A short hop across the water makes a world of difference

It is only a short hop across the North Sea from England to the Netherlands – but it’s a different world.  As the plane climbs out of Birmingham it seems we leave behind an undulating patchwork of colour and texture that cover the central Midlands of England; a comforting chaos of unruly hedgerows and misshapen fields, that appear to have no rational pattern.

After just half an hour before we are coming down over the Dutch coast and a much wetter countryside.  Ditches, drainage channels, and canals break-up the land into small and equally sized geometric chunks.  This is a highly controlled landscape, of regularly sized fields separated into units, with ditches for boundaries.  A motorway, packed with vehicles, slashes its way diagonally across the neat blocks of fields, farm buildings, factories and other buildings. Pools of water and small lakes break up the pattern, and as we come down onto the runway with its drainage channels on each side, you can see the that ‘land’ scape is not far above the ‘water’ scape.

The train ride down to Utrecht suggests it is not quite as orderly as it looks from the air but the land has a regularity to it of small rectangular blocks, some growing crops, others with livestock grazing, each separated from the others by a watery boundary.

I had arranged to meet with IASC council members and some of the team organising the conference in Utrecht at a restaurant for dinner.  The food is excellent although the service was sadly, excruciatingly slow.  The business model is based on fighting ‘social waste’ and staff are a mix of the highly professional and those ‘at a distance from the labour market’, such as former prisoners, and those with limited formal qualifications, or who struggle to hold onto steady employment.  As we arrive it starts to rain, which later develops into a full-fledged thunderstorm, bringing some relief from the oppressive temperature and humidity.  ‘Typical summer weather’, is the comment from the Dutch members of our group (something I can relate to being from England!)

You’re never far from water in Utrecht, from the polders around the edge of the town, flooded at the end of the second world war to slow the allied advance, to the canals you constantly cross and re-cross walking through the picturesque medieval centre.

Rain explodes into steam and droplets as it hits outdoor spotlights

The storm rumbles around for several hours, underpinned by the loud splashing of water on water as the rain falls in a deluge into the polder outside the hotel window.  It also creates interesting mini-light displays of rain drops exploding into steam as they meet the heat emitted from the top of the spotlights lights outside on the balcony.  Almost like the displays from inside particle accelerators, but much slower.

In just a couple of days, the 16th International IASC Conference will begin, and an opportunity to reacquaint oneself with friends and colleagues from all over the world. There is a little more pressure on me this year, as I am currently President, and have the honour of giving the presidential speech – and given the weather outside the restaurant it afforded me a little opportunity to practice, as I had a captive audience!


John Powell has co-authored a book that gives a unique insight into what it is like to attend and organise International IASC Commons conferences. A Companion to IASC Commons Conferences is available as a FREE download.