A Sideways View

A Sideways View Of Volunteering.

A friend of mine is volunteering in Britain, and whilst it is taxing what with the weather and other very British events, it is rewarding. Having volunteered on no few occasions in Britain, and enjoyed the experience, it seemed to me a great idea to do it here in Holland.

My first experience was with an organically farmed estate near to me. I spoke to the gardener in charge and he said that I could come along on Tuesday afternoons. Fair enough, so I did. What interested me was an aside from another volunteer, one who had been there several years. She said that the head gardener liked Wednesdays because there were no volunteers. I had to admit to finding this approach a little odd, but working with other people isn’t for everybody. Not everybody’s cut out for management, although it seemed odd that the people in charge of the estate who knew it could only exist with volunteer help would employ someone who didn’t enjoy this part of his work.

But the Dutch, as you know, can only hire according to the papers they see in front of them. This kind of thing doesn’t give you much indication of whether they’re good with people. But then, bureaucrats wouldn’t be bureaucrats if they were, so they’re not going to know what indicates a person that is good with people… it really is a case of the blind leading the blind.

Anyway, I turned up dutifully enough. As time progressed, my work was criticized unnecessarily and anything I said was ignored. I was there to work, and the attitude of the head gardener could not have made it clearer.

He treated me as the kind of scum who can’t get a job, and rightfully so: if I could have gotten a job, I would have one and wouldn’t have the time to nonce around volunteering. Add to this the fact that I had offered my services for free. This to a Dutchman is sheer idiocy! Who offers their services without being paid? Obviously there’s something wrong with my life and I can’t get a properly paid job. It was quite clear to him that I must be ill (1).

All of which means that I can only be at the bottom of the pile in terms of the hierarchy that is Dutch society.

In this respect, can you blame them for treading on me? After all, the head gardener has a job, and needs to tell these dead-beat creatures the cat dragged in how to do the simplest things. When this means he tells you how to do something once and without being terribly clear… only to return half an hour later to tell you how stupid you’ve been.

It’s not as if he can help himself: I did do wrong, and I only made things worse by saying how sorry I was. Not that he’d have appreciated me standing up to him because he was the boss not me. Who was I to tell him what to do? I’d only proven how useless I was and that he was right in his estimation of me. That is to say, that I’d need constant guidance even to watch grass growing.

Speaking with another volunteer, he mentioned that he’d studied at the establishment. Only to continue to say that he’d had to un-learn everything he’d been taught because none of it accorded with reality. Well, that’s modern anthroposophy for you. And yes, this was an anthroposophical establishment. Where all are equal, just as long as they have the right qualifications.

He also spoke of how most volunteers left after three weeks. Knowing this, I left the next week having been there five. If I was going to volunteer, I was going to enjoy it.

Which is what I thought would happen at the Stoom Stichting Nederland. And yes, I did enjoy painting the trains. They wouldn’t let me do anything else because I didn’t have the certificates, and even museum railways are hedged in by the regulations that the mainline imposes. I could understand this, what I couldn’t understand was why they weren’t bothered about quality.

Again, it all boils down to certificates: you don’t need a certificate to slap paint on a flat piece of metal. Therefore, painting was seen as a job for any and everybody. Irrespective of the fact that a decent coat of paint will keep equipment cleaner and rust free for a lot longer than a poorly applied one. No problem for them, they didn’t think this way. Painting is for everybody because it doesn’t take any skill. They also had a ready excuse: it doesn’t matter because everybody’s watching the locomotive and not the carriages. Irrespective of the fact that I was painting the bufferbeam of a locomotive…

I also upset them by deciding of my own accord to come along on Saturdays and not Wednesdays. They had told me, and I had disobeyed them. Who was I to decide what I was going to do? It’s not as if I was there to think for myself, was I? You don’t run a railway by doing as you please. Thus it occurred that projects agreed the week before would be incomplete, and I’d not be able to carry on. I’d then have to wait an hour and a half for something else to be found for me to do. They needed to teach me a lesson. So I found a chap who didn’t mind me doing as I pleased just as long as I painted his turntable. He didn’t mind that I wanted quality, because he knew that it would have to sit out in all weathers and nobody else would paint behind the bolts.

Mainly because you couldn’t see the paint there, so why bother?

As winter drew on the work moved back indoors and since he didn’t need my help with the pipework in a carriage that needed refurbishment, I told him that I might be back in the spring.

I didn’t bother. I can’t imagine that they miss me, after all, I was only a burden to them.

(1)  See my post, “Why Is It Always Me That Has A Mental Disorder?


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