Pragmatism and Gezelligheid: 15 Things I’ll Miss about Life in Leiden

Even though leaving Leiden meant beginning an adventurous and obscenely cheap trip through the Balkans and then London, I’m still drowning in nostalgia and missing my little city.

Later I’ll find a way to devote a full gushing post or two to Leiden and why it’s an ideal place to live, but for now I’ll stick to the overview. I first moved to Leiden in May of 2012, when I spent about four months on a research grant, and within about a week and a half I fell in love, so I came back again for several weeks later that year, and finally moved back ‘for good’ in August 2013. While doing my MA at Leiden University, I spent most of my free time hanging out with Leiden’s fantastic Couchsurfing and expat community, taking trips to random places in and outside the Netherlands, interning at an international development NGO, and indulging in the finer things in life like fifty cent beers and dumpster diving.

Right now I’m spending a month traveling on a few leftover pennies through parts of Europe and North America, then moving to Colombia by January, where I’ll be teaching English for the next year. After that, my next step is officially a big question mark (volunteer somewhere in Eastern Africa? Study again? Teach somewhere in Asia or the Persian Gulf and learn what ‘disposable income’ is?), but it’s no secret to my friends that going back to Leiden is very high on the shortlist. So until I make it back, here are fifteen of the things that I’ll be missing the most about Leiden and life in the Netherlands in general.


1. The Dutch language
Since this blog is supposed to be primarily about language and travel, it seems appropriate to put Dutch as the first thing I’ll miss about Leiden. A lot of people find Dutch to be an ugly language, with its harsh-sounding uvular fricatives (those <g>s that make it hard to have a polite lunch conversation without launching half-chewed food at your friend) and aggressive tongue-twisters like achthonderd achtentachtig ‘s-Gravenhaagse gereedschapschuurtjes, but on the other hand, Dutch has some really utilitarian words like gezellig (explained later in this post) and swaffelen (a verb meaning ‘to hit one’s penis (often repeatedly) against something or someone’, the 2008 Dutch word of the year).

Maybe it’s because, just as Leiden is my first home abroad, Dutch is the first language I’ve learned to fluency, but I find it often graceful and expressive in a way that other languages don’t seem to be. English has, to me, many right angles and straight lines from all its Latin and Romance influences, whereas Dutch sometimes feels like it just curves and flows in a beautifully Germanic way. Most of all, I’ll miss getting to speak Dutch every day and actively feeling the feeling of being able to express myself, build friendships, and manage my life in another language.

bonte koe

A place can be gezellig too: my second day after moving to Leiden, one of my Couchsurfing friends took me to a bar to show me what gezellig means. The bar is called De Bonte Koe, and it has a glass atrium in the front, old-fashioned tile walls, unfinished woodwork, and a little inset nook with benches where people can sit around a small table with candles and a potted plant and have a nice conversation together. This place is super gezellig.

2. Gezelligheid
Gezellig /χə-zεl’-əχ/ (click on that link if you can’t read it; it’s a great language learning tool) is a great example of a word that is just really not translatable (or at least into English). Gezellig is an adjective that encompasses a lot of things, but it’s chiefly something social: it’s when you’re in a nice café with good atmosphere and soothing lighting, sitting with friends whose company you’re really enjoying, having great, stimulating conversation, and just having a good ol’ time. You often tell someone as you’re saying goodbye that “het was gezellig” (“it was gezellig”), that you had a good time with them.

But a person can also be gezellig, meaning more that they’re pleasantly sociable or perhaps that they have a tendency of fostering gezellig situations around them. Gezelligheid is just the noun form, gezellig-ness, if you will. And it is seeping out of the walls and flowing through the canals of Leiden, just waiting to wrap you up and charm you into staying forever.

3. The Randstad
Leiden, despite really being quite a small city (around 120,000 people, or 345,000 in its metropolitan area), is smack-dab in the middle of the Randstad, the biggest urban agglomeration in the Netherlands and the fourth biggest economic area in the European Union. From Leiden, you can be in The Hague in 15 minutes, Amsterdam in 35, Rotterdam in 40, Utrecht in 35, and Schiphol Airport in 15. All of this means that, living in Leiden, you’re really ‘living in the world’.

Amsterdam is known for its arts, culture, and nightlife, and The Hague is bursting with international civic organizations, intergovernmental organizations, and NGOs. A lot of these musicians in Amsterdam and civil servants in The Hague end up living in Leiden, and these and the other surrounding cities draw huge numbers of expats and students that keep the whole region buzzing with an international glow. The best part is that you can spend a day or night in any of these places and still come home to a quaint, tranquil city that’s more or less free of tourists.

4. Leids accent
For such a small language (22 million speakers worldwide, with around 16 million in the Netherlands), Dutch has an astounding number of dialects and streektalen (local languages) that are largely unintelligible with each other. If you put someone from the province of Overijssel in a room with someone from Brabant and they spoke their local dialects to each other, the conversation would go nowhere (even though they could of course just speak ABN or ‘General Civilized Dutch’, a term that maybe ought to be more controversial than it is).

Leiden, for all its being in the urban core of the Randstad, is no exception. While most of the speakers of the proper Leids dialect seem to be very old, the Leids accent is strong among the working classes and the neighborhoods outside the city center where many local families live. Its distinguishing characteristic is a syllabic, rhotic <r> [ɹ], which sounds nearly the same as the one used in standard North American English. While this ‘American’ (for lack of a better accessible term) is common in post-vocalic positions (i.e. after a vowel) in many dialects of Dutch, in Leiden there are two differences: 1) it is syllabic, meaning that the typically one-syllable maar (“but”) effectively becomes two syllables here, /ma:-ɹ/; and 2) it can occur at the beginning of a word or before vowels, thus raar (“weird”), typically pronounced with a uvular, French-sounding /ʁ/ or a tap or trill /ɾ/ at the beginning, can be pronounced in Leiden exactly how it looks to the American English speaker.

The end result of this is a city full of people who sound more or less like pirates, arrrr-ing left and right and running over their vowels with their excessively rhotic pronunciation so that it might sound like they’re growling at you. But really, they’re just trying to speak Dutch.


a poem in Spanish, high on the wall in a residential alley

5. Muurgedichten
One of the charming idiosyncrasies of Leiden is its muurgedichten. These 150+ poems from various poets, new and old, famous and obscure, are to be found in over 40 languages all over the walls of Leiden’s city centre (and a few outside). The muurgedichten began in 1992 as a project sponsored by the city and officially ended in 2005, but since then there have been at least 50 more added by others (including the one on the About the Blog page, which cropped up some time this spring).

It not only amplifies the already gezellig atmosphere of the small city, but also speaks to the highly international composition of its residents: wherever you’re from as an expat or international student in Leiden, you can almost certainly find a poem in your language on a wall in a winding alley or above the door of a café somewhere.

6. OV
Transitioning softly out of the language, here’s a concept that, because in my experience it is so overwhelmingly Dutch and so lacking in other places I’ve lived, I personally would say in Dutch even in the middle of an English sentence: “Should we walk there or just go with the OV?”

Openbaar Vervoer or OV (pronounced ‘oh-vay’ /oʊ-veɪ’/) is public transit, and it’s a dream in NL. Dutch people will complain about it because sometimes the train is five minutes late during the morning rush hour, but even when this happens you get a nice notification on the board on the platform that says +5 minuten so you know you have time to finish a couple more pages in your book or work on your technique of ignoring the strangers standing two centimeters away from you.

But regardless of what the haters say, the trains are usually on time, efficient, and relatively comfortable. Even more important is that between the trains, trams, and buses, you will absolutely never need a car; you can reach any remote village in the country. Bonus points are awarded to the cities in the Randstad: the trains run all night between Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, and Utrecht (Leiden is between those first two). After 00.30 they only come once an hour, and then there’s a shorter break between when the last train leaves Amsterdam at 4.45 in the morning and the first train of the next day leaves at 5.15, but if you plan your night carefully, you can avoid dragging your reeking-of-booze self onto the morning train with the early-rising go-getters and dump yourself where you belong on the 4.45 Train of Shame with the semi-lucid tourists.

7. 3 Oktober
The third of October is Leids Ontzet, or the ‘Relief of Leiden’ (though most often simply referred to as Drie Oktober). This exclusively local holiday (most people living two towns east or west don’t know what it is or can only vaguely recall having heard of it) celebrates the end of the Spanish siege of Leiden in 1574, part of the Eighty Years War, but more locally seen as Leiden’s little independence day and an excuse to party.

Leidse vlag

the Leiden city flag flying high just after a 3 Oktober parade

The celebrations last for about three days, but really start on the night of October 2nd, since everything in Leiden is closed on the 3rd and no one has to worry about getting an early start the next morning. The night of the 2nd is normally characterized by live music and drinking in the street, and on the 3rd there’s a fair with typical rides and attractions, and a parade that runs through the entire city center.

In the evening you eat the typical 3 Oktober meal, hutspot, a mix of mashed potatoes, onions, and carrots that the Leidenaren supposedly ate while they were besieged by the Spanish. After hutspot dinner it usually goes back to drinking, music, and plenty of gezelligheid along the canals; in fact, it gets so gezellig and bursting full of people in the streets that all mobile phone reception normally goes out by about 20.00, so if you haven’t found your friends by then, you’re not going to.

8. Kaas
Dutch cheese. It’s better than French cheese or whatever else you wanna compare it to. These are facts.

9. Wednesday and Saturday market
Like many Dutch cities, Leiden has an outdoor, open-air market twice a week. The Saturday market is of course the biggest, and if you try to ride your bike through the city center on a Saturday afternoon, you’ll think you’re in a city of half a million or more rather than one of just under 150,000. Rain or shine (or snow, or hail, or that gross sleetish-snowish-hailish cold rain-mist stuff that seems to just hang suspended in the air and assault your face rather than falling), just about the whole town will be outside buying fresh vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, or a some tasty organic fresh-cut fries from Karel’s Bio Friet.

Vegetables and things are normally just a bit cheaper here than in the store, and it’s also a good excuse to just take a walk around the city. But it also reminds you how small Leiden is: I have quite literally never taken a walk around the Saturday market without running into at least one person I know.


the Rapenburg canal

10. Boating in the grachten
One of the things that makes Leiden so beautiful is its canals (grachten in Dutch). Two big ones run through the city center, and others form the singel (a sort of moat, effectively making Leiden an artificial island) around the center. Renting a kayak or a boat is surprisingly cheap (a one-person kayak is 6 eur/hr, and you can find an eight-person motorboat for less than 100/hr), and paddling around through the canals and under the bridges gives a totally different but equally impressive view of this little city.

11. Dutch pragmatism
When I started my MA at Leiden University, I had to do a week-long international student orientation that was essentially an acculturation course, and we must have been told some double-digit number of times per day that the Dutch are “pragmatic”. This seems to be one of these points of national pride that people might exaggerate and one-dimensionalize in their heads (cf. ‘freedom’ in the US or ‘culture’ in France), but it does apply to a lot of things.

This is often equated to secularism and the fact that, while south of the rivers that separate the provinces of Zuid Holland and Noord Brabant people are nominally ‘Catholic’ and north ‘Protestant’, most people fall somewhere in the spectrum between one church visit per year to convinced atheist. Under this same category (or at least to me they’re related) is the total lack of machismo culture and the relatively egalitarian gender relations. When recently in Barcelona with a Dutch friend, I sat down to watch a street performance by four bulky, Schwarzenegger-looking Spaniards. They danced and did backflips and choreographed fist-fights, each one strutting around with a puffed-out chest while he waited for his turn to come up again (it looked something like the video here). It occurred to me that I’d never once seen a group of Dutch guys swaggering about in too-tight wifebeater tanktops barely covering their nipples, and that if such a macho display were to take place in Holland it would most likely be met with a condescending doe normaal! (“act normal!”) from passersby.

12. Good (Belgian) beer
When I lived in the US, I never drank beer, and I thought I just didn’t like it (same is true of cheese, actually). But in turns out there are some really delicious, worthwhile, enjoyable beers in this world, and it just so happens that most of them come from Belgium and are easy to find in any Dutch pub. Decent beers are affordable at any bar in NL (normally €2,50 outside of Amsterdam for a Heineken or Amstel, less than €3,- for most other normal beers), but you can also get some full-flavored bottles like Duvel, La Trappe, and Westmalle for relatively decent prices. I would normally start my evenings with one of those three, drink it slowly and enjoy it, and then switch over to the cheap shit (which is still better than anything you can get for less than seven or eight bucks in most North American cities).

Honorable mention here is wine, for the same reasons: you can spend €3,- on a bottle of wine and it’s at the very least drinkable, but often just as nice as the bottle you get for €7-8.

13. Biking
My first summer in Leiden I never bought a bike because I heard it would just get stolen, and I was mercilessly made fun of by my friends. You simply don’t not have a bike in NL, especially not in a small student city like Leiden.


my first bike. purchased August 2013, stolen August 2014.

So when I moved back, I got a bike (and it did eventually get stolen), and it. changed. everything. Life is so much easier when you can just hop on your bike and go somewhere instead of waiting on the bus, taking three or four times as long to walk, or, my personal least favorite, driving. Not only does it mean you build at least fifteen or twenty minutes of physical activity into your everyday life, but it also gives you freedom that even a car doesn’t afford (compare replacing a flat bike tire to replacing a flat car tire, for example). Plus, in those few precious weeks of nice weather during the summer, it’s great to go for a random cycle around the city or to the beach.


14. Working culture
This is one of the big picture things that I think will take me back to the Netherlands in the relatively near future. During my Master’s degree, I did an internship at IICD, an international development organization in The Hague, and in many ways working in the Netherlands was the closest thing to ‘culture shock’ that I ever experienced there. The workplace is much more worker-centered and laid-back, and, at least working at a non-profit, the concept of punching a timeclock was nonexistent. In my experience, management and colleagues alike were quite sensitive to things like illness, family obligations, and random hiccups in people’s time- and life-management skills.

In black and white terms, plenty of people work 32 hours a week, and a typical ‘full time’ job is often 38 hours; one source cites the average work week at 29 hours, though I myself must skeptically wonder how that figure was calculated. Even better, the average contract includes 24 vacation days per year, but many employers offer even more. Even with super high taxes, this in combination with good healthcare, great education and professional development opportunities, and good retirement plans and you land on the opportunity to make a great wage while maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

15. Leiden Couchsurfing
This is one hundred percent a case of saving the best for last; it’s the real reason I’ll miss Leiden, and the reason so many other expat-student-traveler-intern-whoevers also miss it so much after they leave. I got started with Couchsurfing in Leiden, and in two and a half years of very active participation and visiting CS communities in ten different countries, Leiden still stands out towering over the rest (much like how Dutch people tend to tower over the normal-sized people in the rest of the world).

If you’re not familiar with Couchsurfing, please fix that immediately. Many have heard of it and think it’s just a hospitality network where you host strangers in your living room or find a potentially sociopathic host to give you a free place to sleep when you’re travelling, but the best part is the community of travelers that crops up around CS. In Leiden, for example, there’s ‘Language Lab’, a weekly language exchange group that meets in a local pub every Wednesday, or the cutely named ‘Friday Dri(u)nks’ where local CSers, travelers passing through, and new internationals moving to the area can meet up and get to know each other.

For me, my ‘Couchsurfing friends’ quickly just became my ‘Leiden friends’, and by the time I moved back in 2013 were again renamed to something like ‘the best group of people I’ve ever been lucky enough to meet’ (open to suggestions for another moniker that rolls off the tongue a bit more easily).


Leiden Couchsurfing friends at my going away dinner

I’ve talked to a lot of people who fell in love with their first homes abroad. This week I’m travelling with two friends from Leiden, one a Dutch girl who spent her first summer abroad in France and is now applying for jobs to go back, the other a Mexican guy who seems to fall in love with every stop in his serial expat life. For me, as I said in my first reason for missing Leiden, part of it is the double punch of my first home abroad and my first new language, so as I start my travels now I’m leaving two first loves behind (though probably not for good).

For the rest of this year, I’ll be travelling through various places in Europe and the US before I finally make my way to my new home in Colombia in late December or early January, where I’ll begin working as an English teacher. Until then, I’ll be focused on enjoying the always sublime chance to drift for a few months and continue my education about how people live (and talk) all over the world.

In a few days I’ll make a post about my travels in the Balkans, the blurred line between dialect and language, and what the way various Balkan people refer to their own languages shows about nationalism and the recent conflicts in the area.