Left: The Dom Tower in the city center. It’s the tallest landmark in the city, and makes for a good meeting place if you ever get lost.
Right: The Neude is a square full of open-air bars and cafes. Especially popular in the afternoon and night.
I’ve been living in Utrecht for over a month now, but it’s only been a week since actual school has started. It’s fascinating living in a city that’s three times as old as your entire home country, with all the old architecture, canals, and culture. Definitely a good change of pace from the concrete buildings of UCSD.
Out of the 300,000+ people who live here, more than 60,000 of them are students. Word has it that the male-female ratio is 3:7, which doesn’t hurt. Most of the international students I’m studying with are in their early twenties and well into their Masters program. A large majority of the international students I’ve met are studying international law. As an 18 year old bachelor’s student, there does feel like a bit of an age gap, although the older students don’t seem to mind.
You can’t say you’ve experienced the Netherlands until you’ve actually rode a bike. The city of Utrecht has been master planned around the bike, with bikes having their own dedicated lanes — not just a couple white lines on the main road like in California. Sometimes it seems as if there are more bikes than people, and it’s adorable watching parents put their children in wooden carts attached to the front, or in high-chairs strapped to the back. When it comes to crime, all that really happens here is bike theft. The local junkies usually hang around the train station and sell stolen bikes for 10-15 euros versus 70+ euros at the secondhand store, and it’s well-known that students go to the junkies for cheap bikes. It’s not unheard of to spend as much money on the lock as on the bike, and getting your bike stolen is almost like a rite of passage here.
Still, traveling back home at night feels safe. A lot of the female students noted that they get a sense of security here that they don’t get at home, and it’s one of those things that I may be “aware” of as a straight male, but will never truly understand. And since we’re on gender, the city has placed public urinals in select areas around the parks, so drunk men can pee in plastic containers rather than on the street. It’s a nice set-up, but there’s no female equivalent.
The weather is constantly changing. The key here would be to layer your clothes. We’ve enjoyed sunshine and warmth for the past couple weeks, but now autumn is coming and the chill is starting to settle in. Umbrellas are useful, although I haven’t learned how to balance an umbrella and the bike at the same time during stormy winds.
This seems like a European thing, but I adore the open-air cafes they have here. You can just relax, enjoy a cup of coffee outside, and just watch people pass by for an entire afternoon. If you’re going to take a coffee break at a cafe, set aside at least an hour. Dutch service is famous for being slow and indifferent, but at the same time they let you mind your own business.
Businesses close a lot earlier here, many as early as around 6 o’clock. The important exceptions are the grocery store (the local Albert Heijn, which is the Dutch equivalent of Safeway, Ralphs, or Albertsons) which closes at 10 o’clock, and the bars, clubs, and Turkish restaurants which are open until the wee hours of the night. The Turkish restaurants get especially interesting after midnight, when all the drunk people stumble in after a night’s worth of partying for some kebabs or fries.
And it is true — the Dutch are very friendly. Ask a stranger a question and more likely than not, they’ll go out of their way to help you. This doesn’t mean that every Dutch person is peaches and cream, and I’ve already experienced my fair share of wagging fingers from random strangers, but it’s good to know that people won’t be trying to screw you over at every possible turn. People trust each other, and it allows for smoother social interactions.
I’m making huge generalizations right now, but I’ll be able to go into more detail as the year passes. For now, I’m having an amazing time.