Taxis In Holland And Germany And Smiles At Airports

I begin with taxi cab experiences in Holland and Germany, destinations in late September. I spent two days in The Hague in Holland for a meeting of The AIDS, Security and Conflict Initiative (ASCI) a research project convened by the Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’ and the US Social Science Research Council. The final report and other information are on the web at
The flight from Norwich to Amsterdam is about 35 minutes if KLM uses their Fokker F70 jet and 55 minutes if the aircraft is smaller, creaky, propeller driven Fokker F50. That is a name to the company probably regretted when they became an international brand, but as they went bankrupt in 1997 it not that relevant. Getting the train from the airport was not easy as it seems the Dutch railway system does not accept most major credit or debit cards and the machines need coins for most tickets.

The meeting was being held at a hotel in Scheveningen, an attractive seaside resort just north of The Hague so I took a cab to the hotel. It isn’t far and there are trams, but when one does not know a city it is easiest to be driven. The taxi drivers I had were all young, foreign men, (sample 3, 100% accurate.) The first driver told me he worked two jobs and wanted to complete his education. He spent the entire journey telling me how tough his life is; how many of his passengers are mentally disturbed (presumably when they get into the cab because I could well understand it if they got out feeling unsettled); and finally how dangerous it is to be a cab driver in Holland. He took the view that drivers should be in cages and have cameras in the cabs for additional security. A depressing experience!

The second cabby drove far too fast. As this was from the hotel to the station, I can only assume he thought, correctly, that I had a train to catch. But the trains leave every 15 minutes so it was quite unnecessary. He went through at least two red lights leaving in his wake, numbers of shocked and shaken cyclists. In the end, I asked him to slow down which rather surprised him, commenting on taxi drivers’ skills is a no-no.

By contrast, the drivers in Berlin were fast, did not speak English, and drove safely. There was a degree of precision and accuracy to their driving which was, well, Germanic. It was easy and cheap to use the U-Bahn and the bus in Berlin. I managed to negotiate both. On the Saturday I caught the airport bus from the romantically named boulevard, ‘Unter-den-Linden’, to Tegel airport, very simple and comfortable. Not being able to get on an earlier flight, I sat in the lounge and edited an article. That was boring but productive. Two loud Americans came in and talked about their Blackberries and families in that order!

On the journey from the Hague I also ended up spending a couple of hours at the airport, Schipol this time. The check-in was supposed to be self-service. The automatic passport reader did not like my passport so I was obliged to enter details manually. I managed this until it asked for the first three letters of the home country. So, what was it to be? ENG (for England) or GRE (for Great Britain) or indeed UNI , (United Kingdom) Naturally, it was the last of the three options. Before I solved it I turned to a KLM staff member and asked for help. She was talking to two other passenger and the following conversation ensued.

“Hang on” she said, “I can only do one thing at a time.”
“I thought women could multi task.” I teased her.
“No.” she responded, “Only knitting and talking!”

In the departure area, the microphones were not working, so the person on duty had to round up all the passengers by shouting across the hall. It was clearly a day of equipment failure. Still, the plane did take off on time and so was into Norwich 20 minutes early. It really was a beautiful day to be in the air: clear and sunny with the whole of Norfolk spread out below us at its best. I managed to spot Coltishall Airfield, an old Royal Air force base. I now recognise it as a useful landmark before coming into Norwich from the North when I am in the flying school plane. Really interesting! Now I have to start working at spotting it from the other side.

The trip to Berlin was to a talk to a sub-group of the German Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association and also to GTZ on of the main German aid giving bodies. Berlin is such an interesting city. One of the striking things is how little of ‘The Wall’ is left, and what there is, is rotting, with concrete falling off and steel reinforcing rods exposed. My assigned seat was 6C and next to me was a German woman, Cordelia Marten, who is one of two or three people running an art book company owned by a friend of hers. What an interesting position, the idea is to take artists out more broadly into society and to the public. It is better than one person having a one picture on a wall or a gallery which depends on people coming in. It is also highly specialised. It fitted very neatly into my books read and reviewed category at the end of this news.

The company has a great website and the books are in both English and German. The one I found most interesting on the site was by Michael John Whelan, ‘RED SKY MORNING’, Berlin 2009, So often I feel extraordinarily privileged to travel and meet such a range of out-of-the-ordinary people that I learn from.

I have just three weeks of sabbatical left. It has been good to be in Norwich through a spring, summer and now an autumn. The garden has been magnificent although at the moment it is terribly dry. Despite the general view of England as a constantly damp isle we have not seen rain for at least six weeks.

As I prepare to leave my final reflections are flying and the range of wildlife that this patch of garden attracts. The weather has been perfect for spiders and there are webs in every location that will support one. It seems unlikely that there is enough insect life to keep them all going. Perhaps they become cannibals, although my experiments of introducing one spider to another’s web show the intruder scurries off as fast its eight legs will carry it. (Sample 2 confidence 100%).

The pond beside the shed has been home to a batch of fearsome mosquitoes. Mowing the lawn the other evening I was really bitten. I could actually feel each bite, and as the little beast got caught in the hair on my legs I was able to kill them, but that was cold comfort. The result of the bite, even interrupted by death, was great itchy wheals (sample 5, and two spider’s bites, the difference being a black spot at the centre of the spider bite and not as irritable). The pond has also been home to tadpoles. At the moment there are at least big frogs living in it, when I went round this morning there were three plops as they leapt in. Curiously if they are in the water they feel confident enough to sit with their head out and watch me, but if they are outside they want to get in as fast as they can.

More flying stories September 2009

It has been a frustrating few weeks as far as flying goes. I booked a lesson a couple of Sundays ago. I went to the Flying School (this sounds grand, but is just an office with a white board at the end of one on the runways) for my pre-flight briefing. My instructor warned me that it was rather windy and we might not be able to fly, but we went ahead. This lesson was to be about low flying, higher than 500 feet but less than 1000. (One of the rules of flying is that you should not go nearer than 500 feet of a person animal or vehicle).

After the briefing we went out to the plane and on to the next step which is the pre-flight check list. This takes me about 15 minutes, and includes opening the engine cowlings and checking for dead birds. This done we got into the plane, did the next checks, started the engine and taxied to the end of the runway. At the holding point the instructor called the tower to get the latest weather and clearance for take-off. The wind strength had increased and so he decided that we should not fly. The main reason is if anything went wrong the insurance would be invalid. Flying is about margins and making sure they are as wide as possible. On the whole I fully approve of this.

The school does not charge when this happens, so effectively I got an hour and half of time and 20 minutes taxiing. This was no bad thing because I have finally mastered that to a degree. The moment that made a difference was realizing how the plane is steered. There are two peddles on the floor that control the rudder (a bit on the tail which turns left and right). They also control the nose wheel which I had not understood! It made a huge difference to me to realize that what I was doing with my feet had an immediate effect just in front of me, rather than being transmitted to the tail and then effecting the angle of the plane – or something. Also, and I don’t know if this is only true of the Piper or if it is the case with most small planes, the controls require a lot of effort to make them work at low speed. If you think of a car without power steering, and how much exertion it takes to turn the steering wheel when it is stationary, you have a sense of what I have to do.

My sense of frustration was that I could not do what I wanted, for the instructor it meant no pay! The reason for becoming an instructor for younger men is to build up the hours of flying to allow them to get commercial licenses. If they don’t fly they don’t get paid and it is pretty minimum wages for them anyway. I think I am going to have to give this plane a name as it seems to becoming a part of my life. If you have moment, look at the picture and give me your nomination. It is a Piper Tomahawk, as they say ‘ideas on a postcard please’.

Books and things 

Chris Anderson ‘The Longer Long Tail‘ Business Books 2006, 267 pages

This is about the fact that there are a few hits and then many other products. The essence is niche interests have come together on a global scale and create a substantial market. The author (editor of ‘Wired’ begins with the effects of the internet. The simple version of his argument is if you lower the cost of production and distribution you can offer more variety and if this happens people will start to look for the product that most closely meets their needs. The best example at the moment are the media products available on the internet. One key point is this does not mean the end of hits, there will still be the big blockbuster films, but there may be fewer of them and not as big. The major issue that he does not address is around quality. There are some products that need investment otherwise quality suffers. In other words there is a level at which what is good cannot be left to the market.

A movie recommendation in this letter District 9 is a South African film that is full of dark humour and is really astutely observed. I took Douglas and a friend and we all enjoyed it. I wont say more- other than do go see it, and the website