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Het Withstraat Dagboek: De Rivier is Bevrozen, maar Onze Harten Zijn Warm

A humber barge makes its way through the ice on the Neuiwe Maas.
It was always somewhat inevitable that last night’s party would last until the wee small hours. Even though everyone was back in time for curfew, this didn’t bring an end to the festivities. 

It is Sunday 12th February and 59a Witte de Withstraat is alive with the packing of bags, shouting of names and the scurrying of people to and from the breakfast room at Werelds. As ever I am just as bad as the students for leaving packing to the last minute whilst Pia, Julian and Jas stand around looking smug having done the bulk of it last night.

Last night’s partying was mild really and went without any reproach from any of us teachers. The students were sober and where we could keep an eye on them, so it seemed only fair to let them listen to music and talk loudly.

Having been called to a room under the pretence of a student being ill Julian, Pia and I were all also presented with gifts by the students who jumped noisily from cupboards, closets and the like – wine in the case of Julian and me, with Pia getting a sachet of Capri-Sun orange juice. When retiring to our apartments it seemed to be only a very short amount of time that had passed before 3am crept up on us like a dozy rattlesnake.

This morning holds the prospect of more freezing cold temperatures this time sampled from aboard a boat on the Nieuwe Maas. With the students assembled and looking a little bit dishevelled, we skid our way up Witte de Withstraat. In a flush of adventurousness we slip down William Boothlaan, a quiet sidestreet, along Schiedamse Vest past an Orthodox church, across the deserted Westzeedijk Vasteland dual carriageway and into the Scheepvaartkwartier (literally: Shipping Quarter).

The silence of the street and the frost hanging in the air bring to mind personal imaginings of Siberia and I muse momentarily on the fact that this is how a Sunday should be. Quiet. Relaxed. A million miles away from the 24/7 rampant consumerism that grips all quarters of modern London. Perfect. 

Having taken a shortcut between two buildings I arrive in the bare open expanse of Willemsplein ahead of the rest of the group with only a chilly looking tram for company. In front of me is a boat bobbing around on the semi-frozen fringe of the Neiuwe Maas, resting against the side of Willemskade (lit: William’s Quay).

The rest of the group finally catch up and we have a few minutes to pose for pictures on a podium covered in artificial grass, set against the concrete, glass and steel backdrops of the Tulip Hotel and the SNS Bank offices.

On board the boat, called the James Cook, the whole group heads to the top deck, as a long Humber barge chugs sluggishly by, pushing miniature icebergs out of the way in a manner that would easily make the Titanic envious. The students drape themselves over each other, posing for pictures again whilst attempting to shield as much of their faces from the cold.

As the boat moves off, one by one the students come and ask whether we can cancel our tickets home. Some even confess to having prayed for us to become stranded by snow meaning an extension to our stay in Rotterdam – at this point, little did they know that a snowstorm would hit Amsterdam Schipol upon our arrival and the following day a suspect package would be left in the toilets.

With the gentle humming of the James Cook’s engine lulling the students into a state of calm, the four of us staff members reflect on what has been a highly successful trip. No tantrums, no tears, no trials, although Pia can be hard work if she’s left too long without coffee. Either way, the students that we brought with us come from a variety of social groups, yet they have bonded excellently.

Waking from her sleepy stupor, our noisy Iraqi girl declares: “a week ago I wouldn’t have even spoken to any of you, or even said ‘hi’ to you in the corridor. No I feel that we are more than friends, we’re like a family.” In so doing she wipes a solitary tear from her eye and draw rapturous applause from her audience, who amazingly aren’t bored of her making speeches every two hours.

All that remains for us to do is to wave goodbye to the Erasmusbrug as it pierces the cloud-laden sky, to board the big orange coach, to endure a litany of emotional songs from Beyoncé’s back-catalogue and to board our slightly delayed plane.

This trip to Rotterdam, although brief when compared to my annual visits to Uganda, leaves all of us with a wealth of positivity and affection for The Netherlands. We’ll be sure to come back again next year and to visit people who we now consider our friends and a place we now consider to be like a second home.


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