Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Het Withstraat Dagboek: We Lopen Naar de Kop van Zuid

De Hef, or Koninghavenbrug, as seen from the Erasmusbrug, Rotterdam.
There is no mistaking the distinct feel that this a European city as you brace yourself against the exfoliating coldness of the wintry Rotterdam air. The people look similar to me, but the buildings, roads and atmosphere all feel very different.

It is the afternoon of Thursday 9th February and we are heading for the Kop van Zuid (Southbank) area of Rotterdam. Our ultimate destination is the Nederlands Fotomuseum – the Dutch national photography museum.

After prising the students away from MacDonald’s, having been on a voyage of discovery to the Dutch version of Co-op with an Italian student who didn’t like the sound of a Big Mac for lunch, we have regrouped, looking like the tourists we are, on the corner of Westblaak and Coolsingel.

We are quite an incongruous looking group: a couple of white male teachers and a female Asian teacher (who has an unnatural obsession with handbags), with students, male and female, who are British, Iraqi, Somali, Bengali, Arab, Pakistani, white, black, mixed-race, Muslim, Christian, some with a hijab, some without, all hyperactive.

In a typically student-esque saunter, we make our way along Coolsingel, crossing the eerily quiet main road, on to Schiedamsedijk, with the Erasmusbrug (Erasmus Bridge) up ahead and the still air peppered only occasionally with the ringing of a tram bells.

Leaving the relative shelter of the town centre and its tall buildings, slipping and sliding on patches of ice and snow as we go, the road becomes more exposed and once more the frosty air begins to blast against my skin – thankfully I had packed a jumper affectionately as the yeti. Eventually we reach the foot of the Erasmusbrug, a bridge that carries, bikes, cars, trams, buses and noisy inner-city London students over to the Kop van Zuid.

Erasmusbrug, seen from Kop van Zuid.
The Erasmusbrug is an instantly striking piece of architecture, reminiscent of giant white harp lying across the Nieuwe Maas, one of the many channels that dissect the city. According to my Wallpaper City Guide, the tall structure at its centre is referred to locally as the ‘Swan’.

More curiously, off in the misty middle distance sits De Hef (The Lift), a 1920s lifting bridge which has eluded demolition and continues to straddle Koningshaven with its middle section permanently up. I can feel myself falling strangely in love with this city already and its charming, if chilly, feel.

Continuing off Erasmusbrug, my immediate concern turns back to one of my students, an Iraqi girl who has taken to greeting everyone she meets with ‘hallo’ – the correct Dutch way of saying 'hello'. However cute it might seem at first, after ten minutes of hearing ‘hallo’ repeated in the style of a broken record I begin to worry about my sanity and the patience of Rotterdam’s residents.

Luckily, most passers-by humour her and return the greeting before once more tightening their faces against the wintry wind.

Students inside photography museum.
A short while later we arrive at the Fotomuseum in the Kop van Suid, an intriguing building housing photographic installations and interactive displays. The media students head off to a photography workshop, whilst me and my band of six hijabi girls get a guided tour. Any fears that they might not be too interesting in photography are quickly allayed as they start quizzing the guide about anything and everything they see.

A busy afternoon completed, the evening will hold the opportunity to rest back at the Home Hotel, if the students desist from stampeding up and down the stairs for long enough!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Welkom

Greeted by a cold Witte de Withstraat in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
The day has started early and my eyes are letting me know this. Even so, waking up at around 4.30am in order to catch the X26 bus to Heathrow from a cold, deserted Teddington High Street has done little to dampen my excitement for the four days ahead. 

It is Thursday 9th February and I am bound for Rotterdam, Netherlands – along with twenty students and a couple of other teachers. Our purpose for travelling is mainly to visit our partner school, The Einstein Lyceum. Having managed two of their visits to my workplace in the UK for the last couple of years, it seems only right that we should return the favour and descend upon their city. 

The group of students accompanying us is a truly representative group of West London 16-19 year olds – a cross-sections of races, nationalities and religions. In fact, as I arrive, last of everyone, at Heathrow Terminal 5, seeing all of their groggy little faces, I realise once again that it is this rich cultural mix that keeps me passionate about the place I work.

The teachers, Julian and Pia, are both media teachers, but I don’t hold that against them. The majority of the students are taught by either or both of them and will be working on a media project about life in the Netherlands during our visit. I am, on the other hand, in charge an elite cross-curricular group of students, here to report back using words rather than images. A third member of staff, Jas, is due to join us on Friday.

The flight, luckily, is a short one from Heathrow to Amsterdam Schipol. Most of the way there I am sat next to a student who is explaining at great volume the degree to which her ears are hurting. Unable to close my ears to her moaning, I make a few sympathetic noises, before looking out of the plane’s window at the ice-cold, snowy abyss that is the Dutch countryside.

Amazingly, as we gather our luggage and cross the bright white bus station to our very orange coach, my iPhone weather app informs me that the temperature is a staggering -8°C and will be colder by weekend.

With the coach providing our suitably chilled students with some warm sanctuary, we begin our journey along the A4 towards Rotterdam. The students are all now wide-awake and one of them, in the role of an ad hoc choir master, begins leading the rest of a group in song – a song that seemingly lasts the entirety of the journey.

From the window, the wide expanses of flat, white countryside run off into the icy mist of the distance, punctuated only by occasional windmills brave enough to emerge from the thick cool sheet. There is no doubt that the snow-veiled Netherlands we have landed in is quite a spectacle.

After a short while we leave the main roads and weave our way down a number of side-streets before reaching Witte de Withstraat. The road is a mix of very smart and shabby chic, of cafés, restaurants, hotels and shops and exudes an atmosphere reminiscent of Edgware Road in London, albeit without the shisha cafés.

Finally, me and Julian head to the Home Hotel reception to check the group in. With the rooming arranged before we left, we get led along the street to the townhouse at No. 59 that is to be our lodgings for the next four days. We have arrived and already feel strangely at home.
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