Learning

Wednesday 23 July 2014

The Weekly Read: Two months into my Dutch Erasmus experience

Colin Layde

Published 21/03/2014|13:56

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utrecht - Holland
utrecht - Holland

I knew very little about Utrecht prior to arriving here eight weeks ago, the city is a 25 minute train journey from Amsterdam and I envisaged spending much of free time in the Dutch capital.

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Yet two months later I have yet to visit the city; a testament to Utrecht’s charms and, in part, my own laziness.

Utrecht is the largest university town in the Netherlands (not Holland which refers to a region not the entire country), with students accounting for 75,000 of the 300,000 population. Many of the students come from across Europe, with Germans being particularly well represented.

The high number of international students makes it easy for Erasmus students to adjust. The Dutch are also extremely polite and helpful, with most having virtually fluent English. Movies in the cinema are even in English with Dutch subtitles, while BBC One and Two are also available on Dutch television.

Utrecht is home to the prestigious Utrecht University, routinely ranked as one of the leading universities in Europe, I attend the rather less salubrious Utrecht University of Applied Sciences or Hogeschool which is located next door.

The colleges are located in De Uithof an industrial estate on the city’s outskirts.

The facilities in the Hogeschool compare favourably to those in DIT, where I study at home. The small class sizes are also a plus and I do modules from both first and second year, meaning I get an opportunity to meet more people.

The academic calendar is structured slightly differently, with the semester broken into two separate blocks. In practice what this means is that you study three modules for the first eight weeks of the semester and another three for the second eight. This has one major drawback, exams in the middle of the semester in addition to at the end.    

Despite the relatively large population, Utrecht feels more like a large town than a city. It is much smaller than Dublin not just in the number of people but also in size.

The city centre is built around the canal which flows through Utrecht, the picturesque pedestrian streets are dotted with an array of bars, restaurants and shops. I’m already looking forward to the summer, when people sit outside the bars along the water’s edge.

The small size and the flat Dutch terrain make it easy to get around, almost everyone cycles to work or college. The city centre is largely pedestrianized, although there is also an excellent all be it expensive public transport service.

Dutch students enjoy unlimited free public transport during the week, unfortunately no such luxury exist for visiting student and I wound up paying €5.20 daily to make the 20 minute round trip to and from college each day prior to purchasing my bike.

Bikes cost between €50 and €100, while a good lock cost around €20. Security is a necessity with the stealing of bikes by homeless people with drug problems being seemingly endemic. You are regularly approached on a night out by a guy on a stolen bike, who then offers to sell you it for between €5 and €10.

It was through this nefarious racket that I purchased my first bike for the princely sum of €10, I wheeled my prize home with a grin from ear to ear. Until the following day when I discovered there was a problem with the brakes, there were none.

I gave the bike back to the city, leaning it against a wall unlocked and purchased another via more conventional means. It’s an eye catching raspberry and I have spray painted parts of it yellow, the hope being that it looks so bad that no one will bother stealing it.

I have really loved my first two months in the lowlands, now that I’m up and cycling I even feel a little Dutch. Everything is gezellig with the world, a Dutch word which has no direct translation in English but is usually associated with feelings of fun, cosiness and togetherness.

The word is said to sum up culture of the Netherlands and the essence of what is to be Dutch.  

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