Living in Holland: Find your feet on two wheels

From the ubiquitous bicycle to three kisses on the cheeks – how to survive student life in the Netherlands

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Anyone planning on being a student in the Netherlands had better get used to that ringing in their ears. It's not a surfeit of church celebrations or tinnitus from the nightlife, it's the bicycle bells. "The first thing you have to do here as a student is get a bike," says Nikhil Satija, who is at Stenden University of Applied Sciences. "I bike everywhere."

He's not alone. He rides one of an estimated 13 million bikes in the Netherlands. In a country of 16 million people, that is almost one per person. The country's flat landscape, well-marked roads and deeply ingrained cycling culture mean students soon learn to love their two-wheeled companions.

But if the cycle lanes are crowded, the classrooms certainly aren't; it's normal to have around 25 students to a class, with most courses taught in English. "Students will never have a class with three or four hundred students in an auditorium; it's much more personal," says Ton Van Osch, admissions officer at HAN University of Applied Sciences.

Another distinctive feature of many universities is the problem-based learning model, with its focus on small groups in which students work through assignments together. "It took me some time to adjust to this system," says Satija. "It's quite interesting, as a group could be a mix of students from many nationalities and every student works or studies differently."

The challenges presented by an international cohort are part of the attraction, though, suggests Van Osch. "We have a policy of not putting more than five people of one nationality in a group. It's very diverse, so students don't only learn about cultural differences; they experience them." He feels university is more interesting with an international flavour. "Holland may be further away than India to British minds, but it's only an hour away," he laughs. "We're aware we're only a small part of the world and we want to engage with the rest of it."

Working together or individually, students can expect to be assessed in various ways, including tests, oral

and written exams, essays, lab work and perhaps a final thesis; exact combinations depend on the specific institution. "Students meet regularly with their tutor to discuss their individual study programme," adds Dr Belinda Stratton, admissions officer at Amsterdam University College. "This close personal attention helps to ensure that no student feels like a number, and that anyone struggling with their studies can be quickly identified and helped."

Rosalind Lowe, in her second year at Leiden University College, The Hague, urges students to embrace this style of learning. "If you feel that a more personal teaching approach, where you can just grab a drink with your professor after class, is the most appropriate one for you, then don't let trepidation hold you back," she says. "You'll find yourself learning a lot in a very short time."

And there's more than a drink with the professor to pique the interest after lectures, with plenty of culture wherever you are. There are sweeping landscapes and more than 1,000 museums to explore, and most of the larger universities are within easy reach of beautiful city centres with lively nightlife.

To sleep it all off you'll need somewhere to lay your head. Student accommodation, whether or not it is used for parties, is varied. There are few campus universities, unlike in the UK, and residences are often spread throughout cities. "At AUC, all our students live in our student residences," says Stratton, "but most programmes tend to have agreements with student housing associations or other arrangements so that they can help students coming from abroad to find somewhere to live."

Living among the general population, can help foreign students to feel more involved in Dutch society, which is useful if you run into difficulties. "People are incredibly friendly and open to offering help in a way that is very different from England," says Madeleine McMurray, a student at LUC.

However, despite the differences, there's a lot that UK students will find reassuringly familiar, according to Stratton. So all that's left for students to worry about is finding that perfect bike.

Top tips to fit in with the natives

Kissing: Dutch people traditionally greet one another with three kisses on the cheek, so don't worry that the person you've just met might be trying it on. "This tradition might be slightly disconcerting to those who are not really accustomed to it," cautions Rosalind Lowe, a second-year student at Leiden university, in the Hague. "Don't feel shocked when your neighbour leans forward for a peck," she advises. "It's the norm."

Cycling proficiency: Colin White and Laurie Book, authors of the cult guide "The UnDutchables: an observation of the Netherlands, its culture and its inhabitants", have a tip for first-timers based on years of living in the country: "If you have a bike, always carry one or two passengers after dusk and test ring the bell every few minutes."

Orange Crush: Just woken up to find everyone dressed in orange and setting up stalls on their doorsteps? Fear not, it's Queen's Day: a national celebration on 30 April for the Queen's birthday. Everyone dresses in the national colour and you're allowed to sell bric-a-brac outside your home. The country becomes a nationwide street party-cum-jumble sale.

Rounding up: When drinking in a group the general rule is for people to take turns buying rounds – if you're leaving early or have limited funds, it's fine to say so at the start of the night and buy your own drinks. Eating out? It's normal to split the bill equally – this custom is the origin of the expression "Going Dutch".

You'd better not pout, you'd better not cry: Yes, Sinterklaas is coming to town. From Spain, on a paddle steamer. He arrives in early December to great fanfare (including national parades) and children leave notes for him in their shoes. Why, were you expecting someone else?