When I chose Utrecht as a study abroad destination, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To be completely honest, I knew next to nothing about the Netherlands, its history, or the people living there. After five months, I’ve cultivated a deep respect for Dutch culture, though there’s still much about it I don’t know.
One word I would use to characterize Dutch society is “balanced.” For example, it’s a very densely populated country, but urban areas are interspersed farmland. On my bike ride to class everyday, I would pass through fields of sheep and horses grazing.
As for school, Dutch students seem to have a more balanced approach to their studies. The students in my classes were exceptional critical thinkers and could speak eloquently about issues I knew little about. However, grades meant little to them, and they were usually satisfied if they passed, regardless of how they passed. Students could be very intelligent and regularly contribute brilliant ideas in class discussions, but then turn assignments in late or never at all because they didn’t really feel like it or were too busy. At my school in the US, students are constantly crazed, stressed out, and pulling all nighters. But I’m not sure if we’re any smarter or happier for our efforts.
Another things I liked about the Netherlands was the subdued use of technology. Of course everyone has a cellphone, of course everyone uses the internet, and most people have Facebook. But it hasn’t reached the feverish pitch that it has at my university in the US. As soon as I got back to the US, I noticed that everyone around me was plugged into their iPhones and laptops. By contrast, if you look around the Utrecht University campus, most people are actually engaging with other human beings. Or if they’re alone, they might be-gasp-reading a book.
There’s a balance of new and old in the Netherlands. Buildings from the 17th century stand harmoniously alongside innovative new architecture. There’s a balance of partying and time spent alone in introspection. Young people have active social lives (the average Dutch college student drinks sixteen glasses of beer a week!), but privacy is valued. It’s considered standard to have your own room, if not your own place, in college, with a private sink and refrigerator. People don’t exercise excessively at the gym, but bike everywhere, and so exercise is naturally integrated into daily life. People care about their looks, but not to the point of obsession.
I really enjoyed my time in the Netherlands, and was sad to leave. But I know I’ll make it back someday.