Tilburg, The Netherlands

15 Dec. 1999

Well, the big news this year is that we haven’t moved house again. When we came to the Netherlands, we made up our minds that we would stay for a full two years before making a decision on whether to stay or leave. We have now decided to stay here for the foreseeable future. Don’t think that this relieves the pressure on your address book, though. We are now thinking about buying a house. Watch this space...

It feels like a very long time since I wrote last year’s Christmas letter. One thing hasn’t changed, I am late sending out the cards again this year.

At the beginning of the year Baldur and I started taking evening Dutch classes. Baldur was in Group 4 and I went into Group 2. The classes were two evenings per week, which felt like a large chunk out of our week, but at least we were both going to the same place on the same evenings. We ate and travelled together. After the summer break we each went into the next level, shock horror, my classes were on Monday and Wednesday and Baldur’s on Tuesday and Thursday. This has greatly reduced our time together during the week to something resembling ships that pass...

My classes are in a building quite close to home, so Baldur and I have time to eat together and then he gallantly gets out the tandem and drops me off at the door. You might call this a handy taxi service, but you aren’t usually expected to provide the motive power when you call a cab!

We have done a fair bit of travelling this year. In February, we had a cross-country skiing holiday in Austria. We were staying in an area called Dreilandenpunkt, and we were able to ski into both Italy and Switzerland. On our last day, once we had built up our fitness, we skiied a marathon route by the banks of the Inn river. We left Austria the day before everything got closed in by excessive snow!

In March we made a brief visit to Scotland to be at a surprise party which was organised by my nieces Claire and Fiona to celebrate their parents’ Silver Wedding anniversary and the 70th birthday of their grandparents (respectively my elder brother Brian and sister in law, Sheena and my parents Ian and Margaret). The surprise was total and a great time was had by all. My mother still can’t work out how so many people were in on the secret without her getting even a sniff of a hint.

Our summer holiday this year was different from usual. For once, we didn’t have a long journey to get to the starting point of our cycling trip. Within half an hour of leaving home we were in Belgium and truly on holiday. The weather was great, which was fortunate as we were camping, and we really enjoyed the Belgian specialities pancakes and beer. We were amazed at how very precise the language division is in Belgium. In the Dutch speaking areas you seldom saw French and likewise in the French speaking areas. It was a relief for me getting back to the Dutch area again, at least I could understand what the people were saying!

Hi its me, Baldur. Dawn has typed a bit here which says “Baldur eclipse” so I suppose I’d better tell you about the eclipse. The bit about the moon going in front of the sun and them just being coincidentally about the same size I’ll skip.

Anyway about 25 years ago (did I say this was going to be a long story?) I remember asking my Mum if I could go to see the eclipse in 1999. I’d just read that the next eclipse visible from “These Islands”/”British Isles” (depending on which side of the Irish sea you are reading this) would be then. I think my Mum thought I was being smart, which is probably true, but she said yes anyway. Well years go by and you forget the things you always meant to do - and so did I. But one day during our cycling holiday in Belgium we saw that the local tourist office was selling eclipse glasses and it all came flooding back. Unfortunately our holiday was due to end three days before the eclipse and I’d left it rather too late to ask for more time off.

However, when I got back to Philips the following Monday it rapidly became clear that almost everybody was still on holiday and of the rest, many were planning to take the Wednesday off to see the eclipse. Realising that I wouldn’t be missed I decided to take one day off and attempt to get to the totality path using the train and my folding bike.

Tuesday night I left for Luik/Liege (depending on which side of the taalgrens you are reading this) and spent the night there in a hotel. The following morning I caught a train to Luxemburg/Luxembourg (ditto) at about 6.00 am. The weather was dreadful - cloudy and even the odd patch of drizzle. But as the train got further south small patches of blue sky began to appear. I’d heard that the weather was supposed to be better further west, so when the train reached the last stop in Belgium - Arlons/Arlen (done that joke) - I decided to get out and cycle due south over the border to France.

After 20 km on the bike I got on a French bus which took me another 20 km south and west. At this point names are irrelevant, I was heading in one direction in search of a patch of blue sky. After the bus journey I tried to get a train to a point further west in the totality zone - no luck, so back on the bike. I cycled another 15 km and found myself on a road lined with fellow eclipse watchers all in cars jammed onto small side roads. The sky still looked an unpromising shade of grey but futher to the north-west I could see a sizeable blue patch which, in the prevailing northerly wind, was heading south towards the road I was on. It was now 12.00 and there was about 30 minutes before the eclipse was due to start - so I began to cycle furiously due west hoping that the blue sky and I would meet the same point on the road at the right time.

Incredibly it worked!

The sky had been darkening and the light was reminiscent of a dull winter’s day, an effect heightened by the fact that the swallows which had been up to then enthusiastically fly-catching, gave up and decided to roost in the trees. The temperature had dropped noticeably too and I began to feel decidedly chilly as the sweat of the pursuit evaporated. Suddenly totality hit - and hit is the word. The light was simply switched off as the shadow travelling at over 1500 km per hour struck - it was a sort of summery moonlit night, with stars but instead of a moon, a white halo surrounding a black hole in the sky. From all round came cheering and applause. I don’t think I can adequately describe the air of unreality it all had, I think though that it’s possibly the closest feeling you can have of being in space without leaving the surface of the planet.

Well I could bore you with more details of my journey back - but suffice to say don’t try to travel by public transport from Verdun to anywhere in Belgium in the middle of the week. After another 40 km of cycling and a taxi ride I made it to Luxemburg city in time for the last train which would get me back to Tilburg that night.

I’d just like to record here my thanks to my Mum for giving me permission all those years ago and also especially to Dawn, whose encouragement overcame a fit of apathy at the last minute. And to everyone else - if you ever get the chance to see a total eclipse - do it!

(Dawn again) At the end of November, we celebrated our copper anniversary (12.5 years according to the Dutch tradition). We travelled to Paris by the high speed train and spent three nights in an hotel on the Left Bank. We were again blessed with excellent weather and we did a load of touristy things, climbed the Eiffel tower, took a boat trip on the Seine and queued at the Louvre.

We have had visitors this year too. Brian and Sheena stayed with us during their ‘tour of Europe‘. They did a good mileage as they drove from Scotland via France and Belgium and they went on to Sheena’s sister in Italy via Germany and back the same way. They also walked a fair bit while in Tilburg. At the end of their visit, Claire and my mum arrived for a week’s visit, and they got around a bit too, within Holland and Belgium. Then my mum and dad came in December for a wet week.

As for work, I have taken on quite a lot of extra responsibility recently. I am a team leader for 4 junior colleagues, responsible for their training as so on, and I am also the prime contact for our company’s largest client.These two developments gave me the extra challenge I needed to keep my interest. However, during the last few months the merger has started to have an effect, the atmosphere has changed greatly and the stress and workload has increased, so I am looking out for something new.

Baldur again... Nothing really exiciting happening at my work so I won’t bore you with details of sotware projects and so on. Slightly work related item: I’m hoping to get my Nederlands als Tweede Taal Staatsexam early this coming year. With that qualification you are supposed to know enough of the Dutch language to attend higher-level educational courses (should you so wish) - so that’ll be better than my English, as Dawn says.

Wishing you all the best of the season and everything good for the year 2000,

Dawn & Baldur