The exam invigilator’s domain

Today I sat my first exam for many years. It was an infantalising experience.

We arrive at the imposing Van der Groot building on campus quite early. It’s a vast grey brutalist concrete structure. I like it. It’s imposing. it has a a rather fashionable retro aesthetic. It’s the building you see from the river, as you approach from the city centre. It’s on the prospectuses. The Erasmus signature logo looks down from the seventeenth concrete floor. This is a proud building – proud to be in Rotterdam, a city that increasingly defines itself by its buildings.

The interior is just as vast. This is the building with gigantic lecture halls that seat thousands. . It’s big enough to have staircases signposted ‘Oost’ and ‘West’.  This is where exams happen. Most of the ground floor consists of one giant room filled with thousands of  small desks separated by a meter of unfriendly space on each side. The desks are slightly dog eared from being relentlessly stacked and unstacked.  No one loves them: Caretakers who move them, cleaners who sweep between them, students who sit at them. Empty, this hanger of a space looks like the visiting hall of state penitentiary waiting for boilersuited convicts and weeping wives.

We wait outside. Monitors tell you where to sit based on your student number. Block 18 for me. We are allowed in. I find my allotted place.  Just before  13:30, a disembodied voice tells us, first in Dutch, then in accented English the rules. Phones off and out of the way. Watches removed – use the clocks. The toilets are scanned for mobile signals. Standard dictionaries, the only aid permitted.

The memories of the school hall so many years past flood back. As I turn over the paper it takes me the first five minutes to tune into the printed words. The instructions on  writing my name and student number feel baffling. The silence isn’t silence: the scratching of other people’s pencils; the heels of the invigilator; the shuffling in seats and the deafening noise that the paper makes as someone turns a page.

Block 18’s two invigilators are like minor tragi-comic characters from a Dickensian novel.  A man and woman in their mid sixties. She is in charge. She sits at the front directing him from student to student in loud whispers and exaggerated arm waving. He wanders around, head and shoulders low, checking our student cards, responding unenthusiastically to requests. They don’t smile. At one point a tea trolley arrives for them with paper cups and Viennese whirls, soft enough not to crunch.  She oversees proceedings and precisely peels and slices an apple while he checks and checks his lists.

We are watched but ignored. We are this afternoon’s cohort of lab rats. They are in charge – we are unimportant.

Once the words on the paper start to make sense I proceed with my multiple choices. D, C, A, B, B, B….. I start worrying if I see patterns in the answers and double check. Yes D, C, A, B, B, B….. It is hard to focus. I read the questions three or four times before I take them in.  They are not in the order of the lectures or book chapters. The cunning examiner has mixed them all up to confuse us. We have three hours for 32 Multiple choice questions and three short open questions. The first of the open questions stalls me. I know I’ve read all about it  – twice – but I’ve no idea what the examiner wants. I guess. The others are clearer. After fifty eight minutes the first candidate leaves. They are followed by a steady stream. at 15:00 I’ve done all I can so put up my hand. Mr invigilator comes and folds up my paper. He checks my student card again and walks away. As silently as possible I gather my pencils, sharpener and rubber and leave.

I have no idea how I’ve done. Being stalled by the first open question makes me feel that I must have failed but rationally it was worth three percent of the exam. It is highly unlikely of course but there is still the capacity for me to get 97%. I have to do it all over again on Friday.

 

Museumkaarten

I’ve been living here for two months now and have only just got round to getting a Museumkaart – shame on me. I did visit TENT, the contemporary art gallery on Witte de Withstraat on one of it’s free Friday nights but as a student of Cultural Economics and Entrepreneurship I should be more committed. I think that the ‘economics’ bit is relevant to my lack of enthusiasm. I know that these places need to be paid for. We’re spoiled in the UK as most of them are free, (unless you want to go and see the interesting exhibition that is). Here in The Netherlands they are not free. In Rotterdam the Kunsthal is €12, (about £9), Tent is €5 and The Boijmans Museum is €17.50.

It is not the cost – they are all full of wonderful things – it is the fact that I can only take so much in on one visit. The Kunsthal has about six galleries. If I’d paid €12, I’d want to get my money’s worth. I’d feel obliged to see everything. I would come out overwhelmed and feeling a bit cheated.

There is something wonderful in Rotterdam called the Rotterdam Card. With this you can get in free to all the museums and a lot more too. For ‘normal people’ this still costs €60 and it expires in March 2016 but for students it’s only €12.50. I queued to get one. I was planning multiple trips to all the attractions. With this card I could go to one exhibition at a time. I’d never be out of the places. A spare hour here, a sleepy Sunday afternoon there…. Unfortunately for the Rotterdam Pass, students need to be under 33 – oldies like me not welcome.

20151025_165510I was left with a choice. An expensive Rotterdam Pass that covers Rotterdam or a Museumkaart that covers the whole of the country. Sue is over for the weekend so this afternoon we both opted for the latter and used it to go to Kunsthal. We saw two exhibitions and enjoyed a coffee in the café.  I hope that we’ll get some use out of these over the next 12 months.

 

Belgian beer

The beer menu at Boudewijn

The beer menu at Boudewijn

Boudewijn in the October sunshine

Boudewijn in the October sunshine

One of the many great things about Rotterdam is that it is so close to Belgium. More importantly all those lovely monks and others who spend their time brewing beer. There are anumber of bars who specialise in selling this lovely stuff. I really like the Boudewijn Belgian Beer Cafe on Niewe Binnenweg. It’s perfect for an afternoon beer and croque monsieur in the early October sunshine.

Bokaal across the road from my apartment is also excellent though the beer selection is a bit smaller. I’ve written previously about enjoying a Witkap Dubbel here

Locus Publicus

Locus Publicus

Thirdly if you’re really into choice in a big way, try Locus Publicus at Oostplien. Despite its corny name it’s cosy, atmospheric and busy. The choice is vast. My advice us to start at the top. You won’t get that far. Most of the beers are 6 or 7% with some in the early 20s. I think I now know why Google maps told us to beware of Belgium.

The barbers of Rotterdam

As a small boy I remember my dad taking me to the barber’s shop on Station Road in Prestatyn. I’ve not been to a gentleman’s barbers for years, In fact I’ve been having my haircut at Mojos in Blackburn then Wheelton since about 1997.

Today I changed that habit and entered Schorem on Niewe Binnenweg, Oude Westen, Rotterdam. I’d read about this place. I needed to see if it lived up to expectations. As I write my hair feels solid and I can still smell the manly pomade.

20151002_163021This is a men only establishment. As you enter you are taken back in time – two rows of vintage barber’s chairs, elaborate mirrors atop counters covered in potions and lotions. Rockabilly and bluegrass music provide the soundtrack to haircuts hear. This is a place of bottled beer for the customers, elaborate beards and moustaches, hair is shaped, quiffed, clipped and pomaded so that it wouldn’t move in a hurricane.

You don’t make an appointment. You turn up and wait your turn which gives you a chance to watch the white coated men at work. Everyone has tattooed arms, most a moustache and some beards that Darwin would have been proud of. They are precision engineers. It is not a quick process. I watched a young Italian student have his thick Latin hair clipped away leaving  a solid wave of black on his crown. An older man have at least six inches cut off making him look smart, stylish and considerably younger. The barbers whealded clippers, razors, brushes, combs and scissors like musical instraments. They checked each detail, each sideburn, each hair like an artist finishing an important commission. This was theatre, the coats and tattoos costumes; the shop the set.

It was also about audience participation. My turn came. I was led to a chair and my barber shook my hand. He asked me what I wanted and told me not to worry – he knew what I needed. I sat facing the shop, not the mirror. I just had to sit back and let him do his thing. There was no chit chat – no questions about holidays or films I’d seen recently. I continued as a spectator watching the other barbers at their work. I’ve always found haircuts relaxing. A chance to sit and be done to. You hand over control. It doesn’t hurt. I’ve no idea how long my hair cut took. I heard the swish-swish-swish of the scissors, the buzz of the clippers the shhh of the manly scented spray he used to dampen things down.  Then he pushed a pedal and swung be round for the reveal in the mirror. It all looked fine if a bit fluffy. He then applied what felt like half a jar of water based pomade, massaged it into my hair making a child’s bath time pineapples and horns. It was then all swept back as far as it would go. He put talc onto a brush and swept me up. He then put stinging aftershave on my neck, sideburns and ears. I was done.

There are no options here, no extras for colour, curling, washing, blow drying. It’s a fixed price. €33 for a haircut, (about £25) €33 for a shave or €61 for both.  The bottle of beer is included.  I paid and left.

20151002_163106The verdict. My hair looks a bit severe and I’m not convinced I’ll wear it like this very often. The pomade will wash out and I’ll no doubt go back to a softer look with less exposed forehead.It was an experience. I’d happily go again. I might save up my stubble for a cut throat shave next time.

Study

I’m very sorry, I’ve been far too quiet since I got here. I’ve been working hard.

I thought you’d like to know what I’ve been doing at university and how it’s going. We’re four weeks in, half way through term one. Erasmus University, (EUR), has four terms a year of eight weeks each. This term we have three courses. They are:

  1. Introduction to Economic Theory
  2. Introduction to Social Science Research
  3. Creative Economy and Creative Organisations

For Introduction to Economic Theory we have a three hour seminar each week and are ploughing through the weighty Krugman and Wells textbook. (there was some confusion over our text book). As I’ve said before I’ve done quite a bit of pre reading on economics but have concentrated on the different views and schools – who thinks what etc. Then weighty Krugman and Wells book is more technical. So far I’ve not come across a single reference to another economist. I’ve spent most of my time looking at supply and demand graphs and variants thereof. It’s not the most exciting book but I can see the logic of us going through it. Our lecturer, Paul helps bring it to together and valiantly tries to find cultural examples. Today we’ve been given out midterm assignment. I’ve got to prepare four arguments for a politician who is going to enter a debate arguing against public subsidy for the arts. A very interesting position for me to take given that my income over most of the past twenty odd years has come from public arts funding.  There will be an exam at the end of the course.

Introduction to Social Science Research is taught a bit differently. We are doing this course with a range of other students. Most of them are BA students in International media. We have another American textbook by Earl Babbie. We have weekly two hour lectures with Marc who does his best to animate what could otherwise be really tedious to what is a big audience. We’ve started to sit at the front to avoid the bachelor chit chat. We also have a three hour tutorial with Aldo – a charismatic Brazilian who has rapidly become all our favorite. He uses his own research to help us relate the general course to our area of interest. Last week we submitted part 1 of a three part assignment. In pairs, we’ve been developing research questions. Simone and I are looking at the differences and similarities between cinema and theatre audiences. Part 2 involve designing a quantitative survey and Part 3 some qualitative interview questions. There will also be an exam at the end of this course.

Thirdly we have Creative Economy and Creative Organisations. In a lot of ways this is the most interesting. We don’t have a set text book but are given three chapters or articles to read each week. We’re also encouraged to read around. We’ve been looking at things like creative motivation, organization and definitions. We are working with students who are doing electives or exchanges from other universities. We don’t have an exam in this course – phew! We are working on a ‘class assignment’ in groups. Our group are a fictional vlog, creatively reviewing content on Netflix. Each week we’re given questions to answer through the filter of our organisation. For our midterm assignment we’ve been given a range of statements. We need to choose two and argue for or against them using the set texts and additional reading where appropriate. We’ve only got a week to do this so I’d better get on with it.

My desk awaiting my creative input

My desk awaiting my creative input

The whole course is taught in English, I couldn’t be doing it otherwise. I’m really lucky, most of my fellow students are studying in their second languages. The disadvantage of this is that a lot of the texts we are get are written in and about the UK. I’m hoping that as time goes on I will get to learn more about the rest of the world. The course comes from a western perspective and I expected that but, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I’ve a lot of experience of the UK cultural scene.

I’m actually really enjoying it all at the moment. There is a lot of reading and some of it is either challenging, tedious or even badly written. I’m finding my way through and starting to make the connections between the courses. I’m enjoying someone else making my organisational arrangements: be in this lecture at 11:00; read that chapter by Wednesday; submit your assignment on line by the 7th… I’m working hard but keeping up and learning.

Let the festivities begin

Last week I had my induction day at Erasmus University and met all the other students on the Pre-Master course and Master course that I’m taking. The Pre-Master is a bit like year one of a two year programme for those who haven’t got an academic background in economics. We are truly an international group. I’m the only Brit on the Pre-Master though there are two doing the Master year. I have fellow students from Germany, Italy, Aruba, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Kenya, France…..

We’ve not started lectures yet but a few of us have been getting to know each other over the weekend. The Rotterdam calendar is packed with festival and public events. On Friday night we went to a gallery for museum night when it was open for free. Last night we went to experience the river show and fireworks as part of the  Wereld Haven Dagen, (World Port Days), festival. Rotterdam is about twenty kilometers from the mouth of the Rhine, which is called the Maas as if flows through The Netherlands. It is the largest port, (or haven), in Europe and right up in the global premier league of posts. The Wereld Haven Dagen festival lasts three days with the water show and fireworks being a key highlight.

There was a large naval ship onto which a transparent marquee had been erected housing a full orchestra.  The ship paraded, up and down the performance area. The music accompanied a 20150905_223301range of boats spurting water which was lit as it plumed into the air. There were lasers directed from the skyscrapers to the south of the spectacular Erasmus Bridge all of which formed an impressive backdrop to the show from our standpoint on the north bank. I cant imagine the difficulty of amplifying live music to both banks of a large river surrounded by tall buildings without it echoing back and forth. It worked but more volume would have added to the experience.

The backdrop is huge. I’ve seen , and been involved in, some events and projects that have failed to compete with the scale of the stage, Some public art I was involved in commissioning for Town hall Street in Blackburn looked great until it was dwarfed by the law courts. The dance performance at the end of the Preston Guild in 2012 and some of the early attempts at animating Salford Quays failed as the human form is too small for a mass audience in a big area.  After the spurting water we were treated to some pretty impressive trampolining on a boat. From where we were we cold just make it out but most of the audience probably didn’t even notice that something was happening.

20150905_225208This apparent pause in the show was, however, followed up by some very impressive fireworking. While watching professional fireworks I invariable find myself grinning with a kind of childish joy, the noise, the height, the light, the colour – what’s not to like. This was a great show from a barge in the river. The skyscrapers remained as the backdrop but the fireworks easily competed. the colour and the intensity of light was particularly impressive.

Yesterday I took a couple of hours to see what else the World Port Days festival had to offer. I pootled around on my bike, looked at stalls and explored a number of old boats including the only surviving Herring Logger built in 1912. Before the second world war this boat traveled between the French fishing ports on the channel and Lerwick in the Shetland Isles. It was an alarmingly small vessel for six men, the turbulent north sea and several tonnes of dead herring.

An added attraction of World Port Days is the Sea Shanty Festival. Choirs, mostly men from what I saw, from all over Europe gathered to sing and perform. It’s great, as a choir member myself I know how good it feels to sing with others. Disappointingly, even in the smallest of spaces, the choirs were all miked up and amplified, (and not very well). It was a real shame, It added a drone to the sound and distorted the voices. A choir can be heard. My choir back home frequently sings outdoors to appreciative audiences without amplification. Please organisers, drop the microphones and speakers next year – that way we’d get to hear the choirs. I shot this short video from behind the choir to avoid the speakers.

There is a very full calendar of festivals here in Rotterdam. I can’t go to the all. Next weekend there is a festival showcasing all of Rachmaninoff’s symphonies and solo concertos in three days, the launch of the cultural season with a festival of contemporary art on Witte de Withstraat, a street food festival and a heritage festival opening up buildings across the city, (this is also happening in the UK with a big event taking place in Blackburn including some somewhereto_ performers).

The list goes on – no reason to be bored in Rotterdam.

 

I’ve arrived

Forgive me reader, It’s been more that two weeks since I last posted anything on this blog.

Waiting for the Hogwarts Express at Schiphol

Waiting for the Hogwarts Express at Schiphol

Gouda

Sue guards the bikes in Gouda

The big news is that I have now arrived and am resident on Pancake Street.  Sue and I got here last Thursday. I managed to pack most things that I’ll need including the emergency rations of Lancashire Cheese from good friends, Olwyn and Claire. The train from the airport took us straight to Blaak station which is just a stone’s throw from Pancake Street. In effect this makes the cheaper slow train, faster – a great discovery

Today is officially the first day of term here in Rotterdam though my induction day at the University is not until Thursday. There is a free festival on campus this afternoon and evening which Sue and I plan to cycle over to in a couple of hours. We’ve spent the past couple of days doing practical things in the flat and being tourists.

On Friday we got on our bikes and cycled to Gouda – the home of some fantastic cheese. The Netherlands is fantastically compact and flat – perfect for cycling from city to city. I will write more about cycling and bikes very soon. Gouda is lovely and quintessentially Dutch – all fancy gables, canals and cheese – lots of cheese. We went round the cheese museum and ate a lunch of cheese. We also went to a lovely cheese shop and tried lots of different Dutch cheese before buying some cheese to bring back. Sue was really pleased to find a Dutch blue cheese. (not for me!).

A giant jigsaw puzzle

A giant jigsaw puzzle

A chunk of spare time has been spend building the wardrobe. It’s very big and covers a wall in the bedroom. I needed to do this when Sue was here as it’s really a two person job.  Between assembling what really amounts to a giant jigsaw puzzle we’ve pottered around the city, bought some essentials and tried to have a relaxing time.

Last night we went to the open air cinema in the Museum Park to see Love is Strange with John Lithgow and Alfred Molina. It’s a great film. Understated and romantic, it tells the tale of an ageing gay couple who are forced to live apart with relatives until they find a new apartment. See it if you get a chance. It was fantastic watching it outdoors accompanied by the start of a thunder storm that lasted for about six hours. As we watched, the lightening got closer and closer. Luckily the rain only started in the last ten minutes and didn’t fall in earnest till we were safely home.  We got up at 02:30 to watch the climax of the light show and downpour from the balcony.

This morning we successfully rehung the missing doors that I found in the bike store downstairs. They fit perfectly and are now in placeA magnificent door handle

For sale – a magnificent door handle

ready for painting and new door handles. That said the ones on there at the moment are rather magnificent though not quite right for a 1950s flat. I can see why they were taken off – open plan living – but I can also see why they were there in the first place. One closes off the bedroom and shower room from the living room. If anything they make the apartment feel a bit bigger. At some point they’ve both  been altered and fitted with brown opaque glass.  It’s quite nice in a 1970s retro way and goes with the apartment – or it will when the doors are painted and the handles replaced.

Sue heads back to Blackburn tomorrow, leaving me all alone on Pancake Street. Before then off to campus, coats, hats and brollies ready for the HeartBeat festival. Today has been hot and close – we maybe in for another light show.