Europe 2017: Canals and Coffee (My First Week in Amsterdam)

I write from a worn and comfortably familiar wooden table. It is one of several in the dining room and hangout space that anchors life at the Shelter Jordan Christian Hostel in Amsterdam. This morning marks the beginning of my second week volunteering here in exchange for my room and board. Here are a few thoughts on my experience thus far.

The Netherlands

I have thoroughly enjoyed getting a taste of (albeit tourist-infused) Dutch culture. The cheese shops are plentiful. The windmills are everywhere (though I’ve only spotted one traditional one so far — the rest I know all too well from central Illinois). One of my favorite parts of the experience is the water. The city is as accessible by canal as by road, and if you don’t have a boat, you could probably walk across the entirety of Amsterdam in an hour or two.

The view on our street

The people are eager to share their culture, patient with the tourists (more patient than I, which is quite unreasonable considering I am one myself), frank but not abrasive, and accommodating. The weather has been positively balmy so far, which may be enhancing everyone’s moods — so much so that sometimes it feels like even the air itself welcomes you out to explore the sights.


The city of Amsterdam is boisterous, approachable, and friendly. Tram tracks lace the streets and bicycle lanes hem them in. Tram conductors stop for pedestrians, groups of young people draped over boat furnishings float down canals blaring music and sipping beers, and the parks are filled with indiginous and foreign groups alike barbecuing, tossing frisbees and kicking soccer balls, and enjoying the beautiful summer weather.

This was just one of the overflowing bars during the soccer match.

On one of my first full days here, we encountered huge exuberant groups of jersey- and scarf-clad soccer fans. They wandered the city shouting, cheering, drinking, and pumping up the general public for a significant game that evening. Amsterdam ended up losing, but it was still quite a to-do.

Shelter Jordan

I’ve landed in an environment that most closely smacks of something between a Christian summer camp and a youth group retreat. At this particular hostel, you can interview to join their short-term volunteer force as a cleaner in exchange for room and board. This was an attractive prospect for me — not only could I feel a little bit more productive for these couple weeks before I head back to Ukraine, but I could save funds and explore a new city.

The dining room I've come to so enjoy. The instruments certainly help.

Upon arrival, I met the 20-ish longer-term volunteer staff who can work at the shelter. The long-term staff works shifts to maintain the shelter and also receives regular training in what sounds like a mix of ministry-oriented and professional-development subjects. Between Shelter Jordan and its larger sister location located a bit closer to the center of Amsterdam, Shelter City, the operation houses up to 280 guests in a given day and comprises a family of perhaps 50 young adult volunteer staff in addition to a small team of employed managers/directors. The shelter facilitates intentional events to expose guests to the Gospel, which serves the double purpose of giving their young volunteer staff opportunities to develop their leadership skills. I have quite enjoyed rubbing shoulders with this unique community of people who are passionate about ministering to travelers and backpackers.

A small group of the staff and I enjoying a bouldering gym on a free evening.

My daily routine, which I’ve settled into quite comfortably over the last week, is as follows. I wake up sometime between 6 and 7:30 and usually go outside and run or do something moderately strenuous. I return to the shelter when the kitchen opens up for breakfast at about 8, grab a bowl of muesli or a couple fried eggs if they’re being served that day, and hang out in the cafe reading, writing, or conversing with the many guests and staff I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know so far. Many a good conversation ranging from cultures to traveling stories to the nature of good and evil have transpired in this room where I now write. At 10am, my merry team of three (including myself) short-term cleaning volunteers and one of the longer-term volunteer staff members will gather, have a devotion, and then divide up chores for the day which consist primarily of room changeover for guests that will check in during the afternoon. I’ve gotten a lot of experience changing bed linens and cleaning community bathrooms.

One of our merry cleaning crew and I taking an evening to discover Dutch stroopwafels.

Our aim is to finish all the guest floors by 1:30pm (I think we’ve met that goal once… It’s a process), after which we scarf down lunch. We then have afternoon chores to do. On quick days, we can finish by 3pm. Some days take longer. Afternoon/evening free time has been spent going to visit Amsterdam attractions, walking around the city, taking sprinter trains out to nearby villages, and more. Some days have simply involved staying around the shelter reading, hanging out with people, playing piano and guitar, working on puzzles and playing card games, or waiting for laundry. Dinner is eaten with the group of volunteer staff, and then evenings look like more of the same. It’s a great version of life I’m enjoying at the moment.

What a place.

There are still internal struggles — still waiting for answers as far as what will come next after Ukraine. Still knocking on doors and having no other option than waiting for God to open one. But He’s been faithful and will continue to be. I’m looking forward to the time when I’ll finally know, but getting a bit more comfortable every day with the limbo.

One more week before I head to Ukraine. Looking forward to making these Amsterdam hours count before then. Until next post,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *