Postcard from Abroad – Universiteit Utrecht the Netherlands
Ellen is a friendly, semi-professional procrastinator who talks a little too much and thinks about what she’s saying a little too little. Born and bred in Cardiff, she was educated through the medium of Welsh which she uses with friends in both general conversation and as an excellent code language. She’s studying in Utrecht – the city where a canal bridge is your road and a bicycle is your car. As a BA Geography student, it could be assumed that her navigation skills are highly developed. However, arrange to meet somewhere and you’re likely to find her in the general area but heading off, with purpose, in the wrong direction. Luckily, being lost in a city as pretty as Utrecht is not half bad.
“It’s a black bike.” Somehow my description didn’t quite help the two passers by who hopelessly searched for my missing bike. It was around 4:30am and we were standing amongst a spider web of bicycles in the pitch black outside a nightclub. They hadn’t the faintest idea where my bike could be and, truthfully, neither did I. I could vaguely recall cycling in and had flashbacks of spilling beer all down myself, but besides that the whole night was hazy. Had I even locked it? Who knew? After a good 20 minutes of faffing around with phone lights and trawling through the hundreds of other black bikes, which were identical to the one I had so helpfully described, I decided to call it a night and was forced to spend a sobering €20 on a 10 minute taxi home. Bargain.
It’s the beginning of a new semester and, for me, the beginning of life in new accommodation. As much as living in a studio apartment has its benefits – watching countless episodes of Gogglebox and Friends with no judgement and being able to roll from my bed to my fridge – there’s only a certain amount of time someone like me can have a meal for one on a table for four and, however much I may enjoy Gogglebox, it neither has the ability to make conversation nor tell me when I should lay off the peanut butter.
The first indication that a studio flat wasn’t for me occurred one evening while I was making toast. As has happened many times before the toast burnt, setting off the smoke alarm. The issue here was that the reset button was on the smoke alarm, which was conveniently located on the ceiling. As an individual that just about scrapes 5”2 on a good day, the device was not in reach. Eventually I had to use my chair as a platform from which I launched myself into the air countless times to no avail. Luckily a neighbour was slightly less vertically challenged and was able to help. An alarming incident to say the least. With close friends leaving in January I decided that having a change of scene and moving to a more social environment, where tall people could be of assistance in times of need, would be beneficial.
It’s a bizarre feeling saying goodbye to people you’ve known for only a few months but have formed such a close friendship with. I can only blame myself for making friends from Australia and California. Having friends in different time zones is something completely new to me. Writing the generic ‘how was your day?’ text now requires mathematical consideration which, for someone who had to use an online calculator for 400÷20, is quite the challenge.
On the rare occasion that my primary school maths pulls through, I have been able to Skype my friends and have a disorientating conversation, where one of us is half asleep, pale and dazed having just woken up, and the other is sat near the window with the sun blazing in onto their healthy exotic tan. Obviously I’m the latter.
I can honestly say that I don’t miss having a flat to myself one bit. My current location is on a 1950s suburban lookalike street… Just a little more rustic with a slight eau de ‘gone-off milk’. A row of five sliding doors allows for maximum social activity and mobility between each flat, making it feel as though you have 19 other flatmates as opposed to 3. So far activities have included a Chinese New Year feast, a Mexican night, a trip to Maastricht Carnival and an upcoming beer pong competition, for which I have been practicing with scrunched up paper and a bin. The bin has never gotten very full.
My highlight so far has been Carnaval in Maastricht. Originally a European Pagan spring festival, the carnival consisted of a feast celebrated in the three days leading up to Ash Wednesday and Lent. The celebration focused on role reversal and participants were encouraged to forget behavioural norms. Traditionally the mayor would symbolically hand over the key of the city to Prince Carnival. During the three days of celebration the Prince would run a temporary establishment of his Kingdom of Fools.
Although religious ties have weakened in modern times I certainly felt as though I’d journeyed into a kingdom of fools, myself included. Even the weather decided to take part in the role reversal and, for the first time since I can remember, we experienced a warm, sunny day. The costumes were fabulous, putting every homemade costume of my childhood to shame, and the atmosphere was contagious. We walked through parades and found ourselves in the middle of the square where food carts, beer tents and DJ sets had been set up. It seemed that every Dutch citizen had gathered there, including toddlers, teenagers and elderly people, who seemed to enjoy the DJ sets as much as we did.
Unfortunately my hip-happenin’, party-going lifestyle has come to a brief end due to the tremendous pile of work that has accumulated in the past week. Before arriving in Utrecht I made the rookie error of assuming that ‘Year Abroad’ roughly translated to ‘Year Disguised As A Year Of University That Consists of So Little Work That It Is Basically A Year Out’. How naïve I was. With constant work and little holiday I often have to remind myself to make the most of the time I have here. While I may moan about the workload, Dutch students seem to just get on with it. They even keep their cool during periods where British students are at their most flustered.
I had just entered the exam hall and braced myself for commands from invigilators to place my bag and coat at the front of the hall. After noticing others keeping theirs with them, I copied, feeling the most rebellious I’d felt since the day I’d worn odd socks to uni. Out came my clear pencil case and water bottle, with which I’d spent five minutes that morning scraping under the tap to remove the label. Out of the bag of the girl next to me came a cotton pencil case and blue water bottle, followed by half a loaf of bread and some cheese. This girl really was living on the edge. British eyes darted around the room at the sight of her coloured water bottle. As the papers were handed out, I waited patiently for the familiar “you may turn over the page.” With no such instruction, and before I’d even received my sheet, students began writing.
It was the most relaxed exam I had ever sat, with students getting up and walking to the toilet and standing up for a stretch before a short sandwich break. I knew the Dutch authorities had a relaxed approach to sex and drugs but the cavalier stance on coloured-water-bottles-in-an-exam-setting was a game changer. I’m beginning to enjoy – if you can really say that – the relaxed Dutch exam style. Maybe next time I’ll bring my patterned pencil case. I think I’m ready.
Images courtesy of Ellen Leach-Hutchings