On Monday evening, three of us, Elisa, Wael and I, went to the neighbourhood restaurant at the Witte Boei community centre on the Eastern Islands, near to the New Europeans test site.
What a meal! A delicious Turkish three-course feast. Beginning with a light lental soup (with lemon accompaniment), we quickly proceeded to the main course, roasted aubergine, stuffed with minced meat or cheese. (for the vegetarians), mushrooms and spicy chopped tomatoes. All the flavours! I don’t know a lot about food so I’m not going to go on about this. But it was really astonishing, the value and the quality.
‘I’m in love with aubergines’ Wael said as he tucked into the main course. I asked him again the day after, checking he’d actually said that. ‘Not any more,’ he said, ‘now I’m in love with coconut cake’.
He was referring to our dessert. Our final course was a creamy coconut cake, slightly gelatinous, possibly from melted down Tukish delight, at least that was Wael’s theory. It was very sweet but light enough that it wasn’t too much to finish on.
At the meal, we joined 25 other people. At first we were relatively removed from the action. A big group of elderly Dutch people had congregated on the table opposite. But we were soon joined by Hamidan, who works at the community centre.
Since they could both speak Arabic together Wael was able to have Hamidan all to himself. I learned from Wael after that Hamidan works as a youth worker at the community centre during the week. They talked about the community centre and about Hamidan’s own life. Hamidan moved from Morocco to settle in Holland when he was 12, Wael had a similar experience, arriving in Holland from Tunisia when he was 6. Wael has often spoken about the particular Dutch identity he has developed from this early experience in an Arab country, in a similar vein Hamidan described having missed out on finalising his education in Arabic. Had he stayed in Morocco longer he would have learned Arabic completely.
They talked, too, about football and organising some games with the youth Hamidan works with. And they tentatively agreed to host the Die Welt film screening at the community centre. All in all, it seemed like a very fruitful conversation and it sounds like Wael will be going back regularly to work with Hamidan.
We also met Gaelle, who came to sit next to Elisa and me about ten minutes into the meal. A French lady who has lived in Holland for most of her life, Gaelle works in a school and lives locally. She told us she had been cooking at the restaurant when it began several years ago. She doesn’t cook any more but came along with her two boys to eat that evening because her friend was cooking. She said she comes less often now because she had been somewhat frustrated with how quickly people were eating the food. She spent all week planning and all day preparing and then it was all eaten in half an hour.
She also expressed a certain disappointment about how the restaurant had changed since the earlier times, when she used to come more regularly. In particular, it used to be more of an assortment of people, but slowly it became more focused on the needy and people with psychological problems, while other people felt the restaurant wasn’t meant for them. She thought felt that everybody should feel welcome and it was better if it was an assortment of people.
It was an interesting insight, and she made sure to qualify that she always noticed how things swung back and forth and that she was quite optimistic about the future of the restaurant. Especially since when she used to cook there would often be meals that were just as easy to cook at home, rendering the idea of a community restaurant somewhat redundant.
Gaelle was helpful in a more practical sense. When we told her about our project she said she hadn’t heard of it. Where were the flyers? We should have some flyers. We said we were on facebook, but knew that the channels we had become used to were less useful in this context. Needless to say, we need to be better at communicating away from the usual platforms.
With flyers in hand, we’ll be coming back next week. With Persian food on the menu how could we not? No doubt we’ll have more to say after that.
Cover image courtesy of Google Street View (it wasn’t nearly as bright as that on Monday night)