Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Walking under trains and elephants that balance on their heads

Due to being really busy with work, I have neglected my blog (and writing Emails) over the past week and a half. It’s too bad because I have done a lot of really interesting things and now I have to try to remember them all!

The weekend of July 11 – 13 I went to visit Nina. It was the last weekend her parents would be away, having been sailing around France for the month. So we took advantage of having the two apartments to ourselves.

A few weeks earlier Nina had seen some old friend who she hadn’t seen in some time. One of them works as an operations manager at the Deutsche Bahn repair centre in Aachen. He even offered to give Nina and me a tour some time, so we took him up on his offer.

Saturday morning we picked him up and drove to the facility in central Aachen. Now unfortunately there was a large sign stating that pictures were not allowed to be taken inside the shop. I was allowed to break this rule with the understanding I wouldn’t post the pictures on the internet, which means I can’t share them with you here. The one I have posted is of me inside the cab of the train, which I think is OK. It was the pictures of the train lifts and repair bays I am not allowed to post.

Before we went inside we walked through the parking lot where we came across the stored axles. I expressed my surprise that the small lip on the sides of the train’s wheels are large enough to keep the trains on the tracks. As it turns out, that isn’t what keeps them on the tracks at all and is actually only there to help guide the train when it goes over a switch. In fact, the curvature of the wheels is what keeps the train on the tracks. The left side pushed the train right and vice-versa.

Inside there were two tracks, each meant for fixing different parts of the train. The bay on the left had an open pit below that ran the length of the building, allowing you to walk beneath the train. We watched them hoist a train up and change an axle. The set of lifts can raise an 80 metre train (4 cars) at a time. After the work was done we had a tour of the underside of the train.

The wheels get changed every million kms, which works out to every 2 ½ years. With the technology available and the onboard computers, the trains can safely drive themselves, although the German public isn’t comfortable with it. So they employ engineers to drive the trains, even though it is completely unnecessary. We were told that Thalys has tinted the windows of the driving cab and have removed the engineers. Apparently all Thalys trains are unmanned, although they are not advertising that.

I was also surprised to hear that Bombardier makes all the passengers trains in Germany. They have bought up all the smaller manufacturers around the country and have taken over the market.
Saturday night we went to a party. A friend of Nina’s was having a small dinner party for her birthday. It was one of the more enjoyable parties I have been to as it was in someone’s apartment and more intimate than the others.

On Sunday Nina went to visit her horse for a few hours, so I went up to the roof deck to get some work done. The weather turned out to be really nice, causing a bit of a distraction against work.

As my project with Wayne was coming to an end, I Emailed Stefan to inquire about why the volume of work from him was waning a bit. In the past when I have requested more work it has ended up taking 1 – 2 weeks before I started to notice a change. So I thought I was being quite clever by Emailing him a week before I finished working with Wayne.

I decided not to go home on Monday, instead I went to Nina’s office with her in Aachen. As she is writing her thesis, she gets assigned a joint office in an old house the university has turned into geology labs and offices. As with many old cities, the university is spread throughout the city.

I had a private office with a desk, window, bathroom, light, fresh air and power for my laptop. It was everything I needed! As Nina had a lunch meeting with some students, I headed into downtown on my own. I ate and walked around a bit to enjoy the sunshine and fresh air.

When I first arrived in April, Nina and I had gone to a traveling carnival that was stopping in Aachen for a week. The huge lot where it had set up was a block from Nina’s office and I walked by it on my way back to work. To my surprise, they were setting up a giant circus and it was set to open the next day.

I don’t recall ever going to a traditional circus growing up. Well, that’s not completely true, I do have VERY faint memories of maybe going when I was extremely young, but I am really not totally sure. As far as I know, I haven’t been.

I decided to stay another day so we could go. I was so excited, all I know of circuses is Cirque de Soleil and I know there are elements of a traditional circus in it, but it’s not the same. The company, Krone, is one of the largest circus companies in Germany and were celebrating their 100th year.

Tuesday I went back to work with Nina. As I had to work at the terminal Wednesday morning I would have to go back home Tuesday night, so we planned to see the afternoon (and opening) circus performance.

Tuesday is also when Stefan opened the floodgates and started to send me the work I had asked for. I was a little shocked at how quickly he had responded. It has actually caused me to ask for a small extension from Wayne because the volume of work was a bit too much. However due to the client taking his sweet time in giving us the missing content we need, Wayne was fine with giving me a bit more time.

The Krone Circus was a lot of fun. There was acrobatics and dancing with a lot of acts similar to Cirque. Of course, the animals were what really made the difference between the two. Krone employs 200 animals including elephants, camels, zebras, horses, dogs, lions and donkeys. I am still a little undecided about the animals; for the most part I felt they were a bit unnecessary. Although some of the acrobatic horseback riders were amazing.

I arrived back in Amsterdam around midnight and was at the terminal at 10am on Wednesday. The cruise ship terminal is the small building between the two towers in the picture to the left with a roof like a rolling wave. I was back at wicket #1 and toward the end of my shift the operations manager approached me and asked if there was any chance I would be back next summer. Her plan was to make me a pier coordinator to manager the check-in agents, which I was flattered by.

I thought more about it on the way home and realized I had an opportunity here. Not in the capacity she had in mind, but in helping them with their training material. When I was hired the training process was very casual and it appeared they didn’t have a process in place. So I wrote her a proposal to create some training manuals. As it turns out, they have quite a lot of material, but it doesn’t seem to be as organized as it could be. I have a meeting with her to discuss it after my next shift in a weeks time.

Over the past week or so I haven’t been working at the cafes I was frequenting. Instead I took Marc’s advice and checked out the University of Amsterdam’s library, as seen in the picture to the left. It is centrally located about a 15 minute ride from the apartment. The 2nd floor has a room dedicated to people wanting to work on their laptops with giant windows letting in natural light. And, they don’t check student IDs on the way in, allowing anyone to go inside and work quietly.

On my way to the library I got to witness something I had heard about, but had yet to see. Occasionally they have to dredge the bottom of the canals because of all the stuff people throw into them. A small barge was sitting in the Single canal was a crane on the front. There was one man controlling the barge and another operating the crane. He was randomly scooping the bottom of the canal. They were working next to a bridge where a couple dozen curious onlookers had stopped to observe. Seeing the small crowd grabbed my attention and I found a spot to observe as well. It was fascinating to watch the end of the crane to see if anything interesting would be brought up each time. By looking into the belly of the barge it appeared old bicycles were the dominant item.

This past Friday Nina arrived for the weekend. Marc had a female friend from Germany visiting as well, so Friday evening we sat in the living room chatting. Saturday was a dreadful day, brutal intermittent rain storms. In between it looked OK, then the rain started up again. Nina and I decided to risk it and head downtown for a bit. As Marc’s friend had some shopping to do, he joined us. We got caught in a torrential downpour that left us soaked. We sought refuge in a book store for a little while, which was the best possible place we could have ended up as far as Nina was concerned. Of course, 4 ½ of the 5 floors were dedicated to Dutch books, which didn’t help us too much.

Last week I had been reading the Amsterdam Weekly (one of the English language free papers) and always enjoy the restaurant reviews. This week it was for an Ethiopian restaurant called Addis Ababa. Saturday night Nina and I went and got the last table available. That is a good sign. One of the major selling features was the fact that half the menu was meat dishes and the other half were vegetarian. They also sold the most exotic beers I had encountered. Nina had the banana beer while I tried the palm nut beer. Mine wasn’t so good, so my second was coconut which I really enjoyed. Strangely, they were made in Belgium, whereas I would have assumed they had come from somewhere tropical. The food was good and the prices were very reasonable. We both liked it, but agreed it wasn’t somewhere we would eat often. Italian is still safely lodged in the #1 position for us.

Nina and I got along well with Marc’s friend, so the four of us went to the Van Gogh museum on Sunday. Marc and I had each been, but neither of the girls had. One of the four floors of the gallery hosts different exhibits, so I knew I would get to see some new art. We didn’t spend too long in the museum as it was very busy and museums aren’t Nina’s favourite place. So we ended up in a cafĂ© for an afternoon cappuccino instead.

I had a meeting with Stefan Monday afternoon to get details on some more duties I will be taking on. This time, actually doing some recruiting searches on job boards, looking for positions we aren’t already advertising, in the hopes of finding new clients.

We weren't having a lot of luck in finding a good roommate. We found 2 girls who both showed interest in the room (one even accepted it over the phone) but both ended up having cold feet and backing out. One of them was simply a flake, so it was no loss. The other one had some genuine concerns about being in the middle room with thin walls on either side. She is Slovakian with a Canadian boyfriend (at UBC) who she talks to a few nights a week. Due to the time difference, she talks late at night which would cause an issue for Marc who goes to bed early and would share a wall with her. So the compromise is that I am now moving into the middle room and she will take my old room. The disadvantage is that I will have to be very careful about the amount of noise I make being in the middle. The advantage is that the room is bigger and Marc isn't going to increase my rent in order to take it. I am just glad the process is finally over and, with a guaranteed roommate moving in, it prevents Agne from trying to stay longer!

I will tell you, she is getting unbearable. It astounds me that such an antisocial and lazy person would want to live with other people. So, I will be spending the next two weekends in Germany until she is gone. Then, hopefully, I will feel comfortable here again. At least she stays up until 4am and sleeps for 12 hours a day which means I get a good chunk of the day with the place to myself. Then in the early afternoons I relocate to the library.
I knew roommates were going to be a challenge!

My room faces West over the A10 highway and toward an industrial part of Amsterdam. But in the evenings, I get to see some amazing "industrial" sunsets like this one here. It is a little unusual, only because we have been having October weather for the last 3 weeks. It's been hard listening to CKNW with their Vancouver weather forecasts claiming less than 1mm of rain for the month. Yeah, I get to be in Europe which is great, but I want a summer too!!!