Saturday, March 28, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 69

In the morning I do my grocery shopping and then do some work on the diary. Late in the afternoon Martje comes over. We have to fill out a form on the computer to book our trip to Japan. After we have had some tea with a delicious piece of cake, which Martje has brought, we go to my study. As usual there are some surprises while we fill out the form, but we run into real problems when we try to book a room in the city where the congress will take place. The travel agency does not have any connections in that town, but I have got the names of three hotels recommended by the congress organisers. We try to find them on the internet. The information is limited, although there are many sites on which we can find the hotels, but when we try to book two single rooms the problems begin. The prices are higher than the congress organisers have indicated, we are told that the hotel has no rooms available (could that be because we want single rooms – that has happened to me before), the website says the price may be raised or lowered, so that we do not know what we sign up for and we notice that on most sites we are not connected directly to the hotel but to a booking agency. No wonder this makes it more expensive. It is already quite late when we decide to give up. I’ll get in touch with the congress organisers. I cook a meal and after we have eaten Martje goes home. It will be a short night: one hour less because tomorrow summer time begins.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 68

On Fridays my cleaning lady comes. She starts with my study and I do other chores in the mean time. The rest of the day I do work at the computer, nothing worth mentioning happens.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 67

Today, finally the Parliament can give its opinion. The opposition is furious. Why couldn’t they participate in making plans, why are the social partners heard before the Parliament? The one substantial measure that the government had in its plan: raising the age for the state pension is now uncertain because of the actions of the trade union. The decision is delayed by half a year and people do not know what is going to happen. When the leader of the fraction of the Christian Democrats says at the beginning of the debate that the government has made a well balanced proposal and that not much can be changed now that an agreement has been reached, this is more than one of the opposition parties finds acceptable. The whole fraction of 9 MPs leaves the room. It is a very unusual move and draws a lot of attention of the media.
The other opposition fractions stay in the room and they all are of the opinion that it is bad that the plans have been made by just a small group of people. All the other 147 MPs had no influence. Is that democracy? The other opposition parties stay in the room and launch fierce attacks with few results. The debate lasts all day until late in the evening. The opposition parties get two of their ideas adopted, but they are only minor additions to the agreement. There is a lot of criticism that the government has not stood firm on raising the age required for the state pension.
I only see part of the debate. I do not have the patience to sit and watch all day long. I have more to do. I wonder though what will happen to health care. I understand that there will be important cutbacks on the allowances people get to pay for their health care insurance. This is bad news for people with a lower income.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 66

It is dreadful weather, cold, windy and rainy. The gardener is coming today. Poor guys, who have to work outside on a day like this. They usually come a little after 8, I have to get up early. One of the two men who come I know, the other is new. I explain to them what I want to be done. They go ahead and I can go to my study.
Today the government is going to present its plan to deal with the economic crisis. Over the past days the criticism has grown about the government, talking and talking but not doing anything. For three weeks seven people have been discussing in seclusion the measures that need to be taken to deal with the recession. They are the Prime Minister, who in this case does not represent his party but plays the role of an impartial Head of Government, a Minister of each party represented in the government and the leaders of the three parliamentary sections represented in the government. The diagnosis of the situation is that the three parties have renegotiated the pact that they concluded two years ago when they came into power. The rumours are that all three parties are unwilling to give in on issues that are significant for them, such as tax deductions for the mortgage people have on their house (Christian Democrats). This is especially advantageous for people with high incomes and very expensive housing, because taxes are progressive. This tax deduction costs the public treasury a fortune. Another one is what is mockingly called the kitchen sink subsidy. This s a tax benefit for couples, when only one of the two is in paid employment. This is a major issue for the Christian Union, which likes mothers to stay at home with their kids. The third big issue is social security and more specifically the unemployment benefit and the long-term care insurance which are important for the Labour Party. It is rather late in the day when the Prime Minister finally makes public what the three parties have agreed. They have only drawn one daring conclusion: the age at which people are entitled to the state pension is to be raised from 65 to 67.
After the PM has officially presented the plan the negotiators have invited the social partners (employers and trade unions) to discuss the plan with them.
The trade union FNV has fiercely opposed raising the age for the state pension and they obtain the concession that they get half a year to work with the SER (the Social and Economic Council) to find an alternative with the same positive effects on the national budget. The leader of FNV (a woman) is triumphant: we have got the proposal off the table she says! That still remains to be seen.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 65

Today is a quiet day. I can work at the computer and I have to go to the hairdresser in the afternoon. In the morning the more detailed plan for the trip to Japan arrives. It looks good, except that it leaves less time than I would like for Kyoto, where I know there are many beautiful temples and I want to see quite a few of them and try to take pictures. I copy the plan to send it by snail mail to Martje.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 64

I have to go to Utrecht. In October I am supposed to go to a meeting in Japan and Martje and I have decided we want to use that opportunity to go and travel in Japan. I have been there once for a short visit, when I went to a conference and thought I’d like to go back there to see some more, so now is the time. In Utrecht there is a travel agency that specialises in trips to the far East. Martje’s friends are very positive about this agency and my travel agency in The Hague has told me that they always consult the one in Utrecht when they are asked to organise a trip to that region. Martje and I have made an appointment to see one of their consultants.
The train to Utrecht stops at a station, where it is not supposed to stop. It stands there, doors closed, nothing happens. It takes quite some time before we get a clarification. There has been an accident with a freight train on the line. The tracks between this station and Utrecht are blocked. Dutch Rail is discussing what to do. After a while we are told we will take a different route, but eventually will get to Utrecht. We get going, but stop frequently. Then the news is that the train will not go to Utrecht at all, but will pick up its normal route by going to the station that comes after Utrecht. Passengers for Utrecht have to take a train back. Fortunately I have a brochure of the travel agency with me with its telephone number so I can call them and let them know that I will be late. I arrive with a delay of no less than 2 hours in Utrecht. I wonder whether Martje, who has come from Rotterdam, has had the same problems. I don’t see her, so I go to the travel agency. Yes, she is there: she had had the last train before the accident. She discovered in Utrecht at the station, when I did not show up what the reason was.
The consultant who talks with us has many good ideas and it does not take very long before we have figured out what we can do and like to do. She will work out this provisional plan and then send it to me by e-mail. Martje does not (yet) have a computer.
It rains and it is very grey and cold but we go into town to have some lunch. We find a nice café, have a leisurely meal and then go to the station. The obstruction has not yet been removed so the best thing to do is to travel via Schiphol, a detour of about half an hour. Fortunately the train is not too crowded.
Later in the day we hear the damage on the railroad has been considerable and the tracks cannot be used for several more days.
I have to hurry, because in the evening there is the meeting of the citizens’ panel.
In the neighbourhood centre there are about 20 people gathered for the meeting. It is presided over by the Director of the city section, the same person, who chaired the meeting on March 5th, when we discussed the municipal plan for the neighbourhood.
She opens the sessions and confronts us right away with a disappointing message. Just last week the municipal council has decided to suspend the creation of any more citizens’ panels.
They have received negative comments from various existing organisations that are afraid these panels will only double their activities. This has to be figured out first before the green light can be given for more than the already two existing citizens’ panels. In spite of this the Director does not want to send us home without having a discussion. Maybe there are other options. She is happy that the people who are there have bothered to come. We introduce ourselves and I notice that other than the three persons of our informal neighbourhood group there are only four persons who have come as interested citizens, all the others are representatives of formal organisations who in one way or another want to do something for the people living in this neighbourhood. A representative of the neighbourhood care organisation is there as well as someone of the older home care organisation. There is also a staff member of a care home, two members of the board of the official neighbourhood association and two board members of a sports organisation, some staff members of community organisations and of the city section. Some of the same points come up that were brought forward before. But there are also new items. The care home, for instance, wants to have a function for people in the neighbourhood but does not succeed in getting people, living in their own homes in the neighbourhood, to use its facilities. The same is true for one other care home, not represented here. Somehow they do not manage to reach the persons who could use the facilities. It is suggested that they could make known their menus, letting people know that they can come over for a meal. Another suggestion is to invite people and treat them to coffee with cakes on the occasion of the elections for the European Parliament. Usually there are polling stations in the care homes so people living in the neighbourhood have to go there anyway, if they are treated and informed about the services of the care home it may serve to lower the threshold. Another new issue that comes up is the position of the expats. There are quite a few in the neighbourhood but they do not mix very well. Many of them don’t speak Dutch and the locals do not make it easy for them to learn because when the expats try to speak Dutch they usually get an answer in English. That is anything but encouraging. They also feel uncertain about informal rules of conduct that are never explained. Whom can they turn to? I suggest that older people can play a role here. I know that this is being done in Rotterdam. Martje is teaching several expats and with some of them she has become friends. She got involved through an organisation called the Guild, which also has a branch in The Hague. The sports organisation mentions that their premises are open to all citizens. They will be glad to host meetings and have people come over for a meal or to watch competitions.
At the end of the meeting the Director is quite satisfied that new ideas have come up and she wants to keep the people who were present involved, she proposes that a new meeting will be organised by one of the community organisations to see how some plans can be put into practice.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 63

In spite of the poor weather forecast it is still sunny and I can sit and read in my garden. The new neighbours (they are French) are working in their garden. They cut some of the trees the previous owner had planted. The latter was fond of trees and had far too many for a city garden. I used to ask him to cut them back occasionally, because his garden is directly to the south of mine, so that his trees take away a lot of sunshine in my garden. I like to grow plants and flowers, but on the side of his garden this is hardly possible. I see my new neighbour with a simple hand saw work on the trees. It is amazing how much he gets done, but he does it in a rather unprofessional way. I have more light in my garden now, but I cannot say it looks particularly nice. And then he starts building a cabin, in the remains of one tree and puts three big red flags on top of it. I am sure his three young boys will love it, but to me it looks horrible. I wonder whether he is aware of the regulations by the city: we are not supposed to take trees down without a permit from the local authority. Earlier my gardener used to do it without permit: who will see it other than the neighbours? But he recently told me that at present the local authorities take pictures from the air and they can see where trees are cut. When you are being found out you get a fine. I consider telling my neighbour but the harm has been done now, there is no point in disquieting him. I do at least one useful thing: I clean the balcony behind my bedroom. There is always a lot of dirt on it from leaves, and what not. It is surprising how much I have collected recently.. In the evening there is on television, what is called a docu-drama. It is about the nomination of the Dutch Secretary General of NATO. As the programme says: Since we do not know what has happened in reality, we can have our fantasies about it.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 62

Another very sunny, but cold day. The weather forecast says it will be the last sunny day. I will not let it go by unused. I get out my tour bicycle. I have a city bike that I bought second hand, but which serves me well for smaller distances in the city, and another, better bicycle that I use when going on longer trips. In the winter I cover it up, but now that spring is coming it is time to get it out. I go to a village, north of The Hague. It is said to be one of the richest communities in the country, but it has a nice old centre and a shopping street where many attractive shops are close together.

One of the things I hope to get there is a special kind of cat food, that I could not find any more in the supermarket close to where I live. The only supermarkets that are at a reasonable distance from my home belong to the same chain, called AH, so I have to go quite far when I want to shop in a different supermarket. The bike trip is nice. There are many crocuses and daffodils along the way. I do find the cat food I was looking for, but I also find things I did not look for: summer clothes. It is still cold and in order to try them on I have take off lots of clothes, but if I wait till later, the nicest items may have gone. I take a long time to make up my mind but end up with quite a few items, which can be combined nicely.

It will become urgent to go through my wardrobes and decide what to part with, which I find extremely difficult. I am always inclined to think that clothes, however old, might still come in handy some day, even if it were only to wear them on days when I don’t have to go out and have to do house work or gardening.

I see that the weekly journal of the Hague has a large article with a photograph of Trine and her colleague about the new museum. She is given a lot of credit for her work. That is very good, she deserves it.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 61

In the morning I have a call with several other members of the board of the organisation where we have problems. What the problems are is clear to all of us, so we need not dwell long on them. The question is now: what to do. We decide on some steps to be taken consecutively. I hope we will be successful. We all regret that the poor leadership is such a liability for the organisation and might even jeopardise its future.

At the end of the morning I take the train to Leiden where I will have lunch with Hanneke, the friend who is teaching at a college in Leiden. She is still very busy with her caring obligations. Her father lives by himself but has a terminal disease, his three daughters try to take care of him, with the help of the home care services, but now that one of the sisters is in hospital herself so caregiving has become difficult. The problem is that the father and the sister in hospital feel that the father should remain in his own home till the very end, but Hanneke is of the opinion that the decision ought to depend on the possibilities they have to take care of him. She has her own family, some obligations to members of her husband’s relatives and her job, so she has drawn a line and stated clearly what she can and cannot do. She feels guilty about it, but I think she has made the right decision and tell her I fully understand. We always enjoy seeing each other. Today we can sit outside while we chat. This time there are no stories about her college, where the managers have taken over, like in long-term care. Before we know it the time is up and Hanneke has to go back to work. I do not yet go home but take a walk through the city. I studied in Leiden, some 50 years ago. The city has changed. A lot of renovation has been done, but the character of the city has been well preserved. I walk through many streets I know, have a look at the house where I lived (it does not look good, but I guess there are still students living there, there are so many names on the door), enjoy one of the parks, but then hurry to the station, because I have to be home in time to have dinner and get ready to go to the theatre with Esther.

The play is in a theatre in Scheveningen, called de Appel (the Apple). The building is an ancient coach house from the time there were horse-drawn coaches. It has a very nice atmosphere. It is anything but posh, but rather primitive and cosy. Sometimes they also serve meals before the performance but not today.

The play has been written by a member of the Apple Company. In fact it is almost all pantomime, about various people who have an allotment garden and all do their own thing. They have their small cabins close to one another, but have hardly any contacts. Then a new couple appears on the scene making a lot of noise. But even that does not bring them together. There is no story to the performance. We have many questions about what the author is trying to tell us and what the behaviour of some of the actors is supposed to represent. What we appreciate most is the performance by an older actress (whom we like very much anyway) who is playing the role of a person with dementia. It is incredible how well she shows exclusively by her movements, her posture and her expression that she suffers from dementia.

Esther and I are curious what the reviews will say about the play. The official opening performance is still to come. We expect the reviews will be published afterwards.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 60

A civil servant of the Ministry of Health Welfare and Sports (VWS) calls. He is dealing with the complaint we have filed with the Ombudsman. He apologizes and recognises our letter was not dealt with properly. He also invites me for a meeting in person. I prefer to do this with at least one other member of the group, so he sends me a list of dates and I will check with the others.

I also receive news that the other organisation, where we have problems, will receive a payment for its activities. This was already in the air, but we had to wait until another agency had made a similar decision. Now the two agencies have sent us their positive decision, which I immediately forward to all the members of the board. Most of them send me congratulations. It will make it a lot easier to function, but we will have to remember it is for one year only. As yet we do not have any structural funding.

It is another cold but bright day so I go again to Scheveningen, where there is a market today. It looks cheerful and is much more crowded than in the previous weeks.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 59

It is a nice day but cold. I have an appointment with the periodontist. She checks the results of the treatment and her conclusions are very positive. That is good news. Even though it is already halfway into the afternoon, I go to the beach because it is such a nice and sunny day and excellent weather for a walk. On the beach there is a group of four young people who ask me if I know that the largest bookshop on ships is now moored in Scheveningen harbour. They give me a flyer which does not make clear what kind of a bookshop it is. It makes me curious so I go and have a look. It is a very nice, rather large ship. Much larger than any ship I usually see in Scheveningen. The harbour is mostly for fishing and yachting. There is someone guiding interested persons at the gangway. We have to pay an admission fee and even though it is not much, I want to know what I am paying for. At first the answer is rather vague, but when I insist I hear it is a missionary ship. That is not something I am interested in at all. I am a non believer and I am not in favour of missionary activities.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 58

Today I have an appointment with my tax consultant. I have organised my papers quite well so I can give her all the information she needs. For the year 2008 it is possible to deduct medical costs above a rather low threshold. She thinks the government has not realised how much the rules, which were new for 2008 but which will be changed again in 2009, are going to cost. Almost all her clients will get a tax refund. The same goes for me. Because I had a lot of costs for oral surgery and dental care I am sure to get money back. For once her report will bring me good news. At this point in time it is unclear what the rules are for 2009. I have seen a message from the government in the newspaper that there will be compensations for different categories such as people with a handicap and older people but it is totally unclear who will be entitled and what will be compensated.

The allowances, compensations and fiscal instruments grow in numbers and complexity. How are we to know what our entitlements are? It is far too complicated for an ordinary citizen. Even my consultant does not know.

There is a third person, involved in the organisation where we have problems, who has received the same message from the person whose leadership is questioned, requesting a written statement within 7 days. She is also furious and writes an answer refusing to respond to the command but stressing how poor the leadership of the organisation is. The three of us who received the message, as well as another person who has played a very positive role in the organisation, will have a teleconference, trying to figure out what we can do to make sure that after elections, which are to be held soon, the organisation remains manageable.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 57

It is a day without appointments. I have to do some work on the diary and hope to get started with some other jobs that are waiting to be done. Surprise, or maybe not. The person with whom I had the difficult telephone call last week sends me an e-mail. This sounds more like a command than like a request. Nor does it propose a useful activity. I am asked to clarify in writing within 7 days what my issues are concerning the leadership of the organisation, so that these can be dealt with immediately. I wonder what her ideas are for dealing with them. Obviously it has not dawned on her what the real problem is.

She adds that I ought to be mindful that the management and leadership of the organisation are a collective responsibility. She must have regained her self-confidence and wants to show she is a strong leader. I am afraid this is not the kind of leadership the organisation needs. I send her a rather blunt message back, letting her know that I think I have been sufficiently clear and do not accept her commands. I hope that this is the kind of language she understands.

A little later I get a message from an other person, who has received the exact same message as I. She is furious, but has sent a very polite message back, saying she has already given her opinion.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 56

It is Book Week. That is to say, it is not precisely a week but 10 days in which Dutch books are promoted. The week has opened last Wednesday with the annual “Book Ball”, an event of the literary world, in which most well known writers and other literary VIPs participate and which is usually shown on television. During this “week” there are many special presentations, lectures and other activities having to do with Dutch literature. Everyone who buys a Dutch book is given the Book Week Present. This is a small book of about one hundred pages. Each year a different author is invited to write the Book Week Present. Dutch Rail sponsors the Book Week and that means that everyone who can show the Book Week Present is allowed to travel for free on the train this coming Sunday.

I’d planned to buy a book next Tuesday when I will be in the neighbourhood of a nice bookshop, but I am going to Rotterdam today and I might as well profit of the offer of free travel. The book shop at the station is open and although they only have a rather small selection, I found a book that I wanted to buy anyway, so I received my Book Week Present as well and travelled without a ticket to Rotterdam. I also use this opportunity of being in Rotterdam to charge my rail pass so that I can use it on the metro in Rotterdam. I do not need it today, but it is nice to have it anyway, because in the near future all public transport is going to work with a chip card. My rail pass is equipped to serve as such, but I cannot yet charge it in The Hague.

Martje and some of her friends are going to see a film which plays in Japan: Tokyo Sonata. She suggested I join them. Two of her four friends are going to Japan in May and Martje and myself hope to go there in October. I walk to the cinema and notice how the street, where the cinema is situated, has changed since I lived in Rotterdam, more than 50 years ago. It is a change for the better, with a lot of new housing, probably social housing, but good looking.

Martje had told me earlier she might not come, because she does not feel well, but she is there. We have some coffee before the beginning of the film and another friend of friends joins us. It is an interesting film, although I do not quite understand why a certain scary part has been included in the film. Is it to create some extra suspense? I don’t find it fits logically. The rest of the story is rather thin, about an unemployed head of the family and the authority of a parent. It confirms some of the stereotypes of Japanese society. We don’t get to see much of Tokyo in the film.

I decide not to go to dinner with the group. Martje is not going either, but I also want to get home in time because again, on Sunday evening, there are many interesting broadcasts I don’t want to miss. I am getting to be a TV junkie!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 55

Esther and I were supposed to go to the theatre but in the morning she calls me because she does not feel well. She asks me to try and find someone else to accompany me. I try to call several friends, but they are not home, they are busy in the evening, they have guests, they have already seen the play or they are not interested, so after a series of telephone calls I have to report to Esther that I cannot find anyone who wants to come and see the play.

In the end she decides to accompany me anyway. She says she feels insecure. She has stayed inside because of a bad cold, but when we go together, she thinks she will be alright.

We take the bus. There is a very nice arrangement these days that local transport is free of charge when you have a theatre ticket and drinks in the theatre are included in the price of the ticket.

The play is a very tragic one, it contains social criticism about the conditions of fishermen at the end of the 19th century. They were sent out to sea in boats that were not seaworthy and many a fisherman’s wife has lost her husband and several of her children. In the play two sons of a widow go to sea in a boat which they know to be in a very bad condition. The youngest one has to be forced to go, he resists violently because he knows the trip will be very risky.

The ship indeed is wrecked in a bad storm and the body of the boy is found weeks later. The director of the fishing company has no mercy and considers this as the normal state of affairs. He thinks he is very good to the widow when he offers her a job as cleaning lady in his house. When he hears that her older son, who has also drowned, has made a girl pregnant, he accuses her of immoral behaviour and refuses to take her on any more. She will be left without any income. He feels good, rejoicing at his own moral superiority.

A friend, who had seen the play said she could not sleep, the night after. I can understand. The conditions are incredible, although I am not so sure similar conditions of near slavery do not still exist in some parts of the world. Esther says she is glad she has accompanied me after all, she does not feel worse because of the outing.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 54

In the morning I go to the travel agency to book a trip to Greece where I have to go for a conference in May. I am lucky to find the person who has helped me book many other trips and who really does everything he can to find the cheapest and best solution. I have opted for a package deal, because it is my experience that it usually is practical and relatively cheap, but he also tries to book the plane and the hotel separately and use the special bargains that are available. I spend quite a bit of time there, looking with him at the various options and while doing so he gives me a lot of useful advice.

When I go home I find out that I had not explored one option before going to the travel agency, which maybe I should have followed up. It is too late now to do something about it.

I spend the afternoon doing work at my desk. Nothing worth mentioning happens.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 53

Checking my e-mail I discover that I have received a second reservation for the plane to Germany. So the second attempt to book was successful after all. Does this mean they are charging me for two seats? I had better check.

On the website I am directed to a page where I can find my bookings and I see they have retained only one. Maybe they have not yet processed the second booking, because I received the confirmation only a very short while ago. I find a telephone number and I am pleasantly surprised to find a friendly person answering my call who tells me the company has discovered the mistake and has already refunded me for the second booking.

Later in the day I have a rather difficult telephone call with a member of one of the boards I am on. I know I am not the only one who thinks that this person - in her rather influential position – is not functioning well. She takes few initiatives, but when she does, it is mostly the wrong action at the wrong time. Obviously she knows little about policy making and about which decisions are made at which level (local, national, European) nor does she seem to realise that politicians and civil servants play different roles. I suppose that it has to do with the fact that she is a practitioner herself. When we disagree with her and give her our reasons for a different point of view she often just ignores what we say. It has been quite embarrassing at times. Most recently she has overruled us all and decided that she is going to give a presentation on behalf of the organisation, whereas several others thought it would be preferable for someone else to do it. She must have noticed I am quite annoyed with her and wants to talk to me. When she calls me I try to explain to her why some of her actions were inappropriate, but she does not seem to understand. She keeps thinking she was right and the others wrong. At the end of the call I get the impression she is slightly less self-confident than before.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 52

It is a bright day and the weather forecast is really good, but in all likelihood I will spend this one sunny day entirely inside.

It is not difficult to get into the building of the European Commission. Often the security is quite a nuisance, but since we are invited and were asked to give the organiser all our personal details beforehand, our badge is enough to let us pass. There are several people I know in the meeting which is nice. Some of them I haven’t seen for quite a while.

The programme looks interesting although a bit overloaded: 16 speakers in one day.

The first speakers tell us what is already known about volunteers on the basis of research. It is interesting that different research projects have very different outcomes, where numbers of volunteers are concerned. I guess they have different definitions of who is a volunteer.

In most rankings the Scandinavian countries and The Netherlands are in top positions.

Most researchers agree about the beneficial effects of being a volunteer: it is good for the physical and mental health of older persons. Older people who are volunteers are less likely to become depressed. Not only the volunteers themselves, but also society will benefit from the contribution made by volunteers. In fact, their involvement is very necessary now that the baby boom generation is beginning to retire and there may not be enough younger people to do all the work.

A Swedish speaker wonders why older people always do unpaid work. In his case he is still doing the same things he did before the age of 65 but for some of them he is now not paid. Someone else is afraid volunteers take away paid jobs. This argument is often heard, but one of the experts remarks that voluntary organisations employ quite a few paid workers as well, they also create paid employment.

During lunch break there is time for informal contacts. I hear from an Irish colleague, who has set up – very successfully - seniors’ helplines in several Irish communities that she has been invited to help set up three seniors’ helplines in New York: in the Bronx, in Yonkers and in Queens, Long Island and that she has provided the training. Good for her!

In the afternoon there are as many presentations as in the morning, too many to summarise here. It is good to hear the director of AGE, the European Older People’s Platform say appreciates that active ageing is no longer restricted to working longer in paid employment. It now also includes other activities such as volunteering and (informal) caring. The concepts need to be defined better, because obviously the definitions vary greatly. Volunteering brings benefits to the European Union. The year 2011 will be the European Year of Volunteers and the year 2012 the Year of Active Ageing and Solidarity between the Generations: two years in which the political level should be mobilised to support volunteers.

There should be more research about volunteers and more concrete ideas about what Europe can do for volunteers.

Towards the end of the meeting there is an intervention by Marian Harkin, Member of the European Parliament from Ireland. She herself comes from the voluntary sector and has been instrumental in bringing volunteering on to the political agenda in Europe. She has many suggestions about what can be done for the voluntary sector. One of them sounds like music in my ears.

One of the great obstacles for NGOs such as the one on (informal) carers , in which I am active, is that any grant by the European Commission must be matched by funds the organisation has raised itself, membership fees rather than commercial sponsorship. This is very hard, because European organisations are mostly umbrellas and their members are themselves organisations. In our case we have a limited membership, because in many countries there are no carers organisations yet; the co-funding required by the European Commission (EC) creates a huge problem. Marian Harkin suggests that the EC should give core funding to NGOs and that the time given to these organisations by volunteers should be considered as co-funding.

The meeting was supposed to be finished at 5.p.m.; after 4 o’clock people begin to leave. Many have to get a plane to get home. Well after 5.00 p.m. a new speaker takes the floor. I have to go back to the hotel and pick up my suitcase and go to the station where I want to take the 6.15 train home, so I leave before the end of the meeting. Not very polite, but on the other hand, the organisers ought to know that it is hard to retain people after 4.00 p.m. in an international conference.

The train from Brussels Central is rather full. I travel with one of my Dutch colleagues.

We dive into the first compartment where we see several free seats. That is to say, there are two persons in the compartment, a huge suitcase, a coat and another, smaller piece of luggage, which together occupy five seats. We make clear that we like to sit there. The younger of the two travellers asks us if we have reserved places. We answer that on this train there are no reserved places. The older person, a very well dressed older man with Asian features tries to move the suitcase, so that it takes up only one seat. My Dutch colleague and I can sit opposite to each other and we engage in a discussion about his professional past and the organisation where he works now. The conductor comes to check the tickets. The young man who asked us if we had a reservation turns out to have a second class ticket. He is sent away, he is not supposed to be in this first class compartment. After a while we start a conversation with the other passenger. He is originally from India but lives now in New York. He seems to be a successful business man. His trade is beer and he has businesses in Africa, Western Europe and North America and travels a lot between these places. He has a very optimistic view of life. He is not afraid of the economic crisis or the climate crisis. Nature will survive. Mankind will survive. It will always turn out for the better. Crises make us stronger and more resourceful. He has a healthy life style and begins every day by drinking four glasses of water, which is excellent for his health. We should try it too. He shakes hands with my colleague when he gets off the train. When I have to get off at the next stop he gets my suitcase for me and I believe he is tempted to kiss me goodbye.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 51

The weather is very poor, it rains hard, I chicken out… too wet to go by bicycle to my history of art course. There is no bus going there. Besides, I have to pack for the trip to Brussels for the seminar on older volunteers. In the morning I work at the computer.

In April I’ll have to go to a meeting in Germany and I need to book a flight. I have found one that is cheap and convenient. I try to book it on the internet. My first attempt fails.

I believe I know where I have made a mistake. I try again. The second attempt fails as well, which I do not understand. I just have time enough to try a third time. I want to get it done, because the later I do it, the less the chances that the price will be as low as it is now. The third attempt is successful. I hurry to have lunch and go to the station.

I have been given a first class ticket for the train to Brussels. Normally I travel second class and the train is usually very crowded. So this is luxury.

In Brussels I walk to the hotel in the European quarter. While I go there it begins to rain. I had hoped to have a chance to walk a bit in the city: I always enjoy walking in cities, especially old cities, trying to find interesting spots, but the rain continues so I don’t see any point in going for a walk. I find a restaurant close to the hotel and go to bed in a decent time. Tomorrow it will be early day, earlier than I am used to!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 50

In the morning an old friend, Trine, comes over for coffee. I met her on the street the other day and invited her. We haven’t seen each other for a long time. We were students at the same time at the same university. Many years later I had a lot to do with her when she was a member of the municipal council and I was part of the group that supported the councillors of our party. That was more than 20 years ago. We have a lot of information to exchange: personal facts, like how her three daughters are doing, but also about our own activities. She is still engaged in some local affairs. One of them is about a new museum to be established in our city. National and local government both have a say in the plans so the matter is rather complicated. They want to build it in a very central spot, where there are now buildings that look rather neglected, but she tells me they are owned by the mafia. In the centre of the city, on the doorstep of our national Parliament! Imagine!

We also discuss the last years of our mothers, which were difficult in both cases.

We wonder what will happen to us, when we get very old and cannot take care of ourselves any more. She has been confronted recently by some very tragic instances of people who needed help but did not get any. In one case the argument was: as long as you can have a dog and take care of it you do not need any formal care yourself!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 49

It is a sunny day. A good time to do some work in the garden. There are still a lot of snow drops and also many purple crocuses, but most of them are covered by dead plants and leaves so they are not very visible. I do a lot of cleaning up and afterwards the garden looks quite nice, but the grass is not yet in a very good shape. For the first time this year I can sit in the sun in the garden and read. Wonderful!

In the evening I do some administration. There is a mailing from the electricity and gas company, offering green gas. There is a lot of documentation accompanying the offer, but unfortunately it is anything but clear. There are different rates, but I do not understand which rates apply to me and tables with prices. But no tables in which a comparison is made between the prices of regular gas and green gas. I finally discover somewhere in the letter, hidden in the middle of a sentence, that green gas is “only” € 0.20 a day more expensive than regular gas. This means more than € 70 a year. In the fall the energy bill has gone up with 25%, so to this offer I say: No, thank you, it is sufficiently expensive as it is.

There is also a bill from the telephone company. It is a bill with pluses and minuses. Unfortunately I do not understand the minuses. The bill also says that the rates will be changed in April, but no information is attached, we are referred to a website to find out about the new rates. The change entitles us to end our subscription. How are users without computer to know? And how can I understand the minuses on my bill? Enquiring is usually not easy and takes a lot of patience. The result is that I pay without understanding exactly for what, but I feel bad about it. I want to be a critical consumer, but is that ever difficult!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 48

I try not to work during the weekend. In the afternoon I go out to buy a handbag. Last year I bought a very cheap one that was very practical and also light weight, which feels much better. It is now totally worn, I can’t use it any more. So I walk to the shop where I bought it, but they do not have the same kind. I buy another one that is cheap and light weight. I hope it is as practical.

In the evening I call Cora who has her birthday tomorrow, She will celebrate it with family members and has invited some friends for another day. She prefers to have not to have too many guests at the same time, because it is easier for conversation, especially because some of her guests are heard of hearing.

I enjoy taking my time to read the thick Saturday newspaper.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 47

I am supposed to go to Leiden to have lunch with Hanneke.

Hanneke is a professor of social care at a college. We were introduced to each other many years ago by a mutual colleague, we got talking and enjoyed each other’s stories, so we have kept up seeing each other at regular intervals.

Early in the morning Hanneke calls. Her sister has suddenly been hospitalised and they still do not know what exactly is wrong with her but her condition seems serious. Her other sister is also sick and the three of them take care of her very old father who still lives by himself.

She does not have time to come to lunch today and she will call me later to set another date.

I use the time to work on documents for the General Assembly of one of my organisations.

I have got a strange message from my provider- at least I think it is my internet provider – who wants to improve his services and asks me for some data, including my password. My provider is someone whom I got to know about 15 years ago, when he was a student and set up a business. He started helping people with computer problems, then began to sell computers and other stuff and finally also became a provider. When we corresponded his Dutch often was rather poor. Because he runs several businesses he also has several e-mail addresses, but the message I got yesterday was totally incomprehensible. I have written a rather critical answer, telling him I do not understand what he means.

Today there is a message, this time in reasonable English, asking for the same data and a threat that my accounts may be cut off if I don’t provide them. I decide to give the data, and send my message with the reply button but a few hours later I get a message that my reply did not reach its destination. This is strange. I send my provider an e-mail at the address I have in my list, and very soon after, he rings me. He has never sent me any e-mails asking for data. This must have been a hacker, so I have to get another password immediately. I am about to go out when he calls so he offers to make a new password for me now and later in the afternoon I can call him when I have chosen a new password.

I am very glad he has been so alert! I probably have escaped from a lot of trouble. I now fully realise how easy it is to fool (some) internet users. I am more convinced than ever that I do not want to do any internet banking.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 46

Today it is dentist’s day again. The appointment only lasts half an hour, so it is not bad.

In the evening I go to the meeting with officials of the city section on plans for the neighbourhood where I live.

The Hague is the third largest city in The Netherlands, but unlike Amsterdam and Rotterdam local government has not been decentralised but “deconcentrated”. The city has been divided into eight sections and each section is further subdivided into neighbourhoods. The city sections do not have their own elected councils, nor are there any political decisions made on the city section level, but they each have a municipal office where citizens can go for certain services. The city sections are also given the responsibility to carry out a number of tasks delegated to them and one of them is the broad domain of wellbeing.

Our city section is making a plan for each of the four neighbourhoods in our city section and today they want to hear the opinion of the citizens as to what should be in the plan for the neighbourhood where I live. The citizens who have come are not very numerous, there are only about 20 people, mostly rather old. Among them three others from our informal group. There are also three or four people representing the city section and three persons representing different NGOs, responsible for organising activities.

It has been a tradition in The Netherlands that social and care activities are not carried out by public agencies but by NGOs, which get money from the public authorities to carry out the activities agreed between the NGO and the public authority. We used to call the monies received by NGOs subsidies, but nowadays we mostly speak about contracts. Formerly these NGOS were by definition not for profit, but in the care sector more and more for profit organisations have been established.

A good looking lady turns out to be the Director of the city section and she introduces the subject. She tells us briefly what is in the paper that was made available on request.

The problems of the neighbourhood are well diagnosed. I am glad to hear that it has been recognised that public transport is insufficient and that many older people are lonesome.

TR of our informal group brings forward the issue we have been discussing that older people who need help are often unable to make all the necessary arrangements themselves, because the care and social sector are so complex. At first the officials seem to think it is mostly a matter of not having sufficient information. The neighbourhood will get an “I-shop” , a mobile information unit that will be available in the library in our area on two days a week. But we insist that the problem is more than information only, it is about the whole trajectory between realising there is a need and the moment the full package of services has been organised, for instance after discharge from the hospital or when an accident or unexpected illness occur. Many people do not have friends or relatives in the neighbourhood who can do this for them. It often takes many phone calls and persistence to get what is needed and what people are entitled to.

The director is willing to listen and tries to grasp what we mean. We also discuss the lack of centrally located meeting places. An effort will be made to make some of the buildings such as schools and the library more available. The city section also has plans for some intergenerational activities with students of the secondary schools and older people.

The city section will outline what they think should happen, having heard the citizens, and the NGOs will then make their work plans, based on the paper of the city section.

In the process the citizens will be consulted again.

After the meeting I talk with the others of our informal group and while doing so I notice there is a staff member of one of the NGOs who tries to get names of people who want to be on a citizens’ panel. The others have signed up for it and encourage me to do so as well.

The meeting is planned for 23 March.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 45

Today I have to go to Utrecht for a meeting with some of the members of the older women’s network. It is not one of our regular meetings, but one in which those of us who have been involved in the CEDAW process will the others, because in May we will be involved in a conference where this subject is on the agenda. HA is the person who knows most about it. Just before the meeting she has called the chair telling she did not feel well and is going to see the GP before travelling to Utrecht. From what she says it is already clear it is not a good idea for her to come, but she really wants to.

Later she calls telling us the GP told her not to travel.

We start the meeting and several of us have some documents which we exchange. We know that there is a process going on in The Netherlands to make a shadow report, but we do not know who is doing that and how far they are.

We also exchange some other information and have lunch together after the meeting.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 44

In the morning we have a teleconference of the Executive Committee of the European organisation that deals with family carers. We discuss for an hour and a half, and there are some productive outcomes. The work to be done is more or less shared, although preparing documents for a meeting remains the secretary’s task and this can be time consuming, when a secretary like me, does not really have all the computer skills she needs.

I also promised to look at a European paper on health inequalities for Anbo and AGE. There are great differences between European countries, but also within countries. Europe wants to act on this issue, but the question is how. In my opinion it is not primarily a health issue, it has a lot to do with many other factors such as income, education, nutrition, housing, pollution etc. I try to come up with some practical suggestions for actions that can be carried out in the short term.

When Esther calls for one of our almost daily chats, and hears I am still working, she remarks “but you are always working”.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 43

Today is the birthday of a former colleague. I give her a ring. She does not feel well today, but generally speaking, she is okay. She has heart problems, so I am glad to know that these don’t bother her too much. She tells me about the instructions she receives with her medication. No less than 15 pages of text outline what the effects could be if they are taken in combination with other medicines. Who in the world reads all that? Is that suitable information for patients or is it only meant to exculpate the producer of medicines?

In the evening there is a meeting organised by the Association of University Women.

A Member of the European Parliament (MEP) has been invited to speak about the coming elections. She is very enthusiastic about her work. The European Parliament is at present very concerned about the economic crisis and is in favour of better European supervision of the financial markets, but is against protectionism. She also speaks about climate change. She is on the Commission on Women’s Rights and Equal Treatment and is glad that this is still an issue in European politics. In the Dutch Parliament is has disappeared from the agenda.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 42

In the morning the weather looks okay, but there are two TV programs I like to watch, so I do not (yet) go out. After lunch it already looks darker, but I decide to go out before it starts to rain. I deliver the papers I have received from the municipality for the meeting on Thursday about wellbeing in our neighbourhood to the members of our informal group. Having come home I start to take care of my plants. Some of them need bigger pots, others look sick, so I should not keep them. I take cuttings of some plants that are getting too big, but before I have finished this it begins to rain. The entire month of February has been sombre, I hardly have seen the sun and again the weather forecast for the coming week is poor. Will the bright days of early spring never come?

Fairly late in the evening I call Geraldine. I know it risks to be a long phone call.

Geraldine has taken an initiative that has been taken over by the local library to set up a group of older women to talk about women’s emancipation and their experiences with it. In the late sixties and early seventies women really changed the scene in The Netherlands and Geraldine thinks that there are quite a few women in our neighbourhood who have been active in this movement. It would be interesting for them to record their experiences. A group of about 12 women will get together, start to discuss and after a few meetings will write their personal history re emancipation. It is interesting that the same idea came up in the older women’s network, but there the idea was dropped for lack of (wo)manpower. It seems a timely initiative. Unfortunately I discover that I have already other obligations on half of the dates on which the group is supposed to meet, so it makes no sense for me to sign up. Geraldine hopes that out of this group a network will develop, of women who like to continue meeting each other after the project has been finished. I’d like to take part in the networking. We both agree that it is important, as we get older, to have friendly relations with people in the same neighbourhood. As expected a long discussion between us develops, which goes on for almost an hour and a half. Geraldine is concerned about the actions of the present government with two religious parties in it: the Christian Democrats (CDA) and the Christian Union (CU). They are rather unfriendly towards women’s emancipation (although they do not say so). As the long-term care insurance is gradually being dismantled, more women are forced to provide informal care. This does not help their emancipation, but there is no protest movement like in the sixties. Women are supposed to care and work, but the Christian parties don’t seem to mind that the burden of care falls mostly on women, who therefore cannot work full time and become economically dependent on their husband. A totally undesirable situation. Equal opportunities? Forget it!

It is already quite late when Tigger jumps on the table. He tells me it is time to stop. Thanks, Tigger!