Foreign voices on Dutch peculiarities
Continuously ringing church bells, omnipresent bicycles, frozen canals, warm treacle waffles or stroopwafels - the Dutch name might sound more familiar - and too small glasses of beer. In the stories of foreign students these are often recurring elements," according to the press release announcing the book's launch. The characterization is true but does not do justice to the rich variety in style and contents of the book. Voices of the Canal was published on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of Utrecht University. The Department of Dutch organised a writing competition for foreign students. Students were invited to share their experiences on living and studying in Utrecht. Out of fifty contributions, the best twenty were selected and published.
An American exchange student pays tribute to Utrecht in a poem. A French and a Spanish student present an essay together about the ins and outs of the quintessentially Dutch cheese slicer.
Gary Cowan saw his life changed by the Dutch toilets. Living together with 24 other students, the Australian had to buy 80 rolls of toilet paper when it was his turn to replenish stocks: The nerve to walk up the main street of Sydney with 80 toilet rolls is not something I would have." Cowan adds that the platform base in Dutch toilets is no match for the Australian deep water basin design.
Jeremie Decoopman presents his experiences in Utrecht through his correspondence with friends and relatives back home in France. In one of his letters he writes his personal alphabet of the Netherlands. The letter R is interesting and not only because it is the only one with two explanations: R as in reserved: I shake hands with girls I have known for two months. R as in Rude: People push you everywhere. Is that to compensate their lack of physical contact due to their reservation? I prefer kisses."
Reservation and rudeness are not the only problems encountered in communicating with loved ones. David Rocaberti Salamanca blames Dutch supermarkets for putting an abrupt end to a potential romance. The cause was the inevitable question posed by cashiers in Dutch supermarkets : Spaar je zegels?" Damian, the main character in Salamanca's story always feels bad at the Albert Heijn supermarket: This was due to the tragedy surrounding the correspondence with his last girlfriend. He had bought stamps for his letters here ( They have great design he had thought), but no answer had arrived from Spain, and he didn't know why."
Volker van Haren from Germany takes the reader on a night trip through Utrecht. At dusk the first-person narrator is sitting in a pub, when his attention is drawn to an intriguing person outside. He decides to check him out and starts to follow the figure along streets, buildings and places throughout Utrecht. For the narrator, all these locations in the city bring to mind personal memories or new insights. He passes the little fountain that is equipped with a figure that at first I thought to be a bacchant from Greek or Roman history, but since this statue bears an inscription I have now learnt that it is actually a Dutch person by the name of Geen Drinkwater (unfit for drinking - EH)."
Jason Li offers his readers an entirely different trip. The Australian, who has two stories published in the book, gives a personal guided tour of Dutch culinary delights and abominations. He describes the kroket as the epitome of fast food, an absolute winner. On the other hand, he thinks raw herring is totally repulsive and should be avoided at all costs. Some of the culinary specialities from his list also appear in his second contribution. This story is about the feelings of love and loneliness of a foreign student. She has a love affair with a Dutch student but is lonely since she feels unable to communicate satisfactorily with other people. The story has a blood-curdling end, which again is related to food and eating habits.
Guido Spampinato wrote the title story The silent voice of the canal, which was rightly awarded the first prize in the essay contest. Walking over a frozen canal made Spampinato change his mind about Utrecht. He realised that from the ice one can view the city from a unique angle. The discovery of this different perspective makes him realise the most important thing he learnt during his stay: Life will offer you everything, but it must be enjoyed at the right time and in the right way."
Some of the stories might not meet literary standards. Plots are sometimes weak, and the narrative style somewhat artificial and far-fetched, but Voices of the Canal is fun to read. For foreign readers the book offers a rich gamut of recognizable experiences. For the Dutch audience, the essays offer a humorous opportunity to question their own habits and living environment.
Voices of the Canal. Emmeline Besamusca (ed.), Publisher Kwadraat Utrecht, 1996. Price FL 15,-. 120pp. ISBN 90 6481 601 8