Snapshots of a city. Leiden through the eyes of an IIAS Fellow
This is a city built on wool
the old Brill publishing house
still stands grand on Oude Rijn.
‘There’s no aristocracy in the Netherlands’
although the façades of the canal houses
suggest a different story –
their step gables rising up
in Golden Age glory.
Graves bear witness
to long histories of colonialism:
Born in Paramaribo,
Died in Leiden.
A statue to the Pilgrim Fathers
commemorates the beginning
of their bloody journey –
sailing forth from just south of
the illustrious Rapenburg.
Stories of entanglement are everywhere:
There’s something of Cordoba in Morsport, (i) Morsport is Leiden’s western gate.
a touch of Ottoman
on the Stadhuis clocktower. (ii) Stadhuis refers to the Leiden City Hall.
Staircases can be impossibly steep
and the supermarkets are full of pre-sliced cheese.
If chocolate sprinkles aren’t your thing, (iii) Known as hagelslag in Dutch, chocolate sprinkles are commonly eaten on bread for breakfast or as a snack.
there’s a variety of stroopwafels (iv) Stroopwafels are wafer cookies with a caramel filling.
to please every palate.
Living rooms are street-side and curtain-less,
architectural legacies of a Calvinist ethic:
‘We have nothing to hide’.
The poetry of Lorca,
Adonis and Langston Hughes
adorn the walls.
The Lipsius Building,
an homage to 90s brutalism,
divides opinion –
as do the modernist turrets of the University Library.
The Burcht rises to a proud
above sea level.
A beer can easily
The frat boys ooze entitlement,
waltzing through the city in packs,
or lazing around in makeshift swimming pools,
perfectly placed for preening
in front of ageing student mansions.
Their house parties certainly produce
ambivalent relations with sleeping neighbours,
but I’ve never heard a woman
on Leiden’s streets.
Saturday market before Covid
would heave with customers,
jostling for cabbages, houmous and
Some shops have closed
in the midst of the pandemic,
but Het Klaverblad has been open
since 1769 –
Marion’s customers queue for coffee
and a dose of her charm.
Black Lives Matter posters hang in windows,
but people of colour
are few and far between;
it can be hard to decipher
where anyone working class might live.
The ravioli at Bocconi will soothe any a lost soul,
as will the jackfruit at Toko Bunga Mas.
Pilgrimages to Saravanaa Bhavan are a must
with a desire for dosa. (v) A dosa resembles a large crepe, and is made from fermented rice and dhal batter. The dish has origins in South India and is eaten with curries and chutneys.
The vintage shops will produce holes
in your wallet,
and the shop assistants won’t hesitate
to tell you exactly what they think:
‘That dress is not for you’.
Streets can feel deserted
on a Saturday night,
until you find the square
in front of Café de Uyl –
perfect for a biertje, (vi) Biertje is a small beer.
under the stained glass
of Hooglandse Kerk.
The loquacious locals at Jantje
will enfold you easily into their drunken chat,
while the cows peer down
if you get to De Bonte Koe.
Saint Peter’s red keys
are hard to lose,
and that winter wind
the logic of windmills.
Willows weep gently at the shores of the Singel,
and the evening light
through the plane trees
7pm at the canal is the hour of flight:
a pandemonium of parrots sweeps across the sky
taunting you with freedom.
The ducks and coots glide along with
paddleboards and kayaks –
a boat is the ultimate summer accessory.
The many pathways of Polderpark Cronesteyn
are good for getting lost in –
a trail might lead to the forest of wild garlic,
or in the direction
of the odd lone saxophonist.
16th century rebellions
produce wild annual parties –
although October 3rd of this year,
will be a very different story… (vii) The city-wide festival on 3 October celebrates the end of the Spanish siege of Leiden in 1572.
even if there’s still
barely a face mask in sight.
The bridges bloom with hanging baskets,
laden with petunias, fuchsia and white.
Pavements are for parking bikes –
pedestrians are an afterthought
in this two-wheeled town.
Seagulls encircle the canal-side cafés,
ever-ready to steal a bitterbal (viii) Bitterballen (pl.) are ball-shaped snacks, filled with beef and a creamy roux that is then battered and deep-fried.
or a delicate slither of herring.
The younger seagulls sulk
on street corners
like nonchalant adolescents,
bored with the mundanity of their parents demands.
An albino peacock rules the roost
at Leidse Hout,
an old heron sits majestic
on his regular streetlight perch.
And at a little-known ‘castle’ along Hogewoerd, (ix)
IIAS Fellows often live in a building along this street.
rests a balcony
for plotting, cloud-spotting
Zoë Goodman is an urban anthropologist, and fond of ethnographic poems as a means of capturing city life. When not strolling through the streets of Leiden, her research focuses on the Kenyan port city of Mombasa. She explores the way Muslims of South Asian descent (Muslim Kenyan Asians) have shaped urbanity and piety at the Kenyan coast, and how these are in turn being affected by pervasive security discourses. Zoë is a Research Fellow at IIAS and a Research Associate in the Anthropology department at SOAS, University of London.