Public Administration master student Marina Boer (27) is standing on the quay. It looks like a picture postcard with the sparkling water and De Hef bridge gleaming in the setting sun. Another five minutes’ walk and you can see the Erasmusbrug bridge with a fine view of De Boompjes. It must be one of the most beautiful places in the middle of Rotterdam. “Really peaceful, isn’t it?”Marina says.

Peaceful and tranquil

You might even forget that Noordereiland is actually a city district. But the island is peaceful, even tranquil. The streets are practically deserted and cars take the shorter bus route from the Willemsbrug bridge. Nobody knows and nobody cares. The saying that Noordereiland is a self-contained village seems pretty apt. Or as Marina puts it: “There’s not much on the island unless you actually live here.”

Her fellow student Rick Tuin (24) experiences that village feeling every day. He and a few friends have been renting a flat here since 2014 and it’s completely different to the busy and dynamic city of Groningen that he was used to. “People here speak to you on the streets,” Rick says. “Making eye contact with people at the Spar is quite normal here. It’s like you’re part of the in crowd.” And it’s safe too: “I had to put a strong padlock and chain on my bike in Groningen and it still got stolen! No need for all that here. You can just leave your bike outside the front door.”

One in 12 is a student

‘It’s South without all the preconceived ideas about that district.’

Rick Tuin

Noordereiland is located on the Nieuwe Maas, wedged in between the city centre and Zuid district and next door to the Erasmusbrug. The Willemsbrug bridge links the central quay with the island, and the islanders use the two other bridges – De Hef and Koninginnebrug – to get to Zuid. Noordereiland was accidentally created in the 19th centurywhen the Koningshaven was dug out, as it got dislodged.

About 3,300 people live on Noordereiland, many of whom are seafaring folk. According to the municipal records, 8% are students. We don’t know exactly how many Erasmus students are among them because the municipality counts all individuals on student grants. The island, nicknamed ‘Montmartre on the Meuse’, has a reputation for being a cultural centre with a lot of artists and studios, and it mainly attracts students from the Willem de Kooning Academy. There aren’t that many Erasmus students living there.

‘Those students really are fantastic people’

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Quite a few students left the island after dozens of ‘anti-squatter buildings’ – buildings rented out cheaply to prevent squatting – on Van der Takstraat were demolished at the beginning of 2015. Henk de Heer (79), who lives nearby, still thinks it’s a pity: “It’s difficult for people who aren’t local and don’t make any effort to fit in,” he says. “But students do just that. They’re fantastic people, really great. They say hello to you and have a bit of a chat. So we give them a hand too now and then, like mending their bicycle tyres if they get a puncture. I’d like to see more of them here. We get on fine together.”

Nel Noel, president of the Feyenoord district committee, has also noticed that there aren’t as many students living on Noordereiland any more: “You don’t see them around so much.” Students aren’t really noticeable among the islanders, who are highly individual people. “There’s a good deal of social cohesion here with a lot of active residents who join in neighbourhood watch schemes. They have no ties with any part of the city; as far as that goes, this is their island. They’re very proud people.”

Island bus

One example is an islander who recently walked across the Willemsbrug bridge to get to a bus stop. A 63-year-old ‘outsider’ witnessed the scene: “There are two buses on the island, no. 32 and no. 47. No. 47 is the island bus which doesn’t go any further than Blaak on the mainland, but no. 32 goes a bit further. This man saw no. 32 coming with no. 47 right behind it. And he ignored 32 and got into 47, simply because that one’s the island bus. Just for that one stop. It was a real giggle.”

Marina shares the islanders’ pride. She’s Rotterdam born and bred, grew up in Zuid and has been living on Noordereiland since the summer of 2013 – with a short break in Utrecht in between times. She didn’t actually intend to go and live on the island, but one of the housing corporations offered her a flat there. But, she says, she liked the idea right away.

Wonderful views

And Marina thinks the location is absolutely perfect too: “You can see Zuid if you look one way and the city centre if you look the other way,” she says. “Everything’s well within reach. I can get to uni in a quarter of an hour, but I can get to a street market in Zuid just as easily. And the Nieuwe Luxor Theatre too, of course. I love it!”

Another good thing about this location is that there are wonderful views from the island: “You can laze around on the quay in summer and watch the boats go by under the Erasmusbrug,” she says. “I always take a rug along and a bottle of wine. Absolutely perfect. And we’ve got a great view of all the fireworks on New Year’s Eve.” It’s even more spectacular on days when Feyenoord’s playing at home: “I can see all the lights at De Kuip from my flat if they’ve got a home match. Fabulous.”

Rick adds:“There’s a good view of De Boompjes from the island as well. The skyline’s really impressive, and unique too. I reckon Zuidas in Amsterdam is the only other place in the Netherlands where you get something like that. And I enjoy logospotting for big companies like EY. Probably because of the programme I’m doin

Ideal for ‘older students’

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Rick ended up on Noordereiland “through a friend of a friend”, after having lived in Groningen city centre for years. “In a typical student house,” he says. “But I really didn’t want to live in a house like that again after I moved out. I wanted somewhere cleaner and quieter.” He says the island is ideal for ‘students who are a bit older’: all the amenities of a city are close at hand, yet it’s nice and peaceful. Marina enjoys the ‘very relaxed atmosphere’. “No yuppies here. But it’s an ideal cocktail with all kinds of people. It’s Zuid without all the preconceived ideas about that district.’’

Although the islanders maintain that there are rarely any problems, contact between natives and non-natives ‘isn’t too good’. People enjoying a drink at De Willemsbrug café described the situation pretty accurately when asked if the two groups actually mixed with each other. “Outsiders live on the inside with us on the outside. Didn’t you see that great big fence?” (Roars of laughter). Integration is essential, say the people in this café. “But that’s true everywhere, isn’t it?”

‘A real shame they knocked down those buildings’

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Fadime, who owns Fadi’s Turkish bakery, ‘hardly ever’ gets customers from the island in her shop and ‘nobody’ ever says hello to her on the street either. All her customers are office people who come to eat at her bakery at lunch time, and of course students.“It’s a real shame they knocked down those anti-squatter buildings,” she says. “A lot of students used to come here before then.I’m still in contact with some of them on Facebook.’’

She told us that one student started his own Bed and Breakfast in one of the anti-squatter buildings. And she’s still laughing at the fact that this lad was able to sublet his room for 300 euros, “and he was only paying 100 euros for it!”

Protected cityscape status

The island enjoys ‘protected cityscape’ status and De Hef is a ‘historic structure’. Most of the buildings are old and stately, students don’t all live in one house and there are no student association houses. Most outdoor activities take place at Burgemeester Hoffmanplein, a long boulevard rather like La Rambla in Barcelona. It’s packed in summer, but right now only a few children are playing there.

At the end of the boulevard, there’s a Spar supermarket – the only one on the island – with ’t Buissie café next door. Students rarely go to either of these places. The Spar is too expensive and the café is full of ‘funny old men’: a lot of elderly people, usually seafaring folk. Like Jan den Haan (71) for instance. “I sometimes see a whole lot of bikes propped against a lamp-post,” he says. “I suppose they belong to students. And I always think that it must be pretty difficult for the student whose bike’s the one right at the back.’’

‘Mayor Aboutaleb sometimes eats here’

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As far as nightlife and entertainment are concerned, students and other young people prefer ‘the mainland’, where Oude Haven or Witte de Withstraat beckon. Marina says she has to refuse ‘weekly invitations’ from the people at Rijnvaart pub opposite her flat. “The owner always asks me over for a drink,” she explains, “but I’d far rather go to the city centre. It’s a lot more fun and it only takes a couple of minutes to get there, even if you’ve had a few drinks too many.’’

However, students do patronise La Gaetano Pizzeria and the Smily snack bar a lot. This pizzeria is especially popular because pizza and pasta dishes only cost a few euros on Mondays and Tuesdays. “It’s very tempting not to cook on those days,” Marina says. “They’ve got really good food there,” adds Rick. “And Mayor Aboutaleb has eaten there a few times too. There’s a photo of him hanging up in the restaurant.’’

Smile Lee

The Smily snack bar is equally well known and rather dubious as well. Its slogan is ‘service with a smiley’. Rumor has it that the owner always says ‘Smile Lee’ to her Chinese colleague. Marina says it’s cheap, “but one of the two ladies there can’t add up properly. She’s always making mistakes in the bill, sometimes up to 60 cents for each order.”

Anita, who works at the snack bar, isn’t bothered about this. She says that Noordereiland is ‘like a big village’: “Everyone knows everyone else,” she adds. “Customers tell me the story of their life. The window cleaner’s ill right now and the whole island’s talking about it.”

‘You have to have guts to live on Noordereiland’

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Marina Boer

Unsuccessful campaign

One remarkable drawback to La Gaetano Pizzeria is that you can’t pay by bank card. And this is no exception on the island. Students living on the island once started a campaign to get a cash point installed there in 2009. They found it strange that the islanders had to cross the bridge every time they wanted to withdraw any cash. But apart from 4,000 signatures, the campaign wasn’t a success.

Nonetheless, it would be going too far to call the island out of date and it isn’t really dangerous either. Marina remembers that the quays were flooded after heavy rain at the end of 2014. “It was a bit of a shock,” she says. “You have to have guts to live on Noordereiland,” she adds with a laugh.

Zip lining from De Hef

And those who do have the guts can enjoy peace and quiet.“Quite different from the city centre,” says Marina. “No H&M here!”She enjoys it, but it sometimes makes life difficult for Fadime at the Turkish bakery. She thinks there should be more attractions on the island, like A La Plancha restaurant which is only open in the summer.“A lot of people visit the island then,” she explains. “Good for business!”

But the peace and quiet is absolutely fantastic. Marina doesn’t want the island to change. There were plans afoot at some stage to set up zip lining for tourists at De Hef bridge, but Marina wasn’t at all keen on the scheme. “I’m pleased that the idea fell through because it would have meant hordes of people all over the place,” she says. “Noordereiland is great as it is. Ignorance may breed contempt, but that’s fine by me.”