most challengingly, answer. One turned out to be: “Who do you laugh at the most?” – not who do you laugh with the most; who do you laugh AT. I was tempted to say my mother, for instance when she has a ‘Bailey’s moment’ (too much Irish cream) and falls over in slow motion, or mistakes her hairdresser’s dog for a soft cushion, but I refrained (partly to spare her dignity; mainly because I don’t yet know the Dutch for ‘tipsy’ or ‘Cockapoo’). So I settled on my favourite comedian, Russell Brand, who’s name was clearly as famous in the Netherlands as mine, and who I tried to describe be saying ‘comedian’ in a soft German accent. I have just looked in my dictionary and the correct term, in fact, is ‘blijspelspeler’… (When broken down this translates to ‘happy-performance-player’. I think I like this better than ‘comedian’.) Correction: My Dutch boyfriend just read this and said he had never heard of a blijspelspeler before. The correct term, in fact, is actually ‘cabaretier’.

The second and final unexpected (in general) and unfathomable (in Dutch, without the help of the supervisor, Anneke) questions was: “What television programme could you see yourself being in?” Well. We all drew a blank. And then I remembered Strictly. Oh, how I would love to do Strictly. (With Gorka or Aljaž, ideally.) So I let out an “Ooo!”, along with a hand raise, and proclaimed, in my very broken Dutch, that I could in fact see myself appearing in the BBC behemoth that is Strictly Come Dancing, tan and sequins and vajazzle included. I have never before received such quizzical looks.

After a spot of lunch at home (the direct location of which I will not be sharing any more frivolously than I have done already), and a much needed catch up with my favourite Great Auntie Liz (we shared stories of our respective colds and the like), I headed off to Dutch class número dos (or perhaps more appropriately nummer twee (doesn’t quite have the same ring to is, does it?)). A weekly, structured Dutch language course taught at the local Red Cross (Rode Kruis). And this is when my Dutchness really took a turn for the authentic. I was to cycle there.

But I first had to attach my new bell to my very old bike. There was a bell already in place on Lioness (I had assigned her a name, just as I have done with my cars in the past (silent weep)) but it was broken and ineffective, so I set to work on fastening the functioning one onto the handlebars. This must have been amusing for any passers-by. I had no screwdriver and so could not remove the old bell, which I did think was strangely positioned on the left-hand side. Hmm. Maybe the Dutch had a predominant left hand. (My partner, after all, does own a pair of plastic primary-school-type left-handed scissors.) But also curious was the upside down logo of the new bell, once positioned on the right handlebar. The fastening itself, done with nimble fingers, was a little comical due to the dropping of screws, etc., but nonetheless was a good job for a novice in a badly-lit alleyway. I had a quick scan of the other bikes parked there. They all had their bells on the left hand side. I realised the ding-ding dongle was indeed made to be dung in the other direction – from the left hand – which would solve the capsized logo issue and settle in better with the millions of other two-wheeled transporters around the city. Oh well. At least I had a working bing-a-ling in case of emergencies.

Having bought my oma fiets (granny bike) a good six months ago, and with a number of practice journeys met personal assistant (under the watchful eye of my able-cycler-boyfriend), I felt this was the day in which I would complete my first solo ride. We had done pretty much the same journey at the weekend, on search for a less-expensive fish monger than that located in the city centre, but however were met with a dodgy looking dealer serving unlabelled raw seafood produce from the bare hands of a twelve year old boy (but that is another story). But I knew the way, and the difficult junction(s). The first of these I had in fact had a near death experience at a few weeks ago (involving stopping in the middle of the road due to a car which I had not seen; having to walk my bike (while mounted) in reverse to the pavement where my boyfriend waited, in hysterics; and then having an awkward and embarrassing ‘no you go’ to and from with the driver of the car who wanted nothing more than to extend this excruciating experience for me by prompting me to go again and cross the ruddy street. I was too flustered to manage it so we had a stand-off for around forty-five seconds before he finally understood that I was very much an amateur and proceeded on his journey.) This was the junction I was most anxious about. But when I got to it yesterday – all alone and vulnerable – it was a dream. No traffic and no stopping required whatsoever! My lord this cycling lark was a breeze.

The afternoon class was fun as normal; an amusing group consisting of English, French, Taiwanese and South Korean origin, along with the Dutch master, of course, reading Dutch from a workbook in a rainbow of accents, and ending, most cheerfully, with a light-hearted game of hangman. (The fact that the teacher didn’t quite understand the rules just made it better.) Then it was time to fiets back home again.

Mishap number one happened very early on. I needed to turn left at the end of the street, which, like a right-turn in the UK, involves crossing a lane of traffic. I realised I had never before undertaken a turn of this type; from minor road onto more major road (but not a major road by any stretch of the imagination (don’t worry Mum)). I figured it sensible to position my bike towards the middle of the minor road, to allow for other bikes and vehicles to turn right, if needed, while I waited for the traffic from both ways to subside. Turns out this was the right thing to do. I was mightily chuffed. The car in front of me, wishing also to turn left, pulled out and it was my turn on the front line. The problem was, I hadn’t quite got my stopping routine to the fluid art I wished it to be. You see my bike’s brakes are engaged through peddling backwards; not from using brakes on the handlebars. I actually rather enjoy this situation, but the only thing is is that when I need to go again, after stopping, I require my peddles to be in a certain position. My right peddle, for example, needs to be at between five and fifty degrees (on a sideways view) for me to have enough oomph in the first push to actually get going. Due to the short distance I travelled from behind the stationary car at the junction to myself being at the junction, my feet had got in a tizz and were nowhere near the desired situation. So as a reflex I jumped off the bike. (I don’t know where this reaction has come from but it can put one in a spot of hot water.) So I was now in the middle of the road, at the line of a junction, standing next to my bike. It was all a little disconcerting. Another feature of the back-peddle brakes is that to change the position of the peddles one has to lift the rear wheel off the ground and manually, with a foot, peddle the nearest peddle forwards until they sit at the desired orientation. Doing this at a junction was both humiliating and a little dangerous, but to be able to get moving it was somewhat of a necessity.

Another cyclist glided past me while this was happening, giving me an even stranger look than I had received that morning from my fellow Dutch novices at the library on explaining my Strictly Come Dancing dreams. But at least the overtaker wasn’t one of my afternoon class colleagues. That would have been mortifying. I eventually got my pedals to where they needed to be and got on my way. Ah. Bliss.

The second and final hiccup came a little later, at about the four-fifths mark of the journey. There is a very strange road layout that requires bicyclists to cross their side of traffic and move to another cycle lane on the other side. We had talked about this junction at the weekend, during and after manoeuvring it, and I knew exactly what I needed to do. Look over your left shoulder to check for any cars; go if there’s none; judge the speed if there is one; and make a decision on if you stay or if you go. Usually cars are very forgiving of cyclists here (bikes really rule the way), but as a novice I prefer to be overly cautious. Which, I think, causes confusion to the drivers. The car approaching my left shoulder was white (think of that what you will) and seemed to be quite close, in my opinion. I wasn’t sure what it was doing so I slowed and hung back. It wasn’t sure what I was doing so it slowed and hung back. I didn’t have a bloody clue what to do. It beeped at me and I was mortified for the second (or third) time that day. I didn’t actually know if the beep meant “get out of the way and go back to where you came from” or “for goodness sake: GO!”, so I continued to slow and hang back. This, it seemed, was my new accident-aversion technique. (It certainly didn’t prevent deadly embarrassment but it did keep me safe of any cuts or bruises.) The white car overtook and I crossed the line of traffic behind it. I then had to wait at the traffic lights in parallel with the car, simultaneously cursing the driver in my head and doing everything to avoid eye contact for fear of some kind of indecent hand gesture. Finally the lights turned green and I was on the home straight. I peddled up to the shopping street and dismounted, successfully. I locked up little Lioness, clambered back up to the flat and poured myself a very large glass of congratulatory and consolatory red wine. Phew.

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