Sunday, June 24, 2012


Today's my last day.  I'm very upset.  Where have the past five months gone?  It seems like only last week that I showed up here with a suitcase and butterflies in my stomach, and now I'm about to leave with my suitcase and a pit in my stomach.  I told you in January how much I hate packing, but this is ten times worse, it's more closure than I can handle at the moment.  My room is completely barren right now and my suitcase is giving me the stink-eye in the corner because it thinks I've filled it past capacity.  Oops. 

Going through all of the things I have collected this semester has made me a bit sad, but more than anything, I have a huge feeling of nostalgia and happiness.  I don't know how it's already over, but I'm extremely happy with my time here.  I didn't have a clue what I was getting into but I am so amazed, thrilled, and proud at all that I have been so fortunate to accomplish this semester. 

People have been moving out the last couple of weeks and it's so hard to see everyone go.  We're literally from all corners of the earth (Well, maybe not really literally, as the earth is a sphere and therefore doesn't have corners, but you get the concept.) That means that I'm never going to see so many of the people who I have spent so much time with, and who have made my exchange amazing, again.

We have been doing a lot of reflecting on how much we've been so fortunate to do this semester and how lucky we feel.  We laughed about walking down the sidewalks of Groningen at all hours of the day and night to catch the train to our next destination, how giddy we were when we first got off the bus in Edinburgh, sleeping at the airport in Bremen, marveling at the Berliner Dom in Berlin, our series of unfortunate events with the London transportation system and our failed attempts at breaking into Platform 9 3/4, waiting at the bus station in Brussels, watching the light show at the Eiffel Tower at night, taking siestas in Spanish parks and gawking at the Gaudi architecture, walking through the old town of Prague and the gardens at the palace in Vienna, walking along the gorgeous Lake Geneva in the Swiss mountains, climbing around the ruins of Ostia Antica, admiring the Colosseum at night, swimming at the baths in Budapest, and the list goes on and on and on.  In the Netherlands we've dutifully clad ourselves in orange to celebrate the queen, have shared our cultures with the many international dinners, have ridden our bikes (as well as on the backs of others bikes) like true Dutch students, have taught each other languages, explored a bunch of Dutch cities, and went to school in a foreign institution.

I'll have to wait a couple of days before I can really debrief on how I feel about leaving, but I do feel like it will be strange to go home.  Five months is a good length of time to be gone, but it sure does go fast.  Maybe it's for the best though.  If I stay any longer, I might run the risk of becoming ambivalent to the great opportunity that I have been given. I guess the trick is to leave yourself wanting more so (1) you can come back and (2) you are more grateful for the time that you had.

Today, we're planning on going out on a boat on the canals in Groningen.  Of course it's raining pretty hard, but I think we're going to do it anyway.  It's not like we're not used to it raining every time we want to do something here. I seriously love the Netherlands and so much about it, but the sun does not seem to share that same sentiment.  What we really have learned this past semester is that we're supposed to take advantage of the sun as soon as it comes out because it is always fleeting.  The sun was out yesterday.  It is not out today.  We should have known better. Oh well.

Hungry for Hungary

When our exams ended on the the 13th, the first thing Charlotte, Anne, and I did was hit the market in town to have French fries with mayonnaise. It wasn't really our fault, we'd all staying up later studying, got up super early to bike to the other side of town for our three hour exams, and then had to bike home right past the fry place.  Really, if you think about it, we didn't have a choice.  Anne's from Belgium and she taught me that French fries are too.  I'm not sure why we call them French, but that's just how it is. The whole mayonnaise thing still perplexes me though, because I don't really understand whose idea it was to lather greased up food in even more grease, but such is life.  It seems to be a bit different type of mayonnaise though, but I'm still surprised that it's the condiment of choice across a lot of Europe, and especially in the Netherlands.

The whole reason for the stream-of-consciousness blabbering was to lead up to the next item on  our agenda to celebrate the end of the semester: one last traveling destination for Charlotte and me.

We chose Budapest, Hungary because we wanted to explore more of Eastern Europe and I had been taking a Hungarian history class where they all kept telling me how I really needed to go check it out for myself.  It also didn't hurt that the plane tickets were 20 euros round-trip. But, like with the Rome excursion, it was a really cool and beneficial experience to witness all of the things I had spent the previous five months learning about in the classroom.

Although Charlotte and I went by ourselves, we had plans to meet up with another friend from Blekerslaan and her friend from home when we got to the city, because it was in the middle of their longer traveling plans.  We also, completely randomly, ran into two other people we know from Groningen in the metro station, so we spent some time with them too.

It was soooo hot in Budapest.  It was about 100 degrees with an extremely high humidity level.  Luckily, we were in a city famous for its baths.  We went to the Széchenyi Thermal Baths in the city park.  It is the most famous one and the largest medicinal bath in Europe.  The baths were supplied by thermal water that are 160-170 degrees Fahrenheit but there were three different pools- a cold one, a hot one, and a medium one.  There was also a whirlpool and various jets throughout the pools. There were quite a few people there, because it was so hot, but it was a really cool and beautiful place that was great to experience.

Here's some snapshots of the rest of the adventure...
Szabadsag Bridge at night, one of the bridges that connects Buda and Pest.
Hungarian Parliament Building- the largest building in Hungary.

Vajdahunyad Castle in the city park
Dohány Street Synagogue. This is the largest functioning synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world.
Buda Castle

Near Buda Castle with the Parliament Building across the Danube River.
Central Market
The Applied Arts Museum. Check out that roof!
Szabadsag Bridge during the day. 
St. Stephen's Basilica

This is the Liberty Statue on Gellért Hill that we climbed. It's a rather large hill to climb and it seemed like quite the hike after eating dinner. But it was well worth it as it provided an amazing view. Fortunately, we did the climb at night so it was only about 80 degrees out. It really seemed to be super hot day and night in that place.
Matthias Church, next to Fisherman's Bastion. A handful of the buildings in the city had this same type of roof.
Fisherman's Bastion

View from Gellért Hill at night.

The city had a lot of really pretty components but I don't think it was quite as beautiful as Prague.  The major reason for this was that 80% of the city was damaged or destroyed in WWII, so a lot of the buildings, even if they look old, are fairly young or have been fixed after the 40's.

As sad as I was that this was our last trip, it was definitely a very good note to end on.  The beautiful city, the beautiful weather, and a lot of fun people made for a wonderful time.  It was also really cool to realize how much I've retained from my Hungarian history class and to see some of it firsthand.  I kept seeing posters with the musician I did a paper and presentation about.  I also saw a lot of movie posters with some of the famous actors from other Hungarian films my professor had me watch for class. I'm not sure how much Charlotte appreciated me rattling off the tidbits I remembered, but it definitely allowed me to look at the city differently than I would have before this semester.

Art in the Park

I received an email about a month ago from a professor at CMU who taught at the University of Groningen for a while.  He was talking about some of his favorite parts of Holland and specifically mentioned the Kroller-Muller Museum in the Hoge Veluwe National Park in Otterlo, so I decided that I needed to go check it out.

I often get confused about exactly where we are in the country when we're on a train because, even thought the entire country is roughly the size of my pinky finger, it takes quite a while to get anywhere from Groningen.  A Dutch lady I met at the Eindhoven airport the other day acted like going to Groningen was the equivalent of a winter expedition into Siberia, even though the two cities are only about 2 hours or so apart by car.  An interesting tidbit:  according to Wikipedia, the Netherlands is the 61st most populated country in the world. There are 21 other countries with a higher population density, but they are all smaller than Holland.  Apparently though, if the water area of the country is not counted, there are only 16 countries ahead of it.  The thing is though, it seems like there is a ton of open land in the Netherlands filled with farmland or woods.  Where people live, they seem to be extremely concentrated.  The effect is basically that people live super, super close together where they live, and then they leave vast expanses open.

But I digress.

My whole point is that Otterlo, the area where the park was, seemed to be smack dab in the middle of Nowheresville, Netherlands, making the park itself Nowheresland.  We took a train to a main station, then took another really small train to a stop in some small town.  The bus we got on from there crossed through about 4 or 5 small towns on the half an hour that we were on it. All of the towns in the country, and even the cities, have a distinctive quaintness about them.  They have very old-school looking houses and buildings coupled with very peculiar modern architecture that I can't really explain.  The next bus that we had to get on was actually a van-bus, and we were the only people on it.  Did I mention this place was in the middle of nowhere?

Anyway, when we did get to the museum, it was well worth the journey.  It held a ton of famous pieces by people like Monet and Van Gogh. In fact, the Van Gogh collection in the museum was actually the 2nd largest Van Gogh collection in the world, behind the one in Amsterdam.

Beyond the more classical type of art, the museum had a rather extensive collection of modern art.  I'm not typically a fan of modern art, because I typically place it into one of two categories: #1-I don't understand it or #2-I painted something just like that in preschool. But I actually loved a lot of the modern pieces.  I'm not sure what got into me, perhaps my brain was a bit rattled from the monsoon we just walked through through the park and I was just happy to give my socks a chance to dry, but I was extremely intrigued by some of the art pieces.  There was one that was two bugs dried on a huge piece of paper that was scribbled all over in a ball-point pen.  I realize that sounds absurd, and it was, but it really demonstrates the range of pieces in this museum.  Then I stared for five minutes at a black square on the wall because the caption promised it would reveal a shape.  It eventually did, but I felt a bit silly looking at a black square for so long.  

My favorite piece was this room filled with seven (I think) stuffed tigers covered in arrows. They were all suspended in the air and in various poses of agony.  The lighting in the room was superb so they all cast really distinct shadows in patches of light among the darkness. I think the caption said that the artist was trying to demonstrate the brutality of killing and the pain and suffering of dying because we've become too immune to it in the modern age and with modern weapons.

The museum also had an outdoor component that stretched into the park.  There were sculptures and all other sorts of weird things scattered throughout the woods that I have an excessive amount of pictures of myself with because Charlotte doesn't believe in taking pictures if she doesn't have somebody in them.  I have a feeling that I didn't understand most of them, but I still enjoyed wandering through the park and trying to figure them out.

I'm not really sure what this was but it appeared to be the stairway to Heaven.  It was the tallest flight of stairs I've ever found in the woods in the middle of nowhere, and there wasn't anything that you could see at the top.  It didn't look like anything was up there or that it led to anything.  I can't say for sure, though, because we didn't climb it.  Partially because it was blocked off but primarily because, well, look at the thing.  Would you have climbed it?

When in Rome

A major reason that I chose to take the Roman Renaissance history class that I did was the lure of a promised excursion to Rome.  I know, casual, just a field trip to Rome. No big deal, get your permission slip signed and pack a lunch.  But seriously though, how neat is that?!?

We were set to meet with up with our class on the first morning in June at the Piazza del Popolo.  A girl that I met in my class and I decided we wanted to check out Rome a few more days than that so we decided to head out on the previous Friday. Most of our class was staying at a hotel that was a bit expensive in the city ran by nuns.  Since we were staying a few more days and were traveling on a budget of two kids who've been galavanting across Europe for the previous four months, we decided to use the trusty  We ended up at Camping Fabulous, seriously, that's the name.  And I have to say it was rather appropriately named.  We were in a two person tent in the middle of some sort of resort village right outside of Rome.  I have to say it was well worth the 9 euros per night.  It even had a pool!  It was great, except for the minor inconvenience of the sunburn we received, due to our pasty skin as a result of the overcast haven of Holland.

Waiting for the subway at the end of the line near our campground.

On our first day, we decided to check out the city and hit some of the key things that we didn't want to miss because our class covered only Rome during the Renaissance Era.  We walked through the Circus Maximus, a decrepit area that, when it existed, held more than any other stadium, ever.  A tour guide we overheard said that it held 300,000 people.  That's even more impressive because, at the time, there were only 2 million people living in the city, but most of the time only 1 million were in town.

We also checked out the Trevi Fountain, the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele, and the Spanish steps...

 The next day we ventured out to Ostia Antica near the coastline.  It was an old abandoned city from thousands of years ago.  We found it even cooler than the Roman Forum because you're allowed to climb in and out of the ruins. It was massive: a whole town left standing complete with public buildings, houses and even a really cool stadium sort of thing.

On the way back we were right next to the sea.  We couldn't very well get that close to the sea in Italy and not go in the water.  We wandered out onto the beach that evening and went into the water.  I have to say, it was well worth it.

The next three mornings and early afternoons were occupied by class time.  A component of the class required each of us to give a twenty minute presentation of a key monument, building or church that was relevant to the time period that we had been studying in our class.  It was actually a really cool structure so we didn't have to listen to our professors talk the whole time, but we were still able to learn about some of the things that we were seeing.

After our class time for the day, we spent the rest of the afternoons and evenings checking out the other aspects of Rome that we missed.  Although it was just two of us that were staying separately, we still ended up spending time with a lot of the members of our class in our free time as we were exploring the city.  The last night, we all went out to dinner with our professor.  I think I can confidently say that the food in Italy was one of my favorites from all of the countries that we've been to.

Casa Sant Angelo

St. Peter's Basilica

It was a really amazing trip.  It was very cool to see first hand all of the things that we've been studying all semester.  Everything about the week was really fun and it was well worth missing a couple of other lectures to experience on-sight lectures with my class.  I think I learned more from the portion of the class in Rome than I did the entire rest of the semester in the classroom.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Finals Countdown

Yay!  Finals are done! 

This week marked  the end of my schooling in the Netherlands.  Two weeks ago was my final week of classes, last week I was in Rome with a class, and this week was finals week. Submitting final drafts of excruciatingly long papers and pouring through painful amounts of notes for my exams made me reflect on the semester.  While the semester flew by extremely quickly, it seems like I've been going to school here for a really long time.  In fact, some of my notes seemed to be from so long ago, I didn't even remember writing them. 

The exams all took place in a building so orange inside that it seemed to glow.  Several lectures full of people from various classes filtered into rooms that seemed to be the size of football fields full of desks.  Apparently it is also standard to pack a lunch in case you get hungry in the middle of your three hour exam.  At least that's what I found out when the guy taking a Spanish test next to me pulled out a sandwich in the middle of the time period.

The whole philosophy of education seems to be a bit different here.  A lot of people seem content with merely passing their classes.  It's obviously not true for everybody, but a few of the people I talked to before the exams were only concerned with what it took to get a passing grade in the class.  If all else fails, there's always the chance to get a resit on the exams, which many people take. 

I have mixed feelings about this approach.  Granted, I have been shaped by the type of education that I have grown up accustomed to, but I have never seen the draw of just doing enough to get by.  My education has always been dictated by the mindset of doing your best and achieving the most possible.  Of course, that is one of the reason that we have so much more stress in our education system, as well as competition.  People drive themselves to achieve as much as possible and to beat others.  On the other hand, this also means that more people are working up to their potential. 

Here though, there doesn't seem to be nearly as much stress.  Really high marks are deemed practically unobtainable, or for super-humans, and passing, or doing fairly well, is often sufficient enough.  Maybe that's part of the reason that the Dutch have been found to be some of the happiest people in the world.  Their system seems to put a lot less pressure on people and results in more relaxed attitudes towards these sorts of things.  Of course, the fact that the government also helps pay for a lot of the education at the university level probably helps quite a bit too.  If people weren't automatically going to be in a ton of debt going to school, they might feel a bit less pressure to be the best as well.

It might sound crazy to say that trying to be your best isn't always necessarily a good thing.  But I think that that's only because that's what our system has taught us our entire life.  Is it a bad thing to not let some insignificant things in the big scheme of things dictate your life?   Would society as a whole be less successful if people weren't so driven and determined to be the best?  Maybe by material standards.  But I still think there's something to be said for the easy-going lifestyle that ranks so high on the happiness scale of the world.

Thursday, May 31, 2012


How the heck did it get to be June already?  It seem like both last week and five years ago that I showed up to this city like a chicken with my head cut off and now it's June!?!?  When I was skyping with my friend from home last night, she told me that I seem very settled and at home here. And it's true.  In no time at all, I fell right into a routine and made myself a nice life here.  And now it's June. 

I had my last class today.  I technically have classes next week, but since I'll be in Rome with a different class, I won't be there.  I have my last two exams on the 12th and 13th of June, and that's it for school.  Oh, that and the 25 page paper I need to turn in and that presentation I have to do in Rome, but that's beside  the point.  How can I already be done with classes?  I've been planning for these classes, and especially this Roman Renaissance class, since October, and now they're almost over.  I have just fell into a rhythm of going to classes here that you'd think I've been doing it for years. 

As I'm entering into my last couple of weeks I keep thinking about everything that I do and how it might be the last time I do it.  It's the last time I'll have class in A Weg 30, or the Heymanszaal in the Academy Building, or the Harmonie Building.  I probably won't be spending a lot more time in the libraries, or the study areas.  It's so weird.

The law students have their finals this week, so people have already begun to leave.  It appears that it is starting to be the beginning of the end.  June 25th used to seem so far off, and now it's in a few weeks.  I went for a walk with a friend the other night and we started talking about our first week here.  We talked about how lost and confused we were when we first showed up, when we first met all of our friends, how we failed miserably our first time grocery shopping, how we bought the crappiest bikes in the world from strangers we found online, how we made a huge list of all of the places we wanted to go and then went crazy making it our mission to check them all off. 

I'm not ready to do a final reflection yet, but I've done enough of one to realize that I'm really happy with what I've done and how I've grown this semester.  But before sitting down and looking into all of that, I need to spend the next few weeks continuing to live in the moment and enjoying this experience for all that it's worth.  I'm leaving tomorrow for Rome, a trip I've been daydreaming about since October when I signed up for the class with the promise of an excursion.  It came down to the choice to stay for the last week of classes or to go to Rome.  I was really hesitant to make this decision, but then it occurred to me: I really couldn't not go to Rome.  If coming here and being here has taught me anything it's that I should take advantage of as many opportunities that come my way as possible.  So, instead of continuing this monologue, I'm going to pack my bags and head out to witness first hand the city I've  only been able to read about up to this point. 


I've been thinking a lot about languages lately.  Everywhere I've gone, I've tried to learn some key words in that language to help navigate around and to make an effort to show an interest in the culture that I'm visiting.  Everyday here I'm surrounded by languages I don't know and, for the most part, don't understand, and it just makes me think how much more I wish I knew.  I know what I know, and I know what I don't know.  But there's so many languages out there that I don't even know I don't know.

On our trip to Switzerland, I went with two people from Spain, one from Italy and one from Brazil.  Within the group there were people who knew English, Spanish, Catalan, French, Italian, Portuguese, and German.  For the entirety of the trip, we were trying to teach each other new words and phrases in our native languages.  It seemed like we were constantly switching back and forth between languages and we all learned something new.  Obviously though, our interactions were about 95% in English. 

The funny thing was, my Italian friend told me at one point that she understood me better when I was speaking in Spanish than when I was speaking in English.  I wasn't sure if this was a compliment of my Spanish or an insult of my English.  But it does kind of make sense: my Spanish is a lot more basic than my English, thus easier to understand.

Last night, that same friend from Italy was teaching me a bunch of new words and phrases in Italian to use when I go to Rome tomorrow on a class trip.  I was surprised how similar a lot of the words sound to Spanish, but it's still its own unique language. I really hope to learn more of it.

The reason that I'm telling you all of this is because, this semester has really made me wish that I wasn't a native English speaker.  I know that sounds stupid and I should feel lucky that I naturally speak one of the most dominant languages in the world, but I really wish I would have had to work to learn it.  That way I'd be forced to be fluent in at least two languages.  Of course, my friends from other countries have said that they want to speak English to their kids when they're growing up so their kids don't have as hard of a time learning English as they did.  I understand that, but I think that having English as a native language is almost an excuse for not bothering to learn other languages of the world. 

We decided that we're going to have a child exchange program when we grow up.  We're going to send our kids to each others' houses during the summers to learn new languages.  They did make me promise that I wouldn't feed their kids too much peanut butter in the US and they promised to take it easy on the Nutella so my kids don't get spoiled.  Really though, I think we all agreed the best way to learn a new is to be immersed in it.  What you learn in a classroom, typically from non-native speakers of that language, cannot hold a candle to the real experience.

The thing about English, though, is that it brought us all together.  To study in the Netherlands, we all had to know English.  To communicate with each other, we all had to know English.  And I think it's really special that we all have something like that that bonds us together.  It doesn't have to be English, that fact is merely a product of history and society, but it's nice that there is some language we can do it in.  Having a mutual language allows countries to preserve their culture, heritage and national languages, but still allows people from all nationalities to bridge gaps.  It would be virtually impossible to be able to speak in the natural language of everybody that we meet here, but we have found common ground because we have the link of a language, in this case English.  There's no way we could get to know each other, learn from each other, and form everlasting friendships without this imperative link.

Having this link of language also catalyzes the expansion of our knowledge base into other languages.  While I'm helping other learn to say the phrase they want to say and helping them words their essays in ways that make more sense, they're teaching me bits of their languages so that I can expand my vocabulary too.  I mentioned a month or so ago about the phenomenon of "minglish."  That's still true, my English has warped a little.  But I would trade that any day for all of the new things that I've learned along the way.  I'd say it's a fair compensation.