Open Day Opens My Eyes to the Real Dining Hall

Open day. The day to watch all the potential new students wander round with longing in their eyes, while other students tell tales of wonder about the University. Yet those who actually go there have a little chuckle about what really is true.

“Intro week is great, everyone enjoys it and it’s like non-stop socialising” – agreed.

“How much work is do you get?” “Well it depend what grades you want to get if you want an A you obviously have to work harder than a C” – obviously,

“but there’s still loads of free time”- not really,

“Hey look there’s my (intro week) Dad” *he waves awkwardly*, “we still talk!” – the lies they tell

One thing you would expect is for every part of the University to be on their best behaviour and show themselves off to their full potential. I’ll start from the beginning;

On Thursday at lunch we are given a paper coupon, it says lunch. We have seen these before, we enter into the seating part of dining hall and there is some kind of surprise where we give our token over in order to get it, e.g. ice cream. However there isn’t anything. It’s a bit odd. We sit down to have our lunch and I ask what they are.

“They’re for open day”, I get told. I don’t think much of it but put it in my bag as I know it’s important.

That day was thanksgiving, which doesn’t mean much to me, but it was fun to see the American’s drawing turkeys in their books. Dining Hall was to do a special dinner for it and people say it’s good, so we all secretly look forward to it. This meant the opening times had changed but they had told us, 5pm-6.30. We decide to meet at 6.

Myrte and I end up being the only people able to go at this time. At usual Dining Hall turning up at this time is fine and trouble-free. Apparently on thanksgiving it is a different story. There was no soup left and no Turkey. Plus DH had decided to not give us trays to carry our things which made it a little awkward. We go to sit but it is packed, but we eventually spot a seat.

Drinks have been provided on the table, or rather were provided on the table. It appears they are all empty now. So people go up to the food area and make the harmless request for water. Water is always available as it’s just a tap. However they are refused! “Drinks are on the table” they say, “well not for us”. This strikes something within me. How can they refuse people water, it’s  no hassle for them at all, glasses and the tap are inside. Perhaps they are going to take extra food! However in the self-service area there is nothing to take as it’s all in the seating area. Utterly ridiculous.

We eat and luckily there is a tiny bit of Fanta left. Now to pudding. Fruit and ice cream. Except there is only one service point and a queue at least ten minutes long. We eventually get to the front and there is no fruit left. One scoop of ice cream for my ten minute wait then. A little dissatisfied we head back to our units.

During the day, we had learned that DH had also given out coupons for breakfast on Friday and brunch on Saturday at breakfast that day. This is very annoying as normally I go to breakfast on Thursday’s but my class was cancelled as my teacher had flu. Klementina decided to go to breakfast the next day and see if this coupon story is true.

The next morning she knocks on my door and hands me a sandwich. “A person gave me this, but it has egg in it and you can’t get food without a coupon.”

Before lunch I had social psychology where we were analysing the results of our questionnaire. For anyone who had done this, they know what a hell SPSS can be. Hence we decide to stay after class as the teacher is staying around too. When we are done we realise it is 13.25 and lunch finished at 13.30. Jeroen runs, but I’m sure I can get there in 5 minutes (it really isn’t that far away). However when I get there I head upstairs to where the food normally is. It isn’t there. I go round the back. Nothing. I head back downstairs and ask where the food is. In the beach party area I am told. I only vaguely know where this is and walk through the post box area. I arrive and try to hand my coupon over. They mutter something in Dutch. It’s closed someone says. I check my watch, it says 13.30 exactly.

“It’s half one”, I say, “so we’re closed”, they reply. “So you’re not going to give me anything?!”. They continue to pack the food away. How can they choose to give me no food. It’s not like there wasn’t any left. Plus we’ve already paid for it all and I’m sure they still get paid the same amount so what’s the big deal. I even had the correct coupon they so desperately wanted!

I return to the unit to find someone else has also been refused food as they had lost there coupon. The system makes no sense, it obviously has many flaws. We share out the lunch food we did manage to get, which wasn’t even that spectacular. An unbuttered roll with one piece of cheese/ham/egg placed inside.

Fast forward to dinner and this time we do not need coupons. So those who didn’t manage to get coupons will be allowed some food in this 24 hour period. Again it isn’t great, some chips and chicken in a takeaway container, as for some reason we aren’t allowed to sit in Dining Hall. Some of us end up ordering pizza instead.

Now for the last morning we had to deal with this coupon system. Luckily Alizee was leaving that weekend so I managed to use her brunch coupon. However it’s still disappointing. It is exactly the same meal as the lunch before and again we can’t sit in Dining Hall. To top it all off for the next brunch on Sunday we are given all the left overs from the open day to eat. So when they refused me lunch there was actually tons and tons left. Outrage.

Normally I defend dining hall when they others say how poor the food is, as you get a three-course meal everyday and who does that when they are a self catered student? Yet this event lacked serious planning. All it could’ve taken was one email to say it’s important to attend brunch on Thursday as here you will get coupons. Instead they made people go hungry. I had a mind to go tell all the prospective students, but I restrained myself. Ridiculous.

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Intocht Sinterklaas

Today Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) officially arrived! Hence, even though I had an overbearing amount of work to do, I felt it was something I couldn’t miss.

Sinterklaas is the Netherlands equivalent of  Father Christmas/Santa Claus. However he is a little different, he arrives in November – which is what today is about – and on the 5th December the Dutch children receive their presents. Traditionally this includes a surprise (“surpreesa”) and a poem. A surprise is the vessel that contains the present, it is handmade and should be relevant to the present receiver. My neighbour Sofie is organising this among our friendship group for the 5th so that will be really fun. The children get really excited for this and there is a news program every day after today until the 5th telling the Netherlands about what Sinterklaas has been up to. Hence “it’s the most important Holiday in Holland”.

So Linda, Giselle and I headed to town at 12.30. We didn’t quite know where we were going, but I assumed it would be somewhere near the canal, as Sinterklaas would arrive by boat.  Helped by a lady, this turned out to be true.

We arrived at 12.55 and Sinterklaas was due at 13.00. I had to be given a “backy” to town as two weeks ago Klementina had lent the use of my bike to her coach surfer but the chain had fallen off in town so it had been left there. We took our spots in front of the water and waited to see boats arriving under the bridge.

The turnout was a little disappointing, but as the ‘real’ Sinterklaas was arriving in Dordrecht I thought this might be the reason why. To all my Dutch friends even the Sinterklaas in Doredrecht isn’t the real one. Turns out it is the same person every year (an amazing job!), but last year their one retired along with his horse. This makes Sinterklaas a little less exciting.

Sinterklaas is unlike Father Christmas, who can be anyone (including my grandpa) and the children don’t mind at all. Father Christmas, also, does not have a grand arrival in all the major cities in the country. Sinterklaas visits everyone at school and comes round to your house to give you presents on the actual day. Plus you can leave your shoes outside where you can find sweets from him the next morning. It is also the place you leave your wish list to him. Father Christmas should be this active!

After ten minutes we saw some waving hands on the other side of the bridge, the “Zwarte Pieten” (Sinterklaas’ helpers – who are only similar to elves in the respect that they help). 40 blacked up adults waving at small children, to a foreigner, seems a little weird and the kind of thing they told you became socially unacceptable years ago. However for the Dutch it is perfectly normal. When they were children they didn’t give a second thought to the slavery background, that the spectacle throws up to adult eyes.   

This is forgotten, however, as I had been enlightened on the somewhat ridiculous and apparent racist story of Sinterklaas a month ago. We wave to the colourfully dressed Zwarte Pieten, which includes an entire brass band of them. I thought it would just be one boat but three come through, with the last one pointing backwards and shouting “Sinterklaas” to the dressed up children on the side. The main man himself was soon to arrive. He looked very stunning in his red robe and gave us all a wave.

After he went past we saw people walking along the canal, so we decided to follow the procession. As we did the streets got a little more crowded with tons of children in Zwarte Pieten costumes, plus a few “Sinterlaases”. The main show was obviously up here. Linda was pleased he had a bigger turnout. However a bigger turnout brings its own problems. Mainly, now we can’t see anything. We continue walking turning left and right hoping to find a gap further on, but there wasn’t one.

Eventually the crowd lessened a bit – this must be where he gets off the boat. Some children are standing on a few of the sound system boxes and we can see a little. Linda tries to put me on her shoulders but this doesn’t work. I can fit on the boxes I decided. There was room for two so Giselle also comes up. “Can you make room for me?”, asks Linda and we do.

Sinterklaas arrives and we can see the odd glimpse of him. The children around us are very excited. Something about ‘bumble piet’ gets said over the speakers, of course we don’t understand, it’s in Dutch. Music plays but we don’t see anything exciting going on. People are leaving but I’m confused why. This does mean however that the kids who were on the boxes had moved, we could get a better look!

It’s not that much better but we see some bigger boxes behind so we climb them. “I don’t see what they’re looking at”, says Linda. “Oh there in the middle”, I point. A Piet is doing acrobatics on two pieces of cloth. It’s impressive but goes on a bit too long. Especially when they’re trying to entertain children who have the attention span of the dog from Up!

It is announced Sinterklaas will be heading to the Dom so we decide to leave, but everyone is going in the opposite direction so we choose to stay. “I want to see his horse”, says Linda. We see a walkway being made through the crowd but a security guard stands in front of us – charming. The Zwarte Piet are coming and give out sweets to the kids (which turned out to be “peppernoten”, not sweets – a biscuit type thing that only come out for the Sinterklaas season, a bit like cream eggs do). They give us some and then the big guy himself walks by, I get to shake his hand – task complete for the day.

We head back up the canal to where we left our bikes and we notice the massive balloons that were by the water earlier had been given out. We were a little disappointed. Further along Linda sees a banner. It is only attached by one cable tie, so she tried to get it off with her key. It isn’t working. She asks an official looking man if we can have it and he tells us to ask someone in a red coat. He didn’t seem that bothered. If we couldn’t get the cable tie off we could rip the banner so we try to and it breaks the cable tie! We quickly fold up the banner and make a hasty exit.

Thankfully there is no one in a red coat coming after us. Linda kindly gives it to me as a present and I am very grateful. We get to our bikes and we see lots of children are sitting on the road side, something must be happening here too so we decide to stick around. We head into a shop to bide some time. I see some Zwarte Piet trousers, but unfortunately they were for kids and would’ve looked ridiculous on me.

When we head to pay we hear music on the street. There is a parade of Zwarte Pieten now. We find a good spot to stand and along rides Sinterklaas on his majestic white horse. It doesn’t matter he’s not the real one, it’s still fun. Here we also bump into Alizee and some other UCUers and have a chat. Then we head back to campus. Guilt tells us we can’t put off work anymore – as much as we would like too.

When I get back I decide to put the banner up. It’s a little ridiculous in size as it is as tall as my wall and I have to hammer in some drawing pins to keep it up! It looks awesome though – a very good day.

A Typical Dutch Student’s Weekend

The most annoying difference – when you are an exchange student this it’s even more true – is that at the weekend all the Dutch students go home. This was a shock as many even went back during Intro Week. Why go home when people are still putting events on for you and during ample making new friends time?

I thought it was perhaps a phase. At least for the first few weeks while they got used to the university lifestyle, but it is still happening.

I never went home during term time at Exeter and this is not only true for myself. Perhaps people would go home twice a term, but defiantly not every weekend. I was suggested that this is because Exeter is four hours away from my home town, but this isn’t the reason as people who live in the next county still follow the same pattern. If they weren’t around it is more likely they were visiting other friends universities or were on a trip with a society.

Two things are due to this, I think quite substantial, difference in university lifestyle. The first being that all students (if they are Dutch anyway) get to travel for free on public transport with an OV card (I am very jealous about this!). They can either choose to have weekdays or weekends free and for the other they get 40% off normal price tickets on trains. I can see how this would allow you to travel home a lot more as student pockets are small and why would you pay £30 to travel home when you could be spending it on food and drink.

This cost of transport is especially true for the UK where train prices are not rational. You’d think that the further you travel the more expensive it would be but this isn’t true. For instance the journey on the train I most often take at home, which is Exeter to Lancaster, can cost anywhere from £60 – £100. This is with the young person 1/3 off rail fare card, which you have to pay for yourself or get it free with your student account. Only  from one particular bank though, which has since stopped this scheme. Hence new students can no longer get it for free. Without the card you’re looking at £100+.

The second is that UCU is the only University in the Netherlands that has a campus. This means that many other students are still living at home with their parents and commuting, hence the OV card. This means there are still parties and things to return home to. Whereas if I was to go home then it would most likely only be my parents there and who wants to hang out with them? Well actually the Dutch do, I think they have a stronger family bond, they say things like “I miss my Mum” when they have only not seen them for one week.

The reason I think this one difference is so substantial is that it changes the idea of university life style completely from the view we have of it at home.  University is the place to discover yourself and to learn how to live by yourself and also with others. Running home to mummy and daddy every weekend stops this progression as you can get them to do your laundry and cook for you, which are two valuable lessons you will need for moving out. I don’t know what the average age for moving out in the Netherlands is but I guess it would be much higher than in the UK (omitting the fact that getting a job is really hard at this point so people are having to move back in with their parents after uni). It just generally stops the role of becoming independent as you still have a strong line to your home. I am not saying this is bad and having a strong bond with your family is wrong but I think it blocks an important life lesson that university is there for.

At the end of term Exeter people often get the same feeling of wanting to go home so they leave as soon as possible, but the time when they choose to return is different from the Dutch. These people then realise that home isn’t as great as they thought it would be as they are bored and there isn’t much happening, so they also return early as well. The Dutch, on the other hand return quite late.

Dutch universities (this one at least, and I think many others too), appears to me more like a boarding school where you can go home at the weekend and hence only actually go because you have to study.

The other part of this, especially if being present at university is mainly because you have classes that day, is it leaves a hole in socialising. You just don’t get as much time with the Dutch as you would like, because as soon as they don’t have class they are off on a train back home and then only returning Sunday evening. Plus with the work load here high, the only real socialising available is in dining hall, the odd movie when people are procrastinating or the preparation before going to the bar. Big groups of people having an adventure over the weekend is something that is talked about, yes, but it doesn’t manifest as there is always some tie at home left that they need to attend to.

I think for us the University town is where you live, but for the Dutch their home town is where they truly live.