A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
I’m writing to tell you that the map of Leiden that we’re so used to seeing, which is effectively a kind of oblong with canals crisscrossing it, is in fact much more complex than first meets the eye. Keen followers of my thoroughly investigated reports may have noticed me posting plenty of entries about my favourite local government body, the Leidse Gemeente, but recently I have been forced to acknowledge that I have severely missed the mark for where the true power lies in this town. Further investigation into the sheer and terrifying authority of district level and sub-district (neighbourhood) level of government has become my latest procrastinatory obsession. Yes, people, it turns out there are people who live near you who you can complain about parking places to, and they sometimes even listen…
It may come as a surprise to international students living in Leiden that they have their own little community to which they belong. I know for one that in my time here, I have not really as much as made eye contact with many of the local Dutch people in the street, either because of a terrible hangover, or because up until last week, lifting your head over the brim of your scarf and under the warmth of your beanie meant you would probably die of frostbite. But now the weather has lifted, and I now know that these anonymous neighbours are in fact kindred spirits in a larger and more important body of souls connected to local plumbing by-laws, I kind of feel bad about it. Some of these lovely people obviously live and care so much about the little neighbourhoods (in fact no larger than a few blocks), that they have dedicated websites to them, with a wide range of concerns shared among the people about who is allowed in the local playground, why the garbage wasn’t collected on a public holiday, and who to blame about seagulls, just general seagulls. I love this kind of micromanaged society, because it makes me feel important, connected, and generally gives me more reason to be like my hero, Ron Swanson.
Behind the gloss though, there is a reason for it, and it’s actually a great idea. For example, owing to the frankly obtrusive level of structure in Dutch society, the districts and neighbourhoods are important geographical constructs for people, like Robyn, who can’t read maps. I have been well informed, in spite of my embarrassing lack of Dutch, that the district names correspond in many instances to the street names within them. If you are on Pelikaan Street (which roughly translates to large-seabird-with-a-massive-beak street), you are likely to be in the ‘bird district’ somewhere. That is a fantastic help to finding your way… if you know where the bird district is. Of course to laypeople like me, who didn’t grown up living on this epic system of regimentation, it is a bit absurd, but I’m sure if you are Leidener born and bred, it’s as foolproof as finding water with a y-shaped stick. I suggest you have a look at your street and if it’s not a standard one like the canals (-gracht) and the main roads (-weg), you’ll probably find it’s connected to your district’s name. If it’s named after an astrologist, you’re probably in the stargazers’ district. If it’s named after an explorer, you’re probably in the explorer’s district. If it’s named after a government official, God help you.
I found out recently that I happen to live in a block known as the ‘writers district’, which is decidedly ironic if you see the amount I have done on my thesis. I think an imminent move to the ‘procrastinator’s district’ would slightly improve the order of this society, where the street names would include long, lazy boulevards called ‘Drinking-in-the-sun St.’ and ‘Running-away-from-the-truth Av.’ However, in the meantime I’m taking solace in the fact that someone around my neck of the woods might be writing something, and if all else fails, I can write to my neighbourhood website and request submissions of words to get me over the line 🙂 What could possibly be better than bringing the community together to help out with common problems? and let’s face it, me not writing my thesis just means more of me writing for ‘The Leidener’, and that is a problem that affects everyone.
So there you have it. Go exploring online and find out which tasty little slice of Leiden’s well-divided pie is all yours to have and hold! Otherwise you may never get to know the amazing richness of this little haven we all call home.