This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands
A little while ago, I came across a workshop on "dealing with loitering youths", hosted by a Dutch welfare organisation called Versa. The evening's programme promised a reception with coffee and tea, a presentation by an "expert in street culture", 72-year-old Hans Kaldenbach, and demonstrations by 59-year-old actor Jeroen van Veenendaal. The aim of the evening was to teach attendees how to understand loitering youths, and how to deal with them in a "playful" way.
I probably don't have to tell you that things tend to go dramatically wrong when the elderly try to understand the infinitely complex and multifaceted phenomenon that is ~ youth culture ~. The whole idea of this workshop, then, seemed a little laughable – but at the same time, I couldn't help but wonder what these old men had to say about handling loitering youths. Where they going to teach us karate moves? Special ranting methods? I decided to go to the workshop to find out.
The reception looks exactly how I imagined it. Coffee, tea, chocolate cookies and slices of sponge cake are presented on a table in a classroom-like space. Attendees – whose average age is about 60 – enter the room, slowly, one by one. When I ask them why they're here, they murmur about scooters, beer cans and loud music in their neighbourhoods.
While the grumpy boomers flop into chairs, I see something in the corner I didn't expect to see. Two young men are making name stickers for the visitors. The youngest tells me his name is Mustafa and that he's 15. The older one, Ruben, is 23. For a moment I'm convinced that somebody must have forced these boys to be here, but it turns out I'm wrong. Mustafa and Ruben tell me that they're both doing a traineeship at Versa Welfare – voluntarily. They used to spend their time hanging out in parks and on street corners, but recently they have been helping out the organisation by assisting at events. "It is really a good traineeship," Mustafa says.
After a round of introductions, Hans – the expert in street culture – grabs a microphone and steps forward. "My life has always been goody-goody, and of course I've grown up in different times," he says. "But I've always occupied myself with finding solutions in difficult situations – an occupation that has resulted in the two books about street culture that I've written." I look at his books on the table: Loitering Youths and Respect! They remind me a bit of that "what's up, fellow kids?" 30 Rock GIF, but I'm still curious to find out what he has in store for us.
The actor, Jeroen, joins Hans in front of the group. He has obviously done his very best to look as "street" as possible: his cap's on backwards and he's wearing a gold chain. He confidently looks at the two young trainees, who are now sitting in the audience, and gives them a nod.
"I hung out on street corners throughout my whole youth," he says. "My behaviour has changed by now, of course, but I used to be an extremely aggressive kid." He pushes his chest forward and imitates the tougher accent of his youth.
The two men call over a bitter-looking lady from the audience. She has a problem, she says: a bunch of teenagers regularly litter on the grass-patch in her street, and it ruins her view. The expert straightens his glasses and looks around. Then he notices Mustafa and Ruben, the trainees. "You two, why don’t you join us too? You're young, so you can play 'homies' who 'chill' and talk about 'chickies' and such." I turn red, inside and out. The trainees don't – or, at least, are good at hiding their second-hand embarrassment. "Sure, no problem," Mustafa says.
"Let's play out the situation," says Hans. "Madam, please do what you would do in this situation." The lady pretends to clean up litter, right in front of the boys. "Well, that looks a lot better, doesn't it, gentlemen?" she says. The actor interrupts the play, frowning. "This comes across as very patronising," he says. Ruben agrees: "This is just really awkward." The actor has a better idea: "Try saying 'hi' when you arrive, and leave out that patronising comment."
They play out the situation again. The lady approaches the boys, says "hi" and pretends to pick up litter in front of them. The expert asks the boys how they feel about the new approach. "I still find it a bit uncomfortable, but at least I can feel some sympathy now, because she says hi," Ruben explains. Mustafa nods. "Yes, this works for me. This really makes me want to go help her." The expert looks satisfied. "This is much better, isn't it? First, try to make some kind of contact with the boys, be friendly and don't be patronising."
A few more scenarios are played out and reflected upon. The ultimate lessons for the boomers are simple: don't get angry, remain friendly and don't be too serious. The young trainees, who are still standing in between the two older men, clarify this. "Look, if somebody’s all like 'goddamn' and 'go away', that'll make me think: who are you, then? What do you want? Are you racist, or what?" says Mustafa. Ruben agrees: "Everyone is always against you. I mean, that's what it feels like. But if suddenly someone is all friendly with you, you feel way more willing to listen."
People in the audience are nodding in agreement, whispering "yes" and "they're right". My searing discomfort slowly makes way for a warmer feeling; it seems that the yawning gap between ferocious old people and kids who like hanging out in the street has actually become a little smaller.
The workshop comes to an end after the role-plays. Mustafa heads outside to sit in the wooden smoking cabin with a group of friends, where they're joined by a couple of the women from the class, who nod in fascination while Mustafa explains something to them. The generation gap is once again being bridged!
Inside, Ruben shakes hands with the actor and the expert. "You are a great fellow," the expert says. He picks up a copy of his book Respect! and gives it to Ruben. "There you go, as a sign of respect." My red-hot discomfort rushes to the surface again, but Ruben seems to be at ease. "Thanks! You too, respect! Have a nice evening."
Before I leave, I talk to a man who was in the audience. He tells me his name is Frans and that he's 52. "It's just ridiculous!" he says. "Youths are misbehaving, and us well-behaving citizens have to attend some class on how to deal with them. It's absolutely ludicrous!"
While Frans grumbles, I realise that oldies trying to understand young people might not actually be such a bad thing at all.