In the northern capital of the Netherlands, you will occasionally hear the locals (and local football fans) declare, “Nothing tops Groningen.”
By Nina Yakimova
You can take this literally (let’s not fool ourselves: Groningen is at the edge of the world) or metaphorically; either way, it is an expression filled with love, honor, and pride. And if you stay long enough, you too will glow with glee every time you hear someone mention your city on TV or read about it in the newspapers.
Groningen can be harsh – you are miles away from home and family, most of the time it’s cold and dark, and you’re forced to decipher this beautifully weird Dutch language. But it is also loving, exciting, and inclusive.
Home away from home
I first visited Groningen in February 2012. It was dark, damp, and miserable. When I moved (permanently) in the late summer that same year, I knew what to expect. But to my surprise, Groningen welcomed me with green grass, sunshine, and Seurat-esque scenery in every park. Locals and internationals were united by Groningen’s warmth, soaking up the sun, happy and carefree.
Coming from the capital of Bulgaria, with more than two million citizens, the prospect of living in a small town terrified me. I was afraid I would discover everything in Groningen in a day and spend the rest of the year bored and trapped in my student room. But soon enough, Groningen and the rest of the Northern provinces proved me wrong.
From quirky antique winkeltjes and cafesto fancy clubs and restaurants to gardens and lakes, Groningen has everything. Throughout my short stay (it’s about to be six years this August), I have heard people say that the northerners have a reputation of being unwelcoming and somewhat cold. Au contraire: Groningen is always changing, as are its citizens.
Groningen is an international hub. I didn’t feel like I was living in a secluded small town in the far north of the country. Quite the opposite: all of the international students and visitors give the city a hip vibe, which very much reminds me of my hometown. In addition to being immersed in different cultures, I did learn Dutch, which helped me experience Groningen and the local culture in a different way.
Big city life turned small town romance
Falling in love (not only with the country, but also with one particular person) was another reason I put in the long hours to learn Dutch. After I met my boyfriend at a concert in the indie club Vera in Groningen, I soon moved in with him in a small town on the edge of Friesland called Wolvega.
It was, and still is, a turbulent experience living in a small town with around 12,000 citizens. “Now this is the middle of nowhere – nothing happens here”, I would catch myself thinking. I was afraid to leave yet another big city and move to a tiny village. I was so terrified I would lose my friends in Groningen.
But it turns out that even the smallest of villages in the Netherlands are bubbling with (international) life. Compared to Bulgaria, where most of the county’s population is concentrated in the big cities, I felt at home here because this small town and its inhabitants welcomed me into their lives. I particularly like the familiarity you experience in small towns. Everyone says hi to you on the streets, or even stops you to ask how things are. I have a favorite café in Wolvega called De Thee van Tat, where you can drink coffee with the staff like you were visiting them at home for an afternoon treat. If you feel like coffee on Sundays, you can even call them and they will open just for you – a cool way to make you feel fancy and special.
On top of making new comrades in Friesland, I still travel regularly to and from Groningen and the surrounding area. I’m painfully aware that most Duchies will disagree with me, but I love the public transport: it’s easy to use, and most of the time, it’s on schedule. Compared to the trains in Bulgaria, NS is out of this world – in a good way!
But what I love the most about living in the Netherlands is my relationship with both Groningen and Friesland. I’ve travelled the country and had plenty of typical Dutch experiences: getting stuck at a train station in the south, exploring weirdly symmetrical forests, lounging in the park, drinking beer with my friends, sitting in a circle at a birthday party, walking the busy streets of Amsterdam.
But the simple joy of reading a book in my own back yard (yes, in the countryside you get a front anda back yard!) reminds to me that after all these years, I’ve found an impossible love in the strangest of places: The Netherlands’ northern provinces.