The Virtex4All project gets off to a good start in The Netherlands
The first meeting of the Virtex4All project took place in Amsterdam on January 22nd, 23rd and 24th 2009. The project aims to build on the success of the original Virtex project by rearranging and adding to the materials and classifying them according to the Common European Framework levels for languages, enabling our language teachers to incorporate Virtex into an overall approach to language learning.
On the first evening the delegates battled through the inclement Amsterdam weather for the welcome dinner at the Café Américain on the Leidseplein close to our lodgings at the Hôtel de Paris.
René van Paridon welcomed us on behalf of the ROC van Amsterdam, then the group got down to the serious business of getting to know the partners they would be working with for the next two years. The Amsterdam team – Corine Horstra, Barbara Pluim, Yvonne Vermeulen and Elzemien Warnink – made us very welcome; and because it was raining so hard, René had brought along a special gift for everyone – a much-needed umbrella!
Next morning work began in earnest at the ROC van Amsterdam: John Flierman, the ROC’s director, warmly welcomed the delegates, emphasised the great importance of international exchanges, and wished us luck with the project – all with a perfect Irish accent! It seems that John is a fan of Irish music and spends much of his time singing Irish ballads!
The start of the meeting was tinged with sadness: Frans Schneider had been a partner in the original Virtex project, and had often regaled his colleagues far into the night with his endless store of amusing stories and his great sense of fun. Frans had intended to contribute to Virtex4All, and was billed to deliver an Intercultural Communication workshop later that day. Sadly, he had died the previous week, and delegates observed a minute’s silence in memory of Frans.
Peter Luijten from the Dutch National agency also welcomed us, explaining that his role was to monitor and advise, but definitely not to check up on us! Corine Horstra of the Colorez agency carefully took us through the project’s objectives, introduced us to the Virtex4All internal website and explained the finances. Then it was time for the delegates to introduce themselves and their schools, revealing a wide variety of student ability, level and teaching methods.
After all this hard work, lunchtime was upon us, and we were treated to a gourmet meal in the ROC’s training restaurant; then straight back to work, this time to revisit the original Virtex programme in pairs to suggest how it might be modified for easier use; once this task was completed, and the work divided up among the team, we moved onto teaching methods and materials: the materials used by each partner were laid out on separate tables, and delegates moved around, leafing through the books and discussing approaches.
After this highly productive phase, it was time for something completely different: Azumi Garvey-Uchitani from the Studio Azumi had been invited to provide an ‘intercultural communication’ workshop – a session that proved most revealing about the participants’ countries: after a discussion about what exactly makes a ‘culture’, we divided into national groups to make lists of six features that characterise our countries (there weren’t enough Brits present, so a couple of Dutch ladies volunteered to be honorary Englishwomen for the afternoon). Thus we learned that the Czechs are distrustful because of their communist past, the Turks are honourable and family-oriented, while the English are emotionally repressed and believe in fair-play! We needed a calming activity after all this emotion and soul-baring, and Azumi had organised a Japanese calligraphy session, in which we carefully copied the Japanese logograms for ‘culture’ using special paper, brushes and ink!
Then back to the hotel through the torrential rain, and a quick change of clothes before meeting at the Elements restaurant – a prestigious establishment run by the ROC in an up-market quarter of Amsterdam; ROC culinary arts teachers were on hand to guide our student waiters, who professionally and humorously announced and described each dish as it was served. After dinner it was far too early for bed, so our Dutch hosts took us across the road to the College Hotel – so called because it used to be the ROC’s training hotel; now it has become a trendy watering-hole for Amsterdam’s yuppies, whom we joined in the beautifully appointed bar for our night-caps.
Back to work in the ROC early on Saturday morning: we had further discussions about teaching methods and materials, then were persuaded to engage in René's educational equivalent of speed-dating - interviewing each of our fellow delegates in turn, in a strictly limited time-slot, about what we expect from and could contribute to student and teacher exchanges. This was exhausting, and we urgently needed the picnic lunch of Dutch delicacies which the ROC colleagues had organised. Our hosts had also brought along elegant gifts for the participants – my elegant wine stopper has already been put to good use.
And that concluded the working part of the meeting – but certainly not the social programme: the sun came out for our canal boat tour, and our Dutch hosts René, Corine, Elzemien and Barbara (but alas not Yvonne, who had succumbed to a bug – too much bike riding in the rain, we suspected) accompanied us, adding their amusing commentary to the official one. We disembarked in an interesting district, and headed for René’s favourite bar to sample a series of fine Dutch beers and cheeses.
Throughout our stay we were amazed at the bicycles: they are the favourite means of getting around in town (Yvonne rides 30 kms in each direction to travel to and from work), and Dutch cyclists can be pretty assertive, ringing their bells angrily if you dare to stray into their cycle lane. It’s not uncommon to see a cyclist pedalling tranquilly along with a child on the back seat, an umbrella in one hand and a mobile phone in the other! Parked bikes block the pavement, and close to the station there is a vast bike-park, several stories high and containing tens of thousands of the machines!
Our final dinner was a hilarious event: we occupied a long table in the cosy Café/Restaurant Van Puffelen on the Prinsengracht and enjoyed a series of delicious dishes washed won with some excellent South African vintages; wine and conversation flowed freely, we laughed loudly, and we must have looked and sounded as if we’d known each other for years rather than a couple of days.
The group gelled very well and looks set to produce some really useful teaching materials: warm friendships have developed, and our next meeting, in Izmir in June, promises to be a very pleasant event. The great success of the meeting is entirely the work of the Dutch organising team: they did an excellent job of selecting the partners for Virtex4All, and they really pulled out all the stops to make the meeting a success, making us work hard, while treating us as special guests. Bravo René, Elzemien, Corine, Barbara and Yvonne! Mission accomplished!