Ekaterina Netchitailova is an academic who recently moved to Leeuwarden. She has lived in four different countries and in a number of different cities, so how did the Frisian capital seem to a complete newcomer? This is the first in a three-part series exploring feeling ‘home’ in Friesland
By Ekaterina Netchitailova
When I left Amsterdam thirteen years ago to work in Brussels, and then settle for good twelve years in the north of England (Sheffield), I didn’t expect that I would return to the Netherlands, as the task seemed monumental. By then I had lived in four different countries (Russia, Belgium, Netherlands, and the UK), while having managed to live in the same country twice (Belgium). With time one starts to appreciate the feeling of being settled, of having favourite places to go where one feels like a local rather than a tourist, and where one has the familiar feeling of the surroundings, the sense that one is at home.
As it turned out, however, I did come back to the Netherlands, and in a rather unexpected manner. There was a job to which I applied, and when I was invited for an interview, I booked two days more to have a look at the place itself. I was suspicious, I have to say, very suspicious. Leeuwarden, where my possible job lay, seemed well too far in the north, in the coldest part of the country, in the middle of nowhere, among the Frisian people who have a reputation to never smile.
I spent hours on looking at the pictures of the town, trying to get a sense of it, build a good visual representation of it in my head. Would I like it? I didn’t go as far as hoping to love it, but just feeling all right in Leeuwarden would be enough for me at that stage. The job was fantastic and it would be a welcoming change, since I was extremely disappointed in the UK on a political level, and was no longer attracted to what had enticed me to England in the first place, such as a spirit of academic innovation, welcoming of different cultures, and great minds in literature and film industry. From these three descriptions only the last one seemed to continue to flourish, but for the rest, it looked like the country had made a really bad choice in voting for Brexit.
The unexpectedness of Leeuwarden presented itself as soon as I emerged at the Schiphol airport. The Dutch efficiency failed in the matter of a promised direct train (according to the schedule), and I had to take a train to one town, then a bus to Zolle, and finally an almost empty train delivered me to Leeuwarden. By the time I arrived, I was indeed convinced that it was absolutely in the middle of nowhere. This feeling was reinforced by the absence of any taxis at the station, and the pouring rain. By the time I came to my hotel, I thought that maybe the job interview wasn’t such a good idea. It was also quite late, and thus, I couldn’t go out and enjoy any sight-seeing.
But the second unexpected surprise during my journey happened at the hotel. I had to book a WTC hotel slightly away from all the main attractions, as the city center was overbooked, which I couldn’t comprehend really, as I wasn’t sure what exactly people wanted to do in Leeuwarden. Was it indeed such a popular destination with tourists, and to see what? Yes, the pictures I had found on the Internet, showed the Oldehove, some museums and some nice cafes, but from the short description it looked like all this could be done in a couple of hours, why book a hotel for the night?
The WTC hotel has a restaurant called Eleve, situated on the eleventh floor, that I had pre-booked, just in case I arrived late. I didn’t expect much (Friesland isn’t really famous for its food, together with the rest of the Netherlands), but in the middle of my dinner (I had ordered a dish called beef brisket as my main dish), I had to acknowledge an interesting fact: it was one of the best (if not the best) food I had ever tried. A quick Google search revealed that I was actually dining in a Michelin restaurant, a detail that the hotel and the restaurant failed to emphasize clearly on their site. Welcome to the Netherlands, I thought at that point, a country where its citizens have an absolute underestimation of their own uniqueness. But of course, I was in a different part of the Netherlands. Friesland is a land on its own, that glorious part of the country that Frisian people had built on a watery landscape, and where because of their absolute uniqueness, they tend to underemphasize this fact – letting the newcomers figure it out all by themselves.
‘Mhh,’ I thought by the point when my Dame Blanche, also the best I’d ever tried, was finished, “Leeuwarden looks like it’s a place which might turn out to be full of surprises.”
I couldn’t wait for the next day to see whether my feeling was right.
The next installment of Ekaterina’s story will be released next week. Stay tuned for more!
Image via Ekaterina Netchitailova