Science - January 12, 2006

Erasmus students happy in IPO building

The toilets stink, clothes hang in cupboards that in a former life were used for chemical experiments, and over sixty international Erasmus students have been living there for months, sharing two to a room. But according to a jovial Michèl, ‘everything is nice in the IPO building’.

The building used to house the Institute for Plant Disease Research, where scientists in white overalls performed experiments. Now the two-storey building at the Binnenhaven is ready for demolition, but student accommodation office SSHW is using it as temporary housing for about sixty Erasmus students. There was no other alternative room for them, they were told when they arrived in Wageningen. Some international students have been there for eight months already, opposite the brand-new ‘container accommodation units’ for regular students. Their many requests to the SSHW have not resulted in more privacy.

Despite the apparent luxury of your own container on the other side, Alba from Spain declares that the IPO inhabitants have built up a close and happy existence, a bit like being in a holiday camp. Her friend Sandra is fishing out letters for her from the large pile of post. She has just moved: her roommate went back to Spain and it felt strange, alone in the room.

While the Erasmus student regales the company with stories of the wonderful time she has with her IPO friends, the white laboratory corridors with harsh lighting make the building seem more like an institution. That, together with lots of inhabitants sporting oversized ‘University no 1’ T-shirts, brings to mind films like ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’.

For 220 euros a month the occupants get a cupboard that is too narrow to hang up their clothes. But the rent includes cleaning and they are having the time of their lives. They don’t know any better, and think sharing rooms is fantastic. ‘We know everything about each other,’ laughs Araceli, a spirited Spanish student. She greets Sandra, who passes by one last time looking for her IPO friends. Some have already left it turns out, but many are coming back tonight after spending the Christmas holiday at home. Kisses, cakes and happy reunions: the atmosphere is great in the IPO building.

Mediterranean warmth
Many of the occupants come from Spain, France and Portugal, but there are also Poles, Czechs, the odd German and, rumour has it, an Indian as well. This evening though it is the Mediterranean warmth that shines through.

‘When you arrive you think you’ve come to some kind of hospital, and then you learn you have to share a room as well. That was a shock,’ tells Sandra. ‘But I miss it already; you’re never alone here.’ The Spanish student is sitting in the enormous hall now used as the communal kitchen. Amid the many tables and chairs there are mysterious pieces of debris betraying the building’s technical past, which lend a theatrical note to the social goings on. ‘Most people cook for themselves, but we eat, drink and party together.’ They even celebrated the Dutch Sinterklaas together, the memory of which evokes much laughter even though no one knew exactly what they were supposed to do. Alba comments with a smile: ‘Sometimes it’s more difficult to get studying done here.’

Next Saturday there’s a party, even though it remains unclear whose party it is and what’s going to be celebrated. There’s a party and you have to be there. ‘Look, we might live like gypsies here, and it might be more attractive on the other side,’ says Elena pointing to the student flats on the Marijkeweg and the Binnenhaven, ‘But we have the best parties, and they know that there as well! They are always the first to show up when there’s something on here.’

Sandra pursues her search for friends, knocking on doors here and there. Every so often there’s another warm welcome. Sometimes she’s surprised to see a plastic bag of bedding for a new occupant outside an empty room. More friends have left. ‘Some things in this building are really dirty and a nuisance, but the worst is that everyone leaves in the end.’ / Martijn Vink

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