Bitter winds brought low 50 temperatures. About 1 month ago, Hannah and I were sweating profusely in the Balkans in 90 degree temperatures. We bundled up to take in the city, enjoying the cooler than expected onset of Autumn. Leiden is a city where meandering is encouraged. It is very safe and has a quiet atmosphere (though not when we visited). In the daytime, I enjoyed watching the sun reflect off the canal waters and the beautifully colored buildings reflected back from the mirror-like surface. In the nighttime, the water stretched the streetlights like a long shimmer of gold. The city was peaceful and locals were friendly. Several times we comfortably approached strangers with questions about customs, policy, and safety. Each time, they responded patiently and usually with a smile. It felt welcoming.
The only bit I knew of Leiden before our visit was that my alma mater, Webster University, has a campus in the city. During my undergrad, I transferred to Webster in large part due to the allure of its study abroad program. Unfortunately, it was a missed opportunity due to my inability to take time off work and not wanting to take on additional loans. I always regretted the decision, but this trip has been a welcome remedy to it as I have stumbled across 3 of the international campuses during the year.
The Webster University Leiden campus was small, only one building, and services about 300 students. A very friendly staff member named Daniel showed me around and took interest in our year long adventure and discussed the current student life on the Leiden campus. After a few minutes of conversation and exploring, Hannah and I left for other adventures. I was plagued for the next several hours with “what if” thoughts of how different my undergraduate studies might have been had I fulfilled my interest in studying somewhere like Leiden.
It was difficult not to muse over the Dutch lifestyle. Rows and rows of bicycles stood at schools, businesses, restaurants, and grocery stores. A significant majority of roads were coupled with parallel bike lanes. We live in Houston, Texas which boasts one of the largest highways in the US, at 26 lanes at one point including frontage roads. How much money, emissions, and time might be saves if but one of those could have been turned into a safe, paved bike lane to take people to and from work? I am not sure we will ever know, but it is a commuting solution I would heavily consider after partaking in the Swiss, Norwegian, and now Dutch systems.
Our visit to Leiden was well timed. We were there around and on October 3rd, which was the historic day of Leiden’s self liberation from Spanish occupation. While under siege and starving, they did this by literally flooding the streets of the city. Legend has it that a child left the city to see if the Spanish had gone, and what he found was a large cauldron of potato, beef, and carrot stew. On the eve of every October 3rd, the residents of Leiden gather to eat the same historic meal together before going out into the streets for celebrations. All night long, Dutch families crowd the streets and canals to buy food and goods from vendors. Our favorite were the beignets with their warm doughy interior and cover of powdered sugar.
A parade marched by with hundreds of kids sporting their hobby or organizational uniform from soccer teams to dance to even American football. Surrounding a historic windmill, bright neon lights lit up the sky as adults and kids alike enjoyed dozens of carnival rides and funhouses. As Hannah described it, “It was like mixing the Houston rodeo, New Years Eve, and Mardi Gras all in one night”. Bands on stages appeared above the heads of crowds and the entire city was over taken by the event. One other neat observation was the slight difference in carnival games. Some were casino slots, while some were pellet guns or bow and arrow to shoot balloons pushed around a cage by a fan. We played one that involved selecting a number 1-40, and whoever had the winning number got their choice of 2kg (4.4 lbs) of chocolate! We did not win. If we had, I am not sure how we would have carried the enormous package of Snickers, Twix or M&M’s, etc. home on our bicycles.
The Dutch culture was reminiscent of Scandinavia. There was an observable priority given to values of collectivism over individualism. People choose to cycle to work rather than take a car. The public transportation was efficient, clean, and not outrageously expensive. Persuading me to bike to work in a spread out city such as Houston or St. Louis (my hometown) would take a lot. Citizens pay a high tax rate and therefor more public services such as medical care and education are free. But also, there is still value placed on individualism, including privacy, how one spends leisure time, and the use of vacation time (which legally starts at 20 days or 4 weeks minimum).
Much of the cooperative aspect stems from the Netherlands historical and geographical struggle. It is a lowland nation that finds itself several meters below sea level for a good portion of the country. Due to this, diverting water and working together to maintain their homes and lives is very important. Our host broke out a large scrapbook with pictures from when the house was built decades before. The homes do not sit on a concrete slab, instead they sit on vertical wood or concrete stilts driven meters and meters into the ground, through the soft clay, and into the hardened rock beneath. As the host explained, without this, the home would simply float away in the event of a flood, but this keeps it fixed.
A note on lifestyle: Airbnb often means living in other people’s homes and this means being respectful and abiding by their rules. We have encountered some interesting ones but in Leiden there was quite a long list. They ranged from time restrictions on showers and cooking to squeegeeing the walls after our showers. The ones that raised an eyebrow were around cooking and bathroom use. Our host requested that guests ONLY prepare vegan or vegetarian foods in the kitchen, which was a bit restrictive. The other was the request for men to sit down when they use the restroom. While this was not the first time this rule was present in an Airbnb, it still perturbed me to be told how to use the bathroom among the litany of other rules. Perhaps it was a feeling of entitlement due to the fact that I was paying to stay, but as all our stays, it was temporary.