10 Lessons Learned While Studying Abroad in the Netherlands

10 Lessons Learned While Studying Abroad in the Netherlands

Five years ago this week, I arrived alone in a new city and was greeted by strangers. I had no idea that in getting off that train at Tilburg Centraal, I was stepping into what would form the most memorable chapter of my life to date. In the semester that followed, I would build strong, lasting friendships; fall in love; party to no end; and learn an infinite amount about myself and what I wanted in life. But my experience wasn’t anything out of the ordinary; this is just what it means to study abroad.

If there’s one piece of advice I can press on all young students, it’s to go abroad. Study somewhere new — somewhere that pushes your boundaries, that makes you feel uncomfortable and loved and at home all at the same time. It’s a choice that will mould your lifestyle, your friendships, and your values. Studying abroad will change you for the better.

10 Lessons Learned While Studying Abroad

1.  Friendship can Cross Borders: One of the best aspects of studying abroad is the wealth of international friendships that you acquire. Make the effort to keep in touch. The way social media and travel works today, there’s no telling when you’ll have the chance to rekindle these relationships. More importantly, use these connections as a chance to learn about the world. I’ll never forget how the Colombians and Brazilians gave me my first glimpse at Latin dance at Intro Camp!

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Anchor Chains, Plane Motors, and Train Whistles – A Note on Travel

Anchor Chains, Plane Motors, and Train Whistles – A Note on Travel

George Bailey: You know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are?
Uncle Billy: Uh huh. Breakfast is served; lunch is served; dinner…
George Bailey: No no no no. Anchor chains, plane motors and train whistles.

-It’s a Wonderful Life

I lie in bed in the loft of my grandmother’s condo, a condo which overlooks a river that trails through a city. A city in the middle of nowhere, I could say. A city in the center of everything, you might argue.

As I lie here, surrounded by overflowing suitcases and half-packed boxes, I gaze up through the skylight. The starry sky shines with all the brilliance of a hot summer night. In the past week, the clouds have gathered, the rain has poured, and the province has flooded.

But none of this matters to me — tomorrow, I’m leaving. Read more

On Moving Across the World

On Moving Across the World

I lean my head against the taxi window.  A plane sweeps down to land, so near that I can make out the seams of its massive underbelly.  My leather jacket is creased with campfire ash — remnants of a night that already seems long past.  Wet skin sticky with salt.  Drifting to sleep to the clink of emptied wine bottles and scattered conversation.  But now the rows of tarmac grow ever nearer.

I shift uncomfortably, my muscles tense from a bike ride along the Vancouver seawall.  That morning, the tide had been out. Fields of bull kelp and green algae littered the rocky shore and I inhaled the Pacific in all its rawness.  It smelled like our island.

I tuck away that ocean scent, along with that of the lingering campfire smoke.  Snippets of Canada, the home that I’m leaving.

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Seven Secrets for Surviving a Dutch Night Out

Seven Secrets for Surviving a Dutch Night Out

Note: This article was written as a guest post for Weekend Student Adventures – a fantastic company that offers weekend trips for European exchange students to some of the continent’s best cities.  I highly recommend that you check out the WSA website, and my original article on there.

Whether you’re going to Amsterdam for a wild weekend; spending a semester abroad in Utrecht; or making a cycling trip through the Hague, it will take less than two Heinekens for you to realize one thing: the Dutch love to party.  You’ll need to know how to keep up to them to avoid ending your night out feeling drained or nursing a bruised leg and a wrecked bicycle.  Here are seven tips to help you conquer the Dutch nightlife scene.

1. “Doe maar gewoon”: If there is one phrase to sum up the typical Dutch attitude, it’s “Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg.” (Just act normal, that’s already crazy enough).  This idea is reflected in Dutch partying habits.  As drunk as they may get, most people keep themselves in line.  Raunchy bar-top-dancing or angry, noisy antics?  That’s “niet normaal” (not normal), and generally frowned upon.

There's always a beer in sight...
There’s always a beer in sight…

 2.  Suppress your yawns:  Dutch nights tend to begin around the time that many North American bars close.  They often start off with a round of beers with friends at a Dutch student house.  Around midnight, people will head over to the clubs, and from there, the partying may go on until sunrise.

3.  Bring small change: Although the Dutch have a reputation for being thrifty, they seem to have no problem forking out €0.50 every time they want to use a public washroom.  When you’re drinking at a club all night, this can add up quickly, so prepare yourself with a pocketful of coins.  (Note: larger clubs, especially in Amsterdam, may not charge for the facilities.)

4.  Collect “muntjes”:  Muntjes” are drink tokens, and the Dutch love to hoard them.  Many bars give out a token with every drink you purchase before a certain time.  If you keep these, you can use them later for a free beer or wine.  Sometimes, Dutchies will save up a collection and then plan a bar night that’s entirely on the house.

 5.  Practice your silly dance moves: Perhaps it’s because they’re raised on Tiësto and Armin van Buuren instead of Celia Cruz or Beethoven, but whatever the case, there’s no hiding it: the Dutch are not natural dancers.  This doesn’t mean that you should reject that 1.95 m. blond boy who has been beckoning you onto the dance floor.  Instead, embrace the opportunity to unleash your inner dance-dork.  The moves are wacky but easy to learn.  Try what I like to call the “open-handed fist pump,” the “wiggling fingers,” or the “happy-go-lucky elbow thrust.”

Exchange 068
Not only do you need to know how to ride a bike, you also need to know how to ride on the back of one!

 6.  Know how to order: The basis of a Dutch night out is beer (for the men) or white wine with ice (for the ladies).  Of course, women often opt for beers themselves, but you’re not likely to see a guy in a club with a wine in hand.  When you order a wine, specify if you would like it dry (droogDROAGH ) or sweet (zoetZOOT).  Typical hard drinks include Vieux; Schrobbeler (typical in Brabant); and Berenburg (in the Northern provinces).  A lot of younger people drink Passoã, Safari, “Bacos” (Bacardi Cokes), or a mixed version of the strong liquor jenever.

 7.  Work on your biking skills: Inevitably, you will top off your Dutch nightlife experience with the greatest adventure of all – biking home.  The Dutch are placed in bike seats from the moment they’re born, so they’re naturals at it.  For the foreigner, balancing on two wheels with a stomach full of drinks and a woozy head is anything but easy.  As you race down the darkened street, struggling to doge cars, drunken Dutchies, and the occasional canal, you may feel like you’re in a video game with a faulty controller. Don’t try anything fancy; just try your best to keep upright!

Horses in Hallways, Purple Wigs, and Beer: Celebrating Carnival, Dutch Style

Horses in Hallways, Purple Wigs, and Beer: Celebrating Carnival, Dutch Style

There are no samba dancers in the Netherlands.  There’s no beach in sight.  The sky is cloudy and it’s probably raining.  Party revelers chug beers instead of sipping caipirinhas, and you’re more likely to see a guy in a banana suit than a girl in a bikini.  It may not be the Rio de Janeiro fantasy, but take it from me – Dutch carnival is something you’ve got to experience at least once.

Although carnival is an event typically associated with more tropical countries, it’s also a popular celebration in parts of northern Europe, such as Germany and the Netherlands.  It’s officially held every year from the Sunday to Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent).  However, Dutchies can never get too much partying in, so they tend to kick off the festivities on the Thursday or Friday. This year, carnival is taking place right now – February 10th-12th.  I’ve seen my Facebook newsfeed filling up with my friend’s wild photos, which inspired me to create a list of Dutch carnival essentials for those of us who aren’t lucky enough to be partaking in the celebration.

10 Facts About Carnival in the Netherlands

1.       South of the Rivers: One of the reasons that you may not have heard about Dutch carnival is that because it’s a Catholic celebration, therefore it only occurs “South of the Rivers.”  This refers to North Brabant and Limburg, the Catholic provinces.  Maastricht, the capital of Limburg, is the real carnival headquarters, with some of the craziest parties and the most impressive parade.  Carnival as it’s known today began in the postwar period.  Before that, it was repressed as a result of the strong protestant influence in the country.

Enjoying the festivities while trying to keep dry and warm in Maastricht
Enjoying the festivities while trying to keep dry and warm in Maastricht

2.      Wacky Costumes:  Dutch carnival is NOT about being sexy.  It’s about being as weird as you possibly can be.  Although the parade participants sport elaborate masks and costumes, most Dutchies opt for something cheap (typical!) and simple.  They raid the local thrift store or their student house for wigs and any clothing items that they can throw together.  Remember, there are multiple days to carnival, so you need to prepare a couple of costumes!  Some of the ones that I’ve seen: the Blue Man Group, Stef Stuntpiloot, an ostrich, and of course, my homemade caterpillar outfit.

3.      Carnival Prince: Although carnival takes place in February, the carnival season kicks off the preceding year on 11/11 at 11:11 AM.  This is when each city crowns its new carnival prince.  This prince will “rule” during carnival and gets the keys to the city.

4.      Name Changing: To make things a little more quirky, Dutch towns may change their names during carnival.  ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Den Bosch) is known as Oeteldonk; Eindhoven becomes Lampegat; and Breda is Kielegat.

5.      Horses in Hallways and Tomato Picking: It wouldn’t be carnival without ridiculous music.  Dutch carnival music involves a lot of tubas, accordions and terrible lyrics.  New songs come out every year, but there are some classics.  One that stood out when I was studying in Holland was “Er Staat een Paard in de Gang.”  The lyrics go something like this: “There’s a horse in the hallway.  Yes, yes.. a horse in the hallway.”  Real classy.  Another one I remember was about a crowded bathroom, while yet another involved people picking tomatoes.  My poor friend Natasha was dressed as a tomato, and suffered from strangers trying to “pluck” her all night.  To get an idea of the music, click here.

There's no such thing as too old for carnival!
There’s no such thing as too old for carnival!

6.      Endurance is key:  Dutch carnival is like Halloween on steroids.  You need an iron belly to handle litres and litres of beer, and the ability to get by on zero sleep.  I still remember falling asleep in the middle of an afternoon in a McDonald’s  after a couple of days of non-stop partying.  During carnival, the attitude is, “you can sleep when you’re dead.”  Get used to it.

7.      From Children to Seniors: While Brazilian carnival usually evokes images of sexy young people, Dutch carnival is an event for all ages.  I’ve seen five-year-olds in Dutch bars, and danced next to a 70-year-old “naughty nun” and her farmer husband in a club.

8.      Streets of Garbage: Never in my life have I seen a city get so filthy over the course of the week as during carnival in Tilburg.  The Dutch have the attitude that they can throw their plastic beer cups anywhere, because they know that someone will have cleaned up after them by morning.  That’s how the streets end up looking like this…

Filthy, filthy filthy... until morning
Filthy, filthy filthy… until morning

9.     Public Urination:  Although they can’t pick up after themselves, Dutchies at least have planned ahead when it comes to taking care of the necessities.  Public urinals are set up all over the city.  It’s only recently that I’ve seen Canadian cities beginning to introduce these handy port-a-potty alternatives.

10.      What Happens during Carnival…:  We’ve all heard the overused saying, but it’s impossible not to apply it to Dutch carnival.  Cheating is rampant during this holiday, and boys and girls are known to kiss the nearest ladybug or soccer star just for the hell of it.  Keep your boyfriend/girlfriend on a close watch, or better yet, adopt the Dutch attitude… “during carnival, anything goes.”

Missing a Flight — On Purpose: Why I’m Not on My Way to Amsterdam Today

Missing a Flight — On Purpose: Why I’m Not on My Way to Amsterdam Today

I’m supposed to be on a plane right now.  This morning, my flight to Amsterdam took off the tarmac in Rio de Janeiro.  I wasn’t on it.  I didn’t sleep in.  I didn’t get stuck in Brazilian traffic.  I was in Peru.

 

I was never big on skipping classes, and the thought of being late for anything makes me uncomfortable.  So why would I skip out on my flight to Europe?

1. I just wasn’t ready to leave: It’s been just about nine months now, and people are starting to ask that classic question: are you ready to go home?  I only have a month and a half left in my trip, which to me seems like nothing.  My list of South American destinations to visit is growing, and if I could, there are so many places I would love to return to — friends I would like to revisit, and cities that have captured my heart.  Yet, the holidays are coming: Sinterklaas has arrived in the Netherlands, and Canadians are putting up their Christmas trees.  And that makes me homesick… I just don’t know for where.  

So then — you may wonder — why not go home for Christmas?

2. Christmas will have some “sabor” this year: Although there are a lot of places that I’d still like to explore, the main reason I decided to extend my stay in South America was because I have a wonderful opportunity to spend the holidays with a Colombian family in Cali.  Every year during the week following Christmas, Cali holds it’s “Feria” — an enormous festival dominated by salsa, parties, and music.  It’s Cali’s most important cultural event, and for salsa-obsessed me it’s a bucket-list item.  On top of that, I’m excited about spending Christmas with a local family in a totally different environment.  Although it will be tough to be away from my family (and snow!) this Christmas, I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.  To get an idea what’s in store for me, check out this video:

 

3. I’m not moving to Holland… just yet: Even writing this sentence brings out a lot of mixed emotions.  My initial plan for South America was to fly out and into Amsterdam, with no ticket back to Canada.  Eventually I would return, but only to collect the boxes of stuff marked “Holland.”  A (permanent?) move, which would hopefully kick off with a Master’s program at the University of Amsterdam.  But during the trip, my priorities began to shift, and I realized that I couldn’t accept that I already had said my goodbyes to my friends and salsa team back home.  I came up with the idea of returning to Edmonton for a couple of months surrounding some of the Spring 2013 salsa events, and working a bit in the meantime.  That plan was flawed, however, as it would make it difficult for me to secure a work visa and job in the Netherlands in the months leading up to my potential fall school start date.  So, after a lot of consideration, I decided that the only logical solution would be to postpone my move to the Netherlands and spend a few more months back in Canada.  This was a really tough decision for me, and there are still plenty of moments when I question it.  Friends are important to me, but so is the Netherlands.  I have waited years for this move, and now I’m delaying it by choice.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had numerous strangers ask me if I’m Dutch (apparently I have a “Dutch face”) which has been an amusing reminder of what I’m letting go of putting on hold.  In Cusco, I ate lunch in a Dutch-run cafe that was draped in oranje and served stroopwaffels,  and I was almost set to change my ticket again.  But each time I get a wave of rood-wit-blauw nostalgia, I remember the great group of friends and teammates waiting for me in Canada, and I tell myself… Holland will still be there in six more months... unless global warming and rising water levels beat me to it. 😉

So now I try not to imagine a plane jetting across the Atlantic Ocean, with a vacancy in Seat 21A.  Instead, I picture a fantastic Colombian Christmas and and a exciting start to 2013 as I return to my friends and family in Canada.

“So… Why Exactly do you Love the Netherlands so Much?”

“So… Why Exactly do you Love the Netherlands so Much?”

Anyone who has a conversation with me for more than thirty seconds will discover one of two things: a) I’m crazy about salsa or b) I’m crazy about the Netherlands.  When it comes to the latter, everyone (especially the Dutch) always asks me the same question — what is it about the Netherlands that you love so much?

Normally, I try to respond by listing off some of my favourite Dutch things: cheese, stroopwafels, dubbelvla, tulips, cows, ducks, and of course, the people.  Yet, this answer seems shallow and trite.  In the weeks leading up to my latest visit “back home,”  I’ve put a lot of thought into the question in hopes of figuring out just when and why I became so Dutch-obsessed.

My immediate reaction was that my exchange in Tilburg was the cause.  During the course of six months, I replaced a car with a bicycle as my main source of transportation, consumed countless beers and stroopwafels, learned the words to way too many Guus Meeuwis songs, dressed as a caterpillar for Carnaval and in oranje for Koninginnedag.  All of that would surely explain my obsession, but at the same time, I know this Dutch love was deeply rooted before my exchange.  Why else would I have been so eager to study in the Netherlands in the first place?  After all, Tilburg isn’t exactly one of cultural and artistic hubs of Europe.

Dutch-Caadian
My brother and I are pretty proud of our Dutch roots.

Clearly, the answer lies a little further back in time…

Perhaps I fell in love with the Netherlands on one of my backpacking trips after high school while I discovered the country for the first time on my own.  Or was it in 2006, when I met the first of many cute, curly-haired, well-dressed Dutch boys?

But there were also all of the years before that… years spent eating my mother’s Bami Goreng, having Rollade for Christmas dinner, and eating chocolate letters and kruidnoten throughout the holiday season.  Years spent trying to train my dog Meisje (which means “little girl”) to do tricks in Dutch.

Then there were the times that I left my wooden shoes filled with carrots and straw in the kitchen, hoping that Sinterklaas would remember to make a random stop in Canada.  There were the afternoons spent listening to my Grandma speak in English peppered with Dutch words and phrases.  (“It’s pretty cold hoor, put a jacket on!”)  There were the afternoons my five-year-old best friend and I spent running around the living room listening to Dutch kinderliedjes (a CD of Dutch children’s songs), and the many, many birthday parties where we sang “Lang zal ze leven” after “Happy Birthday.”

Come to think of it, one of the first songs I remember learning as a toddler was “Klap eens in je handjes.”  I would sit at my Grandma’s kitchen table while she sang it (complete with hand actions) to my baby cousin.

It seems that I never “fell in love” with the Netherlands.  It’s simply been a huge part of my life since day one.  And if that wasn’t becoming obvious to me in the weeks before my trip, it really hit home when I went back to my parents’ place to start packing.  After months spent in an apartment with my roommate’s furniture and decorations, it was overwhelming to see just how Dutch my house is.

Every corner of my room was stuffed with Dutch trinkets, as well as endless notebooks filled with Dutch vocabulary and grammar notes.

But it wasn’t just my things, either.  My brother’s closet has more orange clothing than any other colour.  My parents’ kitchen is filled with Dutch fridge magnets, appliances (including a kaasschaaf and flessenlikker), and a Delft-blue-patterned apron.

Nor is this Dutch-mania limited to just my family.  Everywhere I go in Canada, I run into people just like me: Canadians of Dutch descent, wildly patriotic for a country they may have never even visited.  Waving flags, sporting oranje football jerseys, and bragging about Heineken and how the Dutch are the tallest people in the world.  Why are we so in love with the Netherlands?  It’s hard to say, but it’s clearly something deeper than a simple appreciation of tulips and stroopwfels.

A Dutch-Canadian family reunion. (Can't you tell by the amount of orange?)