After moving from India and living in the very north of The Netherlands for four long years as a PhD student, I ask myself: what are the unique attributes that make one feel that they belong in the Dutch society?
By Saikat Chatterjee
Well, when it comes to living the life in a vibrant student city like Groningen, it’s hard to choose only one attribute which makes this place so special: weekend party in Peperstraat? Wednesday jam session at O’Malley’s? A lazy Saturday brunch at Huis de Beurs? Or a philosophical walk on a winter afternoon through Noorderplatsoen? Aside from the usual complaints about Dutch rain and wind, I believe the city of bikes never really fails to surprise its international residents in one way or the other.
The city of bikes never really fails to surprise its international residents
In my case, after spending 23 years of life in the very big, crowded Indian mega-city of Calcutta, I needed the space and time to spend with myself, with my research, music and art; somewhere far beyond my comfort zone. And guess what? The individualistic, liberal lifestyle of this country gave me that freedom in the truest sense of the term.
Starting with the work and research ethics I’ve observed in an academic setting, becoming an independent being is strongly supported by promoters and supervisors from day one. The personal and professional lives of students hardly intersect within the walls of the university, which is not always the case in a comparatively conservative society like India. Another very strong characteristic of Dutch people is being direct, which has certainly influenced my personality over the past few years, too.
I have to say that I’ve also seen some of the extremes of this individualism. Being alone can be sometimes unknowingly transform into being lonely, and that can affect one’s psychological well-being in the long run. In the beginning of their college life, most students move out of their parents’ house, start living in a student house or with their partner; that is something that I’ve always observed and interpreted from an outsider’s perspective. I do miss the connectedness in a societal structure that leads to a local collective happiness between neighboring families and houses and relatives. Here, I don’t even know who lives next door!
Here, I don’t even know who lives next door!
Now, let’s really get into the big questions! Is it hard for an international student to find friends in this city? Of course not! But is it hard to befriend a native Dutch speaker if you don’t speak Dutch? My experience has been that yes, it’s tough. It takes time to get into their sphere, and the language barrier is one of the main reasons, but it’s not impossible. Look at it from another perspective: what’s the situation in France or Germany or Italy or Spain? Could you survive there without speaking their local languages? Hardly! In that sense, you can not only survive, but thrive, and lead a spectacular life in Groningen (and most cities in The Netherlands) without speaking Dutch at all. To me, the welcoming atmosphere of the city meant that it didn’t take too long for me to feel at home here.
A blog on Groningen would be incomplete if I didn’t mention the art and music scenes here: there are so many opportunities to meet young, talented musicians in plenty of cafes and pubs, and the odds of ending up performing or jamming together is high. When it comes to a lively night life, that speaks for itself. I personally rediscovered my musical side living here. Although it’s a quite small town, there are a remarkable number of art galleries all around, which is evidence of Dutch people’s appreciation for artwork and paintings.
When it comes to the economy, my observation is that this city (and the country in general) is very stable. Capitalist notions like free private enterprises, private land and property ownership give a lot of freedom to the young entrepreneurs to make their dreams a reality. Politically-speaking, governmental involvement in an individual’s life is minimal, aside from providing tools like healthcare and unemployment benefits which ultimately improve welfare and freedom. The societal hierarchy is also quite flat and equality is maintained in virtually every situation. As far as I’m concerned, this is a very good example of a modern, capitalist, liberal society.
In the Netherlands, it seems that this pluralistic society has managed to leave more freedom in the hands of the individual, leaving it to them create their own meaning and interpretation of life. With Groningen being very international, residents here are quite compassionate and concerned about social issues like immigrant welfare, minorities, gender/racial discrimination, etc., and the government seems to consider the opinions of the masses in a democratic fashion.
While I tried to cover as many aspects of Dutch society as I could from my perspective in this blog, it’s nearly impossible to express the experience of life through words unless one really resides and lives here. I think in economic, political and cultural terms, this society can be a role model for other countries. Bet hat as it may, at times my eastern upbringing still brings me to some undeniable observations, such as how capital has taken the responsibility for being the measure of one’s pleasure, how everything from art to spiritualism has turned into a commercial product, and how morality has taken their place in private drawing rooms.
Some might say that we live in a world today where truth and error have become synonymous, and facts are limiting: matter of fact is a matter of interpretation. Still, dear reader, I finish this blog with a hope that you are brave enough to question your individualistic existence and find a deeper collectivistic meaning of life beyond this modern capitalism.