If you’ve ever worked in a university, you’ll know exactly what a post-doc room is like. If you haven’t, fear not, because I’m about to explain. In the world of fixed-term contracts, slow but steady career progression and cross-border travel, a network of post-doc offices in universities the world over serve as refuges for early career academics. Young researchers come to a city to work on a project for two, three, maybe four years, before moving on to another city, probably in another country, to work on another project.
Eventually they will settle down somewhere, either landing a tenured job or deciding to plump for better security (and perhaps better pay) outside of academia. As these academics move around the globe, however, they leave behind them a trail. A trail of artifacts, of all the things that were basically too heavy and not of sufficient worth to carry when they upped sticks to move to the next project. Books, crockery, rock samples, clothes, enough stuff to furnish a small nation is probably secreted away in the research rooms of the world’s universities.
The geology attic at my university, in which I work, is no exception. Our computer monitors are propped up by 1970s textbooks that have been there longer than any of us, there are sleeping bags stuffed in drawers, and one corner of the office is dedicated to all of a random Eastern European guy’s stuff.
It was under one of many massive piles of crap that one of my senior colleagues unearthed a bizarre object. “What on earth is this?” came the cry from behind a pillar. “It’s a china house with KLM stamped on it.”
It was one of those moments where I really should have kept quiet as opposed to revealing I knew a little too much about something very obscure indeed. But I didn’t. “Wow! That’s a KLM Delft Blue House!” I replied with a bit too much enthusiasm. “Those are really rare!” (turns out they aren’t, but let’s not let that get in the way of a good story).
This would also have been a good time to back down, but now I had the floor I had to explain what the significance of this funny wee thing with an airline logo on it was.
The KLM Delft Blue Houses are little presents the Dutch national airline gives to its First Class passengers on long-haul flights. I know this not because I’ve traveled First Class, but because as is my custom I like to read up on the airline I’m traveling with before I fly. It’s all part of me trying to make flying as interesting as possible, thereby creating plenty of distractions to take my mind off the fact that flying scares me witless – other attempts at this have included learning to pilot a jet on a PC flight simulator and taking interest in the different kinds of aeroplanes in the sky.
Anyway, when I went onto Wikipedia to read up on KLM before a flight a couple of years back, my eye was drawn to the article heading that read ‘KLM Delft Blue Houses’. It turns out the houses were originally introduced in the 1950s as a way of circumventing a rule that stopped airlines giving passengers over-generous incentives. By filling the hitherto hollow house with alcohol, namely jenever latterly produced by Bols, KLM were able to reclassify the house as a drinks container and thus give the Delft Blue present to their First Class passengers. In other words, they were just giving the passengers free alcohol, and the fact it was in a really nice stone bottle you got to keep was merely a happy coincidence.
The house lurking in our office did indeed appear to have a small amount of liquor still sloshing about inside it. Although all the Delft Blue Houses are based on the design of Dutch canal houses, the design changes periodically and each different design is allocated a series number. Each house is about 8cm high with a 3cm square base, so the kind of thing that could easily squeeze into one’s hand luggage. Presumably the volume of alcohol is small enough to allow passengers with onward flights in the EU to take their houses through Europe’s super-strict liquid controls.
This example was Number 27 in the series, a number which seemed not to correspond to any particular time period. I had visions of it coming back across the Atlantic in a Lockheed Electra, or of some eminent rock physicist carrying it on one of the first jumbo jets from a far-flung corner of the globe. Sadly an inspection of the base revealed the year ‘2004’ stamped on, which kind of shattered the magic. It wasn’t some kind of relic from the golden age of aviation, rather something that had probably just been necked on the way back from a conference. We were also a little disappointed to discover that whilst these are collectors’ items and something only available to the more privileged of travelers, it actually wasn’t worth an awful lot of money.
In the unlikely event that you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of anything that puts a bit of excitement and novelty back into flying. The KLM Delft Blue Houses are something that falls squarely into this category, so it was a pleasant surprise to find one in the flesh, hiding just three metres from my desk. When I move on to wherever I go next, I’ll try my best to leave something equally curious behind in the post-doc office. That, fifty books and a sleeping bag, of course.