Moving to Holland 4 – a short visit to Brussels

After three weeks here in Holland, moving to Alkmaar and working in Petten, I went back to Brussels for work.

I lived in Brussels for a good twenty years, longer than anywhere else in my life. But I came back in some ways as a stranger.

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Arriving at gare du midi in the evening I caught a tram I never use, the 3 or the 4. I got out at the wrong stop for that reason. I asked myself what felt foreign. The brownness – the dim colour of the street lights – the curves and the diagonals of the street plan.

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Finding a restaurant with white table cloths that was still serving at 8.45. Asking for a gin and tonic and getting a double.

Over the next couple of days, as I tugged my pullalong suitcase, sometimes sweatily, from meeting to meeting, taxi drivers shouted out to me in the street. When I took taxis, the drivers talked aggressively at me in bad English and ripped me off for a tip.

I learned to give top priority to ensuring my devices were always charged.

I thought of how two street plans interstice in China Miéville’s The city and the city.

I thought of Kipling.  What do they know of Brussels, who only Brussels know?

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There were shopping trolleys, though, to make me feel this was still my home.



Moving to Holland 3 – the supermarket, and rubbish

When we made our first trip to the Jumbo supermarket, Emigrating Companion and I found a treasure trove of differences from Belgium, where we used to live.

The supermarket had the same sharp loaf-slicing machines as in Belgian supermarkets, but you were not allowed to operate them yourself.

They had the same fresh-orange-squeezing machine and this you can operate yourself; it is cheaper than in Brussels  (€3,15/litre instead of €4,95).

Alongside the egg boxes you could buy a container with 15 egg whites. The egg boxes have a 0-3 star “Better life index” on them. Most of the wine is screw top, not with a cork. Paracetomol is cheap and you can buy as much as you want off the shelf.

You arrive at the check-out and put your groceries on the conveyor. The staff member scans your goods and puts them in an area on the other side of the till so you can load them in your bag. In Britain, when I used to do this before moving to Belgium, the staff member wouldn’t wait. If you weren’t quick the next person’s goods would start rolling down on top of yours. In Belgium it is the opposite. Everyone (the staff member and the next person) waits politely until you have cleared the area and loaded your bag, before the staff member starts to check out the next person’s groceries. Here in the Netherlands there is a clever intermediate solution. The post-payment area  is divided into two channels. The staff member has a rudder which they pull across to alternate the channel down which the checked-out goods flow, so that a person who has already paid can be loading while the next customer’s goods are flowing into the area.

Once you’ve done your shopping you have to get it home. In Belgium it’s easy: everyone uses a shopping trolley (called a caddie) – a bag on wheels to tug your shopping home. But I remember that in Britain only old people used these things.  And here, too, no-one but us has one, perhaps because they come shopping by bike.

On the bus to and from work I am reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s The End. He writes on this topic: In the afternoons the place [a supermarket in Malmo, Sweden] came alive with customers dragging the new wheelie baskets along behind them. It was one of the saddest sights I knew, all semblance of human dignity evaporated the moment a person went with that of all options. The feeble, characterless action of trundling instead of carrying. The fussy little wheels, the long black handle, the basket that followed on behind like a small dog. The clatter of the wheels was ear-splitting from the moment one became aware of it. 

The very thought deflated me.

Can we carry on using our caddie after that?

We could not deduce, from the different colours and sizes of the bin bags available in the supermarket, the sorting rules, as you can in Belgium. Nor could we find out the collection days. Emigrating Companion scanned our street each evening and each morning: no bags were put out. Our litter mountain mounted up.

Alkmaar city centre, where we live, has street litter bins, of course.

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Early one morning I saw one being lifted by a machine.

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So I guessed that this is where you put your rubbish.

Brother-in-law, who came visiting, and I carried heavy bags to one of these street litter bins. We couldn’t open it. Along came a young woman with two bags and a key card. In they went. Without a key card we couldn’t chuck our rubbish. We lugged it back home.

Meet me outside Zara at 7 pm, said my colleague E.N., a day or two later. We did, and with his key card we could at last get rid of our rubbish. We won’t be able to get our own key card until we have a Dutch ID card.

Moving to Holland 2

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I’ve been in Alkmaar for two weeks, now. Emigrating Companion and Emigrating Dog came up from Brussels on the train, and we’ve moved into a house on a brick street in the town centre.

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Some things are different here. Urinals are higher off the ground. Thursday night is Times night. (On the other days, the bookshop on the main street that sells English papers is closed when I get the bus to work at Petten and closed when I get back.) Rented properties are hard to find. My friend Ms C, who moved here at the same time, went to look at a flat. There were plenty of applicants. She was asked to write a motivation letter explaining why she should be the one chosen.

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“Vlaamse” (Flemish) chips, from Belgium, are advertised as the best.

The first six months are when you have the faculty of noticing things like this. After that, if you don’t start writing Martian poetry, they are normal.

English is used and spoken more widely than in Brussels. I wonder whether this correlates with the country being culturally closer to Britain, or America. I haven’t felt it yet. When we were moving in the removal van blocked the road. People who made their way past with buggies or bicycles said Goedemorgen in a friendly way, no-one showed annoyance. One of the men said we regularly go to England. It’s not like this there.

For work, I went to a meeting at Schiphol airport on batteries for electric cars. There I got a taxi; it was a Tesla. The driver said that to get a licence to serve the airport, taxi companies need to deploy a certain number of green vehicles. Things are changing.

Wargames in the Midlands, 2/2 (moving to Holland)

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Yesterday afternoon a taxi picked me up, with my friend the Australian, at the Newark Showgrounds. Twenty-four hours later, here I am having a meal in a little restaurant in Alkmaar – where, as of today, I  live. I suppose I have emigrated. Tomorrow I start work at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, at  Petten on the north sea.

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We were in Newark for the De Bellis Antiquitatis Northern Cup, a wargame tournament. I did badly – sixteenth out of twenty. The Australian, who’s always liked elephants, of which there were many in the armies we fought with, did well.

Overnight, I stayed with Son in London. Girlfriend took us out to dinner. We talked about how women are going on multi-day walks (she’d been for an 11 mile walk that day with her friend who’s in training).

This morning I got the train out of London towards Brussels.

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I always love to see this Thames bridge.


I changed trains, merely, in Brussels.

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I have lived there, with Emigrating Companion, for 23 years. I thought about Adieu, Sweet Bahnhof by the Nits.  I’ve been waiting for hours in this train/And I’m riding through Brussels in the rain, they sing. Today, it was raining.  The singer of that song is going the other way, though, to Paris.


My phone bipped  at the frontier. There was no visible change until a bit further on, when the train crossed the Scheldt.


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(These journeys, door to door, were neither fast nor cheap. Newark-London: 51 kph, 45 eurocents/km. London-Alkmaar, 36 kph, 88 cents/km. My averages are 60 kph and 30 eurocents. I haven’t been paying attention to this recently. I think I will again.)


In Alkmaar I walked on narrow brick streets from the station to the old town where I ate peanut soup with beansprouts. You don’t get that in Brussels.

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