Hiatus interruptus

Since the start of classes in September, I’ve had very little time to blog. In addition to teaching and its concomitant demands, I’ve been getting busy with developing a learning management system (LMS) for the modern languages department. It’s based on Moodle, one of the most popular LMSs around, and offers almost infinite possibilities of combining different learning modules to make flexible, interactive and collaborative courses. I’ve got most of my colleagues signed up and we have a total of 17 courses running wholly or in part on my Moodle site.

It keeps my grey matter ticking over, but other activities have fallen by the way, sadly. I haven’t had time to work on photography, for example, although even without active developing and promoting, I have got another photo published, this time in Jamaica. More later. Class in five minutes. Last of the week.


Moving house, by bike

Moving house, by bike
Have bike will travel

Students are beginning to drift back into town, clogging the bookshops with their reading lists for Art History and Unemployability (Comb. Hons.)

Proving the Dutch can do anything with a bike, I spotted these intrepid housemovers while cycling back from the crèche. With a child perched on front and another seated behind, I snapped off this shot while straddling my own bicycle.

4 wheels bad,
2 wheels good!

DIY slum

It might come as a shocking fact to learn that in the Netherlands hundreds of children, some as young as five years old, are living in the most primitive conditions, sheltering from the rain in makeshift huts made from disused wooden pallets and scraps of cloth they managed to scavenge from the piles of trash on the outskirts of town. Their junior slum sits in a muddy field by the edge of the new highway, without any electricity, running water or sanitation, apart from two porta-loos on the edge of the field. Twice a day, adult volunteers come round with large plastic kegs of pale squash for the children to rehydrate after working for hours heaving and hammering their wooden huts together. The children possess little else than a plastic cup and a hammer.

And guess what? They love it! Once a week every year, in villages all over the country, children get together to build their own hut, decorate it, customize it as much as they like — they never stop tweaking it — until the last day, when all the huts are torn down, stacked into piles and symbolically burned in a bonfire.

I went along for the first time this year with my two oldest kids and one of their friends. I had only intended to drop them off, but quickly realized that they were quite incapable of dragging the heavy wooden pallets across the field. So I stayed most of the morning, trying to stockpile enough wood before everyone else had grabbed it. It was clear that experience made a difference; some groups had ten people working together, throwing up three-storey structures within a couple of hours. It almost seemed as if it was a competition between fathers to impress the rest, and I suspect some had prepared the whole thing with autoCAD.

I came across two of our T-boy’s classmates pushing nails disconsolately into the mud, having been left by their parents to fend for themselves, so I adopted them and our team swelled to six. It didn’t make a big difference, however, because none of them could hammer very well (“Swing it from your waist! Don’t tap it in front of your face!”); they quickly got distracted and drifted off to pick wild flowers and make hooks to hang their jackets.

After three hours, we realized our grandiose design was doomed to failure through a lack of wood, so we did a quick redesign and managed to use the remaining pallets for a sloping roof. Inside, the children made a shelf for their cups and hooks for their hammers, and a hanging vase for the flowers. It’s these details that count, not the walls.

Scenes from the slums (click to view)

Girrrl power!
Girls at work

DIY housebuilding for children
DIY junior slum

Babylon burnin'
Babylon burnin'

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’

Keep those wagons rollin’ …

Life is rollin’ on chez les Bacon — school’s almost out for summer, my contract at the university has been extended for another year, baby Didi is up and walking, and we interviewed a woman last night to come help clean for us, which of course meant we spent a mad hour tidying up before she came so she wouldn’t be frightened off.

On the work front, I see that a big translation I did recently on child witches in Africa has made the news. As with many of the texts I do for UNICEF, it produced very mixed emotions: on the one hand, it feels good to contribute to improving the lives of the kids; on the other, their lives are just so goddamn miserable, and people can be so extremely cruel and sadistic that I sometimes felt physically disgusted.

Meanwhile in my day job at the university, I’m alone in the office, having opted to push my holiday dates back to better match our oldest two kids’ break (the summer holiday is staggered in the Netherlands over three different periods to reduce the mass exodus in August).

The IT people have “upgraded” (sic) our system to Outlook and Office 2010, so I’ve spent the first hour reinstalling my own apps. If you consider we have upgraded from using Novell for our email, then you will understand that we are running about five years behind the cutting edge.

Now, everything seems to have stopped running … maybe I shouldn’t have tried to install Adobe CS4, Flash Player, VLC player, and 17 Firefox add-ins at the same time …

Back to work. Rawhide!

Family lives 4 years with dead brother

The northern province of Friesland is considered to be on the outer fringes of the Netherlands, with its own language, cows, and … weirdness. Proof of just how weird was the following news story from last night:

In the village of Minnertsga, the body of a man who died four years ago has been found lying on his bed at home. His remains were discovered by his family. His brothers (61 and 67) and two sisters (44 and 71) live in the same house.

They last spoke to their 50-year-old brother at the beginning of 2006, when he told them that he was going to his room and did not want to be disturbed. According to local people, the family is known to be very religious and never joined any social events in the village. “No one managed to make contact with them,” said a local official. “They refused to go to the doctor because they believed that the Lord would heal them.”

This week the local housing authority contacted the family about some maintenance work that was needed in the terraced house. One of the residents then entered the bedroom where the dead body was found. A doctor was called, who in turn alerted the police. The man is presumed to have died of natural causes.

Reactions among the Dutch were surprise (What about the smell?!), amusement (Only in Friesland!) and cynicism (They were just happy to keep getting his dole money).

I wonder how the story will be perceived abroad.