‘There’s nothing in Groningen but the University’, she said. I was on a long-overdue trip to Amsterdam this summer and spoke with a Dutch native who took the opportunity to, unabashedly, impart some Dutch ‘directness’. She appeared convinced about the ‘truth’ in her exaggeration, which was likely due in part to her big-city mindset. I offered no response. For the first time I felt what must be the bewilderment of a parent who had just been told to their face that their child is ugly.
Undoubtedly, I’ve griped about Groningen in the past – specifically about the unneighbourly neighbours, the barefaced bike thieves, the mercurial weather and the meager to non-existent job opportunities for foreigners. But in that moment – as I heard criticism dripping from the lips of someone else who had probably never lived in Groningen to know what’s there – I wanted to shout, ‘Oh no, we have Grote Markt!’ That response would have probably been laughable and would not have changed anything. Besides, how does Grote Markt and the Martinikerk compare to the Van Gogh Museum, the Efteling and the Anne Frank House?
Amsterdam had always been one of the cities that I had kept in mind to visit when I decided to continue my studies in the Netherlands. But on that day, while strolling through the streets – passing one too many coffee shops (that didn’t have roasted coffee beans on the menu), and quite too many sex paraphernalia displayed for the young, middle-aged and old to see – I realized that I’d rather have my bike stolen a thousand times in Groningen than to indulge in or be surrounded by the disproportionate debauchery that North Holland appeared to promote.
Later, as I travelled to Rotterdam in the south, one thing became clear: in the internationalized cities of North and South Holland, it was more likely that you’d be offered a courteous ‘Goedenmiddag’, or be inclined to have a quick banter with a fellow commuter, or have a chat with your neighbours over your garden wall. But unlike these cities, in Groningen motorists obey traffic signs and considerately allow room for pedestrian traffic, rather than blatantly berate the elderly man that would have likely been run over through no fault of his. Compared to the cacophony inherent in larger cities, Groningen offers quietude and a welcomed diversion from the hustle and bustle. In truth, an hour’s commute in any direction in Groningen would probably reveal all there is to be seen. Yet, I believe that it is this proximity that engenders within its residents a sense of ownership of the city.
So, while others think of Groningen as the deserted city with a University nestled in the middle of abandoned streets and surrounded by overgrown cacti, horse and carriages and the errant tumbleweed, I choose to think of Groningen as ‘home’.