Understanding Where You Stand

The charm of the bustling Vismarkt on a Tuesday, Friday or Saturday is best enjoyed with sunshine and a lax agenda. Groningen’s streets, shops and cafes invite pedestrians to enjoy them. It is on an afternoon like this that considerations of place may come to mind.

Experience your city: Groningen’s peculiar atmosphere

Our environment has a definite impact on our well-being. The surroundings in our daily lives can have a surprisingly major impact on our long term health, identity and moods, than we often account for. To say it another way, we absorb our maps. Inevitably, the paths we take during the day become part of our individual landscapes within the mind. Where you live, where you exist sinks into you. Often, you dream about it. Therefore, it is worth it to give “place” consideration and interpretation. Each place you have been has its own character and spirit, which you can interact with. This is especially true when a place and/or culture is new to you, as is the case for many international students in Groningen who may be far from home. Even if you have grown up here, reviewing your hometown can yield benefits and insights just as easily. Everyone can make use of this exercise.

Groningen is a peculiar city. It sits apart from the larger cities of the Netherlands, by size and distance. Groningen is uniquely positioned; Hamburg is as plausible a weekend destination as Amsterdam. It is not dominated by tourists, but by students. The atmosphere is often academic and experimental. The city center is not overrun with industry, but instead feels livable and caters to those on foot or bike. The inner city is sometimes jokingly termed an “island” for being surrounded by canals, and is only approximately a square kilometer. The city is walkable, navigable, more difficult to become lost in than others. Biking for more than 20 minutes in any direction from the center will likely land one next to a farm, gazing at fluffy Highland cattle. (Which is an advisable and grounding course of action if you are nursing an existential hangover or experiencing any manner of personal growing pains.)

For me, Groningen is aptly experienced as an “island”. It is a calm place where you can enjoy life on your own and devote yourself to a study you are ideally passionate about. There is an interesting enough culture to keep you entertained- whether through the music scene, the Groningen Museum, art and films, galleries, or theater at the Stadsschouwberg. Groningen is a good backdrop for a social life. But it is not overly busy or too stifling. There’s room to move around but not be overwhelmed or completely anonymous. Groningen is out of the way, and in some ways quiet, but simultaneously very much alive. 

This is of course subjective. Different people will have different experiences of the same place. Remember that we don’t only passively experience a place, we also actively participate in its definition and changes.

How did Groningen become what it is today?

Some people may prefer a bigger city, but in Groningen’s petiteness lies charm. How completely surreal to have such an active scene of student life, parties, and crossroad of international cultures in the middle of quiet northern agricultural land. Why is Groningen like this? Why has it become a notable academic and international hub? What does Groningen as a city seek to accomplish, want to become? To personify a city may seem strange, but a combination of architecture, layout, and all inhabitants creates a palpable personality. It is helpful to conceive of a place as moving in a direction with agency.

Groningen, then, has had an interesting evolution. The city started manifesting as an important place of trade. The oldest buildings hint at this past and the spirit is still preserved in the many types of markets Groningen hosts. You only need to look at the statue of Hermes over the Vismarkt to be reminded of this. Groningen also has the second oldest Dutch university: the RUG. This proved to be the important piece of the puzzle for this city’s current incarnation. The economic growth here owes a lot to the universities. Groningen would be a completely different place without its students. It seems to me that Groningen seeks to be a meeting place, not a clash of ideas and people but rather a gathering of them. 

Only time will tell how Groningen will transform in the future, with the rapidly growing student population and demands for housing. Current construction projects can be sore on the eyes, but hopefully it will be worth it as the city enters the next decade. There is a push for more tourism. It is best that Groningen holds tightly to a sense of liveable enjoyment and forethought of all residents that has so far defined it. 

How to best experience Groningen?

Consideration in theory is not enough. It is best to come to terms with a place through an embodied experience of that place. So now: how best to experience and get the most out of Groningen in everyday life and travels? 

The first step is to engage your senses, wherever you are, and obtain information through them. Pay attention to where you’re going. Consider taking a different route than your usual commute some days. 

As the last bits of summer fall away, it is also worth it to find appreciation outside. Nature brings relaxation, which every student deprived of sun needs to remember and use as a crucial tool for their mental and physical health. Groningen has many spots for this:

There is the Stadspark, as well as the Noorderplantsoen. These are perfect for picnicking or wandering through. Within the center, there is the well-groomed and beautiful Prinsentuin. Further out, you have the Hoornsemeer. This lake has a beach, and plenty of room to set up barbecues. There is also Het Roege Bos, which is wonderful if you find you are missing a quiet forest in your life. Consider biking trips, as remember, we are surrounded by a pretty countryside. Smaller towns around Groningen can be gems in their own right.

At the end of the day, however you choose to live in this city, make sure you foremostly enjoy and get the most out of it.

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