Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Een Koude Dag in Amsterdam

Looking along the frozen Oudezijds Voorburgwal, in Amsterdam.
The temperature has continued its descent to unknown depths overnight and with it has brought the arrival of Jas from England.

It is Saturday 11th February and once more I have cruelly awoken the students in order for them to be ready in time for our coach’s departure to Amsterdam. This morning 'Rotterdam' by The Beautiful South is my song of choice and I walk around the building singing it loudly. Foolishly, I thought I’d get a full night’s sleep last night, but, sure enough, Jas’ arrival at around 2am put paid to that.

A few people have managed to make it down to breakfast on time at Restaurant Werelds, the restaurant attached to the Home Hotel where we have eaten for the previous couple of nights. One by one, and increasingly bleary-eyed, the students skulk in, although a certain quartet of girls are conspicuous in their absence.

With the arrival of a few Dutch students, their teachers Ilse, Laura and Barry, and the missing quartet, we’re ready for the off. After a slow, and frankly half-hearted start, the singing soon commences – it seems that it is never too early for a dose of Beyoncé or Rihanna.

Amsterdam is still very quiet when we arrive, save for the few souls brave enough to take on the morning chill. The weather feels every bit as if it is the -12°C that the news said it would be and my breath looks more like a thick blanket of fog as it comes out of my mouth whilst I talk. The roads are empty and the canals are covered in a layer of ice thick enough to skate on, which throws the idea of a boat tour out of the window.

Towards Grimburgwal, Amsterdam.
After issuing a few key instructions regarding safety and conduct in Amsterdam – I’m sure that you can understand what a large part of that entailed – we allow the group to go about exploring, with everyone taking different routes towards the voluntary midday meeting point of Dam Square. For Julian, Pia and myself, this allows us time to warm up with a coffee in ‘t Nieuwe Kafe, part of De Nieuwe Kerk, in Dam Square.

After a light refreshment, a small gaggle of us regroup, a mixture of students and staff, and we head off past the National Monument, along Warmoesstraat, before turning down a narrow lane called Sint Jansstraat. Whilst walking calmly along the road talking to a Nigerian student, a loud scream is heard up ahead. Looking up I see a couple of my students holding on to each other, trying to calm themselves down from a shock. And what is the shock? A lady looking seductive in the window, the first they’ve seen in Amsterdam.

Somewhat inevitably, the group becomes separated and I am left with a group of students, all of whom wear a hijab. What a sight we must be to the working girls as we pass by their windows – a white guy with a small army of hijabi girls following him through the red light district. Only in Amsterdam.

The labyrinthine alleys and side streets make for an interesting tour of the city, taking you past frozen canals with people skating on them, over bridges, by the famous marijuana cafés, which by now are filling up with customers, and past hoards of young men, presumably on stag parties. After a short while longer, respite from the cold is needed and we head into a cavernous café (of the coffee-serving variety) on a quiet side street which is decorated inside with old musical instruments and radios.

It is fair to say that Amsterdam in itself is a beautiful city with a lot to be explored, but the sex shops, regiments of young male tourists and the marijuana paraphernalia did give certain streets in the centre an edge of tackiness. In spite of this, I never feel unsafe and despite always being aware of any risk on a trip, particularly to my female students, I feel I would be happy to bring them all back again.

The students, invariably, all had a great time. Perhaps one of the greatest aspects of this trip is the ability to take my students out of their west London bubble and a day in Amsterdam does that beautifully. It was with great reluctance that the students, who unlike Pia have not moaned once about the weather, board the big orange coach to travel back to Rotterdam.

Sure enough, just like the journey to Amsterdam, after five minutes the singing strikes up. Barry joins in momentarily. With the tiredness kicking in once more, I put my iPhone headphones in and drift into a contented sleep most of the way back to Rotterdam.

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