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"The Most Wonderful Things in the World are Worth the Fight"

Alexandra Atrashkina, a 3rd-year student of the Media and Communications programme, talks about the exchange semester at the University of Groningen.

The letter dated October 14, 2021 begins with the words: “Congratulations, you have been nominated for a spring semester at the University of Groningen” — while I understand that something wonderful is going to happen.

And I am not mistaken.

In this article I will tell you how I spent 6 months in the Netherlands and decided that I am no longer afraid to dream big.

The City 

Groningen is a bustling student town near the North Sea — a hidden gem for those who admire dark academy aesthetics. There are cobbled streets and old squares, the university main building, which looks more like a vampire castle (especially at night), and my personal favorite — the royal Prinsentuin garden. I even made afinal project about this place for the Narrating Space in Modern Europe  class.

Groningen is a city of many faces. There are quiet old streets stretching along the canals, and a bar area with loud music and flashing colored lights. There is also the Forum, a building that won an architecture award, a public space with a library, cafes, cinemas, and an open study area. 

Although locals grumbled about the "poor" location of the city (it is indeed a bit far away from everything), for me it was not a problem. “Far away” from Amsterdam is only two hours by train — I used to spend this time getting to school every day. Be sure to use student discounts when buying travel tickets! Thereby, I traveled quite a lot: I met my school friends in Amsterdam, spontaneously went to the Northern Renaissance exhibition in Bruges, and spent a summer as a volunteer in Berlin.

Housing Issues 

In Groningen, as in other Dutch cities, there are big housing problems. Universities do not provide dorms, so you need to look for a place to live in the private sector. It will take time and perseverance: landlords and landladies are not very happy with students coming for a short time. I was lucky to come across a student house, which had just opened the applications for the spring semester. So, I rented a studio in the former printing house, where it was sometimes cold, but always cozy.

I cannot help but tell you a story about the most stupid adventure ever, codenamed the GarbageСatacombs . In the Netherlands, they take care of the environment and, therefore, put an effort into sorting garbage. They also use underground garbage cans (so that the smell does not spread throughout the street). I read about this in an article way before I arrived in Groningen, and, of course, I was immediately fascinated with the underground garbage cans. I imagined dark, winding tunnels: something between the Paris catacombs and Khazad-Dum from The Lord of the Rings . So when during the check-in I was asked if I knew how everything works with the trash cans, I answered “of course” and tried to look smart.

The next three days I spent searching for the entrance to the dungeon. 

I accidentally wandered into a private parking lot, walked around the store basement and was kicked out by a surprised employee, and eventually I found the most ordinary-looking trash cans in an inconspicuous part of the yard. Of course, the main part of the can was located underground, but in other respects, the process was extremely trivial. There were no dungeons and no romance.

The Studying Process 

The educational system is almost similar to the one we have in the HSE. Consequently, it was easy to adapt. Even easier with the orientation meetings for exchange students, where we were told about the features and values of the university. I quickly got involved in my studies: I studied books, bombarded professors with questions, spent nights in the library working on my essays and, of course, practiced the language.

I discussed Nabokov with a Mexican boy, cooked dumplings with my French friend, helped girls from New Zealand and Italy with their Russian essays (yes, there were a lot of students who learn Russian!). In response, people taught me how to cook the traditional Korean Jan Kal Guksu soup, told me about the real Italian mafia and explained how to pronounce the Dutch ghh sound correctly.

From this paragraph, it may seem that we only ate and had fun, but it is not true. The value of the international community showed itself in studies: in discussions and group projects. For example, I did my final project on the Film Analysis course together with an Iranian girl named Daria. We analyzed the Iranian movie, and while I did my part following the manual‎ by measuring the length of the shot, angle etc., Daria explained the film based on her personal experience. Thanks to that, our presentation turned out to be versatile and deep.

Such moments help you to understand how big and diverse the world is, and how important is to protect it at all costs.

A Piece of Advice

In this section, I decided to collect some tips for living and studying in the Netherlands:

1.      Ask questions to the professors. Сome up after class, write emails — unleash your curiosity to the max.

2.     Learn the language and learn the culture. 

3.     Start searching for housing as early as possible. Without further ado, the housing problem is real .

4.     Buy products in the market. Yes, this advice is not suitable for all cities, but if there is such an opportunity, do not miss it.

5.     Do not be afraid to drink tap water. It is filtered and delicious. Remember that you have to pay a tax for every plastic bottle bought in the store.

6.     Look up for study buddies. It helps a lot to stay productive, especially during the exams.

7.     Come up with a plan in case of illness. The Dutch health care system is very different from ours: in order to get to a specialised medical help, you need to get a referral from a general practitioner. However, a general practitioner will most likely prescribe you vitamins or herbs (for example, I was prescribed to drink nettle decoction when I had a fever). Therefore, take medicines from home and be ready for online consultations with Russian doctors.

8.    Try something new. The most basic advice, but I feel like I should emphasise this. Try national cuisine, go to student events, travel to the nearest cities. A random scientific article can be dusted off, but adventures — never!

The Conclusion 

When preparing documents for the mobility contest, I used to give up several times. After all, my GPA is not 10, and there always must be someone better. To cheer myself up, I went to Pinterest and looked for some aesthetic photos of the city, dreaming about walking around it one day.

From now on, every time I feel a lack of confidence I think of this story and realise that the most wonderful things in the world are worth the fight.