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 the approach to a road junction to avoid getting lost.

Destroyed: Jonesy looking distressed at the roadside in Buckinghamshire.
Jonesy is a broken man. 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.
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