Sunday, 3 April 2011

Journey Through The Netherlands: 6. Herrings, Broken Locks And The Rooster's Revenge

"I would rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth," Steve McQueen is supposed to have said.


At 5.10 precisely, I shot up in bed, wide awake, as if I had been struck by a thunderbolt. The rooster had started his dawn chorus. Bloody thing. This was the proud new rooster who had ousted the other one and taken all the hens. I looked out of the window and could just make out, through the early morning fog, the hunched shape of an out of sorts cockerel.

The cockerels and the Policeman had made me have strange dreams of an incident in the past. It was of a local policeman, I knew when I was a child, who used to breed chickens. Once another breeder rang him up to ask about the size of his male birds.

"I can assure you I have the biggest cock in England," he had replied. He was never allowed to forget those words which even appeared on the cake at his retirement party.

I growled out the window and went downstairs, where my mood improved enormously as the generous organiser I was sharing the piggery was already up and had cooked breakfast. Tucking into the boiled egg made me think of the chance of roast rooster for dinner and good soup from the stock, the next day.

The fog lifted and it was another beautiful day as we drove to the Hanseatic city of Ommen, situated on the banks of the River Vecht. It is another nice place with three traditional windmills near the centre of town. It is famous for its Bissing Fair in July and for being a good place for camping, walking and cycling and attracts over 30,000 people every summer. In March, it is quiet. The choir practiced in the old reformed church in the centre.

The other helpers and myself went off for a herring sandwich. The cleanest fish shop had a bucket of herrings on the counter. He reached for one, filleted it, placed the pieces in a bread roll, added some raw chopped onions and hey presto. Heavenly. And all for just over 2 Euros.

I walked back to the bus, feeling satisfied and put the key into the lock of the back door. Catastrophe struck. The lock disintegrated and the barrel fell into the palm of my hand. What was I going to do? Was it legal to drive with a broken lock? Not sure. We were on a tight schedule and due to drive to Germany in two hours.

The international breakdown service worked. After a series of phone calls, a rescue truck appeared alongside the bus with a genial Dutch mechanic.

"Ah yes," he said, "this is a typical Van Hool problem. I have seen it many times."

"Can you fix it?"


"Why not?" said in slightly shrill voice with a hint of rising panic.

"Because it needs a new lock. I deal in Scanias and not Van Hools. I haven't got the part."

"How long to get it?"

"It could be days." The alarm went off inside my head. "But don't worry I think you can drive. When you go you take this lock barrel and you put it in your pocket. When you stop you take it out and open the door. It is OK."

After a little persuasion he tried to repair the lock, put some washers on and managed to get it working again, all be it fragilely and only being able to open and close the door, but not to lock it."

"It may last one minute, one hour, one day, one month. I cannot say," he said cheerfully. "But no matter - I give you a strap so you can secure the door from the inside. Free."

"That's very generous of you," I said.

"No it's not. I found it in a lay-by."

Before we parted, he showed me the inside of his articulated truck which had been converted into a state of the art mobile workshop. As we were standing talking, one of the organisers, who was also a priest came up the steps. The mechanic turned pale when he saw him. After he left he pointed to a calendar on the wall with a picture of a hot, naked Dutch girl in a compromising pose.

"I am worried," he stammered. "Do you think that priest saw this picture?"

I was never to use the outside door handle for the rest of the tour. It didn't seem worth the risk. Sure it was a pain to have to open from the inside and remember to secure it with the strap whenever we stopped. But it could have been worse.

The tour travelled on to Emlichheim, just over the German border in Lower Saxony. The region is sitting on top of oil, so there are nodding donkeys scattered around the countryside. The Roman Catholic church was vast, modern and circular resembling a wigwam. There was excitement on the bus as one of the congregation had telephoned to say 500 people were expected at the concert. Disappointment followed when few more than 60 turned up. There must have been a technical hitch and something must have been lost in translation.

My secondary job, in addition to driving the bus, was to help sell cd's after the concert. A few went. My third job was to play rounders with the choir during the rest period. It was a competitive affair resulting in the revellation of discovering muscles in various parts of the body, which I never knew existed for days after. My fourth job seemed to be to eat. Everywhere we went, the food was marvellous. Emlichheim was no exception and the church had laid on a feast of chicken schnitzels, buttered rice, roast buttered potatoes with ham and onions, beef stroganoff and a salad. The smells permeated every corner of the church.

The trouble with the fourth job is that I am expanding at an alarming rate. It is becoming harder to get through the bus door. I am beginning to look like the industry stereotype. On the positive side, I suppose the salad gave allowed some breathing space.

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