Sunday, 23 February 2014

A Lively Week in Groningen

I have been in Groningen two weeks now (still no bicycle, by the way - got out of that one!). I'm already feeling right at home, but I must confess that with this feeling, there is also a sense of bemusement. It's like watching a live painting from outside the frame...I'm apart of the art, but outside it too.

I think many expats feel this way. You can live for years and years in a country, but still be an outsider. At the moment, I'm finding this a positive thing because the people I've met so far in The Netherlands are politely curious about foreigners, enjoy the fact that you are butchering their language, and don't seem to mind that none of us know the rules of bicycle lanes. (Fifty points if you hit the American, Klaas.) I'm joking of course...

A hundred points for knocking an American off his bike, surely?

My point is, I have experienced a week of feeling incredibly welcomed here in Groningen. People have seemed genuinely interested in where I come from, and are curious to know if the US is really like they've seen it on the sitcom, Friends. It has been great sharing cultures and ideas, beer and bitterballen, and discussing the history of the places we come from. It is normal to be asked the question, "where's home?" when you are first meeting people, and especially in such an international, student city. Of course, for me, that requires a lot longer and more involved answer. (Good for practising Dutch though!). So, a pleasant week of settling in further and coming to terms with irregular verbs.

"Easy Reading" (Makkelijk Lezen)
One thing that pleased me very much was seeing Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea sitting on the shelf of "Easy English Reading"in the library for those learning the English language. However, to access the lovely pile of English books the library has, one must join. For 45 Euros per year!? Bizarre!

It's been an altogether bizarre week actually: discussing the best places to to go for...er..."Amsterdam koffie" (weed)... in Groningen, and which koffie shops have the best hash brownies with classmates and teachers in the break time is certainly odd. And the frank question of if I've indulged came as quite a shock, before reminding myself that it is both legal and normal here.

The cinemas are also great: you can buy beer (by the can OR six pack) to enjoy during the film, and millions of snacks ranging from healthy sandwiches to sweets (perfect after that pit-stop at the koffie shop...); the cinemas are incredibly clean and trendy, and it is a great chance to get a peek at the national films. The previews for Dutch films, usually really strange Rom-Coms or very serious historical pieces about the 80 Years War (1568–1648, Dutch independence from Spain), give an interesting insight into Dutch film making. I'm quite interested in film (as you may have noticed), so I find this fascinating. You don't often hear about films from The Netherlands; the best film to come from here in recent years would be Black Book, with the very talented Carice van Houten. However, there is a whole slew of talented Dutch actors/actresses making their appearance in films. Have a look at the credits next time you watch a big blockbuster. The only negative thing I have to say about Dutch cinemas is, like many cinemas in Europe, they have assigned seating. The computer tends to group people together, and I find it very odd sitting crammed together with twenty other people in one section of the cinema while the rest of the hundred other seats are empty.

Snack bar (Kroket: middle picture, sausage looking thing)
Another bizarre thing is Dutch fast food: often it comes out of a wall. You might say, a fast food vending machine...On many corners there are Snack bars which consist of a wall that looks rather like postoffice boxes, with different fast foods. You pop in a Euro (or two), open the wee door, and there you have your patat or kroket waiting for you, soon to be resupplied by a man covered in splatters from the deep fat fryer.

It is surprising popular. For a country that cycles everywhere and has great health care, they aren't actually all that healthy. (Another bizarre thing). So many people smoke like chimneys, eat these fried foods regularly, and drink like fish. And yet they all remain their striking, blond haired, blue eyed, good looking selves. There's a secret there somewhere...

I have a whole list (yes, a real one, written on paper with pen) about the curious things I've seen around me in this city. Many revolve around men wearing astonishing red trousers (I really must snap a photo next time so you believe me), the lack of curtains in front rooms, and hair gel.

I shall endeavour to go out and find photos of these things for next time; in the meanwhile, I'm off to Belgium (because I can!). I saw The Monuments Men last week (do see it, it's very good) and became interested in the Ghent Altarpiece and 'The Madonna with Child' sculpture they went to such lengths to save from being destroyed in WWII. These are both in Belgium, and because I can hop on a train and be there within six hours, I thought I'd better take advantage of this.

More again soon from Bruges and Ghent!