The river in Nijmegen at sunset
In my first year out of high school, I did the classic gap-year backpack around Europe with my best friend. It was an invaluable experience, and I’m glad I did it instead of going straight from high school to university. Unfortunately, because my friend and I were nervous 18 year olds, we decided to plan out our entire trip, and had no flexibility in our travels. Because of this, we missed the one city that’s almost a rite of passage for young Australian backpackers: Amsterdam. At the time, missing out on seeing Amsterdam really upset me, but now that I’ve come to the Netherlands I’m glad I didn’t ruin my first experience of the country.
I was lucky enough to be introduced to the Netherlands though the little town of Nijmegen, just near the German border. I came here to visit a friend I met in South America just six months earlier. I fell in love with the city (and the Dutch) straight away.
The Dutch have an extremely rich culture that is difficult to to see if you only visit Amsterdam. Although Nijmegen is a small town, there’s always something going on, from concerts to carnivals. My favourite example of this is the annual summer festival that takes place each year. Every year, the entire city centre is turned into a festival, with stages everywhere playing Dutch music, and famous musicians performing (completely for free). There are stalls selling food from all over the world, including traditional Dutch food (see me eating raw food from the tail). When I went, my days spent at the festival with my Dutch friend looked something like:
11.am- wake up (hungover)
1.pm- grab some lunch and coffee in the centre
3.pm- meet up with friends
5.pm- see some live music
9.pm- head to the “cafes” and dance until 5 or 6 in the morning.
The summer festival isn’t the only festival in Nijmegen, but it’s definitely the biggest. It’s likely that no matter when you go to Nijmegen, there will be something going on, weather it be a festival, a party or even just the markets on a Saturday there’s always something new to discover and fall in love with.
Being in a small town allows you to connect with people in a way that you just can’t in a big city. And it’s well worth it. To me the Netherlands that the Dutch have created for themselves is a utopia. Everyone bikes everywhere, they recycle (like actually even when it’s not the closest bin), and everyone just seems to have a general goal of making things better for the future. Conversing with the Dutch can be challenging (they’re a notoriously direct people), but it always manages to make me think. Dutch people have to have their own worldview challenged, and conversations can make you think, and encourage you to grow. They obviously have their problems, no country is perfect but they’re doing pretty well. And I love it.
Don’t get me wrong, people in Amsterdam are usually friendly, but they’re usually just not very interested in meeting tourists. Amsterdam has turned into a tourist city, and I think it’s likely they’re afraid of losing their culture to tourism. It’s understandable when they likely have to deal with 300 tourists a day, most of them completely uninterested in learning about the Netherlands and the Dutch way of life. In Nijmegen I’ve made friends with people in shops, on nights out, at parties and walking around town, and most of them are interested in sharing ideas, talking about our cultures and teaching me things about the Netherlands.
Coming from a big city means I’m constantly in a rush, even when I’m not. Going to a big city like Amsterdam can be more of the same. It’s a beautiful city rich in culture and history , but it’s really not the best way to get to know the way the Dutch really live. It’s a slower pace in Nijmegen. No-one is ever in a massive rush (and yet no one is ever late… it’s a talent really). My days in Nijmegen consist of riding my bike around the centre, drinking coffee in the town square or just hanging out in one of the many parks. Everyone is just that little bit more relaxed here, and it really changes the way people interact. When I got to Nijmegen, it didn’t take me long to slow down a little. I quickly got used to the small-town way of life and it’s taught me to relax and de-stress. Walking around the city centre on a Saturday, I’m greeted with a smile and a wave by passers by. Everyone starts conversations in elevators and knows their neighbours. The word “gezellig” is an important one to the Dutch. Literally translated it means “cosy” but it’s so much more than that. It’s a feeling of ease and comfort a place can give you. It’s a “vibe” more than anything, and it’s shaped the way people seem to live here.
There are so many reasons to fall in love with the Netherlands, and my experiences in the small town of Nijmegen have allowed me too see the real dutch way of life. My time in Nijmegen, even just that first week I spent here a year ago, challenged me and allowed me to grow as a person. If I had been introduced to the Netherlands the way most tourists are, I wouldn’t have the perfect impression in my mind.Any tourists thinking about spending some time in the Netherlands, should think about visiting Nijmegen. It’s just an hour on the train from Amsterdam and gives you the opportunity to see the real Netherlands, the one I fell in love with.