This piece was initially written in 2008 and 2009, and for some reason got lost in the annals of my harddrive. I found it again yesterday, and since I have never really written about my trip to Rotterdam in 2008, I thought this might be a good time to resurrect it. It is quite a long piece so I’ve split it into a two-parter, this being the first.
It was suggested to me that upon embarking to a journey in parts foreign, an appropriate literary companion of choice should be one which was related to my destination. Not wanting to buy an elaborate travel guide, I tried to look for fiction that was set in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam. Alas, this city, decimated by the Luftwaffe during World War II and since rebuilt to an interesting, if somewhat bordering on eccentric, architectural flavour, does not possess the romantic allure of Paris; nor the mystery of the backstreets of Barcelona or the religious fervor of Rome. Its almost anonymous metropolis gives it no stage against with fiction could be set.
So instead, I packed with me Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, as I bucked conventionality and decided to travel from Colchester to Rotterdam by train. I still lacked the adventurous spirit Theroux embodied as he travelled through Europe and Asia by train, stopping at various locations to give talks: Theroux, too, was an academic. The more straightforward route from England to Holland is via Eurostar, transferring at Brussels for trains in the Benelux region. It would have been nearer to board the train at Colchester, the ferry at Harwich and the train from the Hook of Holland (a Rotterdam suburb) to the city. But choppy seas did not make my itinerary, and so the more conventional train route was chosen.
Perhaps egged on by Theroux’s notes and observations more than anything else, I decided that instead of blogging the journey on a daily basis – literally following the banal formula of a daily routine – my account of this journey would be written in a slightly different format. And so instead of hunching up in front of the computer in my (rather lovely) hotel room at the end of every day and hacking out pieces to send over to friends reading in the blogosphere, I made notes, both on paper and inside my head, of things I saw, people I met and the food I ate. Given time, I thought, these disjointed notes would be woven together to piece a tapestry of the experience; although I was well aware that the longer I left this, there lay a risk that what begins as a collection of short essays may pander into the realm of fiction.
But with the beginning of the university term, the exam rush, the academic papers I am to write and the march forward beyond the PhD, I realised that if this account is ever to see the light of day, I had about thirty-six hours to write everything down before Monday bids its customary cheery hello. And so this is why, at 1515 UK time beneath the English Channel on the Eurostar, I am tapping these words out, for once shedding my wary nature that has, only too often, disabled me to write in the company of others. I also mention with the intention of having it act as a disclaimer: hastily written, mistakes will be plentiful. I apologise for this in advance.
The journey to Rotterdam by train ex-London on the Eurostar is one of two parts: the London St. Pancras – Brussels leg on Eurostar, and the Brussels – Rotterdam leg on the Inter-Regionale train. Passport control is only done on the Eurostar, although on the journey towards Brussels, a Dutch immigration officer boarded the train after Mechelen and asked to see our travel documents.
In my musings I often question the need for a passport, given that borders are fluid, and having stood on borders of countries with one foot in Country A and the other in Country B, there is no physical difference. Standing one foot in England and the other in Scotland did not make one foot colder than the other; similarly the foot stood in Sweden had the same preference for flatpack furniture as did the one in Denmark. Imagine, if you will, how medieval armies would have marched on and conquered other lands if they had to fill in landing cards en route. But I suppose it is for security more than anything else, and secondarily for the the functioning of a nation state; a symbol of sovereignity and a means of control. (Also, when at war, I don’t think national borders mean anything, or else it isn’t really an invasion, is it?)
While I had with me Theroux’s book, there was only one part of his journey that echoed mine, and even that, in part: the London to Paris leg. (Theroux also travelled from KL to Singapore on the KTM, a trip all too familiar to me, but that is another story that perhaps will not be written, such is my memory). And so I was eager to see if any of his observations, from London to Folkestone, at least, defied time and still prevailed some thirty-five years later.
Theroux wrote, of his London to Paris trip:
… but by the time we had left the brick terraces and coal yards and the narrow back gardens of the South London suburbs and were passing Dulwich College’s playing fields – children lazily exercising in neckties – ….. past a row of semi-detached houses, we entered a tunnel, and after travelling a minute in complete darkness we were shot wonderfully into a new setting, open meadows, cows cropping grass, farmers haying in blue jackets. We had surfaced from London, a grey sodden city that lay underground. At Sevenoaks there was another tunnel, another glimpse of the pastoral, fields of pawing horses, some kneeling sheep, crows on an outhouse, and a swift sight of a settlement of prefab houses out one window. Out the other window, a Jacobean farmhouse and more cows. That is England: the suburbs overlap the farms
Paul Theroux: The Great Railway Bazaar, Chapter 1
For me, though, there was little countryside that met my eyes; limited lush rolling hills and endless fields of green. In their place, for the most part, came industry. Factories. Storage facilities, Pylons. Wreckyards. Rusting mechanical equipment. Gone were the rolling hills and Jacobean farmhouses that Theroux went past. In fact the Eurostar took a route of its own, as much as I could see. We did not travel past any provincial train stations, which allowed it to achieve its purpose: to arrive at its European destination, be it Paris or Brussels, on time. And to do this one had to do away with the delays that plague British railways so often, courtesy of both the failure of electric cables overhead and the failure of having a desire to continuing to live: the latter a common reason why trains to North Essex and East Anglia are delayed.
Theroux characterises the European countries he passes through by what he sees outside the window of the speeding train: lunching labourers in Belgrade, men shovelling sugar beets in Thrace. And again unlike him, on the other side of the Channel, there was little to see in terms of life save endless fields of crops. Countryside enough, but devoid of character. By peering out after a nap I was struggling to figure out if we were still in France, or had since crossed over into Belgium. Had the train gone straight on into Holland, the landscape of the country was equally indistinguishable.
As the train rolled into the cities, the anonymity took a different form, but still it prevailed. Dilapidated buildings, decaying huses, roofs from houses sunk in, rubble from construction work abandoned, graffiti… was it Brussels Noord, London Liverpool Street or even, KL Sentral; save for the language on the billboards, I struggled to tell the difference. Although perhaps, a caveat: a sight I didn’t see anywhere else save in the approach towards Brussels Noord was call girls in rooms with drapes open, scantily clad and offering their wares in open display… a clumsy man stumbling out of the front door of one and the signage atop the door of another confirmed this was where you would go for a quick lay while in the city.
The comfort of the Eurostar would be what you would expect from 2nd Class Virgin Trains, save the random chavs who hop on and off between short distances. You were booked onto a seat, and so the scramble for a place to park oneself was absent. The Inter-Regionale from Brussels to Rotterdam, en-route to Amsterdam, and vice versa, was a different affair. No seat reservations, so cue jumping out of queue (pun intended, even if it doesn’t make that much sense). The train began at Brussels, and on the way to Rotterdam I bagged a seat easily. On the way back, however, the train was already half full of people travelling from Amsterdam. To amplify the crowdedness, it was also midday on a Saturday. I ended up standing the full two hours from Rotterdam to Brussels. In similar circumstances in the UK, I would plonk myself down in any given space and continued reading, as it were. On this train, however, I did not – not because of anything else but the lack of space to do anything more than stand! The journey reminded me very much of my Saturday jaunts into Manchester from Lancaster, except that on this IR train, you were constantly reminded by the tannoy that ‘pickpockets operate on this train’, as if it were an extra service the company thoughtfully added on.
The City & the Architecture
It is said that Chicago had the 1871 Fire, London had the Great Fire of 1666 and San Francisco had the 1906 Earthquake … disasters that devastated all the cities, but out of those grey clouds, the slim sliver of silver lightning was that this gave them opportunities for rebuilding. For Rotterdam, this city whose history can be traced back to the early 900’s, the disaster that forced its rebuilding came not from nature, but from their neighbours. In 1940, the German Luftwaffe decimated Rotterdam, killing more than 700 people, and leaving at least 80,000 others homeless. Records show that 24,978 homes, 24 churches, 2,320 stores, 775 warehouses and 62 schools were destroyed. This is not unlike the bombing of Coventry, but what Coventry lacked in its rebuilding, Rotterdam seemed to have in droves: imagination.
Peit Blom’s Kubuswoningen
One of the more interesting sights – and this is rather a strong statement given that Rotterdam is a city full of interesting architectural sights – is Piet Blom’s Cube Houses, or to give it it’s Dutch name, Kubuswoningen. Next to it is another piece of interesting architecture: the library, which is pencil shaped; or at least it is to my naked, architecturally deficient eye. Both are located at the Blaak tram / Metro station, which itself has a flying saucer-like structure atop its roof: perhaps in keeping with the tone of the location.
Quite livable, inside..
Curious, I paid 2.50 euros to visit the show-house: the only entry fee I paid over the whole 4-day stay. If anything, I wanted to know how it was that people lived in these houses: wouldn’t you just end up sliding everywhere? I realised afterwards that the cube design on the outside is a clever optical illusion; the floors in the house were level, it was the walls that were slanted! Although in some parts of the house, you would quite suffer if you were a tall person: I had trouble and I am only a little over 5 feet 3.
Rotterdam is full of skyscrapers, and while one would allude this to recent modernization, this isn’t necessarily so. Completed in 1898 and well before both World Wars, the White House, as it was called, stood at 45m and was the tallest building in Europe. Towards the south of the city center is the Erasmus bridge, completed in 1996. This seems to be the pride of the city, as is the Euromast (1960) which at first glance reminded me of the KL Tower.
While I walked over from the south to the north of the Erasmus bridge, I passed on the opportunity to pay 10 euros to be taken up into a rather fast lift and see the city from above. A good photo opportunity it would have been, but for free (we were give a three-day travel pass by the conference organizers) I preferred to see everything on foot. My colleague argued that on foot and for free I would have not been able to see the Hague as can be done atop the Euromast, but given that the weather was miserable when they went up and clouds were thick, they didn’t get to see it either. The other tourist ‘must’ which I passed up on was a ride on the Spido, which is a large ferry-like speedboat (not shaped like a swimming trunk) that takes you around the waters of Rotterdam. Modern ports are aplenty, it was the historical port of Delfshaven that was rare, I snootily said to myself. I am shamefully a snob.
This building screamed IKEA to me – but it’s actually the local library
Another recurring Rotterdam theme was the name Erasmus: their university was named that, as was the bridge. It turns out that this was in deference to Desiderius Erasmus the theologian, who was born in Rotterdam in 1468. (There is no relation to Erasmus Darwin, who was a physician with a certain grandson called Charles). This is however, not his real name. That was the snazzier Gerrit Gerritszoon, although that probably befitted more a rock star than a man known as the “Prince of the Humanists”.
Interestingly enough, Erasmus only lived in Rotterdam for four years, and having left, he never returned. A statue of the man is located near Laurenskerk, the oldest church in Rotterdam which was heavily damaged during the bombings in 1940 and was only re-opened to the public in 1968. <insert picture here>. Erasmus’ statue is in itself of historical significance: it is the oldest statue in Holland, built by Hendrick de Keyser in 1622.
To mistake the city as a modern one, what with skyscrapers abound and new architecture, then, is perhaps a rookie mistake.
Part 2: The City, the People, the Football – next