Life in Leiden, Netherlands

ItsBohemian Travel Contributor, Jacob Gibbons, writes about the charming town of Leiden, and why it’s definitely worth a visit.

I recently moved away from my first expat home in Leiden, a little city you’ve probably never heard of nestled between Amsterdam and The Hague in the Netherlands. And even though leaving Leiden for me meant beginning an adventurous and obscenely cheap trip through the Balkans and then London, I’m still drowning in nostalgia and missing this perfect little city.

(Click on picture to enlarge images)

Charming Leiden - Photo by Jake Gibbons
Photo by Jakob Gibbons

I first moved to Leiden in May of 2012 for what was supposed to be a brief research project, and within about a week and a half I was smitten with the stadje (Dutch diminutive word for a tiny city). I came back again for a few more weeks of ‘research’ later that year (mostly researching the insides of pubs), and finally moved there in August 2013. While doing my MA at Leiden University, I spent most of my free time hanging out with Leiden’s fantastic Couchsurfing and expat community, taking trips to random places in and outside the Netherlands, interning at an international development NGO, and indulging in the finer things in life like fifty-cent beers and dumpster diving.

I’ve just finished my Euro-farewell tour through Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and London (which you can read about at my blog), and am now cooling my heels in the States before moving to Colombia by the beginning of 2015. After that, my next step is officially a big question mark (volunteer somewhere in Eastern Africa? Study again? Teach somewhere in Asia or the Persian Gulf and learn what ‘disposable income’ is?), but it’s no secret to my friends that going back to Leiden is very high on the shortlist. So until I make it back, here are five of the many things that I’ll be missing the most about Leiden and life in the Netherlands.

1. The Dutch language
A lot of people find Dutch to be an ugly language, with its harsh-sounding uvular fricatives (those <g>s that make it hard to have a polite lunch conversation without launching half-chewed food at your friend) and aggressive tongue-twisters like achthonderd achtentachtig ‘s-Gravenhaagse gereedschapschuurtjes, but on the other hand, Dutch has some really utilitarian words like gezellig (explained later in this post) and swaffelen (a verb meaning ‘to hit one’s penis (often repeatedly) against something or someone’, the 2008 Dutch word of the year).

Maybe it’s because, just as Leiden is my first home abroad, Dutch is the first language I’ve learned to fluency, but I find it often graceful and expressive in a way that other languages don’t seem to be. English has, to me, many right angles and straight lines from all its Latin and Romance influences, whereas Dutch sometimes feels like it just curves and flows in a beautifully Germanic way. Most of all, I’ll miss getting to speak Dutch every day and actively feeling the feeling of being able to express myself, build friendships, and manage my life in another language.

Beautiful Leiden


2. Gezelligheid
Gezellig is a great example of a word that is just really not translatable (or at least not in English). Gezellig is an adjective that encompasses a lot of things, but it’s chiefly something social: it’s when you’re in a nice café with good atmosphere and soothing lighting, sitting with friends whose company you’re really enjoying, having great, stimulating conversation, and just having a good ol’ time. You often tell someone as you’re saying goodbye that “het was gezellig” (“it was gezellig”), that you had a good time with them.

But a person can also be gezellig, meaning more that they’re pleasantly sociable or perhaps that they have a tendency of fostering gezellig situations around them. Gezelligheid is just the noun form, gezellig-ness, if you will. And it is seeping out of the walls and flowing through the canals of Leiden, just waiting to wrap you up and charm you into staying forever.

A Gezelligheid Moment
A Gezelligheid Moment

3. The Randstad
Leiden, despite really being quite a small city (around 120,000 people, or 345,000 in its metropolitan area), is smack-dab in the middle of the Randstad, the biggest urban agglomeration in the Netherlands and the fourth biggest economic area in the European Union. From Leiden, you can be in The Hague in 15 minutes, Amsterdam in 35, Rotterdam in 40, Utrecht in 35, and Schiphol Airport in 15. All of this means that, living in Leiden, you’re really ‘living in the world’.

Amsterdam is known for its arts, culture, and nightlife, and The Hague is bursting with international civic organizations, intergovernmental organizations, and NGOs. A lot of these musicians in Amsterdam and civil servants in The Hague end up living in Leiden, and these and the other surrounding cities draw huge numbers of expats and students that keep the whole region buzzing with an international glow. The best part is that you can spend a day or night in any of these places and still come home to a quaint, tranquil city that’s more or less free of tourists.

Even better, the Dutch public transit is like a dream. In the Randstad, transit is usually on time, efficient, and relatively comfortable. The trains run all night between Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, and Utrecht (Leiden is between those first two). After 00.30 they only come once an hour, and then there’s a shorter break between when the last train leaves Amsterdam at 4.45 in the morning and the first train of the next day leaves at 5.15, but if you plan your night carefully, you can avoid dragging your reeking-of-booze self onto the morning train with the early-rising go-getters and dump yourself where you belong on the 4.45 Train of Shame with the semi-lucid tourists.

Biking Holland - Photo by Jake Gibbons
Photo by Jakob Gibbons

4. Muurgedichten
One of the charming idiosyncrasies of Leiden is its muurgedichten. These 150+ poems from various poets, new and old, famous and obscure, are to be found in over 40 languages all over the walls of Leiden’s city centre (and a few outside). The muurgedichten began in 1992 as a project sponsored by the city and officially ended in 2005, but since then there have been at least 50 more added by others.

It not only amplifies the already gezellig atmosphere of the small city, but also speaks to the highly international composition of its residents: wherever you’re from as an expat or international student in Leiden, you can almost certainly find a poem in your language on a wall in a winding alley or above the door of a café somewhere.

Wall poems - Photo by Jake Gibbons
Photo by Jakob Gibbons


5. The Dutch Pragmatism
When I started my MA at Leiden University, I had to do a week-long international student orientation that was essentially an acculturation course, and we must have been told some double-digit number of times per day that the Dutch are “pragmatic”. This seems to be one of these points of national pride that people might exaggerate and one-dimensionalize in their heads (cf. ‘freedom’ in the US or ‘culture’ in France), but it does apply to a lot of things. This is often equated to secularism and the fact that, while south of the rivers that separate the provinces of Zuid Holland and Noord Brabant people are nominally ‘Catholic’ and north ‘Protestant’, most people fall somewhere in the spectrum between one church visit per year to convinced atheist.

Under this same category (or at least to me they seem to be related) is the total lack of machismo culture and the relatively egalitarian gender relations of the Netherlands. While recently in Barcelona with a Dutch friend, I sat down to watch a street performance by four bulky, Schwarzenegger-looking Spaniards. They danced and did backflips and choreographed fist-fights, each one strutting around with a puffed-out chest while he waited for his turn to come up again (it looked something like the video here). It occurred to me that I’d never once seen a group of Dutch guys swaggering about in too-tight wifebeater tanktops barely covering their nipples, and that if such a macho display were to take place in Holland it would most likely be met with a condescending doe normaal! (“act normal!”) from a passersby or two.

cozy Leiden


Bonus: Leiden Couchsurfing

This is one hundred percent a case of saving the best for last; it’s the real reason I’ll miss Leiden, and the reason so many other expat-student-traveler-intern-whoevers also miss it so much after they leave. I got started with Couchsurfing in Leiden, and in two and a half years of very active participation and visiting CS communities in ten different countries, Leiden still stands out towering over the rest (much like how Dutch people tend to tower over the normal-sized people in the rest of the world).

If you’re not familiar with Couchsurfing, please fix that immediately. Many have heard of it and think it’s just a hospitality network where you host strangers in your living room or find a potentially sociopathic host to give you a free place to sleep when you’re travelling, but the best part is the community of travelers that crops up around CS. In Leiden, for example, there’s ‘Language Lab’, a weekly language exchange group that meets in a local pub every Wednesday, or the cutely named ‘Friday Dri(u)nks’ where local CSers, travelers passing through, and new internationals moving to the area can meet up and get to know each other.

Leiden views

[Read more about Leiden, the Netherlands, and traveling the world and talking to its inhabitants at]

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