Sunday, 11 June 2017

Grozette are you better, are you well, well, well

When I arrived in the small village of Harmelen, The Netherlands in September 1996 I could barely speak a word of the mother tongue. Not that this is a necessity for an Englishman moving to the Netherlands - the Dutch are so well versed in the English language that they put most British people to shame. In the run up to my arrival on Dutch soil, I'd bought a book called Teach yourself Dutch, which I'd used to teach myself the basics. The first sentence I learned to say with confidence was "Ik wil vijf aardbeien alstublieft " - I would like 5 strawberries please! Quite why I chose to teach myself this sentence is beyond me now, but if it was 5 strawberries you were after, I was your man. Realising that my employment choices would be vasty increased if I took some time to learn the language I decided to absorb myself in the book before going to the job agency to try to gain employment. Within weeks I was armed with enough words to feel brave enough to go to the supermarket to try out my new skills. This proved more difficult than I'd anticipated because upon realising that I was English, the guy behind the till insisted on having a conversation in English with me. A pattern that was pretty much repeated throughout my entire 5 year stay in the country. However, I persevered, when people talked English back to me I spoke Dutch back at them in a louder voice. This often ended up in a battle of the languages until the recipient of my Dutch skills realised that I wasn't going to give up.

Within a few months I deemed my Dutch skills good enough to approach one of the agencies in the nearby city of Utrecht. When the lady asked me what type of job I wanted I told her in Dutch that I just wanted any job, I didn't really care what kind of job it was. This is probably why I ended up working in the Mona yoghurt factory on the nightshift when one of the machines had broken down, and it was all hands to the deck to try and get yoghurt supplies on the supermarket shelves before the next morning. I'd been used to factory work so the environment didn't really bother me. This was my first step on the ladder of Dutch employment, which would be ascended at an accelerated rate depending on how fast I learnt the language.

Over the next year I had a succession of jobs of similar ilk, packing flowers for Alber Heijn, stacking enormous lorry tyres for Kargro, loading magazines onto a conveyor belt for Albrecht, order picking garden furniture for Blokker, and eventually loading parmesan cheese pots onto a conveyor belt for Grozette. It's this last job that I want to focus this story on.

The Grozette factory was located in the nearby town of Woerden. To get there I would ride my very nippy Honda Camino (complete with pedals) moped down the bike paths and through the fields for 8 miles, whilst being treated to the wonderful odour of baking bread, as I passed by numerous bakeries. Needless to say, the ride to work was the best part of the day. But once I'd clocked in I was in for 8 hours of sheer misery.

From the moment I was introduced to my new team I knew that we were going to have nothing in common. Albert (the line manager) was OK, sweet enough, but nothing much really going on upstairs, if you know what I mean. His English skills were limited, so our conversations were limited to very basic Dutch. How are you? Nice weather today? etc etc. Not an ideal situation for me, because I like to chew the fat all day long. It was Albert's job to oversee the machine that I was to work on, a rather large conveyor belt which it was my job to keep loaded with enormous cardboard trays of pots. Each tray probably held a couple of hundred pots, and the trays were stacked 5 high onto the conveyor belt. If the trays ran out, I had to run as fast as I could, across the factory floor, up some steep wooden steps into boiling hot loft room, which housed a seemingly endless stock of new pots on trays. I'd then have to grab 5 trays at a time (so a 1000 pots) before running back down the stairs and loading them onto the conveyor. Those few precious seconds I spent in the red hot storeroom was the only time I got to myself in the whole shift. However, I couldn't linger in there too long, or the fully loaded pots of parmesan would fall off the other end of the conveyor belt. It was also my job to unload the full pots at the other end, and stack them into new trays.

Along with Albert and myself, there was a girl working on the potting line by the name of Dafne. Now, if Albert didn't have much upstairs, he was positively a professor in comparison to Dafne. Don't get me wrong she looked OK, all her parts were in the right place (apart from her brain). She'd apparently missed out on a few evolutionary jumps, and was stuck somewhere between the primate and the caveman. Any attempts for me to speak to Dafne were met by a vacant stare and an inarticulate "uggghhhh", as she tried to decipher my Dutch. It was Dafne's job to sit on a stool, directly opposite me, at a distance of a few feet, and to feed blocks of cheese into a mechanised cheese grater. She would literally sit on her arse all day, usually filing her nails, whilst reluctantly bending down, every now and again to pull another block out of a box and load it into the cheese grater. The lazy fucker didn't even replenish the boxes of cheese when they were up. That was left to me, in-between running from one end of the conveyor to the other, loading and unloading pots of parmesan, and legging it upstairs to the store room to retrieve more trays. When Dafne ran out of cheese, she would tap me on the shoulder and point at her empty box. Obviously my internal dialogue was saying "go and get your own box you lazy bastard", but in the end I always politely smiled and got a new box for her. Whilst I was gone, she would file her nails with renewed vigour, whilst making no effort whatsoever to pick my pots off the floor as they inevitably spilled off the end of the conveyor. Albert would then intervene by shutting down the machine, whilst irritatingly saying "Chonga yongen yongen" -or the Dutch equivalent of "boy, oh boy, oh boy". Every time Albert had to shut down the machine, a giant of a man called Theo would come storming across the shop floor, donned in a pair of denim cut offs and a massive pair of jackboots. I'd hear his jackboots coming across the floor and cower, for I knew that I was in for a grilling. Theo was the factory floor supervisor, but to be honest he would have looked more at home in a wrestling ring. The guy must have been around 7 ft tall, and built like a brick shit house. My only salvation was that my Dutch was far from perfect, and I was not therefore able to fully understand the tirade of abuse I was being subjected too.

Needless to say, I was not cut out for this job. However, it wasn't for lack of trying. I probably worked harder at that job than I've ever worked in my life. But the repetitive actions that was my job, was not something that my brain could handle too well. It would go OK for a while, but then I would drift off into a daydream, and before I knew it the floor was knee deep in parmesan pots. This was always followed by a gorilla of a man shouting in my face.  Even when I thought things were going well Theo would walk past me and shout "TEMPO, TEMPO" -"Faster, faster". Sometimes I'd retaliate and shout back at him in English, "fuck off you knob end!" - only I think this was more in my head then out of my mouth. Theo could have no doubt picked me up with one leg and dropped me into the grating machine.

In Holland (at that time at least) every temp worker had one eye on the holy grail of a permanent contract (or vast contract in Dutch). These usually came around the 3 month mark if you were deemed capable enough of doing your job. In hindsight I have no idea why, but at the time I was hanging out for a permanent contract at Grozette, and when I managed to last for the first 2 months, I thought that I'd eventually become a permanent employee of the factory. It would seem that the management of Grozette had a different idea.

My hatred of everything to do with the job was building by the day, even the sound that the clocking in machine made was grinding on my nerves. This wasn't the only sound that irritated me. Theo's jackboots storming across the factory floor, Dafne's incessant nail filing, Albert cursing me under his breath, and the sounds of pots falling off the end of the conveyor were all contributing to my misery.

One Wednesday afternoon sometime in August of 1997 it all came to a head. To be honest I was ready to flip, tensions had been building for weeks, and I'd reached the point where I couldn't take any more. All it took was one tut out of Dafne's mouth, who was showing her disdain at my apparent incompetence, and I totally saw red. Grabbing a handful of pots from the conveyor belt I proceeded to throw them at her. Dafne, who was taken by total surprise and spontaneously burst into tears as pot after pot of parmesan crashed into her head. Until this point I'd don't even think I'd ever seen Dafne leave her seat (apart from breaks). But in her attempt to get out of the way of the projectiles I was launching at her, she dived off her chair, and crawled out of view on her hands and knees. But that wasn't going to stop me, I jumped onto the conveyor belt, and from my elevated position I continued an arial bombardment of my enemy, whilst shouting "kutwijf, teef, and stomme koe" - "cunt wife, bitch, and stupid cow". Kutwijf, is by the way a very popular insult in the Dutch language - not something I made up.

By the time Albert had noticed what was going on, and hit the off button, I had practically exhausted the whole supply of pots, and was already searching for the next thing to throw at her. It was at this point that I heard the jackboots of Theo storming across the factory floor. Before I had a chance to escape Theo he had me in a headlock and was marching me away for the scene of destruction that I'd just caused. I thought that they were going to get rid of me there and then, but I guess they needed the work doing so they kept me working. Dafne, who was hysterical by now was given permission to go home, and Albert reluctantly sat in her chair to feed cheese into the shredder for the rest of the day. It was during those few hours working with Albert that he chose to reveal a better level of English to me. This was largely because he took great delight in informing me that Dafne's boyfriend was enormous, hard as nails, and would probably be on his way around to rip my head off.

I did contemplate never going back to Grozette, but the next morning I jumped on my Honda Camino, road down the bike paths, through the fields, and past the lovely smelling bakeries, to the place I considered to be hell. As I entered the building I was petrified that I was going to get pounced on by Dafne's fella. I walked over to the conveyor belt, half expecting Dafne to have taken the day off. But there she was (filing her nails). We continued as if nothing had happened, and I began to think that I'd got away with my outburst. But at 4 pm, just as I was about to go home, I was summoned into the office to have a meeting with the big boss.

"I don't think you're cut out for this job", he told me. 

"You're obviously heard about what happened yesterday!", I replied.

"No, what happened", he said.

I have no idea whether he already knew or not, or whether I'd let the cat out of the bag, but by the time I'd given him my account of the tale there was little chance that I was ever going to work at Grozette again. I got my stuff, walked out into a perfect August afternoon, jumped on my moped and rode off like easy rider. I would never have to load and unload parmesan cheese pots again.

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