A music night with Takeaway Spacewolf

By Benjie Beer

Sitting at the back of the crowded room in Lola, the esteemed music venue in the heart of Groningen, Hugo Erenmalm sips cider as he tries to articulate what it is that makes him create music.

“I’m studying medicine,” he says, “but music has always been there. I have to make it. I didn’t come here thinking I was going to make music, but when I realised I could, I just had to.”

He laughs at my suggestion that he’s some kind of hopelessly compelled, tortured artist, though as the open mic night we’re attending, rolls through its fourth and then fifth set of students covering Ed Sheeran with their acoustic guitars, the theme of tortured art perhaps is not misplaced.

The space is dark but colourful, the dimmed lights just revealing the extent of the elaborate, painted baroque ceiling, and through the dewy faces of the young people crowded around the front stage, you can just about see the other members of Hugo’s band hunched in the corner, nervously awaiting the start of their first ever gig.

An eclectic mix of cultures

‘Takeaway Spacewolf’, as the name perhaps suggests, is an eclectic mix of cultures, music and ideas melded together into one musical group. The five band members, all students at the RUG, originate from no less than four different countries: two from the Netherlands, and the rest respectively from Sweden, Lithuania and Turkey.

With almost all of them new to Groningen this academic year, these students kickstarted their Dutch music careers by joining the Erasmus Student Network’s (ESN) Music Project, which encourages students from abroad to play rock music together for just one night.

Lead singer Aisté Alisauskaite says it all really started when guitarist Ada Ossmann saw her performing the Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ for the Music Project.

“He approached me and said he loved my voice,” she tells me out on the chilly evening street surrounded by young smokers.

As romantic a start as this may have seemed, however, everything was not quite as smooth as they might have hoped.

“The problem was that we all have different musical tastes,” continues Aisté. “Some of us are into funk, some jazz, some blues, I’m into rock… You name it and it’s there.”

“There was a moment when we decided to cover ‘California Dreamin’ by the Mamas and the Papas,” says Hugo with a laugh. “But we couldn’t decide which version to do, because we all have such different musical tastes!”

With this experience as the starting place, Takeaway Spacewolf came together in no time at all. Before the Music Project had even finished in mid-December, the as-yet-unnamed group were already rehearsing once a week, making the most of Groningen’s Viadukt rehearsal spaces.

An unforgettable performance

The crowd are loud and enthusiastic when the band take to the stage, and as the evening goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that the music is impressing the viewers.

Takeaway Spacewolf are tight, rehearsed and energetic. Their set of four original tunes and a cover of Hendrix’s ‘Fire’, inspire ever wilder reactions from the audience. The music rolls deftly between classic rock, blues and funk, Hugo tapping out his jazz influences on the drums, Ada and Ezra gelling with their funk and blues backgrounds on the guitar and the bass respectively, Nadine Blaak joining with organ-voiced keys and Aisté establishing a firm and fiery stage presence up front.

The débutante show, in fact, proves to be so impressive that, come the announcement that they have just the one song left to play, the audience boo with disappointment.

“Encore!” shouts one onlooker, to the enjoyment and excitement of the rest. The band members, although flushed with adrenaline and thoroughly enjoying themselves, have to say no for now.

“But we’ll be doing this for as long as possible!” insists Hugo.

What lies beneath Groningen’s surface

By Edward J Szekeres and Gabriele Cruciata

There’s more to Groningen than just Vismarkt and Sunny Beach. Those who live differently, in places we see but don’t notice, are forced to the fringes of society. Fiona is trying to tell their stories.

A stately, brick-walled building looks over Hereweg, in the southern part of Groningen. Dotted with rows of windows neatly arranged under the cover of battered roof tiles, it reminds passers-by of its old age. Quirky motorbikes with oversized trunks hanging over their front wheel, nearly block off the entrance with their haphazard parking.

As you come in, hesitant at first at the sight of darkness lurking behind the front door, a long but narrow corridor opens up right in front of you. The dim light is not enough to conceal the pervasive bleakness of the place. White walls on your right, on your left and above your head. “A countless number of people lost their lives in these corridors. Can you imagine it?” says a deep voice coming from a tall woman with a few sporadic freckles under her eyes. “This used to be a hospital.”

Her name is Fiona van den Bergh (30). She’s touring a group of young international students eager to explore the hidden parts of Groningen. But the former medical institution is not just another stop on a hop-on hop-off tour. It’s also Fiona’s home.

The hospital

Fiona runs the Alternative Groningen Tour, a three hour long cycling excursion around the city with an eccentric twist to it. Instead of climbing up the Martini tower and indulging in spectacular views of the surrounding architecture, Fiona takes her guests to the raw, unpolished backside of the city. Guests, not clients, as the tour is only supported by voluntary donations from participants.

“These are places a tourist would never find. Autonomous communities, squats built from scratch with imagination and street art, are the essence of this tour,” she says.

The former hospital where Fiona lives, has been occupied by squatters for nearly half a decade. It is now home to more than 200 people from all over the world. But most of them do not consider themselves squatters anymore. “We are a unique and close-knit community, but we are living here legally. I have my own apartment in the building that’s officially registered with the municipality,” she explains.

The imposing building Fiona calls home, now has its own bike repair stand, a restaurant that cooks up dishes from recycled food, and a vegetable garden. “We all have a role to play here. Some people cook, others help out with general maintenance or tend to the garden. We all do this for free. As a true commune,” explains Fiona as she walks through the rows of vegetables resting on the cultivated soil.

Nothing above Groningen

Fiona, a history graduate, became fascinated by the underground scene after she had travelled around Europe, only to realise how forgotten this group of people had become. “A world without consumerism makes life all the more interesting. People do things not for money, but for idealistic and moral reasons. It makes everything so much more real. Yet, no one seems to care.”

Non-commercialism is Fiona’s main inspiration. She is convinced that a do-it-yourself lifestyle can help people get out of their misery. She serves up her own experience as the best example. “I didn’t have a job before, so I came up with this tour,” she giggles.

But the monthly cycling journey she’s been taking along with a dozen or so participants for three years now, is more than just an extra means of income. It gives Fiona a sense of personal liberation. “It’s an intimate tour about my life. I can be a history teacher and speak about things that I find important and interesting.”

According to a popular local saying that refers to the city’s position in the very north of the Netherlands, there is nothing above Groningen (er gaat niets boven Groningen). But Fiona is on a mission to expose what lies beneath. During the tour, participants visit several spots of street art and alternative living spaces.

Inevitably, they take a peek into the most private parts of complete strangers’ lives. The tour, Fiona says, is the embodiment of personal trust. ”I am not showing monkeys in the zoo. We’re not just visiting buildings on the tour. We’re visiting people. They are all aware of the non-commercial, educational background of the tour and trust me as well as the participants.”

“I love these people”

Although Fiona’s home has now been officially recognised by the municipality as a living space, other squatters and independent communities were not so lucky.  Squatters in a trailer park in Betonbos, a small forest in the east of Groningen, are facing eviction threats from the municipality. Another community occupying an old glass factory in the city’s industrial area, has already received a note of eviction.

Fiona tried to help the squatters by setting up a petition to delay the ejection. She succeeded. The squatters were allowed to stay in the factory for a couple months longer.  

Her activism has had other positive impacts too. People’s interest in Groningen’s alternative scene is growing, and more and more of them offer to volunteer for the tour. “I have become an offbeat information point for several groups of people. A circus and a feminist reading group recently asked me about squatters in the city,” she says.

Fiona cherishes returning customers who are often long-time residents of Groningen. “It shows that there’s always something to be surprised about and inspired by, in this city. Sometimes I learn more from the participants than they learn from me.”

She talks of the city as if she was singing a lullaby to her child. She points to a coffeeshop where she works part-time. Just behind the squeaky front door, a customer tries to tap his credit card onto the payment terminal. It makes an error sound. He tries again.  Error. And again. Error. On the fifth try, he rolls his eyes and says: “Oh, it’s the wrong card”. A sudden stoned laughed fills the room.

Fiona is smiling. She looks up and whispers: “I love these people”.

Women Who Explore Groningen: These boots are made for walking

By Natalie Lange

Overlooking the busy Gedempte Zuiderdiep street, the cacophony of laughing and chatting women in the cozy café, drown out the sounds of passing vehicles. These women have never met before, yet I can see the first bonds of friendship forming. This is the maiden meeting of the group, Women Who Explore Groningen, a women’s group founded by women, for women.

Kayla Ihrig (25) who works as a freelance graphic designer, is an international ambassador for Women Who Explore, and she recently started the first Women Who Explore community in the Netherlands, here in Groningen. She sees value in bringing women together and was inspired to start a group for like-minded women in the city.

“I hope it becomes a place of real community, where people know each other’s names and lives, and are excited to come together. I think it will happen, which to me is really the dream,” says Ihrig.

Women Who Explore is a community for women of any age and nationality. It is an international organization that focuses on group outdoor events with the goal to connect women who enjoy exploring nature. The organization started in Canada, but now has groups in the States, Africa, Philippines and Europe.

As an ambassador, Ihrig organizes monthly meetings, using a private Facebook group to connect with interested group members. “A happy, active group is my goal, whatever that number looks like,” she says.

Ihrig herself moved to Groningen from Chicago only nine months ago. “Moving here was a massive change in every way,” she says. She moved to Groningen for her partner and didn’t have any real attachment to this place initially. After a while, she managed to meet friends through Facebook groups and the expat community of the city, which helped her a lot to acclimate to life as a Groningen resident.

“Part of my motivation for starting the group was to get to know the Netherlands better, to feel more connected to the country and see what beauty it has,” says Ihrig. Her vision is to meet up twice a month, once outdoors, exploring the Netherlands, and another time over a cup of coffee in the vibrant city of Groningen. 

The Women Who Explore Groningen community was founded in February 2019 and gained more than 200 members within the first week of its creation. The organization is the second women’s group existing in Groningen. Unlike Young Women of Groningen Meet Up, which focuses on social events within Groningen, Women Who Explore focuses on exploring the outdoors all around the Netherlands.

The first meeting of the group was held on Sunday the 17th of March 2019 at the Taveerne Rabenhaupt and was attended by around 30 women.  

“I was really happy with the turnout, but I was much more excited to see people talking, making new friends, and being excited about doing things together” says Ihrig. She received a lot of enthusiasm from women about finding a group to go do things with. “I’ve been really touched and energized by the feedback and interest,” she says.

“The sky is the limit for the group.”