Saturday, April 10, 2010

Elections in the Netherlands

Elections here is quite different from those in the Philippines. For one, there is very little outward sign that there ARE elections. There are few posters, and hardly any outdoor rallies (its rather too cold here to have too many of that). And the people generally decide on the basis of newspaper articles or TV debates by the candidates.
The nice thing about elections here is that even foreigners are allowed to vote in local elections. National elections are reserved for citizens, though. Last March 10, we had elections for the city governments. So, on election day, I went to the polling place, which is situated at the old-age home near where we live. Some ten years ago, or so, the polling place was at the school where our children went, and it was just a matter of voting after having brought our child to school. Anyway, it is now located at the old-age home.
About two weeks before the elections, everybody receives their election pass by mail. So, on election day, you bring this pass, plus your passport (or national ID) and show these to the officials at the polling place. They will check your name in a master list, and then give you a ballot. The ballot is a big piece of paper, where the names of the parties are in columns, while the names of the specific candidates in rows. We only vote for one person, in one party.

The system we have is a proportional representation system, where the parties get seats proportionate to the number of votes cast for them. The candidates are in lists, and the order of candidates determine who gets to be elected - thus, if a party gets 5 seats for example, candidates No. 1 to No. 5 of that party gets in. You can simply vote for the No.1 candidate for your party. But you can also vote for, say No. 10. Now, if candidate No. 10 gets a certain number of votes, he will get a seat (providing that the party as a whole gets at least 1 seat), and displaces, say, No. 5. This is called preferential voting. So, our system combines voting for parties with individual voting. And it is not too uncommon for No. 50 candidate to get elected.
Well, the voting was rather short, since there is only one candidate to be selected, whose name we mark with a red pencil. The voting lasts from 8 am till 9 pm. After this, the ballots are counted, and the results are then sent to the municipal building for collation. The results are known at about 11pm or midnight. Fast. I still don't get it why it takes so long in the Philippines...
Anyway, we voted in March for our municipal governments. In June 10, we will vote again, this time for the members of parliament. In addition, we also have elections (sometime within a 4 year period) for the provincial government, and for the European parliament.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Revolving House

One of the "attractions" we have in Tilburg is the Revolving House. This is a house that is mounted on rails and it moves around one of the city's traffic rotondas. It is unique to Tilburg, as far as I know.

The house is a project of John K├Ârmeling, a designer from Eindhoven, the Netherlands.The house has three levels, and looks quite ordinary, except for the fact that it goes around that rotonda. It is rather controversial, and the municipal government was initially worried that it would pose a traffic problem (i.e. drivers looking at the house instead of the road), but when he lowered the rotation speed from once per hour to once a day, the municipal government agreed.

The revolving house has invited its share of controversy. Some political parties see this work of art as a waste of money. The Euro 600,000 that was spent for it could have been given to help the poor etc. At the same time, many of the poorer residents of Tilburg (as well as the not poor, of course) think of the revolving house as a nice piece of art that helps put Tilburg on the map, and which is at the same time cute or amusing. A couple of times, there have been krakers (people who squat, often for political reasons) have occupied this house, to protest various "money-wasting" projects of the municipality. At another time, a group of "Guerilla gardeners" came over and decorated the house with plants and flowers.

The municipality is considering that the upkeep of the house could be turned over to the hotel that is next to it in the rotonda. The house could then possibly be used for receptions and other activities of the hotel, in exchange for the hotel paying for the maintenance of the house. So far, nothing has come out of this idea.

Well, we now have the revolving house in Tilburg, and it is a permanent fixture of the city. I'm sure that it will play a role in Tilburg's city life, for better or for worse, in the years to come.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Going by numbers

Although I have been here already for 27 years, it still takes some effort to get the numbers right. The way people here count is different - like, twenty-one is actually one and twenty. And this gets a bit confusing when you go beyond one hundred - because you can't distinguish between 260 and 62 (being that they are both two and sixty). I get across this problem by just mentioning two hundred and sixty, instead of two and sixty.

And the way people here count the storeys in a building is different. The first floor is the ground floor, and the second floor is the 1st floor. This is the way it is in most of Europe. And to make it even more confusing, sometimes there is also a mezzanine floor. Once, when I thought I was already at the third floor, I realized that I was still at the first floor, since the first floor was the ground floor and the second floor was the mezzanine floor...

And the time, well, is also different. Half three is actually 2:30. And the Dutch say things like 10 before half three - which means (after computing in your head) that it is 2:20. It is not too problematic when it's the whole hour, though. And the dates here are in dd/mm/yy format instead of the Philippine style of mm/dd/yy. Thus, we would say: it is 21 March 2010, instead of saying March 21, 2010.

Well, I guess it is just a different way of looking at the world, and because I was born and raised in the Philippines, I will have to exert extra efforts to "translate" the way we count to the way Europeans count.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Getting Sick Here

I have been sick for some months now. Since May, I have been in the hospital twice for a total stay of about 6 weeks. Of all things, I was diagnosed to have TB in my right knee. That's right - TB, as in tuberculosis, in my knee. This is not that usual, but apparently, I'm one of the unusual cases. It took the doctors some time to come to this conclusion; first they thought it was some kind of arthritis, and later some kind of reuma. But finally, after I had to be rushed to the hospital with a very high fever, they were able to take samples of fluid from my knee (it's painful when they did this :-(, and to make it worse, they had to try 4 times before they got something ), they were able to find this out.
For me, finding out that I had TB was both a bad thing and a good thing. The bad thing is that it takes looong to cure TB- up to a year or more of treatment. The good thing is that it was curable; if I had reuma or arthritis, then I would have it for the rest of my life.

I get a lot of medical attention these days, from at least four doctors. There are the orthopedist and lung specialist (who doubles as TB specialist here) who take care of my TB treatment. Then there is the internist, who monitors my diabetes and high blood pressure, and those types of things. And, as is standard here, I have a family doctor who monitors everything, and helps me to keep the specialist doctors on their toes. In addition to all that, there is a "TB specialist" nurse, from the provincial health service, who also monitors my case.

It never ceases to amaze me that all this is covered by our health insurance. In the Philippines, all the medical treatment I've got here would have cost a fortune. But here, all doctors fees, medicines, hospital treatment (including all tests, scans, etc.) are covered by the insurance. In fact, the only extra expenses I have as a result of my sickness were: the TV/telephone fee at the hospital (you could ask to have this services at your bedside) , parking fees, and taxi fees (I need a special wheelchair taxi, since my knee is in a plaster cast after an operation to clean it). And that's it. I have no idea how much was spent on me.

It's not only that money is not a consideration when people get sick here; it's also the convenience of the whole system. I didn't need to fill in forms when I got admitted to the hospital. And it is easy to get medicines, and medical accessories; it was even possible to get nursing attention at home without too much fuzz (someone else filled up a form for this, and I just needed to sign :-) ).

While it is not nice to get sick anywhere; at least I'm sick here, where all I have to worry about is getting well.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Navigating Among Trees

The Dutch are a tall people. If you are a Filipino of normal height, you will probably notice this from your first day here. How do we short people cope here in this country full of "trees"? Well, for starters, not all of the Dutch are tall. Generally, people of my age (i.e. around 50 years old) or older are not as tall as the younger ones. And women are also generally shorter than the men, even the young ones.
But this still leaves a lot of tall people.
Well, we just have to live with it. Most of the year, it is not too bad; but in the summer, you should watch out. Because at 165 centimeter (5 feet, 5 inches) height, my nose would just be about the height of the armpits of the taller Dutch. If they don't use deodorant, and it is warm in the summer, you will be treated to their "nice" natural odor.
Being rather small, it is quite uncomfortable when you find yourself in a crowd. You can't see a thing, since there are lots of people taller than you. You have to make sure that you are able to worm yourself to get to the front row, so that you can see things. It is even a problem in places like the movie theater, because the heads of those in front of you gets in the way; you're lucky if a child or a smaller woman is in front of you, otherwise, you have a problem following the show.

But there are advantages. For one, the leg room in the trains and buses is quite spacious; they have to be. Then the doors and rooms are also spacious; since they should accommodate all the tall Dutch.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Taking down our "Easter Tree"

Yesterday, I finally decided to do it - to take down our "Easter Tree".
Easter Tree? Yup. Well, at Christmas, there are Christmas trees, which for us here means freshly cut pine trees that we place in our living room and decorate. Here, in the Netherlands at least (I'm not sure if this is done in other countries), we also have a tradition of Easter Trees. Technically, an Easter tree isn't a real tree; it is just a bundle of willow tree branches which you place in a pot in your living room. You then hang decorations on the willow tree branches. These decorations are mostly miniature easter eggs, or easter bunnies - with the color yellow predominating. Since willow branches start to bud at this time, the small green buds blend quite well with the yellow decorations.

In our case, I planted the willow branches in a pot with soil some years ago. It has grown a bit over the years. Every Easter time, I bring the willow mini-tree into the house, and decorate it. I do this at about Palm Sunday, and then keep it in till one week after Easter - a decent 2 week presence in our living room. My problem this year, was that I was a bit sick when I should have taken the decorations down, so I kept postponing when to do it. And as I procrastinated, the willow's buds became a profusion of leaves. This made it even harder to take the decorations out - the leaves came in the way.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Talking to the Natives

People in the Philippines often get surprised when I tell them that English is not spoken widely in the Netherlands. This is different from what we have in the Philippines, where despite our having our own languages, we use English in school, at work, in the newspapers, even when writing e-mails to each other.

Anyway, when I first arrived in 1983, I had to learn the Dutch language in one year. My permit to stay was dependent on my passing a Dutch language proficiency test within a year. So, I really did not have a choice but to learn the language. And not only learn it, I had to learn it to university level. That was quite a task.

So, my wife and I set out to really learn the language. We took a subscription to the Volkskrant, a daily newspaper said to be aimed at those who are relatively highly educated. We regularly watched Dutch TV, especially the news. The nice thing about the Netherlands is that they don't dub English-language movies, but put subtitles. So, we could hear the English original text while reading the Dutch translation. This was quite helpful.
And we took Dutch lessons at the university; where students would also help tutor us.

It was good that we were based in Tilburg, especially at this time. Very few people spoke English then, so when people noticed we were not good in speaking Dutch, they spoke slowly.. in Dutch.
It was not like what would happen in Amsterdam or Utrecht... there the people would shift to English, when they notice that you were a foreigner. So, we were forced to talk to people in Dutch; which is great, when you have to learn a language in a year.

To make the long story short, I passed the language exam, and was thus qualified to enroll in the university here. (I will go more into that in another post.)

A few years later, our first child, Ligaya, went to school. She started to play with other children after school, either at our house, or in the houses of her friends. The funny thing was that when we would converse with her playmates' parents, they would sometimes suddenly shift to the local dialect, and all of a sudden we could not understand what they were talking about. Yes, Tilburg has its own dialect, which is different from the standard Dutch language in some words and expressions, but the main difference is really the pronunciation. When people really feel at home with us, they shift unintentionally to the dialect. We had not experienced this earlier - I suppose that this was because we used to speak to people in formal or semi-formal situations, where they make sure that they speak in standard Dutch.

As our children grew up (we have two daughters: Ligaya, and Elena) we did our best to ensure that they learned Dutch well. We brought them (when they were small) every week to the library, to borrow books; we read stories to them every night, etc. We are proud to say that their Dutch language proficiency is excellent. When they were in high school, we would often ask their help when we encounter problems with formulating sentences in Dutch.

Now, after 24 years here in the Netherlands, I describe my Dutch language proficiency as "good". I can express myself orally, and in written form. However, people will notice that I have an accent. Of course, I have an accent; and I am not really trying to get rid of it too much. (only when it hinders understanding) After all, if people understand me; they should appreciate the fact that I took all the trouble to learn their language. It takes so much less effort on their part to bear with my accent.