There is no mistaking the distinct feel that this a European city as you brace yourself against the exfoliating coldness of the wintry Rotterdam air. The people look similar to me, but the buildings, roads and atmosphere all feel very different.
It is the afternoon of Thursday 9th February and we are heading for the Kop van Zuid (Southbank) area of Rotterdam. Our ultimate destination is the Nederlands Fotomuseum – the Dutch national photography museum.
After prising the students away from MacDonald’s, having been on a voyage of discovery to the Dutch version of Co-op with an Italian student who didn’t like the sound of a Big Mac for lunch, we have regrouped, looking like the tourists we are, on the corner of Westblaak and Coolsingel.
We are quite an incongruous looking group: a couple of white male teachers and a female Asian teacher (who has an unnatural obsession with handbags), with students, male and female, who are British, Iraqi, Somali, Bengali, Arab, Pakistani, white, black, mixed-race, Muslim, Christian, some with a hijab, some without, all hyperactive.
In a typically student-esque saunter, we make our way along Coolsingel, crossing the eerily quiet main road, on to Schiedamsedijk, with the Erasmusbrug (Erasmus Bridge) up ahead and the still air peppered only occasionally with the ringing of a tram bells.
Leaving the relative shelter of the town centre and its tall buildings, slipping and sliding on patches of ice and snow as we go, the road becomes more exposed and once more the frosty air begins to blast against my skin – thankfully I had packed a jumper affectionately as the yeti. Eventually we reach the foot of the Erasmusbrug, a bridge that carries, bikes, cars, trams, buses and noisy inner-city London students over to the Kop van Zuid.
The Erasmusbrug is an instantly striking piece of architecture, reminiscent of giant white harp lying across the Nieuwe Maas, one of the many channels that dissect the city. According to my Wallpaper City Guide, the tall structure at its centre is referred to locally as the ‘Swan’.
More curiously, off in the misty middle distance sits De Hef (The Lift), a 1920s lifting bridge which has eluded demolition and continues to straddle Koningshaven with its middle section permanently up. I can feel myself falling strangely in love with this city already and its charming, if chilly, feel.
Continuing off Erasmusbrug, my immediate concern turns back to one of my students, an Iraqi girl who has taken to greeting everyone she meets with ‘hallo’ – the correct Dutch way of saying 'hello'. However cute it might seem at first, after ten minutes of hearing ‘hallo’ repeated in the style of a broken record I begin to worry about my sanity and the patience of Rotterdam’s residents.
Luckily, most passers-by humour her and return the greeting before once more tightening their faces against the wintry wind.
A short while later we arrive at the Fotomuseum in the Kop van Suid, an intriguing building housing photographic installations and interactive displays. The media students head off to a photography workshop, whilst me and my band of six hijabi girls get a guided tour. Any fears that they might not be too interesting in photography are quickly allayed as they start quizzing the guide about anything and everything they see.
A busy afternoon completed, the evening will hold the opportunity to rest back at the Home Hotel, if the students desist from stampeding up and down the stairs for long enough!