A Blog by International Students at Leiden University

A Semester at Leiden; More than Just Bikes

It is said that the Dutch ride many-a-bicycles and that a picture speaks a thousand words. While there are ample diehard bicycle-goers in the Netherlands (and I really do mean thousands upon thousands), it is not this much propagated ideal that I wish to peddle today.

Between you and me, I have wondered whether stereotypes like these are recycled, time and time again, exactly because they speak so firmly for themselves. On the one hand, they are easy, with little left to contribute apart from the affirming head bob here and there. On the other, they are actually somewhat distorting, as their prominence casts a shadow over other, equally valid portrayals of everyday life.

Along side the images of bicycles, tulips and clogs then, are the true to life accounts and photographs of people who may not entirely conform to the expectations that these  romantic images generate. And what better way to prove this, than by accounting for what a vegetarian, non-alcohol drinking, live-alone in The Hague yet studying in Leiden, somewhat cynical and somewhat still mid-20s, bachelor student like myself, got up to during a semester at Leiden University.


Please observe, Dutch people on Rapenburg, Leiden seeking to park their trusty, two-wheeled stallions

1. The First Semester: 

Albeit that the subjects pertaining to your academic programme change each academic year (supposedly, that’s the point), the weather over the course of the first semester predictably devolves from a balmy late summer into an incredibly wet, and occasionally very frosty, winter. Come mid-October, and life is ushered indoors, with the onset of the northern hemisphere’s winter darkness. However, the consequent Vitamin D scarcity doesn’t stop life here from unfolding in all its vivid diversity.

Neither has a bout of rain ever deterred the Dutch from cycling nor have conditions been so terrible that all those precious tulips withered into extinction. The latter in particular is something that I try to keep in mind, seeing as I consider myself to be somewhat of a delicate specimen, and now seems like a good time to admit that I have certainly craved solitary hibernation, on particularly grey and rainy days.


Please marvel at this train service disrupting snow and the overall splendour that is Clingendael Park in The Hague

Confused? Please, don’t be. Being able to turn discontent with the weather into not only an acceptable but also a relatable conversation topic, it is but one of the many peculiar perks to living amongst the Dutch. Here is one more novel thing that I got up to in the first semester of the 2017-2018 academic year:

2. LUCIS Middle Eastern Culture Market 2017

Somewhere in an old family album, my mum has a picture of me with my face painted as an ancient Egyptian queen–or rather like that of a mummy’s death mask come to think of it–after a visit to the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (The National Museum of Antiquities) many moons ago.

While the same museum has since had some impressive facelifts of its own, coming back  to it after all these years for the Leiden University Centre for Islam & Society‘s annual Middle Eastern Culture Market, allowed me not only to reengage with my more recent extra-curricular experience in Jordan, but also to learn more widely about the Middle East and North Africa region. In particular, it enabled me to gain a better understanding of how the Middle East is displayed in accordance with an academic-meets-popular understanding, prominent here in The Netherlands.


Behold the Mehmet Polat Trio performing at Rijksmuseum, as part of the LUCIS Middle Eastern Cultural Market, 2017

This free to the public event was held on 30 September 2017, in the Tempelzaal (Temple Hall) at Oudheden. There to share in the beautiful yet melancholic background whispers of the Oud, and an informative guest lecture on Salafism, was my friend Jelle. At the time of the event, he had just returned from India after a six month exchange in Delhi. He participated in this exchange as part of his Bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, and after completing three units of Hindi along side of me.

While most things are enjoyable in good company, the Middle Eastern Culture Market was great to attend for three more reasons: firstly, cultural events as such enable you to participate in subject matter connected to or beyond the scope of your degree; secondly, they provide a platform for academic knowledge to be shared with the wider public, and; thirdly, they show that Dutch people are keen to (and do) participate in activities that go beyond the stereotypes of bicycles, tulips, and clogs.


Please observe, the tall Dutch friend. (Rest assured that no necks, including my own, were broken in the taking of this image.)

What’s more, for some Dutch people, the cultures of the Middle-East and North Africa region are more than an annual display of objects and performances. Along side of the norms, values and practices of wider Dutch society, elements of these cultures are also intregral to their everyday lives.

Perhaps a fourth and final reason to attend the various culture markets hosted by Leiden University throughout the year then, might actually be to get better acquainted with the various sides to life in the Netherlands, regardless of the weather.

About Sarah-Louise@TheLeidener

Hello, Sarah-Louise here. I study South & Southeast Asian Studies, including Hindi (नमस्ते), at the Faculty of Humanities. I am interested in identity formation, their politicisation, and social spaces, and for this reason I like to combine my own photography with storytelling. Feel free to leave a comment below, to request a blog topic or to approach me in person, if you happen to spot me on campus. For my full profile, please visit the Meet the Bloggers section of The Leidener.

2 comments on “A Semester at Leiden; More than Just Bikes

  1. Johanna
    February 27, 2018

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this article!

    • Sarah-Louise@TheLeidener
      February 27, 2018

      Thank you very much, Johanna.

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