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Het Withstraat Dagboek: Oude en Nieuwe Plaatsen

New and old seem to meet in the most unusual places in Rotterdam.
With education budgets ever-tightening in the UK and The Netherlands, this year’s trip has had to be done with even less money than before. One benefit of this has meant making the students self-cater at breakfast, albeit under the auspices of learning ‘good life skills’.

It is Friday 15th February 2013 and I’m having a gezond ontbijt [healthy breakfast] from the menu at the Bazar restaurant. The healthy breakfast consists of mild Turkish yoghurt, fruit salad, honey and a glass of fresh orange juice. I add to this a couple of coffees. My colleagues Emma and Pia are tucking into a duizend-gaten-flensje [thousand holes pancake] adorned with a variety of sweet things. 

Both of them eye my healthy breakfast. Should they have gone for this option? Don’t be stupid. Of course not. That’s the kind of breakfast a guy with a gluten allergy would be forced to acquiesce to. Well, either way, I enjoyed it and after coffee number two I am buzzing like a bumble bee and ready to go.

Whilst Emma and Pia are charged with the duty of ensuring our fifteen dozing students are awake and ready to roll, I am dispatched to Eendrachtsplein to purchase Metro tickets. En route, I remind myself of some of the words I need: “Ik wil zeventien ‘disposable’ chipkaartjes.” Hmmm... not being sure of how to say ‘disposable’ I just hope that I can blag it.

As it turns out, when I get to Eendrachtsplein Metro station, there are no members of staff, instead they have a couple of machines. Luckily for me, the machines speak English and so any awkward moments with a Dutch-speaking station master are avoided. However, what is not avoided is the queue of harried looking commuters behind me waiting whilst I make seventeen chipcard purchases.

With the students duly shepherded through the hazy sunshine of the Rotterdam morning, we board the C line train bound for Hoogvliet. 

In keeping with trying to be more independent this year, having learnt the ropes last year, we opt to navigate ourselves towards the Einstein Lyceum. At this point Pia removes something resembling an astronomical chart and a set of compasses from her $500 Prada handbag. She talks of an enchanted maze with frozen streams and ponds for obstacles, where artic hares bound through the snow and hide behind trees. I decide we’ll stick to the main road and we head along Kouwenaardseweg, take a right on to Endenhout, before following the road round on to Middenbaan Zuid.

Once at the Einstein Lyceum, we are reunited with familiar faces: Ilse, Kevin, Barry and Laura. Since our last visit there have been a number of changes, such as the arrival of a new Principal, but our welcome is warmer than ever.

Another teacher, Jenny, has arranged for our students to spend a little time learning about Dutch culture from one of her classes. The wonderful thing being that whilst my students are finding out something new, her students are practicing their use of conversational English for an assessment. I, on the other hand, take the opportunity to speak my unique pidgin language Nederengels – Dutch grammar and simple verbs mixed with English nouns and adjectives that ironically translates as ‘down/low English’.

My students are left in the care of their Dutch counterparts for a tour of the school whilst the teachers pause for a cup of tea. After a while it is clear that a number of them have disappeared. Attaching myself to a group heading out of the main building, I find that they are taking part in an impromptu volleyball match in the sports hall. The teams are all mixed, boys and girls, Dutch and English, and as they laugh and joke their way through their never-ending match, it is clear to see how much they have in common.

After a lunch that consists of typically Dutch food such as broodje kroket and some Indonesian delicacies the names of which escape me, we head back to Hoogvliet station, with Barry as our guide, and take the D Line to Rijnhaven.

A new home? Looking down Atjehstraat, Katendrecht, Rotterdam.
We congregate outside the station and Barry explains that we’re going for a little walk into a different district of Rotterdam, called Katendrecht. At this point Pia’s face drops. Walking? When did she sign up for walking? At first I am unaware of what she’s thinking as I’m too busy getting Ilse to help correct my ‘ij’ phoneme in Dutch, before being told off by Emma for talking whilst Barry is.

By the time Pia finally catches my attention it’s already too late as the group is walking down Brede Hilledijk. Emma asks me a few questions about where we are going. I’m happy to have no answers and follow Barry’s lead, stopping just long enough to convince the students that we’re all going to climb up a ladder on the side of a building on Silostraat.

Walking further into Katendrecht, along Veerlaan, turning left onto Atjehstraat and then right towards Delistraat, you feel as if you’re in a very different Rotterdam. According to Barry, the area was once infamous as a place for drunkenness, debauchery, and prostitution. Following some serious renovation, the area resembles some of the quieter streets of Brooklyn and has found a place in my heart. Should I ever up-sticks and head to The Netherlands, I think this is where I’d live.

With Pia lost somewhere in the distance and our group having wandered up Sumatraweg, along Tolhuislaan past the latest batch of houses to be renovated and along the banks of the Nieuwe Maas, we cross over Rijnhavenbrug onto the Kop van Zuid and enter the warmth of the Hotel New York.

The Kop van Zuid, with its metal, glass and its overall appearance of sleek modernity towers over and nearly smothers the Hotel New York, but the character of this relatively modest red brick building from 1901 overpowers all of its newer neighbours. Built in the Jugendstil architectural style, the building was once the head office of the Holland-America Line, the shipping company that many people used to escape Europe for a new life in the United States of America.

Nowadays, the building is an exceptionally smart hotel and restaurant, an illusion briefly shattered by the arrival of our boisterous Anglo-Dutch crowd of students and staff, albeit minus Pia. From the looks that some of the customers are giving our group it is as if they are worried we will start swinging from the giant chandeliers or hanging from the intricate wrought ironwork. Of course this isn't the case and we settle down quickly.

Eventually Pia arrives in a cloud of steam, emotional at having been deserted in an area “known for drugs and prostitution” and threatens to shatter the peace. I point out to her that things have changed since Katendrecht's darker days, before Barry tells us he went to a gig in a bar there where everyone, including the band, got naked. At this news she starts to scream blue murder until the waitress puts a hot chocolate on the table in front of her and a fragile serenity is restored.

After a while, with everyone suitably worn-out, we disperse, trusting the students to navigate themselves northwards, back over the Erasmusbrug to 59a Witte de Withstraat, and waving goodbye to our Dutch counterparts, who head southwards towards Hoogvliet.

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