Monday, 7 September 2009


On the morning of Tuesday, September 1st we woke up early. This was the day we would drive to the edge of the European mainland, board a ferry and float over to the island we would call home for the foreseeable future.

We took our bedding downstairs to cram into the small crevices of space still available in the highly over-packed hatchback. With each trip back upstairs, I reported to Nina the sizes of the remaining pockets of space in order for her to find items to fill them; which there was no shortage of.

Downstairs in the driveway we met Nina’s parents and grandmother who were there to see us off on our epic journey. There was a certain excitement in the air mixed in with a little nervousness. Then again, I was already on my third cappuccino from the neighbouring bakery, so perhaps it was just the caffeine.

I drove the first leg of the journey, taking us through the bottom segment of the Netherlands (for my last time) and into Belgium. We were heading for the coast, specifically the town of Oostende.

We arrived a good hour and a half before the ferry was due to leave and to our surprise, the number of passenger vehicles waiting was around a dozen. Over the next hour another dozen arrived and that was it. The rest of the ferry was dominated by cargo trucks.

Onboard, the ferry was nothing like what I had imagined. Perhaps it was due to my previous experiences on the BC ferries, but I thought it might be a little more luxurious than it was. Instead, our ferry was a remnant from the 1970s without the benefit of a refurbishment. In fact, there was still an actively used smoking lounge in the centre of the boat with wasn’t enclosed at all; something I wasn’t used to seeing anymore.

I had been excited at the idea of being able to climb to the top deck of the ship to see the view, which also proved to be disappointing. There was a small covered deck at the back of the ship with three picknick tables. At the end was a staircase leading up to a tiny landing and an entrance inside to the truck driver’s level (yes, they had their own lounge and cafeteria). So the only decent view afforded from the outside (which was better than looking through the streaky windows) was behind us. This was fine as we left Belgium, but offered very little in the way of seeing the UK as we approached. However, as the ferry swung around in the harbour to back in, I was able to get a fleeting glimpse (and a few pictures) of Ramsgate’s coast.

By the time we rolled off the ferry in Ramsgate the ferry was already 45 minutes late. We were on a tight schedule as we had 185 miles to drive in a foreign country, on the opposite side of the road, and it was already 5:15pm. We didn’t want to have to drag our landlord out to meet us in the middle of the night, although he had graciously told us not to worry if we arrived as late as 10pm.

Nina drove and I navigated. I had printed off detailed maps from the Internet and was confident I knew the way to get us to Leicester while avoiding the London traffic. I wasn’t concerned with the maps as much as with the traffic driving toward us in the lane we used to think was for us. Like flipping a switch in the brain, we had to adapt to a system as foreign as being told that left is actually right.

It took little time at all to get comfortable, for both of us, with this new driving system. Nina was thrown in head first as we were faced with two adjacent traffic circles (like a figure eight) almost immediately after leaving the ferry. After surviving that, driving on the dual carriageway (highway) was a piece of cake.

The gently rolling hills of the British countryside were a nice change from the flat landscape I had become so accustomed to.

After a few hours of driving we found a shopping mall on the side of the motorway where we stopped to eat dinner and buy some essentials for the next morning. Now, it was my turn at the wheel and, as luck would have it; this is when the heavens opened up with a brutal storm.

Luckily as we approached the off ramp for Leicester the rain stopped and we found our home with relative ease. We arrived right on schedule; it was 9pm and our landlord, Mr Noray, met us at the house. He showed us in and apologized for the state of the house. Apparently he had spent a full day cleaning, but he had barely scratched the surface. It appears the retarded donkey didn’t bother to clean the place before leaving. In fact, it appeared she didn’t bother to clean the place in the nine months she resided there.

After Mr Noray left we unpacked the car and went immediately to bed in our new home. It was far from perfect, but all I could see was the sheer potential the place offered.

The next four days were probably the most productive four days I have spent in the past year. They went like this:

Day 1 - Wednesday:
  • We went to Barclays bank to set up an account.
  • I spent an hour on the phone with British Telecom setting up phone (which would come online in 2 days), Internet (which would come online in 1 week) and TV (which would come online in 2 weeks).
  • We went to 3 bed stores and bought a new X King sized bed and frame.
  • We went to an electronics store and bought a vacuum, hair dryer and clock.
  • We went to a large grocery store (ASDA) and bought general household items and cleaning supplies.
  • We started the cleaning process:
    • I vacuumed the hall and bedroom carpets as well as the massive closets.
    • Nina started to clean the kitchen cupboards and counters.
Day 2 - Thursday:
  • We went to the DIY (Do It Yourself) and bought kitchen utensils, lamps for the bedroom and living room, bathroom shelving unit, electric drill, step ladder and drapes for the bedroom.
  • We bought 3.2 X 4 metres of carpet and arranged to have it made into 2 rugs.
  • I did our first grocery shopping.
  • Nina continued washing the whole kitchen (drawers, cupboards and counters).
  • I put together the shelving unit for the bathroom, hung the new curtains and went to the Internet cafĂ© to work for an hour.
Day 3 – Friday:
  • I did a few hours of work while Nina went to school to see her professor.
  • We went back to the DIY store to get an extension cord, drill bits, plants, screwdrivers and light bulbs.
  • We went to a home store to buy a fitted sheet for the new bed, duvet and the last of the home items (toaster, cutting board, frying pan, tea towels etc).
  • We did our first big grocery shopping.
  • I put together and installed a medicine cabinet as well as a glass shelf in the bathroom.
  • Nina unpacked and put away half the kitchen supplies.
Day 4 – Saturday:
  • I put together a living room lamp and shoe rack, then worked for a few hours.
  • Nina cleaned out the teak cabinet in the living room and filled it with wine glasses.
  • I cleaned all the drawers in the bedroom and disinfected all the doors, closet and drawer handles.
  • Nina finished cleaning the kitchen and put the last of the kitchen things away.
  • I vacuumed the kitchen and living room and installed safety equipment (fire extinguisher in the kitchen and smoke detector in the bedroom).
We blew through our full home supplies budget in just three days, but it was necessary. It was Saturday evening before things starting to feel right and the number of boxes diminished to the point where the vision we had was started to become realized.

As the kitchen was the first room we were able to finish, I have included a few pictures. It is now up to standard and as the rest of the rooms come “online” I will also include pictures of them.

Cooking in this kitchen is a pleasure as there is loads of space and we have been able to arrange everything where we like. After living in apartments for years, it is a nice change to have a full-sized kitchen at my disposal. Nina has yet to try her hand, but I think it might have something to do with her fear of lighting gas elements.

When Andrew and Raquel first moved into their condo in North Vancouver he bought some tools so he could fix things around the house. This brought me immense amusement as I couldn’t picture him as the home repair type. I know this annoyed him a bit which only added to the amusement factor. I now realize I am setting myself up for the same treatment as I bought tools and had to install cabinets and shelves. Perhaps the idea of me doing these things is as comical as Andrew, but I still can’t picture him using power tools.

We bought a toaster. Actually, we bought quite a few pieces of electrical equipment: toaster, toastie maker, hair dryer, power drill, smoke detector, three lamps and a vacuum. They all come with instructions for use as well as warnings, which I found interesting to read. However, it was the toaster specifically that had the warning I found the most amusing.

Let me preface this by telling you this warning came on a stand-alone piece of paper whose only purpose was to tout the following message:

“This appliance is not intended for use by persons (including children) with reduced physical, sensory or mental capabilities, or lack of experience and knowledge, unless they have been given supervision or instruction concerning use of the appliance by a person responsible for their safety.”

It’s a toaster! If I understood that correctly, it stated that retarded people are not permitted to toast bread unless they are supervised or have been shown how to push down the lever.

With all the running around town that needed to be done, I spent the majority of the time in the driver’s seat. On the first day we bought a map book for Leicester which helped us get accustomed to the city layout and greatly expanded the radius of the city we could venture into with the security of knowing we would be able to find our way back home again without having to go through the maze that is the town centre. The town centre is a nightmare for cars with all the one-way streets, single-lane roads and pedestrian thoroughfares.

The drivers in Leicester are an interesting bunch. On the one hand they are very courteous and considerate. We live on a busy road and it isn’t uncommon for a car to stop, holding up traffic behind him, in order to let us into traffic. Frequently this happens when we are trying to cross to the opposite side of the road where there isn’t space for us. The stopped car will patiently wait until we can cross before continuing along, unblocking the long line of cars waiting behind him.

On the other hand, the driver’s must be puzzled by the useless pieces of equipment inside their cars. For instance, there is something on the steering column that juts out at a right angle. If one should accidentally bump this lever, it beeps annoyingly and flashes a green arrow on the dashboard to alert the driver to the fact that it is no longer in its proper position. British drivers must wonder why such a thing comes installed in all cars. The bright 10% (probably foreigners) have noticed it can be useful to purposely use this device before changing lanes, but the majority have not clued in.

After living in Amsterdam, shopping in Leicester is a dream. I forgot how convenient big-box stores can be. There is something generic about shopping in them, but when you need a specific item, they can prove to be very handy, not to mention cheaper than going to small specialty shops for each item.

In Amsterdam there is one grocery store chain that dominates the city; actually, it dominates the country: Albert Hein. It has a stronghold on the market. The only other option is to shop at independent green grocers or specialty shops. The Albert Heins are small and usually have a limited selection; however they are the only grocery stores to go to buy everything you need at once.

In Leicester there is Sainsburys and ASDA; both of which are national chains. Sainsburys has small locations in the residential areas and large mega stores on the outskirts of town. ASDA is like Costco in scope and size and there are only two that I know of in Leicester because they are simply too big to have in every neighbourhood. They are open 24 hours a day for the majority of the week and, like many stores here, are open on Sundays. That was a convenience I missed in Amsterdam

Shopping for food here is an immense pleasure since the selection is astounding and the prices are cheaper than I thought. Also, I find British food to be quite appealing, at least from the perspective of the grocery stores. We have yet to venture out much in the way of dining out.

The people seem friendly and nice, except when you are in a shop and require service. Then they need to literally be told “I need you to help me with so and so” in order to get them to slowly hop to action. They recognize that we are customers and that they are the service staff, but seem to have a bit of difficulty putting it together to come to the concept of customer service.

I knew I would miss Amsterdam and so I decided to bring a small piece of it with me. When I first arrived in Amsterdam I found a little shop that sold perfectly sculpted Amsterdam canal houses. I was immediately taken by them and vowed to return when it was time to leave.

A week before departing from Amsterdam I returned to the shop whose window I had gazed through many times over the past year and a half. The shop keeper was a lovely woman and we spent the next three quarters of an hour chatting about anything and everything. Incidentally, during WW II her family had hidden a Jew in an upstairs cupboard.

All the little replicas are actual buildings reproduced exactly. On the bottom of each one is the address of the real building and the shop keeper had a photo album of the corresponding buildings to show how precise they were. I picked three I liked, all measuring between 3 and 3 ½ inches in height and carved out of stone.

Now, I will have a small piece of Amsterdam with me regardless where I go.