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.

“Bag Drop will not open until 7!” Great. The first time I turn up early for something and this is what happens. It’s 5:56pm and I am at the rubbish end of the airport, with a suitcase twice the size of me (although they often are), and the duty-free perfumes and abnormally large chocolates seem further away than ever. As an argument breaks out between an unreasonable traveller and a member of staff, I decide to back away and sit patiently. Turns out Schiphol airport doesn’t cater well for such delays so, in the absence of chairs, I plonk myself in the middle of the floor. I notice business people around me with their laptops out, making their position on the floor look a tad more respectable. I follow their example and get mine out. Just as I’m getting comfortable in my floor space, a cleaner comes up beside me and asks if I’m “still using” the long-discarded flyer, sticky sweet packet and chewed lolly stick by my foot. Clearly the laptop didn’t improve my look.

My first semester in Utrecht is almost over. If life continues as quick as my time at university is I’d better start researching bingo nights and coach holidays for my retirement years. The last few weeks of term were not so much taken over by Love Actually, Elf and Christmas Crafternoons as I had so excitably forecast, but instead had become almost entirely procrasternoons (you can rest assured, this term will never take off). In reality I was attempting revision and group assignments – neither Christmassy nor crafty. Food and dance breaks were plentiful, used as desperate attempts to supress excessive boredom and stress. These so-called breaks, however, were often elongated. In truth, food and dance sessions were rudely interrupted by the odd revision break.

While I struggle with revision and keeping up with reading it fascinates me how non-native English speaking students manage them so well. All of the classes that include international students, and many other general classes at Utrecht University, are taught in English. Now there’s being able to read English and then there’s being able to read academic English. Academics often feel the need to write as if every individual word has been sautéed with lashings of red wine jus, resulting in sentences that I wish had a “Press for simple English” button. Having said that the Dutch probably speak better English than I does. It almost feels rude asking if they speak English as the reply is always “of course!” which could be Dutch for “why would I not?” Not only does everyone speak English but most do so with a fluidity that suggests it’s more second nature than a second language.


And yet there comes the occasional moment of comic confusion. Most Dutch English-speakers put a Sean Connery-style “sh” on the letter ‘s’. I walked into a café and the waitress kindly enquired if I’d like to “sit by the window.” You can imagine why I gave the waitress a slightly blank look.

During my time at home in Cardiff for Christmas I wondered whether I could implement some Dutch traditions into my British lifestyle. Starting with a trip to a friend’s house – 15 minutes up the road – theoretically easily reachable by bicycle. Down to the cellar I went to retrieve my cobweb-covered bike… And then back up again to call for help after finding it playing a game of Twister with five other bikes and my Razor scooter from ‘03. In Holland a helmet is not part of the cycling attire. In fact there really is no such thing as cycling attire. Spent your night at a smart gathering in your newest heels and dress given to you as an expensive Christmas present? Not to worry! Save on petrol money and hop on your bike, you won’t look out of place.

With upright bicycles providing a good vantage point, separate cycle paths and an attitude that prioritises cyclists (giving them right of way on fietstraten where cars are considered guests), rarely do you feel at risk when travelling between locations. In Cardiff, as in most other cities across the UK, this is certainly not the case. My mum’s huge, highly embarrassing high-vis jacket in the porch is enough to prove it. With my helmet securely in place I set off. The cars parked over the painted cycle lane give you no choice but to venture onto car territory, much to the drivers’ annoyance. You are then faced with making the tricky decision of cycling along the line of parked cars, at the risk of being knocked off by opening doors and overtaking vehicles, or in the middle of the road where, quite frankly, you are not welcome. Unscathed, apart from a damaged right eardrum from an angry car horn, I arrived at my destination. Not half the relaxing trip that I’ve been used to in Utrecht and not one I’ll be making again anytime soon. Coming home from a city where cycling is a joy to one where cycling is a challenge certainly put things into perspective. I hung up my helmet, shook off the abuse and dreaded the journey back.

ellen bike blog

Living in an 18-storey building and having friends that live across the road on the 14th floor of theirs, I have become quite accustomed to using the lift. An excellent invention which, apart from providing a tempting alternative to the staircase and surely contributing to this podgy winter season of mine, allows members of the building to meet each other and engage in interesting discussion. Or does it? During this lift-using semester I have come to notice how awkward humans become in a small metal box with another person and a 5-level journey. Perhaps a sheepish “hi” on entry if you’re lucky and a friendly “bye” on exit if you’re really lucky. In between, however, discussion is a no-no and eye contact is to be avoided at all costs. I wonder what the pre-mobile phone generation did to pretend to act busy. I can’t count how many times I have unnecessarily texted a friend, faked receiving a e-mail or scanned through photos I have seen multiple times. Even when boarding the lift with a group of friends with conversation in full flow and one stranger is present, the ability to speak is lost until we reach the desired floor. Either that or discussion turns to under-the-breath murmurs and whispers. On one occasion, instead of practising the common etiquette of staring at the floor, my fellow lift commuter actually stood facing the wall for the entire two-minute journey. I know lifts can be awkward but even I can’t see how embedding your face in metal can be less agonising than a short human encounter. As predicted she swiftly scuttled out on floor 6. It seems she was not even the “hi” and “bye” sort.

Ellen Leach-Hutchings

Images courtesy of Ellen Leach-Hutchings and Daniella Weduwer

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