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Why I loved it when the tabloids forgot bronze medal winner Goodfellow

At the Rio Olympics, all eyes in Britain were on Tom Daley.

Daley is an English diver who won the bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics in the 10 metre platform event. Fit and photogenic, he immediately shot to media stardom, even landing a role on the celebrity diving reality TV show Splash! Yes, that’s a thing that exists.

So four years later, big things were expected of him at the Rio Olympics. Unfortunately, his solo performance was a flop. But together with partner Daniel Goodfellow, he managed to bring home a bronze medal in the synchronised 10 metre platform event.

Predictably, the British media went nuts. It was just a shame that in heaping praise on their poster boy, they forgot about his partner.

There was Daley pictured on the front page of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph – alone. There was the Times, raving about the dramatic performance by ‘Daley and synchronised partner’.

The backlash was instant and epic. Social media raged at the whitewashing of Goodfellow, whose performance – by definition – was every bit as spectacular as Daley’s.

Me? It made me very happy.

Imagine for a moment that diving was co-ed: one man, one woman. That Daniel Goodfellow was Danielle Goodfellow, and she was unceremoniously deleted from the pages of history just like her male alter-ego.

We’d all be up in arms about sexism, and rightly so. Just as we were when Corey Cogdell, bronze medal winner in trap shooting at Rio, was described by the Chicago Tribune as merely ‘Wife of a Bears lineman’, referring to American footballer Mitch Unrein.

Or when an NBC commentator described world-beating swimmer Katinka Hosszú’s husband and coach as ‘the person responsible for her performance’.

Or when a BBC commentator described the women’s judo final as a ‘catfight’.

I could go on all day.

But this time it was a man being cut, quite literally, out of the picture. And the whole affair made me think about what it is that makes the media effectively erase people. Sometimes it’s downright sexist, to be sure. But other times it’s misguided assumptions about what the public wants to see, combined with sheer tabloid laziness.

I’m not excusing the practice. I’m just glad to see that given half the chance, they’ll do it to anyone.


The Netherlands, in 40 questions

Two years after graduating from Cambridge, I find myself filling in an application form for a job at Albert Heijn.

Education level? asks the form. ‘PhD’, I write.

What section would you like to work in? This is a tough one. Baked goods is the obvious choice, but then what about the cheese counter? I decide to come back to this.

Why do you want to work at Albert Heijn? ‘I have a passion for food products’ – this is not entirely a lie – ‘and I’d like to get more out of my people skills.’

That’s the short answer, I guess. The long one: ‘I don’t, actually, but I do want Dutch citizenship, and that means doing the inburgering exam, which involves filling in a mountain of fake job applications just to show that I can, even though I already have a job, and then having my qualifications evaluated by an hbo’er from the local council.’ This, of course, wasn’t going to fit on the form.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not opposed to the exam. And if the ‘Orientation to the Dutch labour market’ part was tiresome, ‘Knowledge of Dutch society’ was supremely entertaining. It consists of 40 questions designed to weed out people who are racist, sexist, religious bigots and utter morons. And, not or – since you’re allowed to get 15 wrong there’s plenty of scope to be one or more of the above, just not all of them at once.

Here’s an example: Job and Mieke are Catholic. They install a statue of Maria in their garden. What should Ali do? The answer options are, loosely paraphrased, as follows: (a) tell them to remove it, (b) wait till night falls and topple it under the cover of darkness, or (c) nothing, because who gives?

Ali reappears in a number of questions, and we are told he works in a factory. He seems to be married to Fatima, a cleaner. In the written Dutch exam they are joined by someone called Faisal, and you have to complete sentences like ‘Faisal’s neighbour Joke invites him to her birthday party on Wednesday. Faisal can’t go because …’

I wonder what would happen if I write ‘… because he’ll be at home wiring up a bomb from his toaster’, but then in excellent Dutch. The word for toaster escapes me though, so I settle for ‘… as a paediatric oncologist he’ll be hard at work on Wednesday, like most immigrants’.


Heads up!

I was lining my pencils up in preparation for sharpening when the phone rang.

It was Pauw, from the talk show. That morning the NRC had run a small piece on my research. Would I be willing to come on the show and discuss it?

‘I could, I suppose’, I said. I’ve always been underwhelmed by Pauw’s hair, and besides, the last time I went on TV to talk about my research the segment was presented by a man in a snakeskin suit and I was made to comment on unwitting sexual innuendo in the use of English by ageing Dutch footballers.

In fact it wasn’t Pauw himself on the phone, but one of his minions. The content for that night wasn’t yet set in stone, but I was on the shortlist and they’d call back soon to confirm.

I hung up and passed the afternoon pacing up and down, praying I might be ditched for a segment on pandas, or maybe a piece on the long-lost Rembrandt that had materialised that morning in an auction in New Jersey. By mid-afternoon I’d forced Rutger-Jan to cancel all his appointments in order to coach me. ‘Just don’t get side-tracked when they bring up Louis van Gaal’, he counselled.

At last the phone rang.

‘I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news’, said the voice. ‘We’re replacing you with a head.’

‘Just a head?’, I said. ‘But I’ve got a whole body.’

Earlier that day a severed head had turned up on the street in Amsterdam, its owner the victim of an ongoing turf war between rival gangs. The head, which apparently belonged to a body found in a burning car on the other side of the city, had been placed in a bucket and positioned to peer into Fayrouz, a shisha lounge on the Amstelveenseweg. It was this grizzly touch that seemed to get the story over the line for the producers at Pauw.

‘Compared to a segment on … language … it’s just a lot, you know … sexier.’


What’s in a name?

Observant, Maastricht

I’ve been flirting with the idea of adopting a new name.

For starters, I have to share my present name with about ten million other people. Being called Alison Edwards is like being Jan Jansen in Dutch, or at least the female equivalent thereof. To make matters worse, I don’t even have a middle name. In fairness it’s probably for the best I wasn’t given my mother’s middle name, Pamela – that would have left me facing a lifelong struggle with the initials APE. Christine would have been fine, though, or Catherine or Cecilia – then I would be ACE.

In the Netherlands my name comes off as a lot more exotic. The novelty wears off, however, when you have to repeat it a dozen times on introducing yourself. And as an unmistakeably English name, it goes hand in hand with the assumption that I mustn’t be able to speak Dutch. Introductions therefore tend to go as follows: ‘Alison.’ ‘What?’ ‘Alison.’ ‘What?’ ‘Alison. You know, kind of like Alice in Wonderland.’ At this point, people usually catch on and say, ‘Ahh!!! English?’ Followed by my awkward: ‘Right. Well, the name is English. But I’m not English. But yes, I’m English speaking. But I speak Dutch too though.’

The initial ordeal over with, I then find myself being referred to as Elison. This is preferable to the German variant, Elizon, but only marginally so. I’ve tried simplifying things by going with just Ali, but based on the spelling I tend to be taken for a Turkish man, and even then the A still comes out like an E. So I’ve decided to just ‘own’ it, as the Yanks would say, and embrace Elli as my Dutchified alter-ego. Replace that pesky Edwards with my husband’s last name, Lange, and in trial runs I’ve been finding that people actually get it first go. Better yet, they don’t notice at first that I’m foreign. It takes a few sentences for my accent to become apparent and the conversation to take that inevitable turn: ‘Ahh!!! English?’ ‘Right. Well yes, English speaking. I’m not English though …’

Elli Lange

Appointment angst


Observant, Maastricht

It’s that time of year when universities around the country are swamped with kids trying to figure out where to go study. I say kids, but many of them are not much younger than I was when I started teaching in Maastricht, almost ten years ago.

I don’t say that to show off. In fact, at 23, I was a relatively old graduate by Australian standards. Start a degree right out of school and you’ll be done by 21. In the Netherlands, students are often just warming up at that age. The bachelor-master system may have been partly introduced to discourage students from loitering around for the better part of a decade, but the old system died a slow death, at least in people’s minds. Since the old degree amounted, in today’s terms, to both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, a bachelor’s alone counts in the Dutch collective psyche as just over half a degree.

I was an unhappy teacher, and not only because I was monumentally unqualified. There were two problems. First, teaching involves a considerable amount of interaction with the other human beings. Second, it is unpleasantly dependent on both students and teacher showing up in the same place at the same time. It didn’t bother me if the students wanted to congregate somewhere; the fact that I had to be there too was the real thorn in my side.

Don’t get me wrong: I love work. Adore it. My problem is with things being locked in: dentist appointments, meetings, events of any kind. The fact that I must make myself respectable and enter the world is only part of it. It’s the psychological aspect of obligation that bothers me; the prospect of a fixed agenda item looming on the horizon, no matter how innocent. Friday afternoon coffee with a friend, say. ‘I literally can’t breathe’, I’ll tell Rutger-Jan, waving my diary in his face. ‘I can’t even.’ Even a Sunday afternoon Skype date to watch my one-year-old nephew rub peas on his face is enough to give me heart palpitations – although at least I don’t have to get out of my pyjamas for that.




A wonderful career choice

Observant, Maastricht

So Karl Andree, the Briton sentenced to public flogging in Saudi Arabia for alcohol possession, has been released. I’m reminded of lecture I attended years back in Sydney, by a journalist who’d likewise just been released from a Saudi jail. It was the only lecture I enjoyed of my entire journalism degree.

Looking back, my choice for journalism was a touch naïve: Hey, I like writing! I’d have preferred the creative writing major, but back then I still imagined I’d like to get a job some day.

I hated the programme from day one. It turned out that all those journalism students actually wanted to be journalists. Me, I wasn’t cut from the right cloth to ask a grieving woman, ‘Mrs Johnson, a comment? How does it feel to mow down your own son in an SUV?’ For an investigative piece on the theme of ‘hardship’ I interviewed a friend who lived on a farm. A photojournalism piece on urban spaces became a montage of walls in the city. Some had fanciful curls of ivy or interesting graffiti, but mostly they were just bricks or wood. I would zoom in artistically on the knots. ‘That’s your character right there,’ I told the lecturer.

The journalist who came to talk to us had been arrested for showing an ankle in public, or maybe it was eating babies – I don’t recall the details. For punishment, she was driven out into the desert and tied to a stake. They meant to stone her or lash her, one of the two.

At the thought of her husband and children back home, the journalist went mental. She started hollering and thrashing about and lifting up her burka, shrieking, ‘Look at this! Look at it! What is oh so fucking evil about this?’

‘Well,’ said the journalist, adjusting her seat on the stage of the lecture theatre. ‘After this performance they took me to be quite insane. They bundled me back in the car, drove to the consulate and couldn’t kick me out fast enough.

‘Journalism, though,’ she continued, turning from the moderator to face us, ‘really is a wonderful career choice.’

The simple things

Observant, Maastricht

What is it that binds people all around the world? Is it some shared value? A global sense of humanity? Or even Chomsky’s universal grammar?

Clearly not. The answer is tea.

We all have our different ways of drinking it. Different flavours, different things we put in it, different things we drink it out of. But at the end of the cup, it’s all tea.

Even the way the English drink it, at a stretch. Growing up in England – or far from it, but with English parents, as I did – white tea is the most normal thing in the world. Being, of course, black tea with milk. Until I was 20 I figured everyone drank it that way. Since then I’ve lived abroad, and come to understand how odd that is to everyone else.

“How would you like it?”, a Turkish flight attendant asked me last week, somewhere between Schiphol and Istanbul. “Some sugar, perhaps?”

“Milk, please”, I said.

“Tea and milk”, she said, eyebrows raised. “You’re thirsty.” She plucked a second cup from her trolley and started to pour me a cup of milk as well.

In the tea”, I said.

There was an awkward pause.

In the tea?”

In the tea.”

Thus stumped her. She mimed pouring milk into my teacup, the look on her face somewhere between incredulity and disgust.

“Oh, miss”, she sighed. “You’re different.”

I like to inform my husband periodically that I’m a simple girl; all it takes is a steaming cup of tea on a cold day to make me happy. “That,” he agrees, “and for everything else in your life to be otherwise perfect.” This he says as I snuggle under a blanket in front of the 7 pm news, watching the refugees struggling their way into Europe or polar bears starving to death as the ice caps melt. Contemplating my utterly pampered and selfish existence, I think, I hate myself.

In that state, there’s only one thing for it. “Schatje?” I call out to Rutger-Jan in the kitchen. “You’d better put the kettle on!”

At home

Observant, Maastricht

I was less than enthusiastic about spending my summer in Australia. True, I’d get to see family – that’s a plus. But summer here means winter there. My parents figured it’d still be warm enough to go on a whale-watching cruise near my hometown. While my husband saw a humpback whale and a pod of dolphins, I became closely acquainted with the inside of a sick bag. Boats don’t agree with me, it turns out.

My sister, meanwhile, lives in Canberra. Like Pretoria and Wellington, Canberra is one of those unsung world capitals, the kind of place that, when you tell people you plan on visiting, they tend to respond, ‘What for?’ I have a nine-month-old nephew I’d never met, which seemed like as good a reason as any. Until he sneezed right in my mouth, that is, and I came down with something closely resembling Ebola.

Meanwhile, an immunologist friend from Cambridge was busy in Sierra Leone, battling both the real Ebola and a variety of unidentifiable wildlife that had made her tent home. In Australia, disappointingly, the most dangerous creature we came across was said nephew. Despite my previous lack of experience with the species, he turned out to be almost cute enough – almost – for me to revise my long-held opinion that having a baby is, short of voluntarily working with infectious diseases, the worst idea a person could entertain.

Still, we were keen to come back to the Netherlands to see how our own ‘baby’ was getting along. That is, a one-metre-square patch of dirt that serves as our garden. My standards on what constitutes a garden have fallen drastically in the decade since I left Australia, where everyone has a lawn the size of a football pitch. Before leaving, we’d sown a few thousand seeds’ worth of Wunder-Rasen (thank you, It lived up to its name: we came home to a blooming, thick swathe of green.

I think of myself as a lot like that grass. Not green, you understand – unless I’m on a boat – but I came via Germany to be rooted in Dutch soil. So bring me some stroopwafels and put the Journaal on – it’s good to be home!

Book club: aliens and wankers

Observant, Maastricht, 21 May 2015

When you move someplace new in your twenties, you make friends by getting drunk. In your thirties, you join a book club.

The first book in my new Amsterdam group is called The Humans. It’s about a Cambridge maths professor whose body is possessed by an alien.

Now, usually I won’t read anything involving aliens, wizards, hobbits or any other form of supernatural being. So this doesn’t bode well. But I read the book anyway. My social calendar’s not exactly overflowing.

Then comes the get-together itself. Walking into the bar, I realise I’ve no clue what they look like. I sidle up to the first English-speaking table. They’re all seventy plus. Please don’t let it be them, I think, backing away slowly.

The next table’s full of Dutch people air-kissing one another. This can’t be them either. But I’m hovering, and they’re starting to notice. Again I back away, bumping into the waitress as I go. Fail, I think. I’m just going to leave.

Then I spot a long table at the back. A woman sees me peering quizzically and offers a little smile, as if to say it is we you seek. I’m filled with relief.

‘Here’s your seat!’, calls out a friendly Canadian as I approach. When are Canadians not friendly?

Afterwards, I head home in high spirits. Check me out, I think. I just totally made friends.

A week passes and there’s no word of the next gathering. They’re probably just getting organised, I think.

Maybe I spelled my email address wrong, I worry after two weeks.

Three weeks later, I still haven’t heard. I think back to the night. There was that one girl who found it unlikely the other characters wouldn’t have noticed the maths professor acting oddly, what with being possessed by an alien. ‘Knowing Cambridge mathematicians,’ I’d said, ‘that’s not at all unlikely.’ That must be it. I’m a Cambridge wanker.

At last, the email arrives. See, you’re not a wanker! I tell myself. But I’ve now six days to read all 448 pages of the next book.

‘Only 74 and a half pages a day’, says my husband, the Cambridge mathematician.