going for a walk
I have had the experience of looking after pilgrims in Roncesvalles twice now, and I’ve written about it before. All those fresh pilgrims, from all over the world, starting their Camino often in St Jean Pied de Port, in France, climbing over the Pyrenees on their first day, and tumbling into the ancient monastery of Roncesvalles, to stay at the albergue with the Dutch volunteers. So many stories to listen to, advice to give, yoga to teach, and beds to clean and change; and chuckling at the stuff that new pilgrims realise they can shed after their first day walking with a backpack on their back. It’s the beginning of change on this 800 km journey to Santiago.
And now I’m in Santiago de Compostela, and it is being its usual imperturbable self. It’s raining, the local stone buildings wet and grey, but somehow I love it. When I arrived, very weirdly on a plane, that typical energy met my feet as I stepped into the town. It gives a lightness to my feet, like little wings attached to my ankles, it moves my heart and tells me that I need to walk again soon, and it always brings that silly happy smile on my face. As I walked through the medieval main street (I’m telling you it’s just like Diagon Alley!) and arrived at the plaza where the cathedral looms, my jaw dropped, as it was the first time I saw the facade and towers of this building in all their splendour without the scaffolding! I couldn’t stop this time, and continued through the main gateway to the Hospidario San Martin Pinario, a medieval monastery turned hostel, and if possible, my jaw dropped even further, it was so beautiful, with metre thick stone walls, high vaulted ceilings, a beautiful claustrum, the quadrant where monks can walk and meditate, and I went straight into the bar where my working mate for the next two weeks was waiting for me with a glass of wine. Bliss. I slept like a rose in my ‘cell’, with a view of the bell tower, in a comfy bed.
In the “Living room of the Low Lands”, on the other extreme of the Camino, I am now at the end of the journey for most pilgrims. My job here is to provide people with coffee, tea, biscuits and a listening ear, just that. The difference between the starters and the finishers is striking, and what a wonderful difference!
On my first day, after I have done the rounds, and introduced myself to our neighbours in the French, the German, and the English speaking living rooms, and then to the team of pilgrim office workers, who check and prepare the ‘compostelas’, the certificates that pilgrims earn for having walked the Way, I see our first guest arriving in our living room and within 5 minutes she is in tears. She had all kinds of things to get off her chest and needed to pour out her heart. Later on I do nothing but translate a lovely poem from Dutch into English for two Americans and move them to tears. People keep finding us all day. Belgians, who cycled from Sevilla; two young guys who are so relaxed they didn’t even know you could get a certificate, but they walked happily from Porto to Santiago; a couple who walked all the way from the Netherlands; a girl who started alone in Holland and now brings along her Camino Family of four North American women. The mood is relaxed, everybody is cut loose from daily life and chores, reflective on life, their journey finished now, sharing what they’ve learned, tired but happy, and I hear lots of stories of amazing encounters, and wonderful adventures. I run around with the coffee, tea and - this goes down like a storm - the Dutch ‘pepernoten’ I’ve brought in my rucksack.
By five o’clock my head is on overload, and I’m glad we are closing the door for the day and hopping through the rain and puddles on the black and grey ancient cobbled streets to our apartment which will be home for the next two weeks.
"Completed is the path
Satisfied we are and
happy to now share
the almost unshareable
Sharing is multiplying
Our happiness growing and
growing, inside and out."
On the nightshift….
It just had to be. When the request came to work at the Gala Night of the National Dutch Film Festival, from 8pm until 4am, in the cloakroom, I felt this fit right into my exploration of the Dutch labour market, so I accepted.
I was a bit uncertain - did I really want to do this? - when I reported at the theatre entrance, but was ushered in straightaway by a friendly security guy, with no further questions. The words "I come from Randstad" [the temping agency] really open all doors. I wandered around for a bit in the foyer, which was full of expectation, but otherwise still empty. The ceremony of the 'Golden Calf' award, the highest film award in the word of Dutch film, was still in full swing. I was hired for the party after.
Two Randstad colleagues arrived for the same job. After a bit of asking around we found our line manager and received a backstage pass to go get our uniforms. I love taking a look behind the scenes in theatres. It was a labyrinth, with staff changing rooms full of people, celebrities on a couch, champagne, flowers, all in a buzz of energy.
Dressed as a City Theatre employee, in a black blouse with logo, and armed with earplugs, I went back up and missed the briefing. No one had told me there was one. I have worked at film festivals before and this kind of happy chaos is pretty standard. These events use a lot of volunteers, and they don't run professionally, but on enthusiasm and flexibility. "Happy chaos is fun, isn't it?!" a festival colleague shouted at me half way through the evening.
My colleague Ibra was a kind, middle-aged Moroccan, who spoke Dutch reasonably well. He had given up his own business in Groningen and had just moved to Utrecht. He had trouble with the routine of the cloakroom, placing the hundreds of numbers on the right hooks, but he did his best. Hans, a happy-go-lucky thirty-something, gave the impression to be still looking for his goal in life ("If only I was still 20", he sighed) and had a lot of experience in catering work. He worked hard and ran miles that evening.
The job wasn't difficult, but if you have to do it for eight hours, non-stop, without a minute break, not even to get a drink, all night long, and the cloakroom is choc-a-bloc with thick wintercoats, all kinds of bags, huge heavy rucksacks, umbrellas and shoes, and there is just the three people on duty, while that should have been at least six, it becomes quite a challenge. I was surprised how physically demanding the job was. The next day my body ached, with painful shoulders, arms and feet.
I noticed people love to have a chat with the cloakroom people. Most heard question: "Can I please have my bag for a moment, because these stiletto heels are killing me, just need to change them for my training shoes."
The calves were quite a story too. Different film categories all had Golden Calves to award and almost all of them were dropped off at our counter by the winners. Who wants to go dancing with a heavy brass calf under their arm, right? And the world is so small when you are a Dutch celebrity, only famous in the Netherlands. I don't know who's who, after more than 25 years of overseas living, but I recognised some of them by their behaviour. They reacted surprised when I said they were welcome to drop off their calf but how were they going to remember which calf was theirs? "But my name is engraved on it!" they would exclaim. "Ok, so when you pick up your calf, please check the name so that you take the correct calf please?" Again, a surprised face.
I chatted with a nice guy, didn't know he had a calf too. It turned out to be a famous Dutch actor/director. Of course I had never heard of him, but I knew of his father, a very well-known actor. I apologised. "Sorry I've lived overseas for years, I have no clue who you are, but I do know your Dad." He didn't mind. He had just won a calf, so his day was made.
Halfway through the night, about 2am, and still just the three of us toiling away, I had a dip, a sudden deep desire to abandon the job, But I learnt on the Camino that you are capable of much more than you think, especially if you have no choice, so I gave myself a little mental lecture, about the commitment to my colleagues, and this exploration of work, and on I went. Running. Lifting. Carrying. How do I get that bloody heavy bag off this hook which is at shoulder height? Where is the calf of that beautiful lady and what is her name? Pulling, pushing, trying to get at coats and scarves, kilos of fabric packed closely together. Tripping over umbrellas. And smiling at the guests, here you are, have a nice evening. Most people were very friendly. Then there was the man in a tuxedo who subtly pressed a euro in my hand, with a face as if he had just given me 20 euros, expecting me to run extra fast for that.
Four am it was over. Cleaners started mopping the floors. The builders came in to pull down the stage and disco. The bar staff said they would continue to tidy up until at least six o'clock. We were allowed to go.
I survived it, and I have reconfirmed to myself that I am strong and stress resistant. Eight hours of physically heavy work, at the weekend, on the nightshift, without a break, and what did I earn? Just the minimum wage, no extra allowances at all. For me, by now, Holland has really lost the reputation of "social welfare state".
"Hi Marion! I hope you're having a nice first day at work!". A message on my phone. Roland of Youbahn. He is the guy I had just spoken to on the phone to find out why I had trouble downloading the Youbahn app. Would he have really sent this, or is it an automatic message?
This is just one of the many uncertainties in my current life. After 25 years of living and working abroad, I'm back in the Netherlands. I feel like a child, learning to walk. When I left, we still had a National Healthcare fund. It’s all privatised now. When I add that as a funny remark in a job interview, young people look at me non comprehending. Oh dear, I've grown old!
And what do you mean, job interview? The world of looking for and finding work turns out to be quite different from the one I left in 1995. I decide to throw myself into it energetically. I have to earn butter on my bread, and bread too, and with my experience and top-heavy CV that shouldn't be a problem. The first action I decide to take is to call the temporary employment agency. An immediate negative response is the result. They recommend to keep checking the website to see if there are any jobs going, and then to sign up for the job online. I was used to intake interviews, where the intermediary would like to see me to get acquainted and to discuss what kind of work was most suitable for me. So that has changed.
Through a jobs website (there are dozens of them, finding the forest - and suitable work - for the trees is quite a job) I ended up at Youbahn. What a name! U-Bahn is a kind of subway in Germany. Bahn sounds like 'job' in Dutch. U sound like You in English. The logic escapes me. Anyway, they work with an app, and it seems wonderful: you work for clients whenever you want, you plan yourself in, and you're an employee of Youbahn. This sounds promising and also familiar to me: the old-fashioned temporary employment agency model. So after some fiddling with downloading the app (I notice many websites in the Netherlands don't work perfectly, there are lots of issues with empty 404 links, bugs and un-downloadable apps) I'm done. A friendly lady from Youbahn calls to check that I understand what I'm doing. Yes, I think so. I'm going to work. The next day another friendly man from another, outsourced service, comes round to scan my passport. To make sure I don't open the door to mischievous people, I get sent a picture, with his name, and a GPS signal where he is exactly, so I see him parking in front of my flat on the dot. As soon as the passport has been scanned, my contract appears as an image on the scanner. I can hardly read it, but am asked for a digital signature. "Beware of the hourly rate", says the scan man. "I see it all the time, they put a standard hourly rate in the contract, but that has to be adjusted." I thank him for the tip.
Now it's a matter of looking at 'Available Shifts' and clicking on what seems like fun. I don't see much. They need packers. And booth builders, and lots of dishwashers. And a lot of hostesses, in nursing homes. It's not entirely clear who is being cared for, but I see I don't have to clean, and I do have to make sandwiches. It pays around 10 euros net per hour. It's within cycling distance of my house, so I click on the next shift, the next day.
When I check in at the reception of the home, I am welcomed very kindly, but also with surprise. Apparently everyone just walks in and out of here, without reporting. It turns out to be an old people's home with many demented patients. I walk through the corridors in search of my department. They don't have security here. Later on I understand that it is a bigger problem to keep the patients in, than intruders out.
Finally, after asking around, I find the 'living room' where I will be working. I am gratefully received by a tired-looking nurse, who quickly talks me through who gets what on the sarnies and what I have to watch out for with diabetes patients and people who can't eat independently (bibs!). The living room looks pretty cosy, with nice furniture, books, games, a large TV and a kitchen with all the amenities. The patients is a different story. I look around and see about six people hanging in huge wheelchairs. Some have their chin hanging on their chest, others are staring blankly ahead. A few have a somewhat brighter look in their eyes. They wear bland, faded clothes in indefinable colours and thick slippers. "Well, you'll be all right, it's good to have you here," says the nurse, before she gets out. Her shift is over. "Good afternoon", I try with some people. Thanks goodness, Mrs. Kaat reacts. She has bright eyes, but I know that doesn't mean anything. I suggest to make a cup of tea. She thinks that's a good idea. In the handbook, which is all I’ve got to find my way around these people, I find a list of drinks preferences. Mr. van Eik is diabetic, so just sweeteners, Mrs. van Olst takes sugar, and Mrs. Takstra drinks from a special cup with a spout. I do my best, but in the meantime Mrs. Kaat has become restless and starts shouting that Mrs. Takstra is stupid. I quickly give her a cup of tea, but she pushes it away with force, a good thing it doesn't fall over. I had put some cookies on the table to add a bit of fun, but Mrs. van Olst took them and crumbled them all on her sweater, and made a terrible mess. Luckily Mrs. Takstra manages to grab the handles of the cup herself and gets a sip in her mouth. Suddenly Mr. van Eik shouts from his wheelchair: "I'm tired of that stupid face!" I look in his direction and see that a still of André Rieu's face has been on the TV screen all afternoon. After an hour and a half of this palaver, I get help. Annemarie comes to the rescue, an experienced, energetic carer and hostess. I let out a sigh of relief and feel like a sponge, I learn so much from her. We make sandwiches, put everyone at the table, Mr. TJ (he is 94 and blind, but not demented, that's good to know) does the “Our Father” prayer and then we all eat together. I am slowly feeding pieces of bread to Mrs. Takstra, and checking with the others that the butter they spread on their bread actually ends up there and not on the table or clothes. Between 6 and 7 pm, after the meal, the carers come to pick up the people one by one to put them to bed. It has to be early, there is a shortage of staff, only 2 carers are available to put 15 people to bed. I clean up, scrub the underside of the tables (all those demented, nervous fingers all day long), wipe the floor and then the shift is over. I love the cycle home, 10km through the forest, wind in my hair. Breathe! I find it incomprehensible that without a job interview, without any check on my suitability, I was allowed to work in this job. While the training for carers lasts 18 months! I don't see any other nice jobs on the app at all, so I sign up for a couple more days with the oldies.
I already feel experienced when I arrive for the afternoon shift a few days later. This time at the PG. I discover that this means Psychiatric Geriatrics and again I am surprised that I am allowed to work here, not hindered by any training or experience. The elderly people in this department suffer from dementia, and also often 'wander', so it is a closed department. These people are physically fit and much more social. Mrs. Velzen used to be a nurse and thinks that her help is still needed. She takes everyone's pulse, and frightens me for a moment, when she claims that Mrs. Staal, who is asleep, has no pulse, doesn't breathe anymore and therefore is not asleep, but probably dead. Mrs Bok enjoys being obstructive. "What do you mean: eat now? I don't have to eat now, do I? Maybe I don't want to have dinner with these people!" Every half hour I ask her if she is hungry. She hides behind her newspaper. "No, thank you!" Later I have to intervene when Mrs. Velzen has stolen Mrs. Jansen's walker. Mrs. Jansen is not demented herself, but assists her husband, who unfortunately has been hit by this disease. After some pushing and pulling and discussions around the vehicle, we can give it back to the rightful owner. Mrs. Staal finally wakes up, but when she's awake, she just screams loudly and cries. I wonder what this woman has been through in her life? The other patients become very restless and a bit annoyed. There is little sympathy. I notice that I can handle it, talk quietly to people, make eye contact, and discover that grabbing a hand, a short one-on-one conversation, often has a calming effect. A friendly lady says to me: "What's your real name?" I tell her and she says: "But how do you know my name?" I lie that there is a sticker on the back of her wheelchair, and don't tell her that I have a slightly better memory than she does. I learn that it is better to talk along with the patients, even if it is nonsense, than to correct them. At the end of my shift I go and have a look in the living room where I worked yesterday. Strange, I have to admit that I already feel a little attached to the people there. Mrs. Kaat is sitting quietly this time. She doesn't recognise me. But that's okay, in this job it’s the present that matters. If you can improve someone's well-being for a moment, it's all right. Because there is no past or future.
On the third day I work in an open department with a mix of patients. I meet a young colleague who has been accidentally ordered twice by HR. She works for a different employment agency, but we are both scheduled, and of course we're not going home! So we do the shift together. She is training to be a nurse, and claims that she has been working with the elderly for four years now. And yet I don't find her friendly to the people, not understanding, and I see that she is rubbing people up the wrong way, and even worse, is making them restless. She's young, 22, and I wonder why she's doing this job. She says it pays well. She wants to buy a car, she says, while looking at her 3cm long pink acrylic nails. Mrs. Van Papen keeps asking if we've already arrived in Zeist - she thinks we're on a cruise - and a moment later Mrs. Veen (104 years old) is delivered to our living room. She had walked away, and had been found at the bus stop, luckily just in time, before the bus arrived. I feed Mrs. van Halen a plate of porridge, the memories of feeding my own children when they were babies come to the surface. "And one more spoonful, well done!" My colleague doesn't get much into her, I take over and am proud that with patience I get almost a whole bowl of porridge into her. The predominant feeling I get from these services is sadness. What is the point of keeping these people alive? And imagine if this ever happens to me! All day with a diaper in a wheelchair. I have a lot of admiration for the permanent staff. They are kind to the people, patient, and do their job without nagging. It looks like half of the home is run by volunteers, there must be a huge shortage. I can see that in all the open shifts on my job app that most are for care homes. And they are not getting filled. I fear that this will only get worse in the future.