Wednesday, June 19, 2013

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.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Lazing on a Sunny Afternoon, Dreaming of Cricket

A batsman plays a quick shot towards point, Springfield Park, Hackney.
At this time of year the sound of a weary red leather ball cracking off the face of a beaten-up old cricket bat would usually fill my Sunday afternoons. Playing for The Swinging Googlies Cricket Club – albeit very badly – is one of the highlights of my summer weekends. 

Now well into June, having missed The Googlies’ first and only match so far this season, I am beginning to get some serious cricketing-related withdrawal. With the match that I should have been playing in today cancelled due to inclement weather, I am likely to start outwardly showing signs of mania soon. 

On Sunday 2nd June 2013 I at least got to see some others playing whilst I sunbathed in Springfield Park, Hackney. From a little research I have found the teams playing were The Coach and Horses C.C. hosting Shakespeare C.C. in a friendly – I am unsure who was who, but I think the fielding team were the Coach and Horses due to the 'home support' they were getting. 

One thing is for sure, Springfield Park is visually more stunning that The Googlies’ home pitch in Long Ditton, southwest London, but right now I’d settle for a game in a car park. Here’s to hoping that the weather holds this coming weekend.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

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.

Monday, June 03, 2013

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Cover image © Virago Press.
I have often been unsure about where in the grand scheme of all things literary Maya Angelou fits. Last August, whilst considering my teaching options for AS Level literature, the decision was reached to switch from teaching Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry collection The World’s Wife to Angelou’s collection And Still I Rise.

In the absence of the ubiquitous York Notes to provide information on the poetry, it made sense to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings not only to shed some light on the context of the poetry, but to answer a nagging question: who is Maya Angelou?

Caged Bird is the 1969 autobiography of Angelou’s early years in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas, in the USA, through to the age of seventeen. As soon as you learn that she is living with her paternal grandmother, Momma, you realise that her family history is bound to be laced with complexities and confusion. A recurrent theme is the pervading sense of abandonment felt by Maya and her older brother Bailey at the hands of her parents and the lack of a sense of belonging that goes along with that.

Being set in 1930s and onwards, in a Southern US state, means it is inevitable that racism should play a part in the story. Although Momma seems atypical as she is a respected black female businesswoman in this small, racially segregated community, the presence of discrimination slowly makes its way into the young Angelou’s conscious. Incidents ranging from having to hide her Uncle Willie under vegetables to hide him from a Ku Klux Klan posse, to a ‘powhitetrash’ girl flashing her pubic hair at Momma, and to more subtle forms of racism such as a white employer insisting on calling her ‘Mary’ instead of ‘Marguerite’.

As the autobiography progresses, as does the turbulence in Angelou’s life and you begin to realise it is exactly that which makes her such an appealing human being to read about. From the graphic descriptions of her rape at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, Mr Freeman, to driving her father home from Mexico when he was too drunk to do so himself, and all the way up to her first sexual encounters, the reader is often shocked, confused and enraged – for a variety of reasons.

I am not a fan of autobiographies, but there is something strangely compelling about this one. There are moments where I wish she’d said more – for example during her time living rough in California and when she gains employment as San Francisco’s first black streetcar conductor. Equally, there will be parts where some readers wish she’d said less.

In all, Caged Bird is a must for anyone interested in an historical first-hand account of a young black American female beginning to make sense of a world which seemingly does not value her presence. If, like me, you are more interested in humanity in general, it is an equally worthwhile read.
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