A Colleen in Utrecht

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Its been a real pleasure to talk with Dr Patricia Canning. She is an Assistant Professor of Linguistics, Stylistics, and Rhetoric in the Department of Humanities at Utrecht University. Her research at the moment is on The linguistics of blame in the witness testimonies of the Hillsborough Football Stadium Disaster which you can read about here.

Patricia is from West Belfast in Northern Ireland and describes herself as a reader, a walker, a lecturer, a researcher, sometimes all at the same time. She teaches at University College Utrecht and doesn’t speak Dutch well because Dutch people speak English far too well.

What brought you to Utrecht?

So the short answer is that we moved because we wanted to live here! I have always wanted to live in the Netherlands since I came here over 20 years ago with  a group of young people from Belfast on a ‘Wider Horizons’ project that I was teaching on at the time.

I fell in love with the Dutch simplicity. Everything just… worked. That was a culture shock for me as growing up in Belfast at the height of the conflict was anything but simple. When we talked about coming over my daughter was 13 at the time and really up for the move.

When we decided to go for it I had just established a successful literary project in Northern Ireland, ‘read.live.learn’, establishing a culture of reading with women in prison and with forensic mental health patients and practitioners. I had thought I would replicate it here, but when colleagues at the university heard I was coming over I was offered a university teaching position. I love teaching and researching here.

My husband loves it too, and as he works in a global business he could theoretically be based anywhere. So I clubbed him over the head, stuffed him in a van, and drove to Utrecht. Ok, that last sentence is not entirely correct. I don’t drive a van.

Where is your favourite place in Utrecht?


Does Utrecht inspire you?

Yes – I love the mish-mash of buildings, the diversity, the determination.

What would be a perfect day in Utrecht for you?

Get my walking shoes on, Guddies or Gutties to us Irish, grab my walking buddy and husband, Simon, start at Ledig Erf and walk until I hurt. I love that houses in Utrecht have big windows and few owners draw the curtains, all the better for me to nosey in. Then I’ll enjoy a bit of hospitality and brie at Graaf Floris on Oudegracht, coffee in at least four other places throughout the day, and dinner at San Siro. I’m a simple girl, really.

Only thing I haven’t done yet which would make the day perfect, is go on a wee boat on the Catharijnesingel. I’ve been canvassing for a boat at home now for two years, but nobody’s biting. I’m going to make my own.

What is the main difference between the Irish and the Dutch?

The main difference is the phenomenon of politeness. Irish people will NEVER spell out what they mean if it’s an imposition or a potential affront to anyone. Dutch people don’t beat around the bush. There’s no softening of utterances, no ambiguity, you just tell it like it is. Us Irish are characterised by our friendliness. Irish people talk to everyone. On trains, in the street, in the shops, everywhere. I think that is one thing that’s similar – the friendliness – I have been touched by how friendly the Dutch can be. And really helpful. It’s part of why I love the place. And I’ve begun to appreciate the forthrightness, too.

Do you miss anything about Ireland?

My family. The green. The blue skies in winter even though it’s freezing. There is a misconception that Irish weather is rainy all the time. It isn’t. I have never known ‘grey’ like I do here in winter. And rain. The type that soaks you right through even though you can barely see it falling. I miss the hills. I lived at the base of the Mourne Mountains, so I really miss that view.

And my hairdresser. God, I miss my hairdresser. What is it with the non-blow-dry technique here?

Do you think there is a Dutch way of life?

Speak your mind, ride your bike, stop whinging, and have wine with lunch.

Do you think you fit in to the Dutch way of life?

Not quite. I speak my mind with sugared edges, I ride my bike, I whinge, but nobody listens, and I don’t drink. But my coffee intake has gone through the roof and your bread is so good I am a walking carbohydrate. But then I’m not known for conforming.

Do you know many Irish expats in Utrecht or do you make friends with the Dutch?

I hate the word ‘expat’. I don’t consider myself as such. This is my home now because I chose it to be my home. It feels like home to me.

No, I don’t know anyone here who is Irish. I only have Dutch friends. Both of them.

Do you think the Dutch could learn anything from the Irish?

How to blow-dry hair. And how to make potato bread. And a good sausage.

Will you be staying in the Netherlands?


Lucky Utrecht then I say and lucky students at the University.

But isn’t Patricia so typical of visitors who settle in Utrecht. Everyone I have interviewed loves the city and loves the way of life. Utrechters should be proud of the way that people react to their city. Also interesting about the use of the term ExPat. I have never liked it either. home is where Home is. If you feel at home you don’t need a label.

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Jon Wilkins

Jon Wilkins

Jon Wilkins is Welsh and lives in England. He is a writer. A Europhile and Remainer, he is a regular visitor to Utrecht and has set his crime novel series in the city.

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