Accolades and Ambivalence: The Politics of Turning People into Ethnography

24 Mar


Deep Hanging Out in Rotterdam

Last year, I passed my anthropological initiation and did my first immersive fieldwork stint. My previous stint had been part of a larger research project on European Diplomacy and so this was my first foray into the field standing on my own two feet, accountable only to myself.

Fieldwork was a totally amazing experience. I met a fantastic, energetic organisation  full of enthusiasm and ideas. I met volunteers who were not only my research participants but my close friends. I really went for the philosophy of ‘deep hanging out’ (Geertz 2000), living alongside the volunteers: participating in and observing their volunteer projects, bonding over dinners, parties, and card games,  experiencing the intensity of trainings and travels, sharing the same apartment. I  had the added bonus of a close relationship with their organisation, deepened by philosophical conversations over dinners and fascinating discussions about their experiences as an urban development organisation in Rotterdam.

For those 3-4 months, I really felt like I saw the world as they saw it, and I experienced Rotterdam as they did.

By the time my fieldwork ended, the lines between personal and professional had definitely blurred. This had become my life; these were my colleagues and my friends.

I wasn’t fussed about this at all – for me there was no ethical issue with the fact that I now had to turn our myriads of encounters and experiences into data and analysis. After all, that had always been in my mind. I’d been asking lots of questions all the time, trying to get as many perspectives on the European Voluntary Service as possible, soaking in all the different opinions, beliefs, viewpoints, ways that people volunteered and conceptualised volunteering, and what they chose to do with their 6-month experience as a whole.

Jigsaw Puzzles and Rainbows:Turning People into Ethnography

Putting it together felt like nutting out a jigsaw puzzle that had been sitting in my brain waiting to be pieced together. With every day in the library, I was getting closer to completing the puzzle. I started with mountains of fieldnotes and interview data and attacked them with highlighters, coding a rainbow, tracing patterns, finding themes that emerged. It became like a story as the ethnography unfolded, as the theory wove itself in with my data.

Although I don’t entirely agree with the idea that anthropology turns reality into fiction, in a way it felt like that – like the real people I knew, made from flesh and blood, were becoming like characters in a book, standing for particular themes or theories or points of wider social significance. Their voices were strong, and their voices were heard throughout my writing – but my interpretation turned their voices into more than just voices, into symbols or signifiers for something more theoretical, more philosophical, more…ethnographic.

With each draft the voices became less diverse and dispersed, messy and contradictory, and rather came to stand for particular ideas or case studies or themes. If they were contradictory, this contradiction was used to demonstrate something theoretical.

For me, this process of theorising and ‘writing up’ my friends was normalised, just as writing in a diary might be at the end of the day. The real people I interacted with and had relationships with coexisted with the people I was writing about – these were two separate yet interlinked worlds, facets of the same reality.

Yet I had an uneasy feeling, as I am sure many anthropologists do, about what ‘they’ may think about what I wrote. Would they ‘get’ it? Or would they think it was too abstract, too removed from their lived reality? Or would they worst of all feel insulted or misrepresented?

Trying to be Ethical: Being Structurally Rushed into Feedback

I didn’t think I would have to face any of these sticky questions as I wasn’t planning to show my thesis to anyone. I would write everything up in a more publishable and less personal way at a later date. However, unfortunately due to a new policy at my university stating that our theses would be ‘googlable’ (outrageous for anthropological theses which often contain deeply sensitive and confidential information), I went into an ethical dilemma frenzy and, trying to be ethically responsible, decided that if that was the case all my participants would need to ‘ok’ the contents of the thesis pre-google. I sent them the full version.

Many of them didn’t really take the time to read it. But one, who had never been comfortable with my research for reasons never conveyed in a straightforward manner, asked to be removed from my thesis completely. Another wrote to me and told me I had totally misrepresented them and made them look selfish. At a later time, the organisation I worked with got back to me and said they liked the thesis, but that it was more ‘ideal’ than ‘real’.

I responded immediately to this feedback, asking the one did not want to be included, explaining to the other the broader political and structural point I was making rather than a personal one. Similarly, the organisation and I engaged in many ‘bigger picture’ emails about the nature of research and academia, which were interesting for all parties involved. In the end, I felt I had remained friends with all key participants.

Yet this first experience of hearing participants respond to my research left me feeling confused and ambivalent. What was the point of anthropological methodology and analysis if all participants didn’t see its value? They had been excited and responsive about my research when I was with them….but perhaps they had never really understood what I had set out to do. And perhaps I had made it that way, slightly covert, so as to preserve the ‘naturalistic’, to let them act normally round me and not feel as though they were always being studied and analysed.

For them also, perhaps the boundaries of the professional and personal were more clear cut. While for me, everything had the potential to be turned into data, for them, research time was in the volunteer projects ‘at work’ when I had my notebook out, and in formal interview settings. Including other parts of their lives in the research was perhaps for them a slight betrayal, whereas I saw this as a full, holistic and ‘real’ representation of their entire volunteer experience.

To get perspective and perhaps to make myself feel better, I reflected upon the fact that many anthropologists have similar experiences, and many have found it impossible to stay friends with their participants. Others shirk away from confronting the politics of representation by never showing their participants what they write about them. I also reminded myself that my participants were diverse – only two of all the participants were uncomfortable, and English was not their native language, so they may have missed some of the subtleties of the academic analysis. Others with better grasp of English and some experience with the social sciences had no problems with the thesis – in fact one helped me design interviews and often read my fieldnotes with interest.

So something I gained from the whole process was a practical understanding of how difficult navigating the politics of representation across a diverse range of participants can be.

Contradictions: Academic Accolades and Attempting a Publication

While I was experiencing this reaction from my participants, my university was heaping praise upon me for my thesis. They gave me the top grade in the class, and later awarded me the Thesis Prize.

The contrast between academic accolades and mixed messages from my participants left me feeling deeply ambivalent. How could my thesis be deemed a ‘success’ when it didn’t resonate with everyone it was about? Then again, could I accurately represent all my participants to their liking anyway? And should I be trying to cater to their needs or understandings, or analysing them? I was after all also a researcher, not only a friend.

Back in Australia, I decided to dip my toe in the water of ‘writing up’ again, and did a piece about my fieldwork for Arena, a magazine of social and cultural commentary. However I made it highly epistemological, focused on political philosophy questions about citizenship, voluntarism, and neoliberalism.

The result was an interesting article, but one devoid of the voices of my participants, which is what I wanted to capture in the first place. The whole point of an anthropological approach to studying volunteering was to hear the volunteers’ voices about their own experiences, instead of perspectives from above. Instead, the article ended up focusing disproportionately on the structures within which the volunteering took place.

Lessons: Keep the Voices, and Continually Negotiate the Politics of Representation

After it was published, I tried to think about the piece from the perspective of an EVS volunteer and I immediately felt ashamed. Where were their ideas, where was their diversity?  I had missed out on showcasing the strength of ethnography – an in-depth on-the-ground representation of participants. I thought about why, and realised I had been a little scared to write on their behalf after the thesis responses. I hadn’t wanted to risk misrepresenting them.

So, where does this leave me? With academic accolades and suffering from some existential anthropological ambivalence, but with a continued belief in the benefits of ethnography and of fieldwork as methodologies. The process of writing up is always interpretive, and not everyone will agree with that….but it doesn’t make it any less valid. It just really is a process, one of learning how to balance the multiplicity of reality with the specificity of particular theories and narratives, and making sure that the richness of that multiplicity remains palpable and tangible to the reader: that the voices are heard.

Anthropological inquiry has the power to investigate and highlight perspectives, diversities, contradictions, values, norms and beliefs at so many levels. If and when I publish something on this topic again, I’m going to try harder to highlight some of these volunteer voices…and be prepared that there are always consequences and conflicts when it comes to the politics of representation.

NOTE: I asked my university to have my thesis kept off the internet and they agreed. However at a later date I stumbled upon it online, and worst of all the raw uncensored version, not the version I had edited carefully in case it was necessary for it to be on google. I fought to get it removed immediately, which it was. However I remain truly shocked at how easy it was for the university bureaucracy to ignore my (and my participants) wishes and how vigilant I had to be to protect my participants and act ethically. 

The New Voluntarism

20 Mar

I wrote another thing in a space that is not here: Arena Magazine, an Australian magazine of left social, political and cultural commentary.

I’m in the process of writing a blog post thinking anthropologically about the processes involved in writing it (sound convoluted? Never! :D) but for now here it is in all its unbridled glory!

The piece is called ‘The New Voluntarism’ and it can be downloaded here online  and in tangible form in the delightfully hot pink n white n black-covered  Issue 122, Feb/March 2013.

It’s based loosely round my fieldwork on the European Voluntary Service, and is also an exploration of new voluntarism (the title gives it away), neoliberalism and the nature of modern civic and political participation. Sound 100% spookily bang-on deadset your cup of tea? Get into it! 


Redfern Now: Indigenous Accountability, Hopeful Realism and Intervention

6 Mar

There may not be much activity on here right now, but I’m writing in other places! 

I recently published an article in Melbourne-based arts/literary magazine The Lifted Brow with my past teacher (and current friend) Anita Patel. 

We both got ensconced in ABC’s first season of the series Redfern Now, about contemporary urban Indigenous lives in Sydney. I’m thrilled to hear it’s coming back for a second season later in 2013 (possibly early 2014). 

But to tide you over till then, we wrote a little review essay situating Redfern Now amongst Indigenous discourses and imaginaries circulating in the wider Australian political landscape. 

Here’s the link below:


‘It’s Not Queen’s Day!’: Cultural Worth in a Dutch Marketplace

30 Nov

I’ve been a little inactive on here of late, not gonna lie. But rather than dwell on that [1], I am going to distract you by writing about something interesting [2]. 

Before I left the Netherlands quite a few months ago to live in Paris and then hitchhike and hike around the Balkans [3], I did the inevitable and dreaded thing most travellers are familiar with.


As we all know, packing is horrible and stressful. And somehow we always seem to underestimate its truly satanic qualities. If you are at all like me (and I know many who aren’t and simply leave the packing till the last minute in the hope it will pack itself), you try to plan time for the packing. But it doesn’t seem to matter. Regardless of how much time you make, your stuff seems to multiply.

Hence, the lesson I have learned through my numerous packing and moving experiences is: accumulate and deaccumulate. Don’t worry about the inevitable process of accumulation (as usually most of it is second hand furniture and clothes for me). Likewise, don’t worry about saying ‘bye bye’ to a whole heap of stuff. I shipped off the essentials to Australia (a mere 40 kilos….errrrr….where does this stuff come from again?!) and found myself staring at another 30 kilos of non-essential ‘stuff’ – books, clothes, shoes, tea, elastic bands, odd socks, halloween costume kits.

So I did what I’ve done variations of before. I had a market stall. I found a prominent spot in Leiden’s town centre where the market day is usually held, next to an abandoned shop front, and set up my renegade goods on clothes racks, in baskets, and on hangers, with the help of trusty boyfriend Mihkel and buddy Claire who was also trying to haul off her own ‘stuff’.

Now this is where it got interesting. As I sat there amongst my neatly-organised stuff, with signs everywhere saying ‘Everything must go! Nothing over 5 euro! Free stuff in this basket!’ I was thoroughly surprised at the reactions of Dutch passersby. In Australia, at least amongst the people I know, the reaction to randomly finding cheap stuff on the side of the road (or better, free!) is ‘Awesome! Score! I’m so totally stoked and lucky! Can I have everything?!’

If I was expecting this reaction from the Dutchies, then I was sorely mistaken. Instead, people looked bewildered. The more curious asked what we were doing; the brave guffawed or yelled out ‘Het is niet koninginnedag!’ (It’s not Queen’s Day!’). The conservative hurried past with a look of harrassment usually reserved for street hawkers or beggars, made worse by our attempts at enticement.

It took my awhile to decode this cultural message and figure out what the heck was going on here. Why was I being treated like I was asking for something? I was giving away something, and a bargain at that! Weren’t the Dutch known to like a bargain?

Then it hit me. The Dutchies were embarrassed. Some were even glaringly mortified. They were embarrassed, because my display was not culturally appropriate. It did not fit into the known ‘order of things’ (thanks Bourdieu).

For them, Queen’s Day was the culturally appropriate place for such behaviour. Queen’s Day, for those who don’t know (which is probably only people who have never been to the Netherlands or those who are colour blind), is a day where the Netherlands literally becomes bright orange, decked to the nines in crowns, streamers, flags, sparkles, facepaint, you name it if it’s orange, to celebrate the Queen’s Birthday (although the actual date, 30 April, is the birthday of the previous Queen, Juliana).

But Queen’s Day is not just a royal celebration. It is, like many festivals in the Netherlands (Leidens Ontzet or ‘the Relief of Leiden’ springs to mind, as do ‘hazing’ times for Dutch student fraternities), an excuse for the Dutch to go a bit beserk. The Dutch, for all their deference to tolerance etc, like rules. They like structure. But on days like Queen’s Day, order is disordered, and everyone has an excuse to do everything completely differently from what would usually be acceptable. As I found from my experiences with Dutch traffic early in my stay, it is an unstructured time, built into the structure.

On Queen’s Day, home-made market stalls like mine are out in their thousands. You literally can’t move in Amsterdam for fear of treading on a bargain old TV, a pocket watch, a pair of earrings, a stuffed bear. And the Dutch LOVE it. They go crazy, running around for all the bargains they can only get once a year.

So I thought they’d be thrilled to see my stall breaking up their year-long bargain drought! But instead I had made a cultural faux-pas. It was as if I’d run through prestigious Leiden University dressed top-to-toe in gaudy orange, drunk off my nut and singing rude Dutch songs whilst mooning people along the way. My market stall was socially unacceptable and culturally out of place.

The socially unacceptable nature of my market stall literally rendered the things I was selling worthless. It didn’t matter that most of them were excellent quality and worth about six times what I was asking for them. The fact was that their cultural inappropriateness directly decreased their value. I wonder what Marx would have to say about all this. And I hope my stuff went to a good home in Dutch charity bins and piled up in the common areas of student housing buildings where students could take it for free, which is where it inevitably ended up after I pocketed a paltry 20 euro.

Note: I’m sorry if I’ve offended any Dutch people with these stereotypes. I could do the whole ‘I don’t hate [insert group being stereotyped here], I have friends who are [stereotyped group members] by saying I am actually half-Dutch (I am), but instead of doing so I’ll say that I’m trying to point out some wider social and cultural norms and trends rather than inferring that ALL individuals from this society are cultural automatons who all think and act the same way.


[1] (or the fact I never wrote Part 2 of a two part blog piece…but what can I say, it was on my Master thesis topic and once you’ve written the thesis you don’t really feel like rehashing it for a blog post…well not yet anyway…gee this bracket is getting almighty long so I’m going to turn it into a footnote, yippee!)

[2] (hopefully!)

[3] (does the ‘hitchhike’ part preclude the necessity of saying we also hiked, as the word hike is included?)

How to Write a Thesis: Flashmobbing and Sailing

22 May

Sorry sorry sorry. I’ve neglected the blog of late. But I’m probably the only one who’s noticed so it’s ok.

Anyway for those sticklers who require an explanation, I have a thesis due in 5 weeks and since I moved back to Leiden 3 weeks ago I’ve been spending my hours in the library with the other members of the Masters dream team (Birgit and Claire, and sometimes Evi) along with what seems to be most of the Leiden University student population – must be crunch time folks! I don’t know why I bothered to rent another apartment. I could have saved myself some cash and hidden under a desk in here during closing hours.

So the last thing I feel like doing in my spare time is writing more crap (yes the thesis is pure crap at the moment) on my blog. I have a crap quotient and it’s currently being filled. I’ll get back to writing crap here after the Master is done. This is a just a by-the-way post to keep the blog a little active till then.

When I’m not in the library I like to do non writing-and-looking-at-computer-screeny type things.

Saturday I went to the Leiden market, my favourite Leiden past-time, and then spent the afternoon filming my friends in a flashmob they had conceived of and created. The flashmob was themed ‘Dances of the World’ and was comprised of five different genres of dance

A: Salsa
B: Samba/hip hop
C: Bollywood
D: Country
E: Rock&Roll

And a grand finale.

I’ve been trying to work on my filming skillz when I have the time so I volunteered to film the flashmob (along with hundreds of others it seemed) on my trusty little Canon IXUS 220 HS, which for a little teensy camera does a great job with HD video (sound quality in the wind leaves something to be desired but you get what you pay for). The result is below. Aren’t my friends so awesome for doing this!:

If I wasn’t writing my thesis I might try and write some attempt at a social science-y analysis of the rise of flashmobs and their potential to do good/make things visible/or do harm but I can’t be bothered so lucky you. I will however re-post this flashmob doco that my friend Pip posted on facebook awhile ago which is a really cute story about how a flashmob made a little guy’s day:

Sunday I spent on the Ijsselmeer with the Dutch family sailing in a cool old-style boat, and that is all I will say about the matter because I know nothing about sailing. We sailed, we listed on the seas, the mast tilted…..arrrrrr me hearties, we drank rum and sang sea shanties. No, unfortunately we didn’t, but it was an excellent opportunity for me to get some Vitamin D, see some lovely family and get out of the little English bubble I’ve been living in in the Leiden international community by listening to a stream of Dutch all day whilst quietly cursing myself for not doing better with becoming fluent. Turns out studying a Master in English wasn’t the best way to learn Dutch (although my Rotterdam fieldwork time significantly increased Dutch speaking opportunities ).

Here is a few clips of us living the dream on the boat:

And that, my friends, is how you write a thesis. On the weekends anyway.

Living, Working, Breathing the European Voluntary Service Part 1: Introduction to EVS

29 Mar

So what’s your fieldwork about?

I’m following the activities of European Voluntary Service volunteers as they participate in six different community-building projects in the South Rotterdam suburb of Feijenoord.

And what are you going to do with that? 

I’m trying to get an in-depth volunteer perspective on EVS, in order to develop a bottom-up understanding of how active citizenship and participatory democracy might work in practice.

Confused yet? Researchers and academics always struggle to condense their projects into a couple of chewable sentences. Luckily in a blog post (or two), I have a little more room to expand.

What’s EVS?

Look it up. Ha. No, but seriously there is a lot of information online. Yet surprisingly few young Europeans I chat to between the ages of 18-30 know about this opportunity. There’s some promotional stuff (e.g. Europe on the Move, The European Year of Volunteering), but visibility seems to be an issue. Many ‘EVS-ers’ know about EVS through someone else, like a friend or family member.

EVS is part of the European Commission’s ‘Youth In Action’ programme, and through it any young European can spend 2-12 months volunteering in a country (usually European) other than their own. They get a food/living allowance, trainings, accommodation, and travel allowance. Basically, it’s Europe’s answer to the Peace Corps, albeit a more regionally focused version.

EVS volunteers work for European non-profit organisations on projects based on over 40 diverse themes such as social inclusion, development, youth policies, European awareness, anti-discrimination, environment, gender equality, health, children, minorities, art and culture, and human rights.

In theory, they pick the theme they want to work on and the country they go to. In reality, they often need to be persistent and apply to a range of organisations in a variety of countries before they secure one of the 6,500 annual placements.

EVS Trainings

The main part of EVS is the volunteer placement. But EVS also encompasses three or four trainings. I’ve attended all of them except the Pre-Departure training, which happens in the country of origin.

At trainings, volunteers:

  • meet other EVS-ers
  • get information about how EVS works
  • present their own projects and learn about other EVS projects
  • have time for sharing and reflection
  • learn about Dutch culture and society

The trainings are:

On Arrival training, 5 days. Run by the National Agency in the country in which you volunteer.

Mid Term training, 3 days. Halfway through your volunteer project, again run by the National Agency

Evaluation training, 1 day. When you return home.

At the On Arrival training in Apeldoorn, 9 volunteers from all over Europe (Romania, Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, Latvia, France, Italy, Armenia) drew road maps of their journey to get to where they are now. They talked about Dutch culture, and designed their own project about Dutch society and culture. One group chose to investigate traditional Dutch food habits, and another Dutch values. They went out into the community in Apeldoorn and interviewed Dutch people to get information for their projects.

Volunteer Road Map

Another volunteer from a different group told me that at her On Arrival training, they dressed up some of the guys in women’s clothing and secretly filmed Dutch peoples reactions, to observe Dutch ‘tolerance’ (or lack of) in action.

At the Mid Term in Den Haag, the theme was ‘Looking Back’. This was time for the 24 participants to share and reflect on EVS so far, both practically and emotionally. It also involved a deeper look at other aspects of Dutch culture. And volunteers were encouraged to think about what kinds of competencies they are developing through their EVS, and how they may develop them even further.

Mid Term in Den Haag

The Evaluation training incorporated 55 participants from the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Participants reflected on the EVS experience in terms of what it represented in their lives, how it changed them, and how they can or do use it now. Ex EVS-ers also spent time brainstorming on how to make EVS more visible to European youth, to spread the word about this opportunity.

Ex EVS-ers eating lunch in the sun at the Evaluation Training in Rotterdam.

The really major thing about trainings that all the EVS-ers remember is the people they met and the friendships they formed: it’s a hive for meeting new kinds of people or, as they would say in policy speak, developing ‘intercultural dialogue’.

EVS Aims

The EVS is part of the Youth in Action programme, a program which has received 885 million euros of funding between 2007-2013. So why does the European Commission fund EVS?

Well, if we look at the Commission website, it’s because they want to develop youth into active European citizens and foster social cohesion/inclusion.

The EVS is a promoted as a mutually benefical learning service, with a strong European and intercultural dimension.

What does this mean? Volunteer Simon put it this way:

The aims of EVS. For sure it’s to, it’s a small step, for sure, but it’s in order to create a…European youth, I guess, to create a youth that is quite interested in European….things, and that have not only a nationality perspective in their mind. And I guess it’s also in order to promote another way of learning than usual learning with schools.

because the good idea about EVS, the really good idea is that its open to absolutely everybody, you don’t have to have any diploma, to have any knowledge, to have any skill, at the beginning. So it’s a way of learning. It’s a way of doing something, and it’s a way of learning a lot of things, in a new country and a new environment. And this point for sure, it’s a way of being included in society, and in a European society. So yeah, it can really be quite big for a young guy with absolutely no perspective at the beginning.

Politicising Volunteering

Obviously though, when volunteering becomes a policy aim, we can ask more political questions. This is particularly the case when it is linked as it is in this case to active citizenship, which has already drawn analytical attention (see for example Rose 1999, Newman and Tonkens 2011).

With cuts in funding for many social and community services in European member states, are EVS-ers filling the gaps in European social welfare provision? Are EVS projects a way to pawn responsibility off onto Europe’s citizens for their own welfare, or to make non-profit organisations, often with minimal funding and resources, shoulder the burden instead of government? Or are non-profits indeed becoming a new form of government, using government funding to improve and transform society in various ways (see Eliasoph 2011)?

Can EVS volunteers function as short-term, flexibilised workers who breeze in and out of communities without much thought for the impact they make, or what will happen when they go? Are they only there for their own personal development, for their own ‘experience’ living in another culture and another country?

If so, there may be potentially harmful consequences for the communities they work with and the recipients of their volunteer efforts, especially if these are already disadvantaged or marginalised groups. Projects can also be disadvantageous for the volunteer, or for the non-profit organisation (for example if a volunteer decides to quit halfway through).

This is, of course, in the worst-case scenario. Most of the time it really depends on the volunteer and the organisation. This is a good thing when it goes well: EVS can be creative, innovative and fresh. However, there is room for it to be volatile, unpredictable and disorganised.

In my fieldwork on the EVS, I’ve been lucky to see a really good example of how EVS can be a success. I see the change this experience is making in the lives of volunteers, and the importance of their presence for socioeconomically disadvantaged communities in South Rotterdam. I also see that all the organisations do their best to address social issues and provide much needed support in the community, especially the hosting organisation, Lava Legato.

But although I’m not sure of the answers, the hard questions still need to be asked. The global voluntary sector (if we can call it that) is a huge jumble of commerical, non-commerical, government, non-government, voluntary, non-voluntary, providers and organisations. What is needed is some critical and analytical attention to the form and content of this sector, the people who set the agenda behind it, and the people on the front lines, namely, the volunteers.

When voluntary service starts to be promoted by political institutions we have to ask, what is the aim of all this promotion of volunteering? Who benefits from the EVS experience: the volunteer, the recipients, the community, the organisations, or the Commission? What happens when volunteering is used for a range of different ends? And are all those ends always in the best interests of the communities with which the volunteers work, or indeed of the volunteers themselves?

And why has volunteering been so strongly linked to the concept of ‘youth’ in the European Union? What kind of youth are included in this conceptualisation of the young European active citizen, and what kind are excluded?

EVS as Alternative Future?

Cooking club with YOU Atelier in Rotterdam

If we are talking about Europe’s future, what is Europe moving toward? The future looks less and less bright for many in wake of the GFC and more recent Europe-specific economic crises. The announcement of the new Erasmus for All programe to replace the Youth in Action programme has done little to allay the concerns of European youth and organisations who see this as a way to further cut down on youth spending through the centralisation of a number of youth programs. The European Youth Forum has responded with a campaign emphasising the rights of youth to a properly funded Youth programme.

So, European youth, just like everyone else appears to be in the current global climate, are worried. They don’t want to see funding cut; they don’t want to lose opportunities; and perhaps even more so than before, programmes like the EVS provide them with a viable alternative to trying to scrape a place in the increasing shrinking labour market, while at the same time gaining some skills. Many find it a great way to travel and experience a different culture and language. They also meet all kinds of people they have never met before, ranging from the people in the culture and society of the country they live in, to the communities they work with, to the other EVS-ers they meet, who come from all over Europe and beyond.

So in this way, EVS is something they want to see expanded and promoted. Whether or not EVS is wholly positive, whether or not it still has kinks to be ironed out, it definitely has its advocates. Maybe EVS can really be an avenue for youth to make a difference and become the new, empowered, active generation. Maybe we are witnessing the seeds of European participatory society and democracy.

But whether EVS does expand or morph into something else remains to be decided by the powers that be in May 2012.

So now I’ve introduced you to EVS. In Part 2 of this post, I’m going to take a closer look at how EVS works in the South Rotterdam suburb of Feijenoord. Stay tuned…

Rotterdam Safaris and Mafia Nights

10 Mar

Recently I’ve been travelling round the Netherlands quite a lot, mostly for my research on the European Voluntary Service (EVS).

De Burcht, Leiden.

Den Haag.

Utrecht one day. Leiden the next. Arnhem for a mistaken volunteer on arrival training; Apeldoorn one field of farm animals, two buses and a twenty minute walk later for the correct training. Delft. Den Haag for a mid term training. Leiden again because we slept and missed our stop during the trainings…and Lelystad for an EVS party and a tour of the Batavia.

Oops...We're in Leiden.

I’ve also been seeing more layers of the city I live in: Rotterdam.

You’ve heard me wax lyrical on this subject before, but the more I find out about this city the more I love it.

As part of the mid term volunteer training, I got to participate in Rotterdam City Safari, a company that puts together tours which show a different side of Rotterdam: its genuine multiculturalism.

Rotterdam’s inhabitants span over 177 nationalities and multiple religions, with large Turkish, Moroccan, Cape Verdean and Surinaamese communities.

First we went to Thai Boxing in the centre-west, run by a famous boxing champion with Moroccan heritage.

Then we branched into different groups who went variously to a homeless shelter; homes of former refugees; Turkish mosques; a movie studio; a Surinaamese radio station; and a glass-making factory.

Each group went to a different district of Rotterdam for said activities. I was really stoked to find that my group was going to the area in which I do my research: Feijenoord.This was a great opportunity to see another side of that suburb.

First we went to a breath-taking Turkish mosque, hidden behind the bird sanctuary where the EVS volunteers do one of their projects. I never would have known it was there! We learned all about Turkish immigrant interpretations of Islam. 

Then we went to the home of an Afghani woman and her family for afternoon tea, to hear their story. 17 years ago she fled Afghanistan with her husband and four children (all under 10) to the Netherlands, being smuggled across 12 countries in three weeks, often walking through the night.

We ended with a mouth-watering meal at Zainab, a Pakistani/Indian Curry House near my home. It was truly delicious, the best Indian food I’ve had out of Oceania.

Though maybe Simon didn’t think so…

The new EVS volunteers arrived last week, and we had fun discovering a squat with them and listening to some crazy experimental free jam session.

Another feature of the past few weeks is that I’ve learned to play Mafia.

The EVS volunteers play this game pretty much every time there is a big enough group, and it’s loads of fun.

There are killers, a policeman who can try and find the killers, doctors who can try and heal the victim, and a storyteller who sees all and keeps the game on track.

The murders occur in the night, when the village is sleeping, and everyone wakes up to find someone is DEAD. Games can take as long as the players want, as they discuss, debate, argue and plead over who is guilty.

And you never know who’s lying and who’s telling the truth…

At the mid term training, I got quite a bit of footage, which I’ve turned into a trailer here. Enjoy!

Love Birds in Delfshaven

1 Mar

Two pigeons on a Rotterdam rooftop.

In Case You Were Wondering, I’m Freezing in Feijenoord

9 Feb

It’s been a while since my last post, and I have two reasons:

I’ve been doing research.

I’m cold.

On the first point, I’ve had a scintillating first month of fieldwork. Through the non-profit organisation Lava Legato, I’m doing participant observation with a group of European Voluntary Service volunteers from France, Austria, Germany and Estonia (to be followed by a group from Portugal, Belgium and Austria in March).

I join a different volunteer each week as they weave their way through multiple and varied social projects (six in total), around the South Rotterdam suburb of Feijenoord. These projects include after school cooking, sewing, gardening and playground activities for children; a school lunch club where the volunteers serve sandwiches, soup, thee and milk; an Italian trattoria; a gym designed for clients with special needs; and a bird sanctuary. In each setting, the volunteers usually join a whole bunch of other Dutch children, teachers, volunteers, and staff. Hence they (and I) get immersed into different aspects of Dutch society in this suburb.

You can read a short introduction to my research on the Lava Legato website.

Feijenoord is known for its football team and stadium, for its large immigrant communities (mostly Cape Verdean, Turkish and Moroccan), and for its relatively low socioeconomic status. What people maybe don’t hear so much about is that it’s very beautiful, in its own unique way. Here are some snaps from the neighbourhood.

Erasmusbrug from Feijenoord



On the second point, it’s all over the news how goddamn freezing Europe is. And I can exclusively confirm this from firsthand experience. The wind chill in the Netherlands has been hovering round -15 degrees celsius for the last week or so. The weather report says it’s unseasonably cold. All the Dutch have been wishing and hoping for the elusive Elfstedentocht to go ahead, the world’s largest speed-skating competition held once in a blue moon in Friesland (though it is looking unlikely due to thin ice).

Personally, when it first started snowing I was totally ecstatic. I jumped around a lot yelling ‘Snow! It’s snowing!’ That’s the kind of reaction you can expect from an Australian who only sees snow when it’s manufactured at Thredbo or Perisher. And it was a nice change from the monotone weather we’ve experienced in the Netherlands for the past five months. Finally, something was happening!

Hyacinths Bloom in the Snow

But that was before the bitter cold set in. When I say I’m cold, what I really mean is, I’VE NEVER BEEN THIS COLD IN MY LIFE. I really have to prepare mentally and physically every time I step outside. I’ve got a system now. Thermal leggings under jeans. Leather gloves under wool gloves. Thermal singlet, thermal longsleeved top, jumper, huge coat. Scarf. Earmuffs, covered with beanie, covered with furry hood of huge coat. Two, maybe three pairs of socks, under boots. No pics, I’ll leave it to your imagination.

But still, after all that, my hands and feet usually hurt so much that I’m in pain and complaining. I’m not sure if other Europeans really get it. They know it’s cold, but in Australia we rarely if ever experience sub-zero during the day. I’m just glad I’m not in Russia or Ukraine or somewhere worse right now, and my thoughts are with people in those countries.

Distractions such as the International Film Festival, cake and chess have helped.

De Doelen, the hub of the festival

Triple Chocolate for me. And what are you having?

The volunteers are teaching me chess. I suck.

I’ve taken a little break from biking too, after taking a graceful dive off the bike into the snow-ice and also realising that biking doubles the wind-chill factor. It’s been tram time, which is nice and reminds me of Melbourne. Tomorrow I might give my fiets another spin … depending on the forecast😉

Portugese Perfection

19 Jan

November 2011.

Claire, Birgit and I.

Masters Dream Team, hailing from the three corners of the Earth – Hawaii, Norway and Australia.

That’s right, the Earth is a triangle, ask Galileo.

The Dream Team found itself with a tiny gleaming window of opportunity. For a week our classes were cancelled as our MA staff headed to a conference in Canada.

Our first thought was, great! Now we have a whole week to work, uninterrupted, on our impending research proposal!

Erm, sure. Actually, we started dreaming and scheming for our getaway. Claire’s brother Jake was living in Portugal (and is now living in Taipei, what a jet-setter ;)), and we had no hesitation in accepting her (and his) kind offer to go stay.

Portugal has always been a place I’ve wanted to visit but it keeps finding itself pushed aside in favour of other destinations, so I was glad to have a concrete reason to just go!

At the last minute, Claire’s boyfriend Justin also booked a ticket, so we were set for a weekend of fun: two guys, three girls, two great cities (Lisboa, Porto), four days!

It was one of the best holidays I’ve had. Everyone got on great, we had an excellent host with a lovely place and a fantastic group of friends, and we:

  • scoured huge flea markets
  • partied the night away in Lisboa
  • stayed in an awesome kooky hostel
  • enjoyed a beautiful walk to a castle in the sea
  • gorged on yummy all-you-can-eat sushi
  • savoured excellent portugese coffee
  • lost our shoes, all eight pairs
  • discovered our shoes, all eight pairs
  • sampled some fine Port in the place where it originated, Porto
  • tasted a Portugese BBQ cooked to perfection by Mauricio
  • had an awesome jam session at Racquel, Alex and Rui’s
  • saw the European Baroque Orchestra

Here’s a slideshow that says it better than hyperbole. Obrigado guys!