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The mirage of Oostwold

Thecla changes her tune

RUG-psychologist Thecla Brakel wanted to do something for her Groningen community. So she set out to transform an old school in Oostwold into a recreation centre. But the endeavour was more complicated than she could ever have imagined.
By Christien Boomsma / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

At eight o’clock at night, it’s good and dark in the village of Oostwold. There are barely any street lamps along the Havenstraat, and the old school building on the street is hidden behind a large gate.

But behind that gate, the building is illuminated by rows of candles. They end at a door that reads ‘free store’ in large letters. Beyond the door is a long hall filled with books, shoes, stuffed animals, second-hand clothing, and games, and beyond that, there’s a bright classroom lined with mirrors along one wall and a coffee and candy bar along the other. Garlands hang from the ceiling; the room has been transformed into a dance floor and everyone on it looks straight out of the 1950s.

Petticoat

Petra de Haan, from Blijham, has tied her hair up in a French twist and wears a vintage A-line swing dress in blue.  She twirls around her dance partner, Frans Kuiper, an immensely tall man in red suspenders and a black button-down. ‘Isn’t this the best fun?’ she asks, laughing. ‘There isn’t much else to do around here.’

Frens Bakker, who has stuck a flower in her updo, nods. ‘People always think we’re so rigid here in the east of Groningen, but we’re really not.’ A third woman chimes in: ‘Although it tends to take men a little bit longer to loosen up’, she agrees. ‘But once they’re into it, you can’t stop ‘em!’

The men take a little bit longer to loosen up

The dancers here tonight are from the neighbouring towns of Blijham, Finsterwolde, Veelerveen, and Westerlee. They do old school rock and roll dance moves – the ‘double six’ and ‘the toothpaste’ – but no one is doing backflips or tossing their partners into the air.

That’s no wonder, because most of the dancers are over 55, and this is ‘easy rock and roll’: a simpler, slower version of dancing developed by RUG psychologist Thecla Brakel after she bought the old school in Oostwold to turn it into a community centre. ‘I’ve been dancing for over twenty-five years’, says Brakel. ‘Rock and roll is in my blood. Oostwold has a lot of senior citizens, so they seemed like a perfect group to teach rock and roll to.’

Oostwolmers

But there aren’t actually any Oostwolmers here tonight – besides Henk, who lives across the way and often helps Brakel out. He’s in charge of the music. ‘I’ve lived here for seventy years’, he says, proudly. ‘I’m a true Oostwolmer.’

Brakel says her intention back in 2015, when she bought the school, was to build the community centre for the locals. It had been a lifelong dream. ‘When I was nine, I had this idea in my head of a chief who all the people came to for advice. I wanted to be that chief. I wanted to help people.’

But trying to be a chief in Oostwold might have been naïve. Three-and-a-half years later, she has nearly given up. ‘When I started this project I had no idea what I was doing. I was blindly idealistic’, she says. ‘I’ve learned a lot since then. So now I’m taking it a little easier.’

Competition

All of Brakel’s choices – like studying psychology and researching social comparisons – have been made in service of that nine-year-old dream to help people. But she wasn’t satisfied. When she turned fifty, she decided it was time to make her community centre dreams come true.

She had hoped to buy a school building in Garrelsweer, a village that may have been more ‘welcoming’, but lost it to competing bidders. Then one day, she got lost during a walk in Oostwold and came across the old school building on Haverstraat 5.

It wasn’t love at first sight

‘It wasn’t love at first sight’, she admits. ‘We looked at the building five times, we went inside twice. We were hesitant. It was so far away from Groningen, and villages like these can be a little hostile to outsiders. But the building was a steal. We just had to take this chance!’

Dream project

Brakel sold her apartment in Groningen and focused on her project with enthusiasm. She opened up the free shop on her second day. She figured people would be drawn to free books, clothes, and shoes.

The local minister stopped by to ask if she would serve coffee and tea from now on, since the regular community coffee shop was too far away. The FNV Women’s Network stopped by. Brakel taught yoga and singing classes and organised lectures.

Soon she added a computer course for senior citizens. She served coffee for a euro and provided free soup and a free space for people to come together. She joined the village board. ‘I wanted to help further the interests of the village.’

She tried her hardest to get everyone involved. She invited the entire village over for drinks at the local café, because she didn’t want to take any opportunities away from the local business owners. ‘I was always asking people what they needed and wanted.’

Complex

But the café owner didn’t want to collaborate with anyone. She eventually discovered – ‘a little too late’ – that Oostwold was more complicated than it looked from the outside. The village was divided into three different factions, which were all critical of the others. It was hard to stay on everyone’s good side. When she heard that people were criticising the village board members, she tried to let the board members know. ‘Not that the criticism was correct, but just that people were talking about them.’ Next thing she knew, she was kicked off the board.

I paid for everything myself

The centre increasingly became a financial burden. ‘I paid for everything myself’, she says. ‘One time I put down a jar asking for voluntary contributions. But at the end of the night it was still empty.’

Quit

In late 2016, she wanted to quit. This surprised the municipality, which offered her a 5,000 euro grant. So Brakel stuck with it. ‘In fact, I doubled my efforts’, she admits. ‘I organised a village barbecue, a dance night’ on top of everything else.

Her rec centre became an example to other villages. Groningen dialect lessons helped villagers from outside the province feel integrated; fellow villagers she’d never seen before made new connections at the barbeque; she picked up a blind man in the street and took him to coffee hour: ‘He said it was a great blind date.’

But she also gained twenty pounds because she didn’t have any time to take care of herself. Once again, she decided to quit, and once again, a municipality official showed up to offer her a larger contribution. ‘I was fine taking minimum wage to run the centre’, she says. ‘But I needed a steady income.’

Hard-working people

She never received that second contribution, which would have been a ‘double standard’, according to alderman Boon in an interview with the Dagblad van het Noorden. ‘In Finsterwolde people are working hard to keep their party centre going. Every village around here has one.’ 260 signatures were gathered to keep her centre open, but to no avail. ‘There I was with all my good intentions that weren’t acknowledged at all’, she sighs.

My good intentions weren’t acknowledged at all

So now it’s time to start thinking about herself. The community centre has been nicely outfitted, but she is still using a camping stove in her apartment. She doesn’t even have running water; she still has to use buckets and bottles.

This year, she will only provide the activities she truly enjoys, like her ‘soothing painting’. Sometimes people ask her for a special project, like painting for people with a mental disabilities, or rock and roll for senior citizens with dementia. The free shop will stay open as well. And she will never stop teaching easy rock and roll for her older dancers. ‘They’re a group who see each other outside of the rec centre as well, and they’re willing to put in the time. I love them.’

These days, Oostwolders don’t show much interest in her efforts; most people visit from Groningen, Winsum, or elsewhere.

But there is always Henk. He turns the music back as dancers finish their coffee break and move back onto the dance floor. Rock and roll is forever.

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