A night at Odessa: My experience at a Dutch college bar

The culture shock of being in a brand new city is always an unavoidable experience. A new language mixed with unfamiliar social expectations spark the exhilaration of being somewhere different. As an American university student, the antiquated college town of Leiden, Holland, gave me plenty of campus similarities to UW-Madison. The atmosphere seemed sisterly to Madison, but the Dutch college town delivered plenty of ruptures in my societal norms. This was especially true for the culture shocks I experienced with university bar life in Leiden.

When my friend and I ventured out we strategically decided to get to the bar at 11:30 p.m. Thinking from our experience in Madison, this would have us arrive just as the bar would begin filling up. When we arrived at Odessa, the bar that my friend’s cousin recommended to us, we thought we must have made a mistake. The bar was open, but, the only other people inside were a few bartenders polishing glasses. We sat awkwardly at the bar and thought that her cousin must have misunderstood what we meant by wanting to go to a fun bar downtown. The bartender spotted us speaking English and after chatting us up let us know that people didn’t usually start arriving at the bars until 12:30 a.m., and it wasn’t unusual for students to be dancing and drinking till 6:00 a.m.

We decided to take our drinks and wait in the back of the bar, and as the bartender promised, an hour passed and the room became packed with students. The scene resembled a Saturday night at ‘The Double U,’ students laughing and dancing, but when you tried to eavesdrop on a conversation, the Dutch was an unrecognizable frenzy to untrained ears. That first scan of the bar crowd incited familiarity but a closer look around made me realized that this group looked different from my Wisconsin bar-goers. Everyone seemed extremely young, and for a minute I forgot that the legal age to purchase alcohol was 18. I thought of the bars at home and the instances I would see kids who definitely snuck in underage, but here, they were all underage to me. Some seemed as young as 16, which I was told could get a little dicey since it was illegal for 16-year-olds to buy spirits but not to drink them.

The next thing that struck me was that slowly the crowded room began to fill with smoke. At first, I rationalized that the fog machine from the dance floor must have started seeping into the next room. Then I realized everyone was seemingly asking each other for lighters and taking drags from cigarettes inside the bar. This moment was so foreign to me, as smoking in bars and restaurants is banned in much of the States. The crowd was hidden in the fog of cigarette smoke while wisps lingered by the club’s promotional posters. My friend saw this, and we laughed when she translated it to me. The poster had scattered Dutch phrases that described the venue, some of them translating to, “the café for flirting” and “the café for kissing.”

The night was filled throughout with little surprises like these, but there was still that universal feeling of enjoying oneself. We all still drank and danced while singing along to the same pop songs that I heard at bars at home, even if many of the Odessa patrons didn’t know what the lyrics meant. In the end, it was these different, culturally “shocking” incidents that transformed my night into an even greater experience.

Photo by Quinn Beaupré