Saturday, September 27, 2014

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Keuken Sessie II

Quiet before/after the storm: A morning stroll around Veerhaven, Rotterdam.
The clock is ticking. The airport transfer bus is clearly not going to arrive. The students are beginning to suspect that something is amiss. What do you do? You call the first four taxis you can… so what if one of them is a six-door funeral limousine.

It is Sunday 16th February and we’re racing to Amsterdam Schipol, spread across four cars, all for €150 a go. It was just last night that I was considering how well we’d done to come in nearly €600 under budget for the trip.

The previous evening, in my efforts to ensure that the students who hadn’t broken curfew were rewarded for their good behaviour, I not only allowed them to go all out on food, but took some of them on the water taxi across the Nieuwe Maas.

The Kop van Zuid being as quiet as it is on a Sunday night and as self-contained as it is, meant that it was perfect for a post-dinner evening stroll, admiring the multitudinous lights reflecting on the calm surface of the Rijnhaven. For every drop of silence, the students were more than able to make up for it in volume.

Pia, dreading the prospect of the walk back from the opposite bank of the river, has retired to bed, evidently still traumatised by the alleged drunken passenger experience on the rail replacement bus earlier in Gouda.

As we finish walking past the wine bars, the four students, none of whom have ever drank alcohol, stare in through the large glass windows, puzzled by the attraction of spending your time and money on such things. I don’t really offer much by way of explantion, and leave them to their own musings on the subject.

When we reach the small riverside area opposite Wilheminaplein tram stop, the students stop to take pictures. Out of nowhere, a woman declaring herself to be a half-Dutch and half-Italian artist stops and asks to take our picture. Curiously she also starts talking about eggs, before getting rather stroppy when the request for a photograph is politely declined by the students. 

Following her surly departure, the students, with the exception of the Dutch-Somali girl, moan all of the way over Erasmusbrug, declaring that they thought I was going to allow our artist friend to abduct them and hold them hostage. Such active imaginations.

We arrive back to the hostel to discover that World War III has broken out between The Couple and The Twins. It is clear that sometimes on school trips, three days is the limit that most students can tolerate each other for. After wading my way through the expletive-laden prelude to the story, I am still really none the wiser about the cause of the strife. With everyone awake, except for the miraculous sleeping Georgian girl and Pia, there is a risk that everyone will get involved and wind the situation up.

There is clearly only one thing for it: the guitar. 

After about an hour, in which most of the belligerents and their allies have had their truth and reconciliation discussion in the privacy of one of the dorms, with both parties agreeing to disagree, but also to shut up and give everyone a bit of peace, the majority of the students congregate in the communal kitchen. 

The Nigerian boy brings down his laptop to look up guitar chords and lyrics. Others make tea. Some are in PJs and others looking like they’re heading out clubbing. In no time at all the group are singing, shouting and forgetting any of the issues from earlier.

From time to time other guests from the hostel come and marvel at the sight of this diverse group of youngsters singing like there’s no tomorrow, all drunk on nothing more than herbal tea and Chocomel. Some guests join in and others make a cheese sandwich and make for the exit pretty sharpish.

Punctuating the singing with funny stories and reflections of the past few days, the time runs quickly by. The teacher in me decides that at 4am the party needs to be broken up, although the teenager within has been happy to let the students have their fun.

 

The next morning, Sunday morning, there is a very slow start to the day. Unaware of the panicked dash for the airport that is yet to come later this afternoon, I wander around Veerhaven before breakfast.

As one by one the students trickle down the stairs and into the common room, something hits me – and it’s not Pia for a change.

Even though I’ve not filled in any application forms as yet, I know that in my heart of hearts I won’t be these students’ teacher next year. Some will have left to start University, but I am sure that I will have left as well. 

The only question is whether I’ll still be Hammersmith and Fulham, or whether I will have moved to a school in East London. One thing that is definite though is that, for now, from hijabis gone wild to Julian's dancing, Jas' late night arrival and Pia's fictional acrobatics, one of the most enjoyable chapters of my career so far has come to an end.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Waar Zijn Jullie?

Westersingel: one direct road to the station and easy to get lost on... apparently.
The wonderful thing about Rotterdam is that so much of the city centre, from the Nieuwe Maas to Centraal station, and beyond, is built on a grid system. This, to most mortals, makes navigating the streets a breeze, but to students? 

It is Saturday 15th April, the sun is shining and feels warm, but we’re all waiting on a street corner. Amazingly, in the half a mile walk from Albert Heijn by the Vaasteland tram stop to Rotterdam Centraal, The Couple have gone missing – building on the curfew-breaking performance of the previous evening.

In my inimitable style, and channelling my inner Julian, I am remaining calm about things. I attempt to call both halves of The Couple, but to no avail. I’ll be honest, although it destroys my idealised version of Rotterdam being permanently covered in snow, I am enjoying the sunshine.

Unfortunately, Pia isn’t quite as polite about the situation. The fuse was lit following the reporting of last night’s curfew breaking at breakfast time. The fuse had half burned as a result of being invited to walk to Centraal station, rather then getting The Twins' favourite #7 tram. This disappearing act by The Couple has tipped her over the edge.

Before her string of [mild] expletives threatens to get the sixteen survivors of the walk arrested for the Dutch equivalent of a Section 5 public order offence, I hand over the train tickets to her and ask the Eritrean and Grenadian to escort her on to the next train to Amsterdam. I ring ahead and let Kevin and Dennis know that Pia is arriving in thirty minutes and to have a fire extinguisher at hand – failing that a coffee will do.

I get a #7 tram back in the general direction of Hostel Room. As I near the Witte de Withstraat stop my phone rings. It’s The Couple. Managing to sustain my sunny disposition I tell them to wait there, using my journey to plot something harsh and evil to say, but I don’t have it in me.

When I find them, their version of events seems to hinge firstly on taking too long in Albert Heijn, not realising that everyone was wandering in the general direction of the main station. They then seem to have gone underground at Eendrachtsplein, realised they don’t know how to buy a ticket, so walked to the Beurs Metro station, and then back to Eendrachstplein once more for good measure, before finally returning to the hostel.

We eventually end up catching a train one hour after the rest of the group and when we arrive in Amsterdam, the rest of the group have gone hunting for lunch and ended up at KFC... as usual. Pia has given them all the slip and headed to ‘t Nieuwe Kafé on Dam Square.

After her second koffie it is clear that Pia’s blood pressure has returned to normal. She disappears off in search of plants of a legal variety, the curfew breakers head off towards the shops, the Twins head off to presumably ride on a few trams, and Kevin, Dennis and I lead a small group for a ‘cultural walking tour.’

We head along Damstraat, crossing one canal, before turning left onto Oudezijds Achterburgwal, passing a number of dens of ill repute – in my students’ eyes at least. As ever, the realities of the sex trade and the cannabis cafés, or ‘coffee shops’, come as a shock when compared with the myths that surround both aspects of Amsterdam life in the eyes of your average British 17-year-old.

Our group of students, consisting of some of the better-behaved students, huddle closely together as we pass women in the windows. As we cross onto Molensteeg and head along Zeedijk towards the Nieuwmarkt, they want to stop and talk. As a group of young females it is hard for them to understand why it is that a sex trade of any sorts can actually be allowed to happen so openly. Kevin and Dennis explain a little about how, with it being regulated the way it is, at least it appears to be superficially safer, however much they may agree with the girls’ sentiments.

Reclining on an afternoon boat ride in Amsterdam.
We continue away from the red light district and towards Waterloopleinmarkt. It is a classified by FourSquare as a flea market and is full of interesting artefacts and trinkets, from swords, to cameras, to clothes. Kevin, Dennis and I can only stand back and watch as the girls look at and scrutinise every stall, engage every stallholder in conversation and start throwing their Euros around.

With stomachs beginning to rumble once more, we stop off for some vlaamse frite on our way back to Dam Square where we meet Pia in possession of some Class A tulip bulbs for her mother.

When the group is together once more, we go on a boat tour of the canals. The students are clearly suffering after last night’s antics and take the opportunity to sleep for the vast majority of the trip – much to the delight of the other customers who seemed unimpressed with our loud arrival on the 5pm sailing.

Dinner is booked for 9pm at the Indian restaurant, Lulu, next door to our hostel, so Pia and I decide we should get going as soon as our tour is over, much to the dismay of The Couple who want to go shopping. We stop, look at each other, shake our heads and turn towards the station.

It transpires that this decision to leave straight away was wise. After realising that our tickets are only valid on the slow train, and after some dancing from platform to platform, we board the double-decker train, only for it to terminate some 25 minutes later in nowheresville. 

With my Dutch being tested to the limit, I just about work out that there are engineering works, but have no idea what to do next. Luckily for all of us, some of our Muslim girls have struck up a conversation with a Dutch hijabi who guides us in the vague direction of a rail replacement bus. At this point I get separated from the rest of the group and onto a different bus.

When we arrive in Gouda, around twenty minutes later, angry Pia is back. Apparently a racist drunkard has been running amok on their bus, talking about Nazis and the like. Fortunately, Pia is a blue belt in karate and so was able to use some of her special moves to repel his racism, but, in doing so, her sense of humour had taken a massive hit. The students seemed to have found the whole episode rather exciting though.

When we roll into Rotterdam Centraal, hideously late for dinner, I grant The Twins their wish and we all take the tram back towards the hostel. After some careful negotiation, the restaurateur lets us in, by this time an hour late for our booking, but has to split us over three tables. 

I look at our remaining money for the trip. Our finances are looking good and so we go all out for dinner, diving into three courses of excellent food at Lulu and the party is only just getting started.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Doctor No by Ian Fleming

Cover image © Penguin.
Once more the summer James Bond novel tradition is resurrected. This year, with the beaches of the Asturias and Cantabria regions of Spain as my backdrop, and the promise of chorizo and sidra in the evenings to come, I set about reading Doctor No (1958) by Ian Fleming – the sixth novel in the Bond series.

At the end of the previous novel, From Russia With Love, we are left with a serious doubt about whether Bond has survived. Having brought about the demise of SMERSH’s latest plot, he is poisoned and the reader is unsure about what will have become of him.

Obviously, he survives thanks to some quick thinking and good luck. As part of his recuperation a slightly grumpy M decides that the warm climes of Jamaica will suit Bond where he is to clear up the small mystery of a couple of Secret Service operatives seemingly eloping and abandoning their station. Added to this is a fire at a bird reserve on Crab Key, an island off the Jamaican mainland, which an American pressure group seems keen to have investigated.

Bond is convinced he’s ready for real action, but goes along with M’s decision sensing there may be more to these stories, even if it does mean having to ditch his beloved Baretta gun in favour of something new.

From the instant that Bond gets close to Jamaica, Fleming’s ability to evoke the region shines through. The references to sea grapes, soursop, bougainvillea, and star-apples help to furnish the scenery in addition to more detailed description:
“Bond watched the big green turtle-backed island grow on the horizon and the water below him turn from the dark blue of the Cuba Deep to the azure if the inshore shoals… The scattered dice of small-holdings showed on the slopes and in the clearings in the jungle, and the setting sun flashed gold on the bright worms of tumbling rivers and streams… Bond’s heart lifted with the beauty of one of the most fertile islands in the world.”
Upon arrival he is met by Quarrel, a Cayman Islander who had first appeared in Live and Let Die and a somewhat suspicious female paparazzo from the local newspaper. The same paparazzo, Annabel Chung, appears later that evening as Bond is picking Quarrel’s brains over the mysterious Crab Key island and its owner Dr No. Taking no chances they choose to interrogate her, but get very little information – something that serves only to heighten their suspicions about Dr No and the disappearance of the Secret Service operatives.

Bond and Quarrel resolve to escape Kingston and head to the more remote Beau Desert plantation in order to train and plan a night time voyage to Crab Key. Initially they plan just to do a brief recon of the island, but find themselves getting drawn into things much quicker than expected following the arrival of one of the most famous Bond girls, Honeychile Rider. Her arrival is one of the more memorable moments of the film adaptation when the beautiful Ursula Andress emerges from the sea with a knife in her bikini - although Honey is naked in the novel.

Needless to say, her arrival, along with Bond and Quarrel's, has been spotted and it's only a matter of time before Dr No’s mixed race Chinese and black henchmen are after them.

Reading Doctor No on the beach in Santander, Spain.
Having visited the Caribbean for the first time last year, to the small island of Saint Lucia in the Windward Islands group, reading this book definitely brought back elements of that tropical island landscape, even if culturally the Jamaica of Doctor No and modern day Saint Lucia are culturally and socially rather distinct from one another.

At times I wish that Bond would hang about on the beach a bit more, or take a walk through the dense forest, or even take a boat out to a reef by daylight, just so that Fleming can continue to describe the scenery of his second home with the passion he does.

That aside, the plot pushes the boundaries of what is sensible at times, as all of the Bond Novels do, but perhaps to a greater extent here. The action seems so plausible until we reach Dr No’s lair, deep underground on Crab Key.

Added to this, a modern reader will be troubled by references to ‘chigroes’ (a portmanteau of Chinese and negro) and ‘niggerheads’ (I think a partially submerged dark rock under the surface of the water) whilst reading. Such ignorant language could easily detract from the skills of an author who is clearly much more gifted with language that such expressions would seem to imply.

Simon Winder, author of The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond, and who also contributes the introduction to the Penguin edition, says it so well:
Dr No is definitely Fleming at his peak, even when he turns silly, and Dr No is perhaps his most attractively crazy villain. It is probably also the only novel in any language where the hero’s penis is directly threatened not just by a centipede’s jaws, but by a giant squid’s tenticle too. Fifty years after it was written it remains – even with all its racism, snobbery and chaotic plotting – a book that can read over and over again with immense pleasure.”
I’m inclined to agree with Winder. Bond seems at his best towards the end of the novel, even if Fleming’s plot choices aren’t, but overall Doctor No is well up there with action of the preceding novels.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Cover image © Penguin Classics
A few years back, my father went through a phase of reading a newspaper that was giving away free DVDs. For a few weekends the DVDs were all old Alfred Hitchcock films, and included the original 1935 version of ‘The 39 Steps’ starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. I decided to get my hands on a copy of the novel on which the film was based.

Following on from my trend of reading James Bond novels, The 39 Steps by John Buchan is, in many ways, a precursor to those novels. The flipping between fast-paced action and moments of tension, all set against a backdrop of espionage and counter-espionage, is very reminiscent of The Cold War world of Ian Fleming’s character.

The novel follows Richard Hannay, a man living in London, struggling to get into the rhythm of life there after having been based in Rhodesia for a period of time. 

The action starts when Hannay is approached by an American gentleman, later identifying himself as Franklin P. Scudder, who states that there is a conspiracy to assassinate Karolides, the Greek premier, during an upcoming visit to London. He also reveals a plot by a German spy ring called Black Stone who intend to steal military information prior to the outbreak of war in Europe.

Hannay offers to hide Scudder in his flat, but to little avail. Scudder is murdered, and, fearing for his own life, Hannay decides to escape for remotest Scotland. So with “a well-used tweed suit, a pair of strong nailed boots, and a flannel shirt with a collar,” along with “fifty pounds … in sovereigns in a belt which [he] had brought back from Rhodesia” and Scudders pocket-book filled with notes and cipher, he heads to London St Pancras, having consulted his Bradshaw’s Guide.

Needless to say, his attempts to evade the attention of the malevolent German spy ring fail and both the local police and a German plane pursue him – the most familiar features of the story for lovers of the early Hitchcock film adaptation.

This story, in the same manner as Ian Fleming’s bond series around thirty years later, is wildly fantastical at times, but the author describes it in his dedication as a “shocker” – “the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.” 

Probabilities aside, the plot is excellently thought-out and the writing so exact and direct that you never get a sense that he is padding out the novel. Furthermore, Hannay is a very old school hero – a gentleman, educated and well travelled – and is actually likeable in a way that sometimes James Bond could only dream of being, despite the occasional similarities between them.

Published during 1915, when the First World War was still young, the novel was said to have been appreciated by soldiers in the trenches with one officer writing to Buchan stating: “The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”

Overall, this novel is worth a read. Those who have watched the films will see some similarities, but may also appreciate the more serious nature of the original Hannay compared to Hitchcock’s more comedic interpretation.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Keuken Sessie #1

Red lights shining off the wet surface on Scheepstimmermanslaan, Rotterdam.
As the dusky light descends over Rotterdam, I am woken from my late afternoon slumber by squally rain hammering against the small window pane of the droom room. When I look out of the window a little while later, the darkened city streets have been laced with rain, there smooth surfaces reflecting the lights like a perfect mirror glass.

It is still Friday 14th February 2014 and we’re preparing to go out for our evening meal. After yesterday’s stamppot, we’ve opted for the slightly more popular idea of heading to the Bazar on Witte de Withstraat for a meaty halal feast beneath the beautiful Middle Eastern light fittings.

We stroll along the rain soaked streets with the student group representing every possible point on the spectrums of both happiness and excitement. Pia is also being a bit on the slow side. Having moved out of the Maritime Hotel this afternoon and into the Love room at the hostel, she has clearly been sleeping deeply for three hours, despite me not even making her walk for miles this year.

We arrive at Bazar and get directed downstairs to the basement for the first time ever. The rationale is simple; it is Valentine’s Day and the management don’t want our posse ruining the many romantic meals taking place around the building. I can’t really blame them as a thousand cameras and iPhones emerge from pockets and the ubiquitous ‘I’m at a restaurant with my friends’ selfies start getting taken. The noise is phenomenal and at times unbearable – heads turn, and with a look of resignation, turn back.

After the meal we dismiss the group and set a curfew, ground rules, a perimeter and one group, made up of a Nigerian boy, a Somali boy, the Triplets (three girls who seem inseparable) and the Couple dart out of the door quickly. The six of them are dressed like the cast from either Saturday Night Fever or maybe just some 1970s B-movie. Its all white jackets, big lapels, leather and roll-necks. The Twins make their excuses and go tram-spotting or memorising the routes somewhere. 

One group of students decides to stay back for Pia and me. After finishing our coffees, we head towards Schiedamsedijk, making a ridiculous amount of noise as we progress past the old working boats in Leuvehaven bobbing in the darkness. We reach Erasmusbrug, take a few more photos and then wander along Willemskade in the direction of the hostel.

On the way I hint to the students, albeit accidentally, that I might leave work this year. The Eritrean, Senegalese and Grenadian all immediately raise objections, saying “But who’s gonna bring us back next year?” I don’t really have an answer for them, but reassure them by telling them that it is not definite – this despite downloading an application form for another school that morning

After an hour or so of relaxing at the hostel, playing table football, and winding each other up, I decide to do a headcount. Pia, also known as ‘The Incredible Sleeping Woman’, has already hit the hay and I conduct my duties alone. It becomes clear that we are missing our group of Saturday Night Fever impersonators. I keep a vigil at the top of the stairs, watching the comings and goings through the front door with a small gang of students, all of whom seem angrier about the curfew-breaking than I am. Braids are flicked, teeth are kissed, and expletives uttered.

Eventually, around 1am we give up our watch and retire to the kitchen, realising that we’re causing a noisy fire hazard on the stairs. The kitchen is located right at the bottom of the building and is for the communal use of all hostel guests, although we do a pretty good job of colonising it. We talk about anything and everything. It is an opportunity to hear the hopes, dreams and fears the students have about their futures, both in an immediate and longer-term sense.

Bazar: a favourite eatery and a regular on the Rotterdam itinerary.
On a whim, I go and check the boys' room for any sign of the curfew-breakers. Sure enough, as I knock the door, I hear a rustling sound, followed by worried whispering and eventually the Nigerian boy opens the door, revealing a series of six ever-whitening faces.

The story, as it transpires, involved taking a taxi to the ‘Turkish area’ of town (wherever that is), before being caught out by their tram passes expiring at midnight (already after curfew), the girl from the Couple being unable to walk and thus having to be carried home as no taxi would take them (surely an over-dramatisation) and nearly getting into an altercation with a random member of the public (the most likely part of the story).

I go through the usual list of teacher clichés: “disappointment”, “let yourselves down”, and “thought you had more respect for me”. I then leave them to think about what they’ve done and hear the expression “I’ve never seen Tom pissed off before” come from inside the room.

Returning to the kitchen, someone has had the idea to get one of the beaten-up guitars from the lounge area. None of the students can play it and so I take it, playing whatever comes to mind. Songs by Rihanna, Beyoncé and my Ed Sheeran/Passenger-inspired acoustic version of Blackstreet’s ‘No Diggity’ go down well, with everyone singing along as if they were at a drunken session in a small bar.

At two separate points the Somali boy and Nigerian boy come to offer their apologies, with the latter offering a freestyle over ‘No Diggity’ and a can of Chocomel as compensation. The group who kept vigil grudgingly accept the apology on my behalf as I continue playing.

At around 3am I decide to pull the plug, suggesting that everyone gets an early night – a bit of a contradiction at 3am. Tomorrow morning we head to Amsterdam on the train. With a little protestation, the students skulk off to bed, I head back to the droom room and fall sleep within thirty seconds, can of Chocomel in hand.

Friday, June 13, 2014

In the Dead of Night

In the dead of night, moonlit country lanes are nothing more than a grey ribbon floating between the silhouetted branches of trees, tied at each end to orange orbs surrounding sleeping villages and towns. In the dead of night only your bike’s wheels whir as conversation dries up, the Garmin registers one mile intervals with ever decreasing frequency and any rattling sound goes increasingly unnoticed.

When you have undertaken a sponsored ride, like London to Brighton, in order to raise money for your students you realise that, in order to get money again, you have to try something bigger the following year. So it was, inspired by the feat of four Dutch riders, I decided on a simple concept: ride from my current home in Walthamstow, London to my hometown of Warwick on a Saturday in March, in one go, overnight, starting at 10pm and arriving in time for breakfast.

Two lights, two bidons, waiting for departure at 10pm in Walthamstow, London.
The response was overwhelming. Not only was enough money raised to help two deserving west London students take part in the college's visit to Uganda, but enough money was also raised to pay sponsorship for a couple of Ugandan students through the charity All Our Children. There was no going back now.

Armed with as many bicycle lights as possible, a backpack full of food, bidons of electrolyte drink, additional layers of clothing, spares, multi-tools and the route pre-loaded onto our Garmin GPS devices, we headed out of Walthamstow along the Lea Bridge Road, navigating the traffic around Clapton and Finsbury Park, ascending Crouch Hill and onto the Archway Road.

At this point, humanity is a strange blur of orange streetlights, red brake lights, white headlights, girls in short skirts and heels, men in their new shirts from River Island, all sinuously moving around me and my long-suffering cycling buddy Jonesy as we moved through Finchley and Barnet. The passing-by of cars at speed is the primary soundtrack between moments of ludicrous singing and chit-chat.

After Barnet, our route takes us down a dark road before reaching a footbridge that lifts us over the A1 Barnet by-pass and suddenly civilisation deserts us at 27km into our ride. Heading up Holmshill Lane, lights cutting weakly through the darkness ahead, I look back to see central London and what looks like the BT Tower – all just a bubble of light in the distance.

Looking forward once more is the reality of the night ahead; a night of weaving through gently undulating country lanes, lit intermittently by the bright moon in the clear March sky.

There is no doubt that the moment you leave the ‘pollution bubble’ of London, the temperature plummets. Every effort up the smallest of climbs is met with a cloud of warm vapour rushing from your mouth with every exhalation of breath on the way into Shenley and then London Colney.

Reaching St Albans around midnight means we are greeted by zig-zagging students, revellers and pensioners making their ways from the pub to home, or from bar to club, or maybe just in search of a kebab shop. Despite their noise, and our incongruity to the rest of the surrounding nightlife, we continue on, kicked out of St Albans at speed and out into the blackness of night once more.

No glamour: At the side of a roundabout near Buckingham at around 3am.
There are no cars now and there is none of the traffic of life. The climbs around the edge of the Chilterns, with their views over towards Luton, are conducted in silence. Legs are hurting by now and there is the need to refuel at some point after another terrifying and chilly decent down a hill into the murkiness, with every dip in the road unsighted and the awful scratching sound of Sasha’s rear wheel bearings becoming louder and louder, despite another service at Caballo earlier that week – once more the mechanic trying his best to resuscitate the damaged rear wheel.

In the near silence, the Garmin GPS device seems to fall silent and stay static. A strange mania rises up in my mind between the hours of 2am and 3am whereby, every time I look down to see the miles covered and the miles remaining, the distance seems not to have moved foward at all. At first this is just mildly concerning, but eventually I begin pressing the scroll button just to check that the battery is still alive.

After a pause on the edge of Buckingham, resting at the side of a roundabout on the bypass, I give myself a silent rebuke for my stupidity and continue on, resolving not to look at my Garmin except on approach to a road junction to avoid getting lost.

Destroyed: Jonesy looking distressed at the roadside in Buckinghamshire.
Jonesy is a broken. The endless miles of metronomically tapping out a rhythm on the pedals in the cold of the night have left him almost for dead psychologically. Whereas my demons concern a fear of my chain snapping or of a GPS unit that counts backwards, Jonesy’s demons revolve around hydration and warmth.

Around seven and half hours in, the sky has begun to lighten and over the barren fields the sun is threatening to come up. By the time of reaching the small village of Cropredy, it is peering over the hedgerows as the road starts to climb higher for one last time, building up to the beacon at Burton Dassett with eventually the sunlight flooding across the flat Warwickshire countryside in front of us. The end is literally in sight.

After a small amount of rolling along flat country lanes, overtaking tractors taking hay to the fields for livestock and waving to sensible cyclists emerging for a morning ride, we reach Royal Leamington Spa and then Warwick. We're out of liquid, out of energy gels and glad to back on home turf.

A reward: Sun rising on the approach to Burton Dassett.
Jones is too far gone for any breakfast and limps off to his aunt’s. I ride flat out for the last half a mile, using every last bit of remaining energy to reach my parents’ house where the food is already cooking.

Whilst waiting for breakfast my father tries to show me photos of a recent trip to Malta, but I am completely unable to provide any meaningful response. I eat. I sleep. I eat again. And then I sleep again safe in the knowledge that at least in the dead of this night I won't be rattling down a rural road for eight hours.

For the Strava workout data: http://www.strava.com/activities/121054317

Friday, June 06, 2014

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Paleisen van Glas en Staal

Looking up towards the light from Eendrachtsplein Metro station.
You can say many things about Rotterdam. People often go along with unfavourable references to the city, commenting on it being rather nothingy. Naturally, I don’t feel this way about what, to me, is a beautiful city.

It is Friday 14th February 2014 and I’m knocking on the doors of all the students' dorms, trying to make sure that they all actually eat before we hit the rails, due for Einstein Lyceum.

Slowly, looking a little like moles that have had bright lights shined into their eyes after a year of being underground, the students trickle into the dining room. First down is the Georgian girl who, despite more sleep than everyone, seems to still be asleep. In time more come down, The Twins, an Eritrean girl and the Grenadian, along with our fictional friend Sharkeisha. Then something strange happens. The faint scent of bakhoor nasaem floats in on the breeze and a noise sounding like ‘buff, buff, buff’ echoes down the halls; our Senegalese girl is awake.

Thankfully, breakfast goes down a lot better than the stamppot from the night before and after a brief search for a pair of students who seem to like avoiding direct contact with clocks, we wander towards Eendrachtsplein Metro station. All the way I have The Twins, one either side of me, informing how it could all be so much quicker if we just got the number 7 tram. I ask whether they’ve visited Rotterdam before. They reply that they haven’t. We leave it at that.

This year, we’ve been told by Kevin to meet him and Yvonne at the new school building. It is still in Hoogvliet-Zuid, but means getting off a stop later in Zalmplaat – which must be a ‘false friend’ as I’m sure that it translates as ‘Salmon Plate’ if taken literally.

After rattling for twenty minutes through the Rotterdam suburbs, over docks, roads and railways, the C-line metro train pulls in Zalmplaat. To one side it looks exactly like one stop back up the track at Hoogvliet, but looking round the other way we see a swathe of new silver and glass buildings, mainly empty, waiting for students to arrive.

We are met by Kevin who takes into one of the buildings. The room is expansive and no amount of tea or biscuits can make the place seem full. We are greeted inside by some familiar faces from the Einstein Lyceum trip to London earlier in the year - Melanie, Ryan and Renske amongst others.

Despite the final fitting of the rooms being incomplete, and at this time it being few months away from classes switching from the old building to this new building, my students are instantly envious of the fresh look, the floor to ceiling windows, and the light, roomy interior. The building is part of the Campus Hoogvliet project that will see a range of educational establishments move into different buildings on the new campus, along with housing for youngsters and other new commercial properties.

Almost as inspiring as the leaf-detail frosting on the windows, the green Perspex banisters and the smell of fresh paint is the artwork commissioned for the interior; modern and colourful interpretations of well-known figures such as Barack Obama. I am assuming that the picture of Nicki Minaj I saw last year won’t be making the final cut though.

Colourful interpretation of Barack Obama in Einstein Lyceum, Hoogvliet.
Campus Hoogvliet is very similar in style to the buildings in central Rotterdam; the palaces of glass and steel. As it is, at present, these new buildings rise up out of the surrounding houses in a somewhat incongruous fashion; too shiny and new compared to the small blocks of flats and rows of neat little houses.

Following some lunch and some traditional Dutch games organised by Kevin at the old Einstein Lyceum school site, we divide the London and Rotterdam students into mixed groups for a filming project and head for the Metro. Each group has a different focus: people, place, history, movement or art. As the Metro rattles along, we deposit different groups at different stations: Wilhelminaplein for place, Leuvenhaven for history and art, Beurs for people, Rotterdam Centraal for movement.

Pia, clearly excited by the prospect of being outdoors makes the decision that really the students should be doing the task independently. After looking both ways, in case there's a dive-bombing cyclist coming, she jumps over the cycle path, runs through two lanes of traffic, takes a bite of gouda, rolls over the bonnet of a passing Mercedes landing on the pavement, then leaps through the door of Wijnbar Het Eigendom, blackflips down the stairs and orders coffee for the teachers.

Taking the more orthodox approach to visiting a bar, Kevin, Yvonne and I chose to walk at a normal pace – Pia always was so dramatic. Either way, it gives us the chance to have a chat and discuss life in peace for a few… ‘ring ring’. It doesn’t take long before the phone starts ringing with tales of a student going back to the hostel alone.

After identifying the culprit’s whereabouts, we continue our conversation and… ‘ring ring’. This is going to be a long afternoon.

Eventually, the phones fall silent. It’s interesting to hear how quickly things are changing at Einstein Lyceum. New staff and new buildings and new hopes for the future. Am I envious? Possibly. I could see myself teaching in Rotterdam, living on the Noordereiland or in Katendrecht and cycling around town with a basket on my bicycle.

After parting ways in the slightly murky late afternoon weather, Pia and I head back to the hostel to do a headcount and rest before the evening meal, and Kevin accompanies Yvonne back towards Hooglvliet.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Een Nieuwe Straat voor Ons

Sleep: Something that can often be in short supply on a college trip to The Netherlands.
One joy of teaching is that literally nothing stays the same for a long period of time. Even if you take charge of a group for a few years they change so much over the course of two years that the young adults you wave goodbye to are almost unrecognisable.

It is Thursday 13th February 2014 and I’m sat in my room – named ‘Droom’ [trans: ‘dream’] – on the third floor of Hostel Room on Vollenhovenstraat in Rotterdam. After two years at the Home Hotel we’ve finally decided to try somewhere else to take our group of students.

This year’s group of students easily matches the diversity of the previous years’ visits and we have representatives of Somali, Dutch, Eritrean, Pakistani, Afghan, Nigerian, Grenadian, Senegalese and Georgian extraction, along with a fictitious girl everyone calls Sharkeisha. As with previous years, I am accompanied by Pia, whose attendance, I concluded prior to departure, was safer than the alternatives.

Our journey started at silly o’clock in the morning, but not stupid o’clock like last year. Everything went reasonably smoothly at the airport, give or take the last-minute signing-up for the frequent flyer programme to get free luggage allowance meaning a rather angry French member of staff nearly had a melt down. In fact things were so smooth we nearly forgot that one boy hadn’t even arrived at the airport.

A short hop over the North Sea later and we were already driving along the A4 towards Rotterdam. Here, trying to be efficient, I decide to sort out the sleeping arrangements for the dorms – who will be with whom in which dorms

Before my bright pink pen has even had the chance to touch the paper, I have an audience. Two eagle-eyed Eritrean girls – we’ll call them ‘The Twins’ for reasons I’ll explain later – are watching every twitch in my hand, trying to read my thoughts. Despite the pressure, I put down my initial thoughts. After ten seconds there is an objection.

Pia, wading into the discussion offers her ideas on the subject. A few moments later another Eritrean girl and a Somali girl join in. I’m struggling to regain my authority as Sharkeisha jumps into the situation. Before I realise it, we have something akin to diplomatic conference taking place. 

It makes sense though. There are thirteen girls and just three boys and clearly my knowledge of the most current friendship groups and cliques is a little out of date.

Waiting to cross Van Oldenbarneveltplaats, Rotterdam. Taken by Pia.
Hostel Room itself isn’t very far from our old base at 59a Witte De Withstraat, but is in a much quieter part of the city. It's opposite Veerhaven, a mooring point for small private yachts and just around the corner from a good café called Loos. For the students there is little in the way of any of the infamous distractions nearby – there’s just a supermarket where some students have their first experience of Dutch checkout assistants [we’ll say no more than this].

Things are going well with checking in until the hotel manager says, “but there is one room that is wet.”

“Wet?” I ask, presuming that their has been some form of flood.

“Yes! The floor is wet and so she [Pia] will have to sleep somewhere else.”

Naturally the thought of having to deal with thirteen female students without female back-up fills me with dread. As I stand there, images flash through my mind: hair extensions and hijabs flying everywhere; screaming and high-pitched giggling penetrating the walls; painting the boys’ nails whilst they're asleep.

“… Is that okay?” The manager asks, waking me from my nightmare. “We have booked her into the Maritime Hotel just around the corner.” Relief floods my body at the realisation that if it all kicks off, Pia is on the next street and it’ll only be for one night.

“Yes. That’s absolutely fine.” Pia responds for me.

Later that evening, we decide to get dinner from the Hostel as it’s their 'meal and a drink for €5 night'. They offer to make a halal version of the Dutch dish stamppota mixture of sausages, bacon, potato, spinach and the like. As it turns out, to make it Muslim-friendly for my students, a boiled egg has replaced the sausage and bacon. 

The strompot is not universally popular and just a few brave souls attempt it – myself being one of them.

The main complaint seems to have been a lack of seasoning, but I am aware that the main reason is that a McDonalds was spotted on the walk around town earlier and some students are plotting a return. Pia and I acquiesce to let them out and head to Wijnbar Het Eigendom on Witte de Withstraat for a bit of peace from the strompot conversation. 

After dissecting last year’s visit, and comparing the characters on the trip this year to those of the past, we head in the vague direction of Willemskade to drop Pia off at the Maritime Hotel. The air is milder than usual and it’s a relief considering London teenagers’ aversion to fresh air.

With a busy day ahead tomorrow, I suggest to the students back at Hostel Room that they retire to their rooms to ‘slaap lekker’, knowing fully that they’ll all likely be up until 2am, at least.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Wiggle New Forest 100: Part Two - Godshill to Finish

Godshill to Bashley

Upon leaving the first feed station in Godshill, we head out along the Southampton Road. Here, the landscape is much more agricultural and fields seem to head off into the distance over the well-kept hedgerows. A little top-up of air in the new Specialized Roubaix tyres has given my bike a bit of extra zip, especially when combined with the handful of jelly beans I’ve just eaten.

The view looking over the endless heathland with wild horses.
After a mile or so, we take a left onto the narrow Blissford Road and continue rolling along at a sociable 35kmh. We continue onto Abbots Well Road and the landscape begins to change again. Firstly, the neat fields lose their uniform hedges, then the fields turn to open heathland, the road begins to rise a little, before we come to a small switchback that carries the road upwards in a sudden burst. 

At the top of the mini-climb we’re greeted by the sight of a dead horse. Jones has started to flag a little on the climbs and with his head down in a determined fashion makes it to the top without even noticing the carcass lying half across the road. “Horse? What horse matey?” is Jones’ only comment on the matter. 

After this brief flirtation with the forest, a bit more rolling around the edges is required before we cross over a dried up ford, take a sharp left, and head back into the trees once more. The smooth tarmac and a sudden increase in the number of riders around us encourages us to up the speed and before long we’re really blasting through the countryside, albeit a little wary of any potential dead horses on the road.

Another brief climb and it is clear that Jones is struggling a little, but is more than making up for it when descending and on the flats, returning the favour of my earlier turn on the front nicely.

Now, riding through a forest on an autumnal day is quite a peaceful affair. An occasional conversation with another rider, the sound of the air rushing by or the noise of an animal in a field is the only thing to break the silence. 

Suddenly, a cry from a few hundred metres back reverberates along the Bolderwood Arboretum Ornamental Drive (a bit of a moutful). For a moment I wobble as I wonder what it was. Jones has stuck his head down and is going for it. I turn when I hear what sounds like a swarm of severely irritated hornets getting nearer. I shout to Jones to move over just in the nick of time as a small peloton of riders clad in club colours (I think) very similar to those of Team Sky go whirring past in a chorus of noisy freewheels.

Following a brief dip into the outskirts of Brockenhurst, we head back into the countryside and continue on through the forest before arriving at the second feed station.


Bashley to the Finish 

In Bashley, Jones is still looking quite spritely, possibly as a result of all of the fig rolls he’s been consuming. I’m generally still feeling quite good and stock up on jelly beans and bananas - being a coeliac the cakes and fig rolls don’t look too appealing to me. Either way, feeling refreshed, we head off.

A few miles along the Sway road, we run into traffic. A melee of riders and cars and vans all seem to be grinding to a halt. After three more miles of slow going we take a left onto a small lane after the village of Sway. We soon realise the cause of the disruption - a tractor pulling a trailer of horse manure.

Some of the braver riders use the, ahem, slipstream of the tractor as it chugs along at 15kph, but I suggest we stay well back having watched one too many episodes of Last of the Summer Wine in my life. To rapturous applause and the collective sigh of relief from the 100 trapped cyclists, the tractor pulls over and the riders jostle themselves back into order. The faster riders disappearing into the distance. The slow riders tootling along looking at the wild animals. The middling riders, like me, ratchet up the pace a little.

Trying my hardest to look like a serious cyclist heading towards Bolderwood.
We weave along a little, with the occasional event photographer popping up like a meerkat from the bracken, and we get to the B3054; a high and exposed road that rumbles over heathland. Jones starts to tire a little more. I’m getting a fantastic tow off a group of riders riding in formation and get dragged along until I reach Boldre and realise Jones has disappeared. 

He eventually catches up and is complaining of cramps in his legs. I try and convince him to get into a harder gear and lower his cadence, but he won’t hear any of it as he gets on his stubborn mountain bike head. A few miles later he comes to a halt and I begin to panic about our overall time. A couple of friendly cyclists stop by to see if he’s okay before departing whilst making sympathetic noises.

We get going again, but it is slow going. I resume my role as super-domestique and provide a tow, but Jones is struggling to hold on to my back wheel even at 20kph. I issue him with a few more energy gels and try and coax him along the road.

Realising we have around twenty minutes until our chances of getting a ‘silver’ time award disappear, Jones digs deep one last time after a frustrating thirty minutes of slow cycling. As we pass a small red brick cottage on a bend on the B3055 Jones comes alive and starts trundling along at a livelier 40kph.

His burst of life over, I resume my place in front and drag him, and a small train of riders, along the Lyndhurst Road. The tarmac comes to an end after the gates to the event venue and we race over the loose dirt track to the finish line, separated by a single second on the timing sheets. 

After crossing the line, receiving a medal and contemplating food, we sort ourselves out and head back towards London, stopping at McDonalds on the way. The event was well organised, we were better prepared than the Brighton ride and we’re feeling happy with ourselves.

Our first organised sportive has been a success, and after an anxious wait for the official timing sheets, we find on the Monday that we have done just enough for a silver time on their classification. By a matter of seconds. But then we never do anything the simple way.

⇐ Part One: Lyndhurst to Godshill ❘

My ride activity data can be found on Strava here: http://www.strava.com/activities/87350025
My Strava profile can be found here: http://www.strava.com/athletes/1271231

Friday, January 03, 2014

Wiggle New Forest 100: Part One - Lyndhurst to Godshill

Late Starters

Some things in life are certainties. Some things in life are less certain. Some are a combination. You can, for example, be certain that where Mr Jones is concerned, you can never be 100% certain of anything.

In preparation for my first organised cycling event, accompanied by my increasingly cycling-mad friend Jonesy, I had done plenty. I’d been training up and around Epping Forest in all weathers on a route that takes you up three different climbs twice. I had been averaging around 200km a week and had given myself a three-day rest period prior to the Wiggle New Forest 100 on Sunday 6th October

Bikes loaded and ready for a midnight dash a New Forest Holiday Inn.
As it was, as Jonesy arrived in his gleaming 'pearlescent blue' Audi at 10.30pm in Walthamstow, ready for the drive to our hotel just outside of Southampton the night before our 8.30am start, I could feel the preparation slipping through my fingers. After around four hours sleep in a reasonably comfortable Holiday Inn, we headed towards New Park Farm on the outskirts of Lyndhurst, stopping off en route for breakfast at McDonalds. 

As we neared the event’s starting point, the steady line of cars pulling into the grounds began to play havoc with our collective adrenalines and we began nervously laughing at what we were getting ourselves into. There was time for registration, a quick check of the bikes, a quick read through of all the good luck messages and we headed off to the start line, still laughing like a pair of schoolgirls.


Lyndhurst to Godshill

Finally calm after around twenty minutes of laughing, we finally get towards the front of the queue for the start line. We are penned-in in groups of around twenty to thirty riders and given a quick safety briefing. At this point I must admit I am worried at my lack of practice clipping in and out with my new cycle shoes. Before I have chance to remember what I'm doing, we’re off.

The group snakes out of the grounds slowly and onto the main A337 road northwards. The slow rise of Clay Hill appears and already the riders are beginning to shuffle themselves into varying strength groups. A group of riders with super-expensive equipment flies past, Jonesy moves tentatively up the line of riders, and I get bored with the lot of them and push on, bringing Jonesy and a group of braver riders with me.

Just after Lyndhurst, the first mini-hill arrives by Emery Down. The hill is a small affair akin to Crouch Hill in north London. Jonesy and I go full pelt up the hill with others seemingly taking it a lot easier. Either we’re overdoing it, or they’re being overly cautious.

Sasha in the hazy sunrise, awaiting the start of the sportive.
Hitting 43kmh on the decent, we begin to get the sensation of being on a giant countryside rollercoaster, a series of small undulations keeping the momentum of the riders going.

A little after the village of Bartley, the road slowly starts to climb over the next 7km. Admittedly its not the steepest of inclines with only a few moments where the gradient hits the 5% mark, but given the trouble with any form of incline that Jonesy had in January it is a relief to see him keep up the pace. As we approached the little sting towards the end of Furzley Lane I shoot off, Jonesy not far behind and a fair few of the earlier starters are caught and overtaken.

Then it is out into open moorland for a while. Taking my role as super-domestique seriously, I take the lead, allowing Jonesy a tow, and every so often pass him an energy gel from my supply and bark at him to take it. 

The lush greenery along the Roger Penny Way seemed without limits. For a while it is as if we’ve veered off course with very few signs of life except the occasional wild horse. Even after a while there are no towns to blot the view, only occasional cars passing by in the opposite direction, and the occasional club rider overtaking at high speed.

After what seems like only a short period of time, around 30km in, we reach the first feeding station in the village of Godshill. We’re feeling good and feeling like our target of a ‘silver’ time of less than five hours to complete the 111km route is within our reach.

❘ Part Two: Godshill to Finish ⇒


My ride activity data can be found on Strava here: http://www.strava.com/activities/87350025
My Strava profile can be found here: http://www.strava.com/athletes/1271231

Monday, December 30, 2013

In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson

Cover image © PanMacmillan
I believe that reading a novel that is part of a series, having not read any of the preceding books, is a little like jumping into an ice-cold plunge pool. It has the potential to leave you feeling a sense of shock and bewilderment, but equally can have some benefits. I'm not sure into which category this novel falls.

In a Dry Season (1999) is the tenth in a series of novels by Peter Robinson focussing on Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks. Being a little late to the DCI Banks party, and never having watched the television adaptations being broadcast on ITV, by the time of this novel, the protagonist has separated from his wife, has a somewhat dubious reputation with women and his career as a detective is grinding to a halt.

The action commences when, during a period a drought, a reservoir dries up revealing the remains of a deserted village that had been submerged following the building of a damn after the Second World War. A young boy, making the most of the adventures to be found around the remnants of Hobb's End, stumbles upon a human skeleton buried in the outbuilding of a cottage.

Presumably seeing it as a chance to punish Banks for previous indiscretions and insubordination, Chief Constable 'Jimmy' Riddle, sends him, along with DS Annie Cabbot, to investigate what seems like a rather a dead investigation. What at first seems like a story based on raking over relics of the past in fact becomes more and more alive and encroaches into the present day leading to the rather dramatic conclusion.

The novel revolves around two narratives: the first omniscient narrative follows the action of the present day as Banks and Cabbot investigate and get to know each other; the second is the first person narrative of Gwen Shackleton and follows the life of Hobb's End from 1941 to 1945. The interplay between the two narratives works well to keep the momentum of the story pacey and allows the plot to develop numerous potential conclusions.

All in all, I would happily read another book in this series should the situation ever arise again. Indeed, the only reason I read this novel was to review whether or not to use it with my A Level Language and Literature class. Generally, the storyline is engaging, although a few strange deviations to include current romances and reminiscences of drug addict neighbours I feel the book could have done without, but possibly make more sense to those who've read more of the series.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

Continuing my summer tradition of a James Bond novel on the beach, this year on Anse des Sables in Vieux Fort, St Lucia, is something I look forward to with relish. Under a palm tree, with rum near to hand and an expanse of turquoise sea in front of me, I read From Russia With Love (1957) – the fifth book in the James Bond series.

Despite the modern reputation Ian Fleming’s novels enjoy, in 1956 he wasn’t satisfied that they were commercially successful enough. With this in mind From Russia With Love saw Bond at a crossroads and the writer's approach demonstrates this.

In a slight departure from previous Bond novels, the first part of the novel deals exclusively with SMERSH formulating a plan to strike the Secret Service’s top man, James Bond. The reader is drawn into the meticulous construction of an airtight plan – the target, the beautiful bait, the exotic location, the risk of scandal and the right man for the execution.

The characters working for SMERSH seem even more extreme than usual too. We meet ‘Red’ Grant, a deadly man with an almost werewolfesque, supernatural drive desire to kill during a full moon and Rosa Klebb a woman described as a “neuter” whose need for sex with men and women “was nothing more than an itch.” As the plan to trap Bond using the beautiful and innocent Tatiana Romanova moves forward, you begin to believe that Ian Fleming was seriously considering the untimely demise of his protagonist. 

With the planning over, around a third of the way into the novel, we move into part two – ominously entitled ‘The Execution.’ Increasingly we gain momentary insights into a different Bond. We see him in his home, we see him frightened during a few minutes of turbulence on a plane journey and we see him taken in by a SMERSH trap to lure him to Istanbul. This is not the sickeningly suave Bond of the movies, but a believable and fallible character

Istanbul seems like the perfect place for the action of the novel to truly begin. Fleming writes that for Bond “Istanbul had given him the impression of a town where, with the night, horror creeps out of the stones. It seemed to him a town the centuries had so drenched in blood and violence that, when daylight went out, the ghosts of its dead were its only population.”

Reading under the dappled light of a palm tree, St Lucia.
The action really picks up after Bond and Miss Romanova’s departure from Istanbul aboard the Orient Express bound for Paris, accompanied by the lively Darko Kerim, a local agent. Once more the sensation of entrapment means that the reader is never really sure of how long it will be until someone makes a move, mirroring, in many ways, the global tensions of the Cold War.

The novel, as well as developing Bond’s character from the previous novels and leaving the audience with an epic cliff-hanger ending, makes a number of observations of the world at the time of writing. A number of references are made to Britain’s loss of influence and power on the global political stage, something that many political commentators continue to comment upon today.

All in all, From Russia With Love is a good read and despite wishing that I was reading one of the Caribbean-based novels on the beach, rather than one set over in Europe, it is definitely the most tense, if not always the most action-packed, of the first five novels in the James Bond series.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Autumnal Sunset Over Hammersmith


Autumnal sunsets over cities have the power to stir my soul, like mountains and oceans do. After another busy day of talking non-stop to colleagues, teaching classes of students, conducting one-to-ones, and jumping over a variety of obstacles thrown in my direction, I looked out of the window of the classroom I was working in.

It is Wednesday 4th December 2013, and to the east I can see the bright orange reflection of the sunset shining back off the blue-tinted glass of the Empress State Building on the Earl's Court and West Brompton border. The radiance of it leads me to leave the room I am in - there are no classes at this time - and I head to my favourite place in the building. The roof.

Stood on the roof, three storeys up, my thoughts a million miles away, I breathe in the cold early evening air to the background noise of Hammersmith. The sirens fail to crash through and break my peace of mind and the light shining off the glass seems to rebound and silently fight off the faint lines of clouds in the sky.

The song in my mind is 'Fanshawe' by El Ten Eleven. This view and these stolen moments surveying all of West London are what will make leaving this place so hard when the time comes.

video

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Zondag Zonneschijn en Tot Ziens!

View from Willemskade, looking towards Erasmusbrug, with Noordereiland beneath.
Alright, if you insist on booking a trip to mainland Europe to take place during February then you expect grey skies, clouds pregnant with impending snow storms and ice-cold temperatures. To this realisation I am willing to concede, but I do like a surprise.

It is Sunday 17th February and the sun is shining in the cold winter air and there are but a few wisps of cloud in the vast blue sky.

Accompanied by Emma and Pia, I head to breakfast at the Bizar again. It seems I really can’t get enough of rubbing my clean-living ways into the faces of the two other teachers. Envy doesn’t really rear its head as they tuck into more duizend-gaten-flensje. The joke is once more on the guy with the gluten allergy who has no other option on the menu.

After breakfast I have my first real mission of the day. I need to head off to the station and buy a ticket for my Italian student. She’s heading to Rome for the half-term and is flying directly from Amsterdam Schipol a good few hours before the rest of the group’s flight to London is due to leave.

I wander around the corner to Rotterdam Centraal. Although still in places a bit of building site, the vastness and cleanliness of the station makes my local station, Walthamstow Central, look like a rural halt - Ironically, both are owned by the Nederlandse Spoorwegen. European rail travel is something quite alien to me, so I find the atmosphere, the ebbs and the flows of people very intriguing, and no one seems to be in a rush.

In the ticket office I try my broken Dutch on the sales assistant. I start, “Ik wil een ticket naar Amsterdam Schipol.” The woman frowns at me slightly, before replying in English, “On the fast or slow train?” The frown, I later discover when I get to that point on my Michel Thomas Total Dutch CD, is because I demanded a ticket using ‘I want’ rather than asking for one using the more polite “mag ik” (literally, ‘may I’). At least I tried.

This awkward encounter over, I buy a disposable chipkaart (like a disposable oyster card) and head back on the number 7 tram to 59a Witte de Withstraat, there to organise the annual ‘where are the keys’ pantomime starring the students.

As I arrive, the students’ production is in full swing. There are: spare beds in the wrong rooms, empty Coke bottles in every possible storage space, the faint odour of day-old shawama, clothes all over the floor, and, in a variation on the usual formula, all the keys are present, but none of them are in the rooms they are designed to open the doors for.

Art on Witte de Withstraat: "Suddenly, when I just want to kiss my nipple..."
A little while later, the students head off into town to go shopping around Oude Binnenweg, Pia and Emma head off the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition in the Kunsthal and I take the number 2 tram to Wilhelminaplein. 

Once there I get off the tram, heading over the Spoorweghavenbrug along Stieltjesstraat, over the Koninginnebrug and onto Noordereiland (lit: North Island).

Noordreiland, a manmade island completed in the 1870s following the construction of the Koningshaven, is today home to around 3,600 residents. To an outsider like myself, looks like a nice place to live. In some ways it is very separate from the rest of the city, being as it is an island, yet, with the Koninginnebrug and the Willemsbrug connecting it to the mainland, there is a sense that the island is still very much a part of Rotterdam.

After taking my now obligatory photographs of De Hef, I board the tram from Laan op Zuid and to Willemsplein. After basking in the sunshine beating down, relatively speaking, on Willemskade, and capturing a few panoramic shots of Erasmusbrug and the Kop van Zuid, I turn the corner onto Veerkade and head into a bar/restaurant called Loos (pronounced a bit like “lows”).

Here I ‘demand’ a coffee and wait for Pia and Emma to arrive, killing time by looking up words in my recently acquired dictionaries. When they appear, after some typically amateurish usage of Google Maps by the pair, we take some time to reflect on the trip. The students have been well behaved. Good, There has been some sunshine. Good. We had the chance to discover some ‘new’ areas. Very good. 

The vibe seems a little flat though. There’s no doubt that organising the trip has been more difficult this year than in previous years. Money is increasingly an issue for cross-curricular trips. Perhaps our mood is reflecting the very real possibility that this could be our last visit with the students, or maybe it’s something else.
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