…of raw herring, bikes and festivals

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So, life in Leiden has settled down and become incredibly hectic… hence why there’s been no update in nearly three weeks! As in Edinburgh, a lot of the time not spent studying is spent in the pub, which leaves me with not a lot of coherent writing time….!

Classes have begun, and predictably I didn’t get to do all of the ones I originally chose and have subsequently been forced to do philology. Given that I spend half my life vehemently saying that I study English LANGUAGE, not English LITERATURE, this has undermined my argument somewhat. Still, it’s quite interesting and we’re getting to do some transcription work which will eventually be published by Leiden University’s library, which is pretty cool. The other courses are more or less what I’d be studying at home – except of course the levels are different. Already done EVERYTHING in my syntax class, in completely over my head in phonology. Dutch Studies is a nice reprieve in which we go for bike rides and visit museums. Really.

Another big thing which happpens in October in Leiden is the Leiden Ontzet! Also known as the ‘Relief of Leiden’, it celebrates the end of the Spanish siege on the city during the Eighty Years’ War. The entire city centre gets filled with markets, fairground rides and SO much food and beer. Brilliant if you’re wanting to go to it, nightmare if you’re trying to get through the area to get to class! Anyway, for four nights in a row (it lasted a day longer than normal this year because of the actual 3rd of October being on a Sunday- so we got Monday off classes. Yay!), myself and several of my housemates and some others went out, partied hard, discovered that it’s impossible to avoid people for too long when there’s so few decent pubs in the city, ate appelbollen and poffertjes, and drank beer. For someone who wouldn’t touch beer before I came here, this is an achievement indeed.

The 3rd of October (or, in this case, the 4th) starts extremely early. Everyone gathers on a big bridge by the town hall at 6.30am, yes, in the morning(!), and sings a few hymns and songs together before joining an enormous queue for…. raw herring. Everyone in the city is given it for free on this day, and the whole thing was probably one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Thousands of people, all speaking Dutch (except for our little Canadian/Scottish/Israeli/Columbian cluster) lined up, watching the sun rise before being presented with a giant bag of white bread and 10 whole herrings. The building had all its walls covered in crates – pretty sure half of the North Sea herring population was in that room alone. We took it to be cleaned and gutted and ready for eating… all except the cooking. Nope, this fish, you eat raw. Still looking like a fish. Nothing like sushi, this herring still has a tail, which traditionally you hold it upright by, and bite into the head end (with the head already removed, I hasten to add!)… but it’s pretty tricky! Never having held a raw fish before, I didn’t know how difficult it was going to be to hold onto!! We all tried it in the traditional way, then gave up and made it into sandwiches with the white bread. With tails sticking out. Surprisingly I actually really enjoyed it… at least after that first initial moment of repulsion of “oh my god, this hasn’t been COOKED, it still had a head less than 10 MINUTES AGO and it still has SCALES!”.

Now autumn in Leiden is firmly setting in, and I’m learning how to cycle through wet leaves, which is always a useful skill to have. I’m onto my second bike, after my first one got stolen (don’t buy those 2,- Euro padlocks they sell at the bike sale, anyone who might be coming to Leiden after me – get a really super strong 16,- Euro one! And one of the clamps for your back wheel! The flimsy ones can just be cut straight through, and thieves know that and target them first) but it’s serving me well.

Hopefully another update a bit sooner next time!

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