A Night in Eindhoven

Last weekend I found myself in Eindhoven, where I will be for the next two weeks on a business trip, or what the French call “a mission”. 

“On a mission” adequately describes my behaviour on the night flight out of Nigeria, sitting as I was beside a Scottish friend who was demobilising after several years in Lagos.  Sitting at the front of a KLM plane in business class, there is only one thing to do in such circumstances: drink lots.

We did.  Even in the four hours spent in the lounge before boarding (you need to check in early for flights leaving Nigeria to give the customs officials adequate time to rifle through everyone’s bags and steal anything of value) we spent drinking plenty, and once we boarded we didn’t slow down.  I think I finally got some sleep at about 2am after at least two stewardesses asked us to kindly shut the fuck up as people were trying to sleep, but not before vodka, wine, cognac, and port had gone downrange.  I arrived in Amsterdam at 5am jetlagged as hell, regardless of the time difference being only an hour.  I’ve written before about the efficiency of the Dutch train system out of Schiphol and I took full advantage of it again to get me to Eindhoven with minimal fuss, into my hotel, and to bed before 11am.

I was not due in the office of our contractor until Monday, having taken the Friday night flight because there was no space on the Saturday flight.  So I did some research online and found that Eindhoven has a pretty lively nightlife, one of the main parts of which is the Stratumseind, a 200m stretch of some 40 bars and clubs which the various guides said was the place to be on a Saturday night.  So off I trundled at about 11:30pm, it being only a few minutes’ walk from my hotel, and poked my head into several places, necking a drink in each one.  And at some point between the fourth and fifth whiskys it dawned on me that perhaps travel guides (or at least those pertaining to nightlife) were not aimed at 35 year olds.  I recall the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides being pretty much written for my age group, but now I think about it the last time I used one was about 8-10 years ago.  The Stratumseind seems to be a student area, for attendees of both universities and secondary schools.  I was the oldest bloke in each place by about 15 years.  I was even older than the bouncers, I think.  What made it worse was that this street is where kids go when they’re 16 and 17 and want to drink underage, and half of them were being let in.  The other patrons must have been wondering who brought their dad along.

So feeling a bit disappointed (having hoped for at least a live band), I wandered towards Wilhelminaplein where I had spotted a small but lively looking bar earlier in the evening.  It was lively all right, filled as it was with men and women between 45 and 65 absolutely smashed and behaving like teenagers.  It was the most bizarre pub I’ve ever been in, and having spent a few years last decade seeking out every weird spot east of the Oder, that’s saying something.  The men were old, sported lumberjack shirts or shell-suit tops, and had dodgy, grey porno ‘taches.  The women had short, bleached hair, lots of cheap jewelry, too many wrinkles, and a good many had big fat arses.  And as I said, everyone was absolutely hammered.  Not a bit drunk, I mean proper arseholed.  One couple, who did not leave together, were deep snogging at the bar as if they were 16 and in Magaluf.  Another crashed into me while trying to dance, lost her balance, and had to be caught by the doorman before she went head-first into the ladies toilet door.  Everybody seemed to know everyone, and I stood out like a sore thumb.  The other patrons must have been wondering who brought their son along, and I skedaddled before any of the grannies made a move to find out for themselves.

I wandered back to the hotel feeling even more disappointed, and plonked myself at the hotel bar, which had closed 20 minutes before.  I must have looked like a right sad-case.  Anyway, I was directed down the street (fortunately, the city centre in Eindhoven is tiny) towards a street where all the adult clubs were, and set off with slightly higher hopes.  When I got to the street I found three people pissing into an outside urinal, which I suppose is better than just pissing on the street which they do back home.  But not exactly a good sign nonetheless.  There were two clubs almost right next to each other, both with huge queues controlled by large gorillas and looking very much like the noisy, expensive, crowded, and ultimately shite nightclubs back in the UK.  I didn’t even bother trying to get in.  I started back to the hotel and passed a pub with what seemed to be a club in the ground floor.  I went in and found myself in the bar in Star Wars.  There were women sporting full-length arm tattoos and wearing leopard print welly-boots.  There were hard looking men with neck tattoos, barging into anyone who was deemed to be in their way.  Drinks were served in plastic glasses of the type which coffee machines dispense.  A 40-year old woman in a track suit danced like she was still 17 and going to Rotterdam techno nights in warehouses, only stopping now and again to snog a Surinamese chap wearing a football shirt.  The place was a serious shithole of British seaside resort proportions.  It was time to leave.

The next day I met up with a colleague who is a native of Eindhoven, who had a hearty laugh when I told him of the granny bar and the teeny-boppers down Stratumseind.  Apparently there is a somewhat more sophisticated area the other side of the town centre which I had missed, so next weekend I will have another go.  This is just as well, because I had recently read that the allies bombed Eindhoven to rubble in support of Operation Market Garden, and as I went to bed last Saturday I was thinking it would be a good idea if they did the same thing next time the Parachute Regiment do their annual remembrance jump at Arnhem.

Toyota’s Strength

Last week’s Economist carried a lengthy briefing on the troubles of Toyota, one of which is identified as a drop in quality and reliability as they pursued headlong growth at all costs.  Apparently, several polls and reviews in the US and elsewhere have placed other cars ahead of Toyota in several areas, one being where they were allegedly always king: reliability.

Me, I’m not so sure.  Without a doubt Toyotas are reliable enough, probably more so than most other cars and certainly no worse than any, but I don’t think that tells the whole story about where their reputation comes from.  I once owned a 1974 lightweight Land Rover, half of which I rebuilt myself using basic tools, a Haynes manual, and the back of the thing as a workshop as it lay parked on the street in Manchester.  Land Rover had, and for the older models still has, a reputation for being reliable.  This may come as somewhat of a surprise to anyone who has actually owned one, because the damned things leak oil from brand new (I’m talking about Series III and earlier here, I don’t know if the newer ones were plagued with the same issues) because of daft designs and the use of paper gaskets between roughly machined surfaces, and bits were corroding, coming loose, and falling off all over the place.  It took an entire tube of instant gasket to stop the oil leaking from beneath the distributor mount (the distributor runs off the oil pump).  The brake cylinders on one side had seized completely.  The synchromesh was shot through and the gear teeth so worn it kept leaping out of 1st and 2nd gear.  Everything was corroding from the chassis to the thermostat housing to the aluminium panels at the point where they were cleverly held in place with a steel bolt.  The door seals were non-existent, so you drove it in wellies and ignored the big pools of water on the floor (this was not a problem on the passenger side where the huge hole in the footwell served as a handy drain).  The windscreen wipers worked if you fiddled with the earthing wire a little bit.  Land Rover enthusiasts are well aware of the enormous shortcomings of the early Land Rover design, and they all add the fun of driving one.  In fact, stuff ceasing to work as you’re rattling along the road is the fun of driving an old Land Rover!

Where was I?  That’s right.  The reputation Land Rover had for reliability came not from their infrequency of breaking down but the fact that any problem you encounter can be fixed on the spot with a very basic toolkit and some gaffer tape.  All you need is a few ring spanners, a decent hammer, some WD-40, and a monster 12″ screwdriver and you can be on your way again no matter what happened.  Oh, and don’t forget a couple of adjustable spanners.  For some unknown reason, 49% of Land Rover threads are metric, 49% Imperial, and the remainder being some completely unknown type with a hexagonal head no socket will fit and you wonder who the hell owned it before you and botched the job in such a manner.  Or maybe it came like this from the factory?  It took me to a very small, old fashioned engineering supply shop near Salford where a lady caked in layers of grease rummaged through boxes of random fittings to find the pinch bolt on the main gear selection rod; the local Land Rover supply shop were themselves at an utter loss.  So reliability in the sense of a Land Rover is a case of reliability in completing your journey, not in not breaking down at all.

Now Toyotas are not as easy to fix as an old Land Rover should something go wrong, but they do have a similar advantage.  Consider that when I lived in Dubai and was as close as I’ll ever get to a wide-boy phase I bought an 8-year old Mercedes CLK 320.  It looked lovely, nice long bonnet, leather seats, 3.2l flat six engine which although not great off the mark could get you from 70-100mph in a few seconds with remarkable ease, and drove beautifully.  Unfortunately, it gave me as much of a headache as my Land Rover.  Firstly, stuff started going wrong which should not have gone wrong in a German car.  Small stuff.  The back windscreen sunshield motor failed.  The air conditioning pump seized.  One of the electric ventilation flaps jammed, meaning cold air couldn’t blow through the central vents.  Then one of the coolant pipes burst and left me somewhere in Furjeirah having to come back to Dubai in the cab of a breakdown truck, which was very uncool.  So I took it in for a service.

And there the fun began.  Every garage told me the same thing: they could only do half of the work, because they can’t work on Mercedes and don’t have the parts.  Better take it to the main dealer.  The first thing the main dealer did was remove my arm and leg for the privilege of talking to him.  Then he charged me a small fortune to look at the car and tell me what was wrong with it.  Everything, it seemed.  Engine mounts, bushes, clips, all these tiny items which added up to a list as long as an arm which would have been bad enough in itself, but there was more to come.  Half the items on the list “were not in stock and we need to order them from Germany”.  Yes, Mercedes main dealer in Dubai, which probably enjoyed greater revenue than any other Mercedes dealer anywhere, had to order stuff from Germany to fix things which a routine service has highlighted.  Jesus wept.  I did, especially when I got the bill.

Contrast this with the experience of a Toyota owner in Dubai.  He has a problem.  He goes to any garage he likes, and a Romanian, Indian, or Armenian will tell him he’ll have a look, call him back the next day to say he needs x, y, and z which are all on the shelf behind him and he can fit the lot that afternoon.  No main dealer.  No specialist tools.  No hidden maintenance procedures.  No flying parts halfway round the world.  If you have a Toyota and something goes wrong, wherever you are in the world if there is a garage then they will be able to fix a Toyota and the parts will either be in stock or very close by.  And it is this as much as anything else from which Toyota’s reputation for reliability derives: it might break down, but you can get it back on the road quickly and cheaply.  Unless and until Toyota’s German and other competitors realise this, Toyota’s crown is not going to slip very far.

Needless to say, I have driven nothing but Toyotas since I arrived in Sakhalin.  What I drive now is a Surf, basically a car on a Hilux chassis, and it is the most popular 4×4 on the island (a place where few get accused of driving vehicles with unnecessary off-road capabilities).  Any problem, and it’s into the nearest garage where whoever comes out of the gloom and smoke takes one look and knows immediately what he’s dealing with.  This is Toyota’s real strength.

A Forum with a Difference

This is a bit sick. On a message board for Honda enthusiasts, a wife of one of the regular contributors starts a thread in February 2002 with the following post:

As most of you here may know i am lifsatrip7’s (Todd’s) wife. i havnt been on in a while we have been pretty busy. this past monday the 18th Todd died during the night, ill spare you all the details but we were asleep in bed and a cause of death isnt yet determined. They performed an autopsy tuesday and that was inconclusive and were waiting on the toxicology report to come back (4-8 weeks) So he’s not going to be around any more. i will be here to learn more about the honda then i already know… well im not sure what im going to do with it but as of right now i cant get of it. he couldnt so how could i??? well anyways.. i just wanted to let you all know
Cindy

Naturally, the other forum users – some of whom appeared to know the deceased personally – are shocked and offer her condolences, prayers, and best wishes. This carried on until Page 3 of the thread, when nearly 4 years later in January 2006 somebody puts up the following link on Post 75 :

http://msnbc.msn.com/id/10479896/

SAN DIEGO – Cynthia Sommer didn’t fit the role of a grieving Marine widow.

Shortly after her husband died suddenly, she hosted boisterous parties at her home on the base. Authorities say she showed Marine wives her newly enhanced breasts — paid for with her husband’s life insurance policy. And within two months, she had taken up with another man.

Military investigators say Sommer wanted a life that was out of her reach as a mother of four working at a Subway restaurant and married to a strict Marine — and she allegedly poisoned her husband with arsenic to get it.

Sommer, 32, is in a Palm Beach County, Fla. jail fighting extradition back to San Diego. She is charged with first-degree murder for financial gain, a special circumstance that could carry the death penalty. The San Diego County district attorney’s office has not yet decided whether to seek it, prosecutor Laura Gunn said.

Marine Sgt. Todd Sommer, 23, died in February 2002 in his home at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego. His death initially was ruled a heart attack, but tests of his liver later found levels of arsenic 1,020 times above normal, court documents show. Arsenic is a colorless and usually tasteless poison that causes stomach distress followed by death.

Following a lengthy investigation by military and civilian authorities, the San Diego County Medical Examiner concluded in October 2005 that the cause of death was acute arsenic poisoning.

Only his wife had the motive or the close access to poison him, Navy Criminal Investigative Service agent Rob Terwilliger said in a court statement filed last month seeking a warrant for Cynthia Sommer’s arrest.

According to the statement, Todd Sommer began showing symptoms of arsenic poisoning on Feb. 8, 2002 — 10 days before he died. That day, his wife visited a plastic surgeon’s office and inquired about breast augmentation, authorities say.

It was a $5,400 surgery that her household income would not allow, according to Terwilliger’s statement. A credit check showed she had more than $23,000 in debt, Navy investigators found.

But Todd Sommer’s death left his widow a $250,000 lump-sum payment from his servicemember’s life insurance policy as well as a $6,000 death gratuity, according to Terwilliger. She also was entitled to receive $1,871 a month from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Cindy’s excuse for the lifestyle she started living after (her husband) died was that he was very strict, he didn’t like for her to go out partying, staying out with friends,” said former Marine Brent Applebee, who told military investigators the widow showed him her still-taped up breasts.

“Todd also didn’t want her to get her breasts enlarged, so I think that she was living out the fantasy life she really wanted.”

Two weeks before her husband’s death, Cynthia Sommer paid $16.95 for an Internet dating service, authorities say.

During an 2001 investigation of child neglect-abuse, she allegedly told a North Carolina caseworker, “I have four kids. It isn’t like I could leave them and go anywhere. No one wants to baby-sit four kids.”

Murdering wives posting news of the death on Honda forums, hours after the act. The internet never ceases to amaze.