For the last six weeks, I have been toting a satchel. Just like me, the Satchel (for lack of a better name) is quite the traveller. We found each other in a quirky little shop in Shibuya 109, a funky shopping mall in Tokyo. Unlike with the Beast, here it was love at first sight.
The Satchel has been accompanying me to Leiden University, filled with a netbook, countless books, pens, and notepads. It travels by bike (five minutes), train (fifty minutes) and then foot (fifteen minutes) to my classes. And it was subject to an unfortunate incident involving a slightly-open bottle of mango smoothie in Week One.
Once I made the decision to study as an international student, I didn’t look back. I swam through copious amounts of paperwork for the eventual honour of being admitted as a local student, yet I was also able to benefit from introductory days for international students. On my first day, I was surrounded by Italians, Greeks, Chinese, Indonesians and Brits. It felt like United Nations.
Ten per cent of Leiden’s fifteen thousand students come from abroad. Fifteen thousand students doesn’t sound like a lot, particularly coming from Melbourne Uni’s forty thousand-strong cohort, but it’s amazing to see the impact the students have on the town of Leiden. Unlike universities in Australia, the university isn’t confined to a campus as such. It’s spread out all over the town, which was awarded the university, the Netherlands’ first, as a thankyou gift from William of Orange back in 1575. The town had been loyal to the republican cause and had suffered plenty during the Eighty Years’ War with the Spanish. Interesting way to say ‘cheers’, one would think.
With a history like that, it feels quite special to be studying history in such an institution. Bookstores, cafes and pubs are scattered throughout, and people read rather than play with their phones whilst waiting for their trains at Leiden Centraal. The place simply excited the nerd in me, and thankfully that excitement hasn’t wore off.
The main difference between studying in Australia and the Netherlands is the workload. I suppose the BA isn’t nicknamed the ‘Bachelor of Attendance’ for nothing. The amount of reading for a Leiden MA, though, is slightly nutty and even the local students are overwhelmed. I have perfected my skim-reading skills, particularly when it comes to historiography (the study of history) which makes my eyelids droop. How all those international students, not to mention the Dutch, can comprehend all the English-language literature is beyond me. It’s hard enough as a native speaker.
There are other differences. Unlike most international students, I don’t live in Leiden so I’m not as much as a social butterfly as I was at Melbourne. I’m not even aware of the student union’s existence (the email announcing elections was solely in Dutch) though I am writing a travel column for the student newspaper. And instead of being bowled over by Socialist Alternative at the tram stop, I’m accosted most mornings at the train station by promotions staff handing out free food. I know which one I prefer – sometimes I needn’t buy lunch.
There are similarities, however. There’s still at least one obnoxious blabbermouth in each tutorial, drowning out everyone else by the sheer love of his own voice. You can still tell when someone hasn’t done the reading. And even the graffiti in the library carrels carry the same messages, albeit in different languages.
The Satchel’s doing its job for now. But, come June (the end of semester) the Beast will be calling my name again. And I’ll only be too happy to oblige.