“You need to be creative,” says Alfredo Menghini, a 24-year-old student attending the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC). He has lived in the F-Building on campus since early September. Menghini says it is a quiet building where he is largely left to his own devices. “Per the rules issued by the Dutch government last week, we are only allowed to get together with a small group of people. This makes sense and is understandable now that the infection rate is going up. I did think the Dutch restrictions were rather liberal at first. So we try to meet outdoors, or we’ll meet in a small group at a café’s outdoor seating area.”
Two other Italians standing in front of the Hatta Building agree on the laxity of Dutch restrictions. Psychology student Cristian Merigo, 22, does not live on campus. He is waiting for a friend, a student who does live in the Hatta Building: Marika Grimaldi, 20. “When we first came here, the coronavirus seemed to be a million miles away. It really surprised me, as an Italian. In my home country we took things a lot more seriously, particularly because of all the drama we went through in March. Here we didn’t have to wear face masks in the supermarket, and the hand-washing rules were a lot less strict,” says Marika.
Projector and cooking
As a result, some international students felt that anything went, according to Cristian and Marika. Everyone was looking for new friends in a strange world. They found that international students were regularly throwing house parties at the Hatta Building. “Such parties are organised to help people meet people. It’s the quickest way. In the beginning, there were a lot of parties,” says Cristian. Now that the infection rate is rising, the number of parties has decreased, say Marika and Cristian. “Which is good. As for myself, I’ve come up with a small group of people I regularly meet. I try not to meet any other people. And I don’t hug anyone,” says Marika.
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So what does she do with that small group of people? “We’ve bought a projector,” says Marika, “and we use that to have a movie night. Or we’ll cook and have a nice meal together.” For instance, tonight they will be baking cookies with marshmallows and Nutella. “This allows us to keep seeing some people,” says Cristian.
Moon Festival or club culture
International students also have another option open to them: joining one of several associations that can be found on campus. The Chinese Student Association CSA-EUR has noticed that many foreign students are looking for ways to make new friends. “Many students tell me that one of the reasons why they wanted to come here was because of the pubs and the club culture,” says CSA board member Adrian Wong, 26. “Right now, that is not an option. So instead they are coming to us. We try to ensure strict compliance with the rules in our activities. As a Chinese association, we of all people must do so, as some people do associate us with the place where it all began. We keep running into that stigma, unfortunately.”
Wong had to cancel CSA-EUR’s infamous Moon Festival at the last minute in late September. “We very often make last-minute changes. We now do have to organise a lot of our activities online, but I’m also trying to meet in small groups or sub-committees, in accordance with the coronavirus restrictions.”
Social media groups
Czech student Veronika Konickova, 23, has lived in an SSH-owned hall of residence at the Struisenburgdwarsstraat (within walking distance of the university) for a month now. This is the seventh (!) time Veronika is studying abroad, so she has some experience with building a network in a new city. She, too, was surprised about the way in which the Dutch government implemented measures, and still thinks the rules are somewhat unclear. “What’s with this ‘if necessary’ and ‘urgent recommendation’? Everyone will interpret those words differently. Just make it mandatory.”
In her sparsely decorated bedsit (‘I’ll only be here for six months’), she tells that she doesn’t really mind the social-distancing rules implemented due to the coronavirus. “I prefer having a quiet coffee with one person to attending large parties anyway, so I don’t really miss the latter. At the same time, I do understand that some students were partying when the infection rate wasn’t too bad in the Netherlands. If you’re eighteen and living in a new city, you want to go out.”
Veronika meets new people through social media such as WhatsApp and Facebook. “Some of the buildings where many international students live have their own WhatsApp groups, and they will often have messages calling for people to get together in small groups and have dinner or go to the park together – back when the weather allowed that. That’s how I got to know people.” She says her hall of residence is typically quiet – no parties or other weird things. “It’s practically impossible to have those here anyway. We have one small courtyard with one bench.”
Back to the Hatta Building: SSH, the owner of the student flat, says that parties are strictly prohibited there, but according to a spokesperson, it is the students’ own responsibility. In front of the building is Sandra Fudorova, 19, who lives there. She and her flatmate Ceren Basol, 23, are smoking their electronic cigarettes. They both say that the parties that used to be thrown at the Hatta Building did not cause great tension between the residents. “We treat each other with respect. If certain people are very strict, others try to be considerate. We communicate very well in the building’s own Facebook group,” says Fudorova.
She goes on to say: “Actually, I didn’t think it was that hard to meet new people. I’ve found that everyone is really keen to make friends at the few opportunities we are given to meet others. It’s not that hard to join a group.” So what does Fudorova usually do with the people she hangs out with? It’s what this university was probably created for. “Focus on my studies.”