Arriving in Utrecht was akin to stepping off the Hogwart’s Express into Harry Potter’s school of wizardry, except that instead of witches and wizards on brooms, I saw the Dutch whizzing by on their bicycles, often dressed in a working suit or short skirt and heels. They were going to work, after all, and the Dutch do not think of bicycles as just recreational vehicles.
That was the school year of 2007-2008 and I was one of 15 international students at the “Europe in the World” program at Hogeschool in Utrecht. The opening ceremony introduced us, from the start, to Dutch simplicity: we were greeted with a cheese sandwich and a glass of milk. A day later, I discovered that our hosts, friendly but direct, had little patience with the foreigners’ lack of urban cycling skills.
Little did I realize at that point that within four months I would be utterly charmed by both Utrecht and its tall, pragmatic inhabitants. I also mastered cycling, my only mode of transport during my stay in this city of little cobblestone streets. I shopped in Kanaalstraat’s Turkish and Indonesian stores overflowing with good and cheap foods, fresh halal meat and affordable wine Utrecht was the beginning of what would become a memorable, two-year, once-in-a-lifetime European experience that I had dreamt of from the moment I started university in Montreal. It was something of a passionate affair with strong emotions and sensations and opinions, every single moment lived with an intensity and delight too exhausting to sustain, except as an indelible memory.
I was in Europe and I loved it intensely and naively. Everything there, to me, was better than in North America. More culture, more cafés, more history, more everything packed into every square metre of land; cheap flights and train tickets to visit the whole continent. It was an idealistic student’s fulfillment of all her needs and longings at that age. After four months, it was time to move on to Aarhus, in Denmark. Spring is lovely in Denmark. I visited a deer park nearby, the forest bursting with greenery and tiny flowers, rays of sunshine pouring through the foliage – a perfect setting for a Hans Christian Anderson story.
Our courses were highly organized, involving travel to the Ruhr to report on local efforts in creating sustainable living environments. Every week we had to evaluate our classes. A year later, I returned to Denmark to document ecovillages with an international group of filmmakers. In retrospect, it is clear that the people spearheading these initiatives were visionaries creating solutions to environmental problems that most people still refuse to see and address.
As I write this, recalling parties ‘til dawn, friendships, intensive learning and sheer pleasure, what is probably the most treasured part of participating in “Europe in the World” was the actual possibility of having such an experience in an open world, an open Europe.
For my parents, who grew up in Poland, getting a passport and travelling West to study was a mere fantasy. For me, my studies with Europe in the World was just the beginning of visiting countries from Germany to Istanbul, from France to Azerbaijan and Africa.
Today, as I bike to work in Montreal wearing my heels, Montrealers look at me with astonishment. Biking with heels? What can I say – I took a little piece of the Netherlands with me when I left the Old Continent and came back to the New World, and it is here to stay with me in my very North American life.