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Het Withstraat Dagboek: Welkom Terug!

De Hef, or Koningshavenbrug, seen from Erasmusbrug, Rotterdam.
I have a problem. It’s a problem that I have had for a number of years and constantly threatens to get in the way of my travelling to destinations near or far. This problem is being a last minute packer.

It is Thursday 14th February and as a result of finishing my packing at midnight, and my taxi to Heathrow arriving at 3am, I feel as if someone has stitched-shut my eyelids. The driver patiently asks me where to pick up my colleague Pia, and I respond saying I haven’t got a clue. Luckily, as we drive though Walthamstow’s empty streets the waving figure of Pia’s mum flags down the taxi before we go straight past.

At this early hour, there are already many certainties about Pia: that I will be ‘tagged’ in a Facebook update, that as a result of coffee deprivation she won’t be able to converse effectively and that she’s likely to become very insulting at short notice.

Upon arrival at Heathrow, I guide Pia through the doors and towards the already sizeable group of waiting students. Unbeknown to Pia, I make a couple of classified hand gestures in the vague direction of some male students who stumble over themselves to join the queue at Caffè Nero. They have understood the potential volatility of the woman and act swiftly to prevent a disaster.

With the potential for eruption averted, the remaining few students drift into the terminal. As with last year’s group, they are the typical west London mixture that I think I would be unable to survive without. Represented in the ethnic make-up of the group of fourteen students are: Somalia, Italy, Iraq, the Caribbean, Singapore, Iran, Eastern Europe, America and of course the UK. Added to staff group is Emma, who comes in as a last minute substitute for Julian – oh, she’s English.

A bag search, a portion of porridge and short flight later, we arrive Amsterdam Schiphol where I head off in search of our minibus in the pick-up zone. Armed with my increasing knowledge of Dutch I introduce myself to a number of confused bus drivers before finding the correct one.

“Hallo! Ik ben Tomás uit William Morris, Engeland,” I begin, “Is dit onze bus?”

“Ja! Je spreekt Nederlands, hè?” She begins, before launching into a series of sentences in fluent Dutch that I cannot even begin to comprehend. A minute later she stops and stares at me.

“Erm… goed,” I respond, scratching my head and smiling nervously before heading going to get the rest of the group.

As we roll along the A4, bound for Rotterdam, the weather becomes increasing wintry. Small snowflakes hit the windscreen and I am happy about it. This is the icy, semi-arctic, romanticised vision of The Netherlands that I hold in my mind’s eye. After last year, without snow, ice and a bitter chill in the air I feel that it can't be a proper visit to Rotterdam. My increasing excitement is matched only by the increasing annoyance of the students who begin to despair at the sight of the ever-whitening landscape.

Upon arrival at 59a Witte de Withstraat, I repeat my earlier mistake whilst checking the group into our accommodation. Sensing my slight confusion, the proprietor makes use of an assortment of props and gesticulations to explain herself to me. Consequently, words such as keuken (kitchen), sleutel (key) and slaapkamer (bedroom)suddenly leap into my vocabulary.

After an hour or two to settle in, buy a stock of rooibos tea and relax, it’s time to set off in the direction of the Nederlands Fotomuseum on the Kop van Zuid. This walk of just under two kilometres shouldn’t be too taxing and as we amble along Schiedamsedijk, with the light snow falling, it feels almost festive. This changes though.

Looking up at the main pylon of the Erasmusbrug, Rotterdam.
As we start the slight incline towards the Erasmusbrug the snow starts to feel more like small shards of ice and as we walk further, coming from behind the shelter of the buildings that overlook Willemsplein, the wind hurls these icy needles against our collective faces and the pace of the group slows substantially.

Finally reaching the warmth of the museum around twenty minutes later, we are such a sorry sight that the tour guide can’t help but smile sympathetically at the ménage of crazed looking British tourists presented before him. The students aren’t impressed and even my silliest, most self-deprecating jokes fail to raise a chuckle.

Here our group splits in two: one group heads of with Pia and Emma to do a photography workshop; my smaller second group heads off with a guide to look at the most recent installation and exhibition.

This year the installation is The Sound of Silence by Alfredo Jaar and it is immediately striking. From the outside you see an aluminium cube with a blinding wall of light, outwardly representing either a flash bulb on a camera or possibly a light-box, but it is what is inside that is most profound.

Inside the cube, padded with black material to stop the reflection of any light, a video projection tells the story of Kevin Carter, a South African photojournalist. Carter became a household name in 1993 following the widespread publication of a photo showing a starving girl during a famine in Sudan – the most shocking aspect of the photo being the presence of a vulture in the background, seemingly waiting to pounce.

For the first six minutes the installation tells the story through simple text, before suddenly a blinding flash fills the darkened box. At this point, as if to add to the drama and tension, one student squeals, a few others gasp and one of my tutees calls, “Allahu akbar!” 

The students leave the installation in silence and sit. The guide asks them a few questions to initiate a discussion and to my amazement the students, all of whom don’t study photography or any form of art, begin to discuss the impact of the piece in great detail. In fact they talk so much that the guide, who is desperate to cover the whole museum with us, struggles to get them to move.

With the afternoon already turning to evening, the group reunites and heads back towards Witte de Withstraat. The weather has calmed down a little, but is still being less than amusing. This is just the impetus I need to research the tram routes as they rattle by.

This evening we will head to Bazar, the Middle Eastern inspired fully-halal restaurant further up Witte de Withstraat and with a little luck we’ll all get an early night before we head to Hoogvliet tomorrow. Although with a hyperactive bunch of 16-19 year olds, this is not always the case.

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