Living the Utrecht Life
It’s only practical to begin with some background information. For starters, I’m an Asian who has never stepped out of my home country for the last 24 years of my life. When I got my acceptance letter from Hogeschool Utrecht, I had no idea what my exact emotions were at that moment nor did I have a clue of what to expect out of this. I was probably undergoing a cumulative effect of being excited yet nervous, curious yet already homesick. Anyway, there was no more looking back. My tickets were booked to attend the Spring Semester at Hogeschool Utrecht and I had my bags packed (almost).
As an international student moving into a continent that resembles almost nothing of my roots, it took me a few days to wrap my head around the culture and habits of the people living here; a few stereotypes shattered, a few kept to its word but at the end it was all worth the wait.
Just like every other expat coming in from a tropical country that brings out its ‘winter’ clothes when the temperature drops to 20 degrees (scarves and sometimes mufflers, included), I found myself wrapped in multiple layers of clothing to beat the Netherlands’ wind-chill for a couple of months since the day I landed. The sun did peep out to say hello to the Dutch every now and then, but typically my first few days was about the cold, rains and wind (and the snow for about 2 days, yaay!).
Having said that, I realized nothing stops the Dutch from their routine. Except for picnicking in the park or beach (which by the way, is a glorious sight to witness during Spring and Summer), I saw the Dutch just going with the flow, which included biking and jogging through chill winds and rains, chilling inside the warmth of quaint Dutch cafes and even outside by the canals! True Dutch spirit, I must say.
Anyway, going back to the reason I moved here: to pursue a semester exchange in a school in the Netherlands. For starters, most schools here are not close to what we are probably used to watching in the movies. The campuses normally don’t spread across acres of land with ancient buildings glorifying the past. It’s minimalistic in the sense it gives you exactly what you need, which includes a bar on campus in most Universities and schools.
Most of the socializing, however, happens in the student accommodations, that normally have a good balance of Dutch, European and other international students. Although the culture of sharing rooms isn’t too common amongst the Dutch, students share a house and common amenities. This calls for a rather perfect balance of having your quiet, alone time and loud, social nights. It’s also the best way as an international student, especially on an exchange to meet their buddies as frequent social gatherings including parties, house meals or even outdoor activities are planned. Personally for me, the best part was not only meeting people from various countries across the globe but also living with them and taking part in their culture, tasting their food and drink mixes, playing their drinking games, listening to their commercial music and picking up sentences from their language. It almost feels like I’ve travelled to their countries.
Apart from the student housing, many student bodies in Utrecht plan out some excellent activities especially dedicated to international students. I attended a couple of events organized by ESN Utrecht as well as Buddy Go Dutch. ESN Utrecht is a great community to be part of as not only do they host the best international student night every Tuesday, but even organize sporting activities and even cultural outings specific to the Netherlands. They also provide assistance with practical matters including housing and transportation. Buddy Go Dutch was a more personal platform to get to know the Dutch. For starters, the organization pairs you up with a Dutch buddy based on similar interests. While they organize a bi-weekly drinking activity, you and your newly found Dutch buddy can always hang out at your own convenience.
If either of this ain’t your cup of tea and you’d like to be in the midst of a rather matured, post-teen/school crowd, Meetup is a great platform to form a network. I’ve used Meetup to have a quiet afternoon playing board games indoors to go kayaking when I’m in the mood for some adventure. The people here, are primarily international folk looking for a like minded community to be part of.
Utrecht is also is beautiful town to live by yourself. As an Indian, having spent most of my life in the most crowded cities, to walk the streets lining the dimly-lit canals and chilling in the parks by the lake side was the most soothing experience ever.
At the end of your time here, you sure would be the first one telling your friends back at home, “The Netherlands is more than just Amsterdam and all things legal”.