Sunday, 5 February 2017

Three years and counting

On Wednesday I celebrated three years of living in the wonderful city of Groningen! It was somewhat of a shock to realise that three years had passed so quickly, seemingly without me noticing. The day-to-day routine moves on with only slight alterations due to holidays and travel, and suddenly it's three years later. I suppose living in a great city, doing a job I love, and travelling helps time move along.

It was fun to think back on when I first moved into the attic room, up those "stairs of death" and got myself situated into a new country and new place. It was nice to think about how much has changed and how much I've grown - not only personally, but in my career, too. I'm currently at a crossroads when many things are changing (in good ways), and that always tends to leave me rather reflective. It's an exciting time, if not a bit busy, and I'm glad to be here in this lovely city with spring just around the corner.

So, after three years, what do I have to offer about Groningen? Here are some of my recommendations (and favourite places):

The Noorderplantsoen is the place to be to enjoy a slice of nature in the city. There is also a little cafe in the middle where you can watch the world go by. I  try go to the park nearly as much as I go to work to create a nice balance!

Autumn in the park
Frozen pond in the park












The Vismarkt is certainly worth a visit on market days...plus, you can eat your way around it as well as buy flowers or vegetables! It is a different way of shopping for your weekly groceries. I don't get here nearly enough! The stalls are always exciting, and the people who look after them are very friendly.

Vismarkt
Bulbs at the market











The Martinikerk and toren are both beautiful and iconic. They are nice to visit (or walk past) and if you go to the top of the tower on a clear day you can see quite far (being in a flat country and all...). I can see this tower from home, which is really lovely and makes me feel I truly am living in the city.
Inside the church
Martini Tower













Lastly, I would recommend trying to eat at cafes and trendy places (the city is overflowing with them). It is hard to give specific recommendations because I don't have a favourite and they all provide something new to try. The Dutch cuisine can be peculiar at times (especially the raw herring...) but Groningen has its array of gezellig (cosy) cafes and bars. If you like cake (which I do!) Toet is an excellent place to go for homemade baked goods and gluten free options.

I've moved around a lot and seen plenty of places in this world, but I think Groningen holds a special place in my heart. There is a vibe here that is relaxed and pleasant, yet it is enough of a city that you can go out at 1 a.m. to find something to eat. Groningen is often forgotten after the likes of Amsterdam and Utrecht or even Leiden as a student city, but I think it has a lot to offer. Life is good here in the north of the Netherlands!

A frosty Academy building in the heart of Groningen



Sunday, 22 May 2016

Springtime in Groningen

It is the nearly the end of May, yet I feel I'm still stuck somewhere in March. Time flies when you are having fun, so the saying goes, and aren't I just! In February I travelled over 5,000km; in March I travelled within the Netherlands, before escaping on a week long holiday up north; and in April, the fourth block of university began, which is our busiest, yet I still managed to nip away for a few weekends. It was rather a relief when May hit, as we had a few national holidays that meant long weekends (full of marking and travelling). Now, June promises to quiet down as exams take place and the long wind down to summer begins. 2016 has gotten off to a rather hectic start!

While the pile of essays to be graded teeters over my head, I took this weekend to relax and ignore anything to do with comma splices or non-academic word usage. The weather has finally become warmer once more, and so, in an endeavour to complete my to-do list, I went into town for chores and to soak up the atmosphere a bit. There is a kermis or carnival/fair going on at the moment, so the city is loud and busy. I cycled home through the city for a change the other evening after teaching and suddenly realised we have two massive new shops that have opened. How had I missed that?

Saturday was a mission, therefore, to inspect and suss out what I'd been missing in my lovely city. The Saturday market was in full steam, too, in addition to the kermis, and to say the city was buzzing would be an understatement. I found an oliebollen stand pretty quickly and was in seventh heaven; I explored the new shops, and browsed the market stalls while being deafened by the kermis.

After two years here in Groningen, I find that I have a deep fondness for it. There is something special here. Whenever I arrive at the train station, I feel at home again after my travels. Like the 'slogan' for the city says er gaat niets boven Groningen (literal translation: nothing goes higher than Groningen; meaning: nothing beats Groningen). It was lovely to reconnect not only with myself a bit, but also the city I call home. Besides, any day that includes munching on oliebollen is a good one!



To share the lovely spring with you, here are some photos from the last few weeks in Groningen:

Flowers in the park

Blue skies at last in town


Sun catching the fountain
King's Day celebrations
Sunset in the park
Sunday afternoon by the pond




Monday, 18 January 2016

Groningen: Snow and Sun

It has been far too long since I last posted about Groningen. There has been plenty happening to write about (concerts in Groningen's venues, playing music at local gigs, outings to nearby nature areas, a long holiday for Christmas in Denmark [Jul], and a recent pandemonium in this northern city I call home caused by a wee bit of ice and snow). However, as it often is when things are happening, there isn't nearly enough time to think, let alone write. In addition, being a teacher just eats away the hours. It is wonderful, rewarding, and hugely gratifying, I grant you - but very time-consuming all the same.

Pavement skating in the park
Noorderplantsoen















Snowfall in Groningen
It was back to work (school) again today, and not only was it an early start, but my bicycle lock was frozen shut by the lovely -6 degree Celsius temperature we were having. Walking it would be then... Actually, the first week of January saw me walking a lot in Groningen as well; after our first snow day when classes were cancelled, I found myself stranded the next day on a different campus with buses and trains suddenly stopped as a "code red" was called. I had to walk home on icy pavements. I was lucky I could walk home, in fact, as some of my students were thrown into panic about how to get home to neighbouring provinces (Drenthe and Friesland). People were skating on the iced over roads and pavements, and I even saw a video clip of students engaged in "beer crate curling". Only in the Netherlands!



Today was beautiful, however. I had to walk, but it meant that once I was finished with my first class, I could enjoy the sun and my beautiful city. The sunshine seemed to put everyone in a good mood! As I was taking a photo of the Westerhaven from the bridge, a young chap walked past and said in Dutch that "it will be a good photo!" which I thought was very nice. The ships and canal were certainly beautiful! Then, a bit further down the road as I stopped to take a photo again, another man grinned at me and said, "Mooi, hé?" which translates to "Nice, isn't it?" Goodness, what a change in outlook to the previous snow fall. The city was abuzz with a good feeling, even though it was Monday morning and below freezing. Can the sun shine more often, please?









Sunday, 23 August 2015

Dreaming of Vacation

The first week back to work and teaching is under my belt, and it is hard not to let my thoughts stray back to the summer vacation. It's 26C (79F) most days, the sun is shining in a gorgeous blue sky, and my mind keeps saying, "Yes, but...it still feels like summer!"

Bateman's - Rudyard Kipling's former home
The vacation was much needed after a hectic semester, and being able to relax and put my mind to other things than comma rules, infinitives, or the continuous tense was, in a word, bliss. Not that the vacation was all sleeping in until 11 and long afternoons in the sun: there was moving into a new place, assembling Ikea furniture, and realising that I really do have more things that I had imagined. But once the move was made, it was off on the road!


Highclere Castle
 The first few weeks of the vacation were spent on the English south coast. I managed to fit in some research for a writing project in between sightseeing and getting my fill of pub lunches. There was camping involved, which, after nearly 15 years of avoiding, was a slight shock to the system. Getting in and out of a tent (and up and down off the ground, for that matter) seemed much simpler 15 years ago... The rain chased us out of that idea, and I was left with the thought, "Well, we did try at least." Seeing Bateman's, Rudyard Kipling's former home, and Greenway, Agatha Christie's former home, were probably the two highlights of the trip. I also really enjoyed seeing Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed. Before I knew it, two weeks had passed, and it was goodbye pub grub and access to shortbread. I stocked up on the necessities like shortbread, tea, and Boots products before leaving. Can you believe that shortbread is nigh impossible to find in Groningen!?

Himmelbjerget, Denmark
The second half of the vacation was spent in Denmark. I retreat to Scandinavia most summers, though often to Sweden, so it was nice to see more of a country I'd only been to a few times. I stayed in Jutland (called the real Denmark by those there - "Copenhagen" is like a swear word and involves eye rolling when said...). Jutland is beautiful in many ways: rolling hills of wheat that move north to dark pine forests and long white sand beaches. Århus and Ålborg are wonderfully Scandinavian cities in which to lose oneself, with lots of cute cafes and trendy places to shop. I was astonished to learn that the entire population of Denmark is about a third of the Netherlands. In fact, I shouldn't be writing about how wonderful the country is; I should be saying it's awful so that it doesn't become overcrowded!

Skagen
While the cities were interesting, as were the bunkers from WWII and their history, it was the nature that captured my attention. The beaches of the north specifically caught my eye. It felt remote and wild in some ways, which I liked. The pine forests and white sand reminded me fondly of Terschelling, and it felt like coming home. Skagen (pronounced "Skain") was particularly beautiful, and I very much enjoyed standing at the top tip of Denmark where the two seas meet. Its wild landscape was once a haven for artists, and seeing the most famous paintings of that time (1890s) collected in a gallery there was such a delight. The paintings reminded me of the Cornish painters of the Newlyn school ilk. Some of my favourites were by P.S. Krøyer.

Viking site: Lindholm Høje
Den Tilsandede Kirke
Unlike in England, the weather was gorgeous everyday, and the trip became a glorious mix of museums and culture, such as visiting Viking sites like Lindholm Høje, Aggersborg or Fyrkat, eating good food, and soaking up the sunshine in pristine nature. Skagen was certainly a highlight, as was seeing Den Tilsandede Kirke (the Sanded Church). The north of Denmark really is a place to lose oneself in beautiful landscapes and history.

It was a wonderful holiday away, and now, I must do my best to focus on work. However, the memories of the holiday will keep me going until the next time I can hit the road!








Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Melting, Moving, and Making steps

Phew! Is it hot in here or what? That's right, folks, you have indeed read the thermometer correctly: Groningen experienced 36 degrees Celsius recently (96F), which, without trying to sound like I'm complaining, is a bit much. I have been teaching summer school (three days to go, not that I'm counting or anything), and am so grateful that we have been put in the new wing with Air Con. It keeps the students awake, too, which is always a plus.

In addition to teaching, I am saying goodbye to the attic room (which in 36C is really not funny), as I have been fortunate enough to find a nice little place a bit further out from the city centre near to the park. It has been a slow and steady progression of boxes and sorting, moments of "when on earth did I get this?", and heaving stuff down two flights of the steepest stairs known to mankind (have I mentioned The Stairs of Death before?) only to haul them up another two flights of normal stairs. I somehow managed to get a small set of drawers up the stairs, and thought I might indeed melt onto my new hardwood floor from the heat. Needless to say, all other haulage has now been conducted after 7pm.

While I'm looking forward to the new place very much, I do feel slightly sad to be leaving this old attic room. It has character and a certain cosiness, and I have had a lot of nice memories here (if we forget about the mouse incident). I have written a lot here, both fiction and music, and when I look around the place it hits me that this was my first home in the Netherlands, and therefore will always be rather special.

I must say, however, that moving 1.3km (.8 of a mile) is by far the shortest distance I have ever moved in my life, and it is certainly massively easier than moving countries! I have moved countries multiple times, and would do so again, but being able to move just down the road is some kind of bliss. I have even stocked the new fridge with beer to help ease the process.

It is exciting to start on a new chapter in a new place. In the past, that has often involved me moving to another part of the world, across oceans, or finding myself in the midst of a new culture. Now, I merely have a new neighbourhood to explore, and Groningen's large park, the Noorderplantsoen, at my feet to stroll through on long summer evenings or enjoy a drink on a terrace by the fountain. A very exciting start to the summer holidays!


Moving day!

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Market Meandering

Ahh, Saturdays! Time to sleep in (or in Dutch: "sleep out"- uitslapen); time to read quietly over a big cup of tea or attempt to do a crossword; time to do things around the house or in the kitchen; time, in fact, to do those small things that the rush of the day to day seem to make impossible. And here we come down to it: time. It has been a busy, hectic, and altogether manic spring with teaching five days a week at full steam, marking half incomprehensible essays, and generally going a bit cross eyed. At last the students are busy with their exams, and I've had a chance to recoup a bit and find pleasure in those small things.

My favourite thing about Saturdays besides the above is also putting the radio on and listening to both music and chat from the BBC (some days better than others), and going down to Groningen's Vismarkt to poke about the stalls a bit and buy fresh produce. Today was such a day, with the added bonus (danger?) of finding a second hand bookshop I'd never been to before. I managed to find three paperbacks (Robert Goddard, if you must know, and whom I highly recommend for a good summer read) for 4 euros, which felt extra nice because the chap stocking the books refused to sell me only two books when I could get three for the same price. Now that is my kind of book salesman! I should hate to disregard a good bargain. My bookshelves, however, are beginning to protest...

Vismarkt, Groningen
After this, and feeling rather pleased, I went to the market to wander around a bit and pick up my usual fresh produce. What I like about the market is that it offers not only fresh supplies, but the people working the stalls know their products well and can help you find just the right cheese to take home for a Saturday evening, or can explain just what went into the biscuits made from local honey and so on. I like the atmosphere: the press of people, from frazzled young mothers to old grannies with baskets on their arms; the young couple deliberating over just which fish they should buy in for their parent's visit the next day; the shouts of the stall owners "three avocados for an euro!" "Get your strawberries here!" "Who is next? Who can I help?" The bustle and buzz of the place is so gezellig (a wonderful Dutch word that has no equivalent in English, and the closest thing would be the word "cosy"). It is very alive and busy.

I enjoy walking down towards the end of the market where the fishmongers are; they bring the smell of the sea with them, and I find it curious to see the slimy things with eyes or claws encased in ice. I don't particularly like eating fish, so I tend to observe these stalls with a polite curiosity and slight morbid fascination. It is haring (herring) season at the moment, so there were many stalls set up just for this purpose. It is a Dutch delicacy that I have not yet been brave enough to try. I don't much like fish anyway, and raw fish is certainly not my first choice off any menu. (Ok, actually the hering is salted, or "soused", but still...) It is a popular snack, however, and the herring is often served on a bit of bread with onions or pickles, or eaten by holding it by the tail and letting it slide down one's gullet. Appetising, eh? Well, apparently, as there were queues all over the place for fresh herring. It is the best moment of the season just now, so the vishandels are very busy.
Broodje haring

Yes, going to the market and buying produce from those who know all there is to know about potatoes or cheese or fish is a pleasant thing; it is nice to catch the stall owner's eye and share a smile or small chat over the counter, or to go with a pocketful of coins and walk home with having spent less than 10 euros on fresh food. I like the atmosphere and unique, almost old fashioned quality. It certainly beats standing in the queue in a supermarket. There is something to be said about that interaction and being able to see what it is we are eating up close, rather than packaged away behind plastic or cardboard.

I bought my usual appelflap pastry treat (it's Saturday after all!), and a whole grilled chicken, the carcass of which is currently boiling pleasantly in the kitchen to make stock from later, and lots of vegetables. The avocados were at a nearly crazy discounted price of four for 50 euro cents. Must have hit the market at just the right moment!

Whatever your Saturday schedule is, perhaps think about heading down to your local markets if you have one. The experience is more than just buying food; it is also about making a brief connection with those who provide us with what we choose to nourish ourselves with. Happy Saturday!

Monday, 4 May 2015

Groningen's Liberation: 70 Years Commemoration

Re-enactment in the Grote Markt
The last few weeks have marked and commemorated some memorable anniversaries. In April, Groningen saw a re-enactment of the Battle of Groningen, which took place in 1945 from April 13 - 16. I continue to find it fascinating to live in a country that was once occupied and which takes the commemoration of liberation quite seriously. What also strikes me, as I've mentioned in previous posts, is the openness in regard to reconciliation. It is truly inspiring and encouraging.

May 4th and 5th are also important days: Dodenherdenking or the Remembrance of the dead, and Bevrijdingsdag or Liberation Day. What is particularly striking this year, however, is that it is 70 years since the end of the war in Europe. Seventy years. (And remember last year was 100 years since the start of the Great War!) That is really no time at all. People still remember the Second World War - members of my own family, for instance. In the span of time, it is not so long ago, and the memories, painful ones as well as others, can still be felt and recognised. This is why reconciliation is so important; we must continue to come together in remembering so that such things may never happen again.

Allied tanks
WWII Memorabilia
The the re-enactment on April 12 in the Grote Markt was both interesting and moving. There was a vetran there from Canada who had fought in the Battle of Groningen, and also an older lady who was just a child at the time and remembers the liberation of the city of Groningen. In addition to the re-enactment (rather exciting with tanks and "explosions"!) there was also real footage being played out on a screen. Unbelievable to both hear and see the play-by-play of what happened in 1945. There was also a map we could follow - "De Sporen van de bevrijding" (trail of liberation) which took us to different points of interest around the city: they included four on my very street, one being where the SS interrogated people, and another where the officers lived! There was also a display with memorabilia at the library which was quite interesting to see.

Following the footsteps...
And now, as we move into the month of May, countries all across Europe are commemorating the end of the war. Today, May 4th, saw services of remembrance all across the city of Groningen: at church yards, memorials, and along the streets themselves. At the Martinikerkhof (Martini churchyard) there was a remembrance service this evening with music, the chiming of the Martini clock bells, the placing of wreaths and flowers at the foot of the St. Joris monument, and, of course, a two minute silence at 8pm. The Last Post was played, which always make me rather emotional, then we were silent for two minutes before the band played the national anthem, Wilhelmus. A quite old man beside me pulled off his flat cap in such a reverent, old fashioned way; it occurred to me only then that he had probably been old enough to remember when his country had been liberated seventy years before. Around me there was a mere murmur of words of the anthem (myself included), but as the song went on the voices grew, and the crescendo seemed to reach a peak at the line, "Een Prinse van Oranje". I began to blub, as per usual when it comes to national anthems and such. It was an incredibly moving moment: an entire churchyard of the very young to the very old; veterans, government ministers, religious and community leaders, and everyone in between, all singing together and remembering those who died.

Dodenherdenking
May 5th is the commemoration of Liberation Day; this year it is a national holiday, and there will be events all throughout the day, including a music festival. I think back to all the family stories about the liberation (which for my family on the island of Terschelling came quite a few days later than on the mainland) and marvel still at the hardships and sacrifices that were made. I find it fascinating, of course, as it is my own family history, but I also find it inspiring to think about the strength and determination shown by the allied troops within Holland, as well as the Dutch people. We live in a world that continues to see its fair share of horrors, and I only hope that we will still come together in these times to combat issues and show a similar determination to overcome things that are unacceptable.

Flag at half mast
In my travels around the world, I have yet to come across a place that has been untouched by either of the world wars, and for some, the conflicts that came after. The memories still linger in some of these places in an almost surprising way, and again I am overwhelmed by the fact that is is merely seventy years ago that the war ended in Europe. I am glad to have been a part of remembering, and am, as ever, hopeful about the reconciliation that continues.


Wreaths and flowers

Here is a link that has some details about the liberation in the Netherlands, including some interesting photos.