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.
How is it the final term already? It seems years since I was at Leeds Uni, yet time here has gone so quickly. Excitement to return to my friends and life at Leeds is mixed with a slight uneasy feeling about going back to reality. I tend to take life by short-sighted steps, which often results in very last-minute decisions about the next stage. I’d spent so long focusing on the year abroad that was ahead that I seemed to have forgotten about the part that came afterwards, the part where you have to start considering that job thing that parents moan about. Up until now I had convinced myself that I have ages to decide, and have reassured myself that it would simply come to me in due course. Thing is, “ages” is going unnervingly quickly, and “it” must have got lost en route. I could start planning now of course, but the Utrecht stage of my life is not over yet, and so for the next month the future can wait.
One module, a gym membership, an Erasmus grant and heaps of free time equals the perfect recipe for a spontaneous, athletic, jet setting, unstoppable new me. Let’s look at this through process of elimination. ‘Athletic’ we can swiftly discard. I have the best intentions, I really do. I have planned so many early gym trips and jogs in the woods. It all seems so achievable the night before. It’s keeping the motivation going overnight through to the next morning I have trouble with. I justify this through viewing the most mundane of activities as exercise. Jigging my leg at my desk – educational interval training – or walking upstairs from the kitchen – an intense calorie corroding activity – or even sitting up in bed – a crunch that Jessica Ennis could only dream of. I have my flabs of steel to prove it. And on the rare occasion I manage to force myself to go on a run, I feel like an absolute hero, and expect praise and congratulations from strangers throughout the day.
While bike rides have become more frequent this term, even I refrain from counting them as exercise. I haven’t yet checked the dictionary, but I would be rather surprised to find a Dutch word for ‘incline’. The flat terrain of the Netherlands allows for a breezy cycle and very little strain – a contributing factor I’m sure to why so many elderly people continue to cycle. While in the UK, age is almost synonymous with decreased mobility, but in the Netherlands age is hardly an excuse to stop cycling. Expecting an 80-year-old to cycle to the shops in Britain would seem ridiculous. In the Netherlands, it’s the norm.
‘Jet setting’, however, has been achieved with significantly higher success. Not always the most predictable excursions – New York and Dublin came as a pleasant surprise – and a trip home to see S Club 7 was not exactly very Dutch or year abroad-like but I have made sure to squeeze as much Dutchness into my final months as possible. First, a trip to the Kinderdijk windmills, of which I was a big fan (you’re welcome). The kind of Dutch you only see on postcards, Kinderdijk was the epitome of foreigner’s perception of rural Netherlands. Then, of course, there was King’s Day, or Koningsdag: the day I had been anticipating the most since arriving in September. Formerly Queen’s Day, before Willem-Alexander’s succession to the throne in 2014, King’s day is the celebration of the King’s birthday, and is an opportunity to celebrate all things Dutch and dress head to toe in Orange – the country’s national colour. A rainy forecast soon turned to beaming sunshine, with the sun getting the orange memo just in time. After the retiring adrenaline junkie in me got a 360 degree view of Amsterdam on rides in Dam square, my friends and I proceeded to Koningsdag Festival in Amsterdam’s Olympic stadium, as did the King, I’m sure.
And a rare miracle: I’d actually heard of some of the DJs. Diplo I knew well by this point (i.e. I could recognise a song). At another festival I had asserted that I had definitely heard of him/her/it/them (unsure), before realising I was probably thinking of the word ‘Duplo’. For those who are not acquainted with this word, Duplo bricks are larger versions of Lego bricks suitable for children aged 1 to 5.
DJ knowledge aside, the day was without doubt one of the best I’ve had here. A celebration of not only the King, but also a celebration of how lucky I am to be studying in such a vibrant, beautiful country.
As a perfect end to a very Dutch week, we decided to catch a glimpse of Keukenhof’s famous tulips. With the average visitor aged about 65, I felt very young as I dangerously weaved between wheelchair and Zimmer frame traffic. The tulip displays were much more organised and symmetrical than I’d expected. I’d pictured open fields of wild flowers and windmills, but this was far more similar to what I’d seen at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff a few weeks before, orchid you not. Still, a glorious day which provided some excellent photographic opportunities and a taste of traditional Dutch culture.
Studying abroad in the Netherlands has bee without a doubt the best decision I have made. While friends’ exchange photos of beaches and road trips in sunny Australia and the US often leave me feeling very jealous and very pale, I have to remind myself of how lucky I have been to experience a culture that is so different to my own. When explaining to friends where I am studying, I find myself having to define Utrecht by its proximity to Amsterdam, grossly undermining the magnificence of this small city. While Amsterdam excels in its tourist attractions and nightlife, Utrecht is a living example of the functionality and efficiency of modern Dutch life. I have fallen in love with cycling in any weather to any location. I have learnt to admire Dutch bluntness, which so greatly contrasts with my reserved, overly polite Britishness. Sorry. I have grown used to the confused frown I receive every time I ask for cold milk with my tea. I am in awe of how stylish they are, whether it is 5-year-old boy or an 80-year-old woman. Attempts to replicate Dutch fashion on myself haven’t gone to plan, and usually result in a slug-like trail of trouser leg dragging behind me through the changing room, and waistline hems that try and synch me in at the knee, because only children in the Netherlands have torsos as short as mine. I’m ever impressed at how active they are at every stage of their life, even the non leg-jiggers. I continue to be amazed at their unfettered ability and willingness to speak English in their own country, when all I can do is hope for the best by replying with an uncertain “Dank je wel” to any statement.
With my time in Utrecht nearly up, I’m older (certainly), wiser (arguably) but still ever so slightly lost (occasionally). And yet fuelled by some usually-alcohol-free Dutch courage, in the past 10 months I’m proud to say I have made big strides – not literally of course. My mental map of the city is gradually joining up the dots.
Maybe if you visit Utrecht in a few years time you’ll spot an athletically built tour guide making her way hesitantly around the wrong places of the city, followed by significant amounts of excess trouser leg. Be sure to shout loudly though, she’ll probably be listening to some Duplo.
Images courtesy of Ellen Leach-Hutchings