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Het Withstraat Dagboek: Stil in Amsterdam

Looking beneath a series of seven bridges along Leidsegracht, Amsterdam.
Maybe I’m becoming softer in my old age, but for some inexplicable reason I’ve allowed everyone to have a lie in. I regularly enjoy infuriating my colleagues and students with my ‘morning person’ ways. Today, though, I need a lie-in too.

It is Saturday 16th February 2013 and I am assembling the things I need for the day ahead. Although nowhere near as cold as this time last year, it is still very nippy. The upside of this is that I can leave my sun lotion, sunglasses, swimming trunks and towel at the hotel and travel light. With my trusty satchel sorted, the slightly hyperactive students gathered and a grumpy Pia woken up, we board the bus for the brief trip down the A4 to Amsterdam.

With the opportunity for a little quiet time lying ahead, we first embark on a boat ride around the labyrinthine canals of Amsterdam. Whilst taking in the information of talking guide – all of which I have forgotten by the time of writing this – I can’t help but wonder how anyone could ever have navigated the canals. At every corner there is a bridge, after that bridge three other bridges that you could possibly head through, and beyond them… you get the picture.

An hour later, having weaved our way around through the murky waters, we’re back at Damrak. I brief the students on where they can and can’t head, all of the exciting places they could explore, so they thank me and head to KFC. At this point I wave goodbye to Pia and Emma, cross over the bustling Prins Hendrikkade, and jump on the number 9 tram.

A few minutes later, after trundling down a few busy roads, the tram enters into, what is for me, unchartered territory. I hear the name ‘Waterlooplein’ come out of the scratchy speakers and hop off, finding myself in the curious Waterloopleinmarkt.

Originally another canal, the market area was filled-in during 1882 and the predominantly Jewish merchants from two neighbouring street markets were directed to move to the newly reclaimed square. In 1893 the market started taking place six days a week, with the market closed on a Saturday for the Sabbath. Following the Nazi occupation during World War II the Jewish link was mainly lost, but to this day a daily flea market takes place there.

One of the more striking aspects of Waterloopleinmarkt is the complete diversity of the goods and wares sold on each of the market stalls. Against the background scents of cooking food, some stalls have old records, some second-hand shoes, some have old ornaments and one stall, being run by an Arab man, has the most comprehensive variety of old cameras I’ve ever seen.

A stall of vintage cameras, Waterlooplienmarkt, Amsterdam.
I take a sneaky photo. A more polite Chinese tourist asks to take a photo of the stall only to be refused permission. I smile, say “shukran” and shuffle off.

Away from the crowds, I find a little silence. I cross a canal onto the narrow Staalstraat, stopping to take a picture along Groenburgwal, before continuing right onto Kloveniersburgwal towards the Nieuwmarkt.

I grab a bite to eat and head off, cutting through the red light district, in the vague direction of Dam Square. 

As I am heading down a side street, and passing a slightly seedy looking brothel, a group of my students seem to appear from nowhere. “Sir!” they shout, “what are you doing here?”

Cue a piece of physical street theatre, perhaps inspired by an Ealing Comedy, entitled ‘Confessions of an English Teacher.’ As the students shout and point, I jokingly pretend to hide my identity behind my coat. Cue the arrival of a group Far Eastern tourists passing-by who cheer and laugh along at the bizarre tableau presented before them. After a few seconds of hilarity, although it felt like a few minutes, we resume our usual roles and head on our respective ways.

It dawns on me that I have been wandering in perfect silence for the best part of two hours by the time I get back to Dam Square. With time running out before the bus is due to arrive and escort us back to Witte de Withstraat, I head to Kloverstraat to buy two important books: an English-Nederlands dictionary and a Nederlands-Engels dictionary. Tonight I'll do some studying.

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