‘How do you like your Erasmus in the Netherlands? I bet you’re partying all the time?’ This is the reaction no. 1. Sometimes there’s also the reaction no. 2. ‘The university there, it’s probably so much better than ours, right? You’re not gonna want to come back?’
Again, the reaction no. 1 occurred much more often than the second one. Why do we need all these stereotypes? Do you want me to nod and smile, and confirm that the 6-month Erasmus experience is nothing but a blissful time with no responsibility at all? Well when it comes to Groningen, I have to disappoint you. Being an exchange student in the Netherlands is so much more than just partying all night long.
Colorful student reality
When the crazy Introduction Week is over and when the first honeymoon phase is gone, you’ll have… another rainy morning. You get up, only to find out that warm water is gone because the student manager forgot to call a plumber. Then you climb up your bike and start making your way through the city, along with the rest of the students.
Here’s a couple of things to know about studying abroad. First of all – the language barrier. It doesn’t matter how good you are in speaking English. The moment I started reading academic scripts about the theory of culture (which I don’t understand even in Polish), I seriously began to doubt that I will ever pass any exam. Second of all – the organization. Every student has its own internet account where they can find information regarding all the courses, classes, the required scripts, texts, announcements, and schedules. It took me a good couple of days to find myself in this cybernetic jungle.
And that was only the beginning. Because it turned out that if you want to find any materials for the next class, you just got to become friends with the university library. Not only because it’s obligatory, but also because it’s really worth it. Everything is perfectly organized; the lockers where you can leave your stuff, small baskets to transport books, or cards for the printer.
After a few days, it was totally normal for me to visit the library after every class. What’s interesting is that among the students, this place is known to be one of the best places to develop the social life. Would you like to show off your new, trendy blouse? Go to the library. You’re wondering where to see that cute guy from the last lecture? Run to the library, he’s already there for sure. Are you looking for a good place to have a cup of coffee with a friend? The library, 4th floor, comfy coffee place with a romantic view of the whole city. ‘Oh and since I’m here, I’ll get some books for the next essay’. True story.
When it comes to the atmosphere on the campus, I will be totally honest with you. Never before have I met with such kind and respectful attitude towards students, as it happened here on Rijksuniversiteit. The reason for it is, perhaps, that there are so many internationals. Each course group consists of at least half of people coming from outside of the Netherlands. Every year there’s more of around 4.000 students, in total from 115 countries. And more are coming all the time. No surprises here, since the university developed such a great organization. When you’re an exchange student, you feel that people are genuinely interested in your well-being; they simply want you to have a good experience.
One day when it was raining unusually hard, our Art History professor started his lecture by apologizing to the international students for this awful weather! Those little moments all together create a very pleasant, friendly atmosphere on the campus. However, this doesn’t mean that the teachers don’t expect anything from their students. Quite the opposite! Continuous presentations, group meetings, essay writing, scripts brainstorming, literature researching, unlimited number of texts to read, plus obligatory field trips to museums – this is pretty much the life of Culture Studies student in a nutshell.
Distance measured by bikes
But first, you actually have to arrive at the university. Not only there; if you got to arrive pretty much anywhere, you need to own a bike. It is not like you CAN, if you want to, and if you don’t, you don’t need to. ‘Where is your bike?? You didn’t get one yet??’, asked Bas, my ESN friend, with a genuine horror in his eyes. ‘How come you survived 3 days here without a bike?’ At first, I thought: ‘this is stupid, I can walk to the city center in 10 min, why do I even need a bike?’ After a week I was laughing at myself – at how naïve I was back in Wroclaw, so comfortable and posh, commuting by trams.
Here, you would bike everywhere – to the library, for shopping, to a club party, to the ATM on the other side of the street. What I like the most is to see couples in love, biking next to each other, holding hands… Or mommies with three kids, attached to the back of the bike. Or people making their way to the train station, holding a suitcase following them on its small wheels. And it is true – you cannot survive without a bike. Literally.
Try to cross a street in the city center, near the university campus, around noon. It’s impossible – because every second brings a threat of getting killed by supernaturally fast and ‘already late’ students. If you’re not as fast as a puma, you have only one choice: get on your own bike and join the never-ending stream of all the bikers.
But there’s a problem. After reaching your destination, you’ll need to park your vehicle. And that is very difficult because there are too many bikes and not enough parking spots. After 15 min of trying to find a more or less comfortable space for my pink bike, I gave up and simply left it next to some wall. This is the best strategy; no matter where it’s standing, as long as it’s well-secured. Sometimes it pays off more to invest more money in a good-quality lock than in a bike itself.
Stealing bicycles in Groningen is, by the way, the most common crime. One night I found out, in details, how to do it in the fastest and most efficient way. No wonder that on every street corner there is another drug addict who is trying to sell you a bike for 5 euro. Great deal; pity though that it’s stolen.
On a bright side, when you live in one house with 40 other international students, there is always somebody who is eager to help with wheel problems. In Kraneweg we even had our very own ‘bike guy’. Andrei from Romania liked to spend his free time in the backyard, fixing broken bicycles. You can thank him later – there’s going to be a party in the house at night anyway – so just bring him a couple of beers. And if in any case your vehicle got stolen, Andrei will sell you a new one the next day…
Friendships that last a lifetime
When you live in an international student house, you naturally get to learn how to adapt to a society that breathes diversity. Give it some time and you’ll get used to pretty much anything. Also, you realize that there is no need to leave the house and go to the city because everything you need is at home. Would you like to try an exotic meal? Why going to a restaurant if next Friday there’s another International Dinner. Every nationality prepares a characteristic dish. Thanks to this amazing initiative I was able to taste food from almost every corner of the world: super spicy Indian chicken, deliciously spiced Chinese rice, mouthwatering Swiss raclette or suspiciously too sweet pink mouse from Czech Republic (after which almost everybody got diarrhea…)
Say you need to cut your hair – don’t go to a hairdresser. Instead, just go to the third floor and talk to Jolene from Canada who (in exchange for vegan lasagna) will create a perfect hairdo. You’d like to visit Belgium but you don’t have a company? The American girl, Erica, is just waiting to see another European city on her ‘must-see’ list. And don’t even get me started about the party schedule…
So really, the most beautiful things in my exchange experience are… people. And it doesn’t matter at all if they are from Poland, Russia, Brazil, Switzerland, Canada… You can become soul mates no matter the language you speak. There’s also another amazing thing about living in an international environment: in the future, while traveling around Europe, you’ll always have somebody to visit! Friends who can’t wait to host you at their houses… Wonderfully practical, isn’t it?
Do I really have to leave?
After 6 months spent on Erasmus exchange, I was super sad just at the thought of coming back to Poland. Of course, Erasmus can be a kind of ‘vacation’ from the ‘regular’ student life. Sure you have to study (a lot) but there are much fewer classes and, let’s be honest, the exchange students are not really treated that seriously on their alma mater while being away.
When studying in another country, I also had an opportunity to live and learn together with people from all around the world. I could get to know their cultures in real life; not just from the sophisticated academic scripts. What’s more, Erasmus teaches how to be open, understanding, curious, kind, and flexible when meeting new people. And that is one of the most (if not THE most) important lesson a person can learn, ever.
This is why I strongly believe that absolutely everybody should experience international exchange. Not only to see how it feels. For me, Erasmus has been one of the best and interesting events in my whole life. So if you’re hesitating whether or not go on an exchange; please do not think more – just go! And if you don’t know where – I recommend Groningen in the Netherlands. Just don’t forget to bring a bike.
If you’re interested in expat lifestyle, check my other articles in the Nomad Life section; there’s something about Portugal, Poland, and Lithuania!