It's like travelling without moving
For the last couple of years the Wageningen Social Housing Corporation (SSHW) has operated three so-called short-stay corridors. These are meant for students who are in Wageningen for less than six months. They are all located on the same floor of the Dijkgraaf block of flats. There is a Dutch student living on each corridor, to whom foreign students can turn with practical problems and who ensures that the daily routine runs smoothly
Dijkgraaf 5a is having pancakes for lunch, except for Liam McCabe from Ireland who is eating hot buttered toast. He's also responsible for the tea we are drinking. The walls in the kitchen are adorned with a poster explaining Dutch traffic signs and a map of the world. The Dutch student in charge of this corridor is 31-year old Sebastian Buijs. Asked about what his work involves, Buijs answers: filling in tax forms, taking care of bills, explaining messages on answering machines and providing bikes. McCabe: Or I ask him how to get to Amsterdam. His bike rental activities evoke much enthusiasm among his co-tenants. McCabe, buttering another slice of toast: He's really cheap. I only paid fifteen Irish pounds for the whole of my stay. Erasmus student Manolo Gomez from Spain endorses this: It's perfect, especially when you have a visitor coming over. And Sebastian gives absolutely brilliant service.
Officially the corridors are for students who stay in Wageningen for a maximum of half a year. However, Ruedi Nef, an MSc student in forestry from England, has already been in Holland for a year and a half, and has been living on Dijkgraaf 5a since October last year. I didn't ask to live in this corridor, but I certainly don't regret it. Katrin Oltmer from Germany has also been living in Wageningen for a longer period of time. She came to the Netherlands as an Erasmus undergraduate and is now doing an MSc course. Only McCabe is a real short-termer. He was sent to Wageningen for three months by his company to follow a course on Animal Breeding. Despite the differences they all have one thing in common: they like living on 5a. Could it be something to do with the eating together, the bowling in Rhenen and the regular parties celebrating traditions from all sorts of countries? Gomez: Maybe living here is better. Ive a friend who lives on a Dutch corridor and he feels very isolated. He finds it hard to have a conversation because everyone ends up speaking Dutch. Dijkgraaf 5a doesn't mix much with Dutch fellow students, but this is not only due to the relatively short stay or language difficulties. Oltmer: It's also a question of age difference, theyre more interested in studying. McCabe continues: If it weren't for the fact that I play rugby I would hardly see any Dutch students. He isn't particularly interested in fellow Irishmen either: I know there are 14 other Irish in Wageningen at the moment, but I try to avoid them. I came here to meet other people. He pauses for more toast
Buijs, who has lived on 5a for two and a half years now, has seen over sixty inhabitants come and go. Most of the time sharing a corridor goes well: ill-matched tenants seem to be a rare phenomenon. We once had a Spanish and an Ecuadorian student here, recalls Buijs, They had a big fight which went back, I believe, to the time of the Spanish conquest of Latin America. Most of the time the biggest challenge is encouraging people to take turns cooking, but even that is not a problem at the moment. Nef laughs: In fact were having a cooking competition because there's a dispute about who's the best cook. It starts today.
Buijs' accumulated experience is evident in other areas. Over the years he's collected a lot of useful things so the corridor is well equipped. Gomez: Compared with 5a Dutch corridors are awful. Theyre empty, dirty and neglected. Buijs summarizes his life on 5a: It's a very intensive way of living together which goes on seven days a week. I don't see it as a job, it's more a way of life. However, it definitely cost me one year of my study, but it's been a great experience. Ive learned a lot about other countries. It's like travelling without moving.
Twenty-year old Food Science student Floris Stehouwer has been the one in charge on Dijkgraaf 5b since May last year. With newcomers here likewise, after the exploring and explaining phase, cooking is the biggest issue. Stehouwer: At first people object, with statements like I don't like that kind of food, or the Polish like to have dinner at five while the Greeks don't eat until ten. Weve now set a compromise time of seven oclock for supper
Stehouwer was interested in the job as soon as he came to live in Wageningen. I thought it would be a very popular job, and that Id have to wait until my fourth year or so. He was offered a position just two months after applying. Although all floors have a Dutch tenant at the moment the SSHW is a bit worried about the future. It will start a campaign next month to get more Dutch students interested. Stehouwer lives with people from Greece, Sweden, Guatemala, Spain, Poland, France, Austria, Kenya and Ethiopia. He explains: For me it's very nice. Not only do I learn about other cultures, but Ive also learned quite a bit about my own culture. There are so many things you take for granted. For example, the fact that every square metre of land in Holland has been shaped in some way by human hands, or that you can look into everyone's house and see people watching television in the evenings.
One of the few disadvantages, according to Stehouwer, is the fact that contact with other corridors except for immediate neighbours is virtually zero. Put this corridor somewhere in England and it would be exactly the same. On the other hand, it's amazing that a Greek will get to know of all the other Greeks in Wageningen within one day. The same is true for Africans and others as well. Cleaning can also be a problem: some men refuse to help with cleaning, as they say it is not a men's job in their culture. Sometimes people clean at night so no one sees them doing it.
The main reason for Stehouwer to quit the job would be that he is growing tired of meeting new people all the time. Just as youre getting to know them, they leave, and you have to be friendly to the next bunch. But for the present, Stehouwer, like Buijs, likes living this way. He doesn't think of it so much as a job: Of course I feel responsible and of course I put in time organizing and stuff, but that's not much. Besides, I enjoy explaining to an Ethiopian how to repair a flat tyre.