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As a steward, I have been flying around the world for 22 years, the last 14 for KLM. The work takes me to places I used to only dream of. Travelling and caring for the safety of and service to our passengers is therefore in my blood.

As a born and bred Rotterdammer with a love of old passenger ships, I have also been working as a volunteer on the ss Rotterdam for six years. Together with about 170 proud fellow volunteers, I tell our visitors the story of this iconic ship that was built here and also bears the name of our beautiful city. And as if all this were not enough, in the spare hours that remain I am also sometimes working as a city guide for Bike & Bite. This young, energetic company with a super nice team of enthusiastic guides introduces visitors from home and abroad to our beautiful city by bike through food tours. So I am a busy bee for good reason, trying to get as much out of life as possible.

But then the corona pandemic presented itself and the rules of the game changed for everyone….

Meanwhile, KLM still operates only 10% of all its flights and, like millions of other Dutch people, I am no longer sure of my job. Most of our beautiful blue fleet is in the aircraft car park that the almost deserted Schiphol has now become. The ss Rotterdam has closed her doors and portholes and her decks lie deserted, waiting for better times. Bike & Bite has also had to discontinue its tours. Our bikes are waiting in storage for the moment when we can again proudly show our guests our beautiful city on the river Maas; while enjoying a snack and a drink, of course.

However, Paul Fitzpatrick, the owner of Bike & Bite, is not one to throw in the towel and soon after the ‘intelligent lockdown’ took effect he started thinking about how Bike & Bite could contribute to organisations and people who could use a helping hand during these difficult times. So it happened and Bike & Bite was temporarily renamed Bike & Deliver. A call was made to city guides to volunteer a few hours a week. Through Humanitas, for instance, a grocery delivery service was set up to support people who are unable to make the trip to the shop themselves. For Laurens Thuiszorg, we spent a day delivering orchids to home care heroes; a nice gift from Feyenoord, Sparta and Excelsior. . 

And then Bike & Bite received the request from Hotspot Hutspot to support their crisis catering delivery service. Hotspot Hutspot’s two restaurants in Lombardijen and Crooswijk, where anyone can come and enjoy a healthy meal for a small fee, also had to close their doors due to the restaurant closure. Hotspot Hutspot switched to delivery meals because the restaurants’ regulars need to eat anyway. Vulnerable people who were in danger of falling between the cracks due to the corona measures could still be provided with a healthy, nutritious meal at a reasonable price this way.

With still an empty KLM roster, I reported by bike to the Lombardijen branch on 2 April to pick up meals from the team of Michelle, Chanel and all the other top chefs who work there, sometimes seven days a week, to cook with heart and soul for people who are at their most vulnerable right now. I had already read up on Hotspot Hutspot through their website and articles in the AD and Trouw, and I was happy that my Bike & Bite colleagues and I would be able to contribute to solving a big problem with the delivery service. The welcome was hearty, the staff pure, friendly and honest, just like the meals they prepare. Soon I was cycling with the freshly prepared meals back towards the Erasmus Bridge through an unreally quiet Rotterdam, on my way to people who could still receive the basic provision that food is.

As I write this, I have been volunteering with Hotspot Hutspot for almost a month. About four days a week, I cycle with meals through the various neighbourhoods of Rotterdam. My life has changed but then again it hasn’t. I still go around carrying food but this time not aboard a plane but just on my bike in my own Rotterdam.

The luggage I have to deal with as a KLM steward is sometimes heavy but the luggage of the people I deliver food to is often even heavier and of a completely different nature. Some ask me to put the food down on the stairs and wish me a good day, also out of fear of contact while the corona virus is still around. The other is happy to see someone again and chats endlessly. There are great stories, such as someone who used to work in shipping and who reminisces about the old days with a twinkle in his eye. But I also come to the door of people who sometimes feel down, are having a hard time and feel lonely. I am glad that those people too can have a moment to tell their story because it is about more than just delivering meals, just as a steward’s job is not just about serving passengers. For instance, one of my regular ‘customers’ had not seen her upstairs neighbour, who was in hospital, for some time. She was later told the bad news that the latter had unfortunately died of coronavirus. These are extremely difficult moments for someone who has been housebound for weeks. Another is demented and is sometimes literally lost. This is when you really want to do more but can only offer a listening ear and pass on the situation to the top people at Hotspot Hutspot who know these people personally and know who to contact for support for the person in question. Especially in these moments, it strikes me how much I miss being able to just lay a hand on someone’s shoulder, give someone a hand for a moment. The great thing about this voluntary work is that I can use the genuine interest I’ve always had in people to have a chat with people and give them a heart to heart, to encourage them in these difficult and uncertain times. You literally get a glimpse into the lives of others, the lives of often vulnerable people trying to hold their own in this two-speed world.

An unprecedented crisis like the one we are in now also shows that free market forces and the participation society have gone much too far. The weakest shoulders sometimes bear the heaviest burden. The institutions and professions that have been cut hardest are now carrying the Netherlands.

Clapping is nice when it happens for the heroes of care but we sometimes forget that before the crisis, many were already in the corner where the blows were and still are falling

Hotspot Hutspot, meanwhile, is committed unabated to helping those who are hungry, if necessary through delayed meals paid for by people who can spare a little to help others. The team in Lombardijen is literally working overtime to make sure no one is forgotten. To their credit, they always keep going, have a sleeve for everything and sometimes subordinate their own interests to those of others when it means they can help someone else find their way back up.

Next Thursday, I will be trading my bike and Hotspot Hutspot for the plane and KLM again for a while as I get to work a flight to Toronto. Back to ‘that other world’. After that, my flight schedule is once again anxiously empty and, like all other Dutch people and people anywhere in the world, I am waiting for the corona crisis to end. Until then, together with my colleagues from Bike & Bite, I hope to do my bit for the good work of Hotspot Hutspot. Everyone working there more than lives up to Rotterdam’s motto of arms. Stronger through struggle.

Rodger Poppeliers

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