It was the best sort of day for the proverbial messing about on the river. We were finally able to put our conversations with Surrey Canoe Club into action, and handed over 10 young people to the capable hands of Head Coach, Albert Donovan, for the day. Albert has coaching awards coming out of his ears and we had every confidence that the lads could not be in safer hands. He is also delightfully skilled at not taking any rubbish, off anyone. And he has a whistle. Ground rules established, and they all got on like a house on fire, right from the start.
No one had done it before, and there were a couple of expressed doubts about the water in the beginning, which is hardly a surprise, bearing in mind the experiences many have had with dangerous sea crossings in lethally inadequate vessels. But here there were proper life jackets, a quiet stretch of river rippled only by the paddling of ducks, and a team of coaches encouraging them, and any initial qualms seemed to dissipate pretty quickly.
Once they were all on the water, I had my own surge of panic, as M got stuck fast in the reeds and began waving his arms frantically, R discovered a latent Olympic level talent and sped off as though to discover the source of the Thames, and S pitched delightedly over the side of his kayak in an elaborate shrieking capsize, and all at the same time, but the coaches didn’t even raise an eyebrow. “You’re a big shouting chicken mother” K mentioned, as he paddled by, and I can only hope this is a translation of something similar to the mother hen analogy.
It was the best of days, all in all, and we’re already into new proposals for ongoing projects. It seems a day on the river is good in so many ways. Our greatest thanks to Albert, Ian and Pana for the coaching, the patience, the serenity and the chocolate biscuits.
Images © Big Leaf Foundation
Our pilot Cafe Project came to an end on Wednesday, and we can say without hesitation we went out on a high. Despite the pouring rain, the place was buzzing with people and the half term brought in the kids too, which had a wonderful effect on the sales of hot chocolate. What stood out today was the enthusiasm to get out front and talk to the customers, in total contrast to the kitchen-hugging that was happening in the first few weeks. I complimented M on his improved language skills and he grinned widely and said “Yeah but I’m not shy now so it’s easy”. But it was also great to see the camaraderie between our participants and returning customers too; to create a space for positive community interaction was important to us right from the start.
We’re going to take a break - to regroup, evaluate and re-evaluate, ask questions and think about how we're going to move forward. Whatever happens from this point on needs to be sustainable, and we have to find the best shape and fit for that. There’s a fair bit to consider but we’re feeling more positive than I think we would have ever imagined. That’s not to say we haven’t learned anything, because we have, and often things we never expected to learn. But we also learned this:
We'd like to thank everyone for their support and encouragement, and for helping us to sell out every week by eating so much falafel. We all truly appreciated the candid feedback, the offers of help and advice, and the encouragement given to the whole team, every week. Thanks to you all, and whatever we do next, we’ll certainly keep you posted.
What a difference a week makes. In direct contrast to the torrential rain of last Wednesday, today there was only sun. Jo threw cloths over the tables under the wisteria and all was instantly transformed into the Guildford riviera.
We were chuffed to have special guests with us all day too. Tom and Grace from Marlborough College School of English and Culture came down to help prepare them to apply for the Al Rashid scholarship - a life-changing opportunity for a young person of refugee or asylum background to take part in one of two summer residential programmes based at Marlborough College. They started with a workshop on how to promote yourself; how to recognise your skills and talents and then to articulate them in a way that others will be drawn to. This is hard enough for anyone to do, but even harder in another language and another culture. One of the lads shifted in discomfort as I pointed out all his skills that could on go on the application, and said “But in my country you can’t do this. You can’t SAY you're good at things, people will despise you”. Which does have some reflection in modern British culture too, and yet we all know that too much modesty is not ideal on a job application. The issue is that when your background is not UK based and your profile is different from those of your UK based peers, an application form which expects academic achievements and lauds extra-curricular experience of a particular kind can feel like an insurmountable challenge. You can have skills and experience galore, but they can sometimes be difficult to explain and end up looking out of place. And looking to the future is not always an easy thing either, especially when hope for that very future is not yet permitted by the Home Office. All in all, it takes awareness, some practice, and a happy dose of self-belief to overcome this hurdle, and Tom and Grace managed to extract the whole lot. They then put each and everybody through an interview process. Vicki and I were chuffed to bits to see how confidently they took this on, and equally delighted it’s not us having to make the selection. Sorry, T and G, and good luck with that… ;-)
We had special guests in the cafe too. Local business people, friends from all over the place, people coming to introduce themselves having heard about us through other sources… it just felt busy. And today’s star was definitely M, who for the first time was out waiting the tables, and did it brilliantly, despite being at the beginning of the whole English language journey.
Next week should have been the last week of the pilot but we have managed to extend by one week to coincide with half term. After that we will have to take a short break while we work out the next steps. So please come down next Wednesday or the 29 May and see for yourself.
Images © Big Leaf Foundation
The weather was vile on Wednesday and relentless torrents of rain meant the people of Guildford were not on the streets. Taking plates of samples outside to lure people in, while successful last week, was impossible; the falafel would have turned to soup in seconds. Vicki and I were looking without enthusiasm at the planned walk to local businesses to deposit our newly crafted flyers, when we were delighted by the surprise arrival of Akira, who is always a great hit with everybody. Within minutes, he was dispatched with one of the team to wade through the downpour on said delivery mission, which we hope won't make him think twice about offering to help out again.
Still, people did come, and this week we even had telephone orders in advance. A true highlight was the chance to meet Abeer, a local Syrian baker supported by Elmbridge CAN, who had made a stand of baclava for us and brought them down personally with Vicki to see the project for herself. This was good, as I hadn’t trusted Vicki not to eat it all on the way down, and with Abeer’s presence, the baclava arrived untouched. And it proved very popular (see Ray's face in the photo below).
It was great to welcome some of our friends from Citizens UK, Elmbridge CAN, other local businesses and even from Surrey Police (“But will they pay or just take it?” J asked us, which though making us smile, also brought the reminder that contact with police in other countries can be very different to here, and therefore suspicion, hesitation and distrust felt towards them is pretty understandable). Our running pal Andy once again proved his exceptional Number-One-Customer loyalty by barely breaking his stride as he sprinted in soaking wet, grabbed his falafel, shouted cheerful greetings and ran out back into the storm. If we ever get a loyalty card system going, Andy will truly reap the benefits.
Two Wednesdays left to run for our Cafe Project pilot. Please drop by next Wednesday from 12pm if you can.
Images © Big Leaf Foundation
Our third day of opening the cafe and we were hesitant. Unlike week one, we hadn’t bribed our friends to come and Be Customers, and unlike last week, we didn’t have a captive audience of 65 people wanting to eat. External circumstances had also occurred which meant a sudden rearrangement of plans, the last minute luring in of an extra pair of hands (thank you again, Louise) and a bit of thinking on the spot. But we opened on time, and after a nail-biting 15 minutes of silence from the world outside, people began to drift in. S suggested taking out some samples and offering them to passers-by, and since it is not possible to eat Muhammed’s falafel and not immediately fall in love with it, that worked. The cafe buzzed; some people came, sat and chatted; some dashed in and got food to go; we even had a runner taking a break to refuel. A gentleman from Wales came in by accident, fell into conversation with one of the waiters, mentioned the fact that he had never eaten falafel before and found himself compelled by the utter shock on that young person’s face to try it.
We’d started the day with a cultural literacy workshop, focusing on polite interaction with customers (“Do take a seat” instead of “Sit!”; “It’s coming right up” instead of “You must wait”; “Spread the word!”; “See you again!”, all this sort of thing, followed by the endless question of WHY we don’t have a neat little equivalent of "Bon Appetit”) and all of this interaction was put into practice. As a tool for language expansion, the project is reaping rewards already. The customer who declared “Well, that knocked my bloody socks off” caused some confusion, but it was soon ironed out. “Why is knocking socks off a good thing?” B asked, but frankly, we couldn’t answer.
We sold out. And as we all sat down to eat together at the end of the day, L pointed out that there was only one left. Which turned out to be a shame for the gentleman from Wales who’d never had falafel before, because he had come back hoping for another portion, just as L had swallowed it. “But you can come next week” L told him, encouragingly. “It might be a bit far, lad, from Swansea” the gentleman mused “but you never know. It was a smashing lunch.”
We’re open again next Wednesday 12.30-14.30. And this time we can take bulk orders in advance, for pick up at the Electric Theatre. Please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Images © Big Leaf Foundation