Earlier today Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands became King and his wife Maxima became Queen after his mother, Beatrix, stepped down from the throne after serving for 33 years. It was while I was studying in Utrecht, Netherlands that I first encountered the new King and his Queen.
Willem-Alexander and Maxima came to Utrecht on their tour of the country following the announcement of the engagement of the future King to the Argentinian economist. The city donned its orange (the color of the royals – House of Orange) and Dutch flags. A parade was planned and the newly engaged couple would greet their people.
Despite my great spot on a rock in a square on the parade route, I hadn’t come prepared with my camera. I remember seeing just their heads and waving arms and hands above the tops of the large crowd. A friend took the photo of me in my spot to mark the day.
Months later in a Christmas grab-bag, I was the lucky recipient of a mug commemorating the engagement.
I’m currently in the beginning stages of planning a trip to the Netherlands this fall. This will be the first time I’ve returned since my time studying abroad in the city of Utrecht twelve years ago. This will be the last of my study abroad locations to go back to. I’ve been to Dublin/Ireland twice since that summer in 2001. The first time was four months after the program and the second was four years later. My return trips to London were similar: four months and three years later. This one, comparatively, is a bit overdue.
On my first return trip to Ireland I donned the hat of tour guide for two girlfriends from Utrecht. I knew what shuttle to take from the airport, what hostel to stay at, how to get around easily, and what pubs were the best. I was too busy living up to my nickname ‘Let’s Go Lindsay’ to really pay attention to anything other than showing off my old stomping grounds. This was primarily to keep myself distracted and emotionally disconnected from the trip. I knew it couldn’t possibly live up to the summer and I was fearful that something might happen to tarnish that time.
Inevitably, I began to compare things. The group dynamic was different. These two girls weren’t the six people I hung out with four months ago. The time of year was different. Instead of being able to be outside in the summer sun, it was December with signs of Christmas everywhere and snow keeping us indoors. The overcast days mimicked my mental state.
But soon I realized that different was also good. With less of us, it was easier to stay together in hostels, or find a place to sit in restaurants and pubs, and there were less personalities to please. These girls wanted to do things that the summer group didn’t. The cold weather showed me another side to the cities and their inhabitants. And who doesn’t want to spend more time in a warm pub? I was also able fill in some missing gaps from the summer such as finally getting my picture taken kissing the Blarney Stone, which my summer photographer didn’t take in time – twice (ahem, Kevy). This trip added to my experience of Ireland, made it more dynamic. Whatever concerns I had before going turned out to be fruitless.
I am really excited to go back to the Netherlands, which is 180 degrees from how I felt when I left. I just wanted to go home and put all that had happened (9/11, culture shock, anxiety attacks, broken heart) behind me. I am returning with a purpose. There are plenty of other travel destinations on my list, but I think it is time I pay homage to a place that was the backdrop to a very formative time for me. Perhaps I’ll even gain some closure on a few things. I’m not quite sure what to expect, or even know yet what I hope will happen, but I’m ready to find out what does and expand my experience of the Netherlands.
The advice column in my local newspaper recently had a letter that sought advice on re-entry. The advice-seeker – Pining in Rome – is a student studying in Italy and loving it. She’s entering her last few weeks on the program and is worried about her return home.
Pining’s main concerns are: all her friends will have left for their own study abroad programs, there will be no one with whom to speak Italian, and the foods and pastimes she’s been enjoying do not exist at home. She has fallen into despair and is concerned she will not be able to enjoy her remaining weeks in Italy.
Here is the advice given: recognize how fortunate you are to have this opportunity and experience, “try not to over-romanticize the experience” and see it for the short-term fun it was, know you can return whenever you can afford it, and “how well you adjust depends entirely on your attitude.”
Being someone who has dealt with re-entry more than once, I find the advice given to be dismissive and unknowledgeable of the effects of a study abroad experience and the return home on a person. It doesn’t take into account the emotional and the personal connections and change that can take place. Pining in Rome is treated like a silly college girl who thinks she found true love on spring break. It also belittles the re-entry process, which can be a very complex negotiation of emotions, expectations, and reality.
The advice is very ‘big picture.’ I am not against getting some perspective, but this advice comes from too great a distance to have any chance of being helpful to someone engaged in all-or-nothing thinking. The one good bit of advice is the suggestion that one’s attitude will go far in affecting the return.
My response to Pining would go something like this:
Dear Pining: I’m thrilled you’re having an amazing experience on your study abroad program. As you enter your final weeks, concerns about returning home are to be expected. Your home institution should have provided you with information about re-entry and I hope you read it, if not, please do so now. Don’t let all-or-nothing thinking take over. You are in rare company that ALL of your friends are also interested in studying abroad and will be on their own programs. If this is indeed true, returning will be like going abroad again in that you don’t know a lot or any other people and you need to put yourself out there. Also, you don’t need Italians to speak Italian. If your school doesn’t offer Italian classes, branch out and see if there are any language groups in the town’s community. As for your concern about specific foods and pastimes, well, they are what make Italy, Italy. But if you do your research and call upon your newly honed skill of stretching your comfort zone, you might just find similar items and activities closer than you thought. Read up on re-entry issues (there are resources out there), make a game plan on how you can marry your experience with home, and stay positive.
I had experienced a small slice of Bavaria while in Munich, and it didn’t disappoint. But Northern Germany – most of what I knew of this part of the country dealt with one city, Berlin. When the weekend arrived that the girls I had been traveling with while studying abroad in Utrecht, Netherlands planned a long weekend to Berlin, I didn’t have enough time to go. But I still wanted to experience Northern Germany. So another friend and I planned a short 24-hour trip to the city of Hamburg in early December.
I actually knew a little bit about the city as one of the exchange students I befriended my senior year of high school was from Hamburg. Peer, the exchange student, wrote to me about his life in Hamburg throughout my freshman year of college. Most of his stories involved the Außenalster, one of the two lakes in central Hamburg, his high school and environs, and Mojo Club on the Reeperbahn in the St. Pauli district, which I was always jealous to hear about as I was under 21 and there was no local venue that sounded even remotely as awesome.
Because our time was limited and having arrived in the late afternoon, my friend and I made haste as we had just a couple hours to get our bearings before the sun set. The fastest way to get from our hostel to the Reeperbahn, our first stop, was through the Hamburger Dom, a funfair with carnival rides and a roller coaster in the Heiligengeistfeld. We made a mental note to walk home this way to see if the fair was going on that night.
As it was just late afternoon, the Mojo Club hadn’t opened yet but I snapped photos of the coveted night spot. Next we headed towards the Hamburger Rathaus. The Hamburger Weihnachtsmarkt was just opening up for the evening on the Rathausmarkt in front of the Rathaus. All the stalls with gifts, food, and warm beverages, and the lights felt quintessentially German. And why not? These markets were started by German speakers.
Then we walked along the Binnenalster, the smaller of the two lakes. If the city didn’t seem Christmas-y enough, there was a Christmas tree on a float in the middle of the lake. As darkness set in, we headed back to more familiar parts of town. We spent our evening out of the cold at the Bayern Festhalle at the Hamburger Dom enjoying some polka and bier.
The next morning we took the long route on our way to the train station to see a fraction of the port, being that Hamburg is a large shipping city. On the way there we walked through Alter Elbpark where there’s a statue of Otto von Bismarck, whom I studied in my Germany History class the semester prior. I never tire of making those history/reality connections. We were on our way back to Utrecht on the noon train as our short trip came to an end.
The nostalgia and romanticism Germany produces for me has yet to be really challenged. If Munich was lederhosen and bier, Hamburg was O Tannenbaum and Christmas. I look forward to my next trip to Germany to get to know another part of the country.
Being a week behind everything has been the theme of my life lately. Blog ideas come up in hindsight of something rather than me having the time to look ahead and plan. My apologies. So for this week I thought I’d finally get with (or ahead of) the times and post a week in advance about a Thanksgiving abroad. This serves me doubly well as now I can take the holiday off and avoid seeming out of touch posting about Turkey Day a week late.
Last year I wrote about how my fellow Americans and I hosted Thanksgiving for a large group of exchange students studying together in Utrecht, Netherlands. What made my London Thanksgiving special three years later was not only did my flat of Americans invite our non-American friends over for a feast, but one of our guests was a girl who had her first Thanksgiving with me in Utrecht those few years prior.
I was so excited to find out my Utrecht friend, Ximena, was also in London. I wrote an email to my group of girlfriends from my time in the Netherlands, most likely about the Dutch bar and Dutch pancake house I had found in London and how my thoughts drifted to them. It was a great and pleasant shock to hear back from Ximena saying that she was also in London. Me being from the US and her from Mexico, who would have thought that both of us being back in Europe would reunite us? The first time we met up outside the Starbucks in Leicester Square, I was really early and she was really late. Nothing had changed.
As Thanksgiving approached, my flatmates and I decided to invite people over for the holiday. On the day, our group comprised of people from Ireland, England, France, Mexico, and the US. Unlike in the Netherlands where we had a number of long tables to fit together, we didn’t have a single table big enough in our Holloway flat. We ended up bringing all our chairs and benches into our front room to go along with our two sofas, and we pushed together two coffee tables to place the food on. Everyone cradled their full plates on their laps and set their glasses either on the coffee tables or on the floor if there was no room.
Gaiety abounded with tasty food, readily available alcohol, and great ambiance as some of us vied for the role of party DJ. We filled our guests up with turkey and gravy (probably the simplest and most delicious gravy I’ve ever had, a recipe I still use each year – thanks Meghan), mashed potatoes, rolls and vegetables. Wanting to make the day seem special, we bought gold paper plates, gold plastic serving trays, and fancy plastic wine goblets. Regardless of the budget, the sentiment of the holiday was felt and passed along to our friends.
I asked Ximena recently what her memories were from that day and how her Thanksgiving in London compared to Utrecht. Here’s what she had to say:
I think that the Thanksgiving dinner in Utrecht was very special, it was the first Thanksgiving I ever celebrated and it became a very special holiday to me (even though it is not celebrated in MX [Mexico]). I remember we were all crowded in a small apartment, all foreigners and a few Dutch, drinking a lot of beer and wine. I knew almost everyone there since the beginning of the semester and had a lot of fun.
But if I am not mistaken when we were in London the food was amazing! Also it was very special to me because I was going through a hard time missing my family, crazy cold weather, so being surrounded with people and warm food to celebrate Thanksgiving was very comforting. I got to meet your friends and enjoy a nice happy dinner.
I too will remember both of these special holiday feasts. Happy Thanksgiving!
Clapham Common is a large park in south London. It was there that my flatmate and I met up with some of her friends from Brixton to participate in November 5th’s Guy Fawkes Night festivities of fireworks and bonfires (though I didn’t see any that night). Entering the north end of the Common, we joined thousands of others in celebrating this night of historical political significance.
Who was this Guy Fawkes, you ask? A Catholic conspirator, he was, of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The plot’s intent was to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament with the ultimate goal of assassinating King James I, who would be present to make a speech. Just after midnight on November 5th, tipped-off authorities arrested Guy Fawkes as he was found guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder in the House of Lords. To celebrate the fact that the plot had been thwarted and King James I lived, people began setting bonfires alight. In the years to follow people also began to burn effigies of Guy Fawkes in the bonfires.
Prior to that evening, I thought people were celebrating Guy Fawkes for his anarchy against the government. Bonfires seemed riotous and fireworks joyous. I was, however, a bit confused why people would burn effigies of Guy Fawkes if they were praising his actions. The film V for Vendetta wouldn’t come out until the following year so I didn’t get the idea from that. I was just plain ignorant of the day’s history; I learned that night.
It was very cold that evening. I had on gloves and a scarf. I purchased hot cocoa more to warm up my hands than to drink. We had arrived late to the Common, and, therefore, were relegated to the fringes. Some people were carrying around smaller-than-life-sized effigies of Guy Fawkes. I really wanted there to be a bonfire to burn them in. The whole event was like being at an outdoor concert where everyone was facing one general direction waiting for something to begin. The crowd packed in tight to stay off the surrounding roads. The nearness of bodies did take off some of the chill. Eventually, the fireworks began and I was content viewing the show.
Then, out of nowhere, came a 6 foot 6 inch tall (at least) man and he parked himself right in front of me and my flatmate. We tried to shift but were packed so tight there was nowhere to go and nowhere else to look but at the back of his head. And next to him was a father with his kid on his shoulders! We were cold, trapped, and couldn’t see a thing. Once the fireworks crescendoed to their finale, we quickly made our way back to Brixton on foot avoiding the clogged Underground and went to a pub.
It was fun to participate in a truly British event. As I’ve mentioned a couple of times above, seeing a bonfire would have been cool. I’ve read that there are some towns that celebrate the night very extravagantly. That would be really awesome to experience and speak with the townsfolk as to why the night is so important to them. Also, the night gave me some background for when I did watch V for Vendetta the following year.
Heading to Ireland on my first study abroad program, my 21st year came a year early. Not a frequent drinker, I was going to at least try my hand at Guinness and Jameson with the legal age for drinking being 18. Over the course of the next eight weeks, I unknowingly shaped my drinking habits from that point forward. To this day, from what I prefer to drink to what environment I most enjoy drinking in has its roots in my time in Ireland.
Prior to departure, this was my profile: occasional drinker, not a heavy partier, enjoyed some mixed drinks but mostly enjoyed shots, always drank to get drunk but never knew I was drunk until it was too late to not be really hungover the next day, and preferred drinking at someone’s apartment or dorm to being out. By the time I returned to the US, most of that had changed.
On my first night out in Temple Bar in Dublin, Guinness was my first drink. Yuck! I had to choke down that pint. How could my sister love that beer? It tasted disgusting to me. I wasn’t taking any chances after that so I ordered a Heineken. At least I had tried it, I thought. At the next bar that evening I tried someone’s Carlsberg and was happy to have found a beer I hadn’t heard of before that was palatable. This experience is all about trying new things, right?
Over the next couple of weeks Carlsberg led to Smithwick’s (Smid-icks) which then led to Kilkenny, another Guinness product. This became my favorite beer. I wish I could get Kilkenny here in the States (lucky Canadians). Kilkenny is red in color and, as a cream ale, is thicker than Guinness, which, much to people’s disbelief, is actually relatively light in texture. That I was enjoying a cream ale shocked me; my taste buds for beer had come a long way from Heineken. It was time to try Guinness again. I did and I loved it. Still do.
As for Jameson, I enjoyed it, but then at some point near the end of my program I lost my taste for liquor. Once I returned to Wisconsin I found that I could not down a shot without my gag reflex being triggered. Still can’t. I had officially switched from being a liquor drinker to a beer drinker.
Limits were a nice thing I learned too. I quickly began to understand that I wouldn’t feel well the next morning if I had more than four pints of draught beer, keeping in mind that an Irish pint is 570 ml or just over 19 oz as compared to the US pint of 14 or 16 oz. I became in control what kind of evening (and the following morning) I was going to have. It helped in maintaining the balance of work and play. Paying attention to how much I’m consuming and of the consequences at different imbibing levels still plays a role in my drinking.
Also, being allowed into bars was new for me. I wasn’t sure how I’d like them. Back in Madison the college bars seemed to be meat markets, something I wasn’t interested in being a part of. Maybe it’s because they were my first highly frequented bars but I loved the pubs in Ireland. From the stereotypical “traditional” pub to the brightly lit workman’s pub to the loud metal bar to the country western pub, I loved them all. What I loved most about the pubs was the seeming overall acceptance of people of varying ages coming together to share a common space, having a pint and enjoying the craic.
I have yet to find a bar in the US where this is comfortably accepted. While their pubs had an air of mutual respect amongst the differing age groups, here in the US there seems a palpable distaste for other age groups. I have to say I’m as much a part of that as those I see around me. I’ve been known to say a negative thing or two about those younger than myself. Is it because I didn’t grow up in a culture where respect across age groups was valued? If I could find a bar that replicated the feel of any one of those pubs (well maybe not the metal bar), I would definitely go out on the town more. As it is, I get a closer feeling at a friend’s house or in my own home.
Upon leaving Ireland my profile became and still is: casual drinker, enjoys beer and trying new beers (I’ve noticed how my preference in type of beer has changed over the years as well – I used to really like wheat beers, now I prefer hoppy beers), I know my limits and pay attention as they change with different drinks, and though I still prefer a house/home to a bar, I enjoy going out now, and I’m still in search of a place that captures something similar to that in Ireland. If I learned to drink somewhere else, I don’t know what kind of drinking profile I’d have today. But I can’t imagine having a better self exploration and transition period from being underage to being of age than I got from my time in Ireland.
Who knew this was possible? I surely didn’t. The Netherlands has hills?! Let alone being above sea level. When I received the email about the exchange student weekend trip to Maastricht that would include a stop at Vaalserberg, the hoogste punt (highest point) in the country, I had to see it to believe it.
A couple of weeks before I had seen and stood on my first dike in the northwest of the Netherlands. This was my first trip to the southeast and it promised quite the opposite to reclaimed land. I didn’t notice, however, much of an incline as our vans passed through ‘s-Hertogenbosch (I tried sounding out the name in my head and was relieved to find out many refer to the city simply as Den Bosch) and Eindhoven. Then we arrived in Maastricht.
The first stopping point on our trip was Sint-Pietersberg, a modest hill, by my standards, at 561 feet. Astonished by the appearance of a hill, a majority of the group took advantage of being up “high” and began taking picture after picture of the city “below.” Then we proceeded to go under the hill. Not only was this hill a spectacle above ground, it was one below ground too.
There are a large number of mining tunnels underneath Sint-Pietersberg Hill – 20,000 give or take. Originally used for mining of marl by the Romans, the Zonneberg Caves and the North Caves’ use morphed over the centuries and were most recently a shelter during World War II. Today, they are used for tourism. (Facts in this paragraph come from http://www.maastrichtunderground.nl; the broad interpretations are mine.)
The next morning our group headed to Vaalserberg, home not only to the highest point in the Netherlands but also the Drielandenpunt (Three-country point) where the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium come together. I had never been to the Four Corners in southwest US so this was also something I looked forward to. As we made our way to the summit, I again didn’t recall feeling like there was much of an incline. Even the summit was quite level. But the bricked-over bump with the marker stated that this was it, the highest point in the Netherlands, standing tall at 1059 feet.
1059 feet!? I was driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike this past weekend and I passed a sign that stated I was at the highest point on I-90 east of a town in South Dakota and that was 1724 feet. My local ski area in the foothills of the Adirondacks has a summit of around 1800 feet. Places I think of as small or low dwarf Vaalserberg. But a highest point is a highest point regardless of how low it might be. Slightly disappointed and not yet admitting to negative comparison thinking, I made my way to the Drielandenpunt marker.
I love geography, particularly boundaries and official lines. Being able to legitimately touch three countries at one time was very exciting for me. I waited impatiently for my turn amongst my group and other tourists. When my turn came (I may or may not have butt in front of some people), I posed happily for my picture. Then I climbed up the tower (in Belgium) in order to see more of the three countries. Unfortunately it was a foggy day and I couldn’t see too far. Germany was the most exciting with forests leading up to the city of Aachen. Belgium had train tracks and the Netherlands had a hedge maze.
As the vans made their decent back to Utrecht through Eindhoven and Den Bosch, I finally got over my disappointment and began to appreciate where I was earlier that day. In a country that has fought the seas for centuries, with 20% of its land sitting below sea level, and 50% being less than a meter above sea level, standing at a thousand feet is a pretty rare and special place to be.
Many study abroad programs have just gotten under way. For a number of students, they just received their first and potentially only foreign stamp in their passport, the golden ticket to seeing the world outside one’s own country. I love my old, now expired passport. I love looking back through it. The stamps and visas remind me of the few years I spent enjoying a higher proportion of international travel than the years prior or since.
The passport is proof of my travels. It is a souvenir. It’s a bare bones scrap book, if I were a scrap booker. It is a keepsake. The time span it covers is from my first study abroad experience in 2001 to visiting friends in London in 2008. There are two personal “highlights” – if you will – of the collection. One is a stamp, the other a visa.
Way back on page 20 is a solitary stamp. This blue-green inked rectangle marks some exciting and important firsts for me: first major continental getaway, first overnight train, and first time to Eastern Europe. It was fall 2001 and I was traveling with four other girls. The plan was Prague, a stop in Vienna, and then some would return to the Netherlands, and others, myself included, would make a trip to Munich.
The reason this stamp is so coveted is not just because it denotes these firsts, but because this was the only stamp given in the Czech Republic – to any of us. When we entered the country we didn’t receive a stamp; it happened on our way out. We were on the train passing through the border city of Břeclav on our way to Austria. The patrolman went around our train carriage looking through each of our passports. Mine happened to be the last one he checked, and was, therefore, the lucky recipient of the stamp. I had the only (passport) proof we spent time in the Czech Republic.
I have four visas in my passport: one for the Netherlands, two for England, as the first one they put in had the wrong date on it, and one for Russia. This last one I think is pretty awesome, if for nothing else than having my name, or a close equivalent, written in Russian. I didn’t have an easy go at getting that visa. It took me two trips to the embassy in London in 2005. It was only open for a few hours in the morning and the queuing started early.
The first time I went, I just didn’t get there early enough. After standing in line for two hours and getting as close as 20 people between me and the front of the line, I went to class empty handed. The second time I went I arrived earlier. I also got sick, literally, and on the sidewalk. Fortunately, I had met a girl in line who was going on the same trip as me. She was gracious enough to hold my spot while I made my way to the nearest public restroom to clean up. Thank you, Starbucks, for really being on every corner. Though I felt terrible and still nauseous, I rallied as I was determined not to have to get up at 5AM again. And I was rewarded for my efforts and sacrifices by being granted entrance and receiving my visa. In the end, the trip was more than worth the hassle.
I now have a new passport and I have yet to hand it over to an immigration officer of a foreign nation, have them turn to any empty page, and place their stamp on the (overly) decorative paper. I can’t wait to see what stamps fill it up.
One thing that I wasn’t prepared for or even thought about prior to studying abroad was the issue of personal space. Generally speaking, here in the United States personal space is one of those things that is an universally-known, unspoken rule. Around each of us is this invisible circle usually about three feet in radius. Everyone is mindful of their own circle and usually of others’ as well. The big no-no is when someone’s circle is violated or invaded. What I didn’t know before going abroad was that not everyone knows the rule or knows that there is such a thing as personal space.
Sure, personal space is invaded all the time. You can’t really function without someone at some point being closer than three feet from you. Public transit is a good example of a time and place when people are crossing over that threshold; in most cases it is tolerated. But the idea of strangers meeting for the first time, embracing each other, and exchanging air kisses seems crazy. Actions like those are reserved for family, close friends, and lovers, right? Well, not everywhere in the world.
My first experience with the ‘greeting kisses’ was actually here on US soil. The kisser was a friend visiting from Germany whom I hadn’t seen in about six months. I arrived at the house where he was staying and when he opened the door he bent down and kissed me on both cheeks. My lack of knowledge about how people from other parts of the world may greet one another caused me to totally misconstrue the situation. I had always crushed on him and I thought he might have had some feelings for me too. I mean who double kisses a girl they don’t like? Apparently, many.
It actually wasn’t until my second major moment of greeting kisses that I realized what really happened that first time (and it would have saved me a lot of time spent over-analyzing – ha). The next set of greeting kisses came while I was in the Netherlands. A Czech boy from my exchange student mentor group and I were hanging out at a coffee shop on a boat in one of Utrecht’s canals. He greeted me when I arrived and as he leaned in I flinched away. In my head I chastised myself as I had recently had a conversation with a French girlfriend about the whole greeting thing. I wanted to be more open to it, but clearly 20 years of conditioning couldn’t be wiped away so easily. Fortunately, the boy was very understanding, particularly as he had spent some time in the United States.
I am happy to say that by the time I was studying in London, I was much more aware and open to the greeting embrace and kisses. Becoming best friends with a Mexican and an Italian-Columbian expedited my progress. By the end of my twelve months, I even had little or no issues initiating the embraces. However, I still refrained with fellow Americans.
Upon returning home the issue of personal space was probably the first to go back to ‘normal.’ There are times when I do miss the more intimate connection made with the embrace rather than the usual detached and isolated way of presenting ourselves to potential new friends via a handshake or nod of the head. But regardless of your stance on personal space, remember and be prepared that others you encounter while studying abroad may not share your view, or – more likely – not even be aware there may be an issue.