Before you go anywhere the one golden rule to stick by is to try not to imagine the place where you’re going to arrive at. If you do, you end-up with a picture that is loosely held together, often by extrapolated information blended together from uncertain sources. My knowledge about Utrecht began with the University number that I punched in at the exam centre couple of months before arriving in the city. Beyond that it was just a name, a name that was difficult to pronounce. For an untrained tongue it seemed like an impossible sound to make. In the initial days at Utrecht, I remember impromptu sessions with my new friends here, on who could pronounce it better. The locations for such random ramblings were usually reserved around the stations where the name itself is of relevance.
Through the first couple of weeks in Utrecht the toughest part for any international student is to choose what to do and what not to. Events happen all the time and sometime at the same time. Some of these opportunities could potentially be mind bending. Along came an email, asking me if I would be interested in a dinner with a Dutch family (It is a Utrecht University program to assist internationals in meeting local families). The opportunity seemed too formal for me to accept at once. I sat over it for a day and then enrolled with anxious presumptions in mind. It becomes difficult to escape a bubble when you join a new community. This was a great chance for me to know the people who walk the streets and stay in the houses around me. I was hoping to find a window and I thought I had found one, figuratively.
After replying to the email and a little more correspondence with the family, a date was fixed for a formal dinner. I was invited at 1800 but reached late, it was raining. I announced my coming with some snacks that I had brought earlier, hoping they would make up for my punctuality. The initial meeting was made up of lots of ‘thank yous and welcomes’. I still hadn’t caught up with my Dutch language skills and in this situation my lack of it was apparent. I blurted out dank u wel after every move trying to compensate my finesse. The family was almost perfect, a husband, wife, two kids and a home. They were the proper Central Utrecht suburbanites. In the house the paint was light, the floor was dark and the ceiling was well lit. Surprisingly the house had no television or music systems, instead they had an old-school fireplace, and that’s cool in my book. I was told the number of electronic devices in the house were kept to a minimum in order to keep the children from becoming screen zombies. The wife was a teacher in a school in Utrecht. Now I could see why the children were surrounded by discipline but their acquired ability to be immune to it was blatant. The husband was an engineer working from home. The whole set was homely and the little siblings were playing everywhere. In my natural habitat I tend to stay away from children. They have a tendency of becoming loud on occasions. That evening I did my best to entertain the little people but to no avail.
I talked to the couple about how they ended up in Utrecht. Apparently they were students at the university too. After staying a few years here they were never inclined to leave. The city made them theirs is what they said. The dinner was served, delicacies I had never seen were in front of me and I waited for the host to make a move. The husband asked me if we should pray. It took me a while to think about the last time I had prayed before digging in, because there was none. In the moment’s glory I proclaimed that I would prefer praying and we all should hold hands. I was surprised I had said that, as were the hosts, we immediately thanked for the food we were so patiently waiting for, and then got to work on our plates. The food was delicious and the kids were finally silent as were we, busy going through all the courses. Its funny how a full stomach can help you unwind. After the dinner we had a long conversation about the city and all the things in it.
We talked about the program that got us in contact, it turns out they too were participating in such kind of a program for the first time. We shared our anxiety of doing such extrovertly things, in doing so we struck a chord. Over ice cream we discussed the weather, you cannot end a conversation without mentioning the weather, that’s how it goes in the Netherlands.
On the way out that night, I walked out with the friendship of two people and their two small people. That day my curiosity about the people of Utrecht was almost satisfied. The dinner truly redefined the idea of this city for me. I know I cannot colour the whole city with a single colour but this experience has fuelled me to explore more and register more for email requests that entail a dinner.